India. A land vast with cultural gems, holy sites, intricate architecture, luxurious accommodations, diverse landscapes and divine cuisine.
Travelers to India often go in search of an experience like no other – and they’re bound to get it. Maybe it’s witnessing the perfection of the Taj Mahal, satisfying their curiosity of various religions or a chance to spot the elusive Bengal tiger. No matter what piques your interest in this massive, distant country, world travelers know that it offers some of the most unique treasures this beautiful planet has to offer.
The Shine of the Golden Triangle
First-time travelers to India often follow the well-known route dubbed the Golden Triangle. This three-city circuit (so named a triangle because of the shape it creates on a map) consists of excursions in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The mix of these diverse cities allows visitors to experience a wide spectrum of landscapes, cultures and religious practices.
Most US visitors begin and end their India journey in Delhi (direct flights are available from New York City). This populous city (8th largest metropolis in the world by population, topping 16.7 million residents) is known for its longstanding run of human inhabitants – dating back to the second millennium BC.
Located on the banks of the River Yamuna in northern India, Delhi is one of the most respected cities in the world for its architecture and heritage. In fact, there are more than 1,200 buildings and 175 monuments in Delhi that have been designated as national heritage sites.
A few of the “must see” landmarks in this amazing city include:
- Jama Masjid – The principal mosque of Old Delhi with a courtyard that can hold up to 25,000 worshippers. Home to many relics, including a vintage copy of the Qur’an written on deer skin.
- Red Fort – This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 17th century fort complex that served as the residence for several Mughal Emperors.
- Humayun’s Tomb – The first garden tomb complex in India; houses Mughal Emperor Humayun, his wife and several other noteworthy leaders.
- Qutub Minar – The world’s tallest free-standing brick minaret that reaches nearly 240 feet.
- India Gate – Located in the heart of New Delhi, this national monument was constructed in 1931 to commemorate the 90,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War.
Agra and Its Jewel
From Delhi, many travelers head south (typically by private car transfer) to the site of the Taj Mahal at Agra.
No doubt the icon of India, the Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal (who died during the birth of their 14th child). The site’s architecture is a style that combines elements from Persian, Turkish and Indian techniques.
The Taj Mahal is perhaps most beautiful in morning and evening light, which lends people to stay in Agra at least one day and one night. The Gateway Hotel, set on six acres of landscaped gardens allows you to take in the magnificent view of the Taj Mahal from nearly every room.
While in Agra, most visitors also visit the Agra Fort. This UNESCO World Heritage site is more accurately described as a walled city, all 94 acres of it. The fascinating history of the fort takes you through many battles and various rulers. The fort may be best known for its amazing views of the Taj Mahal.
The Desert Land of Rajasthan
After Agra, visitors head west to the desert landscapes of Rajasthan, including the city of Jaipur (it’s capital and largest city). Known as the “Pink City” for its terracotta pink painted buildings (painted so in 1876 to welcome Prince Albert), Jaipur is one of the finest planned cities in India showcasing wide streets that border palace quarters, formal gardens and several famous tourist sites.
Among the most popular places to visit within Jaipur is the City Palace. This huge complex is home to courtyards, gardens, buildings, displays of royal costumes and Indian weapons, a museum and an art gallery. Visitors are often in awe of the Peacock Gate, which contains a display of detailed craftsmanship of bright peacocks.
Hawa Mahal – the Palace of Winds – is another top site for those venturing to Jaipur. Built in 1799 the unique five-story exterior resembles the honeycomb of a beehive, with its 953 small windows each decorated with intricate latticework. The lattice allowed royal ladies to observe strict “purdah” (face cover) yet watch over everyday life on the streets below without being seen.
“For those travelers staying in Jaipur, we love to introduce them to the Rambagh Palace,” said Craig Beal, CEO of Travel Beyond in Wayzata. “Guests are surrounded by expansive gardens and the rooms and common areas exude an amazing sense of history…spaces that were once the sanctuaries of kings and royalty.”
Visitors to Jaipur often take in Amber Fort, which is a half hour drive from the city. Set on a hilltop overlooking Maota Lake, this spectacle was the original home of Rajput royalty and contains several palaces, halls, gardens and temples. A short hike or elephant ride will get you to the fort at the top.
Finally, before leaving Jaipur, many travelers explore the grounds at Jantar Mantar, a collection of architectural astronomical instruments – huge structures that measure time, predict eclipses, track stars’ location and much more.
Beyond the Golden Triangle
A 7-8 day trip is common for exploring the sites of the Golden Triangle. However, if you have more time available (5-7+ days) and want a little flavor of nature, consider heading to Central India for a tiger safari.
Just the expedition and the hope of catching a glimpse at these elusive animals is a big thrill of this experience. However, regardless of tiger sightings, the overall wildlife viewing in India’s national parks makes it worth the trip. And, if you’re a birder, even more so! Sloth bears, elephants, chital deer, leopards and the Indian wild dog are just some of the unique animals you’ll see in the various parks.
Excursions through Panna National Park (staying at the Taj Pashan Garh, Bandhavgarh National Park (enjoying the Mahua Kothi Taj Safari Lodge) and Kanha National Park (with accommodations at the Banjaar Tola) are some of the most beautiful India has to offer.
An Insider’s Guide to India
Several Travel Beyond consultants have spent weeks exploring India (one staff member even lived there for 8 months). Here are some of their tips to an even more enduring trip to this fascinating part of our world:
- If you’re in Delhi on a Thursday evening, visit Nizamuddin Dargah. This shrine features performances of live Sufi music at 7 pm.
- Don’t eat the street food unless you’re with a guide. Stick to hotels and reputable restaurants.
- Take a cycle rickshaw ride through Old Delhi.
- Be sure to take note of the amazing mosaic décor that is inlaid with gems and stones (and hand-painted with henna or mustard seeds) in many architectural buildings.
- Give the locals respect for their efforts on living more green, planting more trees and trying to keep areas more natural and clean when possible.
- If your trip takes you to the national parks, be sure to walk through some of the small villages (ask about local cooking classes, bike tours and much more).
- Avoid tap water and any food that has been washed in it. No exceptions.
- If you’re a shopper, be ready to bargain. Street vendors can be aggressive, but are looking to make a sale so name your price.
- Like in any foreign destination, locals appreciate it if you try to speak even a few key phrases in their language. Check a phrasebook for please, thank you, hello, yes, no and others.