India: is there anywhere else in the world that offers such a dizzying array of culture, food, religions and landscapes? Home to over 1.3 billion people, 40 UNESCO sites and the planet’s biggest film industry, India offers unlimited adventure, whether you’re touring palaces in Rajasthan, hiking among Himalayan peaks or tiger-spotting in national parks.
An entire lifetime wouldn’t be long enough to discover all of India’s treasures, so how do you even begin to plan your first trip? This mammoth country – the seventh-largest on the planet – is best explored one region at a time and each offers a distinctly different experience from the next. So, start by perusing these top India itineraries for first-time visitors, there’s something for everyone.
The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan
Perfect for: history and culture hounds
You can’t go wrong with a classic Golden Triangle itinerary on your first trip to India. We offer both small group tour and tailormade options. This well-travelled route takes in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, offering a mix of UNESCO-listed architectural gems, from palaces and forts to the grand jewel: the Taj Mahal. Encounter a whirl of modern Indian life set against a backdrop of colonial and Mughal history in Delhi, India’s frenetic capital. In the old portion of the city, the bazaars are an endless maze of spices, fabrics and street food. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a rickshaw tour or relish the quieter magic of Delhi by dawn to ease yourself into the chaos.
Next, wander the pink-hued streets of Jaipur. A tour of the city’s temples and havelis will give you an insight into this Rajput-era city, where secret archways lead to family-run havelis like Dera Mandawa. For many, Agra is the highlight of the Golden Triangle, home of India’s celebrated Taj Mahal. For unique views of Shah Jehan’s monument to love, take a countryside bike ride and stay at Oberoi Amarvilas, the closest hotel to this UNESCO wonder. Once the capital of the Mughal Empire, there’s so much more of Agra to uncover, take a storytelling tour with a local to learn more.
If you want to extend your Golden Triangle trip, continue through magical Rajasthan’s deserts to Jodhpur. Painted a striking blue, Jodhpur is a haven for photographers and an artistic hotbed where you can meet tie dye gurus and visit the battlements and lakes of the majestic Mehrangarh Fort. Nearby Udaipur is the place to come for turreted palaces and glassy lakes, which lends the city a romantic feel. Stay at a royal abode, Taj Fateh Prakash Palace, and wake early to cycle through the city, witnessing daily life unfold.
Central India’s national parks
Perfect for: wildlife enthusiasts
If you’re looking for the real-life Jungle Book, tour central India’s national parks. A mecca for wildlife lovers, these protected areas are your best chance at spotting tigers, bears and a host of exotic animals on safari. Start at Pench National Park, thought to be the place that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s beloved tale of Mowgli and his animal companions. Stay at a luxury jungle camp or tree house in this pristine park, where you can spend your days on jeep safaris, traversing a land of towering teak trees and grassy plains, keeping an eye out for Bengal tigers, sloth bears and extremely rare black panthers – Shere Khan, Baloo and Bagheera brought to life.
Continue in Kanha, a huge national park set in the central hills of India. This is one of India’s oldest reserves, home to around 100 endangered Bengal tigers, along with everything from swamp deer to leopards and a host of colourful birds that you’ll spot on an eco-walk with a ranger. African-style safari lodges like Singinawa are the ideal base to explore from. Smaller but no less beautiful, Bandhavgarh and Panna parks also offer tiger-spotting opportunities. Once royal hunting grounds, their forests, rocky outcrops and grasslands are now sanctuaries for Indian wildlife. Highlights include dawn boat rides on Panna’s Ken River and tribal village tours in Bandhavgarh.
The Indian Himalayas
Perfect for: hikers and spiritual seekers
Enter a land of frozen peaks and Tibetan monasteries on a trip to the Indian Himalayas. The high-altitude region draws trekkers and religious pilgrims alike; it’s the domain of the Dalai Lama, where prayer flags flutter in the breeze and dinner consists of fat Tibetan momos. Meanwhile, the lower foothills are carved with emerald tea bushes belonging to plantations that have been passed through generations and hill stations accessed by puffing steam trains.
A journey to the western Himalayas begins in Amritsar, India’s Sikh heartland with its sacred Golden Temple and stirring colonial history, which you’ll discover on a locally-led tour. The route leads north to Dharamshala, the base of the exiled Tibetan government, where your days will be spent trekking to Himalayan villages, delving into Buddhist culture and visiting the Dalai Lama’s Tsuglagkhang temple complex. More monasteries await in Palampur and Pragpur, as well as the famed Masroor rock temples. Your last stop before Delhi is Shimla, the 19th-century seat of the British Raj, where you can hike pine-scented trails and relax in a fairytale cottage at Jungle Lodge.
Darjeeling sits in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, known for its tea plantations and UNESCO-listed steam train. Stay at Glenburn Tea Estate to learn how India’s national drink is produced and uncover Darjeeling’s history on a cultural tour. Spiral ever upwards to the hill towns of Pelling and Gangtok, where monks chant in monasteries, gold-topped stupas sit against snow-shrouded peaks and locals will invite you in for lunch. In the former trading post Kalimpong, loved for its Bhutanese monastery Thongsa Gompa, you can stay at a Himalayan spa resort before ending your voyage in Kolkata.
Southern India and the coast
Perfect for: relaxation and beaches
If it’s relaxation you’re after, a tour of India’s southern Kerala state will allow you to bask on golden sands, sip tea in hill stations and navigate Kerala’s lazy backwaters. You can do this whilst making friends on a small group tour or by travelling independently. Kochi is a great starting point, crowned the Queen of the Arabian Sea for its thriving spice trade, which left a cosmopolitan legacy of Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese heritage to unwrap in cooking classes and kathakali dance displays. Trail north to Munnar, Kerala’s highest tea region, where you can visit tea plantations by tuk tuk and check into the boutique getaway, Windermere Estate.
After visiting the spice farms of Thekaddy, head to Alleppey, the gateway to Kerala’s sleepy backwaters. Explore on traditional houseboats called kettuvallams, once used to transport produce and passengers along the labyrinthine waterways. Philipkutty’s Farm in the village of Kumarakom offers a taste of India’s famous hospitality and a chance to take in the views. Finally, that paradisiacal slice of sand can be found on Mararikulam’s near-deserted beaches and Marari Beach Resort, where your only obligation is to swing in a hammock under the palms. If you’re craving more sun-drenched chill time, an extension to the hippie haven Goa is a must, loved for its bohemian vibe and white-sand beaches lapped by the Arabian Sea.
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Malcolm, who's travelled extensively in India. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it alone. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember.
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