Recently my little friend Hannah (she is known affectionately as Midge, as she is no taller than a small Daffodil) told me she was heading to India for a two-week vay-cay with her friend Cat. Aside from being disgustingly jealous and awkwardly trying to force myself into the trip, I was a little struck by how hard it is to pick out just ONE place that you absolutely must see.
We chatted, and by chatted I mean I rambled for about seven day about the places that are amazing, the places that are also amazing but not quite as amazing, and the places that really and truly are amazing.
By the end of it, we realised that Hannah and Cat would have to quit their jobs and go live in India to see everything I had pontificated on. Exhausted, Hannah picked herself up from the floor (with my battered India Lonely Planet) and escaped to somewhere a little more peaceful.
I promised I would send her a perfect two-week itinerary covering everything she wanted to see and do in India.
So, I thought I would share it with you all too. Because actually, the vast majority of people who read this blog (and indeed who read any blog) don’t have a year to explore India. They have two, maybe three weeks. Tops.
So here goes…..
Planning Your Trip to India
First Step: Narrow it Down
India is HUGE, and if you try to squeeze too much in, you will burn out. That is true if you are backpacking, and it’s true if you go for a short holiday too. It’s tricky when you look at your guidebook’s trusty ‘must-do…’ and, ‘do not leave without….’, to think that you’re simply missing out if you don’t try to pack it all in. But I promise you, that when it comes to travelling India — you would be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give yourself time to breathe.
India is completely unlike anywhere else on Earth. For me, that’s a positive thing — but for some, it isn’t. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a ‘Marmite’ place (aka love it or hate it) but it’s not a gentle journey. Everything about India is in technicolour. The smell, the taste, and the sounds are all extreme. I loved it. But sometimes, it was overwhelming and I hated it. It’s just that kind of place. So narrow down your regions, and if you have two weeks? Stick to 3 places max. Believe me, you will be happy you did.
If you want to know what to wear while you’re in India, download my free packing guide here!
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North or South?
And obviously East or West. I’m not an idiot….I know my compass *Naughty Elephants Squirt Water……*. The main thing to think about here is what you want from your holiday, and I would think about this in the abstract here. For example, do you love the hustle and bustle of a city? Do you crave deserts and mythical temples? Do you want to chill on a beach, or enjoy seafood cooked in front of you in the harbour? Each state in India has a different personality (and dialect too, although the national language is Hindi) so you need to think a little about why you want to travel to India and how you want to experience it. It’s far easier than picking out the top 5 sites you want to see because it’s highly likely that those top 5 sites are a few hours flight away from each other.
That’s not to say that you should only stick to one state when you travel to India; it’s just a good way to narrow things down. I found that overall, I preferred the North to the South and within that — I loved the desert climes of the North West — so for me, it would be easy to narrow my time down to simply heading to Rajasthan. And never leaving…….I also adored Kolkata (Calcutta), so would happily schlep across to enjoy that again.
Where you fly in and out will nicely shape your trip. Flying into Delhi may seem like the best idea, but in my opinion — Mumbai (Bombay) is likely to be far easier going than Delhi for the first time traveller to India. It’s also kind of equidistant between Rajasthan, Hampi, and Goa — three divine places to visit — so it also makes a neat little bookend for your trip. There are literally hundreds of airports in India, so the few I’ve mentioned are by no means the only options, but they are all visitable destinations in their own right and have stacks of international flights too. Top tip — Chennai (South West India) is the cheapest airport to fly into.
Map it Out
I can’t stress enough how big India is, so you really do need to bear this in mind when plotting out your trip. I travelled almost exclusively by train (which is amazing, by the way!) and occasionally a bus, but either way — it was never for less than 5 hours, often a lot longer. To give you a little perspective; Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri took about 27 hours. That’s extreme, and apparently, you can avoid this utterly bonkers train journey entirely by just flying. But I think that train journeys in India are an adventure in themselves, and it’s worth plotting out your trip to include one, albeit a shorter one 😉
Off the Beaten Path
If you’re the sort of person who likes to chuck the guidebook in the bin and follow your heart to adventure, then to be frank — you sound like a dick. Jokes, all welcome here…..and in all seriousness, some of you out there will wanna skip the Taj Mahal and find Rhino’s in Assam atop an elephant instead. If you are keen to do something like this, it’s all good but you’ll need a wee bit more planning. A few places off the beaten path enough to be exciting and adventurous, but not so much that you will die are as follows……Rishikesh (Yoga), Darjeeling (Himalaya Treks & tea), Assam (Rhino’s y’all), Hampi (ancient Temples), Pondicherry (French vibes), to name but a few.
Example Two Week Itineraries
I’ve given a fairly brief blurb for each of these itineraries because I really just want them to serve as a nice starting point. The lists are by no means exhaustive and the possibilities are bloody endless, so I didn’t really feel qualified to be too prescriptive.
Fly into Mumbai. Spend 3 or 4 days exploring Colaba (Gateway of India) and retracing the Shantaram route (if you have read it!), visit the slums that house 50% of the entire Mumbai population and enjoy the cosmopolitan cafes and eateries. Catch a train (or fly) to Goa and spend a few days relaxing in Agonda/Palolem. Enjoy some well-earned beer: Goa is the cheapest state in India to buy it! When you are done topping up your tan, follow your bliss South to the chilled out backwaters of Kerala (side note: this post about booking your houseboat is a must-read). Be sure to spend some time in Fort Cochin, where you can enjoy some of the best fish around — cooked fresh for you in the harbour.
Fly into Delhi. Explore for a few days, seeing the sights and eating your body weight in Jalebi before hot footing it to Agra (approx 5hr bus ride away) for the magnificent Taj Mahal (which is epic, btw) and Agra Fort, before flying to Varanasi for 4 days of madness on the Ganges. Enjoy sunrise boat rides to see the famous Ghats, and as much Lassi as you can stomach (Blue Lassi is THE best).
Land in Mumbai, exploring as per Itinerary 1 then fly to the Pink City (aka Jaipur!). Grab a bus to Jaisalmer, and spend a wonderful couple of days atop a camel, trekking through the desert and sleeping under the stars. From there, head to Udaipur for some yoga, the Rajasthani Royal Family and, views of the Octopussi island. When you are bored of this, hot tail it to magical, hippy Pushkar and eat yourself silly. Fly home from Delhi after a quick foray to the Taj 🙂
Places to stay in Rajasthan
Places to Stay
I love using the Lonely Planet guidebooks to find places to stay, but if not I’ll often use Booking.com or good, old-fashioned Trip Advisor to find a place.
Visa: You will need a visa whether you’re going to India for week or 6 months, and it starts from the date you receive it — not the date you enter, so don’t apply for it too early. ;
Safety: India is very safe, and that goes for women too — despite the endless reports to the contrary. Use your common sense, and read my post about safety in India here.
Health: Get your jabs, don’t be a div and you’ll be fine. Also — read my post on how to a§void Delhi Belly.
Clothing: It’s fairly simple but easy to under AND over-estimate — just be respectful. Take your shoes off inside, cover your knees and shoulders and bring a scarf everywhere. Although Goa is less conservative than some states and you can wear a bikini on the beach, you may feel a little more careful covering up elsewhere. I found Kerala to be the most chilled out, dress wise. Read my post on the mistakes I made on Her Packing List for more guidance.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts: my friend Jess recommended reading this. It’s a chunky book, but lugging it around was so damn worth it. The quintessential ‘India’ novel, this will ease you into the quirks of teh country and make you yearn to have lived in Mumbai in the eighties.
Hippie In Heels: Rachel lives in Goa (lucky thing) and writes her blog all about life in India, with her Brit boyfriend. Her ‘This is India’ series is hilarious.
Breathe Dream Go: Marianne is an award winning blogger with stacks of India knowledge. I relied on her blog when I was planning for India and still refer back to it sometimes.
Lonely Planet: I mean, I’m an LP girl through and through and that ain’t never gonna change! I would definitely recommend getting the India eBook if you can — the book is HEAVY.
Phew. That was a little bit of a mammoth post!
Let me know what you think, and if you have any suggestions!
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Also published on Medium.