India Travel Guide
India as a travel destination defies easy description. The country is so diverse, so layered, so full of surprises, that it takes hold of the senses from the moment a visitor arrives, and doesn’t let go.
It can be chaotic, bureaucratic, frustrating and exhausting. The poverty is sometimes hard to take. But it’s also an endlessly vibrant country, overflowing with sounds, colours and wonderful scenery. Older travellers who like history, culture and festivals, and enjoy meeting people from many backgrounds, will find India a treasure box.
It stretches from the Himalayas in the north to the tropical beaches and coconut palms of the south, and is home to 1.35 billion people – almost one-fifth of the world’s population. Visitors won’t be able to see more than a fraction of it in a single visit, even if they spend weeks there.
If their time is limited to, say, a week, they could consider the famous Golden Triangle tour route, which covers three of the country’s top destinations: Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur.
Senior travellers wanting to spend longer in India will probably find it most enjoyable if they pace themselves and don’t try to cram too much into every day. Staying in one place for a while will give them time to relax, soak up the atmosphere and get to know the local people.
Indian cuisine is one of the country’s great pleasures, with every region having its own specialities. It’s tempting to tuck right in, but for first-time visitors, especially older travellers, it’s probably wise to take things slowly and let one’s body adjust to the amazing range of spicy dishes on offer.
Falling ill while travelling in the tropics is always a risk for older travellers, and visitors to India should take precautions. It’s best to stick to bottled water and freshly cooked food that’s served hot. Wearing a hat and sunscreen is sensible if one spends time in the sun. Visitors shouldn’t over-tire themselves. Here are some useful health tips for older travellers.
Most Indian women dress conservatively, and it’s a good idea for travellers to wear loose, comfortable clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Scarves are handy too. Some women travellers choose to wear Indian clothes. Sunglasses are useful for deflecting stares.
India’s capital is divided into two parts: New Delhi, built as the British imperial capital, and Old Delhi, constructed by the Mughals centuries earlier as the capital of Muslim India. Most of the top hotels are in New Delhi, while Old Delhi contains many of the city’s finest historic buildings. Travellers can visit these on their own, taking a taxi or auto rickshaw, but a less stressful way is to join a tour group. At all these sites, visitors will be accosted by throngs of hawkers; it’s part of the Delhi experience.
One of the most popular sites is the vast Red Fort, built in the 17th century at the height of the Mughal empire. It’s best seen in the morning before large crowds arrive. The fort was built by Emperor Shah Jahan, the same ruler who built the Taj Mahal.
An impressive attraction is Humayun’s Tomb, built for the Mughal emperor in the mid-16th century by his wife, Bega Begum. It’s regarded as the first major example of Mughal architecture in India and is surrounded by gardens containing other tombs, including hers.
The Qutub Minar tower in Delhi’s southwest dates back to the 12th century and celebrates an Islamic victory over Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom. Next to it is Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque built in India.
New Delhi contains many interesting reminders of British rule. Connaught Place consists of three concentric circular roads dotted with restaurants, shops and hotels. Walking along its crowded colonnades provides an intriguing taste of Delhi life - beggars, betel nut stained columns and all.
India Gate is a large arch built in 1921 to commemorate the 90 thousand Indian soldiers who died in World War I and other wars of the time. Designed by British architect Edwin Luytens, it’s one of the city’s focal points and a popular picnic spot for local people.
The impressive Parliament House, opened in 1927, is a reminder that India is the world’s largest democracy. Whatever challenges its citizens face in their daily lives, they enjoy a degree of political freedom that people in many Asian countries can only dream of.
Delhi is a shopper’s delight. It has an excellent range of stores and markets, from crowded bazaars to expensive shopping enclaves. In the bazaars, such as the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi, one needs to be prepared to bargain hard, or end up paying far more than an item’s true value.
Visitors wanting to take a break from this haggling can visit the fixed-price government and state emporiums. One of the best is the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, which sells a wide range of handicrafts from around the country.
Filmgoers who haven’t visited Rajasthan may know it best from the 2011 movie ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, about a group of British retirees who settle in India.
Most of the filming took place here, in the cities of Jaipur and Udaipur. This north-western state, so full of history and beauty, continues to find new ways to charm people. It’s not surprising that 2015 saw a successful sequel, ‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, also filmed here.
Rajasthan is India’s largest state and contains some of the country’s finest attractions. They include the capital, Jaipur, and the cities of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Jaipur’s old city, or Pink City, dates back to the 18th century. It includes the City Palace, the Jantar Mantar observatory and the five-storey Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, once a cloister for royal women and surely one of the most astonishing buildings in all of India. Outside Jaipur is the impressive Amer Fort, parts of which were built in the 16th century.
Udaipur, in the west of the state, is a city of lake and palaces. On an island in one of the lakes is the Lake Palace, now a luxury hotel – one of many top-end hotels in the state, ranging from old forts to safari camps.
Among the highlights in Jodhpur, in the Thar Desert in the state’s northwest, is the 15th century Mehrangarh Fort, once a palace and now a museum. It overlooks the walled city. Another desert city, Jaisalmer, is known for its sandstone buildings, including the massive Jaisalmer Fort.
For adventurous travellers, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer are both starting points for overnight trips by camel into the desert, where they’ll sleep on sand dunes and meet desert villagers.
Senior travellers who want to see Rajasthan in style can take a trip on a luxury train, sleeping in coaches that once belonged to princely rulers. The Palace on Wheels travels from Delhi to Rajasthan and back, stopping at all the key cities. Another train, the Maharajas’ Express, travels on several routes, including one from Mumbai through Rajasthan to Delhi.
Agra and the Taj Mahal
There’s little point in arguing that one attraction is better than another. It’s all a matter of personal preference. People are sometimes left untouched by a famous attraction while being drawn to one that’s more obscure. But there’s something special about the Taj Mahal, and seeing it in person is memorable. It’s as close to perfect as a building can be, and its history as a monument to love only adds to the experience.
The city of Agra can be visited in a day from Delhi but it’s far better to spend at least one night there. This way, one can visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise, when it’s at its best. One should arrive as early as possible, before the queues are at their longest. It’s always crowded but visitors shouldn’t let this put them off. It doesn’t detract from the beauty of this amazing 370-year-old building.
Agra has two other attractions that are memorable in their own right. The huge Agra Fort is one of the greatest Mughal forts in India. Outside town, Fatehpur Sikri is a stunning ancient city that was capital of the Mughal empire for a brief period between 1572 and 1585, before being abandoned because of water shortages in the area.
For a tropical adventure, the South Indian state of Kerala ranks high. It’s a land of jungles, mountains, waterways, beaches and coconut palms (the name Kerala derives from ‘kera’, the word for coconut in the local Malayalam language).
It’s perhaps best known among visitors for the Kerala backwaters, a series of interlinked canals, rivers and lakes running parallel to the coast in the southern half of the state. The best way to see them is to hire a traditional houseboat. Spending time exploring the backwaters on one of these boats is a comfortable, relaxing experience for senior travellers. Delicious meals are laid on and the cabins are air-conditioned.
The port of Kochi, formerly Cochin, on the Malabar Coast, is Kerala’s main commercial hub. Of most interest to visitors is the old Fort Kochi district, which was ruled in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Many fine old colonial buildings survive, including the Portuguese Catholic Church of St Francis, where the explorer Vasco da Gama was once buried. Lining the district’s shore are large, photogenic Chinese fishing nets, operated from land by a system of poles, weights and levers, and supposedly introduced by Chinese traders.
The southern beach resort of Kovalam is popular among older travellers, many of whom come for treatment at ayurvedic spas and wellness centres. Kerala is considered one of the best places in India for Ayurveda, a medical system based on the belief that health depends on a balance between body, mind and spirit.
The Indian Himalayas
For most senior travellers, the Indian Himalayas are probably not about pushing oneself to the limit – although that option is there for those who choose it. Many visitors will simply want to relax, do some walking and enjoy the wonderful scenery and local culture. There are many destinations to choose from in several northern states.
The Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir and is one of the most popular. Its main city, Leh, is set among arid mountains, and has Buddhist monasteries, colourful markets and a vibrant local culture. It’s an ideal base for day trips or longer adventures into the surrounding mountains.
The mountains and valleys of Hemis National Park in eastern Ladakh are considered one of the best places in the world to see the elusive snow leopard, especially in winter.
Spiritually-minded travellers can visit the home of the Dalai Lama just outside Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh or follow in the footsteps of the Beatles to the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand.
Other well-known hill stations in the Himalayan states include Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, Manali and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, and Darjeeling in West Bengal.
Other hill stations
Apart from those in the Himalayas, India has a range of hill stations in other parts of the country. Many were first developed by the British to escape the heat of the plains. Over the years, some have become crowded and overdeveloped, and travellers should do a little homework before deciding which one to head to.
Many are in the Western Ghats, a mountain range running for around 1,600 kilometres from India’s southern tip through five states. The central states of Maharasthra and Gujarat have a number of hill stations. In the south, two of the most popular are Munnar in Kerala and Ooty in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Neither is pristine these days but both offer interesting trips out of town.
Where else to go
Many other attractions await visitors. For those who love cities, Mumbai and Kolkata are crowded, noisy – and fascinating. Top religious sites include the Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar near the border with Pakistan in the northwest, the towering temples of Tamil Nadu state in the south and the sacred city of Varanasi on the Ganges River in the north, with its riverside funeral pyres. More laid back is the west coast enclave of Goa with its mix of Indian and Portuguese culture and architecture, and its Arabian Sea beaches.
Best months to visit India
India is large and the weather varies from region to region, but for much of the country – including Delhi, Rajasthan and Agra – November to March is the best time to visit. The summer months, April to July, can be hot. The Himalayan foothills can be visited all year round but May to October are considered the best time. Kerala is hot and humid all year round but October to March are the best months.
Currency and exchange rates
Banks, ATMs and money changers are found throughout India. Credit cards are widely accepted but it’s a good idea always to carry some cash as well. The Indian currency, the rupee, is divided into 100 paise. The lowest value coin in use is 50 paise or half a rupee. At the time of writing, US$1 was worth around 70 rupees.
Header image: Devanath