Goa’s landscape is remarkably varied, ranging from the thickly forested Western Ghats mountain range on its interior border through lush river valleys to the beaches of its roughly 75-mile-long coast.
Goa is India’s smallest state by a considerable margin, but its pocket-sized charms exert a powerful allure. You feel the difference immediately on arrival – the familiar subcontinental bustle and jostling give way to a measured languor and broad smiles, and the skies clear to a distant horizon. Just 1,429 square miles, with a population of 1.5 million, this is where the crowded cityscapes of urban India give way to coconut groves; the blare of traffic yields to birdcalls and the insistent whisper of sea on sand. No wonder this is India’s most popular resort destination – not just for travellers from Europe, Israel and Russia, but increasingly for India’s growing middle class, for whom Goa is famously summed up by the Konkani word sussegad, meaning ‘laid-back’ or ‘relaxed’.
So much more than hippies
The North Goan beachfront stretches all the way from the Aguada Plateau, which drops to the Mandovi River, to the Tiracol Fort on the Maharashtra border – a drive you can make in about two hours. In between, there’s charter tourism congestion in Candolim, the Indian middle class packing the sands of Calangute, party central for India’s twentysomethings at Baga, and the sprawling luxury villas of India’s rich and famous in Sinquerim.
Further up the coast are the dream beaches of the ’60s hippie trail, the first of which was Anjuna, where a remnant of septuagenarian 'Goa Freaks' (the first European hippies to settle in Goa the 1970s) linger on in a wildly international mix that still retains its alternative vibe. There’s also the more edgy Chapora and Vagator, where cafés are jammed with tokers openly puffing on smokestack-sized chillums under the watchful gaze of well-connected locals.
North of Vagator, the beaches begin to empty out and some are relatively deserted. Morjim, where protected Olive Ridley sea turtles still come to lay eggs on the beach, now hosts a thriving Russian sub-culture. Beyond Mandrem’s unique marriage of swift-running freshwater and ocean surf, all roads lead to the legendary Arambol, where latter-day versions of the first flower children spend months living in thatched huts under coconut palms.
In peak season, your day on the beach here could easily be spent with 10,000 other travellers, with Hebrew as the lingua franca and waiters and hawkers the only Indians in sight. Apart from the beaches, North Goa is also home to some of the most ambitious restaurants in India, including Burmese, Turkish, Italian and French establishments – but there’s always recourse to the inevitable steak and kidney pie and mushy peas so beloved of the Brits who still outnumber all other foreign visitors by a tidy margin.
North Goa’s attractions aren’t just confined to the coast, they extend to hill-hugging cashew plantations that blanket much of Pernem taluka (Goa’s feni-producing heartland), the noisy riot of colours that is Mapusa market in the heart of Bardez district, and the hidden, curiously hybrid Hindu temples of Ponda.
Panjim & Old Goa
Raffish charms and crumbling relics
Despite a real estate boom that has set prices soaring and apartment complexes sprouting on its outskirts, Panjim retains an old-fashioned character that feels quite different from any other state capital in India. The architecture is low-rise, Latinate, with plenty of green spaces, and the riverfront setting ensures a pleasant and breezy atmosphere that feels positively Caribbean. Panjim began to emerge around the late 18th century and by the 1820s had become the bustling administrative centre of the Portuguese Estado da India. Beautiful buildings from this period still crowd many of the old neighbourhoods and give the city its character. In recent years many of these architectural jewels have been restored and brightly repainted in characteristically Goan pastel shades.
The city is best explored on foot. Wander along the Mandovi riverfront, take a stroll under the overhanging street arcades of 18th June Road (named for the day in 1946 when Indian socialist Ram Manohar Lohia called for the Portuguese to be chucked out) and amble through the old quarter of Fontainhas – a Latinate labyrinth of sun-kissed ochre and magenta buildings, pocket-sized balconies and tiny plazas, and trees laden with ripening papayas and guavas.
The original colonial capital, now known simply as Old Goa, is an area of empty avenues and ancient churches. It’s a few kilometres away, linked to modern Panjim by a centuries-old causeway that stretches through backwaters and traditional salt pans, and passes through some of the state’s earliest colonial architecture at Ribandar.
The coast is clear
The original charms of India’s sunshine state are better showcased in South Goa. It’s bigger, less developed, with far more imposing colonial architecture and by far the best beaches. Fifteen miles of shining, uninterrupted white sands stretch from Cansaulim to Mobor with the spectacular ruins of the Cabo de Rama Fort looming over a rugged stretch of coastline further down. In the interior, there are the astounding Mesolithic carvings at Pansaimol, resident tigers in the jungle of Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, and the lush agricultural bounty of the hinterland of Quepem.
Rich farmlands and a billion dollars in annual mining income have so far kept South Goa from racing to replicate North Goa’s party strip, which means it has been relatively untouched by mass-market charter tourism.
It’s also the home turf of fading generations of Luso-Indian grandees – the aristocracy whose mansions still line the streets of Margao, where Portuguese is still widely spoken. These days, the south’s idyllic character is coming under threat from a rash of proposed development. Construction companies and real estate entrepreneurs have snapped up stretches of land all the way down to the Karnataka border, and though it will probably take years to become as hectic as the north, large-scale development looks inevitable. Until that happens, much of the south offers a glimpse of an older Goa, where farmers work the same fields and orchards that their families have tended for centuries. Spectacular rococo and baroque churches gleam whitewashed amid emerald paddy fields. Old colonial-era houses are still meticulously maintained, and locals retain the gracious culture and beautiful manners that still count in Goa.
The best of Goa
For a journey back in time
Old Goa was once one of the world’s great cities – bigger than London – and home to grandees, adventurers and slave-traders. Its surviving churches and convents are designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (see Regions: Old Goa).
For India’s only Latin quarter
Wander the narrow lanes of Fontainhas (see Regions: Panjim), a charming area full of beautifully maintained Indo-Portuguese houses, chapels and public shrines.
For a glimpse of the grandees
Take a peek into the gorgeously detailed world of the South Goan aristocracy at the Figueiredo Mansion at Loutolim (see Regions: South Goa).
After Goa’s liberation in 1961, land reform took back these vast agricultural holdings and dismantled the feudal system that supported the grand estates. Many of the palacios survive in various states of disrepair, with absentee owners now in Portugal or Canada. Of the surviving grand mansions, the gorgeous Figueiredo Mansion (House No. 376, Loutolim, donations accepted), a 15-minute drive from Margao, is the most beautiful home open to visitors. Owned by a pair of septuagenarian sisters, Georgina Figueiredo and Maria de Lourdes de Albuquerque, the house retains much of its former grandeur, with magnificent collections of antique furniture and porcelain. One wing, the Heritage Inn (0832-277-7028, firstname.lastname@example.org), is open for paying guests.
Or you can sample a taste of the grandee way of life with a full Indo-Portuguese meal in the formal dining room, complete with liveried service and century-old family crockery.
For the wilderness experience
Spend a night at one of the most beautiful eco-tourism resorts in the world. Wildernest (0831-520-7954, www.wildernest-goa.com) occupies a stunning location in the Western Ghats, at the lip of the Mhadei Valley (see Regions: North Goa).
For the art of the ancients
Visit one of the greatest Mesolithic art sites in the world and one of the most accessible. Awe-inspiring rock carvings cover a riverside shelf of laterite rock at Pansaimol. You can walk right up to them to feel the ancient grooves under your fingers (see Regions: South Goa).
Goa's best beaches
For idyllic lazing
Once deserted, most of Palolem is now firmly on the beaten track, but its smaller adjunct Patnem is a good place to get a taste of the idyllic experience that put Goa on the global tourism map (see Regions: South Goa).
For following the hippie trail
The legendary paradise beach of the 1970s hippie scene, Arambol retains an edgy counter-cultural atmosphere (see Regions: North Goa).
For getting back to nature
Morjim and Ashvem are a half-hour drive from the tourist hub of North Goa, but a world away in atmosphere. A few protected Olive Ridley turtles come here every year to lay eggs, fending off most major construction in the process (see Regions: North Goa).
For an escape from the tourists
The last undeveloped beach in North Goa, Keri remains a long and almost empty stretch of sand, where you can sit blissfully alone in the shadow of casuarinas trees (see Regions: North Goa).
For watching locals at play
Miramar beach in Panjim isn’t safe for swimming but it is impressively broad, and well-situated at the mouth of the Mandovi. Crowds of Indian tourists and Panjim residents head to the water to watch the sunset in a pleasant, convivial atmosphere (see Regions: Panjim).
Goa's weather & climate
Goa has a tropical climate, with average temperatures of 25 to 30 degrees Centigrade from November to April, and up to 40 degrees with high humidity in October and May. The Goan monsoon lasts from early June to late September, with the heaviest rains in July.
Dozens of bus services make the 12- to 14-hour trip from Mumbai to Goa each day, from decrepit decades-old coaches to comfortable modern Volvo behemoths with air-conditioning and reclining seats. Go for the latter. Paulo Travels (022-2645-2624 Mumbai, 0832-243-8531/8537 Panjim, www.paulotravels.com) is the biggest coach company, with daily services. Return fares range from Rs 700 to Rs 1,400.
Trains chug into Goa five times each day from Mumbai. The 11-hour trip offers magnificent views of the Ghats and the lush riverine plains of the Konkan coastline if you travel in the daytime, or you can take a sleeper overnight and be there fresh in the morning. The major stops are Tivim for North Goa, Karmali for Panjim and Margao for South Goa. You can book online (www.konkanrailway.com/www.irctc.co.in) but it can tend to be a little complicated. In peak season berths can be hard to come by, but there’s a ‘foreigners’ quota’ for one-way tickets (buy on the day of travel or the day before).
Directorate of Tourism Rua de Ourem Patto, Panjm. 0832-222-6515. Open 9.30am-1.15pm, 2-5.45 pm.
Goa is a malaria risk area. Always consult your doctor before travelling.
All foreign visitors to India require a visa except for citizens of Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives. There is no provision for granting visas upon arrival in India and you should apply to the Indian embassy or high commission in your home country. Visitors planning to stay over 180 days must register with the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office within 14 days of arrival.
Time Out guidebooks
For more information, pick up a copy of our guidebook 'Mumbai & Goa', available from the Time Out shop, at the discounted price of £8.99.