India's perfect places

From manic Mumbai to calming Kerala, India's wonders bring pain and pleasure

India's perfect places Houseboats in the backwaters of Kerala - © Aleida Strowger
By Time Out editors and writers

Here we’ve picked out ten of the most inspiring destinations across the country. India is huge and it would be impossible to capture all of its sights, sounds and colours, but we’ve tried to reflect its immense diversity by including its great cities, spiritual heart, incredible landscape and inspiring architecture.

All the clichés you have heard about India are probably true. For the average visitor it’s not an easy country to understand, navigate or sometimes accept. It compels you to alter the way you see the world. It forces you to adjust, to be patient, to negotiate difference. But time spent in India is also certain to leave you with memories that will last a lifetime.

Mumbai

City: Bollywood, business and beyond

Historic sites 3/5 | Art & architecture 3/5 | Hotels 3/5 | Eating & drinking 4/5 | Nightlife  4/5 | Shopping 5/5

Visitors often dismiss Mumbai as not being representative enough of ‘the real India’, accusing the city of being too urban, too Western, too unlike what they want India to be. The fact is that Mumbai is India on steroids: bursting at the seams with the hopes and dreams, cultures and cuisines, languages and races, petty quarrels and disgruntled compromises of 16 million people.

It has dominated the popular Indian imagination through the hundreds of books, movies and songs it has inspired, its headline-grabbing gangsters and supercops, and – surprising for a city with few open spaces – some of the country’s greatest cricketing heroes.

But if the ‘real’ India is supposed to be shocking poverty, appalling living conditions and a gross neglect of basic human rights, then Mumbai is real – disastrously real for the 55 per cent of its residents who live in slums.

It’s hard to remain an observer in Mumbai. This city has a habit of grabbing you by the collar and demanding that you get involved. Mumbai is a noisy, exhilarating, bewildering, enchanting, exasperating, chaotic, smelly and, sometimes, desperately upsetting city. It will insist on getting in your face even – indeed especially – when you don’t want it to. Try to just let it wash over you, then dive in and swim.

Where to stay

Gordon House Hotel

Mumbai's only real boutique hotel is smart, cool and beautifully designed. It offers a modern, stylish alternative to the standard five-stars at a competitive price. Book ahead.

Colaba 5 Battery Street, Apollo Bunder (022-2287-1122, www.ghhotel.com). $$$.

When to go

The ‘winter’, from December to February, is generally considered the most pleasant time to visit Mumbai, when average daytime temperatures may dip to around 24°C with low humidity.

See Time Out Mumbai for more inspiration on where to eat, drink and stay.

Delhi

A modern capital where history runs deep

Historic sites 5/5 | Art & architecture 5/5 | Hotels 4/5 | Eating & drinking 5/5 | Nightlife  5/5 | Shopping 5/5

Amid the glass and chrome of the modern capital, reminders of the city’s millennium-long history are everywhere. Blue-domed tombs serve as traffic roundabouts, the ruins of ancient forts provide the backdrop for rock concerts and a ride up the escalator out of a sparkling new Metro station could deposit you in a warren of lanes that has barely changed since the 17th century.

After negotiating the overstretched infrastructure in the rest of India, many visitors to Delhi are relieved to find a modern metropolis with broad roads, tree-filled parks and swish shops. And there’s more to come. The Indian government spent millions of rupees sprucing up the country’s capital for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. A spanking new Metro system was built to connect far-flung neighbourhoods in time for the event, the bus service has been improved and hundreds of bed and breakfasts have sprung up.

In the course of a day in Delhi, you could visit a 500-year-old mosque, browse in the upmarket boutiques of local designers, get an Ayurvedic massage, eat sushi and attend a free concert in the park by a living legend of Hindustani classical music. Like India, Delhi’s a study in contrasts. But beyond the clichés (or perhaps because of them), Delhi’s a fun, vibrant city. Just like India, but smaller.

Where to stay

The Imperial

The fragrance of jasmine wafts around you, there’s soothing piano music in the background and opulence is everywhere: in the marble floors, the cisterns full of flower petals, the fountains and the chandeliers. It all adds up to an air of luxury harking back to a different era.

Central Delhi Janpath (011-2334-1234, www.theimperialindia.com). $$$$.

When to go

Mid October to mid March sees crisp, cool nights (close to freezing in December and January) and warm sunny days. The fine weather makes this the city’s busiest time in cultural terms, with lots of outdoor activities.

See Time Out Delhi for more inspiration on where to eat, drink and stay.

Jaipur

Rajasthan’s colourful, chaotic pink city

Historic sites 4/5 | Art & architecture 4/5 | Hotels 5/5 | Eating & drinking 3/5 | Nightlife  1/5 | Shopping 5/5

In Jaipur, palaces aren’t just monuments, they’re homes too. A seven-course meal isn’t a feast, it’s just dinner, and anything that’s less than a century old is modern. Jaipur was founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II, a Kachwaha Rajput, who moved his capital here from Amer, some 11 kilometres away. After years of meticulous planning, the construction of Jaipur – the City of Victory – began in 1727. Today, the past remains very visible in the city’s dusty, bustling streets, its filigreed windows and majestic forts.

The old or walled city is often referred to as the Pink City, because that’s the colour of the Hawa Mahal and many of the other buildings. But that doesn’t mean everything’s rosy here. Despite the overwhelming scent of history and some of the country’s most vibrant bazaars, modern Jaipur is a crowded, polluted, heaving metropolis, brimming with traffic, painted hoardings and diesel-thirsty rickshaws. In the midst of all this, though, many buildings have been preserved. The opulent palaces, magnificent forts and formidable gates of Jaipur are testament to two of the most important characteristics of the Rajputs: self-indulgence and strategic planning.

Where to stay

Rambagh Palace

The Taj’s Rambagh Palace hotel assaults the senses. Built in 1835 on a modest scale, and later refurbished as a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge, it was given its final opulent makeover in 1925 when it became the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur. From perfectly manicured gardens and two-storey-high Renaissance-style ceilings to games of elephant polo and dinners under many-tiered crystal chandeliers, it is the epitome of indulgence.

3.5km S of Ram Niwas Bagh Taj Rambagh Palace, Bhawani Singh Road (0141-221-1919, www.tajhotels.com). $$$$.

When to go

October to March is the best period to visit. It’s winter and can get cold, but at night temperatures rarely fall below 8°C.

Agra

The Taj Mahal, and more Mughal magnificence

Historic sites 5/5 | Art & architecture 5/5 | Hotels 3/5 | Eating & drinking 3/5 | Nightlife  0/5 | Shopping 1/5

The Taj Mahal is the jewel in India’s crown. But it is just one – albeit the most exquisite – of Agra’s wonderful, if indifferently preserved, Mughal buildings. That the magnificence of Agra’s monuments manages to transcend the city’s bad reputation for pollution, commercialism and aggressive touts says something about just how fascinating a repository of Mughal architecture and history it is. Shah Jahan, the architect Mughal emperor, built the Taj Mahal as a memorial for his second and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.

Although Shah Jahan built a new capital in Delhi, and though his son, Aurangzeb, abandoned Agra to wage war further south, the elegant fort, the mysterious ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri, and the many tombs, gardens and mosques within the city limits ensure Agra’s place in Indian history. It was an important centre during British colonial rule as well, and many colonnaded white buildings, imperial courts, offices and a large military quarter survive from this period.

Where to stay

Oberoi Amarvilas

The Monument of Love looks jaw-droppingly close from the Amarvilas’s Mughal-baroque check-in tea lounge: its marble domes rise unimpeded from the stretch of green protected forest – the only thing that lies between the Taj and the Amarvilas. That view is shared by all 102 rooms and suites of this luxury hotel.

Taj Mahal East Gate Road (0562-223-1515, www.amarvilas.com). $$$$.

When to go

November to February is coolest and also the most crowded time. From March to October, the searing daytime heat makes sightseeing difficult. However, good hotel deals can be had during the low season.

Darjeeling, Kalimpong & Sikkim

Beauty at altitude

Historic sites 1/5 | Art & architecture 3/5 | Hotels 3/5 | Eating & drinking 3/5 | Scenery 4/5 | Outdoor activities 4/5

High in the eastern Himalayas, in the far-flung north-east of India, where tea plantations spill over mountainsides and a Buddhist monastery is only a hairpin bend away, are the towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Here, brightly painted cottages jut out from valleys of terraced fields. Waterfalls spill over sheer drops, then disappear under thin slivers of roads. An astonishing variety of orchids are nurtured in nurseries and gardens, or grow wild among oaks and pine.

Steam trains chug alongside cars and – once in a while – the clouds part, the mists clear, and a blind curve opens on to a view of the five-peaked Mount Kanchenjunga: at 8,598 metres (28,200 feet), it’s the world’s third-highest mountain, less than a hundred kilometres away on the India–Nepal border. Locals say that as you climb higher, the roads get worse and the tea gets better. But the quality of the beverage is not the only thing that benefits from elevation.

These hill towns are calmer, greener and cooler than the land below. As you go higher up the mountains into the state of Sikkim – once an independent kingdom, which became part of India after a referendum in 1975 – you come upon an ethereal, unspoiled and isolated landscape of high peaks, lakes and ravines, home to peoples of different and distinctive culture and ethnicity.

Where to stay

Elgin Mount Pandim

Rising out of eight acres of forest and painstakingly maintained gardens, the Elgin group’s Pelling property seems almost regal, which is fitting, since it once belonged to Sikkim’s royal family. Rooms are furnished in a kind of nouveau-vintage style, with Tibetan motifs, shiny wood floors, brass fittings and plaster mouldings sharing space with bathtubs, electric heaters and televisions.

Pelling Near Pemayangtse Monastery (03595-250-756/250-273, www.elginhotels.com). $$. No AmEx.

When to go

March to mid June and October to November are the best times to visit. The area has a different kind of charm during the winter months.

Varanasi

Sacred city on the River Ganga

Historic sites 4/5 | Art & architecture 1/5 | Hotels 2/5 | Eating & drinking 2/5 | Nightlife  0/5 | Shopping 1/5

On the banks of the holy River Ganga sits the sacred city of Varanasi. At sunrise every morning thousands come to the river to take a dip, perform rituals, wash away their sins, meditate and pray. Away from the ghats – the steps leading into the waters – the city’s labyrinthine alleyways are crowded with people, most of them pilgrims. They come from around the country to the city of Lord Shiva to spend time; some come to die. Hindu scriptures tell us that Shiva dwells in Varanasi and excludes from his realm Yama, the all-prevalent god of death. To be cremated in Varanasi and have one’s ashes sprinkled in the mother river is said to ensure moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Therefore, Varanasi and its river are the ultimate sources of redemption.

Love it or hate it, Varanasi evokes strong feelings. This holiest of Indian cities supports a seething mass of humanity, out to celebrate both life and death. It can be confounding and disorienting, a place of sensory overload. At every step, the senses are assailed by sights, colours, smells, sounds and tastes; the aromas of spices, incense, perfume and food meet the odours of human sweat, cows and funeral pyres. The chanting of sacred texts, often at ear-splitting volume, can have a hypnotic effect, known to drive people into a trance. It takes perseverance, luck and a somewhat sturdy constitution to come to understand and enjoy the city’s many facets: the temples, the river, the pilgrims, the rituals and sadhus.

Where to stay

Nadesar Palace

Live like a maharaja at Nadesar Palace, Varanasi’s swankiest hotel, far from the ghats in the Cantonment area. The ten rooms and suites are named after famous visitors who stayed here, including King George V, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II and the Shah of Iran.

Cantonment Nadesar Palace grounds (0542-250-3001, www.tajhotels.com) $$$$

When to go

November to March is the best time to visit Varanasi. But no matter when you visit, it will be crowded.

Periyar National Park

Jungle retreat of the elusive Bengal tiger; home to many other species

In the Cardamom Hills of Kerala state, a large, dense jungle is home to the Periyar National Park. Within this landscape of undulating hills, rivers, lakes, coarse elephant grass and lofty tropical trees lives India’s most elusive and endangered animal, the Bengal tiger. At night, the bars at the hotels in the nearby village of Thekkady abound with stories of half-glimpsed whiskers and enormous footprints, but the truth is that tiger sightings are extremely rare these days. But if you are willing to endure a longish hike and some rough terrain in this superb wilderness, you’re likely to spot at least a herd of wild elephants, if not bison, giant Malabar squirrels and perhaps a Malabar grey hornbill (Periyar is also home to 320 species of bird).

Periyar’s wildlife conservation is conducted by local people. This community-based eco-tourism means that tourists get the benefit of local expertise, and the valuable revenue earned is ploughed back into the community.

Thekkady is also famed for its spices, and some spice plantations are open to the public, allowing visitors to experience the melding of the scents of peppermint, cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon with the darker smells of the forest.

Where to stay

KTDC Lake Palace

The only way you can stay inside the park is if you book into the Tourism Board’s KTDC Lake Palace, a former royal hunting lodge that is superbly located on Periyar Lake, and can only be reached by boat.

Thekkady (04869-223-887, www.lakepalacethekkady.com). $$$-$$$$. No AmEx.

When to go

The winter months, between October and January, are the best time to visit.

Goa

Stunning beaches and a laid-back allure

Historic sites 2/5 | Art & architecture 2/5 | Hotels 5/5 | Eating & drinking 5/5 | Nightlife  5/5 | Outdoor activities 4/5

Goa is different. Here, the familiar subcontinental bustle and jostling give way to a measured languor and broad smiles. This is where the crowded cityscapes of urban India are replaced by coconut groves, and diesel fumes fade under the perfume of cashew blossoms and ripening mango. The blare of traffic yields to birdsong and the insistent whisper of sea on sand. Goa’s landscape is remarkably varied, ranging from the thickly forested Western Ghats mountain range through lush river valleys to the famous beaches.

The former Portuguese colony (it only became part of India in 1961, 14 years after the rest of the nation achieved independence from the British) is India’s smallest state by a considerable margin, but its charms are anything but pocket-sized, and exert a powerful allure. It retains much of a distinctive post-colonial Portuguese character.

And though it is no longer the untouched paradise discovered by the flower children of the 1960s – packed as it is with India’s burgeoning middle class, British package tourists and nu-rave neo-hippies – Goa remains pleasantly peaceful and relatively unspoiled, at least away from the main tourist areas. To its Indian visitors Goa is famously summed up by the Konkai word sussegad, meaning laid-back or relaxed.

Where to stay

Park Hyatt Goa Resort & Spa

The Park Hyatt is probably the best of Goa’s huge luxury hotels. The village-style resort is set in 45-acres of lush greenery, and the beautifully maintained gardens lead to some of South Goa’s best beachfronts.

South Goa Arossim Beach, Cansaulim (0832-272-1234, www.park.hyatt.com). $$$.

When to go

October to February, when the weather is mild and pleasant, is the best time to visit Goa. The monsoon is a good time to go if you want peace and quiet but most of the nicer restaurants are closed and you cannot swim in the sea.

Kerala backwaters

Emerald waterways and palm-fringed tranquillity

Historic sites 0/5 | Art & architecture 1/5 | Hotels 4/5 | Eating & drinking 3/5 | Scenery  5/5 | Outdoor activities 4/5

Kerala’s tropical backwaters have long been a meeting place for the world’s major religions and ideologies, as well as for the melding of fresh and salt water. Yet they remain peaceful, gentle and slow. Here, women wash their clothes on the banks while men wait patiently behind fishing lines. Flotillas of ducks drift by, followed, perhaps, by a backwater bus full of lively children on their way to school. Vast expanses of calm, green waters end in a coconut tree-fringed horizon.

Further inland from the lakes and lagoons, narrow canals lead into an even more unhurried world, without roads and cars, where every village home has a boat moored at its doorstep. This is the heart of Kerala: part Venetian, part tropical and entirely charming. This network of canals, rivers, lakes and lagoons, opening into the Arabian Sea, is an idyllic backdrop for an introduction to Kerala, her people, their food, and many other pleasant surprises.

All kinds of boats criss-cross the backwaters: narrow fishing boats fitted with storm lanterns to attract fish at night; government ferries carrying people and cars; and kettuvallams, the ubiquitous Kerala houseboat, composed of wooden planks tied together using coir ropes, and traditionally used to transport rice from the paddy fields to the coastal ports.

Over 500 such barges, now remodelled as houseboats for tourists, are as much of an attraction of the backwaters as the teeming bird and animal life and the scenery. They are the most comfortable way to take in those emerald waters, coconut trees and paddy fields, villages, churches, mosques, temples and the odd Che Guevara cardboard cut-out. 

Where to stay

Raheem Residency

This spacious bungalow was originally built by an Englishman in 1868, and has been home to the Raheems, a merchant family from Gujarat, for nearly a century. It has played gracious host to all manner of dignitaries, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a delightful mish-mash of different architectural styles – colonial, Mughal and Keralan – and has been passionately restored by its current owners.

Alappuzha Beach Road (0477-223-9767/0767, www.raheemresidency.com). $$$. No AmEx.

When to go

The end of September to March is the coolest time of year to visit the backwaters, when Kerala is at its greenest. On the other hand, most visitors come during this time, so the backwaters can get a little crowded. Great hotel and houseboat deals can be struck during the summer and monsoon months, except when the snake boat races are on.

The Andaman Islands

Beautiful beaches; bitter history

Historic sites 1/5 | Art & architecture 0/5 | Hotels 3/5 | Eating & drinking 2/5 | Scenery  4/5 | Outdoor activities 5/5

Besides pollutant-free skies and luxuriant tropical forests, the Andamans promise crystal-clear waters, golden sands, a dazzling array of marine life, the possibility of aquatic adventures, and long, uninterrupted silences. After the clangour and congestion of mainland India, the pristine, sparsely populated beaches make it easy to forget you’re still in India. And, in fact, the territory is actually closer to Myanmar than to the Indian mainland.

Life here moves at a slow pace. Internet connections aren’t quite as speedy, mobile phone networks are scratchy, and travelling between the islands involves long waits for ferries. But this change of pace is sought after by discerning travellers, who come to the Andamans to slow down, listen and observe – or to dive, snorkel, kayak or trek.

Where to stay

Hotel Sentinel

With furniture made from local red padauk wood, Hotel Sentinel’s rooms are spacious and spotless. Sitting in the heart of Port Blair but located amid a profusion of trees that filter out traffic sounds, the hotel is popular with guests on their way to and from Havelock Island.

Port Blair Phoenix Bay (03192-244-914, www.hotelsentinelandamans.com). $$.

When to go

November to April are the coolest months, with average temperatures between 23°C and 28°C. This is also the time you’re most unlikely to encounter the monsoon. No matter when you visit, though, be prepared for short bursts of tropical rain. The main monsoon season runs from mid May to September. Several festivals are held in the islands during October.

Time Out guidebooks

India: Perfect Places to Stay, Eat & Explore

Time Out India hand-picks the country's most unmissable destinations, some world famous, some little known, all extraordinary. Our local writers provide invaluable insight on how to experience the best of each, along with advice on combining them into your own perfect Indian itinerary. Within each destination, we take you straight to the most compelling sights and landscapes, from the Taj Mahal to the Himalayan hinterlands, and share our favourite hotels and restaurants. Providing both inspiration and information, Time Out India is perfect for planning and enjoying your trip.

'India: Perfect Places to Stay, Eat & Explore' is available in the Time Out shop.

Mumbai & Goa guidebook

Time Out Mumbai has every address you'll need, from Bollywood hangouts to the finest street eats, plus an in-depth guide to the laid-back paradise of Goa. This guide will give you the insider track on local culture and will help you to get the best out of India's commercial and glamour capital.

The 'Mumbai & Goa' guidebook is available from the Time Out shop.

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By Tiffany - Jan 18 2011

I wanted to express my extreme displeasure with my experience at The Oberoi Amarvilas this evening. Following the advice of your TimeOut India book, which suggested coming to The Oberoi and having a drink in the outside bar area, overlooking the Taj and it's immaculate gardens followed by dinner at Esphahan, I decided to treck to the hotel for this experience. After stating my purpose for arriving, and announcing that I was not a guest of the hotel, I was seating outside and delivered a menu. I then ordered the most expensive wine by the glass and ten minutes after ordering, a waiter came over and asked me to move inside because guests of the hotel were the only ones allowed outside for bar service. Mind you, this was also after I gave up my table for four to a couple who wanted to sit outside as well. Since I was by myself, I was generous enough to ask if they'd like my table. The wait staff then proceeded to set me up with a chair by the railing so I could have my glass of wine and watch the sunset. Not only was it rude to have asked me to leave the outside area, it was incredibly embarrassing because it was done in ear shot of eight other guests. To make matters worse, I was then refused a table at Esphahan, not because there weren't any open spaces for dining, but again because I wasn't a guest of the hotel. Now, I realize certain hotels might have certain rules, but to deny service to a well dressed, single woman with money to spend and a whole lot of rich family and friends, is not only foolish and damaging to their reputation, but it also makes the hotel look pompous and inconsiderate, especially since I had already been seated outside and 'allowed' to order.

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