If you’re bold enough to deviate from the masses darting between the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), Varanasi and Goa, you can discover another side of India from the land you encounter on the tourist trail. In less travelled parts, people take you where you need to go with a smile; while you’re shopping, locals will step in to help you get a good price; and food is much cheaper, more authentic and downright delicious. The tricky part is deciding where to go. India’s 36 states and territories offer a vast realm of unconventional travel opportunities. Here are some alternatives to tourist traps to guide you off the beaten track.
Palitana by Alex Reynolds
Instead of: Agra and the Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh
Visit: Palitana in Gujarat
More than 1,000 temples blanket the mountaintop of Palitana, the holiest pilgrimage place in the world for followers of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion. The Taj Mahal is undoubtedly iconic, but if you want something that will really take your breath away, try Palitana at sunrise. You have to climb steps for at least an hour and a half to get there but at least you won’t have to queue up with hundreds of other tourists just to get a glimpse. Palitana is also the only legally vegetarian city on earth: it outlawed the buying and selling of animal products in 2014.
Instead of: Jaipur, Rajasthan
Visit: Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Jaipur – the ‘Pink City’ – is pretty, but it’s also the state’s number one tourist destination. Rather than subject yourself to massive crowds and persistent hawkers, head south to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, Rajasthan’s neighbour state. Grand havelis (lavishly painted mansions) and vivid textile markets line the streets of its recently Unesco-listed old city, while mind-boggling monuments such as the Rani ki Vav stepwell and the Sun Temple in Modhera are a day trip away. Then there’s the food... Gujarati thalis are some of the most indulgent culinary experiences you can have in India. Despite all this, hardly any tourists make it to Gujarat. Their loss, your gain.
Arunachal by Alex Reynolds
Instead of: Himachal Pradesh
Visit: Arunachal Pradesh
Nothing says the Himalayas like hordes of stoned backpackers and selfie-happy domestic tourists. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, find your way to Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India, one of the country’s least-visited states. Remote Arunachal borders China, and you’ll need an (easily obtained) permit to enter. Once in, you’ll have adventures through sprawling Himalayan vistas, experience dozens of distinct tribal cultures far removed from stereotypical India, and you’ll never have to move over to avoid appearing in someone else’s Instagram shot. Promise.
Instead of: Alleppey backwaters in Kerala
Visit: Majuli river island, Assam
Alleppey’s backwaters are serene, but they’re also strained by too many visitors and tourist boats, both of which dump refuse into its waters en masse. Instead of contributing to Alleppey’s pollution problem, try Majuli river island in Assam, one of India’s seven northeast sister states. Quiet fishermen in wooden longboats replace lumbering houseboats and tourist motorboats. Instead of walking down streets of hotels, cycle through friendly villages of bamboo huts on stilts, finishing off your days with locally made rice beer called apong.
Need more inspiration? Head to our travel site for intel on where to go and what to see in destinations across the world.