There’s no sugarcoating it; India is a big, beautiful beast. The world’s second most populous country will overwhelm you with cinematic wonder one moment, diesel and dust the next. That’s the best part of a visit to the subcontinent: India is never boring. Sensational displays of color and culture abound, from majestic temples and monuments and intricate cuisines to never-ending festivals, soaring mountains and far-flung beaches — and those are just the obvious highlights.
India offers a wealth of experiences beyond that soul-stirring moment you first lay eyes on the Taj Mahal or the punch-in-the-gut awe of that postcard-perfect sunrise over the Ganges River in Varanasi. To truly embrace this kaleidoscopic collision of culture, one must travel beyond bounds.
Click through our slideshow to explore 10 of India’s most unique experiences, and travel down the unmarked path — away from touts, persistent rickshaw drivers and unrelenting tourist shop owners to the India of dreams and dazzle.
Track Royal Bengal Tigers
India is the best place on the planet to spot the endangered royal Bengal tiger — about 70 percent of the world’s population lives here. Three out of India’s four big tiger parks are in eastern Madhya Pradesh: Panna, Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Parks, the latter’s Tala Range boasting the highest density of royal Bengal tigers in the world (68 as of 2014).
Though the parks are all relatively near each other in the grand scheme of India, the bureaucracy, distances and logistics are difficult to manage on your own. Enter the Tiger Safari (TheTigerSafari.com) in Jabalpur, which can plan your multi-day tiger itinerary, taking in all the parks in the area with possible added emphases on photography, birding or culture. The agency is heavily weighted toward conservation (rare in these parts; 5 percent of the profits goes toward three tiger-saving NGOs) and is adept at navigating the complicated ticketing systems for entering the parks, leaving you to worry about nothing more than spotting Tigger.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
India – Tiger Safari by migyero
“After a long curve in the thick forest a large male tiger is lengthened across the road. We are absolutely alone during more than an hour with the king of the Indian forest who scrapes its head and changes position less than three meters from us!!! I took more than 200 pictures and a lot are superb.” Read more!
Meet Locals in a Village Homestay
The tranquil village of Orchha in Madhya Pradesh is one of India’s lesser-known gems, spectacularly set on the banks of the Betwa River 155 miles or so south of Agra. As it’s saturated with grand 17th-century palaces and cenotaphs, it’s shocking that it’s not more crowded, but somehow it remains a more laidback and hassle-free place to kick back for a few days off India’s major tourist trail.
Just outside the main village in Ganz, a group called Friends of Orchha has transformed the lives of several local villagers, helping to spiff up their mud hut homes into a culturally rich homestay experience. It’s not luxurious, but the rooms are more charming than those at many budget hotels, and you will eat and interact with local families — a priceless proposition. Though the families themselves speak little or no English, a host that represents the program will be there to help translate. If you’re interested in going deeper into rural Indian life, it’s a true treasure.
Kayak the Keralan Backwaters
Nearly everyone who visits Kerala takes a tour of its beautiful backwaters — navigating this labyrinthine system of interconnected brackish canals, lagoons, lakes and rivers is one of India’s requisite experiences — but not everyone does it in a kayak.
While most folks traverse the waters on tourist cruises or houseboats, why not get a little closer to nature on a single- or double-kayak trip with Kerala Kayaking? You can escape bigger (read: louder) boats by navigating canals that are too narrow for them, commandeering far more of the tranquility and wildlife for yourself. Trips range from four to 10 hours and are offered in the early morning (better birdlife, plus breakfast), throughout the day (visits to villages and lunch included) and at sunset (masala chai as the sun disappears over the horizon).
Discover Back-Street Benares
Varanasi — also known as Benares — is India on overdrive, a dramatic, in-your-face assault on the senses that doesn’t let up until you’ve departed the city limits … and even then it never quite leaves you. American-run Varanasi Walks lures travelers away from the ghats (the crowds! The irritating sardhus! The anarchic alleyways!) and into the city’s less chaotic back streets, where tourists rarely venture.
Armed with a team of guides mostly made up of locals born and raised in Benares, the company’s themed walks (with names like “Southern Temples, Ponds and Poets” and “Northern Bazaars and Hidden Alleys”) are beyond fascinating. You’ll share masala chai with locals surprised to see a foreign face, visit temples and shrines unknown to guidebooks, and tour private homes that certainly aren’t in any tourism brochures. It is unequivocally the best way to recharge your batteries in Benares.
Enjoy a Curried Cooking Holiday
Unless you are extremely averse to spice, food will no doubt be on your Indian highlights list. The spices, the colors, the intricate flavors, the regional variations, the alluring aromas — there’s nothing quite like it. True foodies, however, will want to go deeper into the kitchens of the subcontinent.
There are cooking classes nationwide, but our favorite is Aakriti in Tamal Nadu, which offers themed vegetarian cooking holidays. From scouring local markets for ingredients to food preparation to (finally) eating, you’ll be immersed in a free-for-all of flavor and history by your hosts, Renu and Ravi, both professional chefs and nutritionists. The whole thing is set spectacularly on the lush, tea-draped slopes of the Western Ghats. If you appreciate gastronomy, there are few better ways to dine amongst the locals. See EcoHomestay.com for info.
Sleep Like a Maharaja
Delightfully off the beaten path, spiritual Maheshwar, located along the banks of the holy Narmada River in western Madhya Pradesh, is often touted as a mini-Varanasi, boasting all the holiness and none of the hassle. The 16th-century fort, whose ramparts were built by Emperor Akbar, dominates the town’s riverbank, where holy bathing ghats pepper the shore without a tourist in sight.
The Maheshwar Palace, built by Holkar queen Ahilyabai, is now a discerning heritage hotel, Ahilya Fort. Here you can rub elbows with Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, a direct descendent of Ahilyabai, who hosts guests for cocktails each evening before the exquisite dinner service. Palatial rooms with extraordinary river views dot the historic structure, where it’s easy to lose yourself for days enjoying the royal (but never smothering) hospitality, just as Demi Moore, Sting and Mick Jagger have done before you.
Explore Remote Tribal Markets
Only the seriously intrepid venture into the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh (and, to a lesser extent, Odisha), and that is a shame. Or perhaps not? Both states are home to numerous Adivasi villages, India’s aboriginal ethnic and tribal groups, and a tour observing how these tribespeople live completely off the grid, with their own languages, customs and culture, is fascinating. In both states, daily markets bring the tribespeople down from the hills and mountains to sell their wares (vegetables, bell metal craft work and a seriously potent liquor made from the mahua flower) and these incredibly interesting collisions of commerce are generally safe for foreigners with guides.
It’s more difficult to do in Odisha (the government has implemented a bureaucratic permit scheme for tribal visits), but an amazing place to base yourself near the markets is Chandoori Sai, an Australian-run guesthouse that sits in a tribal village near Koraput. In Chhattisgarh, find your way to Jagdalpur and get in touch with Adivasi expert Awesh Ali (+91-9425244925; firstname.lastname@example.org), who is an expert guide on the eight tribes of the Bastar region in the surrounding countryside.
Visit a Tea Estate in Darjeeling
If touristy India is not your cup of tea, make your way into the majestic Himalaya Mountains to Darjeeling, where groves of tea estates drape misty hilltops in all directions. For the full-immersion experience, Makaibari Tea Estates, an organic and biodynamic tea estate working the land of the white orchid since 1859, offers programs that include tea plucking, tastings and lunch in a local home.
As part of its community empowerment program, guests can hang out even longer, opting to spend the night in one of 13 tea picker’s homes that have been renovated to accommodate foreign guests. In the morning, you’ll comb the tea bushes with your local host, pick your own leaves and see them through production right into your very own morning cuppa! March through May is the best time of the year to visit, when production is in full swing. The estate is located in Kurseong, about 20 miles south of Darjeeling.
Go Beyond the Taj Mahal
You can’t visit India without seeing the Taj Mahal — get serious! — but once you rub elbows with the other three million people who enter the grounds of the world’s most famous monument each year, why not check it out from a less trampled-upon angle?
Agra Walks leads those interested in going beyond the Taj on intriguing afternoon walking/cycle-rickshaw combo tours through the buzzing, less touristy streets of Old Agra, showing you a side of the city most visitors never see. The tour ends with a spectacular sunset over the Taj from Mehtab Bagh, a park across the Yamuna River from the UNESCO World Heritage Site. You won’t be the only one there, but there aren’t usually many more than 30 or so people — a far cry from how many are within the Taj grounds at any given time.
Trade Chai for Chenin Blanc
Though many oenophiles still turn up their noses, winemaking in India has come a long way indeed. Visit a fine dining establishment here and you’re likely to see degustation menus paired with a few domestic standouts, namely Sula and Fratelli, both of whom are producing very interesting wines out of Maharashtra, India’s most climate-cooperative region.
The biggest concentration of wineries is in Nashik, about 100 miles northeast of Mumbai, where you can make a day of tasting sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, merlot, zinfandel, shiraz and cabernet — the terroir is similar to that of Bordeaux. In addition to Sula, there’s York Winery and Chateau d’Ori, among others — several of which offer luxury accommodations and spas as well.
Best Time to Go to India
Since India is such a large country, the best time to visit really depends on where you’re heading. In most regions, especially the south, winter is the most popular season for tourism. During winter, from about late October through February, the weather is comfortable and dry in many parts of the country. In warmer months, temperatures can be hot and the weather can get rainy in the south. However, the summer is an ideal time to head north and explore the Himalayas.
India on a Budget
Flights to India can be expensive. Nevertheless, India is by and large a budget-friendly destination for Western travelers. Accommodations and transportation are quite affordable, and travelers can find locally made crafts for reasonable prices at scores of small villages across the country. Expect to pay more for lodging and meals in larger cities like Mumbai, and avoid traveling when local holidays and festivals are taking place in order to snap up the best hotel rates.
–written by Kevin Raub