Let’s start off this list with a city that captures the cultural zeitgeist of the Mughal era in India. Agra is more popularly known as the home of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum that most people instantly picture in their mind when they think of India. And while the Taj Mahal is definitely one of the main reasons for making Agra a famous tourist destination, it is not the only one. Agra is home to a number of remnants of the legendary Mughal empire, including the Itimad-ud-Daulah and Akbar’s tomb. There is also the grand Agra Fort, the massive Jama Masjid and the narrow streets of the Kinari Bazaar behind it.
If Agra gives you a glimpse into India’s Mughal empire, Amritsar is your window into the fascinating culture of Sikhism. The city’s name literally translates to a holy pool of nectar, and it was founded by Guru Ram Das, the fourth of nine holy Sikh gurus, in 1577. Naturally, this is the spiritual capital of Sikhism, with the centre of it all being the magnificent Golden Temple, known locally as the Harmandir Sahib Gurudwara. The Akal Takhat and Mata temples are also popular destinations for the spiritually inclined, but Amritsar is also famous for its culinary delights, topped with the legendary hospitality of the people of Punjab.
Surrounding the scenic emerald green Naini lake, Nainital is the quintessential hill resort. What was once a sleepy town is today a busy hill station complete with dozens of hotels around the volcanic leak and an bustling bazaar. This is possibly the most famous hill station too, with hundreds of families and couples coming into the valley on the foot of the Himalayas to enjoy the scenic views and boat rides on the lake. Nainital also has several walking tracks that take you up the dense hills around the town to viewing points with vistas of the Himalayan mountains. Thus, Nainital is a great place to sit back, relax and take in the majesty of India’s mountains without overwhelming yourself.
Ooty, like Nainital, is another of India’s hill stations that started off as a little town but hit it off, becoming a major tourist centre. As such, it can be a little too crowded during its peak seasons for those who prefer a little more peace and quiet. But it can still offer an arresting view of India’s Western Ghats, a chilled out atmosphere, pleasant weather and some of the best tea in the country. Known as the Queen of Hill Stations, Ooty offers a rather interest mix of expansive gardens, vivid green tea estates, British-era bungalows and the typical busy streets of India. The hill station has gone through a lot of commercialisation in the past decades, but you can still experience the magic of the past by travelling through the miniature trains.
Speaking of the magic of the past, there are only a handful of cities in India that capture it as perfectly as Jaipur. The city sits as the capital of Rajasthan and a window into India’s mesmerising history. Its streets are a blend of the past and present, and yet there is a certain sense of peace and calm to the bustle. And, it would be hard to miss the colourfulness of the city. Jaipur also remains one of the few cities that holds on so tightly to its royal legacy. In many ways, it remains a royal city with the massive City Palace at its heart. The Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar observatory showcase architectural innovations from an older time, and finally there is the splendid Amber Fort on the outskirts of the main city.
From the magic of Jaipur, we move back to another hill station, this time in India’s northeast region. The hill station of Shillong also serves as the capital of the state of Meghalaya, and so can be rather busy tourist destination. But the town still holds on firmly to its roots as a British Era-capital, and it offers a number of beautiful sights. Shillong peak, for instance, lies 10 km away from the main city and is the highest point of Meghalaya, giving you a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings. The Spread Eagle falls, Sweet falls and Elephant falls are also popular locations that are a treat for the eyes. For an experience of Shillong’s colonial era past, visit the All Saints’ Cathedral, Anglican Church or Pinewood Hotel.
Let’s take a break from India’s historically-rich cities and scenic hill stations, and move to the laid-back beaches of Goa. With 51 beaches along its coastline, Goa is considered by many to be the party capital of India. Its white sandy beaches and palm trees that curve to touch the ocean are just one part of the equation that makes Goa such a hit. Despite its popularity, Goa remains a sleepy and slow town with a rich culture of its own that is worth exploring and experiencing. Its night life is another popular aspect, with pubs like Tito’s and Montego Bay being mainstream favourites. And then there are the numerous trekking trails up the hills surrounding Goa that can satisfy the adventurer inside you. Finally, Goa offers cuisine with its own unique identify, forged by a carefree mix of Konkani, Catholic, Portuguese and Muslim cuisine.
Once the summer capital during India’s British Raj, Shimla is now one of the most popular hill stations of India and also the capital of Himachal Pradesh. Given its popularity, the town is packed with tourists. But walking is the only way to get around within the central area, which can be a rather pleasant and enjoyable experience. Like most other hill stations, Shimla too has long-winding and narrow alleys that are worth exploring. It also gets a healthy dose of snow during its winter months, making the view of the mountains around it that much more awe-inspiring. The Viceregal Lodge, Christ Church and Gorton Castle show you Shimla’s British era legacy. And if you are walking around Shimla, you cannot miss out on the Town Hall at its centre.
We have talked about India’s beaches, mountains and palaces, but to get a glimpse of the country’s spiritual heritage, Tirupati is worth the visit. Built on the holy hill of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, the Tirupati temple is one of the biggest pilgrimage spots in the world. Thousands throng every day into the temple, which is open to darshans throughout the day. This is also one of the most professionally administered temples in the world, with a workforce of thousands ensuring that everything is going smoothly. Needless to say, Tirupati is among the most crowded tourist places in India, but the place is managed well enough to keep things in order. Even if you are not spiritually inclined, a trip to Tirumala and the temple sitting on it can be deeply fulfilling.
Known simply as Pondy, this little union territory is a world apart from the state of Tamil Nadu. It remained under French rule around 7 years after the rest of India gained independence, and the influence remains to this day. Pondicherry could be forgiven for a quaint little beach town from France, with its bright and colourful houses, hotels, shops and restaurants. The architecture is, in fact, one of the highlights of this coastal town, with a healthy dose of Tamil influences added to the mix. Another reason for Pondicherry’s popularity is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the related Auroville, which are hangouts for those looking for some soul-searching. The relaxed, quiet atmosphere of Pondicherry may draw parallels with Goa, but this is a destination that has its own unique charm and identity that is well worth exploring.