What an absolute task it is to cut down the things to do in India to a manageable list. This massive country has a population of ~1.2 billion (2nd most populous) and covers an area of ~1.3 million miles (7th largest) stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south. It is a land of a fascinating history, engaging spirituality, a land of stunning scenery and enchanting challenges and experiences for travelers. With much pain at leaving so many things out, here are some essential things to do in India before you die.
So what if it’s a cliché! Arranging a trip to Taj Mahal is one of the things to do in India that should be on everyone’s list. No picture will ever compare with the real thing. The Taj Mahal, literally meaning ‘the crown of palaces’, is a beautiful white marble mausoleum that Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan built for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was built in the 17th century and was a grand gesture of love. Although stunning in the daytime – the beautiful gardens always remain tranquil no matter how many visitors are wandering them - the best time to visit the Taj Mahal is at night. When bathed in moonlight and with its own lighting, it is among the best sights to see in the world and undeniably one of the greatest attractions of India.
Punjab plays host to a different type of Olympics every year – the Punjabi style! Kila Raipur, a small village in Ludhiana, comes alive with the spirit of the games in each February and March. Watch out for the men wrestling in mud, the bullock cart race, tractor pulling and the good old game of Kabaddi. Hundreds of people head to the festival every year to join the spirit of the games.
Many of you may not believe in fairies and wonderland but a trip to the Valley of Flowers will change your views on that for sure. The Valley of Flowers is a World Heritage Site and is in the state of Uttarakhand. Located in the Himalayas, the valley offers a beautiful view of the mountains around. Other than the myriad colored flowers, the valley is also home to a number of endangered species like the Snow Leopard and Asiatic Black Bear.
For the adventure enthusiasts, this is one of the most adrenaline-filled things to do in India. The trip spans from Manali to Ladakh and passes through some stunning sites like the Rohtang Pass, Lahaul and Spiti valley. On your way, you will also cross several high mountains. When you are in Ladakh, you can bike to the highest drivable pass in the world, the Khardung La Pass. However, be aware that Rohtang Pass is opened only from June to December each year so do plan your bike trip accordingly.
Corbett National Park offers you a thrilling experience with Indian wildlife and should definitely be on your list of must-do experiences in India. It is among the oldest national parks in India and you can embark on a safari either in a jeep or even on an elephant. Check out the different wildlife safari packages ranging from 3 to 11 days and pick the one that suits you best!
Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. Mahabodhiemple, one of the most important Buddhist temples, is a must visit. Just soaking in the ambience of the place or talking to a monk is a spiritual experience in itself.
Here is another one of the spiritual attractions of India. When you are in Varanasi, take a walk from Dashashwamedh Ghat to the Assi Ghat. Watch the religious ceremony there that takes place daily at 7pm. During your walk, you will also see many other Ghats where people are undertaking their regular rituals at the Ganges or saying final goodbyes to their loved ones.
Dal Lake is situated among stunning surroundings which provides you with a mesmerizing experience. While you are there, why not chose a Shikara to spend the night instead of a hotel? These are small boathouses with beautiful regal interiors and services that you would expect from the best hotels in the world!
It’s nice to be reminded that some people are happy without the technological wonders of modern life. One of the best things to do in India is to travel in an eco-friendly way, and what could be more exciting than taking a bullock cart ride? If you have already tried driving a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, you will definitely have the time of your life riding a bullock cart. Interestingly, you can even take your bullock cart ride on the highway. That's India for you folks!
Displaying influences of Hindu, Muslim and European architecture, the Golden Temple is situated near the Wagah Border with Pakistan. It is a spiritual center of the country and the langer(food) served here is among the best as well. Don’t forget to take a dip in the nearby lake before you head to the langer, it will make you hungry enough to perfectly enjoy the lip smacking food on offer. Take the time to swat up on a little history and understand the significance of this sacred place.
This is the place that gave India the name ‘The Land of Kama Sutra’. The erotic rock carvings that you’ll find in the temples here are not only an architectural marvel but are also symbols of love, passion and overridingly sexual love. The Temples of Khajurah are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also one of the ‘Seven Wonders of India’. Be prepared to blush – the carvings are very graphic!
Orchha is a town for history lovers. It is located on the banks of Betwa River in the Bundelkhand district of Madhya Pradesh. You can spend your time by exploring the old fort and temple here. Once you are done with that, a walk on the banks of Betwa River will provide a nice end to the day.
If there is one festival (of so many) that should be on your list of experiences to have in India, it has to be Holi. This one day festival is known throughout the world as the Festival of Colors. However, you haven’t truly experienced Holi unless you have celebrated it at Vrindavan. The reason for that is that they not only celebrate it for a whole week, they also have the famous Lath Maar Holi and even the Holi with flowers!
Ladakh has treks for all tastes. If your body is in good shape, try out the Chadar Trek. You can take this trek only in January and February and on the way you see some stunning valleys and isolated villages. However, the best is the trek over the frozen Zansakar River which is a must-do and a sure way to challenge your fitness..
Jaunpur is famous for something really tasty– a sweet house! When in Jaunpur, the best thing to do is head to the Beniram Sweet house. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried Indian sweets but they really do put the sweet in sweet. Maybe it’s to counteract their really hot and spicy main dishes? Order the Imartis and enjoy the heavenly experience that these provide to your taste buds!
Amongst the things to do in India, watching two people fight in a kushti is a unique experience. Akhara is the name for the venue of the wrestling, while kushti is the term used for the act of wrestling. Watching two strong men, fighting it out in mud with the sun beating down, is something interesting and different to the norm of day trips on vacation. great experience. If you are interested, you can even ask the wrestlers for some tips on how to get that rip on those muscles.
One of the most beautiful lakes in Ladakh is the Pangong Lake, which was also the scene for the closing shots of the movie 3 Idiots. You can either drive down or trek there. The beautiful lake is said to change colors every season! You can spend your day camping by the lakeside just enjoying the stunning view. It’s a wonderful place to mediate on all the magical things in India and your life.
A religious person, an adventurist or just a lonely tourist, whatever you are, Kedarnath Temple is one of the best places to go in India. It provides you with not just a spiritual experience but the Himalayas ensure that you are in a place that is filled with beauty at every corner. You can take the 14km trek from Gaurikund to the temple and enjoy the scenery on the way.
The biggest cattle fair of Asia takes place in Sonepur. Even if you are neither interested in selling nor buying of the cattle, just visiting the fair and seeing how transactions are carried out is interesting while the decorated elephants are certainly the highlight of the event.
Not content with Holi, Durga Puja is another festival of colors – more specific to Eastern India. People dancing to drumbeats and lip smacking delicacies are common occurrences during the fest. Do not forget to taste the Bengali sweets when you are there.
Kolkata is the only city in India with a tram network and it dates back to 1902. Transport is really quite an experience in India and using the tram in Kolkata is one of the only unique forms of transport in the whole of this massive country. It’s a great way to get around what is one of the most crowded and busiest cities in the world.
Dating back to the 5th Century, the ruins of Nalanda are home to one of the most important universities of ancient times. You haven’t experienced the magic of India unless you have visited this great place in Bihar.
Can you go to India and not visit a tea plantation? No, of course not! A trip to a tea garden in Darjeeling delights all senses. It is not only picturesque but the tea will certainly please your taste buds! Walk through the vast expanses of tea bushes and watch the tea pluckers in action. If you can, go on a tour of a plantation factory to see how your cuppa is made.
The huge Sundarbans delta is among the largest in the world and taking a boat ride here is one of the best things to do in India. It takes you through the lush greenery of mangrove forest in one of the largest reserves for the endangered Bengal Tiger. You’ll spot other wildlife and some rare species of birds on your way if you don’t happen to catch a glimpse of the elusive tiger.
Loktak Lake is the one and only floating lake in the world. It is the vegetation, soil, and other biodegradable mass that gives the lake its floating appearance. Once you’re done with the ride, head to the nearby Keibul Lamjao Park to see some rare birds and animals.
You may be surprised that a dhobi is on the must-see list but this one is unique. Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai is an open air laundromat where you can watch piles and piles and piles and yet more piles of laundry being processed. The attraction is not just the sheer size but also the orderliness that you’ll see in the work. Chatting with the locals and listening to their stories is a charming way to kill a few hours.
Kite Flying is a traditional sport in India and the cities of Jaipur, Pushkar and Jodhpur play host to the kite flying festival in January every year. You’ll see people from the poorest to the richest flying kites during this festival and kite fliers from all over the world join in the fun too. It’s definitely one of the most colorful sights of India.
This natural wonder lies in the rainforest of Cherapunji. It is one of wettest places on earth and an ideal habitat for rubber trees. You can walk on the roots of these trees which have formed natural bridges to cross the rivers. You will see that the locals manipulate the roots of these trees to grow in the direction they want, which is quite stunning.
The caves at Ajanta and Ellora are said to be millions of years old. Some rock carvings and beautiful architecture date back to the 8th century AD. Ajanta has 29 caves while Ellora has 34 and together they make one of the must-see attractions of India.
Sham e Sarhad is located in the Hidka village in Gujarat and is an authentic village resort. You can stay in mud-houses, watch the sunset and sunrise in a beautiful setting and get to see some of the best artisans in the world in action at their craft. It is open for tourists from October to March.
Chor means ‘a thief’ in Hindi but the term can be misleading. Yes, you will find some stolen goods for sale here but that is not the entire purpose of the market. It was originally named as Shor bazaar, where Shor meant ‘noise’ but the way the British pronounced it, the name Chor stuck. This is the place to go to watch the ethic of the Indian trader in its full glory.
Kerala plays host to a unique festival every year in August and September when the ultimate destination for hundreds of thousands of people are the Backwaters where they witness fascinating and thrilling snake boat races. Be there to cheer the crews as they strive to cross the line first!
Madurai, the temple city of India, has some amazing attractions, but the Meenakshi Temple is an architectural masterpiece with over 33,000 sculptures on display. If you think you can handle the crowds, consider paying a visit in April or May to be a part of the Tirukalyanam Festival.
The camp is located near Bangalore and true elephant lovers cannot pass up a visit. What makes things special is the fact that you will have the opportunity to give the elephants a nice bath – you can also feed them or give your kids a chance to go for a free elephant ride.
Popping a golgappa or a phuchka, as they call it in Kolkata, is of the must-do experiences in India. There aren't many snacks that beat the taste of golgappas. Crack it with your finger, dip it into tangy tamarind water, fill it to your liking, and put it in your mouth to enjoy a burst of flavor. To have the most fun, you need to pop in the whole golgappa at once.
If you love the idea of becoming a part of yet another colorful and exuberant festival, India is the place to come, especially in January and February when the Tamil community celebrates the Thaipusam Festival. The biggest highlight of this festival is the Kavadi Attam dance where you can witness dancers inflicting pain on themselves to seek the blessings of Lord Murugan. Seriously, some of the things these guys stick into their bodies beggars belief and you really have to see it.
Otherwise known as the Kala Paani jail, a trip to this national monument located in Port Blair will tell stories of what political prisoners must have experienced between those walls in their struggle to win independence from the British. The names of the former inmates won’t mean much to non-Indian visitors but they are a veritable roll call of important activists in the fight for Home Rule.
I know it’s yet another festival but this is the land of festivals and you’re on vacation, and you’re meant to be having fun. Diwali can definitely be one of the most exciting experiences to have in India, and you can celebrate it pretty much anywhere. It's more like the Christmas of India with awesome food, loud decorations, and the sky lighting up with fireworks.
To discover the real India, you must convince yourself to have a train journey. But, don't travel in first-class. Cram yourself into a small space in a lower class carriage and meet some real Indian people and learn a lot about varied traditions, cultures, and stories, because everyone in India is a natural born storyteller.
Oh how I could go on and on with so many more things to do in India. Even just doing a fraction will still give you a taste of a country that will bewitch you and leave you with a treasure trove of memories. I’d love to hear from our Indian readers about attractions of India you’d recommend and from travelers who’ve been – what made India special for you? Please share your stories.
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