Priyanka, who is from India, and loves traveling in India, is our guest author for this post, taking us to some of the best places to visit in India for first-timers.
India is a country of colors and chaos. People either hate it or love it. Either they can’t stop coming back or they never return.
As an Indian and a traveler who goes around the world, I can tell you that India needs time to be understood.
This article is all about the must-see places on your first India trip. Now let us bear in mind that India is huge. It has 28 states and 8 union territories. We Indians say that you will have to take many births to see the entire India. And even then you would have only experienced a portion of it.
But we make do with what we have. So without much ado, let us go through what we can see in India.
Himachal Pradesh— Home of the Himalayas
The fresh air of the Himalayas, the hilly paths laid with rhododendrons, and the snow-covered Himalayan peaks could be the best state for nature lovers. You can start your India trip from Himachal Pradesh if you land in Delhi.
The places to visit here are Dharamshala, Manali, Parvati Valley, Spiti Valley, Ladakh, Keylong, and well these are the mountains so you can keep going. One of my favorite destinations in Himachal is Manali. There are many places to visit in Manali but the trip gets better when you really lose your way around the mud paths of Old Manali. If you love to hike, there is a lot of trekking area in the state of Himachal.
Traveling within Himachal Pradesh is limited to traveling by car and buses as there are no trains. Flights land at the Dharamshala airport. As you go up from the lower parts of Himachal Pradesh such as Dharamshala up into the Spiti Valley or Ladakh, the altitude increases drastically so be mindful of that as well.
People in Himachal speak Hindi and Punjabi but tourists are common here so English would work as well.
Best time to visit: All year-round. It will snow there in the winters and hailstorms are common even in May-June so plan accordingly.
Rajasthan, the desert state of India
This is the state with the Thar desert, the dreamy sand dunes, colorful clothes studded with mirrors, and intricately carved palaces and old houses. When talking about Rajasthan we should also talk about its spicy food, women who keep their faces covered, and the camels that are still being used as transport.
Irrespective of where you land in India, Rajasthan can be easily visited as its main cities: Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Bikaner are all connected to the rest of India with flights, buses, and trains.
You cannot see all the Rajasthani cities in a week. So here are the important facts about them.
Udaipur is known for its beautiful palace, Jodhpur is known for the fort and the blue houses, Jaisalmer is famous for its fort and access to sand dunes, Jaipur is known for old buildings, Hawa Mahal, and pink houses, and Bikaner is more rural. There is also Pushkar that has the famous Brahma temple, the main market, and the Pushkar camel fair in November.
If you have just seen Jodhpur and Jaisalmer or Jaipur, Jaisalmer, and Udaipur, you have seen enough for your first trip.
Food is similar in all of Rajasthan. Look out for onion kachori, samosa, gatte ki sabji, dal baati choorma and regular curries with rotis made on an earthen stove.
People speak Rajasthani and Hindi here. English wouldn’t work with all but as a lot of tourists visit Rajasthan, people in the tourism industry will be able to communicate in English, not towards the interiors and rural Rajasthan side though.
Best time to visit: As it is a desert, try being there between October and February.
The beach town of Goa
Everyone from outside India should visit Goa on their first trip because Goa could be that breather between crowded Indian places where you can be who you want to be without being stopped for a picture or offered something to buy every five minutes.
As I have myself being asked for selfies or offered things to buy in foreign countries frequently, I know how irritating it can get. When I travel around India with my foreign friends, locals request my friends for photos. Recently someone asked my French friend to remove her mask so that the person could click her photo well. Curiosity can make people do a lot of things. Similar incidents used to happen to me in remote parts of South America where locals hadn’t seen an Indian before, and so I can appreciate the sentiment and say that though the sudden photo click or an insistence to buy products can make us uncomfortable, most people do not mean any harm.
Beggars are everywhere in India. But it is not as much of their fault, as it is of the system. The best way to avoid them is by ignoring them. You should not pay children or buy pens(and other things) from them as the more you do it, the more the groups who find children and turn them into beggars would be encouraged.
Now coming back to Goa.
Goa is that place where you have beaches, rivers, backwaters, jungles, waterfalls, mountains, and whatnot. You can stay in old Portuguese homes(it was a Portuguese colony), kayak in the backwaters, eat the crunchy Goan bread every morning, and stroll around the streets of Panjim looking for the best fish curry with some arak (rice liquor). Or then there is Old Goa, too, with precious churches, local cashew nuts and almonds to buy, and ancient shops and small seafood restaurants to be visited.
Goans, the people of Goa, are jovial and welcoming. So staying here in a homestay or old Portuguese or Goan style home would make a lot of sense to see and understand its culture from up close.
A lot of Goa people are Catholics and English would work well here. Tourists are common so people speak English easily.
Best time to visit: Year-round except for April and May when it is really hot and humid.
Indian temples are exquisite, no doubt. But where to go and which ones to see on your first visit? If you are in the South, then you can assume that you have seen a lot if you visit Hampi. The earlier Vijayanagar empire, the richest of the South has to its credit about 1600 relics and temples now all in ruins because the empire was defeated and destroyed.
Hampi is in the Karnataka State and is about 350 km from Bengaluru, the capital of the state. You can go there by bus or hire a taxi or drive your car as the Karnataka roads are good. Keep at least three days for Hampi, the more the better. Roam around in Hampi villages, take a boat into the river, visit the temples and explore and understand them slowly, climb some hills for sunsets and sunrises, eat crispy dosas(Karnataka specialty), and loiter around the weird Hampi boulders.
Do not forget the Daroji bear sanctuary in Hampi. Now you have seen relics as old as belonging to the 3rd century BCE and sloth bears who used to roam the Hampi region freely. If you have more time in Karnataka and want to see more ancient temples, go to Belur, Halebidu, or Nandi Hills near Bangalore as the temples there are at least 1000 years old.
In Karnataka, people speak Kannada but tourists are common here so at a lot of places English would work as well, but not in villages.
Best time to visit: As Hampi is in the South, try being there between October and February.
The coffee kingdom of Coorg
When summers hit the South, people go to Coorg. Coorg is located at an altitude in the Western Ghat mountains of Karnataka and is full of coffee and tea hills primarily. Betel nut, coconuts, and palm trees flourish in the region as grass grows on pastures.
Due to its unique geography, Coorg receives heavy rainfall for most of the year. So on wet days you can stay in and watch the rainfall over the thick Coorgy forest and sip the filter coffee the area is famous for. On dry days, you can hike endlessly in the Western Ghats. The Local Coorgy or Kodava cuisine is delicious.
When in Coorg, do ask the locals about their culture and traditions for the people of Coorg are known to belong to ancient warrior tribes.
Best time to visit: Coorg is the hottest in March, April, and May but otherwise you can visit anytime.
The lush state of Kerala
Kerala is the state of the gods, they say. I say that Kerala is a nature lover’s paradise, the perfect dream of a countryside lover, or the oasis for those who are looking for lush paddy fields, thick jungles, the smell of fresh coconut and mango, and fresh fish to catch on every turn. This is that state where children row boats to get to their school and where endless smiles greet your way. Kerala people are warm and welcoming.
Either you can stay on houseboats in Aleppey (though there are many other things to do as well), chill on the beaches of Varkala and eat grilled seafood or surf, hang out with other travelers in Munnar hiking tea hills, hang out at the roundabout in Trichur and eat the best fish curry and Malabar fish biryani, or just head to the Nagarhole National Park and the Kabini river to observe elephants from a distance — you can do all this in Kerala and more.
Best time to visit: All year round except the summer months of March, April, and May.
Pro tip to see Indian Wildlife: If you love watching wildlife, Karnataka is your best state. It has dense wildlife. You can either visit the Bandipur National Park in Karnataka or the BR hills or Dandeli forests.
How to manage your time on your first India trip?
Depending on how much time you have in India, pick amongst a couple of places from above. If you are on a two-week trip, don’t try to do too many areas. Stick to the North or the South or the West. If you have at least a month, then you can travel from the North to the South or vice-versa. I also suggest that you start your travels from the South and then move up. South India has a lot of natural places and it is a bit calmer than up north.
Depending on how comfortable you want to be, you can choose between trains or flights. While planning, remember that India is a long country, so traveling between places would take time. Just as an instance: Goa to Delhi by train takes 36 hours. So definitely go for a flight. You can always counter your carbon emission by contributing to green organizations that run carbon control projects.
Hope you enjoy India and get to see its many colors. Please feel free to drop your questions in the comments.
Author’s Bio: Priyanka Gupta is an itinerant writer from India who left her investment banking career to travel the world and write. She focuses on culturally immersive travel while relishing local delicacies and never misses a chance to see wildlife. Priyanka always looks out for sustainable and local-community-driven offbeat experiences.
Priyanka reads, writes, and blogs full-time. In her free time, she can be found running, doing yoga in India, or cooking.
Read Priyanka’s best ideas and travel stories on her personal growth and travel blog On My Canvas(linked above). You can follow Priyanka on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to get live updates on her journey.