India's Golden Triangle is a fantastically varied introduction to the sights and sounds of the country. From busy bazaars and hurtling tuk-tuks to tranquil temples and majestic mosques, this is the country at its noisiest and most chaotic. Chances are its colourful exuberance will leave you wanting to return again and again. Here's a first-timer's guide to the famous Golden Triangle in India.
India's Golden Triangle is the route between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It's named for the almost-equilateral triangle that the three cities make when plotted on a map. Starting in the capital, Delhi, and taking in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, it’s India’s most well-trodden tourist track. Why “Golden”? Well, for the extraordinary religious and historical sights that the three stops offer.
Most people start in Delhi, where the majority of international flights arrive. While you could spend weeks exploring the city’s sights, from the museums of the Mughal Red Fort to the towering Qutb Minar and the British Raj-era India Gate, the best way to get a feel for the capital’s dynamism is by walking through its streets and bazaars. Two of the most vibrant are Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi and New Delhi’s Paharganj.
The magnificent Taj Mahal is, unsurprisingly, Agra’s premier sight. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer scale and regal splendour of the structure up close. Try to time your visit with sunrise or sunset, when the Taj is at its most majestic. Nearby Agra Fort is also well worth a visit. From its walls, you can spot the Taj Mahal rising up in the distance.
At the triangle’s third corner is Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. It's known as the “Pink City” for its walled, pink-hued cluster of buildings. Wander around the centre to stumble across historical highlights such as Hawa Mahal and the impressive City Palace. Jaipur is well known for traditional crafts and designs, so it’s the place to shop for fabrics and presents to take home.
Throughout India's Golden Triangle, the best way to escape from the throng is often to step into one of the many Hindu, Sikh and Muslim buildings scattered around the cities. Inside, you will find oases of calm, as well as some of the circuit’s most beautiful structures.
In Delhi, just a short drive away from the city centre, visit Swaminarayan Akshardham. This Hindu temple was built in 2011 using traditional methods, but its grandness and intricate decoration evoke a far older era. It’s a huge complex, and photography is banned. This give a welcome opportunity for peaceful reflection away from the selfie sticks and smartphones snapping away in most of the city’s monuments.
The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort are invariably jam-packed, so consider taking a day trip to nearby Fatehpur Sikri if you really want to get away from it all. The small city was once the capital of the Mughal empire. It's an hour from Agra, and the grand, red sandstone Jodha Bais palace buildings and imposing Jama Masjid mosque remain comparatively less visited.
Jaipur is the least hectic of the Golden Triangle’s cities. Just wandering around the backstreets you’ll be able to find yourself off the main tourist track. Outside the city, Nahargarh Fort gives the best viewpoint over the sprawling streets. A visit to Galtaji is an entertaining opportunity to admire the hundreds of rhesus macaque monkeys that have taken over the ancient temple complex.
The Golden Triangle in India is well connected by public transport. If you’re on a strict budget, the cheapest way to travel is by bus. Indian bus journeys are an experience in their own right, as people tumble in, perching on armrests and sitting in the aisle.
Far and away the best way to travel around India's Golden Triangle is by train. You’ll have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of rural India as you roll through the countryside. Book your ticket in advance, either online or at a train station.
Otherwise, if you only have a few days, consider hiring a taxi from a government-approved company to take you around, allowing you to see as much as you can in the time available.
Within the cities, take an autorickshaw (or tuk-tuk) between destinations. Thick traffic makes these small vehicles the most effective way to travel, as they dip and dive between taxis and trucks. They can be hair-raising, but also fast, inexpensive (make sure you agree a price beforehand) and a fun way to see India's Golden Triangle at its most chaotic.
Not everyone gets ill while touring India's Golden Triangle, but it can put a downer on your holiday. So-called “Delhi belly” comes from drinking unsafe water. The cheapest and most environmentally friendly strategy to avoid it is to use water purification tablets. If you struggle with the taste, bottled water is also readily available (just ensure that the lid is sealed).
Make sure your food is always hot and freshly cooked. Avoid raw fruit and vegetables, which may have been washed in unfiltered water. Finally, don't worry too much and you’ll be able to make the most of the delicious curries and Indian snacks on offer.
Top image: Agra downtown with Taj Mahal, India © turtix/Shutterstock