India is a place that defies description. At over 3.2 million sq km it's one of the biggest countries in the world, one with a wildly varied landscape. For first- or 10th-time visitors there will be many new sights that delight (and equally some that dismay). Think of this list of the most beautiful places in India as less like a definitive inventory, and more like a starting point to inspire your travel planning.
So much of India’s beauty is to be found in the small things – the play of sunlight on water, the heaps of marigold garlands in the market, the lush greens of a tea plantation – that we wouldn't dream of suggesting these are the only things you should see. But you need to start somewhere, right?
Let’s get this one out of the way first! No self-respecting list of India's many spectacular sights would be complete without this monumental mausoleum in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. Finished in the mid-17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it houses the tomb of his third (and favourite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In English, the name means "crown of palaces". Constructed of white marble blocks and symmetrical in design, the building's walls display lines of scripture from the Quran. The complex also includes a mosque and several other mausoleums, including that of the Shah himself.
NohsngithiangFalls, also known as Seven Sisters waterfall, is located in the state of Meghalaya, one of the wettest places in the world (during British rule the area was appropriately nicknamed "Scotland of the East"). Tucked between Bangladesh and Bhutan, Meghalaya translates to "abode of the clouds". It's this abundance of rainfall that creates the spectacular effect of the falls. The seven chutes of water only appear during rainy season, cascading over limestone cliffs for some 315 metres, making it one of the highest falls in India. If you're lucky, when you visit the sunlight will hit at the right angle to create shimmering rainbows above the water.
Falls in Meghalaya, one of India's wettest regions
Hawa Mahal, or the Palace of the Winds, might look like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, but it predates the quirky film director by a couple hundred years. Finished in 1799, it was built as part of the women's quarters in Jaipur's huge city palace. Most of the building is just one-room deep. The space was designed so that the women in the palace could watch the goings-on in the street below without being seen. Like many other buildings in Jaipur, the palace is made of local sandstone, which gives the building its distinctive hue and Jaipur its nickname, "the Pink City".
With its mirror-like reflection, colourful houseboats and the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance, Dal Lake in Kashmir is a slice of serenity in a country that can sometimes feel like a (glorious) assault on the senses. During the Mughal era (at its peak from 1526-1707) the lake became the emperors' destination of choice. Today, it remains a popular summer resort. The shore is lined with hotels and several formal gardens that date to the Mughal era. In winter, it gets so cold that the 18 sq km lake can sometimes freeze over, while in July and August hundreds of lotus flowers bloom creating a carpet of colour on the water.
Whether you agree that Meenakshi Temple should be on this list of the most beautiful places in India depends on one thing – are you a maximalist or a minimalist? Covered in brightly coloured carved figurines, the temple honours Meenakshi (a form of Pavarti), the mother goddess. The legend goes that Lord Shiva (in the form of Sundareswarar) married Pavarti in this very place. The temple, located in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, is one of the holiest sites in the country. It was built in the 14th century, but references to a "goddess temple" on the site date back to the 6th century. During the festival of Tirukalyanam (held in April), over 1 million devotees travel to worship here.
Prefer endless beaches over 14-century temples? India can help you there too. Enter Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 tiny atolls and coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, that fulfil every dream of a blissful beach getaway. In an effort to preserve the beauty of the region, only five of the islands are accessible to tourists, and getting there involves taking a small prop plane from Kochi in Kerala to Agatti island then a boat to your final stop. The accommodation on the islands is all-inclusive or nothing, and foreign visitors must arrange a place to stay in advance.
The forested hills of the Sahyadri mountains look like they come straight of out a Lord of the Rings movie. Shrouded in clouds and heavy with mist, the ≈mountain passage is a journey through nature at its most raw. The 25-km drive will take you past thundering waterfalls and through cloud cover. All along the way there's incredible greenery. The drive is best enjoyed during monsoon season when the falls are at their fullest.