It is often said that India is not a country, but a continent. Stretching from the frozen summits of the Himalayas to the tropical greenery of Kerala, India encompass an incomparable range of landscapes, cultures and people. Travelling in India allows you to meet people of several from the world’s great faiths, encounter temple rituals performed since the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and see ancient buildings erected centuries before the Taj Mahal.
To visit India as a foreigner is easier than ever before. A growing number of cities boast gleaming new metro systems and are linked by faster highways and speedier, more comfortable trains. Affordable but extravagant hotels and thriving restaurants in modern cities like Mumbai, make India an attractive place to visit. Entering the country is simple, too, if you apply for your Indian e-visa online.
However, more than twenty percent of India’s inhabitants remain below the poverty line. No other nation on earth has slum settlements on the scale of those in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, nor so many malnourished children, uneducated women and homes without access to clean water and waste disposal.
But for all its jarring juxtapositions, paradoxes and frustrations, India remains an utterly compelling destination. For those asking why travel to India, trust us when we say its distinctive patina casts a spell that few forget from the moment they step off the plane. Love it or hate it, India travel will shift the way you see the world.
- Spoken language: India has 22 official languages, but the most widely spoken is Hindi
- Official unit of currency: Indian rupee
- Population in India: 1.3 billion
- The capital city is Delhi
- Tourist numbers to India: 10 million in 2017; 8.89 million in 2016, a growth of 15.6%
- India is a federal parliamentary democratic republic in which the President of India is the head of state and the Prime Minister of India is the head of government.
- India is the seventh largest country in the world, covering more than three million square kilometres
- India has 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Agra Fort, Jaipur City and the Western Ghats
- 23 official languages are spoken, along with more than a thousand minor languages and dialects. Hindi is the language of more than 40% of the population; English is also widely spoken.
- Indian Railways is India’s largest employer, with around 1.4 million workers
- Producing 1,900 movies each year and turning over US$4 billion, India’s film industry is the largest in the world.
Where to go in India
India has 29 states, with major Mughal Empire landmarks and mountain ranges in the north, and palm-lined beaches and jungles in the south.
It’s unlikely that you will travel to India and cover the whole country in your first visit. It’s better to focus on a couple of regions and do them justice, in order to make the most of your time. You can decide what sort of pace you want and go to particular areas accordingly.
Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Chennai are undoubtedly adrenaline-fuelled, upbeat places. But it is possible to travel around India for a long time without setting foot in one, instead meandering through the more relaxing, rural areas.
The Golden Triangle is the most travelled circuit in the country, taking you from impressive monuments to serene landscapes. Here you’ll cover Delhi, the Pink City of Jaipur and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.
The state of Rajasthan is often the most popular with travellers, thanks to its mix of mesmerising desert landscape and unique cities, but there are plenty of other areas of India to discover for the second- or third-timer or travellers with more time on their hands.
On the other side of the country, the palm-fringed coast lines of Goa draw crowds of international and domestic tourists to their lively beach resorts. Just down the coast, the quieter Kerala offers some of India’s best tropical beaches, tea and spice plantations and national parks housing elephants, tigers and monkeys.
Best time to travel to India
Deciding when to travel to India can be complicated, due to its extremely varied weather. India’s seasons are split into the wet, humid monsoon season, and the dry, cool season.
The monsoon season takes place from May until September. It has a huge influence over travelling in India as it works its way northeast through the country, from the Keralan coast. During this time the south still has a couple of months of cloud, rain and humidity.
Therefore, the best time to visit India is November to March, when the majority of the country is at a comfortable temperature with good weather. Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan and Varanasi are perfect for a visit to India in this period, while Goa and the centre of the country is a little cooler but still comfortable.
The south can get very hot and while it’s always intense, the months of May and June are unbearable, so it’s best to avoid them during this time of year - Kerala or Tamil Nadu are the best places to be January to March.
If you’re looking to experience the Himalayas, the best time to go is from March onwards, with peak hiking season in August and September - the rest of the country at this time is very wet. Find more detailed information on when to go to India.
How to get to India
Most travellers visiting India fly into the country and it’s not difficult to find good flights: there are multiple direct services from the UK, a few from the US and Canada, and two from Australia. There are many airlines that fly to India, and these flights usually arrive into Delhi or Mumbai. From the UK you can also reach Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru without any stops.
As with any destination, fares vary with the seasons. For travel in India fares are highest from November to March, typically when it’s the best time to visit most of the country.
The shoulder seasons of April to May and August to early October are cheaper, and you’ll get the best flight deals during the low season of June and July. Bear in mind that air fares are higher during India’s main festivals and events, such as Diwali in October/November time. For more detail, visit our page on getting to India.
How to travel around India
Once in India, getting around is another thing to wrap your head around and requires some forward planning. Intercity transport in India isn’t considered the most comfortable, quick or efficient, but it is affordable. Wherever you need to go, there’s most likely a route there. The main options are train or bus, but also occasionally plane or boat, and within cities, there are also rickshaws and metro systems.
For longer distances, make use of the cheap long-distance trains, on which journeys are an experience in themselves. If you’re willing to pay a little more for the higher classes of carriage, you can expect to have a reasonably hassle-free and comfortable journey.
Cheap short-haul flights are another good option for India travellers. For more information about travelling in India, visit our getting around page.
Top 10 best places to visit in India
Jaisalmer is the quintessential desert town, located in the western Rajasthan. Amid the Thar desert, the golden sandstone architecture towers over the landscape, explaining the nickname of the “Golden City”. While commercialism has increased in recent years, it remains one of India’s most popular and worthwhile destinations to visit, with its bazaar still lively and engaging and unique location.
North of Mangaluru, Gokarna is a town between beautiful beaches and the foothills of the Western Ghats. It’s always been a pilgrimage destination for Hindus, with sacred sites like Mahabaleshwar Temple, but since the 1990s has attracted visitors for its charm and beaches and as an alternative to nearby Goa.
The site recognised world-over, the Taj Mahal is one of the world’s greatest buildings and the ultimate symbol of love. Emperor Shah Jahan was the mind behind the grand design in order to enshrine his favourite wife, Arjumand Bann Begum, also known as Mumtaz Mahul, “Chosen One of the Palace”. The best time to see the Taj Mahal is in the early morning with relatively few crowds while the palace is drenched in a soft red glow.
Varanasi is known as the City of Light and is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Its history is steeped in Hinduism and it remains a place of holy significance - in its location alongside the Ganges river, thousands of pilgrims and residents come for their daily ablutions to the large stone ghats.
The Sikh holy city, Amritsar contains the Golden Temple, a spectacle to behold and the biggest attraction. It’s the largest city in Punjab, so can get noisy and congested, but the old town is lively and a must-see.
Once the capital of the Hindu empire, Vijayanagar was devastated in the 16th century and now all that remains is the ruined “City of Victory”, a surreal landscape of golden boulders, ancient sculptures and banana fields. It’s now better known as Hampi, the name of the main local village.
The best place to visit if you’re looking for some sun and relaxation, Palolem is the closest thing to paradise in peninsular India. South of Margao, the crecsent-shaped bay is lined with palms and famous for its dolphins and local alcoholic spirit, feni.
This route to Ladakh is also one of the most spectacular drives. Taking you through the Himalayas, the Manali-Leh Highway crosses some of the highest mountain passes in the world.
Dharamsala is famous for being the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile. It’s also a great jumping off point for exhilarating hikes around the Himalayas. Actually two separate towns, Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, the latter has had an influx of Tibetan refugees, resulting in many temples, monasteries, meditation centres and more.
- Boating the backwaters of Kerala
Kerala is divided between the mountains of the Western Ghats and lush plains of rice paddies, rivers, canals and lagoons. It’s these backwaters that make Kerala such a beautiful place to travel in India, on tranquil boat rides through the tropical surroundings.
For more highlights of India travel, see our things not to miss page.
India Travel Itineraries
Because of its sheer size, there are many different ways of seeing India. Covering vast distances can be a challenge for those short on time, so it is worth researching different India travel itineraries and picking one that suits you.
India, being a place of diverse culture and landscapes, is a complex country to fit in your travels with one trip. When planning a trip to India, it is important to create a checklist of exactly what you want to see to ensure you do not miss your main spots of interest.
For those visiting India for the first time, we've created a simple itinerary for inspiration. If you’ve visited India before or are looking for an alternate itinerary, you can find more here.
Days 1 -2: New Delhi
New Delhi, India's busy, crowded, and polluted capital. Although it might not be as appealing as other destinations in India, for an authentic experience New Delhi is not to be missed. Indulge in Indian Cuisine, explore the museums and dive into the heart of India.
Make your way to Agra and take a boat trip along the Yamuna River in the early hours of the morning to see the grand Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise. A trip to India would not be complete without a visit to the iconic monument. Finish off in Agra by visiting the Mughal hotspots that litter the area.
Days 4 - 6: Keoladeo National Park
After spending time in the hustle and bustle of the cities, head to Keoladeo National Park for a bicycle safari in the best bird-reserve of India. Keep your eyes peeled for rare sightings and enjoy the peace and quiet.
Days 6 - 8: Jaipur
Once you've refreshed and become one with nature again, it is back to city life with Jaipur, also known as the pink city due to its coloured architecture. The Rajasthani capital is home to the Amber Fort and famous textile gemstone bazaars.
Days 8 - 10: Mahe Beach
Catch a flight to Calicut International Airport, or take the local route with the night train and make your way to Mahe Beach. Picture white sands, turquoise waters, and swaying palm trees - relax and enjoy the Indian sun in this idealistic fishing village before heading home or to your next stop.
Plan your India trip with local experts and create a bespoke itinerary with our tailor-made experts.
Culture in India
India, a culturally rich country made up of varied ethnic, cultural, linguistic, historical and religious backgrounds, is a land of diversity and historical masterpieces. Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism were born here although several other major religions happily live in harmony with one another. Often labelled as an amalgamation of several cultures, India has an abundance of culture, each region with its own distinct traditions.
Food and drink in India
The cuisine in India is popular worldwide and is as varied as the country's culture, dubbed the land of spices, strong flavours, aromatic curries and a range of meats and vegetables, the dishes change region to region. For obvious reasons, coastal towns boast delicious fish curries while mainland areas are well known for their veggie curries. Beef is almost non-existent in Indian cuisine, as cows are considered sacred under Hindu law. Must try curries include mutton Rogan Josh, macher jhol, vada curry and paneer tikka masala.
Before you visit India, make sure you have up to date travel information. From money to local customs, traveller safety to insurance, our India travel guide will give you all the tips you need to know.
Staying connected in India
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Costs and money
India’s unit of currency is the rupee, divided into paper notes of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000. Coins are 1, 2, 5 and 10. One of the most important things to note about the Indian rupee is that it’s technically illegal to take them in and out of the country. ATMs can be found throughout India’s main banks in all major cities, towns and tourist areas.
Travel safety in India
Travel in India is, generally speaking, safe for visitors. As expected anywhere, a tourist may be more susceptible to petty thefts and scams, but common sense and a few precautions go a long way. Crowded places - including public transport - is first and foremost where you should keep your awareness sharp, as this is where pickpockets are most likely to operate.
When staying in dorm rooms, make sure to lock up your luggage with a padlock, and keep an eye on any of your luggage you store on top of a bus and ensure it’s well secured. If you go swimming, do not leave your belongings unattended. It’s also worth mentioning that not all crimes are committed by humans: monkeys in India have been known to steal belongings not only on the street but even from hotel rooms with open windows or straight from your shoulder.
Always remember that destinations and routes popular with tourists are also popular with thieves. Although it’s not common, refuse food and drink from strangers and fellow passengers, as it can be an attempt to drug and steal, too. In saying this, you shouldn’t be paranoid when travelling in India; crime rates are below many western countries and staying relaxed is the best way to experience the country. As with anywhere, just keep your wits about you.
LGBT issues in India
The LGBTQ movement in India had a big win in 2018 when homosexuality was made legal again, having been made illegal by the conservative Modi government in 2013. However, homosexuality is not hugely open or widely accepted in India and prejudice is still ingrained, especially in conservative areas such as Rajasthan.
Female travellers in India
Whilst things are changing, India still has a long way to go in its treatment of women. Travelling India is relatively easy for women on their own and has been happening regularly for years, but female travellers should still expect to be hassled to some extent during your trip.
Women travelling on their own should exercise caution when visiting rural areas and remain alert when out and about at night time. Read more India travelling tips for women.
Travellers with special needs
Because disabilities are fairly common in India (sadly due to lack of treatment available), travellers with special needs are not looked upon unfavourably or inciting an embarrassed expression. However, you’d still be unlikely to find state of the art wheelchair or disabled facilities in the country, and streets are hard to navigate.
Travel visa requirements for India
Most tourists require a visa in order to travel to India. Luckily, over the years the process for getting a standard tourist visa has been streamlined. Nowadays, online applications are the main way to obtain a visa for a shorter visit. For people who plan to study or work in India, it’s necessary to apply for a special visa.
As mentioned, online visa applications are the most common and efficient way to gain entry into India, and this produces an e-Tourist visa. Citizens of the UK, Ireland, US, Canada Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many more countries are eligible for an e-Tourist visa through the Indian government’s official online portal. They’re valid for one year from the date of issue for a stay of 90 days during each visit (multiple visits are allowed). Just make sure you secure it at least four days - and no more than 30 - before you travel. For the application, you’ll need your travel details, a photo of yourself to upload and pay the online fee. Make sure you print out the eTV and take it with you to India; upon showing this, you’ll be issued your visa on arrival.
If you own a passport from a country not included on the eTV list, you’ll need to apply for a standard tourist visa. Like the eTV, it’s valid for one year from the date of issue, but you can stay for up to 180 days on one visit. Fees vary greatly across nationalities and you’ll need to check on the respective website.
The media in India
With well over a billion people and a literacy rate approaching 75 percent, India produces in excess of a staggering 5000 daily papers in more than three hundred languages, plus another 40,000 journals and weeklies. There are a large number of English-language daily newspapers, both national and regional.
Newspapers and magazines
India’s press is the freest in Asia and attacks on the government are often quite outspoken. However, as in the West, most papers can be seen as part of the political establishment, and are unlikely to print anything that might upset the “national consensus”.
The most prominent of the nationals are the Times of India, The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and the New Indian Express, usually the most critical of the government. All are pretty dry and sober, concentrating on Indian news, although Kolkata’s The Telegraph tends to have better coverage of world news than the rest. The Asian Age, published simultaneously in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and London is a conservative tabloid that sports a motley collection of the world’s more colourful stories.
Film fanzines and gossip mags are very popular – Filmfare and the online-only Screen are the best, though you’d have to be reasonably au fait with Indian movies to follow a lot of it. Other magazines and periodicals in English cover all sorts of popular and minority interests, so it’s worth having a look through what’s available.
Foreign publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Time and The Economist are all available in the main cities, though it’s easier (and cheaper) to read the day’s edition for free online. For a read through the British press, try the British Council in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and six other cities; the USIS is the American equivalent. The UK’s Guardian website is one of the best online news resources, with an extensive archive of articles and an excellent dossier on Kashmir. Access is free.
Radio and TV
BBC World Service radio can be picked up at 94.3FM in most major cities, on short wave on frequencies ranging from 5790–15310kHz, and on more sporadically medium wave (AM) at 1413KHz (212m) between about 8.30am and 10.30pm (Indian time). It also broadcasts online.
The Voice of America can be found on 15.75MHz (19) and (75.75MHz (39.5m), among other frequencies. Radio Canada broadcasts in English on 6165 and 7255KHz (48.6 and 41.3m) at 6.30–7.30am and on 9635 and 11,975 KHz (31 and 25m) at 8.30–9.30pm.
The government-run TV company, Doordarshan, has tried to compete with the onslaught of mass access to satellite TV. The main broadcaster in English is Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV network, which incorporates the BBC World Service and Zee TV, a progressive blend of Hindi-oriented chat, film, news and music programmes.
Star Sports, ESPN and Ten Sports churn out a mind-boggling amount of cricket, extensive coverage of English Premier League football, plenty of tennis and a few other sports.
Other channels include CNN, the Discovery Channel, the immensely popular Channel V, hosted by scantily clad Mumbai models and DJs, and a couple of American soap and chat stations. There are now numerous local-language channels as well, many of them showing magnificently colourful religious and devotional programmes.
Indian cooking is as varied as the country itself, with dozens of distinctive regional culinary traditions ranging from the classic Mughlai cuisine of the north to the feisty coconut- and chilli-infused flavours of the south; these are often a revelation to first-time visitors, whose only contact with Indian food will probably have been through the stereotypical Anglo-Indian dishes served up in the majority of restaurants overseas. Best known is the cuisine of north India, with its signature biriyanis, tandooris and rich cream- and yogurt-based sauces accompanied with thick naan breads, evidence of the region’s long contact with Central Asia. The food of south India is light years away, exemplified by the ubiquitous vegetarian “meal” – a huge mound of rice served on a banana leaf and accompanied with fiery pickles – or by the classic masala dosa, a crisp rice pancake wrapped around a spicy potato filling. There’s also a host of regional cuisines to explore – Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Goan, Keralan and Kashmiri, to name just a few of the most distinctive – each of which has its own special dishes, spices and cooking techniques.
India’s railways, which daily transport millions of commuters, pilgrims, animals and hessian-wrapped packages between the four corners of the Subcontinent, are often cited as the best thing the British Raj bequeathed to its former colony. And yet, with its hierarchical legion of clerks, cooks, coolies, bearers, ticket inspectors, station managers and ministers, the network has become a quintessentially Indian institution.
Travelling across India by rail – whether you rough it in dirt-cheap second-class, or pamper yourself with starched cotton sheets and hot meals in an a/c carriage – is likely to yield some of the most memorable moments of your trip. Open around the clock, the stations in themselves are often great places to watch the world go by, with hundreds of people from all walks of life eating, sleeping, buying and selling, regardless of the hour. This is also where you’ll grow familiar with one of the unforgettable sounds of the Subcontinent: the robotic drone of the chai-wallah, dispensing cups of hot, sweet tea.
India’s sacred geography
It’s hard to think of a more visibly religious country than India. The very landscape of the Subcontinent – its rivers, waterfalls, trees, hilltops, mountains and rocks – comprises a vast sacred geography for adherents of the dozen or more faiths rooted here. Connecting the country’s countless holy places is a network of pilgrimage routes along which tens of thousands of worshippers may be moving at any one time – on regular trains, specially decorated buses, tinsel-covered bicycles, barefoot, alone or in noisy family groups. For the visitor, joining devotees in the teeming temple precincts of the south, on the ghats at Varanasi, at the Sufi shrines of Ajmer and Delhi, before the naked Jain colossi of Sravanabelagola, or at any one of the innumerable religious festivals that punctuate the astrological calendar is to experience India at its most intense.