Adventures in the cities & towns of North India
North India brings the chance to explore everything from the Moghul architecture of Delhi to embarking on a camel safari in the desert at Pushkar. If that sounds like your idea of a fabulous adventure, read on, this guide will allow to explore some of the best this region has to offer.
India’s sprawling capital city is home to some 17 million people and is divided into two parts, the crumbling old city of Old Delhi, and the well-organised New Delhi. While they sit side by side, they might as well be entirely different countries – in fact, stepping from one to another almost feels like stepping on a different planet.
The official capital of India is New Delhi, which is one of Delhi city’s 11 districts. While the names are often used interchangeably to refer to the capital, they are two distinct entities. New Delhi actually forms a small part of Delhi, and is bordered by the state of Uttar Pradesh to the east, with Haryana on three sides.
Humayun’s Tomb is a must visit here, built in honour of the country’s second Moghul emperor in the mid-16th century. A stunning monument, many consider it to be the city’s most awe-inspiring sight, with its slender minarets and red sandstone arches topped by a towering white marble dome. In fact, this very building is said to be the inspiration for the world-famous Taj Mahal in the adjacent state of Uttar Pradesh, and is sometimes referred to as the “Red Taj Mahal.” Jantar Mantar is also well-worth a visit with its larger-than-life sundials and astronomical instruments that are still used to predict the weather today.
The Baha’I House of Worship, also known as the Lotus Temple, is a striking contrast against the multiple ancient complexes around New Delhi. It was designed to look like a lotus flower and is made up of 27 marble petals. Try to view it at night – it’s extraordinary glowing against the backdrop of the dark skies.
The India Gate, the national monument of India, sits at the centre of New Delhi and rises nearly 138 feet high. It honours the 70,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I fighting for the British Army and bears the names of more than 13,500 Indian and British soldiers killed in the 1919 Afghan war.
Crumbling Old Delhi is fascinating, though chaotic. The roads and pathways are poorly maintained, and the crowds are thick, though most feel it’s worth battling them for the experience, especially when it comes to shopping and dining. It’s filled with specialty markets where one can buy beautifully intricate embroidered fabrics, spices and herbs, lace, sweets and much more. You’ll be able to smell the largest spice market in Asia, Khari Baoili, before you even see it, situated near the western end of Chandni Chowk. If the throngs of people get too overwhelming or your feet need a break, you may want to take a cycle-rickshaw tour.
Also referred to by its original name, Shahjahanabad for the emperor Shah Jahan, the buildings in the Old City are magnificent though falling into disrepair. The Red Fort, a mass of domes and turrets, anchors the Old City, sitting at its eastern edge. A vast 17th century fort complex, it was named for its huge red sandstone walls that are over a mile and a half in length that surround it. If luck is on your side, you may be able to catch a sound and light show here, held on some evenings.
Be sure to see the beautiful Jama Mosque, where thousands come every day to pray. The main place of worship here, it’s India’s most famous and largest mosque, built in the mid-17th century with sandstone colonnades and magnificent domes with black and white marble.
The state of Uttar Pradesh is located just east of New Delhi and is often referred to as the Heartland of India, thanks to its rich cultural heritage and feast of diverse delights from nature to history. In fact, Uttar Predesh dates back over 4,000 years, with the Aryans laying down the foundations of civilisation in the region. As such, it has a large number of historical monuments and palaces with religious significance. In fact, this is the home of the Taj Mahal, known as the symbol of enduring love.
Agra lies alongside the river Yamuna and is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. It’s featured along the Uttar Pradesh Heritage Arc tourist route, and as mentioned, it’s the home of the Taj Mahal. Renowned for its striking beauty, this iconic landmark is usually what most people envision when picturing India. Rudyard Kipling called it the “embodiment of all things pure,” while its creator, Emperor Shah Jahan once noted that it made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.” If you hope to capture that postcard-perfect shot of this monumental building, plan to arrive just before dawn. Not only will you avoid the biggest crowds, but you’ll have a better chance of capturing its reflection due to the calmer waters mornings typically bring.
While the Taj Mahal may be Agra’s most famous landmark, the ancient city is filled with impressive monuments and structures like Agra Fort. It may be overshadowed by the Taj Mahal, but it’s considered one of the finest Mughal forts in all of India. Wander through the endless courtyards of the marble and red sandstone fortress for an experience that you’ll never forget. The vast scale is something that must be seen in person in order to truly appreciate.
Varanasi is one of the top spiritual palaces in not only Uttar Pradesh, but the entire nation. Known as both the city of Lord Shiva and the land of temples, it sits on the banks of the river Ganges. As one might imagine, it is home to numerous temples, but it’s also known around the world for its many ghats, which are the riverfront steps that lead to the banks of the river.
A place quite like no other, its multiple riverside ghats, both chaotic and spiritual, are used for everything from bathing to burning the bodies of the dead. This compelling city also hosts a vibrant blend of cafes and shops where you can pick up everything from rudraksha beads to fine silks. Throughout the city, there are countless temples all with religious significance and jam-packed with fascinating history, with some as ancient as 1,000 years old.
The “Land of the Kings” as Rajasthan is sometimes referred to, lies in northwest India near the border of Pakistan. Its diverse landscape includes the majority of the immense Thar Desert as well as the majestic Aravallis Mountains. A centre of Rajput culture, it’s a fabulous destination for exploring the temples and palaces constructed by Rajput kings of the past. The largest state in India, this royal land is a true treasure trove of heritage, folk art, fairs and festivals.
Bikaner is surrounded by the Thar Desert and is best-known for its 16th century Junagarh Fort, a vast complex of ornate buildings and halls. Within it is the extensive Prachina Museum, which showcases royal portraits and traditional textiles. One of the oldest temples in the area is Shri Laxminath Temple, built in the early 16th century, made from red sandstone and white marble, and dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Laxmi. It’s elaborately decorated with some magnificent sculptures and paintings, while the doorway boasts detailed handiwork crafted in silver.
The 1902 Lalgarh Palace and its red sandstone construction is the quintessential example of the architectural brilliance of the nation’s past. Peacocks can be seen flittering about on its vast lawns, and while you can visit some of its rooms, the majority of the palace was transformed into a luxury hotel.
Despite its alluring palace, historic fort and temples, most Indians consider Bikaner as a place to indulge their sweet tooth, so while you’re here, be sure to sample one of the local specialties. Kesar Kulfi, a sweet iced dessert is a must-try, especially refreshing on a scorching hot day. If you’re adventurous, you can even embark on a desert safari from here, riding a camel out onto the endless sands to explore the landscape and local culture.
Jaipur is the capital and the largest city in Rajasthan. If you’re fascinated with palaces and want to gain an insight into the rulers of a bygone era, this city is truly a must to experience. Often referred to as the “Pink City,” one look at its many stucco buildings and you’ll understand why. Its old city area is renowned for its eye-popping pink palaces, painted that way to represent hospitality in effort to provide a friendly welcome to the Prince of Wales in the late 19th century.
Here you can look forward to exploring the Hawa Mahal, Jaigarh and Amber forts as well as shopping for unique gifts or souvenirs, such as camel-leather slippers at one of the bazaars. The City Palace, constructed in the 1730's, is worth a visit. Its complex includes Mubarak Mahal and Chandra Mahal, which was converted into a museum showcasing exclusive handcrafted items and products that depict the kingdom’s heritage.
The “Golden City” as Jaisalmer is often called, is extraordinarily exotic. It lies deep within the Thar Desert and grew as a result of its location on camel trade routes. Today, most know it for its fort, one of the world’s largest. Built in the 12th century out of yellow and golden mixed sandstone, it has an especially enchanting appearance. The ornate mansions known as havelis, are famous across the globe, particularly Patwon-Ki-Haveli, a huge five-story construction.
In Desert National Park, which surrounds Jaisalmer, visitors can explore a fascinating landscape of rugged crags and rolling dunes, with sightings of desert fox, chinkaras and blackbucks along the way.
The second largest city in Rajasthan, Jodhpur is one of the most fascinating destinations for history buffs. Mehrangarh Fort rises above the city and is one of the largest in the country. This well-preserved structure is just as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside, housing a museum that displays an extensive collection of applied and fine arts from the Mughal period. The ramparts, lined with antique artillery, are an ideal spot to take in a panoramic vista of the “Blue City,” named as such for its blue buildings that were originally painted to signify that they were occupied by Brahmin. Walking the streets of its blue area behind the fort, you’ll find a much more tranquil atmosphere, typically devoid of tourists.
Mandawa is a village in Rajasthan that’s best known for its fort as well as the being a popular place to shoot films. The fort of Mandawa, founded in the 18th century, dominates the town with its painted arched gateway decorated with frescoes of Lord Krishna and his cows, and was converted into a Heritage hotel.
Situated on the western side of the Aravalli mountains in Rajasthan bordering the Thar Desert, Pushkar is a town like none other in this district. A popular Hindu pilgrimage town, it winds around a holy lake and is home to one of the few Brahma temples in the world. The famous Pushkar Camel Fair is held on the banks of the lake and offers the opportunity to experience the shades of rural India, interacting with villagers and purchasing Rajasthani handcrafted items.
Udaipur’s nicknames, the “City of Lakes,” and the “Venice of the East,” give away what you can expect to find here. One of the most romantic destinations, it’s filled with glistening lakes and palaces, while the scenic Aravail hills serve as the backdrop. City Palace, which overlooks Lake Pichola, is a monumental complex that includes 11 palaces, courtyards and gardens, and is especially well-known for its intricate peacock mosaics.
One of the top things to do here is to glide across Lake Pichola on a boat excursion – the ride where you’ll get an especially impressive view of the glorious City Palace Complex.