The current USD to Indian rupee exchange rate makes India one of the best travel values on the planet for Americans. Traveling within India is relatively convenient and offers an exceptional array of experiences for a single country. Visitors to India would be well-served to go beyond the typical Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle and to look outside to less-visited regions.
India is among the most regionally-diverse countries on the planet. There are 30 distinct languages with at least 1 million native speakers and over a thousand different dialects. India is diverse in many other ways too, like in its geography, cuisine, architecture, dance, and music. As such, India is closer to a continent than a country, offering an incredible range of adventures for the daring traveler.
Most visitors to India tend to start in Delhi in northern India. While most tourists tend to leave the frenetic city as soon as possible, it is worth exploring, particularly for its history and architecture, which rivals that of Rome, Cairo, and Istanbul. One might also want to experience the tasting menu at Indian Accent, a Michelin star-worthy restaurant, for less than $60 USD. From Delhi, it is possible to take a plane, train, bus, or car to any of the many regions in India.
Not far from Delhi to the north and east are the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range on the planet. Buddhist influences dominate the Indian Himalayas. In fact, the Dalai Lama, exiled from Tibet, has made his home in a town called Dharamshala, where it is possible to visit his monastery and eat authentic Tibetan cuisine like the delicious noodle soup, thenthuk. Farther north and higher in elevation, historical Tibetan monasteries dot the Mars-like alpine desert landscapes of Ladakh, which shares a border with Tibet and Pakistan, close to the historically-disputed region of Kashmir.
Farther down the border with Pakistan is a state called Punjab, the ancestral home of the Sikh religion. Located in its capital, Amritsar, is the most important shrine in the Sikh religion, known as the Golden Temple. The temple serves free vegetarian meals, which are surprisingly tasty, to any and all of its approximately 100,000 daily visitors who care to eat.
South of Punjab is Rajasthan, known for its stunning desert landscapes (along with epic summer heat) and ancient forts, palaces, and temples. Traditional Rajasthani folk music and dance is rich and performances it’s easy to find ones to see. Rajasthan is also known for its traditional woodblock-printed textiles and intricate, hand-worked filigree jewelry. The Jantar Mantar in the city of Jaipur, a 16th-century astrological park with the largest stone sundial in the world, is a fascinating attraction. While the food in Rajasthan is phenomenal, it is among the spiciest in India – beware!
The West Coast and Kerala
South of Rajasthan is the west coast of India, which extends from Gujarat to Kerala. Midway down the coast is Mumbai, which most of the locals still call Bombay, and where Marathi is the official language. Farther down the coast is Goa, the former Portuguese colony and one of India’s smallest states. Goa, known for its beaches, parties, and cheap alcohol (it sometimes costs less than bottled water), has exceptional cuisine that is unique within India. This is also true of its striking colonial architecture and colorful facades. Renting a scooter and cruising the coastal roads while visiting the nearby fishing villages is a lovely way to spend a few days.
Kerala, on the west side of the southern tip of India, is one of the most beautiful regions in the country. It’s known for its beaches, backwaters (i.e. brackish lagoons), and mountains. The beaches in Kerala are relatively clean and beautiful. The town of Varkala, perched atop a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea and not nearly as commercialized as Goa, is highly recommended. While the food and restaurants along the beach are generally geared toward tourists, authentic Keralan cuisine is readily available in town and worth the trip. The region’s extensive network of serene backwaters is best experienced on one of the many houseboats that were traditionally used to transport rice and spices grown at higher altitudes. The interior of the state is mountainous with extensive spice, coffee, and tea plantations.
The East Coast and Bengal
Opposite Kerala on the east coast is Pondicherry, or Puducherry, a former French colony outside of Chennai. This was Britain’s first settlement in India and one of the most populated cities in India. Like Goa, Pondicherry has notable food and architecture, both with heavy French influence, and beaches. Pondicherry is surrounded by the state of Tamil Nadu.
Bordering Bangladesh is the state of West Bengal, the capital of which is Calcutta, or Kolkata–a city with a rich tradition of food, art, literature, and film. Fish plays a central role in Bengali cuisine, which is rice-based. A prevalent regional dish, puturi, is made by steaming fish with mustard in a banana leaf and served with rice. Calcutta is also renowned for its street food. The region is characterized by the Ganges (Ganga) river delta, the largest river delta in the world.
Upriver from Calcutta on the banks of the Ganga is Varanasi, widely considered to be the holiest city in India. From Varanasi, the Ganga flows into Bihar, the poorest state in India. Bihar is home to the holiest Buddhist site in the country, Bodh Gaya, and is considered to be the location where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is populated with temples run by monks from around the world.
Northeast India shares a border with Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. It is a relatively remote region with a high proportion of indigenous inhabitants from more than 200 ethnic groups. Much of the region is mountainous. Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak on the planet with an elevation of over 28,000 ft., is located on the border of the region of Sikkim and Nepal. This area, particularly in the states of Sikkim and Assam, is known for tea cultivation and plantations are popular destinations for tourists.
For a single country, India offers an extraordinary range of experiences: geographically, culturally, religiously, historically, artistically, and for its food. If you go, consider visiting some of the regions that are less popular, but every bit as rewarding.
Header photo by Shashank Sahay.
Do you have a region that’s your favorite in India?