Ultimate India Travel Planning guide for first-timers.

Being the 7th largest nation in the world, India is a hotpot of delicious food, natural wonders, wildlife, history and culture – There is a lot to see, many things to do and much more to experience. So planning a trip to India is solving a Calculus problem. Once you solve it, your limits tend to infinity, and you will come back for more. 

Living in India since the 1990s and travelling across the nation, we are here with the India Travel Planning guide for first-timers.

How do I plan a trip to India?

Pick your style -Luxury to backpack, India can cater to all traveller’s styles. Keep a budget, and see what style of travelling is feasible in India before planning. I have travelled in India by bike mostly. Sahana prefers it to be by a car and a personal driver. Many foreigners have backpacked throughout India. But for foreigners, I don’t recommend self-driven trips in India due to traffic issues.

Pick experiences  High altitude treks to Textile exploration, you can do many things in India. Unless you travel to India for six months, you can’t do it at once across different states.

My favourite cotton Ilkal handloom Saree in Making. -If you are a Fabric lover and researcher, you can come to India for a Textile tour solely.

Food is great everywhere  Irrespective of the states/regions, you will be rewarded with lots of tasty veg food & non-veg food.

Homestays and Guesthouses – There are a few hostels in India but plenty of homestays for budget travellers. I always prefer homestays, especially in a rural area- cheaper and safer.

Heritage Hotels  The Maharajas and British have left us with some astonishing architecture. Many of them are now heritage hotels. A night’s stay in one of these hotels can take you back to the Maharaja time with its grandeur.

DOn’t plan to see too many things -The large distance and traffic may make you spend too much time on the road. Pick states/ places wisely based on your taste.

Deviate from the tourist circuit – India is safe for foreign travellers with a few usual precautions. Take a detour from the tourist circuit to feel India beyond the Taj Mahal and Varanasi, but don’t skip Varanasi

The most beautiful temple city in all of Karnataka is Badami-I recommend this better than Hampi.

Plan using India’s public transport for interstate travel– As a mid-range traveller, take public transport like trains and buses. They may not be world-class, but definitely efficient.

Hire a private car with drivers inside towns/cities India’s traffic isn’t manageable by everyone. Driving in Indian cities/towns may strain you. 

Start from North India – Blunt truth is, south India is cleaner than the North. So when you taste sweet after bitter, it feels better.

Book walking tours in every Historical city  Some facts and stories are so fascinating that you appreciate & understand India better only when an experienced guide narrates to you on a walking tour- Like in Ahmedabad/ Mumbai/Delhi.

Religious places offer hygienic, free meals – Many temples and Gurudwaras offer 365 days a year meals to every visitor. This is a different experience, plus you can save money. 

Kedarnath temple at Uttarakhand – You get free food at 11750ft most of the time here.

Check climate-& Festival times- Indian climate is divided into six zones. Pick a time of the year and region accordingly. With more than 30+ festivals, not every state celebrates every festival. Research before and plan to witness any festival like Deepavali/Dasara/Ganesh Chaturthi/Buddha Poornima.

India is a developing nation- After India’s independence in 1947, we are recovering from colonisation. Things have begun to start in place since 2014, largely regarding Public hygiene, globalisation, medical services and public transport.

Keep it short – In my opinion, keep 20 days for your first India trip, choose one or two neighbouring states.

Come back for more – India is one of the rapidly changing nations. Each year technology & lifestyle here is changing, and places are getting cleaner. Your next visit to India will surprise you with its changes.

The lion-tailed macaque is one of the 15 species of monkeys in India only found in the Western Ghats of India -If you are in India for beaches this time, next time pick a different experience like Wildlife or Desert

Long holidays in India

Observe local holidays along with National holidays – The Chariot festivals happen across India at different locations. The wooden chariot will be pulled by hundreds of devotees chanting and will be followed by Puja and fair.

Indians get a lot of holidays in a year. Including Independence day on August 15th, there are around 20 national holidays. Some places may close during this time, and other places get groomed like a bride on these occasions. List of Long holidays in general are- 

  • April and May – Summer vacation for school kids.
  • October – 10 days for the Dasara festival.
  • November – 5 days for Deepavali festival 
  • December – schools may give Christmas holidays for a day or two. But this is the time most IT industry employees go on vacation.

How to pick experiences?

I have listed down some best experiences across a few states & Union territories (out of 28+8) of India. The list is in the descending order of what we think is best.  We have had a heated argument among us to give this ranking, but here it goes-

Gujarat

Kutch Salt flats, PC by my pillion rider Murali

Wild lion of Gir, salt lakes to infinity, richest tradition and heritage of Kutch – all backed up with India’s best veg food is found in the state I love most-Gujarath. Ahmedabad’s heritage walk reveals to you how planned our ancient cities were. The meticulous architecture of Modhera and Rani Ka Vav/Adlaj makes you awe. Dwaraka for spirituality, Jamnagar and Surat for some authentic fabric shopping-Sahana loved it all.

This state where Gandhi was born is a dry state and one of the safest places for travellers in India. Plus it isn’t over famous among mass tourists yet. Suppose you want to witness one of the most beautiful dance forms of India-Garbha: where a group of people whirl and twirl colourful wearing clothes, you must visit Gujarath during Dasara. 

The best place in Gujarath –Kutch for salt flats with art villages around. Palitana. -A cluster of Jain temples on the hilltop is something you should never miss. Patan is where you can see one of the most complicated/detailed and expensive saree making traditions globally – Patola silk. Wherever you go, don’t forget to taste Aamras from Kaiser mangoes of the state.

Sikkim

This North-Eastern state is one of the cleanest states in India and holds the Himalayas as the backdrop at every point. Goecha La trekking is made for high-altitude trek lovers. Terraced cities like Gangtok and Namchi are great for cyclists and hikers. Buddhist monasteries for peace seekers and Pelling is great for backpackers with hundreds of hiking trails.

The party vibe in Namchi and Gangtok with small bars that host Karaoke night can never bore you with their rice beer. You can snooze yourself in a homestay by the riverside overlooking the snow mountains for days together or go out walking in the woods. The extreme weather and moderately fair connectivity keep over-tourism away from these places. So Sikkim is your place if you are in India for cycling by the side of the Himalayas.

In my view, the best places in Sikkim are- Guurudongmor lake and the crazy curvy roads of Zuluk. 

Karnataka

World travellers recognise our home state for Hampi temple town, Mysore Dasara & Gokarna beaches. Somehow something as exciting as -Chikmagalur, where coffee was grown for the first time in India, gets overlooked by foreign travellers. With more than 10 Tiger reserves, you can go on safaris or stay in the forest for spotting tigers, elephants, leopards and Indian bison. The beaches of Kumta, Karwar and Ankola are as blissful as Gokarna. Untouched beaches, less heard beautiful temples, river rafting and monsoon trekking trails – You can have a solid 20 days holiday experience in our home state alone. 

Gol Gumbaz Terrace with parrots and some Persian architecture – The Northern Karnataka is enchanting.

The best place in Karnataka, in my view, is –

  • Kabini backwaters with tiger and elephant safaris,
  • Mysore with its palace, silk and sandalwood factory and serene riverside village
  • With its Indo Persian architecture, Bijapur is full of fantastic stories and history. Town’s food is unique from all of India, and the small town’s skyline is dotted with minarets and domes.
  • When you are n Bijapur, the handloom town Ilkal and the temple towns of Badami are just a few hours drive.
  • Of course, the heart of Indian western ghats with the freshest air and lots of King cobras in their evergreen forests is Chikmagalur. There are hundreds of homestays for nature lovers in remote areas of Bhadra forest where you don’t get network or luxury resorts amidst coffee estates.
  • Along with mountains and waterfalls in this place, many ancient temples like Belur, Halebidu, Amritapura, Sringeri, Ikkeri are within a few hours drive.
  • Travel to Uttara Kannada for some untouched beaches of Ankola, Baindur and Kumta. 

15 min drive from my home in the Chikmagalur district takes you to the magical place of Panchamikallu

Tamil Nadu

The most visited state in India by foreign tourists in 2019 is this southern state of India for all right reasons. Tamil Nadu’s food, heritage, culture, architecture and language is strong and beautiful. Tamilians are extremely proud of their language and culture; it is evident how they host tourists. Make sure to devour Chettinad cuisines when you are here.

Wandering without purpose isn’t always possible in India, but Kanadakutthan with its Chettiyar mansions is a walk you will cherish for life

Best Place in Tamil Nadu: 

  • Chettinad is the real gem of Tamil Nadu, where you can witness and learn the lavish lifestyle of the Chettiyar community, their link to ancient Burma. But mansion hopping or staying in a mansion, this village town is excellent to get the vibe of the state. The handmade tiles, handlooms, temples and village houses are best-experienced walking.
  • Pollachi is another nature’s nest filled with tea estates beside winding roads.
  • Madurai temple is well known among foreign tourists for all good reasons like temple architecture, fabrics and ancient civilisation.
  • Dhanushkodi, the place where Ram Sethu (Adam bridge starts) is the most unique place.

Ooty & Kodaikanal are famous among domestic travellers and are infected with mass tourism badly.

Lost city of Dhanushkodi – The town left in ruins by a cyclone, 1964

Ladakh

Domestic biker’s paradise is India’s jewel in natural beauty. The black asphalt roads in the winding hills of high altitude drive you must take. The cold desert with double-humped camels in the cold desert, snow-capped mountains and Buddhist monasteries with their flags flapping create a mystic atmosphere.

The best Place in Ladakh – Everything. Whether it is the journey on the magnetic hill or the Pangong Tso lake, it is amazing if only we avoid over-tourism. The number of bikes and cars that pass through the roads are crazy that we may be contributing to the depletion of one of the finest place.

Uttarakhand

The state that houses the four holiest places for Hindus – Chardham Yatra is a Himalayan gem. Though it has amazing hiking trails with frozen lakes and waterfalls like Swargarohini, foreign tourists tend to ignore this and hit only Rishikesh – which has become a hub of spiritual scammers. Snow leopards and bears, tiger reserves like Jim Corbett, Ganga riverside towns like Haridwar must be on your list when you come to Uttarakhand.

Auli – The best Ski resort town in winter and a tranquil mountain for “peace-out” in summer

The best places in Uttarakhand are – Badrinath, Auli and hiking trails like Kedar Kantha trail, Hemkund Sahib, Nanda Devi and Valley of flowers.

Madhya Pradesh

With the highest number of tigers in India, this state is a must on your priority list if you are a wildlife enthusiast. Along with national parks, Narmada riverside town, Places, temples and palace towns in this state itself can be your 20 days itinerary.

Why does Gwalior remind me of Samarkhand?

The best place in MP is- Maheshwar fort by the riverside, Gwalior fort with its cyan and turquoise tiles, Orcha with its palaces, and Bandhavgarh national park.

Jammu and Kashmir

Sometimes when people see a picture of this state, they either say two things – “Is it Switzerland” or ” This is the war zone”. No doubt, the rolling green pastures reminds you of Switzerland. But the latter one isn’t true. J&K isn’t a war zone, as some western bloggers describe it. It is the subject of dispute between us and Pakistan. Still, mother nature here is safe for everyone except near the border areas. The saffron flowers, floating houses on lakes with Snow mountains in the backdrop looks like a postcard. The blend of Hindu and Islamic culture with gardens and temples is something unique to be experienced. 

Best Places in J&K – Patnitop for amazing views, AnanthNag valley, Ninang lake and Doodhpathri

At Patnitop during Ashrith’s bike trip from Kanyakumari to Kashmir- Journey of 4800 km from toe to head of India

Rajasthan

If you have heard of India, then you know Maharajas and Rajasthan. The folk songs and dances that women perform with gorgeous whirling outfits are hypnotic to watch, especially behind a royal palace or the endless dunes. The extravagance, grandeur is what you can expect from the palaces. But be sure to go bankrupt while shopping for many cheap and irresistible handmade things on the street. The tourism boom came with a curse- locals have failed to maintain the cleanliness in the places where tourists don’t go. This is why Rajasthan isn’t my top 5 favourite state list, even with its rich tradition and heritage. Since India is the largest state, pick your experiences to avoid spending too much time on the road and pick newer places other than Jaipur and Udaipur. 

Best Place in Rajasthan – Jaisalmer for dunes and alleys lined with traditional Havelis are excellent for wandering. Kumbhalgarh for the magnificent fort and Camel cheese factory, Chambal gorge near Kota.

Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal in Agra and Varanasi are the most loved places by foreigners for the right reasons. One is an architectural wonder, and the latter is the mighty Ganga town (one of the oldest towns in the world). I have been to both places thrice and can’t wait to visit Varanasi again to wander in the streets, ghats to devour delicacies. The craftsmen who make Banarasi silk, Angala Mandala & Zardosi work on fabric; Bhadohi rug and its lassi add charm to the places.

The most famous places in India aren’t my favourite because they are overcrowded with mass tourists making it hard to maintain public hygiene. Plus, there are two places where I have heard most curse words by locals.

Best Place In Uttar Pradesh – Varanasi is definitely not overrated. It is one of the exciting places in India to visit.  You leave me in Agra, and I will spend one whole day at Fatehpur Sikri – Clean, vast, calm and beautiful. I love it more than the Taj Mahal. Plan to visit on Friday so that you can listen to Sufi or Kawali live music in the mosque complex.

Himachal Pradesh

The word has it all – the hotspot of tourists seeking Himalayan lap is this state which British loved most because of its weather. So throughout, you find colonial influence in cities like Shimla and Dalhousie. Overtourism in cities like Shimla and the availability of illegal cannabis in towns like Kasol are why I don’t take the Himalayan state to the top.

The best Places in HP is – Spiti valley, Chandratala lake, Dharmashaala, Mcleod Ganj and Bir Billing for Paragliding.

Punjab

When you watch movies, this Indo-Pak border region looks like the heart of mother nature, and it is. The wheat and sugarcane fields with a farmhouse in the centre is an ideal getaway to savour western India’s countryside. The holiest place for Sikhs – The golden temple in Amritsar is the epitome of divinity that serves the freshest tea and free food for all visitors. The handicrafts and colourful handlooms are sure to make you shop for more. The Wagah Attari border is the closest place to Pakistan to which a common Indian can get. The only thing that held me back to make it a “most loved place” was the state’s drug rackets.

West Bengal

The capital city of Kolkatta was East India company’s capital. So you can expect the mix of traditional Bengali with some British influence- The Oldschool cafes & dance clubs, sweet dishes, unique terracotta temples and Bengal tiger sanctuaries will blow your mind. To top it, Darjeeling and Kalimpong add a bit of Himalayan and Buddhist charm to the state. Yet again, the cleanliness is what bothers me most. This state with a strong history and heritage can be a great experience if you are ready to take it with a pinch of dirt.

Delhi

The national capital thrives with every aspect – Mughal architecture, elaborated boulevards, narrow alleys with delicious street food in Chandini Chowk – You can go on heritage walks for a week exploring the city if only the air quality was better.

Goa

 I am sure, after the Taj Mahal, Goa is the reason for your India’s trip. It deserves that admiration, and I think we tourists are doing it too much. Pristine beaches have become a hub of cheap boozes. Colonial streets of Panjim have become a mere background for tiktokers. South Goa’s genuine Yoga centres are getting replaced with scammers. Of course, there are hidden gems where quarry lakes and waterfalls are hidden. It feels like a true tropical paradise there. Still, locals request every visitor not publicise the location to save it for good. If you really want to go to Goa, forget the popular, overcrowded beaches of Kallanguta and hit the less famous ones like Arambole. Or get in touch with a local who stays by the beachside and go Couchsurfing without uploading the photo on social media with its location published – Goa’s economy is totally dependent on tourism, but it’s ecology needs a break from us.

Puducherry

The Tamil-French speaking union territory was a tranquil town with sidewalk cafes lined with french buildings leading to beaches. The Auroville was home to world citizens with the concept of NO cash and sustainable living. Trust me; as an Indian who has been to the city three times, I find it the expensive hub of scammers who forgot to make a simple living and help the local community. The domestic travellers who don’t know the history and stories of the French colony merely use it as a background for this Reeks. You find a person dancing, twirling, and acting in front of every beautiful facade of a French building, and it gets annoying.

Other states and territories I am waiting to visit & you must is- 

  • 7 sister states -Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – Mountain, valleys, unique communities, and tribal festivals.
  • Maharashtra – Fashion, temples, mosques & to witness the grandeur of Ganesh Chaturthi.
  • Odisha – Puri for spirituality, Chilka lake for dolphins/birds, Konark and Bhubaneshwar for temple architecture. Plus. Some of the least visited tranquil beaches are here, I read.
  • Lakshadweep – The beach and marine life.

The Marigold blooming season in Late June, Early October & Early may – Most countryside in India is carpeted with yellow/orange flowers

Which experience are you going to pick in India? Let us know in the comment section below or email us to further assist in planning your trip to India.

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