Kaleidoscopic India continues to amaze and infuriate, inspire and dismay her visitors. A country full enough of paradoxes and contrasts to madden anyone who tries to understand it, the best way to enjoy your holiday in India is simply to open your heart and soak up what is surely the greatest show on earth.
The world's most populous democracy, India is also an enormous landmass, so full of interesting towns and cities and incredible remote areas that one really would need a lifetime to explore it all. A thorough, though not rigid, pre-trip itinerary is recommended - decide what areas most appeal to you, and set yourself the modest goal of exploring them properly. Travelling even short distances in India can be slow and exhausting, so take your time, and remember that, perhaps more so in India than anywhere else, it's the journey, and not the destination, that is all-important.
Having said that, India boasts a startling array of world-famous attractions: from the historic Red Fort of Old Delhi, to the glimmering Golden Temple of Amritsar, the ghats of Varanasi, the desert palaces of Rajasthan, the tranquil backwaters of Kerala, the cool alpine air of Darjeeling and, of course, the immortal Taj Mahal, visitors can anticipate more than a few awe-inspiring sights. And, true to its billing as a land of contradictions, India is equally prepared to cater for party animals as spiritual-types - the hectic trance parties of Goa stand in stark contrast to the thousands of ashrams dotted around the country.
India is not only one of the best value-for-money tourist destinations in the world, but one which offers a totally unique, not-to-be-repeated-anywhere-else kind of travelling experience to visitors. A friendly land, well-trodden by years of heavy tourist traffic, there are few more intriguing places to travel than mad, majestic India.
Best Time to Visit India
The best time to visit India is during winter (November to March), when the monsoon season is over, and temperatures haven't yet reached the hellish heights of summer. Low tourist season is between April and September.
Most Popular Destinations in India
If you're yearning for spectacular sunsets, paradise beaches, a laid-back lifestyle, great market shopping sprees, and full-moon parties, Goa is the place to visit:
Goa is celebrated globally as a destination for hedonists, beach bums and hippies, but this beautiful state now attracts people of all kinds to holiday on its picturesque shores, and families and millionaires are as likely to be seen there as backpackers. The big drawcard is Goa's beaches, but there is fun to be had beyond the golden sands.
Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961 and the state's natural bounty is complemented by the colonial splendour of Old Goa and parts of Panaji. There are many temples and churches of note to explore if you can drag yourself from the beach. Goa also offers interesting cuisine, fabulous shopping opportunities, and, of course, some seriously good parties. There is no disputing that Goa's nightlife is the best in the country, and it is a dream destination for lovers of trance music.
To holiday in Delhi is to succumb to the chaos and charm of a sprawling and ancient city, which is full of surprises, and shocks. Delhi is a city of contrasts, part squalor and part exotic splendour.
A quintessentially Indian city, the manic, noisy and labyrinthine streets of the old city give way to the imperial grandeur of New Delhi and its wide, leafy avenues. Visitors will see sprawling slums and marvellous palaces, abject poverty and glittering wealth, and be overwhelmed by the age and history of the city.
A holiday in Delhi can be exhausting, unless you can afford air-conditioned luxury, so this is a destination for the adventurous and energetic. Shoppers will enjoy the experience of bargaining for unique and exotic souvenirs in the crammed street markets, while foodies can sample the North Indian cuisine that the city is known for in Delhi's numerous restaurants. The city's impressive array of attractions will pack any travel itinerary to bursting point, and Delhi is also the gateway to the fascinating Rajasthan region.
To explore Mumbai is to explore a microcosm of India; it is a colourful and vast city where cultures and religions collide, and magnificent wealth and abject poverty interplay on every street corner:
The largest and most cosmopolitan city in India, a holiday in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is an experience in contrasts, from the glitz and glamour of Bollywood to the terrible poverty of its beggars; from the Gothic splendour of colonialism, to the ornate beauty of Indian architecture; from the palaces and temples that inspire, to the smog, garbage and throngs that hamper the experience. There is nothing dull or tired about Mumbai, and simply soaking up the atmosphere in the streets is sufficient to open the mind and the heart to what this fascinating country is all about.
A holiday in Mumbai is not for the faint-hearted because the sheer size and scope of this city is daunting. Globetrotters who revel in people-watching, and those who enjoy shopping for bargains in chaotic markets are good candidates for a Mumbai holiday. Those keen to party will find that Mumbai has the best nightlife of India's cities. Tourists tend to gravitate first and foremost to the Colaba district, on the southernmost peninsula of the city, for the good hotels and restaurants, and the landmark Gateway to India.
The last Lodi Sultan moved his capital to Agra in 1504, and although he was defeated in 1526 by Babur, the founder of the Mogul empire, it remained India's premier city for almost two centuries. The city's greatest days were during the reign of Babur's grandson, Akbar the Great (1556-1605), who built Agra Fort, and although Shah Jahan created a new capital in Delhi, his heart remained in Agra. In 1631 he chose Agra as the spot to construct what is undisputedly the world's greatest monument to love - the Taj Mahal.
For many, Agra represents the best and worst of India. The city is a daunting sensory experience for even the most hardened traveller: many of the streets are foul, the air polluted and, particularly in the alleyways around the Taj Mahal, visitors are plagued by notoriously persistent touts and rip-off merchants. Despite all this, Agra's magnificent sights make the adventure more than worthwhile.
Agra, along with Delhi and Jaipur, forms the 'Golden Triangle' - India's most popular tourist route. Situated just 125 miles (200km) south of Delhi, it makes an easy day-trip by train. However, it is worth spending at least a night in the city just to truly appreciate the wondrous Taj Mahal and its many moods: to stand in awe and watch it change from rose-pink in the morning, to brilliant-white at noon, to eggshell-blue at dusk.