Travelfilter India: what to do with one week in India
May 4, 2016 9:55 AM   Subscribe

If you had only a week, what's a great destination for a dad and 2 kids?

I am traveling to see friends in Sri Lanka this summer, and since i'm all the way round the world, wanted to tack on a week in India. Schedule will be busy, so i am basically just looking for a single destination that will fill 5-7 days with good food, interesting sights, maybe a local festival.
I know it's a big country, and of course "see the Taj Mahal" might be the easy answer, but, world travelers, surely there's a special place that you would recommend that might not be obvious.
My 12 y.o. son and 22 y.o. daughter will be with me.
posted by OHenryPacey to Travel & Transportation around India (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is a hard question with three possible answers depending on your travel style, what type of stuff interests you, and how much you value convenience/ease of travel.

Depending on where you're flying from and what your home culture is, India can be a shock to the senses. This is partially down to the sheer amount of time it takes to fly there from the West (just about anything is overwhelming after 24 hours on a plane), and partially because India is culturally very different from the West, and in very immediate ways (the food available in restaurants, the smells on the streets, the traffic, etc).

So here are my ideas:

1. You do the stock "Golden Triangle" whirlwind India trip. Fly into Delhi, spend a few days there acclimating and seeing the sights, then spend a night in Agra (which is about 4 hours away by train, maybe faster by car?) to see the Taj Mahal. If you guys are real intrepid travelers you could also potentially add on a third city, maybe Jaipur or Varanasi? This has the pro of packing in what people envision when they hear "trip to India", but the con of being a pretty difficult trip in terms of things like acclimation time, ratio of travel days and intense sight-seeing to relaxing, etc. This is the trip a lot of people do, and then they come home exhausted and with Delhi Belly and insist that India is an awful place that you have to be some kind of superhuman to be able to deal with.

2. Buy a guidebook and pick the place in India that interests you the most. Maybe that's Kolkata (seat of the Raj and full of Bengali high culture) or Dharamsala (where the Dalai Lama is based/home base of the hippie scene and Tibetan Buddhism) or Pushkar (scenic Rajasthan and camel tours!) or Kerala (relaxing river cruises and delicious food!) or... well, the sky's the limit. Spend your week getting to and ONLY spending time in that place. This combines some of the pros of #1 -- you get the highlights of whatever a Trip To India means for you -- but is probably a much softer landing and definitely an easier trip in terms of that intensity/relaxing ratio I mentioned. This approach will also enable you to get to parts of the country that aren't part of the usual New Delhi And Surrounds India trip.

3. Figure out what a good stopover on the way to Sri Lanka is going to be and just hang there for a week. Options here might be Mumbai, Bangalore, or Chennai, all of which are amazing cities that you absolutely could spend a week in, with tons of day trip options as well. Bangalore and Chennai are a little further off the beaten track for India tourism, both in southern India, and both part of regional cultures that aren't what Westerners think of when they think of India. This would probably be the most low-key and easiest way of doing a trip like this, because the landing would be fairly soft and it would have a lot of options for just relaxing in an interesting place as opposed to rushing around trying to See All The Things.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 AM on May 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

Sara C has many good points. I would say also factor in weather. June-August is monsoon time in India so consider rain when choosing a location. Bangalore and Chennai both have good links to Sri Lanka and there is plenty to see around them.
posted by 9000condiments at 10:27 AM on May 4, 2016

Sara C. is wise and gives great advice, listen to her.

I would not recommend Chennai (or Delhi, for that matter) for the simple reason that it's going to be hot as balls. 110+ temps, melting tarmac, heatstroke levels of hot. I would also definitely recommend picking one place and sticking to it, especially given your timeframe.
posted by Tamanna at 10:44 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, man, I forgot to even factor that in!

Looking at the weather, yeah, I would avoid my option #1 entirely. For #2, I'd look closely at the microclimate of the particular part of India that interests you (hill stations like Dharamsala could actually be a great option!). And I agree, #3 might simply be your best bet because it would be the simplest and least likely to be completely dashed by extreme weather. (Also I feel like the monsoon patterns are slightly different or less relevant the further south you go in India, but I don't have solid experience to back that up.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:45 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will be making my 5th trip to india this summer (i did not have control of the timing, as is your case). People are right to caution you about the weather but there isnt much you can do about that. One bit of advice i give most prospective India visitors is to plan on moving slower than you would think - a 100 mile drive can take easily twice as long as i would account for in the US, even an hour long domestic flight can eat up the majority of a day (and, equally or possibly even more importantly your emotional reserves from dealing with the all out assault that is india).

With that said i think Sara C's three options are pretty comprehensive and i can speak to at least 1 and 3. My in laws are based in India so ive spent a decent amount of time in both Delhi and Mumbai.

On my first ever visit to india we did the golden triangle route (by car). It is my understanding that the Delhi-Agra highway is much improved since then (to the extent that the sprawl of delhi reaches out so far now its closer to Agra in parts than Delhi). The Taj Mahal is pretty incredible, and if you think you arent likely to get back to India any time soon, I personally think you would be remiss not to see it. As i recall we did not even spend a night in Agra - the consensus seemed to be that there isnt much there you want to see other than the Taj - we got up early, drove from delhi to the TM where we spent probably 4 hours at the Taj, ate lunch and were at a hotel in Jaipur by (a late-ish) dinner. The drive back from Jaipur to Delhi was long and painful (maybe 7 hours) but a lot of that was because we had to traverse the city itself once we got back which was slow.

Jaipur is a beautiful city - the Hawa mahal and Jantar Mantar are cool to look at and historically significant, the old city/palace is beautiful and if you go definitely check out the Anohki hand printing museum adjacent to Am(b)er Fort.

Delhi is not my favorite town on earth but there is certainly the better part of a week worth of things to do and see - im not sure if the Hop on Hop Off (HoHo) is still in operation but it was a convenient and affordable way to see many of delhis most iconic sites (gandhi's memorial, the amazing bahaii temple, various markets and museums).

Mumbai is more to my liking (as an NYC resident this is not a surprise). That said there may be fewer of the types of definitive "sightseeing experiences" to see there - ive enjoyed just exploring neighborhoods mostly - cabs are easy to grab and cheap (this is less true, in my experience, in Delhi).

Of the other big city options - Bangalore seemed nice but i was only there briefly and it struck me as the least indian of any place ive been in india. I did go to a kind of crazy zoo there where instead of keeping the animals in enclosures visitors are loaded into busses and driven through the animal habitats - it was pretty crazy when literally everyone on our bus smushed up against the glass on the left side to get a glimpse of the white tigers. Indian sloth bears are also some of the funniest looking animals ive ever seen live.

Chennai . . . was not a fan. The food was great but had more negative experiences here with taxi/auto rickshaw drivers, hotel employees and strangers on the street than everywhere else in india combined. It seemed like there was an over-riding conservative religious tint to nearly everything. the architecture was quite beautiful and there are many many many temples to visit if that is your bag (personally, after a while i reach my limit).

What will you be doing with your friends in Sri Lanka? If the idea of trudging around a crowded sweaty city doesn't appeal to you, and youre not 100% convinced that you MUST see the Taj Mahal on this your one-and-only trip to india, id highly recommend looking into Option 2 and finding something specific that speaks to you for whatever reason. We've spend a few days on the beach in Goa and had a great time, not too much to do but enjoy the sun and waves and food - do your research as different towns/beaches have different vibes and you probably dont want to show up at the "molly all night" or "retired russian hitmen" beaches with your kids (although you'd probably be totally fine on any random beach you may want to look for one that seems to cater to families).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:13 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

You're right that it's huge, lots you COULD choose, and lots depends on what you and your family are into. In addition to the "Golden Triangle", Uttar Pradesh Tourism has been suggesting trips along the "Heritage Arc", which they call everything from Agra to Lucknow to Varanasi. If you'd like to MeMail me, I have a contact who arranged travel for me and my husband in India twice in the last two years, and I think knowing someone "on the ground" could be invaluable for this relatively short trip. This year, we did Delhi -> Varanasi -> Khajuraho -> Bharatpur -> Vrindaban -> Mathura -> Ranthambore (saw a tiger!) -> Jaipur -> Delhi, and it was the most personal, awesome experience because we got to say things like "we'd like to visit a school" and BOOM, that happened. I'm not affiliated with "our guy", other than being a happy customer and now friend.
posted by ersatzkat at 1:11 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Absolutely agreeing with ersatzkat that going through a travel agent of some sort with a local presence makes a ton of sense. If any one driver/tour guide/hotel etc falls down or provides unacceptable service to you as an individual your maximal recourse is a bad tripadvisor review - if you represent an ongoing revenue stream by virtue of coming to them via a referral, they will work harder to fix the issues since they want to keep in good standing with an agency. Coming from the US the idea of using a travel agency was weird but has definitely helped with internal plan making and is the norm in india.

You asked about itineraries and activities, but i also think its worth mentioning that, depending on the maturity level of your 12 year old and where you live and have traveled, India can be an emotionally draining experience. The sheer volumes of people, and the visceral depths of poverty are very hard to ignore (at least initially). I in no way mean to presume that you would take your kids to India and SL without preparing them, but i wanted to point out that even for well adjusted westerners (and avoiding NYCs homeless problem is nearly impossible these days) there are moments in India that are just hard.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:28 PM on May 4, 2016

I think Delhi is your best option, with Mumbai a close second.
posted by Nelson at 7:40 PM on May 4, 2016

Best answer: For the love of God do NOT go to Delhi in summer. I've lived in South India (aka the tropics) all my life, am used to stupidly hot weather, and yet twenty minutes in the Delhi heat knocked me on my ass. Chennai is a bad idea for the same reason, and I don't recommend Bangalore basically because it's a shithole of a city with terrible traffic and cheap alcohol. You'd be better off finding a nice hill station, but those require additional travel time.

Mumbai is actually a really good option. It's really cosmopolitan, there's fun day trips, and it's a good place for a chilled-out one-place trip. The people are friendly, and the food is out of this world.
posted by Tamanna at 7:48 PM on May 4, 2016

Response by poster: Fantastic answers so far. Could someone explain to me "hill station" or give me an example. I am not familiar with the term as it applies to places in India.

As an aside, I am pretty sure we are doing Sri Lanka first. I was an exchange student there before the war, and am finally taking my kids to see my host family. We are probably going to see all the things in Sri Lanka, so I am down with "best single place to chill and have an experience in India" maybe a day trip or two, but not a grand whirlwind tour.

thanks again. I am going to reserve best answer for at least a few more hours to let some additional later time zones weigh in, but these have been very helpful so far!
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:53 PM on May 4, 2016

Best answer: OHenryPacey, hill stations are an old colonial-era term for holiday towns located at higher altitudes, usually vacation destinations during the godawful summer months. Darjeeling, Ooty, Manali and Munnar are some reasonably well-known Indian ones, although I'm not sure any of them will be a good idea for the specific time frame you'll be in India.
posted by Tamanna at 10:48 PM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Anywhere in the northern plains should be avoided unless you're okay with spending 10am-6pm indoors. Unfortunately, most of the really popular hill stations will also be packed during that period for the same reason, so any effort you spend looking for less well-known places will pay off. If you're okay with humidity and rain, Goa and other coastal spots are lovely, relaxed and cheap since it's off-season. Maybe have a look around IndiaMike for ideas and tips.
posted by vanar sena at 2:03 AM on May 5, 2016

Hill stations are a really great way to spend time around middle class Indians and not throngs of white tourists, if that's of interest.

With only a week, and if you don't care too much about being a touristy tourist, I'd do Golden Triangle. The Taj Mahal is a must see cliche for a reason, it's incredible. Also Jaipur is really neat - I'm of Maharathi Indian heritage and found Jaipur to be almost magic.
posted by zutalors! at 6:51 PM on May 8, 2016

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