Meaningful places in India
June 15, 2008 1:22 PM   Subscribe

What is your favorite place in India? I am traveling to India in August for a month, and want to know where to go. I'm not as interested in touristy spots, more places that were meaningful and struck a chord with you. What places made an impact on you during your trip? Where would you tell someone they HAD to go if you were giving suggestions to a friend?
posted by tessalations999 to Travel & Transportation around India (22 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I think one thing to consider is that the reason some touristy spots are touristy is because they're amazing. I haven't been to India, but I know it's a huge place, and that even with a month, it'll be a struggle to see everything you'd like to see, or even a fraction of it. Perhaps if you focus on one region - Rajasthan, the South - you might get better advice. Where are you flying into and out of?
posted by mdonley at 1:36 PM on June 15, 2008

In 2005 I took a month off, and spent all my time in Bombay (aka Mumbai). My linked travel log will give you ideas of what I did while there.

I didn't want to spend a lot of time traveling as I fly a lot for work (banking), but had no problem finding interesting things to do. I got out of the city a lot, and really could have spent another month in the city.

Wonderful place, great people.
posted by Mutant at 1:48 PM on June 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding Bombay -- there's really no place like it. It's horrible and great at the same time.

Other places in India I really liked, that stood out, were -- in order -- Mount Abu, Jaipur, and Puttaparthi.

But the most amazing places weren't really formal places at all, but the small, roadside stands or primitive villages in between cities. Make it a point to get out of the cities from time to time and see how a majority of Indians live.
posted by nitsuj at 1:58 PM on June 15, 2008

I found the old town of Jaisalmer enchanting. (The modern sections of town are humdrum.) The old city looks like something out of the Arabian Nights, unlike anything else I saw in India. (Not that I saw much of the country, but still ...)

Here are some nice tourist photos that show the medieval/exotic look of the place. You expect Sheherazade herself to lean out one of the windows.

The history of Rajasthan as a whole is rather interesting, being a bit different from the rest of the subcontinent. Worth reading up on if you go.
posted by Quietgal at 3:03 PM on June 15, 2008

Tamil Nadu then to Kodaikanal, the only hill station founded by Americans. The food is fantatsic and hill stations are wonderful places. Pics here. Darjeeling is great too and you can walk in the Himalayas. I've been to Leh, Manali and Ladakh too and they were pretty cool. But I'd have to say that Tamil Nadu - Kodai was the best.
posted by rhymer at 4:07 PM on June 15, 2008

Do you already have tickets? If so, the city you're flying into will make a difference, since iit's a huge country. But for me, my most magical Indian place is definitely Leh, in Ladakh. Gorgeous green valley tucked in between the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau and the Karakorums. I'd go back in a second. And incidentally, it might be the best place to be in august, as the rest of the country will be muggy and hot, under 12" of monsoon rains. Take the Manali-Leh highway to get there - it's the second-highest motorable road in the world. Take the plane back and peer out at snow-capped peaks and hidden turquoise lakes. Heaven.

Some will say it's not really "India" (more like Tibet), but that's the beauty of India - it's all these fascinating places, each with a unique culture, jammed into one country.
posted by lunasol at 4:41 PM on June 15, 2008

The most memorable single spot of my Indian tour (2 months - Dehli to Pondi and back up to Kolkatta) was Jaisalmer. It is touristy but it is an effort to get to.

Seeing this vista appear at the end of camel ride was something else.

And if you are going to India - get the India LP. Everyone uses it, but everyone uses it because it is so much better than everything else.
posted by sien at 5:46 PM on June 15, 2008

I am a (non-Indian) American lucky enough to have a second home in Mumbai (Bombay). I have yet to see many of the states but I can make a few comments.

First, Mumbai is in my opinion the New York City of India (I live in New York City, so I can make a good comparison). There are a great many fantastic restaurants and bars, museums, beaches, music events, public parks, etc. There are some touristy things (Gandhi's home, the gateway of India, etc.) but they're not bad to see. You can ride a boat to the impressive Elephanta Caves. There are some really great temples (I am partial to Babulnath, Mahalaxmi, Siddhivinayak). The ISKON (Hari Krishna) temple is also neat. (It also features a painting of the Hari Krishna tree in NYC's Tompkins Square Park!) If you're into Indian history and philosophy and want to carry home some books, make sure to go to Giri Trading in the Matunga neighborhood. Or for music, check out the popular Rhythm House. If you want a lively place buzzing with life and excitement, this is a fun city to check out. There are also nearby hill stations for a venture outside the city (Khandala, Pune). On the down side, the air quality is not so good and it takes forever to get through the traffic.

The states I have been to are Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana. Haryana is a tiny state and mostly I just wanted to see Mathura (the birthplace of Krishna where there is a fantastic temple above an otherwise lousy town). But Delhi is full of historical sights (and much cleaner than Mumbai-- because Mumbaikers' taxes head right over to Delhi to make the capital pretty...) In Delhi I would say you could skip the lotus temple (however beautiful it is from the outside) but don't miss the Birla Mandir complex. I would say there are few reasons to visit Uttar Pradesh other than maybe Agra, where the Taj Mahal is.

Rajasthan is absolutely remarkable. If you're a photography, go there (and go even if you're not). This is largely the exotic India you see in movies, full of color and adventure. I've been to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Udaipur, Ranakpur, Sam, Ajmer, probably other places I'm forgetting. You can really bounce from place to place and see a lot with the time you have. Every single one of those places has some really fascinating stuff to offer, and I can't detail it all. You really ought to look up the sights for each one. From the Lake Palace in Udaipur, to the Jain temple at Ranakpur, to riding camels through the desert of Sam, to the havelis of Jaisalmer, and so forth. These are the things that really struck a chord with me. I swear I would love to go back to Jaisalmer Fort (a self-contained "living" fort; a thriving city within walls in the middle of the desert) and just live there for a while!

Good luck!
posted by aletheia at 5:51 PM on June 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hm, India's such a huge place with so many highlights that it would be helpful if you could narrow down your interests a bit - eg historical, natural, cultural etc.

Places I particularly liked (four trips, more than a year spent in India, in total):

- Leh: Tibetan culture, stunning mountain scenery, 2-day bus ride across barren mountains.

- Kodaikanal: my favourite hill station. Forests, caves, waterfalls.

- Bundi: cute little Rajasthani town with a real medieval feel. Relatively untouristed, so less hassle than Rajasthan's bigger attractions.

- Junagadh: interesting, relatively untouristed town with some great architecture & a fantastic holy mountain to climb

- Palitana: also in Gujarat (which many tourists don't touch), a complex of Jain temples on top of another holy hill.

- Orchcha: little more than a village by a river, with fantastic ruins scattered amongst the fields

- Mandu: as above, but on a fortified plateau

- smaller temple towns in Tamil Nadu: awesome food, ancient living southern Hindu religion. The temples are stunning.

- Darjeeling & Gangtok: other nice hill stations.

- Jageshwar: pine forested valley with a tiny village & ancient temples.

- Dalhousie & Chamba: more nice hill stations.

- Badami: cute little town with spectacular lake, temples etc. Apparently ruined by 'conservation' efforts that have turned it into a kind of theme park, but might still be ok.

Places I liked even though they they're shittily touristic, and therefore either a bit of a hassle (or else you might get tired of being surrounded by dickheads):

- Varanasi, Udaipur, Hampi, Jaisalmer, Amritsar (only for the Golden Temple & Wagah border), Pushkar, Keralan backwaters, Gokarna.

Places I thought were massively overrated or which suck horribly:

- Jaipur, Khajuraho, Sanchi, Goa (touch & go on that one), Dharamsala, Manali (pretty scenery, shame about the scene), Rishikesh, Haridwar. Agra is about the shittiest city in the world, but worth it for the Taj Mahal & nearby Fatehpur Sikri, Bangalore, Chennai.

I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but that's an ok list for now. Aside from spectacular highlights, you'll find you'll have a great time just by showing up in smallish to medium sized towns that don't see too many tourists - eg in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka & Gujarat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:00 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

ps - August. That's the tail end of the monsoon in the north. It's quite hot & humid, not very comfortable at all. I'd recommend getting up into the mountains. They're nice & lush from all the rain (be prepared for travel delays from landslides, though!). It's also the best time for Leh & Ladakh, generally. The roads are only open (not snowed under) from around June to September.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:09 PM on June 15, 2008

I can't believe no one has mentioned the Taj Mahal. I am going to give you some other recommendations, but seriously, go see the Taj Mahal. It's sooo touristy. It's hot, the trip there is terrible, it's expensive, there's so much street hassle, and you know what? It is still completely mind-blowing. And I can say this without worrying about you building it too far up in your mind because you will still be floored by it.

These are my favorite places. Keep in mind that travel in India is pretty difficult, even by plane, so you don't want to pack too much in for you time there.

1. Ajanta and Ellora caves. Previously linked on the front page. Difficult travel to get there so therefore not that many tourists.

2. Meenakshi temple in Madurai. A little bit touristy, but the vast majority of people are there for the pilgrimage. Kodaikanal is a day's drive from Madurai and worth seeing if you have the time.

3. Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati. For most Hindus, this is *the most* important pilgrimage site in all of India. The avatar of Vishnu known as Lord Venkateshwara, at the end of his time on Earth, turned himself to stone here. Those pilgrims who walk here from all over India believe that the stone figure inside the temple is the *actual* body of god. The temple has been operating continuously, day and night, for probably hundreds of years. People stand in line for *days* to view the idol for a few seconds. There are *no* tourists here and this trip is only for the most adventurous.

4. Varanasi. Sacred city on the Ganges. Take a boat out to watch people bathe and pray as they have for thousands of years.

5. Kerala backwaters. 10 years ago, the Kerala back waters houseboat tour was one of the most relaxing, amazing things I'd ever done. You're cruising through these narrow water ways past tiny villages and rice fields, kids are running after your boat, and life just moves slowly all around you. Three years ago I went back to discover that the number of boats had probably quadrupled so it has definitely lost some charm.

6. Definitely echo what was said about the small towns. If you have reason to get to a village or a town, do it. Just going to the market or the local temple, watching the farmers in the field, seeing the kids all dressed up and walking to school, witnessing 8 people and two goats crammed into an auto rick shaw, or reading the messages painted on the back of the lorries, this to me is the most incredible thing about India, the daily life of ordinary people. People are so friendly and curious and warm and will reward your making the effort to get to know them, many times over.

On preview, I just noticed you said you're going in August. Most of these places I've recommended will be ungodly hot. I have never been to India outside of December-February and it's because my in laws are convinced I will die if I go in the summer. You might want to stick to the north and even then you'll have to work to avoid heat exhaustion. On the plus side, you'll get to see the Himalayas.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:43 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that travel in India is pretty difficult, even by plane, so you don't want to pack too much in for you time there.

That bears repeating. Assume that any leg from town to town - no matter how short it looks - will probably eat up an entire day. Even if a trip is only four hours or so (about the shortest you'll ever spend to get from one point of interest to another) it'll usually be rough enough that you'll spend the rest of that day just recovering.

Plus, you should allow some extra padding in your schedule for stomach upsets.

Overall, you probably shouldn't be thinking of visiting more than about six to eight separate towns in your month - assuming 8 days on buses / trains, with 2-3 full days in each town (you do the math).

If you fly into Delhi, then something like this route might be OK: Delhi - Dharamsala - through that valley east of Dharamsala that skirts the mountains to Shimla, stopping off once or twice en route in smaller towns - Kullu/Manali - Zanskar - Ladakh - flight back to Delhi. You'd better like hair-raising bus rides on the edges of precipices, though.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:17 PM on June 15, 2008

oh, yeh: and throw in the Taj at the end. It's only about 4hrs south of Delhi by train. You'll want to spend a couple of nights in Agra, shithole that it is.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:19 PM on June 15, 2008

My favourite two places were Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur. I enjoyed Delhi, too. If you are in the area, the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, Karnataka was cool.

Wander around by train, or bus if there isn't a train, be respectful and you'll have a great time no matter where you end up.

Lived in Belgaum for a year, as an exchange student 25 years ago, traveled all over giving speeches on life in America to Rotary clubs.
posted by QIbHom at 6:07 AM on June 17, 2008

Bijapur is one of those less-visited places that are rewarding - the Golbumbaz, the Ibrahim Rosa. - Lucknow, too. Also Surat & Baroda, strangely enough. And Vijayawada. Belgaum - I swear I've been through there, probably en route from Hampi / Hospet to Goa.

um, to add something of value to the thread: these place names remind me of flicking through timetables in the indispensable Trains at a Glance all-India railway guide. Buy one when you arrive. I can't stress that enough. Working out the train timetables & how to book tickets is one of the crucial skills for travelling in India.

posted by UbuRoivas at 6:22 AM on June 17, 2008

I was in India just last summer for my honeymoon. It was amazing! One place I very much recommend is the Golden Temple in Amritsar. We were pleasantly surprised by the honesty and genuine religious goodwill of the Sikhs we met in and around the Golden Temple. It's an almost 24 hour spiritual experience, with pilgrims and hymns and free food all day and night. It was a definite highlight of India for us, after feeling like a dumb white tourist in much of the rest of India. We flew into Amristar from Udaipur (being short on time), but from there you aren't far (by Indian standards) from Dharmsala and the rest of the Indian/Tibetan Himalayan towns mentioned above. (As for Dharmsala itself, well, I guess if you have never been to Tibet, than it might be worthwhile to see Tibetan Buddhism in practice, but we were spoiled in that respect).

We sort of tried to hit a bunch of "spiritual" hotspots in our short tour of the subcontinent. We had a good time in Varanasi as well, but it's one place to be on the alert for scams and crime. We went to a few other places, Khujaraho, many cities in Rajasthan that were perhaps not a good fit for us (too "pseudo-backpack-y"), but I don't want to discourage you from going anywhere that you might think is cool!

We were there in July and it was hot. A consistent, knock-the-wind-outta-you hot, night and day. Heading up to the mountains was a fantastic way to re-energize ourselves part-way through. Our photos, with which you could glean some route-info are here.
posted by pantagrool at 6:33 PM on June 17, 2008

Ok, don't know what happened with that link, I'll try again:

posted by pantagrool at 6:35 PM on June 17, 2008

South Indian chiming in here...

Mumbai is fantastic and not to be missed, but other than that, I would definitely recommend you look further south. Hyderabad is absolutely spectacular- the Salar Jung is hands down one of the best museums in India, and the Golconda Fort is simply spectacular.

One thing you should do, whatever city you do end up visiting, is go to the street markets. Choodi Bazaar in Hyderabad, Linkin Road and Colaba in Mumbai, the roadside markets in Old Delhi- they're just vibrant and beautiful in a way that you won't find anywhere else in the world, and they have fantastic local stuff for really cheap, if that's your thing. Be sure to bargain!

Like a lot of posters have said, India is just so plain BIG it's impossible to give you a real list of 'dos and donts' without knowing more about you and your interests. Feel free to Mefi Mail me if you need any more info.
posted by Tamanna at 2:10 AM on June 18, 2008

heavily seconding Amritsar - ie the Golden Temple.

Considering the time of year, climate etc, here's a suggestion: Delhi (Nizamuddin's Tomb as an unmissable) - Amritsar (Golden Temple & maybe Wagah Border) - flight to Leh (cost me $35 from Jammu; acclimatisation to altitude an isssue [Leh = 3,500m; spent time in Dalhousie & Chamba to get half-way to the altitude]) - bus back to Manali (spectacular - 1.5 days through uninhabited Himalyan mountainscapes) - from there, head east to Rishikesh etc or west towards Shimla, Dharamsala etc - back to Delhi, Agra & back (Taj Mahal & Fatehpur Sikri) then home.

that should be enough to google. imho, the south (eg Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka & Kerala) is preferable for travel in many ways, but maybe not in August. Check the climate charts for all-India before planning. For somebody used to a temperate climate like DC or Sydney, it can be almost painfully debilitating.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:06 PM on June 18, 2008

Very helpful info in this thread. I arrive for my own first visit on July 4. As my previous post on Delhi lodging hasn't netted entirely satisfactory responses, wondering if the experts here can tell me where to stay (and how to arrange) my first couple of nights in Delhi? My basic plan is to hang around the airport until first light, then ride the Army Vet bus to Connaught place and then try to find something in Pahargang -- however I really wish I had something set up in advance (but would rather not be paying for four-star amenities I won't be using, nor do I want to pay in advance for somewhere which may turn out to be disappointing, or worse).
posted by Rash at 7:46 PM on June 18, 2008

Rash - answering in the other thread.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:03 PM on June 18, 2008

Ah, the response there are now quite satisfactory -- thanks!
posted by Rash at 7:56 PM on June 19, 2008

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