With a population of 1300 million and an area of more than 3 million square kilometers, India is the second most populous country in the world and is known as the Asian subcontinent. It is made up of 29 states and 22 national languages are spoken (there are more than 1600) and among the religions practiced are Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism.
Varied and striking like no other country, India provokes opposing sensations in travellers. Some are taken by it from the moment they set foot on it, returning to this destiny again and again, yet others do not endure it, hate it, fear it, or pity it; and they leave not to return, sometimes without even having left their capital.
But India, with its misery and wealth, is much more than Delhi and, with a lot of patience, an open mind and a desire to understand it or to accept that it is incomprehensible, one can move from one side to the other after a few weeks in the country. Or not. We are always left with the bittersweet taste that this land of contrasts causes us: love and hate.
For all these reasons, when you are preparing for your first trip to India, you have a lot of questions, such as where to start. The following is a list of 15 cities that we consider to represent quite well what the different areas of India are, although we have left out some that we also consider indispensable. Six journeys and many emotions are the source behind it. They’re not the best or the worst, they’re 15 we can’t forget.
15 cities in India
1. Jodhpur, the best fortress of Rajasthan
The cities of Rajasthan have many things in common: narrow alleys with countless chai stalls, spice markets, lots of people, monkeys and camels. The chaos, the crowds and the arid climate mean that in all of them you end up having a very similar feeling, and fascination and overwhelm often go hand in hand. But the first city we’re going to talk about is unmistakable.
Jodhpur, with Fort Mehrangarh in the background
On top of a hill, the fortress of Mehrangarh watches over Jodhpur. From the walls of the fort, one of the most impressive in Rajasthan, you can see the Umaid Bhawan Palace, converted into a luxury hotel, and the Jaswant Thada mausoleum. And in the streets of the city chaos reigns as the sun shines because walking through its labyrinthine alleys means jumping stalls, dodging frantic rickshaws, suffering for stray dogs and asking permission from the mindless cows to pass. The Ghanta Ghar Clock Tower and the Sadar market are worth a look.
Varanasi, life and death on the banks of the Ganges
You have to be mentally prepared to face a visit to the next city. Life and death walk to the beat on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. Cremation is perhaps the most shocking thing about this sacred city, but survival in the streets and ghats beside the polluted river water, where people bathe and participate in ceremonies, is much more impressive.
The arti bargain in Varanasi
It’s unforgivable not to sit back and enjoy watching an Aarti Ganga in Dasaswamedh Ghat, and of course you have to let yourself be carried away by the human current and get lost in the smell of incense and the music of the sitar.
3. Khajuraho, the temples of the kamasutra
Khajuraho remains untouched despite all the dirt that can go through your head. Its Hindu temples, a World Heritage Site, have become world-famous for the erotic sculptures carved into its walls that, it is said, were created to educate lovers and today leave no one indifferent.
Khajuraho, temples and kamasutra
Split into several groups, the visit to the temples can take up a whole day, especially if you decide to do it quietly and by bicycle, so we recommend spending a couple of nights. Halfway between Agra and Varanasi, this destination is a good place to make a stop on the way, which in India is very long…
Nashik, the Benares of South India
Nashik is an alternative destination and less frequented by foreign tourists. The “Benares of South India” is one of the sacred places where the Kumbh Mela festival is celebrated, one of the largest human pilgrimages that takes place every 12 years. Among the charms of this small town is the Ganga Ghat, on the banks of the sacred river Godavari and surrounded by numerous temples.
In the ghats of Nashik
However, we were attracted to less divine reasons, because Nashik is also the capital of wine, the destination that appears on the map when it comes to tasting.
4. Aurangabad and the caves of Ellora
The caves of Ellora are reason enough to travel to Aurangabad: no more and no less than 34 temples dug into the rock. Ellora was an important historical trading centre in the Deccan region, situated on an ancient trade route in South Asia and the caves served as monasteries for monks, temples for prayers and a resting place for pilgrims.
Ellora Buddhist Caves
But in addition, in the same area are the caves of Ajanta, 29 artificial caves World Heritage Site.
5. Hampi, ruins on another planet
The ruins of the ancient capital of Vijayanagar stretch over 26 square km and renting a bike or motorbike in Hampi to discover them is one of the most magical activities in India. The extraordinary landscape, described as Martian by many travelers, is the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago: look where you see huge eroded stones.
Sri Virupaksha Temple in Hampi
One of the best views is obtained from the top of the hill of Anjanadri, where is the temple of Hanuman. And one of the most visited temples is the Virupaksha, dedicated to the Shiva and World Heritage.
6. Allepey or Alappuzzha, the backwaters of Kerala
A trip to southern India should include a visit to the backwaters of Kerala, an extensive network of rivers starting at Alleppey (or Alapuzzha). There are several options to navigate the waters of this 900 km labyrinth, from small boats with capacity for a few people moved by fibrous rowers, to huge boats with which to make a small cruise.
The backwaters of Kerala
These large ships are called Kettuvallam and although they once served as a cargo transport, becoming obsolete due to the faster road transport, the owners adapted to the circumstances and transformed them into floating houses.
7. Mamallapuram, temples carved in rock
Mamallapuram is a coastal village in the Bay of Bengal, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The popularity of this destination, which is evident when you see the amount of lodgings and shops for tourists there, is due to a set of sculptures and temples carved in the rock.
Rock Elephant in Mamallapuram
Five rathas and the temple on the shore are perhaps the most impressive, but Arjuna’s penance and Krishna’s enormous butterball are also worth seeing. A whole city of stone.
8. Darjeeling, mountain resort overlooking Kandjenjunga
The name of this city may bring to mind Owen Wilson or Adrien Brody, a train, a somewhat bizarre story and India. Okay, yes, I admit it, I did discover this mountain resort watching Darjeeling Journey, a film we recommend if you are about to embark on a trip to India. Darjeeling, one of our favourite destinations, is located in the northeast of the country, at 2134 metres above sea level, in the state of West Bengal.
Peace and love in Darjeeling
Surrounded by tea plantations, with spectacular views of the Himalayas and especially the Kandjenjunga, the city seemed to us to be a frontier that separates chaotic, disordered and overpopulated India from the quietest state we met during our journey through India: Sikkim.
9. Leh, the Himalayas
The capital of Ladakh is called Leh, the trading post of the old Silk Road. It is located in the north of India, in a valley of the Himalayas not far from peaks of 7000 meters high. The landscape of Ladakh changes gradually as the months go by, but if there is a main colour and we cannot forget it is the white of the snow covering each scenario.
Leh, just like that.
Popular for its trekking routes, it is a challenge for climbers and a remote point on the map that they want to reach those who want to know everything about the great subcontinent. Just like Sikkim, Ladakh cannot look any less like its neighbouring states, because in this one the protagonists are the Buddhist gompas and stupas.
10. Delhi, chaos
Arduous, complex, exhausting and sometimes painful. That’s Delhi, the capital of India. A practically inevitable visit and a place to learn to love. This infinite city offers the traveller a lot. Besides monuments and history, it is like an immense ginkana with many obstacles.
Delhi, the queen of chaos
Spend a couple of days in India’s capital before embarking on the journey through the country, but if you still don’t feel strong enough, leave the visit for the end.
11. Pushkar, sacred city
Pushkar is a sacred city with a lake surrounded by 52 ghats, where devotees make their offerings and bathe in its waters. However, its popularity has increased the flow of tourism and has changed a lot in recent years. Some will say that it has been modernized and others that it has lost some of its charm.
According to Hindu legend (and wikipedia), it is believed that the gods released a swan with a lotus in the beak and where the swan dropped the lotus, the four-headed god Brahmā would make a great iagñá (sacrificial ritual practiced since the Vedic era). The place where the lotus fell was called Pushkar. Believe it or not, it is the least, but what is true that Pushkar to this day is still a spiritual city for the hiundus.
Relax and good views in the sacred city of Pushkar
12. Agra, visit the Taj Mahal
Even the Taj Mahal is attended daily by people from all over the world who try to take the best picture of this wonder from almost any perspective. The village of Agra doesn’t offer much more, really, although it’s worth climbing one of the hundreds of ramshackle terraces and contemplating the views of the dome of the Taj Mahal while daylight allows it.
View of the Taj Mahal with minarets
It’s also a good idea to take a walk through the Taj Ganj, where the chant of prayer wakes you up and reminds you every few hours that you’re in a Muslim neighborhood.
13. Calcutta, capital of West Bengal
Calcutta’s poverty frightens and shudders. In its most ruined streets there are people who live in improvised houses with canvas roofs and the role of mother Teresa and her fame make the city always associated with misery and disease. The capital of West Bengal is a place that shakes the traveller but also full of contrasts, as it is home to many students and has never ceased to be a meeting point for artists, intellectuals, writers and people from the world of the arts.
Victoria Memorial of Calcutta
Apart from the Mother Teresa’s house museum, another interesting visit is the Victoria Memorial, a building in honour of the Queen of England. You can’t miss the Indian Coffee House, Calcutta’s old bohemian cafeteria.
14. Goa, a little beach
For four centuries it was a colony of Portugal and today it is a beach destination with a cultural mix that sets it apart from the rest of the country. Goa, that tiny western state popularized in the 1960s by the hippie community, is a destination for partying and resting. Without forgetting the cultural part, you can combine recreation with visits to a church or cathedral, something that will surprise you if you’ve been around the country for a few months now seeing Hindu temples everywhere.
Cows and bungalows, typical scene on the beaches of Goa
Among its best known beaches are Arambol, Anjuna and Palolem. How many days in a row are you able to endure sleeping in hammocks, walking on the sand between dogs and cows, drinking at the beach bars, watching fire shows and eating biryani?
15. Ooty or Munnar, some fresh air
Ooty and Munnar are two mountain resorts where you can breathe fresh air in southern India. Although they are quite close to each other, they belong to different states, the former to Tamil Nadu and the latter to Kerala. The most popular thing in these destinations is to go on an excursion and visit the tea, coffee and spice plantations, a very quiet type of rural tourism.
Ooty and Munar, a breath of fresh air
The coolness that is appreciated during the day becomes cold at night forcing you to dust off that sweatshirt that you keep in your backpack and that you already thought you weren’t going to use.