Places to visit in India – North India

Places to visit in India – North India.

When visiting a country like India which is more like a continent, one can get overwhelmed with choices. What are the best places to visit in India is a question that often comes up. The straight answer is, many. Depending upon your objective, what you wish to achieve from your trip, your travel style and your budget. The Choices with regards to best places to visit in India are plenty.

Before we dive deep into the Best Places to visit in India it is important to choose your entry point. Due to India’s diversity and sheer size there are many different variations available, It all starts with where you are entering from.

If you are a first timer, in the planning phase and have not booked your flights, then may I suggest arriving into Delhi. You probably want to cross the Taj Mahal from your Bucket list and Delhi would be your closest entry point.

Best Places to visit in India if entering via Delhi.

Since your main entry point here is Delhi, this would be a great place to start. With a history dating back 5000+ years, Delhi offers a lot to its visitors. Every Invader who came to this country has left a mark or two on Delhi, giving Delhi a rich history. Old co-exists with the new here, there are contrasts at every corner and with the changing face of India, Delhi is a melting pot of cultures. (read the article on the best Places to visit in Delhi)

From here on you have many choices of which direction you wish to head to. If Choose to go West to Rajasthan and fly out of Mumbai, then your first stop after Delhi should be Agra where you get to visit the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri (3 of the finest World Heritage Sites in a 40 Kms radius)

Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

If you choose to start and end in Delhi then Head from Delhi to Mandawa in the Shekawati Region and follow this article that I have which tells you the best places to visit in Rajasthan (The article is in 2 parts and is based on my 15 Years and 100+ trips to Rajasthan) follow this path which tells about the best places to visit in Rajasthan and you can pick and choose which ones you have time and budget for.

The part 2 of the article ends with Sawai Madhopur or Ranthambore National park. From Ranthambore national park it is a 4-5 hour drive on a good highway to Agra and its monuments. Your trip can cover Rajasthan and Agra and depending upon the time you have available you can see a lot or skip to only main places (For a good rajasthan trip you need at least 14 days to be able to appreciate some of the cities.)

In 14/15 days you can cover (Delhi to Delhi)

Delhi (2N) Mandawa (1N) Bikaner (1N) Jaisalmer (2N) Jodhpur (2N) Udaipur (2N) Jaipur (2N) & Agra (2N) this is all by road and would be around 2500 Kms with all the Sightseeing involved.

If entering into Delhi and Flying out of Mumbai then you need 15 Nights to do Justice to the itinerary:

Delhi (2N) Agra (1N) Jaipur(2N) Mandawa (1N) Bikaner (1N) Jaisalmer (2N) Jodhpur (2N) Udaipur (2N) then fly to Mumbai (2N)

Image by Tanuj Handa from Pixabay

If you choose to head east from Delhi and plan to include Varanasi in your travel Plans then your ideal itinerary would take you from Delhi to Jaipur, you start west bound to see the Pink city and then head over to Agra to cover Taj Mahal and the surrounding monuments and from here you would travel to Khajuraho before getting to Varanasi.

From Agra you should ideally take the fast Train to a Place called Jhansi and drive to Khajuraho via Orchha. Orchaa is that stunning hidden jewel in India that most people forget to include in their itineraries and since it has not been promoted enough it gets missed.

Orchha is blessed with a scenic natural landscape, The River Betwa flows through the town of Orchha and adds to the beauty of the town, if you spend the night in Orchha this is where you can enjoy a picturesque sunset view. (plenty of Hotels to choose from)

Image by Makalu from Pixabay

Orchha shot to fame when the 4th Mughal emperor Jehangir stopped here for a night and to honour his visit a special palace was built by the rulers of Bundelkhand. Once can explore these less visited and often missed majestic monuments while travelling to khajuraho.

Khajuraho in my opinion is one of the most underrated places to visit in India, Khajuraho famous for its Erotic temples, offers Stunning architecture, second to none. The depictions from Kamasutra can be seen here at every corner.

Image by Rinki Lohia from Pixabay

If you are someone who truly enjoys great architecture than Khajuraho is a must do on your travel itinerary. The Western group of temples are some of the best examples of architecture you are likely to come across when in India. You should ideally choose to spend 2 nights as it gives you the flexibility of soaking in the architecture.

It is recommended to hire the services of a Professional guide and retain the guide for a full day, and spend at least 3-4 hours to best appreciate this world heritage site. A mere 7-10 minutes away are the Jain temples and these are not as grandiose as the Western group but are definitely worth a visit.

If you have time at hand you could drive either to Ken River and enjoy a nice lunch there or choose to do a village tour of the Khajuraho village (It has become a bit commercial but still gives a lovely insight into the life of people of central India)

From Khajuraho you would then fly across to Varanasi which as the saying goes is as old as time.

Varanasi is known worldwide for being one of the oldest living cities on earth. Mark Twain said it best

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”

Many travel companies make the mistake of offering only 1 night in Varanasi, which in my opinion is not doing justice to the city. The places that one should consider visiting in Varanasi should include

1 Visit to the Ghats (Banks of Ganges) in the Evening to witness the evening Aarti.
1 Visit to the Ghats in the morning to see people offering their Salutations to the Sun and starting their day, followed by a walk through the old town.
Visit to Sarnath which is the place where Buddha preached his first sermon and home to the ruins of a Buddhist University which must be explored in peace.
The Archaeological Museum in Sarnath.

Image by desfosse from Pixabay

Many People only go for 1 evening aarti, that in my opinion is a big mistake. The first experience you are so overwhelmed that you don’t really get to soak in the atmosphere properly. In my experience as a Trip leader, I have always taken my clients to the Ghats in the late afternoon for a second experience.

Head out around 4 PM from your hotel on Rickshaws and get down before the main Bazaar begins. It would be very crowded, so you should leave your valuables in the safe of your Hotel and just walk at a slow pace soaking in the atmosphere, witnessing the daily life of people. Experience the smells and sights of the oldest city in the world making your way in around 60-90 minutes to the ghats.

There is no way you should be coming all this far and miss an experience like the one described above, People used to call me crazy for doing this with my clients as there are many things that could go wrong (pick pockets and losing a group member) but since my clients seldom had anything valuable apart from a camera with them and knew that even if they get separated from the group and me, they just need to keep on going straight towards the ghats which was our meeting point. (Its a straight road through the bazaar)

The evening aarti second time around is a different experience, I realized this after having done it many times, each time i would come back with a different experience and wanted to see if it was just me or did my clients also felt the same. They did and this became a ritual with me.

In this case your itinerary would look like this

Delhi (2N) Jaipur (2N) Agra (2N) Khajuraho (2N) and Varanasi (2N)
From Varanasi you could take a flight out to Delhi or Kathmandu or Kolkata or Mumbai.

Image by Suket Dedhia from Pixabay

If you choose to go north from Delhi (Recommended if coming in Summers) then you would be embarking on a totally different kind of an experience.

Your journey should take you to the state of Punjab and you should ideally start in Amritsar. An experience which is unlike any other is visiting the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
Punjab is one of the most fertile states of India, land of 5 rivers and at times often referred to as food granary of India. Known for its jest of life and large heartedness, even a short stay in Punjab is an experience onto itself.

Your Journey starts in Amritsar, you could take the fast train from Delhi to Amritsar or a short 1 hour flight from Delhi. Must visit on the list when in Amritsar is the Golden Temple or Harmandir Sahib.

Image by DARSHAK PANDYA from Pixabay

The first Harmandir Sahib was built in 1604 by the fifth Sikh Guru Arjan, who symbolically had it placed on a lower level so that even the humblest had to step down to enter it. He also included entrances on all four sides, signifying that it was open to worshippers of all castes and creeds.

The foundation stone was laid by “Mian Mīr”, a Muslim Saint from Lahore (which is now in Pakistan). The temple was destroyed several times by Afghan invaders as Amritsar was on the main route when coming into India from the Khyber Pass and was finally rebuilt in marble and copper overlaid with gold foil during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1801–39) giving it its name the Golden Temple.

The Temple is just a small part of the large complex and is surrounded by a pool of water called Amrita Saras or the Pool of Nectar which also gave the city its name, Amritsar.
The other Buildings in the larger complex are the Akal Takht, the chief centre of authority of Sikhism, accommodation for Pilgrims and the famous Langar or the community kitchen which is open to all irrespective of the race, color or religion.

Every day thousands of people partake the food in the Langar which is cooked by volunteers, from the vegetables, rice, pulses and other food grain all donated by the people making it a perfect example of how the Guru’s wanted the community to evolve and team work. It just works with there being no boss and no subordinate which has made this a part of many Management case studies.

Amritsar is also known as foodies paradise, rich oily greasy food. Any Indian visiting Amritsar has to try out the local food. If one was to venture out in the morning to Lawrence road one would come across many such restaurants where a queue forms in the morning for Breakfast. There is Kanha where people head over for Breakfast, practically always a queue in front, there is Durga Ice cream where you get the most delicious food cream and Kesar Dhaba where despite its location foodies flock for dinner. It is said that the water of Amritsar makes it easy to digest the food. I can personally vouch for the fact that this is some of the best food one can get.

If you are someone who likes to see a bit of Interiors and what Indian Rural life / village life looks like in Punjab and spend time in the agriculture belt. A short distance from Amritsar is Punjabiyat.

Punjabiyat” meaning ‘being Punjabi’, ‘essence of Punjab’, ‘quintessential Punjabi’, is meant to be an expression of the jest and effervescence of the Punjabi culture and its large heartedness.
Set amidst vast blooming green fields, crisscrossed by long canals, Punjabiyat resort is located about an hour’s drive from Amritsar, well connected by road and rail. Reconnect with your roots, experience the tranquility of countryside and farm life, and walk along the sprawling acres of carefully nurtured crops. Gaze at the rural idylls as the shadows lengthen and a spectacular sunset follows, and when night comes be mesmerised by the sky with its millions of glittering stars. Truly, this is a magical Punjab getaway with a twist of unpretentious luxury. Find out more at their website here.

Image by konnectsme from Pixabay

Spend a day here and explore the rural Punjab, this would be a great experience. From here head North to Dharamshala or Mc. Leodganj. Dharamshala located in the Kangra Valley is also the district headquarter for the same valley and home to the Tibetan Government in Exile. The Tibetan settlement of Dharamshala began in 1959, when the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, allowed him and his followers to settle in McLeodGanj (in Upper Dharamshala)

By spending a couple of days here you will get to visit the the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which is a religious center. It was built when His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited India for the first time in 1959. The complex is one of the most important places to see in Dharamshala and comprises of Dalai Lama’s abode and monastery. Nowadays, this complex also houses public and private sessions of Dalai Lama along with numerous Tibetan dance and music performances.

The Norbulingka Institute, is a self-sustaining community located in Dharamsala, dedicated to ensuring that the integrity of Tibetan artistic traditions is maintained for generations to come. Art is a large part of the Tibetan culture, and by maintaining artistic lineages, Norbulingka Institute helps to conserve the unique identity of Tibetans and the sacred traditions which took root in Tibet

Then there is the Namgyal Monsatery, the largest Tibetan temple outside the geographical boundary of Tibet with its 200+ Monks and serves as a Major learning centre.

Finally there is the Gyuto Monastery which is a Tantric Monastery and the residence of Karmapa – the Head of the Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism. It is quite popular for its research on Buddhist Philosophy, Tantric rituals, and Tantric meditation.

As you move north from Dharamshala you travel higher into the Himalayas, your destination is Manali. Manali is a beautiful town in the picturesque beas River valley. Known for its cool climate and Snow capped mountains it offers the tourists respite from the hills of the plains.On the North India journey to Leh Ladakh, Manali serves as important stop to start your acclimatization.

Amritsar & Delhi are on a much lower altitude, around 750 feet or 230 metres, When you reach Dharamshala you have gained altitude and reached 1400 metres or around 4500 feet and Manali is at 2050 metres or 6700 feet. Spending a couple of days walking in Manali would gradually start preparing your body for the next part of the Journey.

On the next leg over 3 days you would be crossing some really high mountain passes with the highest altitude being Taglangla at 5350 metres or 17500 feet. You would be spending the night in Keylong (3080 metres or 10000 Feet) & Sarchu which is at at 4290 Metres or 14000 feet, so it is recommended to get your body acclimatized to the higher altitudes.

From manali you head north and cross the tree line reaching Rohtang Pass which lies at an altitude of nearly 4000 metres or 13000 feet. It is recommended to start very early this day as scores of Indian tourists would also be heading to Rohtang and the road starts getting clogged by around 0930-1000 am, so sooner you cross it the better it is for you.

Once you have crossed Rohtang you would be entering Lahaul and Spiti district and would need to stop at the Check point, Keep you passports handy as at every stop point the documents are checked. From here you start your descent and arrive in Keylong / Jispa (You could spend the night at either place)

Image by confused_me from Pixabay

Keylong and Jispa are both located on the banks of the Bhag river and one should post arrival here take some rest as you would be over 3000 metres / 10000 feet and having ascended 1000 m/ 3400 feet your body needs to get used to this altitude again, a couple of hours of sleep would do the trick for you.

From Keylong to Sarchu which is your next leg on this Journey you would be heading towards the zanskar ranges, by crossing Darcha at 3360 metres / 11020 feet driving further towards Suraj Tal, a sacred body of water, literally means the Lake of the Sun God, and lies just below the Bara-lacha-la pass and then cross Baralach la Pass which lies at an altitude of 4890 metres /16000 feet before you start your descent into Sarchu which is about 700 metres lower.

Sarchu is nothing but a barren piece of land and one would see miles upon miles of Tented accommodation, which has all been erected to accommodate the tourist traffic from Manali to Leh and vice versa. You are most likely to arrive around lunch time and you would have no activity to do here, just sleep, rest and acclimatize your body.

From Sarchu a long road journey would take you to Leh or if you are the adventurous type and don’t mind roughing it our one more night, then to Tso Morari Lake. (I personally would build Tso Morari lake in my program) located at an altitude of 4500 metres or nearly 15000 feet, it is also referred to as Mountain Lake.

Accommodation is basic in tents by the lake, the sights that greet you are out of this world and simply spectacular. Still Water with perfect reflections, it is a surreal experience.

If you choose to skip Tso Morari then you would have taken around 7-8 hours to reach leh from Sarchu. If you have stayed at Tso Morari then a 6 hour drive would bring you to leh, the capital of Ladakh.
Leh should ideally be a 5-7 nights halt if you wish to cover it in detail. Amongst the places to visit are Leh Palace, The old Bazaar and a lot of Monasteries. The most popular ones are Hemis, Shey, Thiksey, Alchi (You can stay a night at Alchi) Lamayuru (full day trip) Likir, Spituk, Stakna, Phyang and Matho.

Another interesting trip to do from Leh is a half a day drive to the highest motorable pass in the world, The Khardungla Pass. Located at an altitude of 5359 m / 17500 feet it is definitely a must do.

If one has taken out 7 nights for Ladakh, 5 would be sufficient for Leh part and you can head out to Nubra Valley, Nubra is a high altitude cold desert with rare precipitation and scant vegetation and is famous for the 2 humped Bactrian Camels. With the Silk route having gone extinct in the 1950s from Leh, the Bactrian Camels are today more of a Tourist attraction.

There are sand dunes, monasteries, a ruined palace and – at Turtuk and Bogdang – a whole different culture (Balti) to discover. (Please note that as a foreigner you would need a permit to visit Nubra valley)

Image by mayurakshiin from Pixabay

From Nubra your journey would bring you back to Leh from where you can fly back to Delhi or continue your expedition and head over to Kashmir which is approachable both via a short direct 40 minutes flight (Check the Airlines schedule as the flights can be removed from schedule as well) or a long road journey via Alchi, Lamayuru and Dras.

If you are planning to continue on to Kashmir Valley, then skip Lamayuru from your Leh Program as this could be your halt enroute to Srinagar.

Your Night halt would be Dras where in 1999, India foiled the infiltration of Pakistani soldiers disguised as Kashmiri militants into positions on the Indian side of the LOC. Apart from a War Memorial (in the memory of the soldiers and officers of the Indian Army who were martyred during the 1999 conflict between India and Pakistan) located about 5 km from the city centre across the Tiger Hill, there is nothing much to do here.

Next day a good 5-6 hours journey would bring you to Srinagar. Located on the Banks of Jhelum river, Srinagar is considered a Paradise on earth. Plan to stay here for 5 nights atl east to fully explore the beauty of Kashmir.
It is also recommended to spend a few nights on a House Boat, these boats are stationary and act as Hotels with en-suite rooms, your personal cook and all the amenities of a Hotel.

Image by Noman Saeed from Pixabay

The best places to visit in and around Srinagar are Betab Valley, Sonemarg, Kokernag, Doodhpathri, Gulmarg, Nagin Lake, Mughal Gardens, Char Chinar, Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh.

Itinerary and Suggested Route for Delhi to Leh Option
Delhi (2N) Amritsar (1N) Dharamshala (2N) Manali (2-3N) Keylong/Jispa (1N) Sarchu (1N) Tso Morari (1N) Leh (5N) Nubra (2N)

If Going on To Kashmir add
Dras (1N) Srinagar (4N) Gulmarg (1N)

If you would like to visit Kashmir instead of Leh Ladakh on a Road trip, from Dharamshala your Itinerary would change and you would head to Udhampur which would serve as your night halt. the 6 hour drive is mostly through the plains once you reach Pathankot.

From Udhampur the next day your Itinerary would take you via Anantnag (1600 Metres/ 5000 feet) to Pahalgam which is a hill station and referred to often as Mini Switzerland.
After spending time exploring this valley you continue on to Srinagar.

Your Itinerary in this case would look like
Delhi (2N) Amritsar (1N) Dharamshala (2N) Udhampur (1N) Srinagar (4N) and Gulmarg (1N)

From Srinagar you would best fly back to Delhi.