Srinagar is the main city of Kashmir, a region located in northern India that has faced under political tensions over recent years (check the situation beforehand). Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, its main attraction is Dal lake. You can stay on one of the many “Houseboats”, that appeared in colonial times when English people could not acquire lands.
They have a unique style and spending the night there is a great experience. But choose your boat carefully (once you have made your mind there is no way back). Be sure to check what is included or not beforehand (most boatmen include 2 meals a day).
Also, you’ll work your patience: locals can be very insistent on selling you “Pashmina” stuff. We even had our local merchant on board. He kept reminding us every single hour that he had selected the best fabrics especially for us!
- Boat trips on the lake (an insight into local life)
- The experience of staying overnight on the houseboat
- THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF AMRITSAR
India offers an incredible diversity of cultures and religions. Among these, Sikhism. This religion, halfway between Hinduism and Islam, has its most holy shrine located in Amritsar, just a few steps away from the Pakistani border.
The golden temple is the perfect place to meet Sikhs and learn more about their history and daily life. Those great warriors and peerless traders are also charming people.
Share your lunch break with other pilgrims at the temple’s canteen: every day, a nearly 60,000 people receive a dish made of dhal (lentils), bhat (rice) and chappattis. In a country ruled by castes and social distinctions, it is amazing to see people of all backgrounds and religions sharing a complimentary meal. You can bring the experience further and volunteer for the meal service.
Take advantage of your visit to the region and get to the Pakistani border. You’ll entertain yourself with a very special show: the border closing under the ovations of delirious crowds on both sides of the border.
- Meeting the Sikhs at the golden temple
- The impressive crowd in the temple’s canteen
- The show at the border
Goa’s beaches used to be the place to be for hippies and psychedelic music. Things have changed quite a bit: junkies have been replaced by tourists (mainly Russians) and beach resorts are found everywhere.
Yet Goa remains a nice place to hang out during a long-term trip to India. Its quietness is really enjoyable after bustling other Indian cities. Former Portuguese colony, its architecture is completely different from the rest of the country. Goa’s capital Panjim has many pretty colorful churches. The cleanliness of the streets contrasts with other Indian cities.
Goa’s gastronomy is a fusion of traditional Indian cuisine and Mediterranean influences. A must try. In addition, alcohol tax is the lowest in the country!
Its beaches are the cleanest of the Indian subcontinent (but do not expect the beauty of the Andaman Islands).
- Goa’s cuisine (oh this yummy “Shrimp Thali”!) and cheap beer
- The quietness and cleanliness
- TAJ MAHAL
India’s most iconic monument had to be on my list. The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Arjumand Arjumand Begam. It was elected new wonder of the world in 2007.
Located 2 hours away from Delhi, it is the most visited site of India. For the same reason, make sure to get there as early as possible.
While in Agra, you should take the opportunity to visit its Red Fort. Fatehpur Sikri’s architecture is also remarkable and worth a visit.
- The Taj
- The view from the Red Fort
- Meeting local families at Fatehpur Sikri
- THE HOLY CITY OF VARANASI
Varanasi, the old Benares, is what I consider as the craziest city in the world. Holiest city of Hinduism, located a few steps away from one of the four most sacred places of Buddhism (Sarnath), this place is just about pure and intense spiritual energy.
Be ready for all kind of extremes, especially along the “Ghats” (docks) along the Ganges. This is the very place where most activities of this ancient city take place: “Pûjâ” (offering rituals), “Ganga Arti” (a religious ceremony that takes place at sunset), the controversial sacred bathing in contaminated waters… and of course the corpses cremation!
According to Hindu beliefs, the cremation of a deceased person along the sacred river is mandatory in order to obtain better rebirth conditions. Some scenes are just insane: crackling logs, grieving families, street dogs and cows that are eating whatever they can find. Since some families cannot afford the cremation ceremony, it is not uncommon to see dead bodies floating on the river.
Does this description seem apocalyptic to you? Indeed, I would not recommend Varanasi to the faint-hearted. But this sacred place has such incredible energy that is worth feeling once in a lifetime. An intense moment, discovering the essence of Indian culture and spirituality.
- Boat trips on the Ganges at sunrise/sunset
- The ceremonies (ganga arti, cremation, etc.)
- The lassis at “Blue Lassi Shop”
- The quietness and beautiful energy at Sarnath
I remember a travel friend’s words when I arrived at Rishikesh for the first time. He told me, “Yes, this place is all about business, but you’ll love it”. And indeed!
Rishikesh is a very special place, sort of replica of the neighboring sacred city of Haridwar, but in a tourist-friendly (and commercial) version.
Ashrams (spiritual retreat centres) are found everywhere. Some of them (like Sivananda) are fully booked months in advance.
You’ll also find many Yoga centers. Spirituality has become a consumer product as any other one and Rishikesh is no exception. You’ll find statues, incenses, relaxing music, ayurvedic products, etc. for sale at every street corner.
Despite this mercantilism, Rishikesh remains a beautiful place. Moreover, its tourist boom has enhanced the surge in the number of “westerner friendly” restaurants, which I enjoyed quite a lot.
Rishikesh is also famous for the “Beatles Ashrams” (named after their stay in 1968).
- The “Ganga Arti” at Parvath Niketan
- Rishikesh restaurants
- The “Holi” celebration during my first trip there
Sand dunes, colorful cities, grand forts… Rajasthan has it all. Located north-west of Delhi, at the very border between Hindu and Muslim religions, this state is one of the most visited in India.
A trip to Rajasthan usually starts with its capital, Jaipur, the “Pink City”. The place is less oppressive than most Indian cities. It holds many architectural treasures such as the Hawa Mahal. Don’t miss the sunset from Nahagahr Fort!
Another very popular place is Jaisalmer: a huge fortress located in the middle of the desert. It is the start point of camel safaris: a great opportunity to learn about the nomadic life of local communities. And sleeping under the stars in the desert was simply stunning!
You can then proceed to the city of palaces: Udaipur, with its beautiful buildings located around Pichola Lake.
Less known but equally beautiful: Jodhpur, “The Blue City”, nickname conferred after the color of its roofs. Its fortress is huge and can be deeply explored.
Finally, for some spirituality and meditation, head to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site.
- The camel safari trip
- The sunset from Nahagahr in Jaipur
- Jodpur’s fortress
Hampi has an unprecedented landscape: glorious temples surrounded by a surreal boulderscape !
its color combination is unusual: red boulders, green rice and banana fields, blue sky (and the less glamorous black river cutting the city in 2).
You can visit most of the temples located in the area. Vittala is the most famous one, with its masterpiece: the stone chariot.
Just relax and enjoy the hippie atmosphere of this small town. You can also practice your climbing skills on the boulders.
- The relaxed and hippie atmosphere of the area
- The stone temples
- Exploring the area by moped
This small town located above the city of Dharmashala hosts the Tibetan government in exile and is thus the official residence of the Dalai Lama.
Located in the state of Himachal Pradesh, at around 2000m, it is an enchanting place.
Here you’ll have to choose between a bunch of activities: meditation, yoga, hiking in the surrounding mountains, Tibetan cooking classes, etc. You can also help the Tibetan community, especially by volunteering as an English teacher.
And of course, pay a visit to the headquarters of the Tibetan government. An adjacent museum will give you more information about the history of this country invaded by China.
If you are lucky, you may even meet the Dalai Lama: although he is often traveling abroad, this great man gives teachings and lectures on a regular basis.
- Volunteering and English conversation classes in local associations: the best way to meet Tibetans!
- Attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings
- The hike to Triund
- Tibetan cooking classes: some yummy Momos!
Ladakh is one of those places that you won’t forget. It is a vast desert area located in the north-east of India, at the border with Tibet and Pakistan.
Ladakh’s peacefulness contrasts with the intensity you’ll get in most of India: no hassle here. Ladakhis are among the nicest and most genuine people I’ve met in my life.
Leh, the capital, is a magical place. Located at 3,500m above sea level and surrounded by arid mountains, it’s truly peaceful. Its anachronistic center has some medieval looking. The main temple will remind you Tibetan Potala. Depending on the time of the year, you may enjoy a Tanka exhibition inside the temple. Do not miss its tourist-friendly festival which takes place in mid-September: you’ll discover Ladakhi folklore in a relax mood.
Ladakhi landscapes are similar to Tibet. And its monasteries are true gems. My best pick: Thinksey, so impressive with its 12 floors and a huge Maitreya statue (Buddha of the Future). Hemis and Lamayuru are also worth a visit.
My best tip to explore Ladakh: rent a Royal Enfield (expect to pay around $20 per day). These bikes are designed to withstand the (difficult) conditions of the legendary roads of Ladakh, a bikers’ paradise. Take your time and explore some very unusual places: Nubra Valley, Khardung La pass (the highest road pass in the world at 5.602 m); the meeting point of the Hindu and Zanskar rivers; The splendid lakes of Pangong and Tso Moriri, etc.
And if you make it from Manali (Himachal Pradesh) or Srinagar (Kashmir): The journey itself is an adventure!
In need of adrenaline?! Remember that you are in the heart of the Himalayas: you can either go trekking for a few days along the Marka Valley or climb a 6.150 m summit (Stok Kangri). Plan a minimum budget of $200/$250 for each one of these activities.
And if you are bold enough to brave winter: walk the frozen Zanskar River looking for the snow leopard, the most famous Himalayan cat.
- The unprecedented kindness of “Mama Sonam” at Jiggyas Guesthouse
- The friendliness of Ladakhis and the conviviality of Leh Festival (September 2017)
- Biting the dust during the royal Enfield trip
- Himalayan views from the top of Stok Kangri (6.153 m)