India holidaysThe sample prices are per person based on two people travelling!
Hindi is the main tongue, spoken by the greatest percentage of the populace, especially in the north. English is also an official language although the local accents can be difficult to understand at first. There are many other regional languages in India, including Bengali and Punjabi (north), and Tamil (south), while Muslims mainly speak Urdu, which is also spoken in Pakistan and is similar to Hindi.
Indian rupees (Rs) cannot be bought outside of India and cannot be exported either. Banks offer the best exchange rates, and hotels and airports the worst. Cirrus and PLUS debit cards and VISA and MasterCard credit cards are usually accepted at ATMs. Credit cards are accepted at big hotels, shops and restaurants, while travellers’ cheques should be in US dollars and changed at banks. India is still a cash society. US dollars can be used at some outlets, but most vendors refuse damaged banknotes.
Most people including North Americans and EU nationals need a tourist visa, which should be applied for before travel. A multiple-entry visa for a stay of up to six months is £32 (£52 for a year), while single-entry transit visas are £17. India tourist visas are valid from the date of issue. Passports should be valid for at least six months with two blank pages.
India is generally hot and humid, with average temperatures in the 25-30°C range and highs into the 40s (°C). India holidays are best in the November to February cool season, with the hottest time from March to June. It rains most from July to October, which is also hot and muggy. Regional differences: central, western, and southwestern India are best visited in winter, the northeast is nice from March to June and September to November, while many Himalayan mountain passes close in winter.
India is massive and has many major gateways. The main hubs are: New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (north), Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (west), Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport (east), Chennai’s Anna International Airport (southeast) and Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (centre). Direct flights with major carriers connect Indian with Europe, North America and the Middle East. Dabolim Airport in Goa is one of the main secondary airports, receiving flights from the Middle East and Europe.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic serve the capital, New Delhi; flight time from London is about 9 hours. United Airlines comes in from the US, while both Air India (the main local carrier) and Jet Airways offer connections around the world. Flights from Europe to Goa are available with Thomson Airways, Thomas Cook Airlines and Monarch Airlines, among others, and Kolkata is served by Emirates and Singapore Airlines. The cheapest flights are with Air India, while Jet Airways covers much of the country and has routes from London, New York and Toronto.
Flying via the Arabian Gulf is the best option for cheap India holidays, including with Etihad (via Abu Dhabi), Emirates (through Dubai) and Qatar Airways (via Doha). Air India and Air India Express usually offer better rates than the main international carriers. From Southeast Asia, budget Malay carrier AirAsia has good prices (when booked in advance). It’s best to take a metered taxi from most India airports.
Even if in a neighbouring country, it is best to fly to India as it is just so big and mostly surrounded by difficult-to-navigate terrain. The Samjhauta Express train and buses run in from Lahore in Pakistan through the Punjab region, while intrepid travellers from Europe can book an all-encompassing bus tour.
If short on time, fly as India is massive. Train travel is mostly unromantic but the next best option, with a comprehensive rail network and excellent connections, while travel by bus or car is cheap but uncomfortable. Be aware that some areas require visitors to have a Protected Area Permit (PAP) to visit, such as the northeast and Andaman and Nicobar islands.
All main cities have airports, including New Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai (Madras) and Hyderabad. Prices are reasonable and there are several local airlines, including state-run Indian Airlines (which has the most connections), Jet Airways, Alliance Air, JetLite and Kingfisher Airlines. Extra fees usually accompany advertised prices and foreigners are usually charged in US dollars and pay more.
Buses are only useful for short trips to places where trains don’t go as Indian roads can be rough and hectic. There are ordinary government-run buses and private services. The government ones are typically very crowded, though both types of bus are uncomfortable. Not many companies offer interstate travel though Raj National Express is a new, reliable company.
The British-established railways cover a huge network spanning much of the country. There are many classes on Indian Railways, including air-conditioned cabins, and travelling by train is a great way to meet people and a lot more comfortable than bus travel. Some of the tour trains, like the Royal Rajasthan, have excellent facilities including Wi-Fi. Journeys are often long though speeds are fast. Delhi to Mumbai is 16 hours. The Indrail Pass is a good bet for those taking lots of rail trips.
It’s best not to rent a car during an India holiday as the roads and traffic are typically hard-going. If you do, stick to the hill station towns, avoid the main cities and procure an International Driving Permit (IDP) before arrival. Chauffeur-driven tourist cars are a better bet.
The New Delhi-Agra-Jaipur loop covering the Golden Triangle in northern India is top draw for lovers of culture and intrigue. Not only a hub of travel and used as a base for further explorations, the capital city is replete with monuments, museums and bazaars set amid a seething mass of humanity.
The previous capital of the Mogul empire, Agra, lies to the south and is worth coming to India for on its own as it has the Taj Mahal. This spectacular mausoleum is as sublime as it gets.
To the west is the Pink City of Jaipur, with its wide boulevards, massive forts and rich Rajput culture. The likes of the Amber Fort, the City Palace and Govind Devji Temple need to be seen to be believed. Also in Rajasthan is India’s romantic lake city, Udaipur.
As the glamour capital of Bollywood, Mumbai is loaded with mega cinemas, malls and glass skyscrapers. True to form, however, this modern, west coast finance hub of India rubs shoulders with vast slums.
In the east is the less populous, slightly more ordered city of Kolkata. Also an important financial centre, it is home to India’s most impressive colonial buildings, including the well-preserved St Paul’s Cathedral.
Lying between Delhi and Kolkata in Uttar Pradesh is the spiritual heart of India, Varanasi. This ancient, living city on the scared Ganges is a place of iconic, riverside palaces and Hindu religious rituals.
The beaches of Goa in the southwest draw tourists by the millions. This region is one of India’s main draws, with everything from cheap backpacker pads to sublime resorts hideaways. Keep an eye out for intriguing Portuguese colonial heritage.
Easily the top spot for lovers of vertical splendour is the disputed Kashmir region in the north. With its colourful meadows and jagged, snowy peaks, it is a trekker’s dream.
The Taj Mahal is the endearing landmark of an Indian holiday. The 17th century mausoleum in Agra is perhaps the single most striking piece of architecture anywhere, with its towers, domes and shimmering reflecting pool. Agra’s Red Fort is another major draw, as is the nearby ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri.
New Delhi has the precursor to the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb. The red sandstone structure-designed for the second Mughal emperor-is vast, with outlying tombs amid fine grounds. The capital also sports the huge Jama Masjid mosque, the Qutab Minar tower and the Jantar Mantar observatory.
Though somewhat unappealing in places, the sacred River Ganges is iconic, especially as it passes Varanasi. Locals come to bathe, burn their loved ones and even wash their clothes in or alongside this sacred river, with lots going on around the city’s ghats.
The Temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh are a UNESCO World Heritage site, with some of the structures here over 1,000 years old. Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar, the Sun Temple in Konarak, the Golden Temple of Amritsar or the cave temples at Ajanta are other religious sites worthy of a visit.
India’s high points often have hill stations, built by colonial powers for their subjects to escape the heat. The top ones are Kodaikanal and Ooty in Tamil Nadu, Shimla in Himachal Pradesh and Darjeeling in West Bengal. The highest landmarks of all reside in Jammu and Kashmir, while Lake Dal (Himachal Pradesh) is known for its colourful houseboats.
The National Museum in New Delhi has 5,000 years’ worth of relics and is arguably the best museum in India. The Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum at the Moon Palace, Jaipur, is another top museum, with exquisite textiles, embroidery, silks and armoury.
Wildlife can be seen at national parks all over India. Keoladeo Ghana National Park and Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan are two of the best, while the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve in West Bengal is popular.
Nightlife tends to be low-key in India, where varied cultures and religions live alongside one another. The big centres of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Goa have bars and clubs, though other forms of entertainment, like cultural shows and cinema, are also apparent.
The Bandra neighbourhood in Mumbai is one of the top places to party on an India holiday. It is noted for its resto-bars, as they’re called, which have food by day and dancing later. The Escobar is one of the most popular. Farther south, the touristy area of Colaba is a good bet for a night out.
Live music is popular in all main cities, with Mumbai having many choice venues. Bangalore, too, has a good night scene, largely owing to its large expat community, while both Delhi and Goa also have their own scenes. Goa has the best nightlife for tourists, with numerous bars and open-air ’trance’ clubs, and even casinos.
Clubs can also be found in India’s expensive hotels and malls. These venues typically attract the Indian elite and come with huge cover charges and expensive drinks. Nevertheless, they are always packed and offer interesting insight into how Indian’s upper classes like to party.
For cultural performances, Kolkata can’t be beat, with performances typically including traditional dance, music and drama. The city’s Rabindra Sadan Cultural Centre is well known, while Mumbai touts the National Centre for Performing Arts (Nariman Point).
Cinema is perhaps the number one pastime among Indians looking for entertainment. The burgeoning Indian film industry churns out a dizzying array of material and, if you’re a movie buff, you will be taken aback by the sheer number of multiplex cinemas. Mumbai easily has the best of India’s cinemas.
Indian food is world renowned and generally hot with copious amounts of herbs and greens. British visitors will be familiar with it though the sheer range here is mindboggling. India is also a haven for vegetarians, owing to the non-meat-eating Hindus and Jains, plus there are numerous foreign restaurants. Eating out is good value for money.
Well known across the UK, the tandoor-style chicken tandoori-considered mild here-is one of the best known dishes, along with thali (a selection of curries served with rice and chapattis). Nan bread with a curry is a must. Meat is king in the north; think kebab, biryani and rogan josh (lamb curry)-other well known, exported dishes. The Punjab region is famed for the flatbread paratha.
With India’s long coastline, fish is always on the menu, particularly in Mumbai and Goa, and is especially delicious when cooked with coconut. There’s a huge amount of freshwater fish dishes in Bengal (east), which are usually cooked in pungent mustard oil. Kashmiri food, on the other hand, is more delicate and based around fruits and nuts.
Vegetarians should try the deep-fried samosa or pakora fritters, which are available all over, while dumpling lovers will fall in love with idli. Desserts accompany most meals, like kheer rice pudding, while dosa pancakes make for good snacks.
Restaurants run the gamut from shacks (dhabas) to silver service, hotel-based or standalone places. There are also mid-range table restaurants with air-conditioning, though these are less common out of main towns. The cuisine typically reflects the region, and though menus may appear massive, different meals are typically served at certain times of day.
Diners typically eat with their right hand (never the toilet-friendly left), but use a spoon to take food from any communal dishes. Only tip at the smart places, never on the street.
Goa has the best known beaches in India, with miles of golden sands and turquoise seas straddling the state capital of Panaji. Farther north are the easier-going beaches of Tarkali, while north again at Mumbai are Juhu and Chowpatty. In the other direction (south) is Kovalam, Kerala, while the east offers Chennai’s huge Marina Beach.
The Taj Mahal is ionic, vibrant and utterly romantic when viewed from a five-star hotel with your significant other. Udaipur’s lake city is also truly romantic and has the well-positioned Lake Palace Hotel. The Andaman and Nikobar islands, meanwhile, offer perfect seclusion for honeymooning couples, as do the hills of Ooty and the peaks of Kashmir.
Goa’s beaches are good for families. Kids can enjoy swimming and water sports galore, and the Goa Carnival is fun for all. Though vast and noisy, the major metropolises of New Delhi and Mumbai have family attractions, too, including theme parks and eye-popping monuments. The Uttaranchal region offers an introduction to soft adventure, while the cool hill stations of the south have tea gardens. For teens, try the toy train from Kolkata to Darjeeling or a camel safari in the Thar Desert.
The Himalayas boast the world’s best trekking and climbing, while great slopes await skiers at Himachal Pradesh’s Kufri or Kashmir’s Gulmarg. Wildlife safaris are big business, with wild elephants, rhinos, bears and not forgetting the tiger. Madhya Pradesh is good for tigers and camel safaris, while elephant safaris are popular in the south. You can also hang-glide from Bangalore or scuba dive the Andaman. For off beat India holidays, consider a Cochin river trip or chilling on a Vipassana meditation course.