There's no country in the world with a more vibrant culture than India. It's chaotic, lively, overwhelming, colourful and promises you an adventure of a lifetime!
India is LARGE! As much as we'd like to write about India in a single article, so this guide will focus on North India, specifically Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, or also known as the Golden Triangle of India ?
PRE-TRIP PLANNING & INFORMATION
1. TIME TO VISIT - November till April during the cool and dry season, after the monsoon season but before the intense heat seeps in
2. CHOOSE A ROUTE - There are plenty of routes to choose from depending on the time you have. Some may take up to a month to explore! Here are some common routes:
- Golden Triangle (best for first-timers) - Delhi, Agra, Jaipur
- Land of Kings - Jaipur, Ranthambore, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Nawalgarh
- Heart of India - Mumbai, Lucknow, Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Puri
3. TIME FRAME - It's difficult to narrow India down to a single trip. Ideally, even the Golden Triangle takes two weeks, but you should be able to squeeze the main attractions into one week with careful planning
4. LANGUAGE - Unknown to many travellers, English is actually a common language in the big cities of Northern India. There are so many languages there that English has become a common denominator for them to communicate. But it is still handy to learn a few key phrases in Hindi since the older generation might not be fluent in English.
5. SPACE - Most Indians grew up without the luxury of privacy and personal space so don't be surprised if they tend to 'invade' your personal space by standing or speaking too close to you. It is the norm there.
Credit: David Gil on Flickr
No country gives a good dose of culture shock more than India. Dump all your expectations about India and expect to be taken by surprise by many things on your first trip there. If you're a first-time traveller, it is recommended to travel in a guided tour, or with a group of friends. India is a beautiful country, but it largely is a traditional society in the midst of adapting to modern culture. When you hear travellers saying it's chaotic, it is not an understatement and it will probably be the most chaotic country you will experience And in the midst of the chaos, there are many safety concerns for first-time travellers and female travellers. Here are some tips to help you out:
1. Dress conservatively to avoid attention, both in terms of modesty and fashion statements. It's best to wear long bottoms, and sleeveless tops are fine in the big cities but bring something to cover your shoulders since some areas are more modest and you'll want to cover up to avoid stares. Avoid wearing jewellery and flashy items too to avoid being targets of pickpockets.
2. If you're travelling solo, avoid telling people. Tell people you're travelling with friends and do not tell them where your accommodation is.
3. As heartbreaking as it is, do not give money to beggars. They will beg, juggle, sell toys or flowers, and approach you in many other ways. Do not give them money. Many are part of a syndicate and will give the money to a ringleader. If you must, give them food.
4. Avoid travelling in big crowds to avoid being pickpocketed or groped.
5. Foreigners will get plenty of stares. Many locals will unapologetically stare at foreign-looking people out of curiosity. Ladies, avoid these curious gazes as it can be seen as flirtatious.
6. For women travellers, there are many women-only rooms if you must stay in a budget accommodation (though we suggest you stay in a mid-range for better safety and hygiene). That being said, do not assume it is okay to trust all women.
7. Get a local sim card, a powerbank, and have your emergency numbers on speed dial.
8. Do not accept food or drinks from strangers.
9. Make hand sanitizer and wet wipes your best friend. Bring plenty of those on your trip because you WILL need it.
10. Ensuring food safety and hygiene will be a huge part of your trip too. We will explain further about this in the food section ?
Safety concerns aside, India is a must-visit destination for every traveller! Amidst the chaos and colours awaits the adventure of a lifetime! India is a place filled with world-class architecture and historical sites and there is an infinite number of places for you to visit if you can. Here are a few of the must-visit attractions that you could visit using a Delhi-Agra-Jaipur route.
1. Taj Mahal in Agra
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Taj Mahal, the icon of India, an architectural wonder, and one of the new seven wonders of the world. And for the romantics, a symbol of everlasting love by one of the Mughal Empire rulers, Shah Jahan, to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 giving birth to his 15th child. It took 22 years and 20 000 people to build the Taj Mahal, that is the mausoleum for Shah Jahan and his beloved wife. The grand structure resembles a grand white mosque with its Islamic inspired design and is truly an architectural wonder. The entire building structure, tiles, water feature, and garden have impeccable symmetry with one exception, Shah Jahan's own cenotaph that isn't aligned. This has led many to believe he never intended to be buried there.
#HHWT tip: If you see the Taj during sunrise, the white marble on the structure reflects some of the sky's pink hue, creating a gorgeous sunrise-tinted Taj.
Address: Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
Opening hours: 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes before sunset
2. Agra Fort in Agra
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Built-in 1573 by Akbar, the Agra fort was home of the Mughal Emperors during the 16th and 17th centuries. This UNESCO heritage site does not fail to impress. After the Mughal Empire, the fort was controlled by multiple ownerships and a massive rebellion before the British took over in 1947. It was also the home of emperor Shah Jahan (Akbar's grandson), the Mughal emperor who constructed the Taj Mahal for his beloved wife. He was imprisoned by his own son for wanting to build a black (to represent the bad in him) marble version of the Taj Mahal for himself. He died in the fort and his body was taken by boat to be laid next to his wife in the Taj Mahal. A large part of the fort is still being used by the Indian army but the places opened to the public are still worth the visit! The fort boasts an amazing mixture of Islamic and Hindu architecture. The Khas Mahal, where Shah Jahan resided shows a mixture of Persian and Islamic influences adorned with gold, gems, and white marble carvings.
Address: Agra Fort, Rakabganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282003, India
Opening hours: 6am - 6pm daily
3. Amer Fort in Jaipur
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Also known as the Amber Palace, this structure is another Indian architectural wonder. Its grand design is a mixture of Hindu and Islamic elements and was constructed by Akbar's (the third Mughal emperor) general, Maan Singh, in 1592. The fort or palace contains four massive courtyards, palaces, halls, and gardens. All the courtyards are worth the exploration. Find a hall with many pillars, the ornate king's private quarters, and expansive ornamental garden, and the jaw-dropping Sheesh Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) where the walls are covered in intricate mirror work. The fort also has a passage that connects to Jaigarh Fort where you can walk to, or ride a golf cart there. P.S. It is possible to explore the place on elephant-back, but the practice has been condemned by animal activists.
Address: Devisinghpura, Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302001, India
Opening hours: 8am - 5.30pm, 6.30pm - 9.15pm daily
4. Hawa Mahal in Jaipur
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Also known as the Palace of the Winds, this impressive structure lies in the heart of Jaipur has 953 intricately designed windows on its facade. The structure was constructed by Maharaja Pratai Sawap Singh for the ladies of the royal household to watch the life and processions of the city. Aside from exquisite architecture inside the structure, you can enjoy a stunning view of Jantar Mantar, the City Palace and Sireh Deori Bazaar from the top! The awe-inspiring architecture gets its distinctive pink color from natural sandstones and is considered one of the finest Rajput architectures in India.
Address: Hawa Mahal Rd, Badi Choupad, J.D.A. Market, Pink City, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302002, India
Opening hours: 9am - 5pm daily
5. Ranthambore National Park in Jaipur
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India has many national parks dedicated to animal conservation and wildlife protection. One of the national parks you can visit (with a slight detour) from the Golden Triangle route is Ranthambore National Park, which is also a tiger reserve with 70 tigers. The massive reserve covers 392 square kilometres and is the biggest one in Northern India. Enjoy a day exploring the huge diversity of flora and fauna, and a chance to meet the magnificent Bengal tiger!
6. Chand Baori Stepwell in Jaipur
Credit: @anniechamberlain on Instagram Lose yourself in the maze-like stepwell of Chand Baori. This stepwell is built in between the 8th and 9th century and is one the oldest in Rajasthan, and considered to be one of the largest in the world. This incredible 13-storey deep well resembles a grand palace courtyard more than it resembles a well. Its beauty lies in the perfect symmetry of walls lined with double flights of 3500 narrow steps that descend down into a puddle of water.
Address: Near Harshat Mata Temple, Abhaneri, Dausa, Bandikui, Rajasthan 303313, India
Opening hours: 8.30am - 6pm daily
[Jaipur is filled with amazing wonders, here are 8 more reasons for you to pack your bags and fly out to Jaipur!]
7. Red Fort in Delhi
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If you think this fort somewhat resembles the Agra Fort (listed above), you're not wrong. Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor and brains behind the Taj Mahal loved the Agra Fort so much that he constructed a similar-looking structure in Delhi (or Shahjahanabad at that time) in 1648. The fort plays a significant part of India's history with a lot of treachery, battles and bloodshed. From the fall of the Mughal Empire to multiple invasions by other emperors, until the day the British took over and exiled the last Mughal emperor to Burma (present-day Myanmar), killed his sons, and destroyed most of the fort. When India gained independence in 1947, the Red Fort was used as the main place for the public celebration, and it still hosts celebrations there every year on August 15th. Just FYI, there are also rumours that the emperor had the bodies of decapitated prisoners built into the building foundation for luck. Guess we'll never know ?♀️
Address: Netaji Subhash Marg, Lal Qila, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi 110006, India
Opening hours: 7am - 5.30pm daily
8. Jama Mosque in Delhi
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Fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, contributed plenty to India's iconic architecture and the Masjid Jama (or Jama Mosque) is one of them. After he shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi (or Shahjahanabad at that time), he commissioned the construction of this mosque which was completed in 1656. It was his last extravagant architecture before he fell ill. The mosque sits right across the Red Fort and also has its similar Islamic, Hinduism and Persian influence in its architecture. Be in awe at the mosque that boasts three great gates, four high towers and two high minarets constructed of red sandstone and white marble.
Address: Jama Masjid Rd, Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi 110006, India
Opening hours: 7am - 12pm, 1.30pm - 6.30pm. Tourists not allowed during prayer hours. Website
Bonus: The Ganges River in Varanasi
Credit: Matt Stabile on Flickr
If you have time to spare, the Ganges river in Varanasi is one location India you wouldn't want to miss! Considered one of the holiest places for Hinduism in India, the Ganges river is as beautiful as it is messy and chaotic. The 250km river flows from the Himalayan ranges through India and Bangladesh and has been a source of physical life and a part of their spiritual life. Many locals believe that the water in the Ganges river purifies a person of his or her sins. Surrounding the rivers are 88 ghats (or riverfront steps) that are mostly used for religious ceremonies, baths, and even cremation. You can take a boat ride at dawn to enjoy a beautiful sunset and observe as the daily lives of the local slows down at the river as the day comes to an end.
FOOD IN INDIA
MUSLIM-FRIENDLY FOOD - Since India is a Hindu majority country (almost 80% of the population), and Islam is the second-largest religion practised there (about 14% of the population), finding Muslim-friendly food isn't exactly an issue. There are plenty of Muslim-owned and halal restaurants around - you'll even see the halal logo stickers at many shops! Where your problem lies is to find meat since many Hindu practitioners are strict about meat consumption. Beef is a delicacy there! But just because the food is vegetarian, doesn't mean you'll miss out on much - the flavours from curries and spices will make you forget any meat cravings. But if you really, really need meat, find a nearby mosque and there are usually some restaurants selling halal meat in the area. Just FYI, their fast food such as McDonald's, KFC and Subway are all certified halal. We know sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.
FOOD SAFETY - Unfortunately, getting MILD food poisoning is normal during a trip to India. Unlucky travellers tend to contract salmonella, E.coli and a few other parasites and bacteria there. Here are some tips to avoid and digestive mishaps:
- 1. Tap waters are a big no-no, and that includes ice! Stick to bottled waters throughout your entire trip. Brush your teeth with bottled water too.
- 2. Eat only cooked food. This means no fruits, no fruit juices and no salads! Cooking kills amoeba and bacteria.
- 3. Make hand sanitizer and wet wipes your best friend. Use them as often as you can - before you eat, after you eat, after using the toilet, after touching anything that isn't yourself.
- 4. Avoid street food if you can, unless you have a trusted guide who knows which stalls are suitable for foreigners.
- 5. Judge a restaurant by its cleanliness and high turnover rates. Or ask your hotel if they have any recommended restaurants for foreigners.
- 6. Eat with your hands. On top of experiencing India's food like a local, eating with your hands can be more hygienic for one simple reason - you know where your hands have been, you don't know where the cutlery has.
- 7. Have probiotics and charcoal pills with you. Probiotics to keep your gut as efficient as possible, and charcoal pills to help in case you get mild diarrhoea.
WHAT TO EAT
Now that we've covered food hygiene in India 101, we can move on to the best Northern India food to eat! There are too many delicious and drool-worthy food for us to list down. Unlike Southern India, Northern India locals eat more bread than rice, so this means more tandoori roti naans, and parathas. And their curries are usually thicker, and moderately spicy with the use of dried fruits, nuts, milk, ghee and yoghurt. You must try their staple curries, dhals, and masalas as well as a few others listed here.
1. THALI MEAL
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One of the most inexpensive and delicious meals you'll try in India! The thali meal refers to a variety of food neatly served in bowls inside a steel plate or tray, usually served with bread or rice. The main idea is to serve all the 6 flavours of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy in one meal. There are vegetarian and meat-based thali meals and the food served in the plate varies.
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Parathas (Malaysians and Singaporeans may also recognize it as Roti Canai) are flatbreads originating in India and is the staple food in some of its places. The flatbread can be eaten plain with curries, or with different stuffings ranging from sweet to savoury!
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Sometimes all you need is a good cup of lassi to help beat the heat! This drink is a blend of yoghurt, fruits, spices, and water. You can get a variety of lassi flavours throughout your trip to India.
#HHWT tip: It's better to order this drink at a reputable restaurant to avoid digestive issues.
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Travel across India and you'll find that each place has its own distinct version of biryani! Bursting with aromatic flavours and as tasty as ever, you shouldn't miss out on a good plate of biryani during your trip there. The flavour varies depending on the ingredients used. Some may even have a tinge of sweetness from the dried fruits used.
5. GULAB JAMUN
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One of India's popular sweets, Gulab Jamun are deep-fried doughnut-like desserts made out of dried milk and dipped in rose-cardamon flavoured sugar syrup. You'll find these sweets all over India from restaurants, homes, to celebrate occasions such as weddings and birthday parties. If you love Indian sweets, here are more sweet Indian delicacies for you to find out!
6. ROGAN JOSH
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A hearty meaty dish is native to Northern India's northernmost region, Kashmir. This slow-cooked meat is usually prepared with lamb and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, and sometimes even yoghurt!
Don't even think about renting a car on your first trip there - it's a death wish! Ideally, having a private driver to charter you around the city, or from city to city, is the best since the traffic there is crazy and you'd want to be as comfortable as possible while waiting in traffic. But there are also other modes of transportation you can use.
1. LOCAL TRANSPORTATION
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For nearby trips, you can always hop onto a cycle rickshaw or an autorickshaw. You'll see plenty of these on the streets. Just make sure you have a rough idea of what the fare should be since it's a common practice for drivers to overcharge tourists. You can also hop into taxis but good luck convincing the drivers to use the meters. If they refuse to use the meter, agree on an amount, for the number of people you have (sometimes they may try and increase the price by saying the quoted prices are for each person rather than the group).
2. ENJOY THE LANDSCAPE FROM A TRAIN
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Travelling via train in India from city to city is a must-do for every traveller! The vast country has train tracks spanning across the entire country from north, south, east and west. The train type varies depending on how much you're willing to pay. It can range from squeezing in with the locals to the most luxurious first class cabins you've ever seen in your life. There are many options for you to choose from such as the famous Palace on Wheels and the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey.
3. TAKE A SCENIC DRIVE There are also plenty of group bus tours or private tours that take you around the Golden Triangle. It's a great alternative for those who prefer travelling in a car rather than taking the train
4. FLY AROUND INDIA If you're really strapped for time, you could also fly from city to city. Most major cities in India have airports that are pretty central making it easy to travel. For international flights, the most common route is to fly into Delhi, and take a bus or train to Agra followed by Jaipur, and fly out via Jaipur airport. But depending on your schedule, you could fly into any of the three airports.
And that's it! India is an amazing country filled with vibrant culture and people. There's so much more to India that travellers need to experience for themselves to fully understand the jaw-dropping chaos and adventure that is India. It's time you and that travel buddy of yours get packing for your trip to North India!