I get itinerary based questions all the time and they almost always go something like this: "My friend and I are travelling in India for about a month. Where should we go?"
I panicked every time I saw this question. 'Hello person I know nothing about. What is your budget? What are your interests? What do you want to see?!' Then I thought about my first month long trip within India. I had recently moved back to India after more than a decade and my best friend Soheil was coming to visit. We decided to travel but we had no real expectations. We were just curious.
Save the specificities for a second or third trip. First trips are for discovery. They’re the Restaurant Week of travel. They’re a tasting menu.
India is vast and magnificent and you’ll barely scratch the surface in a lifetime much less on a month long trip. But you’ll figure out what you like and hate on a first trip and that’s why it pays to mix things up.
On that first trip, after spending time in Bombay and Pune, Soheil and I headed up north to Varanasi and Agra then travelled Rajasthan before heading down south to Goa and Gokarna for some much needed R&R. It was a perfectly good itinerary - two regions, and a assortment of big cities, smaller towns, sightseeing, shopping, eating, cultural activities and some serious unwinding.
HERE'S WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND WHILE PLANNING YOUR INDIA ITINERARY:
- A month is long enough to see eight or nine different places on a first trip if planned well and you’re spending three or four days in each place though some places (like Agra) are exciting only for a day. It can be tempting to pack more in, but my advice is to leave your bags behind and seek out interesting places to daytrip if you’re feeling restless.
- Popular destinations are tried and tested with foreigners and locals alike, and many travellers do follow a tourist trail. There is nothing wrong with this, find a route that makes sense to you, and falls in line with your budget and schedule.
- Do your research. The seasons AKA extreme temperatures and lashing monsoons can play a major factor in whether a place is worth visiting or whether it’s even open. A simple Google search will give you lots of clues about what to expect in each place.
- Use Instagram. Search #insertdestination will tell you what there is to see and experience. If you’re visually inclined, I’ve learned Instagram does a far better job than Google Images.
- Play around with options. India is well-connected by rail and road but sometimes flying, particularly when booked in advance, can be a better option. Get acquainted with makemytrip, cleartrip, redbus and the IRCTC (rail) website.
For the first timer hoping to check out several destinations, I recommend the traditional North-South routine though it’s perfectly fine to stick to one. Pick a few places of interest from either region, and divide your time.
North India is extremely popular with travellers who often inevitably end up covering the golden triangle, a tourist circuit consisting of Delhi, Agra for the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. Many then travel within Rajasthan to Udaipur, the blue city of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and perhaps Pushkar, then travel onto Varanasi and lastly, head up to the mountains to Rishikesh, Dharamshala and/or Manali.
If you’d rather a soft landing, head south first. It’s a sharp contrast to the north, often more peacefuI and I personally find that people are gentler and more hospitable. Destinations one might put on their itinerary are Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Bangalore, Munnar, Periyar, Alleppey and Cochin (I adore Fort Kochi). For those skipping the north, Chennai, seaside Mamallapuram, Pondicherry and even Mysore and Madurai can be added to the list, a few places I did on my second India trip.
To first timers seeking a mixed bag, particularly those who can splurge on air travel, I suggest an itinerary that might include cities like Calcutta or Hyderabad, Manali and Ladakh or Kerala and Lakshadweep (all seasonally affected) for a fortnight or so, Goa and Hampi or a few towns in Rajasthan for good measure, places off the beaten path like Kutch and Ahmedabad, and if you’re coming from overseas, whichever city you fly into.
Keep in mind, a mixed bag is not for people on a small budget as often getting between places is the biggest expense on the road, unless you have a lot of time and propensity for train travel. Offbeat places often also have less cheap accommodation and transport options than popular tourist destinations. Stick to a maximum of six places.
There are other places you can go, many more in the north and south, and several others in the east and west, but this is simply a guide based on places I’ve been or have adequate knowledge of that I would personally recommend to friends planning their travels. And to answer another question I’m always asked. Which of these places is the real India? Absolutely all of them.
If you have questions about travelling in India, feel free to Ask Me Anything.
Image: Brightly coloured Indian trucks on the narrow winding ghats of Kashmir.