India is a vibrant land of startling contrasts where both the traditional and modern worlds meet. The world’s seventh largest nation by area and the second largest in terms of population, India boasts a rich heritage that’s the result of centuries of different cultures and religions leaving their mark. Things to do for travelers include the opportunity to experience an array of sacred sites and spiritual encounters, while nature lovers will enjoy its sun-washed beaches, lush national parks, and exciting wildlife sanctuaries.
From the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra to the holy sites of Harmandir Sahib (formerly the Golden Temple) in Amritsar and the Mecca Masjid mosque in Hyderabad, visitors to this exotic country will discover a trove of spiritual, cultural, and historical treasures.
To help you make the most of your time in this amazing country, refer often to our list of the top things to do in India
1. The Taj Mahal, Agra
The Taj Mahal, Agra
Perhaps India’s most recognizable building, the Taj Mahal is also the world’s most famous testimony to the power of love. Named after Mumtaz Mahal, the favorite wife of Emperor Shah Jahan, this most beautiful of mausoleums was begun upon her death in 1631 and took 20,000 workmen until 1648 to complete.
Incorporating many elements of Islamic design including arches, minarets, an onion-shaped dome, and black calligraphy inlaid around the entrance, the Taj Mahal is largely constructed of white marble decorated with delicate inlaid floral patterns and precious and semi-precious stones such as jade, lapis lazuli, diamonds, and mother of pearl.
The best time to visit is either at dawn or dusk when the atmosphere is brilliantly altered by the change in lighting. If possible, try to catch a view of the Taj Mahal’s reflection from the far bank of the Yamuna River-it makes for a memorable (and safe) selfie.
Address: 64 Taj Road, Agra-282001
2. The Holy City of Varanasi
The Holy City of Varanasi
A major pilgrimage center for Hindus, the holy city of Varanasi has long been associated with the mighty Ganges River, one of the faith’s most important religious symbols. Dating back to the 8th century BC, Varanasi is one of the oldest still inhabited cities in the world.
It offers many reasons to visit, not least of them the chance to explore the Old Quarter adjacent to the Ganges where you’ll find the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, built in 1780 (the New Vishwanath Temple with its seven separate temples is also of interest).
Bathing in the Ganges is of great importance to Hindus, and numerous locations known as “ghats” feature stairways leading to the water where the faithful bathe before prayers.
All told, Varanasi boasts more than 100 ghats, the largest being Dasashvamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat (the latter, at the confluence of the Ganges and Asi rivers, is considered particularly holy). Also worth seeing is Banaras Hindu University, established in 1917 and noted for its massive library with more than a million books, and the superb Bharat Kala Bhavan museum featuring fine collections of miniature paintings, sculptures, palm-leaf manuscripts, and local history exhibits.
3. Harmandir Sahib: The Golden Temple of Amritsar
Harmandir Sahib: The Golden Temple of Amritsar
Founded in 1577 by Ram Das, Amritsar is an important hub of Sikh history and culture. The main attraction here is Harmandir Sahib, opened in 1604 and still often referred to as the Golden Temple for its beautiful gold decoration. The holiest of India’s many Sikh shrines (it also attracts many Hindus and people of other faiths), the temple was built in a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, its lower marble section featuring such flourishes as ornate inlaid floral and animal motifs, while the large golden dome represents a lotus flower, a symbol of purity to Sikhs.
In addition to its splendid design, visitors are equally impressed with the temple’s spiritual atmosphere, an effect enhanced by the prayers continuously chanted from the Sikh holy book and broadcast throughout the complex. Part of the overall experience-and visitors are welcome to participate-is the chance to enjoy one of the 50,000 free meals the attraction serves up to visitors each and every day.
Address: Golden Temple Road, Amritsar, Punjab 143006
4. The Golden City: Jaisalmer
The Golden City: Jaisalmer
So named for the yellow sandstone used in most of its buildings, the Golden City of Jaisalmer is an oasis of splendid old architecture that rises from the sand dunes of the Thar Desert. Once a strategic outpost, today the city is filled with splendid old mansions, magnificent gateways, and the massive Jaisalmer Fort-also known as the Golden Fort-a daunting 12th-century structure that rises high above the town.
In addition to its palaces, temples, and fine old homes, the fortress boasts 99 bastions along with massive gates leading to its main courtyard where you’ll find the seven-story-tall Maharaja’s Palace. Started in the early 1500s and added to by successive rulers right up until the 19th century, the palace offers sections open to the public including areas beautifully decorated with tiles from Italy and China, and intricately carved stone doors, as well as a number of Jain temples dating from the 12th to 16th centuries, each decorated with fine marble and sandstone images, palm-leaf manuscripts, and brightly painted ceilings.
Be sure to also check out the well-preserved 1,000-year-old library, Gyan Bhandar, with its many 16th-century manuscripts and antiquities.
5. The Red Fort, New Delhi
The Red Fort, New Delhi
Built by Shah Jahan in 1648 as the seat of Mughal power-a role it maintained until 1857-the magnificent crescent-shaped Red Fort in New Delhi, named after the stunning red sandstone used in its construction, covers a vast area of more than two square kilometers, all of it surrounded by a large moat. Highlights include its two largest gates: the impressive Lahore Gate (the fort’s main entrance) and the elaborately decorated Delhi Gate, once used by the emperor for ceremonial processions.
A fun part of a visit is exploring Chatta Chowk, a 17th-century covered bazaar selling everything from jewelry to silk garments, as well as souvenirs and food items. While you can explore the fort yourself, guided tours are offered and provide a fascinating insight into the life and times of the Shah, including a peek into the stunning white marble Hall of Public Audiences (Diwan-i-Am) where he received his subjects.
Hot Tip: Try to stick around for the sound and light show held each evening featuring important events in the fort’s history.
Address: Netaji Subhash Marg, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi, Delhi 110006
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