You’ll either love or hate India. There is absolutely no in-between. I have been twice, it’s my favourite place on Earth and I’m already planning my next adventure there.
Whether you love it or hate it, a visit to India is an experience like no other.
There are lots of beautifully written blogs and books giving you the best advice and tips on places to go. I’m not sure that this is one of them – but these are my experiences, the things I wish I’d known before going, and a few things I will never forget.
1. It’s tough to get a cup of tea.
Let’s get that out of the way early. You’re going to the home of tea, you might assume the streets are overflowing with English Breakfast and Earl Grey. They are not. However, there is masala chai absolutely everywhere. It is cheap, milky, sugary and delicious. Try it. Then try not to become addicted.
2. Don’t listen to anyone that tells you not to go to the Taj Mahal
Yes, it takes ages to get to. No, there isn’t much else to do in Agra. Yes, India does have so much more to offer. But it’s the Eiffel Tower. It’s the Sydney Opera House. It’s the Empire State Building. It’s Big Ben. It’s the Trafford Centre. It’s THE. TAJ. MAHAL.
And anyway, the number of likes you will get on the Instagram post where you pretend to be a lonely Princess Diana will make the five-hour journey from Delhi worth every second. Snatch that #content.
3. Head north.
Even all that time spent admiring my parents super classy drinks cabinet masquerading as a globe whilst reaching for the Babysham at Christmas could not prepare me for just how huge India is. Most people fly into Mumbai or Delhi and head south. Understandably. You could spend months travelling this vast country and still not have seen half of it. Avoid this mistake.
Amritsar, in the beautiful Punjab, really is a special place – a buzzing mixture of history, food, religion, and culture.
If you’re in Amritsar, you’ll be visiting the Golden Temple, Sri Harimandir Sahib. Good. Do it. But do it twice – first at night and then again the next day. Make sure you do it in that order. Seeing the Golden Temple illuminated will take your breath away and will stay with you long after you’ve left India and you’re back at work arguing with Joan from Accounts about payment runs.
In the day, this holiest of Sikh sites really comes alive with thousands of visitors praying, catching up with friends and family, and breaking bread with strangers. The kitchens there, staffed predominantly by volunteers, feed around 100,000 people a day. Seriously. Regardless of religion, ethnicity or wealth – if you want a meal, there is a meal for you. It really is a special thing to witness.
If you want to see humanity at its best – go to the Golden Temple in Amritsar during the day and see the kitchen in action.
As we were in Amritsar, we also visited the capital of the Punjab, Chandigarh. Fun fact for you: though Chandigarh is the capital of the Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana it is not actually in either and is ruled directly by the federal government.
Built to replace Lahore, which had become part of the newly-formed Pakistan, Chandigarh really is a modern city with architecture at its heart.
The jewel in Chandigarh’s crown is Nek Chand’s Rock Garden (also know as the Rock Garden of Chandigarh). The gardens were started in secret by government official Nek Chand, on land designated as a forest buffer, where authorities said nothing could be built. By the time it was discovered eighteen years later, so taken by it were the citizens of Chandigarh that they demanded it was kept and opened up.
With its connecting waterfalls, haunting ceramic sculptures and play areas, you can’t help but see why people loved and continue to love it. It manages the feat of attracting 5,000 visitors a day, yet feeling like an oasis of calm. And to make it even more interesting, it is all built from industrial and household waste goods.
4. Don’t spend too much time in cities
Indian cities are an experience not to be missed, but relaxing they are not. They’re magical and breathtaking and exciting with a unrivaled sense of hustle and bustle. But they can be exhausting. If you can escape the cities then escape the cities.
5. Go to Pushkar and Udaipur
Originally not on my itinerary, I got really bored of people I met telling me how incredible Udaipur and Pushkar are. So I caved. I changed my plans and cut down my time in Jaipur and Mumbai – one of the best decisions I ever made in my entire life.
Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India. I know I just told you to leave the cities, but with a population of less than 15,000, this is not Mumbai.
Of all of the beauty India has to offer, I can understand why Gandhi picked Pushkar to be his final resting place.
The lake at the heart of Pushkar is believed to have been formed of the Lord Shiva’s tears as he mourned the death of his wife. It is also the place that Gandhi’s ashes were scattered. Of all of the beauty India has to offer, I can understand why Gandhi picked Pushkar to be his final resting place.
Whilst staying in Pushkar, our hostel also arranged a trip for us to head into the mountains to meet with Aloo Baba, an holy man who has lived on nothing but boiled potatoes for forty plus years.
Udaipur is sometimes referred to as ‘the Venice of the East’. It is easy to see why. The lakes are the stars of this town. With its narrow crooked streets all leading to the water, and its marble buildings, traditional markets, booming arts scene and abundance of great food, I challenge you to not fall in love.
The other star is Taj Lake Palace, which you may recognise as the lair from the 1983 James Bond film, Octopusy. My tip is to head down to the lake, just before sunset, jump on one of the guide boats and watch the sun go down over Octopusy’s lair.
One of my highlights of all of my time spent in India was taking a cooking class. I did Shashi’s Cooking Class in Udaipur and I cannot rate it highly enough. She taught the basics of Indian cooking; we had pakora, naan breads, paranthas, paneer and curries. There were lots of laughs – especially at my inability to make chapattis. Do not eat before taking the class though – I practically rolled back to my hostel.
Tip: Udaipur Art Cafe stocks European coffee. It is definitely worth a visit.
6. Forget any notion of time
Time doesn’t exist in India and it is the most infuriating and liberating thing. Seriously. Trains will arrive when they arrive, food comes when it comes. Accept it and go with it. There’s nothing you can do about it so why stress?
7. Food glorious food
I assume that’s a major reason why you’re going to India, so I won’t labour this point. I will however give you some of my favourite places and dishes:
- Do a food tour. Whenever I visit a new place in India, I try to do a food tour. Reality Tours & Travel are probably the best. Not only are their food tours interesting and informative, giving you the history of the city you’re in, as well as insights from a local, they also put 80% of their profit back into the local community.
- Take a cooking class– I wrote about the cooking class I did in Udaipur, above. So I won’t bang on about it. But go and do a cooking class. It will be time well spent.
- Drink lots of lassi. I became addicted to these slightly sour yogurt drinks whilst in India. My favourite was the mango lassi from Blue Lassi in Varanasi.
- Eat as much vegetarian food as possible. Not even to lower the risk of getting an upset tummy, although it will help. Just because vegetarian food in India is so yummy. The majority of the country eats vegetarian food the majority of the time, so they know what they’re doing.
- Don’t get cocky with spice levels. If you’re clearly a traveler, lots of restaurants will automatically dial down the amount of spice they put in your food. If you want it spicy, ask. But be warned – spicy means spicy.
- Visit Khan ChaCha, Delhi. I still dream about the chicken tikka roll from Khan ChaCha. In fact, I made a detour that took the best part of a day, to go back through Delhi to get one last one.
- Have afternoon tea in the Sea Lounge at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai. Fancy af. Worth it. https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj-mahal-palace-mumbai/restaurants/sea-lounge-restaurant/
- Go to McDonalds – come for me all you want, I absolutely do not care. I like to visit a McDonalds in every country I visit. I have two traditions: pick a local special item burger, and try a cheeseburger to see how it compares to England’s. The most interesting thing is being in a McDonalds in a country that does not serve beef. Everything is different.
8. Soak in every moment.
You’ll be back home before you know it so take as many photos as you can, write a journal, pick up mementos along the way.