When we think of taking a trip to India, the first thing that comes to mind is the dazzling white beauty of the Taj Mahal. Later? Er… well… Bollywood? The country ended up so marked by the image of the mausoleum, hammered in recent years as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, that it seems that there are no more outstanding attractions to visit there. But there is. Many. So many that it is possible to put together a list of 10 unmissable things to do in India and still leave out some very interesting sights.
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With the exception of Amritsar to the north and Mumbai to the south, India’s tourist cities are all concentrated in the heart of the country and around the capital, New Delhi. Thus, it is quite simple to put together a travel itinerary that covers some of its best attractions without having to travel far or stay there for a long time. Visiting Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and Varanasi, you will experience the unfailing Taj Mahal and beyond.
The beautiful forts of Rajasthan, colorful cities, palaces covered with mirrors or tiny windows, mausoleums that resemble jewel boxes, an unusual open-air astronomical observatory and all the Hindu spirituality on the banks of the sacred Ganges River will be on your way. Check out 10 unmissable things to do in India:
What to do in India 1 – Taj Mahal
The mausoleum that Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built for his third wife – Mumtaz Mahal – is the most beautiful monument to love that man has ever laid eyes on. The perfection of its white marble domes and minarets, which rise 73 meters high against the blue sky, is capable of moving even those who, until now, have only seen pictures of the Taj Mahal. Elected one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it is by far the best preserved historical heritage in the country. Located in Agra, a city just 180 kilometers from New Delhi, it is easily accessible by train.
The building took almost 20 years to build, with work on the main mausoleum ending in 1648. Other structures, such as the symmetrical garden, took another five years to complete. It took 22,000 workers to build the Taj Mahal, including masons, diggers, sculptors, painters, calligraphers and other craftsmen of the time. 1,000 elephants would have been used to transport the materials that would give rise to the building. More than 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones were used in the decoration of the Taj.
Anyone who wants to visit the monument at the time of day when there are fewer tourists will have to be at the gates at the time they open: at dawn. The end of visitation also does not have a fixed time and ends at sunset. A very important detail to remember when planning how to visit the Taj Mahal during your trip is that it is closed on Fridays! Tickets for foreigners cost 1,000 rupees, or about US$ 15. For more details on how the moment works, check out the step-by-step guide on how to visit the Taj Mahal here .
What to do in India 2 – River Ganges
The Ganges River, or Ganga as it is called by the Indians, is one of the largest and most polluted waterways in the world. Its waters are born between the Himalayan mountains and travel a journey of 2,510 kilometers to Bangladesh. But it’s not because of its grandeur – much less dirt – that getting to know it is one of the 10 unmissable things to do in India. But because this is the sacred river of the Indians, the place that everyone looks for blessings and, if possible, the final rest. Some believe that a life is not complete without a dip in the Ganges at least once.
The best place to get to know the Ganges is Varanasi, 675 kilometers from New Delhi, considered by many believers as the holiest city in Hinduism. In it, you can walk through the ‘gats’, the stairs that give access to the river, and watch the beautiful Hindu ceremony at the end of the day. The boat trip at dawn is another must-see show. It is at this time that Indians bathe in sacred waters and ask for blessings for the day that begins. But don’t be surprised, because they do take a shower: they wash their heads, hair, under their arms. Some clean clothes and pots too.
The best way to follow and understand all this religiosity so different from Brazilian or Latin is by hiring a local guide. He can take you to the ceremonies and keep you from making mistakes, especially regarding the crematoriums. Many Indians go to Varanasi to die or have their bodies taken by their families for ashes to be thrown into the Ganges. Therefore, they are cremated in gigantic wooden pyres that operate 24 hours a day on the banks of the river. It is possible to observe from afar, but the moment of pain of the families must be respected.
What to do in India 3 – Hawa Mahal
Although it is located in the middle of a busy and noisy avenue in the center of Jaipur, 270 kilometers from New Delhi, the Hawa Mahal is one of the most representative postcards of India and the region of Rajasthan. Its red sandstone facade is dotted with hundreds of tiny windows, from which the women of the court could see the streets of the Pink City without being seen. Also called the ‘Palace of Winds’, it was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh.
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Inside, there’s not much to see other than a small courtyard and the endless parade of small rooms adorned with small colored windows, which served as the women’s quarters. To get to the ticket office, go around the first corner on the right of the palace façade and then turn right again. Visiting hours are from 9 am to 4:30 pm. The Hawa Mahal is right in the center of Jaipur and can be easily accessed on foot or a short ‘tuk tuk’ ride, depending on where you are staying in the city. Entry for tourists costs 200 rupees (about $3).
What to do in India 4 – Red Fort
Although it does not compare in beauty and preservation to the Agra Fort (Agra) or the Amber Fort (Jaipur), the Red Fort, in New Delhi, is still one of the top 10 things to do in India. Gigantic and imposing, it has a few centuries of history to tell. It was over its red sandstone walls that the first flag of India as a country free from the British Empire was raised in 1947. And this gesture has been repeated every year since. But the history of the fortress begins long before that.
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In 1638, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan – the same as the one from the Taj Mahal -, moved the capital of the kingdom from Agra to New Delhi and arranged for the reform of an old fort in the city to be his residence and seat of government. This is how the 103 hectares of the defensive complex emerged, surrounded by 2.4 kilometers of walls that rise up to 33 meters in height. Highlights of the visit to the fort are the entry gate – the Lahori Gate – and the Diwan-i-Aam, the public audience space where the Emperor’s throne once stood.
There are several buildings scattered around the complex, as well as a vast garden, but many are closed due to lack of restoration. At night, it is possible to participate in a sound and light show that tells the centenary history of the fort. Access to Red Fort is easy via Chandni Chowk Metro Station. Visiting hours are from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, and the monument is closed on Mondays. Entry for foreign tourists costs 500 Indian rupees (about US$8). The evening show in English starts between 7:30 PM and 9:00 PM, depending on the season, and costs around $1.50.
Things to do in India 5 – ‘Baby Taj’
‘Baby Taj’ is the nickname, shall we say, of the almost unpronounceable Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah. Like the Taj Mahal, it is located in the city of Agra, just 180 kilometers from New Delhi and easily accessible by train. This was the first Indian ‘garden mausoleum’ built entirely of white marble, not red sandstone. The nickname comes from the obvious resemblance to the Taj Mahal, being a miniature of the gigantic tomb built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
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The owner of the mausoleum, Mir Ghiyas Beg, was one of Jahan’s court ministers and the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, the emperor’s beloved wife whose death drove him so mad with grief that it led to the building of the Taj Mahal. I’timād-ud-Daulah was built between 1622 and 1628 and is very well preserved. The tomb is open every day, from dawn to dusk, and entry for foreigners costs US$1.80. As it is located on the outskirts of the city, on the banks of the Yamuna River, the best way to get there is to call a ‘tuk tuk’.
What to do in India 6 – Jantar Mantar
Some Brazilians may remember the Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory as part of the opening scenes of Rede Globo’s telenovela Caminho das Índias. Located in the heart of Jaipur, it is one of the many tourist attractions in the Pink City of Rajasthan, 270 kilometers from New Delhi. The Jantar Mantar is a collection of nineteen architectural instruments for astronomical observation built by King Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734. Among them is the largest stone sundial in the world.
Made of wood, stone and bronze, they allow the naked eye to observe the positions of the stars. Jantar Mantar is right in the center of Jaipur and can be easily reached by foot or a short ‘tuk tuk’ ride, depending on where you are staying in the city. Visiting hours are from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, with noon being recommended as the best time of day due to the solar position in the astronomical observation structures. Entry for foreign tourists costs 200 Indian rupees (about US$3).
What to do in India 7 – Amber Fort
Amber Fort is certainly the most beautiful fort in India, surpassing Agra, Red and other forts in the Rajasthan region. It is located 11 kilometers from the city center of Jaipur which, in turn, is 270 kilometers from the capital, New Delhi. Built on top of a hill on the shores of Lake Maota, the building gained the beautiful forms it displays to this day, in red sandstone and white marble, during the reign of Raja Man Singh, in the 16th century.
The fort is divided into four sections: the first is the Ganesh Pol, which is the impressive entrance gate to the fort’s palace. In the second, the highlight is the Diwan-i-Aam, a platform topped by 27 pilasters from which the raja listened to public petitions. In the third and prettiest, are the air-conditioned garden and the famous ‘Sheesh Mahal’, or palace of mirrors. The fourth is the least well-preserved part of the fort, and only houses a series of empty rooms that used to house the women of the court.
To get to Amber Fort, the quickest and most practical option is to order a taxi or hire a private driver. Visitation is from 8 am to 6 pm and admission costs 550 Indian rupees (about US$ 8). A light and sound show that tells the story of the fort takes place every day at 7:30 pm, in English. Tickets cost 200 Indian rupees (about US$3).
What to do in India 8 – City of Udaipur
The White City, as Udaipur is called, is the cleanest and least polluted place in tourist India, and one of the few where you can walk the backstreets and window shop almost without being pestered by vendors or stepping in cow dung, sewage and other waste. There are no major attractions in the city, located in the Rajasthan region, over 670 kilometers from New Delhi. What makes it one of the top 10 things to do in India is its ‘winds in your hair’ climate on the edge of Lake Pichola.
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Choosing one of the countless restaurants on the terraces of the buildings for dinner while the sun goes down over the water is a must. If the place you chose has a daily screening of ‘007 against Octopussy’, stay there and enjoy the movie, which invariably starts at 7 pm. If not, look for another restaurant to watch. ‘Octopussy’ was filmed in Udaipur and the city is so proud of having its own 007 that, to this day, several bars and restaurants show daily screenings of the film. It is certainly one of the most unusual tourist attractions in the world, hehe.
You can also visit the ‘City Palace’, or City Palace, a beautiful building built in the 1550s and which housed several generations of local maharajas. Today, it functions as a museum and you can visit it from the inside. It is also from the ‘City Palace’ that the boats leave for the Taj Lake Palace hotel. The establishment is one of the most luxurious in India and is located on its own island over Lake Pichola, with a small outdoor area and restaurant open to the public.
What to do in India 9 – Humayun’s Tomb
Located in the Indian capital, New Delhi, the tomb is the final resting place of Emperor Humayun, a member of the Arab Mughal dynasty, one of the most famous to rule India. The beautiful building was the first ‘garden mausoleum’ in the country, where many more would later be built, including the Taj Mahal. The tomb of red sandstone and white domes was commissioned by Humayun’s widow, Empress Bega Begam, in 1565.
Later, countless other rulers were buried there, giving rise to a complex of buildings around the main tomb. ‘Humayun’s Tomb’ is located near the JLN Stadium subway station and can be visited every day from dawn to dusk. Entry for foreign tourists costs 500 Indian rupees (about US$8).
What to do in India 10 – Agra Fort
Although it is often overshadowed and even ignored in the face of the fame of the neighboring Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort certainly only loses to it the first position among the 10 must-do things to do in India. Located in Agra, a city just 180 kilometers from New Delhi and easily accessible by train, this immense bastion of defense occupies an area of no less than 380,000 square meters. Only a part of it is open for tourism as it is still used by the Indian Army. But we even have to be grateful for that, otherwise it would be a very, very long visit.
Although it was built in the 1400s by the Mughals, one of the most celebrated Arab dynasties to rule India, the fort gained its reddish color much later, in 1565. Some 4,000 people worked daily for eight years to wall it in. of sandstone. Another number that impresses at Agra Fort is the size of the double walls, which rise 21 meters high around three sides of the fortress – the fourth faces the Yamuna River. Inside them parade a collection of about 30 rooms, halls, courtyards, gardens, mosques, tombs and other constructions of the time that survived the British rule.
Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, ended his days imprisoned in Agra Fort by his own son. Legend has it that, from his cell, he used a diamond as a magnifying glass to be able to see the mausoleum, built south of the city. Anyone who visits Agra Fort today can have the same vision that Shah Jahan had of the building, but without the diamond and with much more pollution. Visiting hours are from dawn to sunset and admission costs 500 Indian rupees (about US$8).