India cultural vacations map & highlights

From the deserts of Northern India and Rajasthan to the wetlands and tropical mountain ranges of Kerala and Karnataka, landscape and climate often influence culture in India. So does religious or colonial heritage. The Taj Mahal is the greatest icon of the Mughal period, and the palaces of Rajasthan capture the glories of the Raj eras. Royalty, Islam and Hinduism all play vital roles in contemporary culture too, as does Buddhism in the far north. Our cultural map and highlights of India are just meant to be springboards from where culture vultures can perch and peruse. Dive into the actual vacations to find all the rich pickings.

1. Jaipur

This is the jewel in Rajasthanís royal crown, and a pink crown at that, with buildings painted in pink to highlight their natural sandstone colouring. It is like bursting a piŮata of colour and culture, with flower markets, intricately designed palaces such as the Palace of the Winds, bazaars packed with beautiful Rajastani crafts and art, and palaces that are now iconic heritage hotels. All truly Marigold in its magnificence.

2. Karnataka

With so many cultural and natural highlights, it is always amazing to us that the state of Karnataka is not so well known internationally. It is highly regarded amongst responsible tourism companies, however. Check out its Western Ghats hill station heritage, its Konkan coastal cool and the UNESCO heritage site at Hampi, home to one of the oldest, working temples in India Ė Virupaksha.
Keralaís backwaters

3. Keralaís backwaters

The most traditional way to visit these wetlands that spread through the inland tropics is on board a converted rice boat, now houseboats, known as kettuvallams. Kayak to more remote spots stopping at waterfront villages, where people still live very traditional lives fishing, mussel diving and duck farming. There have been overcrowding issues on the waterways but responsible companies know how to escape the crowds.

4. Jaisalmer

Not only the gateway to the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer is also home to one of Rajasthanís most famous forts, and worthy of an adventure into the remote, arid terrain. Built in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal, it looks almost like a mirage, its yellow sandstone walls segueing with the surrounding sands. This being Rajasthan, home to some of Indiaís classiest heritage hotels, you can stay in a hotel inside the walls of this famous fort.

5. Jodhpur

If you are exploring beyond the Golden Triangle and into the heart of Rajasthan, Jodhpur is a must. As well as its magnificent Mehrangarh Fort that overlooks this blue painted city, it has superb markets, and the recently restored Step Well is a must, as are its royal heritage hotels. It is also the gateway to the desert, where you can visit the desert dwelling Bishnoi and Bhil tribes.

6. Kochi

Formerly known as Cochin, this is a fort and port city which is as stimulating as the spices it is famous for. It has beaches at Cherai and Fort Cochi, a lively cultural and arts scene, magnificent food and a wholesome approach to life. Its history is also fascinating, as many explorers and traders started their journeys here, and Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese communities still thrive. Kochi is the height of Kerala cool.
Old Delhi

7. Old Delhi

Even though Delhi has a rough reputation, it also has many glories, and the crazy cosmopolitan cornucopia is loved by many people. Old Delhi is the ancient walled city at the heart of the behemoth, with three UNESCO sites: Humayun's Tomb, Qutub complex and The Red Fort. All emanating from the Mughal period, the souks and food in its streets and Chandni Chowk market are a must.

8. Punjab

An extraordinary region comprising several states including Punjab itself, it is packed with history, great sacred sites and stunning train journeys. As well as the great Himalayas as backdrop. Cultural tours to Punjab often begin in Delhi, with long distances on trains that take you into another world. A world that includes great food, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj.
Rajasthanís sacred cities

9. Rajasthanís sacred cities

The city of Pushkar and the temple complex at Ranakpur are often on cultural vacation itineraries. The former is a sacred site for Hindus as Pushkar Lake is believed to be holy water and is, therefore, surrounded by temples and bathing ghats. At Ranakpur, the Jain temple complex is one of five sacred Jain sites in the country. The Birla Mandir and the Galtaji Temple in Jaipur are also stunning sacred sites.
Taj Mahal

10. Taj Mahal

If any building can be described as unique in India, the Taj Mahal is it. You canít help be moved by the story of the Taj, although the history of the Shah Jahanís love life isnít as pure as the white marble mausoleum he built in memory of his late wife. It is also a working mosque, so although it is very busy, remember this is still a place of worship.
Tamil Naduís temples

11. Tamil Naduís temples

Unlike many of neighbouring Keralaís temples, where non Hindus are often not granted entry, you are able to go inside most of Tamil Naduís sacred sites. And they have some spectacular ones. Meenakshi Temple is just one example in the temple filled city of Madurai. Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur and Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai are also must sees, both highly decorative and impressive.

12. Varanasi

Probably the most famous of Indiaís sacred cities, Varanasi is the pinnacle of pilgrimage points for Hindus. Life revolves around the Ganges in Varanasi, where incense always fills the air, people bathe in the holy waters and lead funerals. It is colourful, culture-ful and definitely soulful place to be. And also full on, so take a big breath and be prepared for a cultural onslaught.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about India culture or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Uzi Yachin] [Kerala's backwaters - Houseboat with man in scence : kyran low] [Jaipur - Pink palace Rajasthan: Annie Spratt] [Karnataka - Virupaksha temple : Soham Banerjee] [Kerala backwaters - boatride: Silver blue] [Bazaar Delhi: David Gil] [Jaisalmer - Yellow Fort : Pascal Versaci] [Jodhpur - Mehrangarh fort (view out to blue city): Plusgood ] [Kochi - wall painting: Photasia] [Old Delhi - Humayun's Tomb : Selmer van Alten] [Golden Temple Amritsar: Arian Zwegers] [Pushkar lake : Ling Wang Marina] [Taj Mahal: Julian Yu] [Tamil Nadu's temples - Kapaleeshwarar Shiva temple : Richard Mortel] [Varanasi - People : Plusgood]