Following on from an exploration of Leh, Chandigarh, and Kochi, we take a look at three more of India’s most captivating cities—places which often don’t receive the attention that they deserve. The diversity and vibrancy of these frequently overlooked destinations proves there is so much more to India than the exalted Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. Sue has been backpacking and housesitting her way the world since 2012 and has travelled and lived in over fifty countries. Her favourites countries to date are the equally colourful and compelling India and Mexico.
This unique city is situated on the banks of the River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh and is the most sacred place in India for Hindus. Pilgrims come to pray and take a dip in the river, holy men covered in ash offer spiritual advice, and cows wander through the narrow alleyways. In the evenings, a spectacular river worship ceremony, Ganga Aarti, takes place. Varanasi is chaotic and colourful, enthralling and shocking, and totally unforgettable.
A sunrise boat tour is the perfect way to witness Varanasi waking up when the city is bathed in soft orange light. Watch locals carrying out their daily rituals which include puja (prayers) and bathing in the river. Afterwards, take a stroll along the ghats. Devoted pilgrims, women wearing vibrant saris, snake-charmers, sleeping dogs, and semi-naked yogis co-exist in a carnival-like atmosphere.The labyrinth of alleyways adjacent to the Ganges is ripe for exploration. Mysterious temples, tiny shops, and ancient houses line the maze of lanes. Wandering cows compete for space with locals going about their daily business. Occasionally, one might catch sight of a body being carried towards the river where it will be cremated before the ashes are scattered into the sacred Ganges.
For lunch, pay a visit to Bowl of Compassion, a rooftop restaurant with excellent views which supports schooling for underprivileged children. As well contributing to a good cause, the curries and dosas are mouth-wateringly good and the beer is icy cold. Watch out for the friendly monkeys!Spend the afternoon browsing the shops and stalls at Thatheri Bazaar, where handmade rugs, saris, and brass ornaments are specialities. As the sun goes down, it’s time to hop on another boat to experience the magnificent and powerful Ganga Aarti, a ceremony in which fire is used as an offering. Complete your day by sending your own candlelit offering down the river to join the hundreds of others illuminating the revered Ganga.
Getting there: Being such an important spiritual city, Varanasi is well connected to all major Indian cities by air, road, and rail. Babatpur Airport is about half an hour’s ride from the city.Getting around: Many of the alleyways around the river are too narrow to navigate by rickshaw and consequently the best way to explore the city is on foot.Weather: The most comfortable time to visit Varanasi is between November and March after the monsoons. It can be chilly in the evenings but reaches up to 27 degrees Celsius during the day. April to June is the hottest time of the year and can be unbearable often reaching 40-plus degrees.
One of Rajasthan’s most romantic cities, Udaipur is built around four lakes, which are surrounded by the Aravari hills. Forts and palaces abound, and Udaipur is home to two resplendent palace hotels. The serenity of the lakes lends the city a laidback air not found in many Indian cities. Apart from exploring the exquisite palaces, one of the most popular pursuits for tourists is simply sitting on a rooftop restaurant taking in the panoramic views. Enjoy an early Namaste breakfast on the roof of Jaiwana Haveli and watch the rising sun glisten on Lake Pichola. From there, you are a mere stone’s throw from the splendid City Palace. Preserved as a museum, the palace was built over a period of 400 years and exploring the courtyards and corridors is an adventure in itself. The intricate silver and glasswork, murals, and wall paintings are well-preserved and there are great views of the city and lake.
When you have exhausted the sights of the palace, head out into the gardens from where you can board a boat on Lake Pichola. Offering an alternative perspective of Udaipur, the boat passes the luxurious Taj Lake Palace Hotel and stops at the island where Jag Mandir Palace is located. Back on dry land, head to Bagore ke Haveli, which houses an eclectic (and somewhat bizarre!) collection of folk art, including an array of puppets and the world’s largest turban. If you happen to be there in the early evening, you may wish to catch the nightly Dharohar folk dancing and puppet show extravaganza. Finish your day where you started—on a rooftop. The Natural View Restaurant serves Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine along with the prerequisite panoramic lake views.
Getting there: There are bus and train stations in town. The airport is well-connected and is situated 22 kilometres from the city, from which there are buses and pre-paid taxis. Getting around: Taxis and auto-rickshaws are unmetered, so fares need to be pre-arranged. Weather: The best time to visit Udaipur is between September and March, avoiding the monsoons and intense heat. During these months it reaches 30 degrees Celsius and there is often a refreshing light breeze.
This Tibetan enclave in the Himalayas was where the Dalai Lama took refuge back in 1959 when he escaped from his homeland of Tibet. He still lives in a modest house behind the Tsuk Lakhang Temple today. The city attracts a combination of Indian tourists, spiritual seekers, and backpackers. The main hub is McCleod Ganj, where the narrow lanes are lined with cafés and Buddhist bookshops and monks rub shoulders with dreadlocked foreigners. Buildings cling to the mountainsides, prayer flags dance in the wind, and spirituality is ever-present.Whether you are in the mood for a Tibetan or Western-style breakfast, The Snow Lion, situated opposite a colourful temple, serves up an excellent choice from their extensive menu. If you can, grab a seat by the window and watch the activities on the busy street, where street vendors ply their trade and monks hurry to the temple.
Head along the road and past shops and trinket stalls to Tsuk Lakhang Temple. In the gardens, you can watch monks in debate. In pairs, they express their opinions, gesticulate, and clap their hands to make their point. Sometimes it appears a little heated, but it’s done in good humour and it’s all very entertaining to watch. While you in the complex, be sure to check out the temple rooms and the Tibetan Museum.
Take a taxi a few miles outside of McCleod Ganj to Norbulingka Institute, which is dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture. Set in pretty gardens, there are exhibits, a temple, and work studios, where young people are taught the skills needed to keep the culture and art of Tibet alive. The café is an ideal spot for a pause and a refreshing mango lassi.For trekking enthusiasts, there are a variety of hikes that can be undertaken around Dharamsala, from tough multi-day challenges to the overnight Triund Trek. For those who prefer something less hard-core, the trail Bhagsu Waterfall is an easy hike and a round trip can be done in a couple of hours. There are even cafés and drink vendors on route to provide sustenance.
Dharamkot is a tiny hippie village, which is accessible from McCleod Ganj by foot or tuk-tuk and it’s an ideal place to wind down when you’ve had your fill of sights. Morgan’s Place serves tasty Italian food, including pizzas which are baked in a wood fire oven, and the views from the terrace take in the surrounding mountains and valley. Getting there: The nearest airport, Kangra, is located about 15 kilometres from the city and is connected by regular flights from Delhi. Buses, cabs, and autos are available from there.Getting around: McCleod Ganj is easy to get around on foot if you don’t mind tackling a hill or two. For trips further afield, taxis and auto-rickshaws are available. Weather: The best time to visit is between March and July when the temperature is between 22 and 35 degrees Celsius. The valleys and hills are filled with flowers and it is perfect trekking weather. Visas: India e-visas are required and can be applied for online. Check with the Indian Embassy for requirements.