Given the family travel emphasis of this website, I typically don’t write much about my non-family trips. Several times a year I attend travel conferences, which aren’t interesting to write about, but I also go on a lot of photo expeditions around the world. I love travel and I love photography, and it’s fun when I can combine them for a week or two somewhere amazing.
It occurred to me that I’ve seen a lot of amazing places in India. Disclaimer – I haven’t been to a lot of India yet. My travels have taken me from Varanasi in the east to New Delhi in the north, west to Jaisalmer and south to Mumbai. I haven’t been to Kerala or Goa yet, nor to Kashmir. I have a lifetime to explore though, and I can’t wait to take my kids there in the next couple of years. Having said that, here are my favorite ten places that I’ve seen thus far, and places (and events) I would highly recommend adding to your travel list.
Jaisalmer is my favorite city in India. I love walking through the Golden City early in the morning as it’s coming alive, and I love exploring the narrow alleyways and Jain temples of the fort, even during the peak of the tourist traffic. It’s magical to watch the sun go down and the fort light up from across the city. Bada Bagh and Gadsisar Lake are worth brief stops, but I could spend hours and days exploring the city itself.
Early morning in Jaisalmer
The Jaisalmer Fort in the morning
Overlooking Jaisalmer at sunset
Thar Desert, Rajasthan
If Jaisalmer is my favorite city, the Thar Desert is my favorite place. The desert is huge – 320,000 sq km or so – so I can’t speak for all of it, but I’ve loved going into villages and meeting people, attending festivals and camping. And it’s not extraordinarily comfortable to ride camels, but I’ve really enjoyed all of the camel rides I’ve done through the desert, especially at sunrise and sunset.
Camel jockeys having a little fun
Sunset in the Thar Desert
In the Thar Desert
Taj Mahal, Agra
I’ve been incredibly impressed by the Taj Mahal every time I’ve visited. The key is to get there early, like half an hour before it opens. When the gate is open, walk quickly to the main gateway, stop for a few photos with no one in them, and then walk around to the right and enter the mosque. You’ll be alone, except for the caretaker. Enjoy the view from there for a while and then walk over to the Taj. As long as you stay ahead of the crowds you’ll have a far more intimate experience than if you join the masses later in the day. Sunset isn’t a bad time to visit, but there can still be large groups of people around. Sunrise is safer…if you’re fast. And it’s interesting to walk around on the other side of the river as well, both in the gardens and near the villages – it gives you a different perspective of the mausoleum and life in the shadow of the Taj.
The Taj Mahal, early
From inside the mosque, with only the sweeping caretaker around
Across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal
Mumbai was a study in contrasts. I was staying at the amazing Taj Mahal Palace hotel but spent many of my days touring the ghats and slums of the city. If Rajasthan gives you a feel for rural India, Mumbai brings you right back to the Indian cityscape, to the masses of people and frenetic energy. Touring the slums didn’t feel exploitative. I was impressed with the work ethic – everyone working hard for very little money – and the kids everywhere, seemingly happy hanging out, helping with the work or (mostly) playing street cricket. I enjoyed exploring around the Taj Mahal Hotel, the area in and around Crawford Market, the Sassoon Docks fish bazaar early in the day (no photos allowed), cricket in the park and the ghats.
Working hard in the Dharavi Slum in Mumbai
Dhobis washing clothes and sheets in a Mumbai ghat
The port in Mumbai
An Indian Wedding
Who wouldn’t want to attend an Indian wedding? I was lucky enough to be invited to a royal wedding in Jodhpur earlier this year and wrote up a blog post about the experience – here. I highly recommend the experience! Am hoping to go back to Jodhpur for another wedding next year.
Awaiting the arrival of the groom at the Jodhpur Officer’s Institute
Pushkar Camel Fair
An annual five-day fair over a full moon with people traveling from hundreds of miles away to buy and sell 30,000 camels in the desert? Of course I wanted to go! It was an overwhelming sensory experience – the sight of the camels, many of them decorated, the sounds (hard to sleep at 3am with music blaring from tents) and smells of, well, lots and lots of camels. And of course there were all the people – overwhelmingly Indians with only a few tourists mixed in. Add it to your travel list.
Wrangling camels in Pushkar
Pushkar Camel Fair: When purchasing a camel, be sure to check the teeth.
Breakfast in Pushkar
Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital, and it’s an incredible place to visit. There are Sadhus (wise men) everywhere, regular processions of Hindus carrying their loved ones through the streets to be cremated at ghats along the River Ganges, pilgrims coming to bathe in the sacred waters of the river, and the nightly Aarti fire ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, right in the middle of the city. It truly is a unique destination in the world and one that is luring me back.
A Sadhu on the River Ganges
An iPhone panoramic of pilgrims coming to the ghats to cleanse themselves
A pilgrim in the river
I love the colors of Jodhpur. And by colors, I really just mean blue. It’s known as the Blue City, as a lot of the buildings around Mehrangarh Fort are painted shades of blue. I’ve never enjoyed the fort as much as others in Rajasthan, but I really like exploring the city.
Jodhpur: A woman in blue walks through an archway the blue city
Overlooking the Blue City
Jodhpur: The Mehrangarh Fort at night
World Sacred Spirit Festival, Nagaur
The World Sacred Spirit Festival is organized around world music concerts and performances, and the music was excellent, but what really made this extraordinary was the setting. The events are all located inside the Nagaur Fort, a UNESCO Heritage Site, with the lodging (luxury camping) and meals also located inside the fort. How often to you get to eat, drink, sleep and attend concerts in a 900-year-old fort? I loved spending three days in the fort, and also enjoyed exploring the small completely un-touristed town of Nagaur. I highly recommend trying to get tickets for next year’s festival.
Camping in the Nagaur Fort
Lighting candles for the World Sacred Spirit Festival
Yes, this is where we ate dinner in the Nagaur Fort.
The Desert Festival, Jaisalmer
Do you see a theme? Two of my trips have been organized around festivals. Really, although India is incredible anytime, if you’re going to fly halfway around the world you may as well time your visit for one (or more) of the annual festivals. I really enjoyed the Desert Festival, in and around Jaisalmer. There are two components. In town there are displays by the border guards, camel racing, camel polo and a mustache contest. Then out in the Thar Desert at sunset there are camel rides, kite flying and other competitions. Although the festival was originally started to attract foreign tourists, we saw far more Indian tourists at both events than foreigners.
Border guard horsemanship displays at the Desert Festival
Sunset at the Desert Festival outside Jaisalmer
I’ve stayed in well over a dozen hotels throughout central and northern India. Two stood out as extraordinary:
Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai
At the Taj Mahal Palace I was lucky enough to get upgraded from the Tower building to the Palace wing. My room was amazing, with a gorgeous view of the Gateway of India, and the neighborhood was excellent. The upgrade to the Palace wing is worth paying for.
The Palace wing of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai
My view of the Gateway of India from my room at the Taj Mahal Palace
The Suryagarh is literally a palace in the desert. The rooms, hotel itself, food and setting are all amazing. Decked out for a wedding it’s even more beautiful.
The courtyard of the Suryagarh in Jaisalmer. Yes, there’s a musician playing in the center window.
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