India is often described as being an assault on the senses -- an explosion of sights, sounds and smells that can be exotic, spicy, colorful, chaotic and overwhelming, all at the same time. Whether exploring Mumbai or old Delhi, relaxing on a canal boat in Kerala, riding a mountain train to Darjeeling, waking up for an early morning bathing ritual in Varanasi, attending the Camel Fair in Pushkar, or marveling at the sheer perfection of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India is an experience not to be missed.
This vast country is home to vibrant cities, golden deserts, architectural wonders, serene beaches, cultural celebrations, and gigantic mountains. A visitor could spend years in this immense and diverse land and still find new experiences to uncover each day.
Indian cities are chaotic. An array of honking vehicles weave along dusty roads, stopping for the occasional crossing cow. Crowds of people in colorful clothes squeeze their way through even more colorful marketplaces. The air is filled with the smells of spices and the sounds of temple bells. Embrace this chaos and you'll find that these cities are some of the most vibrant and lively places on earth. Flag down a tuk tuk or a cycle rickshaw and hold on for the rollercoaster journey. Visit a temple to attend a puja (religious ceremony), and receive a smear of red on your forehead. Get lost in a market trying to find the perfect scarf or henna tattoo. And, of course, when the spicy aromas start to make your mouth water, stop for a tasty curry.
New Delhi, the country's capital, is a common first stop for visitors, and offers quite a modern, cosmopolitan Indian experience. Mumbai is the place to go to sample the Bollywood scene. Kolkata can be quite jarring at first, but provides visitors with a rich cultural experience. Jodhpur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer all boast impressive historic buildings and forts, and are the starting points for desert treks. The city of Varanasi hosts unique religious events, such as bathing in the Ganges or burning bodies on the riverbank. In the south, Trivandrum boasts beautiful palaces and beaches, while the northerly mountain cities of Manali (in the northwest) and Darjeeling (in the northeast) are rich in Nepalese and Tibetan culture.
The Thar Desert, in Northwest India, covers an impressive 120,000 square miles, most of which is located in the state of Rajasthan. The golden sand dunes, blue skies and lush oases are the perfect setting for a camel trek. Rocking back and forth on a camel, stopping to sample fresh goats milk at an oasis, followed by a night spent underneath the stars makes for an unforgettable experience.
The Taj Mahal is a major tourist attraction in India, and it's easy to see why. This stunning white marble memorial from Shah Jahan to his late wife Mumtaz Mahal is a must see. Strolling through the picturesque gardens and marveling at the ethereal structure is well worth the journey to Agra (and the early morning start to beat the crowds).
The Northern tips of India are dominated by the Himalayas. Here, the culture is largely influenced by neighboring Nepal, and Nepali is the dominant language in many areas. The Himalayan region is also rich in Tibetan culture, and many towns are centered around Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The cities here move at a far slower pace to their more southerly counterparts, and the surrounding towns and villages make for a relaxing break. Don't get too relaxed though, as the mountains are also home to adventure activities such as paragliding and rafting.
Indian cuisine is world famous. The flavorful dishes here are unlike anywhere else. It is also the perfect place for vegetarian and vegan dining. Be warned, however, that curries here are far spicier than their western imitators.
Despite the concern of catching the infamous "Delhi belly", food in India is generally perfectly safe to eat. Digestive difficulty usually comes from drinking contaminated water. Drink purified water only, don't put ice in your drinks, and avoid uncooked vegetables, and you should have no problems.
Trains are the preferred method of long distance travel across the massive subcontinent, and this in itself is a draw for many visitors. Many routes offer scenic window views. In the Goan region, the Vasco de Gama- Londa route takes in postcard beaches and picturesque mountains, before passing by the immense Dudhsagar waterfalls. The relatively short journey from Jaipur to Jaisalmer takes in a beautiful desert landscape. Darjeeling and its surrounds are home to the UNESCO protected "toy train"- the highest railway in the world, winding its way through cloud covered mountains and tea plantations.
Overnight trains are perfectly comfortable to sleep on. A first class ticket will usually get you a private cabin, while second class will get you a fold-out bunk bed in a shared carriage. Third class is hard wooden seats only, definitley not a good option for the comfort traveler!
High on every visitors wildlife check list is undoubtedly a glimpse of a tiger. While this is far from guaranteed, tiger reserves such as Kanha and Tadoba-Andhari offer the best chances. Even if the tigers remain elusive, there's a good chance of spotting wild dogs, sloths, and deer, as well as an abundance of exotic birds.
While riding an elephant is an essential bucket list experience for many, be very careful where you go. Many tour operators have eliminated elephant rides from their itineraries in the interest of animal welfare. Try to find an elephant sanctuary where they are well looked after. And of course, let's not forget the monkeys that can be found in the mountains, cities, temples, roads, and, well, just about anywhere.