You could easily spend years exploring India, and some travelers do. The medieval explorer Ibn Battuta holds one such record: In 1325, the young Moroccan set out on a trip around the world. He journeyed far and wide for many years—that is, until he reached India. Spellbound, he scrapped plans to move on to other countries and went on to stay a full seven years.
Most people don’t have seven years to spare, but be prepared for an equally spellbinding first impression nonetheless. There’s a reason that backpackers often allot months for exploring: you’ll want to see it all, from the palm-fringed beach towns of India’s laid-back southern coast all the way to the rocky, snow-covered mountain passes up north—and everything in between, of course.
Even if all you can spare is a week or less, you’ll still be guaranteed a satisfying adventure. Just don’t over-schedule yourself. Use a “less is more” approach to planning and count on covering just two or three key destinations. You’ll have to content yourself with just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but don’t worry, other parts of India will still be waiting next time for you to explore.
5-7 Days in India
With a week or less in India, you’ll want to focus on Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, covering the classic loop known as the “Golden Triangle.” Landing in Delhi, take in the fabled Mughal sights of the capital. Consider allotting some time to visit museums in New Delhi, the leafy, British-built center of the city. At the National Museum, you’ll get an in-depth primer on thousands of years of Indian arts and religious objects.
You probably won’t have time to head inside all of the main landmarks, but you can at least admire top sights like the Mughal-built Humayun’s Tomb, or the 12th-century Qutub Minar. Delhi is actually made up of eight overlapping cities, built under different ruling powers. The former walled Mughal capital is known as Old Delhi and remains one of the city’s most atmospheric quarters. Consider taking a walking tour to orient you through packed, bazaar-lined streets and fragrant food shops.
You can always stay longer in Delhi, perhaps exploring the Sufi district of Nizamuddin and the fashionable boutiques of Shahpur Jat, and still squeeze in a side trip to see the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra. Or, you could head to the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur—hop a 50-minute flight to save time—and spend your last few days marveling at Rajput splendors. Jaipur is home to sprawling hilltop palaces and ornate fortress complexes like Amber Fort, as well as the iconic, candy-colored downtown (origin of the capital’s nickname: “Pink City.”)
Alternatively, or if you've already seen the top sights in the north, you could fly directly into the southern, colonial-era city of Cochin, overlooking the Arabian Sea in Kerala. Spend a couple of days touring the 16th-century, Portuguese-built Mattancherry Palace or the picturesque Jewish quarter, known as Jew Town, where you can shop for hand-embroidered matzah covers. Then, finish your trip with a backwater cruise in a traditional Keralan houseboat, which you can hire for day or even overnight trips from Cochin or Alleppey.
10 Days in India
With a week and a half to explore the country, you can start by following the same suggestions as with a shorter, 5 or 6-day itinerary. But with extra wiggle room, you can venture deeper into the sun-drenched desert state of Rajasthan.
Hop a bus to Pushkar, a vibrant pilgrim town—and backpacker hub—located on the fringes of the dune-filled Thar Desert. The town is best known for its rowdy annual camel festival, but you'll find a host of stunning temples to explore year-round. You can also check out the adjacent city of Ajmer for a look at the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, a famous Sufi shrine.
Make a quick stop at Jodphur, known as Rajasthan's "Blue City" for its sky-painted rooftops, a longstanding local tradition. The town's star attraction is the hilltop Mehrangarh Fort, a 15th-century royal complex that is now home to a museum.
From there, head to Udaipur. The stunning lakeside city looks like it was plucked from a Rajput fairy tale. You can drift along the placid waters during a scenic boat ride or spend time exploring the city's local handicraft scene, famous for Rajasthani marionettes. The dreamy, grandeur-filled arts and culture hub is often compared to Venice, but without the big crowds.
You might consider opting for a day tour if you're keen on covering all the top sights. If you're in the mood for a leisurely visit, just stroll along the narrow streets, stopping to duck into a thronged temple or elegant palace, many of which have been converted into high-end hotels and restaurants.
Here's a more detailed 10-day Rajasthan itinerary.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
2 Weeks in India
If you've got a couple weeks ahead of you, you'll be able to relax and stretch your legs a bit more. You'll still tick off the classic Golden Triangle and Rajasthan sights, but you can go at your own pace and add an extra day somewhere that strikes your fancy. You might want to spend a few days sleeping under the stars in the Thar Desert (where you can arrange a camelback safari), or head to the sandy fortress town of Jaisalmer on the Pakistani border, where centuries-old havelis—a traditional Indian dwelling built around a courtyard—are now boutique hotels.
If you're thirsting for more destinations—and totally new experiences—then you can fly or take the train to the Punjabi town of Amritsar, best known as the home of the holiest Sikh landmark, the Golden Temple. Soak in the spiritual ambiance and catch patriotic processions at the Wagah Border, where you can peek into neighboring Pakistan.
From Punjab, head up into the hills of Himachal Pradesh, where you can base yourself in Dharamsala or MacLeod Ganj, home of the exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. Catch a meditation workshop or admire local scenery on a day trek, making your way through rhododendron forests and misty, pine-covered hills.
Depending on your pace, that might be all you have time for—and you'll still have covered a lot. But if you're able to keep going, you can hop a bus to the holy city of Haridwar. Wander the ghats as pilgrims submerge themselves in the Ganges. The nearby yoga capital of Rishikesh is an hour's ride away, where you can perfect your pigeon pose and see the nightly riverside fire prayer, known as Aarti Ganga.
3 or 4 Weeks in India
If you're lucky enough to have a month to explore India, you'll have lots of stunning destinations at your disposal. You could follow the same itinerary as the two-week stay, but take more time to explore the Himalayas, with a longer, multi-day trek or homestay in a mountain village, like under-the-radar Jibha.
But depending on the time of year, you might also be lured south. You could follow the 5-day itinerary and fly into Cochin, or arrive in Tamil Nadu's capital of Chennai on the opposite side of the coast and work your way over to Kerala. Spend some time sampling southern Indian treats like dosa and idly before heading to nearby Mahabalipuram, where you'll see beachside replicas of massive, 7th-century rock-cut tableaux.
Keep descending the coast until you get to Pondicherry, a former French territory that is now home to a cobblestoned, French-speaking old quarter. Consider taking a local workshop. You can learn how to make jasmine garlands, South Indian sambar, or the colored chalk drawings known as kolam.
You can take a quick trip to nearby Auroville for a look at a 1960s eco-village, inspired by the spiritual tenets of a French-born guru known to devotees as "The Mother." Then head south to the thriving temple towns of Trichy, Madurai, and Tanjore. Your end destination will be Cochin, but you can first explore the jungle-filled landscapes of the Western Ghats, which run through the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
You can check out our 18-day trip plan of South India which can be adapted to longer stays.
Longer than a Month
If you've got more than 4 weeks, you can do everything on the list—and more. Hit all the main attractions, but add a day or two here and there to divert over to smaller villages and out-of-the-way towns. You can also work your way along both southern coastlines in addition to covering cultural and historical sights in the north, plus venture deeper into the vast mountain chains of the mighty Himalayas.
Got longer than a few months? Consider taking an art, meditation, or language course, from learning Hindi at Landour Language School near Mussoorie to going on a vipassana retreat. You can also train to become a certified yoga teacher with a one-month intensive program in Rishikesh or at Sivananda Ashram in Kerala. Or just relax and enjoy your stay.