One of the largest and most populated countries in the world, India is as diverse as it gets— both culturally and geographically. Bordered by the Himalayan range to the north and tapering into a long slice of southern coastlines, the region has been home to dozens of faiths, creeds, and ethnicities over its five-millennia history. They have all left their mark on the dynamic South Asian country, making for a modern melting-pot.
With one week in India, you’ll have to resign yourself to barely scratching the surface. However, you’ll still be guaranteed an unforgettable journey. It is the seventh-largest country in the world, with famously long bus and train rides that can test even the most patient of travelers. So don’t try to do everything in a day. If you focus on going deeper within a single region rather than trying to simply tick off all the must-sees, then you’ll be rewarded with a meaningful, memorable, and all-around extraordinary week.
Itinerary #1 The Golden Triangle: Mughal Splendors and Rajput Palaces
The Golden Triangle is India’s classic itinerary, especially well-suited for first-timers. It's a well-trodden route, sure, but it's not hard to see why. With stops in the capital, the Taj Mahal, and the famous forts of Rajasthan, you'll cover some of the world's most famous historical attractions, making for a string of blockbuster visits.
In Delhi, you can work off your jet lag with a visit to the National Museum, which holds a staggering prehistoric to modern art collection—a great primer on India's long, storied history. Once you’re rested, head to the buzzing, cacophonous lanes of the Old City, home to sprawling markets and Mughal landmarks. You’ll also want to see Humayun’s Tomb and the nearby Dargah of Nizamuddin, a rose-scented hub of old-world worship.
Hop a bus or train to Agra and check off the Taj Mahal, an unmissable monument you’ve seen in a thousand postcards that is eye-wateringly majestic in person. Stick around long enough to enjoy sunset views, then head the next morning to Jaipur, with a stop at the spooky-yet-beautiful abandoned capital of Fatehpur Sikri.
With two nights in Rajasthan’s famed “Pink City,” you’ll have time to hit up the candy-colored downtown and the beehive facade of Hawa Mahal. The next day, head to the outskirts of town for a trip to the spectacular sandstone palace complex of Amber Fort, with its bejeweled rooms and wind-swept frescos. Round off your stay with a visit to the quirky collections at the Albert Hall Museum or a quick peek at the Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory.
Want a more local take on the Golden Triangle? Check out this five-day option — you'll meet ordinary people, get a glimpse into rural and artisan life, and see the good work of several local Indian social enterprises.
Itinerary #2 Treasures of Karnataka: Hampi and Badami
A spectacularly preserved set of monuments, Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed former kingdom that rose to prominence in the 14th through 16th centuries. There are 1,600 surviving remains spread throughout the riverside park, giving travelers an unparalleled peek at India’s last great Hindu kingdom, seat of the once powerful Vijayanagar Empire.
But you don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate Hampi. With its sun-swept palaces and temples rising from a craggy, boulder-strewn landscape, you’ll be sure to be blown away just by your otherworldly surroundings.
Bellary Airport is the nearest domestic transit hub, or you can fly into tech-savvy Bangalore on an international flight and make your way from there. Once in Hampi, you can hit up highlights like the famous chariot of Vitthala Temple, or even opt for a boat ride through the palaces.
Take a morning stroll through banana plantations before heading to Badami for a couple days exploring rock-cut temples and holy Agastya Lake. Take a day trip to Aihole and Pattadakal, where you’ll see Hindu and Jain temple complexes from as early as the 5th century. If you can tear yourself away from ruins and rock architecture, make a stop at Daroji Bear Sanctuary, a nature reserve hosting a sizable population of Indian sloth bears.
Itinerary #3 Beaches and Backwaters: the Best of Kerala
If you’re looking to spend your week in India fully unwinding, then look no further than the sunny, laid-back southern state of Kerala, a region flush with wild elephants, scenic waterways, and Marxist politics.
Fly into Kochi and spend a day and night exploring Fort Kochi, the old-town quarters famous for its cobblestoned lanes and Dutch, Portuguese, and Jewish heritage. From there, head to Alleppey, a Venetian-esque town built onto canals and streams known as the Keralan backwaters. Get a guesthouse in town or for the ultimate experience opt for an overnight stay on a drifting houseboat.
If your idea of a good time involves a hammock and a steady supply of fresh coconuts, then look no further than Marari Beach, an undeveloped stretch of sandy coastline where you’ll get a chance to see local fishermen in action as they haul in their catches of the day. Accommodation runs the gamut from luxury resort to modest homestay.
Head south to either Varkala, a cliffside beach haven on Kerala’s hippie trail, or Kovalam, a sandy and shallow coast dotted with Ayurvedic spas. Fly out from Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, where you can say goodbye to watery idylls and get a taste of Keralan urban living.
For more on Kerala's coastlines, check out our article on the best beaches in India.