1. Goa Beaches
The number one attraction in southern India is the palm-fringed, golden beaches of Goa. I haven’t actually checked out the stats on that one… but I’ve seen them, and they definitely should be.
Goa has a very different feel from the rest of India. It remained a Portuguese colony until the 1960s, then in the 1970s it was ‘discovered’ by adventuring backpackers and quickly became synonymous across the world with hippies, trance music and massive full moon beach raves.
These days you can find traces of that old hippy vibe; there are still gurus leading yoga classes and endless varieties of tie-dye trousers for sale, for example. But also you can holiday in western-style hotels, dine at candlelit restaurants on the beach and join boat trips to see dolphins. For the tourists India’s aiming to attract to this palm-fringed paradise its a bit of the best of both worlds.
The trance culture is persisting too – though you will only find the truly massive raves at Christmas and New Year. Noise pollution laws have led to the growing popularity of Silent Raves – where you listen to the music through headphones, head to Palolem for the biggest and best parties.
Candolim Beach – Image © arfabita
Picking the right beach resort is important. The busiest resorts with the most facilities are found closest to the state capital Vasco de Gama. Many tour operators feature Candolim and Baga where you’ll get a mix of Indian and western culture – watersports and traditional handicrafts are both touted on the beaches. Anjuna was the original hippy outpost. To the south Palolem is a bustling resort where regulations stop any permanent structures being built – you’ll can stay in quaint colourful beach huts opening out onto the long curved beach. To the north and south of the state the beaches become less crowded. Here you can find authentic hippy communities living off the backpacker trail and new developing eco-resorts on beaches frequented by nesting turtles.
2. Mysore Palace
Despite receiving a very healthy 2.7 million visitors each year, the palace at Mysore remains one of those massive tourist attractions you never hear about. It’s built in a very distinctive architectural style known as Indo-Saracenic; basically think of a fairytale palace combining spectacular Gothic detailing and grand scales with beautiful oriental inspiration – such as the pink onion domes and scalloped arches that decorate the palace.
It’s at its most spectacular when it’s illuminated – a total of 97,000 blubs etch the palace outline for the entirety of the Dasara festival, held throughout September and October. The lights are also switched on each Sunday night, to give visitors a glimpse of the sight at other times of the year.
Palace lit up at night
No photos can be taken inside the palace, so you’ll have to trust me that it’s just as spectacular on the inside. You’re allowed inside opulent reception rooms gilded with dazzling amounts of gold, as well as ornate halls including the Kalyana Mantapa (marriage hall), a breezy interior pavilion, orientated around layers intricate steel wrought in Glasgow and a delicate stained glass roof bearing a peacock motif.
3. Kerala Backwaters
Where do Indian tourists head to for a serene getaway in lush, beautiful surrounds? Well according to the honeymooning couple I met on the beach at Alappuzha, Kerala is the destination of choice (although personally they felt it could have been improved with a few malls).
Rice Barge in the Backwaters
Kerala is known in India as “God’s Own Country” Clichéd? Yes. Justified? Definitely. The backwaters are the big draw, a network of canals and lakes, in places opening up onto the sea. To enjoy them at their leisurely best take a cruise on a rice barge. You’ll slowly meander through overgrown green channels and across vast lakes. You’ll pass elegant crane-like Chinese fishing nets, solitary oyster farmers and wave to to small village children as you build a picture of how people live in this unique water world.
Chinese Fishing Nets
Want to know the best bit? The rice barges tend to come with their own chef, so as you watch the world go by you’ll be dining on rich Keralan dishes – and this part of India has an exceptional and unique cuisine with plenty of sweet plantain and creamy coconut.
Cities don’t come much bigger than Mumbai – The metropolitan area holds 20.5 million – that makes it the most populous city in India, and 4th in the world.
But knowing that gives you no idea of what to expect from this world capital. The city is set over seven islands. Most tourists stay in the Colaba district, which feels a little like it could be the backdrop to an Indiana Jones movie; imagine grand buildings from colonial era India overgrown with tropical vines and towering trees. Ok, the honking car-filled roads running directly through this urban jungle ruin that illusion quite a lot, but you can use your imaginations.
The attractions of India’s mega metropolis run into their thousands. There’s the famous city icons; the monumental Gateway of India, the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel and the heart of India’s film industry: Bollywood. There’s swanky clubs, exclusive five-star hotels and towering high rises. There’s even guided tours of Mumbai’s sprawling Dharavi slum.
Gateway of India
Foreigners are less of a rarity in Mumbai than elsewhere in India; rather than being an object of curiosity you can indulge in some people watching yourself. School kids hang out on Chowpatty Beach and track-suited joggers run laps around the fragrant Hanging Gardens of Mumbai.
5. Meenakshi Temple in Madurai
Where ever you go in India you will see plenty of temples. But Meenakshi offers something different. This is no tourist trap but a vibrant living, breathing temple – one of the busiest in India in fact. Rather than quiet contemplation and worn statues, inside Meenakshi you’ll find long queues of worshippers, chaotic stalls laden with beads, elephants blessing the crowds and air heavy with incense.
Gopuram lit up at night – Image © Mazzzur
The temple’s 14 brightly coloured towers (known as gopurams) teem with deities. The appear to rise out of the centre of the city itself, a visible demonstration of the temple’s role at the heart of Madurai. Although the temple dates to 1623, you’ll find few signs of ageing among the thousands of icons of the gods and the florid walkways (the recent vivid repainting is a subject of some debate to the regular visitors).
Inside the temple – Image © saiko3p
A guide is recommended. They explain the workings of the temple, the legends of the goddess Meenakshi and her consort Sundareswarar, and why worshippers throw little balls of butter at the icons. Note that you need to have your shoulders and legs covered to enter the temple, and you enter barefoot. Parts of the temple are off limits to non-Hindus, but there is still plenty to see.
If you love ancient temples, intricate carvings of Hindu gods and exploring abandoned cities you are going to love Hampi.
This massive collection of monuments is the remains of the once bustling city of Vijayanagara, today a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a sacred site for Hindus. There are a couple of must-visit sites, such as the Vittala Temple where you can see a magnificent stone chariot and mysterious musical pillars, and the still used Virupaksha Temple. But much of the charm in Hampi comes from wandering the expansive ruins. Fearless grandmothers will guide you through the dark of the Underground Shiva Temple and you’ll appreciate the cool calm of the Queen’s Stepped Bath bathing pools.
Stone Chariot at Vittala Temple
Bear in mind that the monuments are all spread out over a wide area and you will need some form of transportation to get around them all. Walking hours through the searing heat should only be attempted by the very toughest of sightseers, and even then you’ll need the highest factor of sunscreen known to man and a small reservoir of water on your back. Most visitors will make a deal with the tuck-tuck drivers who are keen to be your chauffeur for the day (after the proper amount of haggling, of course) or you can rent bikes at many places in town if you’d rather be under your own steam.
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