I was recently invited to the coastal state of Goa, India for a week of beachside celebration for a friend’s milestone birthday. While Goa is incredibly charming in its own right, I felt that I needed more of a thorough introduction to India before the party got started. It took little convincing to persuade a friend to meet me a week earlier for a bit of exploration in northern India. While I know we barely scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer, here’s what we managed to do and see in our first seven days in India…
We arrived in New Delhi knowing we wanted to get to Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Goa but had booked little more than our first night’s accommodation. While we may have lost a little time sitting in one of the myriad offices for India’s Ministry of Tourism, we saved ourselves a lot of money (and hassle) in the long run compared to the packages I was finding on travel websites before I came.
Our flights arrived in the wee hours of the morning (2 and 3am), so we were grateful to have pre-booked transportation and a room at Smyle Inn, a basic hostel located in the city’s main bazaar by New Delhi train station. We appreciated staying in the hustle and bustle of the main bazaar, but the constant honking – and garbage buildup due to an ongoing sanitation strike – may not be for everyone. The hostel’s travel office was a great first stop for advice and arranged a driver for us the following day to drive us around Delhi’s major sites for the equivalent of $8 each.
Armed with a map from the hostel and an offline guide from my new favorite travel app, Triposo, we made our way through the hectic New Delhi traffic to see some of the city’s major sights: the India Gate, the Laxmi Narayan Temple, Humayan’s Tomb, the Lodi Garden, Lotus Temple, and the Qutb Minar.
The next morning, we were greeted by the driver we’d arranged through the Ministry of Tourism to take us around the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur over the next three days. Having a driver is a surprisingly cost-effective and hassle-free way to see a lot in a short period of time in this popular tourist region.
After a four-hour drive, we arrived at our home for the night, the Taj Haveli Agra, whose pool and balcony were not quite as advertised, but was the right price and a short walk to the Taj Mahal. That afternoon, we visited the so-called “Baby Taj” and got a guide around the Agra Fort (who – like others, we quickly found – was happy to give us the Indian tour price with little resistance).
The next morning, our excitement brought us to the gates of the Taj Mahal over an hour before they opened (6am in summer months, 7am in winter months, we learned). Again, we quickly secured a guide for the Indian price of around 400 rupees and waited for the sun to rise.
After breakfast, it was back to the car for another four-hour drive to Jaipur, the so-called “Pink City.” The city had a decidedly different feel from Delhi and Agra, with elephants and camels about as common on the city streets as vendors and tourists.
We spent the afternoon wandering around one of the country’s five 18th century astronomical observatories, Jantar Mantar, and touring the impressive City Palace, still a functioning royal palace. To round out perhaps our longest day of sightseeing on the trip, at sundown we watched the Sound and Light show projected on the side of the Amber Fort, which was a helpful and dazzling guide to the incredible history of the Rajasthan region.
After experiencing the exterior of the magnificent Amber Fort at dusk, the next morning we picked up a pre-arranged tour guide to show us around the impressive artistry and engineering of the 16th century palace. Most notably, the palace features remarkable heating/cooling and water-retrieval systems that are astonishing now, let alone I’m sure at that time. The hall of mirrors in the winter palace made use of tapestries, rugs, and just a few candles to provide the king an queen all the light and warmth needed during the cool months.
Though many visitors like to ride elephants into the palace’s sun gate as the king and queen would have done, we opted instead to visit the controversial Elephant Village nearby to see how the animals are cared for.
After our morning in Jaipur, we made the final leg of the triangle back to Delhi to catch our overnight train to Varanasi. While The Man in Seat 61 had some great advice on how to book trains ahead of one’s arrival in India, we had no success on that front. We found it much easier to have the ministry tourist office book us two of the foreign visitor seats that are often held on India’s train network for last-minute purchase. In spite of a snoring bunkmate and three hour delay, we found our 2nd Class AC accommodation for the evening to be a great way to make the 800 km journey.
We arrived midday in Varanasi, which would quickly prove to be our favorite stop of the trip. Our only regret was following the recommendation of the tourist office to stay at the very basic Hotel Ganga Monastery rather than the Sri Yoga Mandir ashram as we’d originally planned. Luckily, the hotels happened to be right next to each other, so we were still able to take advantage of the ashram’s incredible sunrise yoga class overlooking the Ganges.
On our first afternoon in Varanasi, we simply got lost taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of the holy city and its many ghats.
Without question, the highlight of that day was witnessing the beautiful aarti ceremony that draws hundreds of visitors at sundown each evening to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch Hindu priests pay tribute to Lord Shiva, the River Ganga, Surya (Sun), and Agni (Fire):
The next morning began with a peaceful sunrise yoga session before we made our way to the nearby town of Sarnath, known to Buddhist pilgrims as the place where the Buddha delivered his first sermon upon reaching enlightenment. Our elderly but energetic guide from the charity that oversees the Buddhist community around the site, showed us around the temples built nearby by each Buddhist country and the place where the Buddha is believed to have met his first pupils.
We spent one last evening and morning along the banks of the Ganges, observing the aarti and cremation ceremonies from a rowboat on the water and again at sunrise standing on the shore.