12 Ways To Experience Northern India Beyond The Temples & Taj Mahal

taj mahal in northern india

Sure the Taj Mahal is great; but there’s also much else to explore in Northern India!

*This trip is based on my experience traveling with my good blogger buddy Wandering Earl of Wandering Earl Tours on his India excursion. Highly recommended! 

I’ve recently returned from a 3-week trip through Northern India, beginning in Delhi and touring through Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, Bundi and Udaipur. I’ll admit right off the bat it wasn’t my easiest trip — throwing up curry and masala is never fun; however, it was the trip of a lifetime for many reasons beyond convenience.

If you’re looking for something totally different from your Western reality, India certainly delivers. If you’re seeking a travel challenge that tests your limits and opens your mind, India certainly delivers. And if you’re looking to explore ancient cities and traditions — both preserved and lying in ruins — India certainly delivers.

You don’t need to only visit temples and the Taj Mahal to experience the best of India. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t see these Northern India attractions; but you probably already know about them. Since I’m always trying to take you beyond the guidebook, I also wanted to seek out other experience options that may not have been on your radar. So, here are 12 other places in Northern India that you should definitely visit.

eating parathas in northern india

Stuffed parathas at the historic Pt. Gaya Prasad Shivcharan from 1872

1. Take A Delicious Stroll Down Paratha Lane

Delhi

In Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk market you’ll find a historic and delicious strip known as “Paratha Alley,” Paratha is the baked-then-shallow-fried bread you see at many restaurants. These family-owned eateries date back to the 1800s, and nothing has changed in their design.

We ate at Pt. Gaya Prasad, 10 of us plus our two drivers stuffed shoulder to shoulder in a booth, with plates of dipping sauces like spicy chili, potato and sweet banana being slid to us across the table. The paratha here comes in an usual amount of filling options — lentil, potato, radish, lemon, carrot, mango and beyond — and when they’re delivered they’re piping hot, doughy disks that we quickly pass with our finger tips to the correct diner. In the USA this would definitely be a health violation; in India such violations don’t exist. But hey, it’s part of the culture.

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My Banana-Chocolate-Coconut Lassi at Blue Lassi in Varanasi

2. Sip The Lassi Culture

Varanasi

You can have lassis (yogurt drinks) all over India — they originate from Punjab, and typically come in a sweet or salty variety. That being said, Varanasi is where you can have a number of unique lassi experiences. First head to Blue Lassi, open since 1925 and made without artificial additives. They use seasonal ingredients to craft a dizzying array of lassis: coconut, chocolate, banana, papaya, strawberry, saffron, mango, cashew, pomegranate, apple, coffee, pistachio, blueberry, grape, guava, orange, pear, pineapple; not to mention combinations of all of the above!

In Varanasi you can also try the “bhang lassi,” sweet, green and laced with cannabis. Warning: if it’s your first time get the light version, as they’re very strong, even for regular pot smokers. Also, make sure you order this from a government-endorsed shop, as there will be locals offering to make the drink for you who have no idea (or care) what they’re doing.

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Sunrise on the sacred Ganges River in Varanasi

3. Get An Eye-Opening View (Literally) Of The Circle Of Life & Death

Varanasi

While in the Western world we tend to hide our dead, in Varanasi you get to see why Hindus come from all over the world to burn their dead in this holy city. To Hindus, the Ganges River has the power to wash away sin. They also believe that if a person is laid to rest in the river, his or her soul goes to heaven (instead of being reborn into a potentially awful existence). Bodies burn right in the open air on the Ganges 24/7, laid on wood, sprinkled with clarified butter (ghee) and incense, and burned. For me it was an odd scene at first — something you just wouldn’t see in the USA — but it helped me gain a deeper understanding of the local traditions.

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4. Ride The Train

Around The Country

I rode the train from Varanasi to Agra, a supposed 13-hour journey that ended up taking almost 18 hours. Hey, that’s India for you. My ticket was for the Second Tier of First Class (there are three tiers), and while actually very comfortable with two bunk beds per compartment, a warm blanket, air conditioning and a curtain to give you and your bunk mates privacy, Western riders should note that this is nothing like what you expect when you hear the word “First Class” at home. For one, the toilet conditions made my group pretty much stop drinking for fear of having to use the facilities, and when I exited the train I saw the staff throwing garbage from the train in bags right out the door (ugh!). It’s an experience everyone should have though, and you’ll have a window — at least in this class — through which to admire the landscapes and villages you pass through.

Tip: bring your own food and water. It took about an hour to get a water bottle (they were out of water, and had to wait to get more) and the hot food can make you sick.

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Romantic views from the Peacock Roof Top Restaurant in Jaipur

5. Romantic Rooftop Dining

Jaipur

Jaipur provided my introduction to the state of Rajasthan. I was immediately captivated by the bright colorful clothing with lots of gemstone jewelry, women donning big nose rings and men with colorful head wraps. I also found it different because there was some order to the chaos with sidewalks, traffic lights and even cops giving out tickets (and taking bribes, but hey, it’s a start).

This is also where my dining experience took a markedly upscale turn at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant in the amazing Pearl Hotel. Strings of fairy lights, live Indian music and multiple rooftop levels full of artwork enhanced the dining experience. Dishes ranged from homemade pizzas and olive oil-doused salads to typical Indian and Chinese dishes. I loved my Afghani chicken and honey nut ice cream dessert, and the aerial views of the city and Hathroi Fort were worth the trip. Alcohol is typically offered, but not always (it was listed on the menu but not available when I was there).

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Sunset at Taragarh Fort

6. Hike Taragarh (Star) Fort

Bundi

I loved Bundi for many reasons, like its non-aggressive shopkeepers, laid-back vibe and nature opportunities. I wouldn’t say it’s an outdoor adventure paradise — that I’d give to Kerala — but after traveling through Northern India’s chaotic cities, Bundi offered an uber scenic hike up to the 12th century Taragarh (Star) Fort. The fort is named for its shape, snaking up the hillside and wrapping around the entire summit. I loved how it offered many windows through which to frame shots and walls to climb for 360-degree views of Bundi, rolling hills, peaceful lakes and the Sukh Mahal (the small summer palace Rudyard Kipling spent time writing) from above.

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Bundi’s chai master in the flesh, a smiling Krishna

7. Sip India’s Best Chai

Bundi

Krishna’s Chai is pretty much worth the trip to India in itself. Located on old Bundi’s main thoroughfare of Sadar Baazar Road, close to Maharajah’s City Palace, Krishna has created an open-air shop full of murals and take-home artwork made by locals and visitors from all over the world. The masala chai is amazing. Plus you can sit and watch him boil the tea leaves and milk before using a stone to pound down the ginger, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom.

I wasn’t feeling well when I ordered my first glass, and as I sipped I could literally feel the sicknesses in my stomach and sinuses melting away. Bundi itself is a magical escape from India’s typical chaos, and this shop only adds to the magic!

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Delicious thali at the Natraj Hotel in Udaipur

8. Try The Homemade Potato Chips & Rajestani Thali In Bapu Bazar

Udaipur

Oh. My. Goodness. Those potato chips. Located in the Bapu Bazar (near the Sabzi Vegetable Market) is a guy who makes homemade potato chips — salted and marsala seasoned — that I could have eaten for every meal of my trip.Well, almost every meal. Udaipur had so many great food places.

Another highlight in the Bapu Bazar was at the Natraj Hotel — not actually a hotel but a restaurant serving Gujarati thali since 1970. You’ll see the word “thali” on menus all over India, referring to a platter of small tastings of local delicacies with local bread or rice. Basically, you get to try a bit of everything. What makes this place unique is that the thali is unlimited and they’ll keep re-filling your plate with bajra roti, besan bhindi masala, Dal Banjara, matar paneer and other local dishes — plus yogurt to cool the palate — until you tell them to stop. It’s budget-friendly too at 140 Rupees (~$2.10 USD) including drinking water!

 

9. See The Sunset From Monsoon Palace

Udaipur

You’ll pay 400 Rupees (~6 USD) entrance before starting the scenic drive past the Sajjan Garh Wildlife Sanctuary and up to the hilltop white marble Monsoon Palace. Also known as the Sajjan Garh Palace, it was constructed in the late 19th century by Maharana Sajjan Singh. As it’s now owned by the government it’s rather dilapidated — as are most of the historic palaces in India — though the museum about the local flora and fauna is interesting.

The real treat, though, is watching the sunset over the Aravalli Hills and surrounding lakes. There’s a large terrace area where most people congregate, though I also recommend walking up to the second floor of the palace for even higher views.

Tip: Don’t bring snacks! There are cheeky monkeys who will literally rip them out of your hands.

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Beautiful views from City Palace

10. Tour The Well-Preserved City Palace

Udaipur

As stated above, India is home to myriad historic palaces — many of which have been neglected and sit in a dilapidated state. This is not the case for City Palace, which blends Mughal and Rajasthani architecture and sits whimsically on Lake Pichola. The site dates back to 1537 AD when Maharana Udai Singh II laid the palace’s foundation, with construction continuing into the 18th century with each ruler.

Touring the grand structure winds you up through the many courtyards and rooms to see artifacts, rooms made entirely of mirrors, sleeping areas for the rulers, historic storytelling artwork and more. It’s lovely to see by just wandering around, but to really understand the history it’s worth hiring a guide.

Note: unless you want to leave your camera behind you’ll also need to pay a 250 Rupee (~$3.63 USD) fee for it.

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Udaipur, as seen from the rooftop of the Lake Pichola Hotel

11. Have A Rooftop Cocktail

Udaipur

Udaipur is full of rooftop restaurants and bars offering romantic aerial views. As alcohol is legal in Udaipur — which isn’t the case all over India — you can also drink here. Now I’m not promising pre-Prohibition style Old Fashioneds, but you can sip a local Kingfisher beer or clink Cosmos from a lovely vantage point.

I liked the cushion-style seating at Natural View Restaurant, though the Indian food atop my hotel, Jaiwana Haveli, was outstanding. My kashmiri chicken cooked with nuts and dried fruits was one of the most memorable meals of the trip!

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One of hundreds of dogs at Animal Aid

12. Volunteer With Injured Animals

Udaipur

About 15 minutes outside the main city of Udaipur you’ll come to Badi Village, which is where you’ll find Animal Aid Unlimited. Funded 100% through donations, the organization takes in wounded street animals to nurse them back to health; or, as often happens with cows who ingest plastic, make their remaining time on earth as comfortable as possible. Of the 500+ animals that go to them more than half end up staying in the sanctuary due to injuries like blindness or paralyzation that leave them unable to survive on the streets. The rest, once fully recuperated, will be dropped back off where they were picked up.

As a volunteer, you’ll be able to play with, bathe and feed the animals, as well as assist the medical team. You can also go for a tour to learn more about their work and spend time petting the dogs, cows, donkeys and other animals onsite.

What other unique experiences in Northern India would you add to the list? Please share in the comments below! 

Logistics:

Stay: Here is a list of the hotels I stayed at and my thoughts on them. Note: For India I recommend not going too low on the budget end. Even mid range hotels can be less appealing than lower class hotels elsewhere. India is a place you’ll likely want a comfortable and clean room to retreat to and collect yourself.

  • Hari Piorko Hotel (Old Delhi): Small but clean and comfortable room, right in the heart of Old Delhi’s action (read: chaos). Staff were eager to please. Breakfast tasty but not included, though you will have a balcony view overlooking Old Delhi. They have free WiFi but it didn’t really work. Price: Rooms start at about $20 USD per night.
  • Kedarsewar Guesthouse (Varanasi): LOVED THIS HOTEL. The staff are insanely friendly — one guy even giddily jumped on FaceTime to chat with my boyfriend — and they have good Wi-Fi and a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Ganges River. When I wasn’t feeling well they brought me hot tea, and they have a great and speedy breakfast of omelettes, pancakes and toast that’s included. You can also order extras like fresh fruit. Price: Rooms start at 2200 Rupees (~$33 USD) per night.
  • Dawaat Palace Hotel (Agra): To be honest, this was not my favorite. The staff were nice but very slow. The rooftop restaurant with a Taj Mahal view in the distance was great but the food took over an hour, and there was free WiFi but it didn’t really work. The worst thing was the multiple thick stains on all the blankets and sheets and the dark dingy vibe of the room. The location is walkable to the Taj Mahal. Breakfast is included and there is air conditioning. Price: 2050+ Rupees (~$30).
  • Sajjan Niwas A Heritage Haveli (Jaipur). About 100 years ago, this was a Matahara villa and the current owner’s family worked for them. He was given the villa and turned it into a hotel in the 1960s. While the first floor is original, the other two floors are hotel additions with historic touches through antique-looking handicrafts and art. It’s a beautiful hotel with a pool, 4th floor rooftop restaurant, in-room balconies, free breakfast and free Wi-Fi that sort of works, but they really need to clean! Very dusty and I found a previous guest’s takeaway container under my bed. Price: Rooms start at 2200 Rupees (~$33 USD) for a Single Deluxe.
  • Dev Niwas Heritage Hotel (Bundi). Gorgeous mansion property dating back to 1684 with a rooftop restaurant overlooking Bundi, with tables as well as cushioned cubicles. The staff are absolutely amazing, the food is a mix of Indian and Western (I had a potato veggie burger with fries and ketchup) and the rooms are enormous and actually clean! Free Wi-Fi didn’t really work but honestly this place is so peaceful I didn’t even care. Curl up with a book and relax in a less chaotic part of India. A standard room is 1,200 Rupees per night (~$25+ USD).
  • Jaiwana Haveli (Udaipur). I was surprised to learn this accommodation is listed as 3-star, as it felt more luxurious to me. It was once the home of Thakur of Jaiwana — one of the feudal land owners (jagirdars) of the kings (Maharanas) of Mewar. It’s very stately with enormous rooms, bay windows (many with views), a large bathroom with actual hot water and bath products (not always the case in India) and a gorgeous rooftop restaurant with panoramic views. Their staff are eager to make your stay wonderful, and the location is close to major attractions like City Palace and Jagdish Temple. Room Rates: $42-$45 per night.

Safety Essentials:

  • Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments will come in handy when wandering India’s many crowded markets and streets.
  • Vigilant Personal Alarm is essential for both home and away. Wear it as a a bracelet and, if you feel danger approaching, pull the pin to have it blare as loud as a firetruck. The idea is to scare off whoever is approaching.
  • Always carry your hotel’s business card. India’s streets aren’t always labeled, so if you need to get back you can easily hand it to a rickshaw driver.

Female Travel Info: While I did this trip with a group, I would have felt comfortable traveling solo. However, for a first-timer, this might be an overwhelming destination due to the culture shock and chaos. I traveled solo with a guide in Kerala two years ago and felt that to be calmer and more digestible as a solo traveler. Females should dress conservatively — loose breathable clothing that covers the shoulders (and sometimes elbows) and knees. Also carry a shawl / sarong to coverup when needed for temples and other sites.

Budget: India will be very affordable for most western travelers. You can easily eat a filling budget meal for about $2-3 USD. An example splurge night was in Jaipur when we ate at the whimsical Peacock Rooftop Restaurant in the Pearl Hotel. I had half a tandoori chicken with a large Misti Salad, a bowl of ice cream for dessert and a ginger lemon honey tea. The total of that meal was about $7.50. I found mid-range hotels to be about $25-$60 per night. My longest taxi ride was 2 hours in Goa and I paid 3000 Rupees (~$44).

Tipping: I found this tipping guide to be helpful.

Airports:

  • You’ll need a copy of your flight itinerary either printed or on your phone to even enter an airport in India.
  • When checking in, your airline will give you a tag for each piece of carry-on luggage. These are VERY IMPORTANT. For security reasons, once the bags pass inspection each tag will be stamped. These tags are often checked by numerous officials before you’re able to board the plane.

Further Reading: As beggars are a problem in India, I think it’s important to touch on the subject on why giving isn’t always good. Start there then read Should Traveler’s Give To Kids Who Beg?.

Also read up on responsible wildlife tourism, as you’ll find irresponsible experiences like elephant trekking in India. Don’t do it! Please read this guide to responsible wildlife tourism.

Books:

Currency: Indian Rupees. As of November 2016 1 USD = about 66.88 Rupees.

Language: Along this route it was Hindi, though note that in other parts of India locals speak other languages. Many people also spoke English. The best way to communicate with locals in English is to speak simply. For example, instead of saying “What is your name?” say “Your name?” or instead of saying “I really love this song!” say “Song good!” You’ll have a much easier time communicating with locals.

 

Things to do in India

4 Comments

  1. I am so jealous of your adventurous spirit! I think you really need one when traveling across India (aside from having an open-mind) Would love to know how that Banana-Chocolate-Coconut Lassi tasted!

  2. I love the video from the train!! How cool, all of your ideas are prefect for getting a real life view of northern India.

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