Some people go to India for spiritual enlightenment, others go to challenge themselves.
Then there are those who visit to take in the country’s history and learn more about Hindu culture, or to simply cycle through scenic spice fields.
Not all trips need to be a walk on the beach; and in India, there’s certainly more to be experienced (good and bad, relaxing and difficult).
Whatever your reason for visiting India, here are five spiritual and adventure-packed trips you should take when traveling to this incredible country.
India Travel Video
Before we dive into where to go in India, make sure to check out my trip video:
Watch it above!
The video takes you on a three-week journey through Delhi, Varanasi, Jaipur, Agra, Udaipur, Bundi and Goa.
1. Eco-Tourism In Kerala
For those who have seen YouTube videos of — or visited — big North Indian cities like Delhi or Varanasi, Kerala often takes a much slower pace, while also exhibiting an apparent concern for the environment. I traveled bus-free through Kerala, hiking, cycling and kayaking my way around.
Along with delicious (and inexpensive) eats, healing Ayurvedic massage and cultural opportunities through museums and theaters, I was impressed by the landscapes, the numerous bird sanctuaries and the many serene organic spice farms that didn’t have buses packed with tourists coming to visit.
- Cycling the Cardamom Trail. Cardamom has historically been used for medicine, specifically to treat tooth and gum infections, digestive issues and arthritis.
- Cycling through the ‘Scotland of Asia.’ If you enjoy breathtaking vistas, the journey from Periyar to Kannadipuzha with its rich green, heavily textured landscapes is a must.
- Summiting the 2nd-highest Peak in the Western Ghats. Meesapulimala reaches 1,640 feet, and you can do some high altitude camping at Rhodo Valley Campsite along the way.
- Spending the night on a houseboat in the Backwaters. Historically, these houseboats were used to transport rice; however, with a rise in tourism many of them started offering tours instead.
- Visiting the world’s highest tea plantations. Called the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate, it sits at an altitude of 6,500 to 8,000 feet (1,981 to 2,438 meters).
Dewalokam. There are a ton of sustainable accommodations full of cultural and outdoor activities. My favorite was Dewalokam, an organic spice garden and farm, adjacent to a bird sanctuary and river. This homestay is a truly special place worth the trip in itself. Price: 8,000+ Rupees per night (~$119 USD).
2. Beach Travel In South Goa
When I arrived at Palolem Beach in Southern Goa, I completely forgot I was in India. This may or may not be what you’re looking for. After two weeks of traveling through chaotic cities like Delhi, Varanasi and Agra, I welcomed the melodic lapping of the waves on soft sand and long walks along the coastline. It’s very rustic here — most of the accommodations are beach huts with cold water showers, basic bedding and no Wi-Fi — but you can sip beer and summer cocktails, rent motorbikes to explore nearby waterfalls (without worrying about getting hit), and kayak into the sunset. Yoga, massages and dolphin watching are also part of the laid-back fun.
- Chillin’ on the beach. As stated above, just the atmosphere alone helped calm the anxiety that India had induced.
- A yoga class at Shiva Yoga Centre. When I took a class at this simple studio, crafted from tarps and wooden poles, I was the only one. Swami Shivanad Jee explained the benefits of each move and breath, talking about the importance of Lotus for giving you a straight spine for concentration, and for breathing fewer but fuller breaths for a longer life. Price: 300 Rupees (~$4.45 USD), though you can buy long-term packages for a week or more to save money.
- Sunset boat ride. You’ll go out in a giant wooden boat to see South Goa beyond Palolem. See Monkey Island, the secluded Honeymoon Island, Butterfly Island (which is shaped like a butterfly) and even go for a swim. Seeing dolphins jumping out of the water and eagles soaring above is also part of the experience. Cost: You can haggle, but about 800 Rupees for the boat is what I was quoted.
- Visiting other nearby beaches. You can walk to Patnem Beach in about 15 minutes once you get to the giant black rocks and Neptune Point Beach Resort. For the quiet Agonda Beach, rated as one of India’s most beautiful beaches, it’s about a 15-minute rickshaw ride that should cost about 250 Rupees each way.
- A meal at Dropadi. Oh. My. Goodness…the seafood platter! You must order this and you must bring at least three hungry friends. An enormous silver platter is topped with the day’s offerings, which for my group meant lobster, crab, garlic calamari, red snapper, tiger prawns, salad, rice and French fries. The best meal I had in India, hands down!
Brendon Guest House. In Palelom Beach you’ll find rustic pastel-colored beach huts lining the coast. Most of these huts are very basic but they vary in amenities. Brendan Guest House was more expensive, but worth it for the comfort. My hut smelled of new wood, with amenities including air conditioning, a fan, a big bed with blindingly white sheets and hot water. Price: 4,000 Rupees (~$60).
3. Spiritual Understanding In Varanasi
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, with people living there for over 3,000 years. It’s also India’s holiest city, sitting right on the Ganges River (The Mother Ganga). This is where Hindu pilgrims come to cleanse away their sins and lay their dead to rest in the Ganga, a practice believed to transport souls to heaven and help them escape the cycle of rebirth. Sādhus (holy men) walk around blessing people by putting powder dots on their head (for which you’re expected to give a few rupees) and government approved lassi shops sell a hallucinogenic drinks laced with cannabis, which is part of the local culture. Alcohol is prohibited here. Note it’s very polluted in Varanasi and the walk along the ghats — sacred stairways leading to the Ganga — is full of beauty in decay. Bring sinus medication and avoid giving money to child beggars no matter how much your heart aches (here’s why).
- Trying a bhang lassi. These aren’t legal everywhere, but you can get them in Varanasi. They’re laced with cannabis, so proceed with caution. Even the light versions can get you very high. Warning: only purchase these from a government-authorized shop, or you may get some random guy who has no idea what he’s doing but wants your money.
- An Indian music performance at Jolly Music House. This simple theater features mismatched blankets to sit on while watching entrancing sitar, tabla, harmonium music along with Kathak dancing, which blends storytelling, dance and mime to live music.
- Seeing the evening puja ceremony. This takes place every night around 6:30pm on the Dasaswamedh Ghat, believed to have been created by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva. Rituals infuse prayer, fire, incense and movement, paying homage to Lord Shiva, the Ganges River, sun and fire.
- Trying one of the intricate concoctions at Blue Lassi. Open since 1925, Blue Lassi has possibly India’s most expansive lassi menu, taking the typical “salty” or “sweet” varieties to flavors like “coconut chocolate banana,” “papaya pineapple” and “saffron pistachio,” to name a few.
- Visiting the “Burning Ghat.” Varanasi is India’s holiest city, and it’s where Hindu pilgrims venture from around the world to bathe in the Ganges River and cleanse their sins, as well as spread the ashes of their dead. Bodies are carried through the old town to the ghat, where they’re unwrapped, sprinkled with clarified butter (ghee) and incense, and burned in the open. Hindus believe that this ritual allows their souls to ascend into heaven instead of being reborn on earth.
Kedareswar B&B. This hotel was simple, but really clean. It also had strong Wi-Fi and the hospitality was fabulous. The best part: the stay included breakfast on their rooftop overlooking the Ganges River and city. I even saw goats and monkeys on the nearby rooftops! Price: 2,200 Rupees per night (~$33 USD).
4. Tranquility in Bundi
It’s a common perception that India is a polluted, overcrowded and chaotic destination. While this is often true, it’s not always the case. Bundi is one of those magical places in India where you can find peace of mind. After a hectic week in Delhi, Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur, I savored the tranquility this destination brought. Finally I had space to breathe, move my arms and walk freely without fear of being hit by an aggressive rickshaw driver. Bundi offered scenic nature hiking, a weathered art-filled palace, handicraft shopping without being harassed, historic mansion accommodation and the best chai tea I had during my whole trip. I totally fell in love with Bundi’s slow pace of life and welcoming vibe.
- Hiking to Taragarh Fort. This 14th century fort is short but steep, offering the chance to climb fort wall ruins for terrific views and see many monkeys prowling around (so don’t bring snacks!).
- Seeing the historic artwork in Bundi Palace. The palace dates back to 1607, though sadly, because the government doesn’t upkeep the building, it likely won’t be long until the entire place becomes inaccessible.
- Homemade chai at Krishna’s Chai. Krishna is a smiling Bundi native who makes his chai from scratch. You can watch as he hand-pounds black pepper, cardamom and ginger with a stone to be put into a boiling pot. Drink it while sitting in his small open-air cafe covered in mural art. If he likes you, you’ll be given a paintbrush to add your own creation.
- A rooftop meal at Morgan’s Place. I loved Morgan’s Place. Not only was the service speedy and attentive, but they also have a beautiful rooftop with palace views, where they serve alcohol and an array of Indian and Italian dishes (yes, the restaurant’s name is misleading).
- Chatting with locals. Because it’s a small town, people here are very friendly. Even shop owners who want you to have a look at their wares will engage you in genuine conversation.
Dev Niwas Heritage Hotel. This gorgeous mansion property dates back to 1684 and features 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 very 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 (~$18 USD).
5. Romance In Udaipur
Udaipur in Rajasthan is often touted as the most romantic city in India, known for its turreted palaces, historic mansions, colorful temples, rooftops offering Aravali Mountain views and winding roads that wrap around the glistening Lake Pichola. At night, the skyline is beautifully lit up and worth taking in from one of the rooftop restaurants (serving alcohol, which is legal in Udaipur!). The vibe of this city is very friendly, and you’ll rarely find the aggressive sellers you do in places like Delhi and Varanasi. Instead, locals here engage you in conversation — complimenting your clothing or henna tattoo — before inviting you in with a smile to see their selection. Tip: if your trip through India includes Udaipur, do most of your shopping here! There are many amazing places where you can buy Shiva-adorned leather-bound journals, marble work, Indian scenes painted onto silk (Udaipur has tons of art schools), embroidery and more.
- Touring City Palace. City Palace is one of India’s few well-preserved grand palaces, dating back to 1553 with construction lasting about 400 years as each new king added on.
- Volunteering at Animal Aid India. Before Animal Aid, injured street animals like cows, dogs and donkeys had nowhere to go. Animal Aid receives about 35 calls per day. You can volunteer to play with and bathe the animals, as well as assist the medical team to help injured animals recover.
- Seeing sunset at Monsoon Palace. The Monsoon Palace was built in the late 19th century. Today it sits in decay on the hillside, though it still provides beautiful sunset views. You’ll pay 400 Rupees (~$6 USD) to enter, worth it for the sunset overlooking the Aravalli Hills and surrounding lakes.
- Eating homemade potato chips in Bapu Bazar. Located 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. Get a bag for yourself!
- Savoring Gujarati-style thali at Natraj Hotel. Open since 1970, this eatery serves thali — an option on menus all over India that allows you to savor portions of numerous local specialties — in an unlimited fashion. 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) with drinking water!
Stay: Jaiwana Haveli. I was surprised to learn that this accommodation is listed as 3-star, as it felt more luxurious to me.
Jaiwana Havel 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.
What are your favorite places to visit in India?
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