So where to start exploring India? There are so many different options to choose from. The most standard vacation in India will be a journey in to the so-called Indian Golden Triangle. On the Golden Triangle itinerary there are three of India’s most famous destinations: New Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. To do these places justice and properly explore all there is to see, you need multiple days in New Delhi and Jaipur. A visit to Agra can be relatively short if you are only interested in the Taj Mahal. No matter how long you decide to stay where, the Golden Triangle brings you to some of India’s most well-known places. India a really big country and each region differs from the rest. In order to get an idea of everything that India has to offer, you need to visit different parts of the country to understand and experience its diversity.
New Delhi - Starting point
Most tourists will fly into New Delhi and stay at least a few days in the country’s capital. Like India, New Delhi is massive and highly diverse. You can easily spend multiple days exploring the highlights of the city that include Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tumb, the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Akshardam and the Lotus Temple. A quick stop at India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan, India’s Presidential Palace, are also a must.
We have a full blog about things to see and do in New Delhi that includes all major highlights for a 2 to 4 day itinerary.
Agra - Taj Mahal
For most tourists in India, the second stop on the Golden Triangle itinerary is Agra. Agra is mostly known as the city that is home to one of the world’s most famous sites: The Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is by itself worth a trip to India. A vacation in India without seeing the tomb is a wasted trip. Although it is of course one of the busiest highlights of India is most definitely worth it.
The picture perfect tomb was built around 1643 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The ivory-white building was built to house the tomb of the Mughal’s favourite wife and himself. The Taj Mahal sits in the center of Agra at the banks of the Yamuna river. Needless to say, it is UNESCO world heritage site and seen as one of the New 7 wonders of the world attracting visitors from around the world.
Visiting the Taj Mahal is relatively easy. You simply show up at one of the gates of the complex and buy a ticket. As a foreigner you can only buy more expensive tickets which come with several perks. Although not marketed that way, the foreigner ticket, which is about twenty times as expensive as a tickets for Indian nationals, basically is a skip-the-line ticket that allows you to use shorter lines at the security check as well as the line to enter the tomb. I also highly recommend hiring a guide through your tour operator or if you are traveling by private car, by your driver.
The entrance fee to the Taj Mahal is INR 45 for Indian nationals and INR 1050 for foreign visitors (October 2020 prices). New is that an extra 200 INR needs to be paid to see the main mausoleum.
Unknown to most travelers is that you can also visit the Taj Mahal by night. If there is a full moon, the Taj Mahal gets a milky glow and magnificent sparkle due to the white marble and all the gemstones used in the structure. We took full use of this opportunity in 2019 and visited the Taj Mahal at night. Although clouds blocked the moon light from lighting up the Taj Mahal, the experience was well worth it. It is important to know that you can’t buy tickets for night visits at the entrance. As the amount of people that is allowed in is very limited, you need to register (passport details needed) on the morning of your night visit.
Did you know you can visit the Taj Mahal at night?
You cannot reserve tickets for the night visit online, but someone needs to pick the tickets up in person. As we were only bound to arrive in Agra in the afternoon, we called ahead to our Agra hotel to see if they could arrange the tickets for us. This worked out well, but make sure you have plenty of time to make arrangements, because set-backs are not uncommon in this process. Be persistent and very clear on what your expectations are. To start off on your night visit, you need to report at a special security checkpoint where a first check is done. Phones and GoPro cameras are allowed but any proper camera equipment needs to be left behind. Afterwards, the police or military, this isn’t completely clear, brings you to a second checkpoint for another inspection.
Under escort by heavily armed security, you get to access the deserted complex. Alone with the other 20 tourists or so that bought the same ticket. For about 30 minutes you get a fully unobstructed view of the Taj Mahal at night from the viewing platform at the entrance gate. Even if it is clouded, this once in a lifetime experience is well worth the money and effort.
Road between Agra and Jaipur
The third and last stop on the classic golden triangle itinerary is Jaipur, the pink city. Before you arrive in the pink city, it is good to realize that the road between Agra and Jaipur is home to multiple highlights well worth a visit.
The first stop on your way to Jaipur should be Fatehpur Sikri located about 39 kilometers (24 miles) from Agra. The site was the once capital of the Mughal empire and is home to a massive palace complex of temples and other monuments. The complex and city served as the capital of the empire until it was completely abandoned in 1610. Nowadays, it is a popular tourist site that has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can also visit Fatehpur Sikiri as a day trip or day tour from Agra.
Abhaneri’s Chand Bawri Step Well
Close to Jaipur lies the Chand Bawri step well in the small village Abhaneri. The stepwell dates back to the 8th century and could be best described as a very large well that is accessible through countless number of steps. It is a beautiful ancient stepwell served as a movie location for the Batman Hollywood film The Dark Night Rises.
Although you can access the site of the stepwell you cannot descent into the well. The stepwell is definitely worth a visit and can be considered ‘off the beaten track’. There will be fellow tourists during your visit but nothing like the massive crowds that you have become used to before you entered Rajasthan. In Jaipur city, there is also a stepwell that you can access for free but that one is less impressive than this one.
Jaipur - completing the triangle
Jaipur is the capital and largest city of Rajasthan one of India’s most beautiful states. Rajasthan literally translates into “the Land of Kings” and the state lives up to that prestigious name. Rajasthan historically was patchwork of smaller and bigger kingdoms where humans lived together with a diverse wildlife that includes tigers and elephants. It were the Maharajas that ruled over these lands as their tribes fought wars against each other in their ancient long rich history. Rajasthan is as close as you can get to an eastern fairy tale.
The most beautiful thing about a modern day visit to Rajasthan is that you can still feel, taste and experience this long history. You can sleep in the former palaces and some of those are still the residence of the royal family. A trip to India would not be complete without a visit to this special state.
Jaipur as the capital of Rajasthan is no exception. The city itself is so special that the city center is a world heritage site. Jaipur is also known as the pink city because many buildings in the center are painted pink under British rule. These buildings were painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales back in 1876. Most buildings in the center around the city palace have retained this color.
Amber Fort / Amer fort
While in Jaipur there are several sites that you should most definitely visit. The first highlight on your itinerary should be Amer Fort. This fort is situated just outside Jaipur and is a massive Mughal fort constructed out of sandstone and marble. The fort dates back to the rule of Raja Man Singh, the King of Amer in the sixteenth century.
The fort is a large complex that houses Amer Palace, multiple courtyards and a large complex of underground tunnels. To access the fort, you can simply buy a ticket at the entrance. Amer Fort can be relatively busy during peak season. Like most places in India, foreigners pay a more expensive ticket than Indian nationals. At the Amer Fort this extra expensive ticket doesn’t come with additional perks. You can enter the fort from two sides. Especially when it is warmer, we recommend driving directly towards the entrance at the top rather than hiking up from the lake side.
Jaipur’s city palace is most definitely a must see. In the middle of the city center, this site is still an active palace and home to Jaipur’s unofficial Maharaja royal family. Although royalty doesn’t exist in modern day India anymore, the family still resides in the palace. Whle their private residences are closed to the public, tourists can visit large parts of the palace.
I visited the City Palace on three different occasions. It is an stunning palace that lives and breath Rajasthan’s culture. The palace was built around 1730 and combines Mughal, European and Rajputana architecture. It also offers a collection of weaponry and offers a glimpse into the history of both Rajasthan as well as the relationship with the British rulers.
The City Palace is also home to one of the most picture perfect sights of India: The Pritam Niwas Chowk. A courtyard that has four different gates that contain a peacock decoration. Each gate displays one of the four seasons and many influencers that visit India will take a picture with one of these gates. To take a picture perfect Instagram photo you have to be either patient or rude. The city palace is normally quite busy.
City Palace is also a popular wedding and event location for India’s rich and famous. In those situations the palace might be closed or access restricted. At one of my three visits to the palace they were building up to a major wedding. As a result I was enjoying the beauty of the palace while trying to navigate between hundreds of staffs getting the place ready for a major event.
This massive pink painted building was built in 1799. Although pink is a key characteristic of the building, it wasn’t originally painted that color. The massive building, that sits on a busy Jaipur street near the city palace, was painted pink to welcome the prince of Wales back in 1876 when most of the city was painted that color.
The building has a massive front with over 953 small windows. The building was built so that the royal ladies could watch festivals and parades happening on the big street in front of it without being seen from the outside. Something that was not allowed under strict Purdah rule. A side effect of the architecture is that it also allows wind to cool down the inside during the sometimes incredibly warm Rajasthani warm summers.
Most tourists don’t go into Hawa Mahal. Tourists either take a picture from across the street or lunch at one of the restaurants in front of Hawa Mahal. There are also some rooftop restaurants where you can have a good view at the building.
Jantar can best be explained by a Maharaja hobby project getting out of hand back in 1724. A hobby project that earned itself the title as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officially a Jantar Mantar is an equinoctial sundial, an instrument that is intended to measure the time of day at that exact location. In other words, a clock that gives the exact time on that location. The bigger the sundial, the more precise it can tell time. Jantar Mantar Jaipur is home to an absolutely massive sundial that can tell time correct to half a second while it can also tell the declination of the sun.
I visited Jantar Mantar with my wife and parents back in 2019. In all honestly, you have to like these kind of attractions in order to enjoy it. While my father was quickly bored by the site, my mother was amazed by the historical value and preciseness of measuring time by the Maharaja.
Other things to see in Jaipur
Jal Mahal is a palace in the middle of a lake and unfortunately it is closed to public. Despite the fact that you cannot visit the palace, it is most certainly worth a visit as you can enjoy the beauty of the palace from the shore of the lake. This picture perfect palace was completely renovated in 2004.
Albert Hall Museum
Albert Hall Museum is home to different kind of arts and is a really quiet museum that gives you a glimpse into the rich history of Jaipur. Situated in the city center of Jaipur it is worth a quick visit. We visited the museum back in 2018 when parts of it were being renovated so we cannot fully judge whether the collection is worth a visit that lasts longer than an hour.
There are multiple forts in Jaipur. While Amer fort is the most frequently visited fort, Jaigrh Fort is a bit more ‘off the beaten track’. We visited the fort in 2019 and it gives you a beautiful view of Jaipur city. The fort itself is also beautiful although not as nice as the Amer fort or the inside of City Palace.
Beyond the Golden Triangle: Udaipur
If you have time to travel beyond the Golden Triangle, Udaipur should most definitely your go to destination. This Rajasthani city is called the ‘city of lakes’ and that is for good reason. The city is built around several lakes and is home to many palaces you can sleep in.
When I visited Udaipur with my wife and parents in 2019, we stayed at Udaipur’s City Palace. This palace is still occupied by the Maharaja but parts of it now serves as a hotel to generate a steady flow of income for the former royals. The City Palace was also where parts of the James Bond movie Octopussy were recorded in 1983. Not only was the movie filmed at the palace Roger Moore also stayed at the hotel during the recordings.
Nowadays, the city is home to many luxury hotels and lots of things to do. This includes a visit to the City Palace, a cruise on Lake Pichola, the Saheliyo Ki Bari Garden and Monsoon Palace.