Go big and go beautiful on a first visit to India, writes Jo Bell, with advice on the best places to see.
An inspiration and a delight to so many of those who visit, India's chaotic madness and innumerable challenges can also leave the unprepared exhausted and overwhelmed.
For a first-time visit, the country's largest state, Rajasthan — meaning "land of the kings" — is the perfect introduction.
Rich in majestic palaces and forts, colourful festivals and bazaars, picturesque lakes, wildlife-filled national parks and rolling sand dunes, Rajasthan spans much of northwest India. To the west is the Thar desert, once ruled by three great kingdoms: Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner; on the eastern plains, the bustling state capital of Jaipur; and further south, the fairytale lakes and palaces of Udaipur.
Striking the right balance between town and country is crucial, as is having top-notch accommodation to retreat to if it all gets too much. Thankfully, Rajasthan delivers on both.
Allow ample time to get around; three to four weeks is ideal, with longer drives, trains and flights needed to get from A to B. Delhi is the nearest international hub. Plan now for a visit between mid-October and mid-March for cooler, dry weather. May to June is to be avoided as temperatures can reach a scorching 45-48C.
Although many warn of getting sick in India, you can do much to protect yourself. Practise good hygiene, drink bottled water and stick with cooked vegetarian food when not in upmarket hotels. Vigilant use of a good travel probiotic, antibacterial spray and liquid vitamin C helped keep us well on our recent visit.
Ideal time: 3 days
First things first, Delhi isn't in Rajasthan and neither is Agra (on facing page). But if you're visiting Rajasthan, you'll almost certainly want to start and end your trip here. It is home to about 18 million people, and some visitors shy away from Delhi's hustle and bustle, but there's plenty to reward those who venture into India's capital.
New Delhi, with its wide avenues, colonial mansions and diplomatic enclave full of embassies is a good base and home to many good hotels. My pick is The Lodhi, a luxurious property that stands out for its contemporary design, world-class facilities and India's top fine-dining restaurant, Indian Accent. Be sure to book ahead.
Ease into Delhi with a visit to the Persian-influenced Humayun's Tomb; the stunning 14th-century step well, Agrasen ki Baoli; and The Lodi Gardens, green lungs in the city with beautiful tombs and architectural relics of the 15th-century Lodi dynasty — all close to the hotel.
On day two, head to the heart of Old Delhi to Chadni Chowk bazaar. A tangle of narrow, crowded lanes, vendors peddle saris and fabrics, electronic goods, spices and dried fruits, street food and traditional Indian sweets, jewellery, stationary and books. Foodies should consider a guided tour of the spice market.
Next to Chadni Chowk is the Red Fort. Enter via the imposing Lahore Gate and you'll find the 60-pillared red sandstone hall Diwan-i-Aam, imperial apartments the Khas Mahal and the luminous white marble of the Diwan-i-Khas, hamams and Moti Masjid mosque.
A half-hour drive south of the city is Mehrauli Archaeological Park, a Unesco World Heritage site that's home to the towering Qtub Minar tower, built in 1192. Popular with Delhi's rich and famous, the area is a good spot to grab lunch with many a good restaurant including Qla and Olive Bar & Kitchen.
On the way back, visit Hauz Khas Village, a leafy enclave on the edge of Deer Park. With a giant lake and 13th-century fort, its narrow streets are lined with cosmopolitan bars, restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Ideal time: 2-3 days
Known as the Pink City, Jaipur is a labyrinth of bazaars, historic sights, forts and palaces.
Enter the old walled part of the city through the elaborately painted Ajmeri Gate and meander the narrow streets that form Johari bazaar, then head to the Hawa Mahal, a five-storey beehive-like structure of intricate latticework and nearly 1000 windows, and the ornate 18th-century Govind Devji temple. A standout in the old town is Jantar Mantar, an aesthetic and mathematical marvel of large-scale astronomical and celestial instruments from the 1700s, including the world's largest stone sundial.
The highlight of any visit to Jaipur is the impressive Amber Fort. A short drive from the old town, the climb to the fort can be made on foot.
Four levels of opulent halls and apartments feature marble, mirror and glass inlay, frescoes, alabaster and silver, and visitors are free to wander the farthest and oldest end of the fort. The many empty rooms offer glimpses into life as a royal lady or courtier.
On the way back, stop to admire Jal Mahal or "Water Palace" on Man Sagar Lake, before arriving at Nahargarh Fort for sunset, the golden ramparts and old town aglow under the setting sun.
RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK
Ideal time: 2-3 days
For wildlife lovers, Ranthambore is one of the best places to see tigers. Allow yourself time for at least two safari drives, which happen early morning and late afternoon when the cats are most active.
Although the 60-odd tigers in the reserve can be somewhat elusive creatures, you're bound to see antelope, deer, langurs, macaques and wild boar.
Also in Rajasthan is Keoladeo National Park, home to 230 bird species, 379 species of flower, as well as snakes, turtles, lizards and amphibians.
Ideal time: 1 day
A small, peaceful pilgrim town built around a lake — an overnight stop here is an unexpected delight.
Pushkar's charming village centre and serene lakeside ghats and temples are a welcome antidote to the bustle of larger cities. At the right time of year (Oct/Nov) visitors can also experience the Pushkar Fair, an annual camel, cattle and horse fair with a carnival-like atmosphere.
Ideal time: 1-2 days
The seat of Mughal Court in the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra is home to the world's most famous testament to love, the Taj Mahal. Arrive at daybreak or day's end to enjoy the changing light on this magnificent white marble mausoleum and look out for the elaborately detailed designs and calligraphy in the main chamber.
Agra Fort (or Red Fort) is also well worth checking out, an enormous complex of courtly buildings, lavishly decorated and with views across the Yamuna River to the Taj Mahal.
Ideal time: 2-3 days
The "Blue City", Jodhpur epitomises all the splendour and romance of Rajasthan.
Towering over Jodhpur and the sands of the Thar Desert, majestic Mehrangarh Fort is breathtaking.
Spread across 5km of rocky hilltop, its forbidding ramparts are a sharp contrast to the ornate interior and collection of royal art, furniture, clothing and even cribs.
Below, the oldest part of the city is a jumble of tiny streets awash with shades of cobalt and indigo. A jmix of old and new, much fun can be had tripping upon hidden temples, crumbling havelis (mansions), courtyard cafes and rooftop restaurants — all with a view of the fort.
Another prime example of India's stately opulence, the immense Umaid Bhavan Palace was built when the royal family moved out of Mehrangarh in the 1950s, its 347 rooms taking 15 years to complete.
A 280-year-old water tank left unused and rubbish-filled for decades, the Toorji Stepwell has been restored, returning this architectural wonder to its former glory and uncovering more than 60m of intricate hand-carved treasure.
The best hotel for a stay in Jodhpur is without a doubt the RAAS Jodhpur. Set within the old walled city, the RAAS breathes new life into an 18th-century maharaja's mansion. The collection of beautiful old buildings and stables are fused with contemporary architecture, fragrant gardens, rooftop dining and spectacular views of the fort.
With the stepwell right next door, the fort is a pleasant 10-minute climb from the back gate and the old city just a quick rickshaw drive away. Just be sure to allow plenty of time to enjoy the hotel pool too.
Ideal time: 2-3 days
A fairytale city of marble palaces and lakes, Udaipur is built around Lake Pichola, manmade in 1362 to meet the area's water and irrigation needs. Havelis, ghats and temples line the picturesque waterfront and it holds four islands.
On Jag Mandir island is a palace of the same name, its lush gardens and marble chambers built in 1620, and on Jag Niwas is the Lake Palace, built a century later and now one of the world's top hotels. If like us, you can't afford the hefty price tag for a night at the Taj Lake Palace, both palaces can be seen by boat.
Stretching along the eastern shore of Lake Pichola is the City Palace. The largest palace in Rajasthan, the massive complex covers more than 2ha and much of it is now a museum.
Ideal time: 4 days
Rising like a mirage out of the Thar Desert, the golden city of Jaisalmer has all the mystical charm of the medieval era. Today a remote outpost some 800km west of Delhi, Jaisalmer was once a flourishing trade centre on the caravan route to Afghanistan and central Asia.
Built in 1156, Jaisalmer Fort is one of the largest in the world, with 4km of golden sandstone walls 9m high. Back then, the whole population lived within the hilltop citadel, and even now about 3000 call it home, making this India's only living fort. Some families claim up to 20 generations of unbroken occupation.
Enter up a steep path and through the imposing Ganesh or Elephant Gateway and you'll arrive at the main square, off which feed a maze of narrow lanes lined with havelis, stalls, shops and rooftop restaurants. The majestic five-storey Maharaja's Palace features a pair of silver thrones and an impressive collection of weapons. A cluster of exquisitely carved Jain temples range from the 12th to 16th centuries. A walk along the quiet inner walls of the ramparts will reveal cannonball-shaped rocks, once weapons for pelting enemies below.
Outside the fort, the superb havelis of Salim Singh, Nathmalji and Patwon ki are within easy walking distance. Lined with ghats and temples, manmade Gadisgar Lake was once an important source of drinking water for the area. Further afield is Bada Bagh with its royal cenotaphs, dome shaped pavilions and temple for childless women; Lodurva, an ancient capital dating back to the 9th century, and the rippling sand dunes of Sam, popular for camel safaris, sunsets and overnight stays in tented camps.
Set into the fort walls, Hotel Killa Bhawan is a small and charming guesthouse. Cosy rooms feature original stone walls, beamed ceilings, traditional furniture and hanging Juliet balconies, while three rooftop terraces offer spectacular views of the town, palace and desert beyond.
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