People often say that they would love to visit India, but simply don’t have the time. It can take 24 hours or longer to get there (especially if you’re coming from the US West Coast), and it’s a large country, so getting from point to point can be time-consuming.
However, it is possible to see quite a bit of this spectacular country in less than a fortnight, especially if you stick to a small area. Many of the country’s top attractions are in the north, in an area that’s come to be known as the Golden Triangle, and if you’re short on vacation days, this is the best place to focus on.
There are three major cities in the Golden Triangle: Delhi (India’s capital), Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and the desert city of Jaipur. Most people fly into Delhi and then try to get out as quickly as possible. It’s a pretty hectic—especially if you’ve never been to India before—it’s best to save it for the end of your visit. Instead, head straight to Agra after a night of rest in Delhi.
Agra is best known as the home of the Taj Mahal, and this is the main reason most people come to the city. If you can, try to plan your trip to coincide with the full moon, as moonlight visits to this emblematic monument can be arranged during the few days on which the moon is at its fullest. If you can’t make it at this time, arrange to visit early in the morning. The Taj opens at sunrise and the sunlight at this time of day makes the white marble monument appear to shimmer.
There are also plenty of other spectacular sites to see in Agra, and if you give yourself a couple of nights here, you can easily fit in a visit to the Mughal-era Agra Fort, a massive red sandstone structure that merits a 2-3 hour visit. If you’ve got the cash, a night in the opulent Oberoi Amarvilas may very well be the highlight of your India trip. This gorgeous hotel was built using the same materials and techniques as the Taj (white marble and semi-precious gem inlay) and all of the rooms here have unobstructed views of the Taj Mahal’s eastern façade.
From Agra, Jaipur is 4-5 hours by train or road. This magnificent little city is one of India’s most picturesque spots. You’ll definitely want to spend at least three full days here if at all possible, as this will give you the chance to check out the city’s many forts, palaces, and havelis (city mansions). Don’t miss the Jantar Mantar, an outdoor collection of large astronomical instruments that were once used for everything from predicting eclipses to measuring constellations. Another must-see attraction is the five-story Palace of the Winds, or Hawa Mahal as it’s known locally, which has nearly 1000 tiny latticed windows on its eastern wall. The nearby town of Amber is also worth a half-day visit, even if only to visit the spectacular Amber Fort, one of India’s best known fortresses. An elephant ride from the fort’s base to its summit is a highlight of many a visitor’s trips to India.
Jaipur has no shortage of places to stay, and most overseas travelers try to nab a room in one of the city’s many “heritage hotels”. Most of these hotels are located in converted havelis in the Bani Park area, in the western part of town and are available in every price category. At the cheaper range, Hotel Pearl Palace is an excellent value. Each of the rooms here has its own unique design, and many are lined with beautiful blue pottery tiles. At the other end of the price range, Samode Haveli, in the old part of town, is one of Jaipur’s most spectacular properties. The haveli was built nearly two centuries ago as a city home for the royal family and, with its beautifully-appointed rooms and impeccable service, it maintains a regal vibe to this day.
After your visit to Jaipur, head back to Delhi, about 5-6 hours by road or train. Although there are plenty of inexpensive places to stay in the capital, particularly in the backpacker-oriented Paharganj neighborhood, you may want to splurge on something a little snazzier for your last few days in India. Central Delhi’s historic Imperial Hotel is one of the most elegant hotels in the capital, and the enormous pool here is arguably the city’s nicest.
You could easily spend a couple of weeks checking out the numerous attractions and neighborhoods of this enormous city, but if you’ve only got a few days, you might want to take it easy and just hit up a few top sights. Whatever you do, don’t miss Central Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, a verdant, well-maintained park that’s home to a number of Lodi Period (15th-16th century) shrines. If you happen to be in town on a Thursday, you’ll also want to check out the weekly Qawwali (devotional music) performances at Nizamuddin Dargah, the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, India’s most famous Sufi saint.
Delhi is also an excellent place to shop, and there are plenty of markets and shopping districts here to choose from. However, if you have to pick one, make it Hauz Khas Village in South Delhi. This little village in the middle of the city has been known for its high concentration of high fashion boutiques and independent art galleries for over a decade. Over the last few years, the neighborhood has witnessed a boom in new restaurants, independent bookstores, and interior décor shops, and it’s an excellent place to buy unique, high quality gifts.
This entire itinerary can be squeezed into just over a week, and all that running around can be tiring, especially if you visit April-June, when it’s extra hot out. However, a visit to this extraordinary part of India is well worth the effort, especially if you’re in the mood for more adventure than relaxation. Plus, you can always catch up on sleep on the long flight home.
Margot Bigg is a journalist and guidebook author who spent the last five years living and working in New Delhi. Her latest book, Moon Taj Mahal, Delhi & Jaipur, will be out this November. You can learn more about her at www.margotbigg.com.