Your guide to travelling North India
Here you will find all of the information you NEED to know about planning your dream trip to this incredible part of the world. You will also find my free top ten tips on how to save money and maximise your time. You will find these infinitely useful in the future, and you can use them throughout your travels.
I know travelling North India can seem both alluring and terrifying at the same time. We have all heard the grand palaces of the ancient maharajas and seen the tiger filled jungles on wildlife documentaries. We have also all heard of extreme poverty, the maddening crowds, and it is being a little iffy for female backpackers.
The truth is that like anything in life; nothing is ever as bad as you think it’s going to be. That is not to say travel here will not be an intense culture shock. Of course, it will be, but that is a good thing because north Indian culture is both enthralling and its people are incredibly hospitable. Those grand Maharaja palaces are indeed grand, and those tiger filled jungles are so much more exotic than those documentaries could ever give justice to.
In fact, there are dozens of reasons to come to this whimsical corner of the universe, from the mouthwatering cuisine to one of the most vibrant and colourful cultures in the planet. Whatever it is that puts the wind in your hair India has you covered. So let us jump straight in and have a look at what you need to know about travel here.
The climate in Northern India.
There are three distinct seasons in the North of the country, and I have travelled in them all so I can tell you there are pros and cons to each of them. I will now give a brief overview of my experience, and you can decide what one suits you best. I know for many of you it will be a case of whatever time you can get off work, but at least you will have a good idea of what is coming.
Like anywhere in the world right now, seasons are not as regular as they used to be due to global warming, but this makes for a pretty good framework. Sometimes the monsoon fails altogether, and this spells disaster for the people whose lively hood depends on regular weather patterns. This happens naturally of cause, but it has happened more frequently in recent years, and this has been interluded by brutal and prolonged summers. In a part of the world where there is a massive population that depends almost solely on groundwater, it does not take a genius to see the possibility of disaster.
- Winter is everyone’s favourite time to visit. It is cool, and everything is still green from the monsoon that has hopefully soaked everything for months. You will need a jumper for the nights in the desert and if you plan on visiting any hill stations such as Mount Abu. It can get damn right cold in these parts at night, and it is a pleasant respite from the baking heat that forms most of the year. The winter runs from approximately October to January and if you travel in this blissful time get ready to pay through the teeth for just about everything as you are not the first person to come up with this idea.
- Spring turns into summer so quickly it is hard to see where the line would be. So I will tell you it starts getting hotter from February and culminates into everything being baked senseless by April. The fun does not stop there as those painful months waiting for the rains can easily run right into June, and the thermostat will be circling fifty degrees centigrade daily. The benefits of travelling at this time if you can stand the searing heat are that you get everything at much lower prices. Not only that it is the best time to visit national parks as everything is dead so you can see further.
- The monsoon arrives at some point hopefully in June or July and will bring a deluge over the whole of north India for months on end. That by no stretch of the imagination means the temperature comes down straight away. In fact, June and July are my least favourite times to travel as all that dry heat will turn quickly to a steamy sauna and you never really ever get dry. Few tourists come at this time so you can continue to enjoy low prices. National parks largely close down, and diseases such as Dengue fever make an appearance.
So there you have it. The good the bad and the ugly of travel in Northern India. You can now decide what you can live with and what you want. I hope my no-nonsense evaluation was helpful to you.
The culture of Northern India.
The diversity of culture is one of the definite joys of visiting the north as there is a multitude of faiths that coexist side by side. Albeit not always harmoniously.
Most people are Hindus, and there are many ways to practice this faith presumably because it is so old. One of the things I appreciate most about this faith is the multitude of gods. That means the devote can worship in whatever way feels right for him or her. That is in a stark contradiction to the monolithic gods.
The second most numerous practice is Islam, and there have been Muslims residing here for a very long time indeed. The moguls left an indelible footprint on its architecture, cuisine and culture.
Sikhs make up the vast population of Punjab, and they have a very different culture to the rest. That means to travel in this state will be quite unlike elsewhere. They follow the teaching primarily of the Guru Nanak, and like Hinduism, there is a big focus on being a good person.
Jains and Buddhists also live in northern India, and spending time in these communities can ben food for the soul. The faith of a community will greatly impact your experience as they will always come with a set of values. This is why I am talking about it in my culture section.
There are also a large number of tribal communities sprinkled across the north in states such as Bihar and places such as the Kutch area of Gujarat and the deserts of Western Rajasthan. Visiting these places makes for a vastly different experience from everywhere else. In short, you will find it very hard to get bored with the culture as it is very much a voyage of discovery for any traveller.
North Indian food.
The food of the north tends to be heavily laced with spices and contains more oils making everything taste luxurious and rich. Both Jains and Muslims tend to be vegetarian so you can fill our boots of vegetables here. It is all delicious, and despite the length, of time I have travelled here, I am continually discovering new dishes.
A lot of the food is extremely heavy, so there will is little need to eat three times a day. I would suggest going easy of the local food until you train your belly. The food being so rich will probably give you an upset stomach despite it being so damn nice. When I first start a long journey, I often start with a western breakfast if it is possible then eat local in the evening until my stomach become acclimatised to the new cuisine.
I will give a brief rundown of what to expect from each state as I describe them below. I have separate posts on the food and will provide a link later on in the post. Visiting Northern India is truly a culinary voyage and a highlight of coming at all.
My top ten tips for travelling North India.
These tips I am about to give you may seem harsh, but they are realistic. Follow them closely, and you will be travelling like a pro. These little tricks come with years of experience and have served me again and again. Now I want to share with you what I have learned in the hope you won’t make the same mistakes I have. It is always better to learn from someone else’s mistakes if you can, after all. Finding this stuff out has been painful and costly. So read on and let me know what you think.
- Tip number one has to be, embrace the chaos. You won’t ever escape the dust grit, and grime so dont try. A whole lot of people live in northern India, so chaos is inevitable. To turn your nose up every time you see an open sewer in the city will just work out to be bad for your mental health. It’s just the way it is so accepting it will make you enjoy your trip a whole lot more. Believe me when I say the upside of visiting this incredible part of the country far outweighs the bad.
- Learn the etiquette of crossing the road. That is to just shuffle across the road with your hand out by the way. The cars just drive around you. Much of the country is devoid of traffic lights but if they are there, use them. Crossing the roads can be genuinely hazardous, and I have seen many fatal injuries over the years. Especially involving young men and motorbikes. If you have to get on the back of one and sometimes that’s the only way to get somewhere. Check to see if your taxi driver is drunk or not, and insist on a motorbike helmet. Yes, these are genuine issues.
- Save your small change as you will need loads of it. Genuine or not, many places won’t seem to have any. Sometimes you need it fair and square. On the subways, for example, you cant be paying for a ten-rupee ticket with two thousand. The staff are unlikely to accept it and quite rightly so. Sometimes I just find it hard to believe, and it seems way too convenient. Toilet attendants, for example, baffle me when all they do all day is collect change but when you need some there just isn’t any?
- Resist the urge to help everyone. It seems against many of our ideals, but there are far too many people who need your help. Not only that there are countless scams and schemes to get your cash. I personally always buy food for the needy because as sad as it seems, food cannot be returned. I like to give my donations to the disabled or homeless children as there is no social security system what so ever set up. Your money is much needed so it can be challenging as hell not to help every grubby faced child. Your money is much needed everywhere.
- You will find countless stray dogs and feral monkeys around the cities. As cute as some of them seem dont even think about petting them. They can carry diseases, and some are very dangerous, indeed. Rabies is university fatal once the symptoms begin to show and is a real issue in India. Resist the urge and stay safe. If you do get bitten, clean the wound properly and make your way to the nearest hospital as fast as you can.
- Use government booking offices when planning a train journey. You will find them in every large tourist-friendly city, and they are super helpful for you to know about. They have access to something called the tourist quota, and that’s something an agent or the internet cant help you with. The government set aside a certain number of seats only for foreign tourists. Trains can get booked up months in advance, and these offices can make seats for the journey you created in the past few minutes on a whim materialise from thin air.
- Bartering is a way of life here, and it is not in our culture. It stands to reason you dont pay the first price you are quoted so how much do you pay? My Advise is to start at about half what you were told and meet in the middle. I used to worry about being fair as I dont want to take food from someone’s mouth. However, no one will sell anything at a loss, so you dont have to worry too much about paying a fair price. If you want to buy whatever, it is just something you will have to do so be firm and assertive but not aggressive. Before long, you will get the hang of it and even enjoy the process.
- When organising a hotel room do not book in advance unless you know it will be super busy like in Jaisalmer in December. This can seem scary and even foolhardy. The truth is if you book through a website, you leave no wiggle room for bartering and will automatically pay the maximum amount. If you go through a middle man like booking.com, you will be paying considerably more.
- A real pro tip is if you are more than one dont carry any luggage when searching for your room. One of you can wait with the bags and a cup of chai. While the other can go hotel to hotel searching for the best possible deal. You now have the advantage as it insinuates you already have a room so the owner will be reluctant to let the custom simply walk out the door. Trust me, it works, and it has saved me thousands of rupees throughout the years.
- My last tip is for the lady readers. Dress modestly, or you will draw a lot of attention. Unless that is what you want I would strongly advise to cover up and cover up good. I have seen western girls walking around in their hot pants, and I think oh my……. They are in for a tough holiday! Not only is it insensitive to the local culture but you will be sorry when men are asking for the one billionth selfy with you. Many foreign girls invest in a headscarf. Not only do they look chic, but they also mask your body shape and keep the sun off. It win-win all the way with one of these bad boys.
There you have it. These are my top ten tips that I have not just strung together. These are things that have helped me throughout the years repeatedly. Do let me know how they work out for you, won’t you?
North Indian states.
So what exactly do I mean when I talk about travelling North India? Well, I checked on google where is considered Northen India and I can tell you with some confidence that it is subjective. Different organisations consider different parts to be the north. So I will talk about the parts I think is right. The purpose of this section is to see what appears to you and see where it is that gets you going.
I want to make it clear where I think it it is not and that is in the far north of the country. Many organisations consider Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand to be considered the North of India. However, they are very different beasts, and I will write a separate post on these states as they are not even vaguely similar. You will see if you have not already made your travels here that the states listed below while vastly different all follow a theme.
In the same token, Gujarat is largely not considered to be in that bracket, but it really is. Gujarat is like Rajasthan in many ways but without the crowds and no less to draw the attention of the intrepid traveller. There are plenty of historical wonders to grab your attention, and you will have many of them largely to yourselves.
The state also boasts the whole worlds population of Asiatic Lions and a multitude of spectacular wildlife in its harsh interior. There are several national parks where oddly enough biodiversity gathers in vast numbers. The sun-baked plains create every photographer’s dream, and the impressively unique topography of Kutch plays host to a distinct culture. Towards the border with the infinitely more famous Rajasthan the cultures begin to meet, bringing a kaleidoscope of colour.
This state is not without its downsides though. Almost no foreign tourists make it out here, so there is no infrastructure what so ever to help you. What’s wrong with that I hear you say? I am there to experience the local culture? That is of cause is true, but that means almost no budget rooms anywhere so expect to spend at least one thousand five hundred for a nights stay. It also means there are minimal alternatives to local food. While the food is lip-smackingly good, it can be harsh on the fragile untrained belly.
Hold on to your hats as this place is sure to blow you away! There is an excellent reason this is one of Indias most visited states. There are not just one or two places with grand historical attractions to draw you in. There are dozens, and some are entire towns to consume your attention.
Imposing forts and elegant palaces are liberally sprinkled across the whole state. In all reality, it is tough to know where to focus your attention if you only have two weeks. There is just too much to experience here in that tiny amount of time, and it can seem overwhelming to have to decide.
Rajasthan has approximately eighty million people living in it. Or about a quarter of the population of the united states all crammed in an area that is approximately the size of Texas. Despite that mind-blowing fact, there are still vast swaths of land that is dedicated to the preservation of its natural heritage. What’s more, the Hindu people themselves have a great reverence for life here.
Ranthambhore is without question the premier park in this state. This national park boasts one of the highest concentrations of tigers to be found anywhere on earth. However dont overlook the smaller protected areas as the state is blessed with an unusual collection of characters that call them home.
Rajasthani food is spectacular, and you will find your self spoiled for choice of hearty local cuisine to feast on. The harsh conditions of this state are reflected in the food and as a chef myself, I find the diversity and complexity of the dishes here to be so very innovative. The people of Rajasthan are overwhelmingly devout Hindus, so there is scarcely a better place you could think of to be a herbivore.
Carnivores need not despair as there are plenty of trademark meaty dishes that are available across the state and my personal favourite is Lal Mass, and I would implore all whos diet allows it not to miss out!
It is so hard, to sum up why you should come to this state with just a few sentences. This section is just a brief overview to see what inspires my readers. I believe it would be simpler to state that if you are in the area and you were to bypass Rajasthan, then you could find yourself short-changed by your experience.
Rajasthan is the epitome of incredible India when you close your eyes and think of the country you will probably envision Maharajas living in grand palaces. Tigers roaming around incredible landscapes that could be straight from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Yeah well, that’s here! So dont miss out on your chance to absorb yourself in everything this state has to offer.
This epic city deserves a portion of my post all to itself. Many travellers rush off from Delhi just as fast as they can to get to the show-stopping sights of the north. It should surprise no one to find out Delhi has plenty of its own incredible sights to enjoy. Not to mention a beguiling array of places to eat out and some of the very best food to be had on the whole subcontinent. Let’s face it travelling our tastebuds is one of the true joys of travel and you can start here.
For those who can push past the bustling intensity of this city, you will be blessed with ancient monuments and a fantastic cultural experience. Few people will spend time strolling around Old Delhi and leave thinking it wasn’t worth it. There is so much here to explore, and it is all connected by a super-fast subway system. That means you can get from one point of interest to the next in almost no time at all.
You dont believe there is as much here as I am making out? Open the Lonely Planet and see how many pages are needed to describe all the places for us to visit. Please give New Delhi the respect it deserves. Although I know, it can seem daunting to spend time in its congested and polluted streets. Trust me if you can push past that you will not be disappointed.
Punjab and Haryana.
The undisputed heavyweight attraction here is the Golden Temple in Amritsar and what a sight it is too. The temple is the focal point for the Sikh people and devotes come in mass to see it. Experiencing it for yourself is intense and deeply moving. It is so much more than just a temple. It is what I consider the closest thing to altruism that you could possibly hope to find.
The Golden Temple is home to the busiest kitchen on earth. It caters for at least 80,000 people a day and as much as 100,000! From a chef perspective, they are mind-boggling numbers and what is way more extraordinary is that it is all free. It is paid for out of the pockets of the Sikh people who also come to cook for the rich and poor alike. The Kitchen runs around the clock and always delivers tasty vegetarian food.
If you do make your way here, do not stay anywhere else but with the pilgrims inside the temple. There are proper beds available and its a humbling experience indeed to know the devotes sleep on the marble floors to make sure visitors have a bed. There is no sales pitch, and no one wants anything from you except maybe a selfy. Buses even pick up people from the station and then take you to the temple at no cost. The people are so unbelievably kind it is easily overwhelming.
When it is time to leave, there is no hard sale, or you secretly owe this. No, I just got a big genuine smile and a thank you for coming. There are donation boxes and its a safe bet I gave generously as I have a conscience after all. No one enforces this or expects it though? I have never seen anything like it ever ever. For another of the chain, kind of experience head to the Wagha border. Watch the daily closing ceremony between India and Pakistan’s border. Thank me later as it is so deliciously weird.
Outside of Amritsar, you will be hard-pressed to find many backpackers, and that is not to say there is not a smattering of places to enjoy. I found Patiala to be very interesting but get ready for no infrastructure and a lot of curiosity from the local people.
Before I wrap up what’s good in this part of the world, I have to mention the food. It would be rude not too as it is amazing. Sikhs seem to eat a lot of meat, and the food is very vibrant. Kulcha is absolutely incredible, although the amount of oil used in its production could probably kill you faster than a crack addiction but who cares when it tastes that good?
Bihar and Jharkhand.
These are Indias poorest states, and if you ask most travellers or even locals, they will probably advise you not to go anywhere near either part. I have travelled quite extensively across the two, and I have experienced no ill-feeling but a lot of curiosity towards outsiders. In my personal opinion, these parts get a bad rep. The landscapes are incredibly scenic, and culturally both states are fascinating.
Again there is one clear standout drawcard here, and that is Bodhgaya. It is the place where the Lord Buddha came to become enlightened, and today it draws in devotes and visitors alike from around the world. If you do come to this state, do not neglect to come here. It is an unforgettable experience even if you are not looking to meditate under a bodhi tree yourself.
Outside of Bodhgaya, there are few tourists, and it is a real adventure to travel here. There are a couple of fine national parks and a merge sprinkling of historical ruins. Some are so ancient they are not much more than foundations as in the case of Nalanda. Dont be fooled into thinking there is nothing here, and yes there is an element of risk. However, for the intrepid travellers among us, this place is an almost untapped source of wonder.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but this insanely overpopulated and polluted state is one of the countries premier. You could be asking yourself, how does that work? Well, Utter Pradesh is home to some of Indias most iconic sights including the Taj Mahal Fetipur Sikri and the holy city of Varanasi to name a few. The Taj Mahal has become so synonymous with the country that few tourists will make their way to north India and not make a visit. There are impressive forts, and historical ruins dotted all over the state.
There are also holy towns galore where the people faiths give rise to a rich tapestry of cultures. Ayodhya and Chitrakoot are my two favourites, and they both rank far higher in my heart than the big hitters if I am honest, but that is just in my humble opinion. There are so many places to choose to visit. You would need more than a couple of months to see them all properly.
When it comes to wildlife, it should be quite obvious that centuries of human habitation has worn down the once very fertile Gangetic plains. There are some national parks here but nothing that stands out from the crowd. Although the Dala Corridor runs from Bardia National Park in Nepal into India in the north-west of the county and that should be very interesting. I think I have an Infatuation with the stunning sal forests of the Terai.
Food lovers can rejoice as this part of the globe is home to the infamous Muglai cuisine. There are too many classic dishes to list here so you can check out the Wikipedia link provided and ensure you wear your stretchy trousers when you visit. Alternatively, you can check out my post on the culinary carnival that is Indian food.
Kolkata and West Bengal.
Kolkata is known as the city of joy, and it certainly is for me. It is hands down my most favourite city to visit in the whole country. It is associated in the west with extreme poverty, and there is certainly a lot of that, but there is so much more. It is not just the grand colonial architecture or its splendid religious buildings that wins my heart. The whole city exudes charm, and I would not plan on rushing off from here if you have never visited as there is a lot to see.
Outside of the big city, there is plenty to keep you entertained as there are plenty of ancient places that follow the Hooghly river northward and the mighty Sundarbans create the worlds largest delta to the south. This place is not just a haven for wildlife; it is essential for the preservation of ecosystems. The Mangrove swamps are well worth your time to visit if you are a nature lover. To the north, there are plenty more national parks to choose from that end in the mighty Himalayas.
As you head towards the Himalayas, everything changes. Not just the scenery but the people, wildlife, culture and food all turn into something else, and it is here in this state where I consider North India to end. The town of Darjiling does not bear any resemblance what so ever to the towns down south and I think anyone who has been to both would agree when it is you leave North India and move into the much more rugged northeast, But that’s another post.
The food in this part of the world is so good. Strangely most people would not have heard of the many dishes you can get here, and they remain a secret for those who take the time to discover them. Well aside from Bhuna that is. When you are in Kolcutta seek out a Kati roll, and dont persecute me if you get fat. One of these things is never enough.
In summary of my post on travelling North India.
So sorry this post was so long, but there is no way to condense down so much information any further when this part of the world is so damn exciting. Remember the section above is only for inspiration and a brief and honest overview of my experience in each state. If you want any more information on the places listed then pick up a copy of the lonely planet or take a look at the government website. It is called Incredible India.
Alternatively, you can leave your questions in the box provided, and I will give you a no-nonsense honest answer. I have actually been to all the places I talk about so if you want to find out more about somewhere I would love to help. Also, if you have any comments about what I am doing wrong or can do better, then I would love to hear.
I hope you have enjoyed my work and have found it of value and with that said my post is done. So until the next time my fellow intrepid traveller’s happy trails.
Follow me on social media 🙂