A Backpacker’s Guide to India

India is one of the most varied and beautiful countries in the world – a heady mix of beautiful beaches, lush rice fields, holy temples and hectic cities. Its city streets are a riot of color, and its peaceful natural landscapes and breathtaking architecture inspire even the most jaded traveler to find his inner guru.

With cheap food, welcoming locals and hundreds of hostels in India, it’s no surprise this country is a well-trodden stop on the backpacker trail, but visiting such a massive place can be overwhelming – do you start off by trekking around the Himalayas, seek out a hippy-chic beach break or dive in to the dusty streets of Mumbai?

Here is a guide to the destinations that should be at the top of every backpacker’s list!

Goa. Photo credit - Christopher Chan.

Goa. Photo credit - Christopher Chan.

Goa – More than a Hippy Paradise

Goa has been a hippy paradise since the 1960s, when bohemian travelers would head for hedonistic holidays on the 105km sandy coast. The area is still popular with backpackers, who have left a trail of good Goa hostels in their wake.

Most people come for the sun and surf, and trance-y beach parties under the stars. But there’s far more to Goa than meets the eye – this former Portuguese enclave is peppered with historic churches, interesting architecture and a cuisine all of its own.

The Himalayas. Photo credit - FreeBird.

The Himalayas. Photo credit - FreeBird.

Scaling the Heights of Himalayas

The mountain scenery of the Himalayas in the North of India is worth braving even if you are afraid of heights. In the winter ski-enthusiasts flock to the snow-capped peaks, and in the summer adrenaline junkies can try their hands at trekking, rafting, and paragliding. A chairlift to the top promises breathtaking views of one of the most dramatic landscapes in India.

Mumbai. Photo credit - lecercle.

Mumbai. Photo credit - lecercle.

Chaotic Mumbai

Mumbai is one chaotic city – everything seems to be crammed into this sprawling metropolis, from the slum housing to the slick skyscrapers and glamorous restaurants. But the glitzy home of Bollywood is well worth a visit, with ancient Bazaars for bartering, more colonial monuments than you can shake a stick at, and cricket at the Oval.

You may not want to mingle with Mumbai’s mega-moguls in the expensive bars and nightclubs, but there’s something for everyone away from the crowded center. Beach bums can unwind at Chowpatty beach, before marveling at the Shiva sculpture and temples carved out of the rock at Elephant Island.

Calcutta. Photo credit - RickyDavid.

Calcutta. Photo credit - RickyDavid.

Colorful Calcutta

Despite its poverty-stricken reputation, Calcutta is a fascinating and vibrant city to visit. The home of Mother Theresa, Calcutta has a rich cultural and intellectual heritage, and as the former home of the British Raj, is full of remnants of colonial architecture, from the Victoria Memorial to the Palladian Villas.

North Calcutta is fiercely Bengali, where you’ll find the bust streets of Shambazar thick with colorful market stalls, the city’s oldest church and an impressive Marble Palace. More scenes of local life abound at the Kali Temple at Kalighat.

Delhi. Photo credit - Rob & Ale.

Delhi. Photo credit - Rob & Ale.

Delhi, a tangle of Old and New

The capital is a captivating tangle of old-world villages and ultra modern residences, and you’ll find some of the most fascinating ruins jostling alongside modern shopping malls and cinemas in New Delhi. Check out the ruined 13th century palace along the banks of the Yamuna river, Qtab Minar in the south of the city and Huaz for more awe-inspiring relics.

Delhi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and has racked up an exhausting list of cultural sights – make sure you see the Red Sandstone Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and the Qutub Complex of Mosques and Minarets, a UNESCO world heritage sight with beautiful gardens.

The Taj Mahal in Agra. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

The Taj Mahal in Agra. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

Impressive Taj Mahal at Agra

An industrial and sprawling city, Agra draw hordes of tourists for the magnificent Taj Mahal, which more than lives up to the hype. But Agra is also home to other impressive architecture left by the Mughal emperors, with grand forts and grand riverside tombs such as the ‘Baby Taj’ Itimad-ud-Daulah.

If you visit Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal on the same day you get a Rs 50 reduction in the ticket price- great for cutting the costs of cultural excursions!

Kerala. Photo credit - Negi.

Kerala. Photo credit - Negi.

Kerala’s Calm Shores

After a hectic city tour, Kerala’s calm shores and sleepy backwaters makes a welcome change. Pace of life is chilled in the heart of Southern India, and the lush green forests are abundant with wildlife. The network of rivers and canals characterize Kerala for most travelers, with lagoons leading to rice paddies, coconut groves and secluded villages.

You can spend a few days stretching out on a slice of golden sand, take a boat trip to traditional towns, or head inland to the hilly Ghats for trekking and spotting exotic animals. The local cuisine is an attraction in itself– food is flavored with cardamom from the spice plantations, served in a banana leaf and eaten by hand, and washed down with coconut milk.

About the Author. Lauren Smith. Lauren writes for HostelBloggers, the Insider’s Guide to Budget Travel. She wants to travel the world on a shoestring, and tries to cram in as much backpacking as possible when she’s not at work!