This amazing country has so much to offer and you will not be able to see all of India in just 2 weeks. However, this is a great introduction to the best of India, especially if this is your first trip.
To sum up, one has to experience both the northern state of Rajasthan, home to iconic royal palaces, as well as the southern state of Kerala, the hub of the Indian spice route with the wellness and jungle ecosystem you’ve been dreaming of. And no trip to India would be complete with seeing the Taj Mahal. You’ve surely seen pictures of this impressive structure from every possible angle, but there’s a good chance you too will fall under its spell when you see it in person and walk around the grounds.
First, a word about transportation in India
When backpacking your India route, driving is best left to the locals. The traffic is seemingly chaotic but there is actually a method to the madness, which takes expertise only earned by years of navigating the streets. We can’t stress it enough – do not even think about renting a car.
Hiring a driver
One option that we found well worth the time vs. cost tradeoff was hiring local drivers– it’s a great way to save on time, is a welcome escape from the chaotic streets, and is affordable. For multiple days with the same driver, the average rate is about $50 dollars a day which includes everything– gas, tolls, accommodation and meals for your driver, and of course their salary. Otherwise, many people use Uber for drives up to 2 hours. For the below itinerary, we would recommend having a dedicated driver for your first few days in the North until you fly to Udaipur, and then later booking as-needed in Kerala using Uber or Ola. For longer drives (3-4 hours) you can book ahead with Ola or goibibo.
Most domestic flights will be between 20-60 dollars and take an hour or two. Especially for journeys that would take 6+ hours overland, the flights are worth it. Air India is the major provider and has a mixed reputation. They are notorious for delays and unfriendly service, but their safety record is world-class and they serve some of the best Indian food you’ll have on your trip!
Backpacking in India Route via Train
You can’t talk about India without mentioning the iconic experience of train travel– if you want to experience this, it is best suited for a 3-4 hour journey between large cities. Trains travel about 50 km/hour, which means you won’t be faster than a car. If you are determined to travel by train in India, you may have to add a day or two onto the below itinerary.
India has the full spectrum of accommodation, from hostels, to guesthouses, to 5-star hotels. It’s worth researching ahead of time and reading recent reviews from other travellers. Be careful about going purely based on star ratings because some hostels and even hotels pay for fake reviews. Luckily, these are fairly easy to spot. We always had luck finding a great place to stay on booking.com, which allows you to filter by ratings, budget, and amenities.
Backpacking in India Route Week 1 – Northern India
Sites: Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur
Day 1 – Arrival and travel to Agra
If you’re flying internationally to India, it’s best to fly into New Delhi for this itinerary. The 22 million inhabitants of the country’s capital might say otherwise, but we actually recommend heading directly to Agra, site of the world-famous Taj Mahal. It’s about 3 hours away by car.
Day 2 – Taj Mahal, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri
Start your day early and visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise. There are fewer tourists and the soft light of sunrise looks absolutely amazing on the Taj. The ticket booth opens at 5 am and you’ll receive a free water bottle and shoe coverings to use later in certain parts of the Taj.
Take your time, enjoy wandering around the surrounding gardens where you’ll be sure to spot a few monkeys and parrots. The ‘backyard’ of the Taj looks out over the river Ganges and is in itself breathtaking.
After the Taj, head to the Agra Fort. This was the longtime residence of Emperor Akbar and is an impressive example of Mughal architecture.
It’s time to leave Agra and head west. About an hour outside of Agra, visit Fatehpur Sikri, known as the abandoned city. This was the original residence of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, but was later abandoned due to the lack of a natural water source, which made the palace unliveable. We recommend getting a guide here to help explain the abandoned structures. The original tactics used for air-conditioning will amaze you.
Hit the road or the rails to Jaipur, it will be about a 3-hour journey by car or a 6-hour journey by train. Arrive Jaipur by nightfall and get a good night’s sleep.
Side note: If you somehow have daylight to spare, you can make a stop at the Chand Bawri Step Well in Abhaneri on your drive between Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur. It’s open daily from 8:30am-6pm.
Day 3 – Jaipur
Jaipur has so much to offer. All of the buildings were painted a sandstone pink in preparation for the Prince of Wales’ visit back in 1876, and the residents have kept the tradition. You can do everything in India’s Pink City in one day especially if you have a driver. Of course, you can spend a couple of days in Jaipur and have a more relaxed itinerary.
- Amber Fort – start your day here because it will get hot later. This impressive palace is located up on a hill and many of the original features are still in excellent shape. You’ll see many offers for elephant rides and Elephant Villages happening here, but please don’t support this controversial industry.
- Jal Mahal (Water Palace) – on your way back to old Jaipur, stop by Man Sagar Lake to see the Water Palace. It isn’t open to visitors, but the palace that seemingly floats on the water is an amazing sight to behold.
- Hawa Mahal (Air Palace) – The rest of your day will be spent walking around old Jaipur which is the heart of the Pink City. You should start at the Hawa Mahal. The facade was originally built so that the queens and ladies of the court could watch the street festivals without being seen by ordinary citizens. Open daily from 9am-5pm.
- City Palace – gorgeous Mughal architecture and a lavish royal palace.
- Wander the Jaipur Markets – spend the rest of your afternoon and evening just wandering the alleyways and streets of Jaipur. There are districts for different goods like flowers, spices, shoes, jewellery, and even household tools so just plan to get lost in the mesmerising maze. The street food scene is also world-famous in Jaipur and you may want to circle back to see the Hawa Mahal at night.
Days 5 & 6 – Udaipur
We recommend taking an early 45-minute flight to Udaipur, which you can find for about 30 dollars if you book ahead of time. You can also travel this distance by car (7 hours) or train (7-8 hours).
Many people call Udaipur the most romantic city in India. Romance or not, we think Udaipur is downright gorgeous and a can’t-miss. (By the way, it’s the setting for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the oddly named 1983 James Bond movie, Octopussy).
Udaipur is a small, walkable city with so much to offer. We recommend at least 2 days here. It’s also at this point of your trip that you’ll welcome a slower pace and you’ll enjoy not having to rely on auto rickshaw or Taxi to take you everywhere.
Day 1 – (half day because of travel time from Jaipur)
- The Rose Garden – This is a European style city park but with tropical plants and Indian monuments scattered throughout. It’s a welcome escape from the hectic experience of the alleyways and streets of the city.
- Sunset at Karni Mata Temple – take an auto rickshaw, hike, or (our personal recommendation) take the cable car up to the hilltop temple. Udaipur is so incredibly beautiful from above and from here you’ll have a perfect view of Lake Pichola with its 2 island palaces, Udaipur oldtown and the Royal Palace, and the distant Monsoon Palace.
- Dinner at Charcoal. Indian fusion food with an amazing view. Portions are huge and the view is to die for. Did we mention Udaipur is simply stunning at night?
- Jagdish Temple to end your day – you’ll probably hear chanting and singing at various times of the day, but the evening prayers and songs intensify around 10 pm. Visitors are completely welcome to enter the temple and be a part of the experience, just be sure to remove your shoes and practice basic respectful behaviour. Far from solemn, this is a joyous atmosphere that will be sure to end your day with a smile.
- The Royal Palace – best if you arrive first thing in the morning before the school groups show up. An Audio guide will suffice because the tourist path is well-marked and laid out. The palace has rooms showing what the royal life was like.
- Afternoon Boat Ride on Lake Pichola – your palace ticket includes a discount for the boat ride. It’s a touristy thing to do, but still delightful. The boat will make a stop at the Jagmandir Island Palace, and we recommend disembarking for a quick picnic and a beautiful view of Udaipur. Bring snacks with you, or you can have some refreshments at the island hotel.
- The Dharohar Folk Dance Cultural Show at the Bagore ki Haveli museum. This show has been running for decades and is always a party. Reservations can only be day-of in person starting at 6, so just head to the Museum around 6 to get tickets. While you wait you can get a coffee at Jheel, a short walking distance away.
Sleep 2 nights Udaipur
Backpacking in India Route Week 2 – Southern India
Sites: Munnar, Alleppey, Fort Kochi
At this point, you might find it difficult to leave colourful and rich Rajasthan behind, but it’s time to migrate south for the jungle experience in the Indian state of Kerala.
Day 8 – Travel Day from Udaipur to Fort Kochi to Munnar
Take an early flight from Udaipur to Fort Kochi in Kerala. Unfortunately, there aren’t usually direct flights so you’ll likely connect through Mumbai. Once you land in Fort Kochi, our recommendation is to keep the travel day going and head straight to Munnar by car.
Day 9-12 – Munnar and its environs
It’s time to choose your own adventure in the Munnar region
Option A: Relaxation and unwinding in Munnar
We think it’s worth slowing your pace in the rolling hills of Munnar. You should book ahead at an eco-lodge, treehouse, or yoga retreat. After the stimulation of the North, you will welcome taking the time to soak in the natural beauty of India. Activities in Munnar include seeing a traditional Kathakali show, wellness treatments, spice walks, tea plantation tours, hikes and jeep rides to see the national parks.
Option A: sleep 3 more nights in Munnar
Option B: Munnar + Thekkady
Periyar National Park near the town of Thekkady is not far from Munnar. This is a good chance to visit a wildlife reserve in India and see some native species. There is a popular boat cruise through the reserve where you can spot water buffalo, Indian deer, some other small mammals, and many birds. There are also 40 Tigers and about 500 Elephants in the park, but it is extremely rare to spot them. If you do the lake cruise, be sure to be on the first boat in the morning to have the highest chance of seeing the animals come down to the waterfront to quench their thirst after the long night. There are other activities organized through the park such as bamboo rafting trips, Nature Walks, and jeep excursions.
Option B: sleep 1 more night in Munnar and 2 nights Thekkady/Periyar
Day 12 – Alleppey Backwater Cruise
Take an early car from either Munnar or Thekkady to Alleppey for your backwater houseboat cruise. Most houseboats depart at noon and will drop you back off at 9 am the next morning. We think one night is perfect to experience the backwaters. We had a great experience using Alleppey Houseboat Club to find a houseboat– they have detailed pictures of the boats and offer a reasonable price.
Sleep 1 night on the houseboat
Day 13 and 14 – Fort Kochi
After your houseboat docks in the morning, take an Uber to Fort Kochi. We recommend 2 nights here as your grand finale of the trip. The town is very walkable and you can see the Chinese fishing nets, the Dutch Museum which presents the history of Fort Kochi and the Spice Trade, shopping along Princess Street, and the Jewish Quarter with tons of antiques and cool artist factory spaces. Since 2016, Kerala has been a dry state so you won’t find a thriving nightlife, only certain 4-star hotels are allowed to serve alcohol.
Sleep 2 nights Fort Kochi
Day 15 – Fly home or on to your next stop!
Now, you may be asking, what about Darjeeling, Goa, and Amritsar? Those are for your next trip!
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