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India’s unique blend of history, culture and scenery have intoxicated western travellers for centuries. It’s no wonder: life on the subcontinent is more vibrant and colourful than almost anywhere else on the planet, something that’s as true today as when the East India Company set up its first outposts in the 17th Century. Now booming, modern India can enjoy success without abandoning its rich and varied past: the country’s history dates back over 5,000 years, blessing it with an amazing array of monuments, ruins, temples and cities. Here are our Top 7 India experiences that are not to be missed.

A spice market in India

An Indian spice market

1. Mumbai

One city where an escorted tour is particularly beneficial is Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Mumbai encapsulates the beauty and buzz of a typical Indian city with colourful markets and fantastic food – the famous seafood Trishna restaurant is an essential lunch stop. Perhaps the most significant landmark here is the Gateway of India, a fantastic hub for people watching and taking a moment to soak in the city’s history. The gateway’s original purpose was to commemorate the royal visit of King George V of England in 1911. However, the structure was not completed until 1924 and just 24 years after this independence was declared. The final British troops to leave India marched through the gateway, transforming it from a symbol of colonialism to one of Indian freedom.

The Gateway of India in Mumbai

Gateway of India, Mumbai

2. Elephanta Island

From the magnificent gateway, visitors can take a short boat ride to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Elephanta Island, a lush island densely wooded with palm, mango and tamarind trees. The atmospheric and fascinating cave complex, which dates to the 3rd – 5th century, was designed to honour the life of Lord Shiva, one of the most auspicious Hindu gods.

Statues on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Elephanta Island

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Elephanta Island

3. The Taj Mahal

Of course, no trip to India is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal, indisputably the most famous mausoleum in the world. Built entirely of white marble on the south bank of the Yamuna river, this breathtaking complex attracts 2-4 million visitors annually.

The Taj Mahal in India

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631 as a tribute to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The construction took 22 years and 20,000 workers – as well as a workforce of 1,000 elephants to transport materials – to complete the structure and its surrounding gardens. In 2007, it rightfully won a place on the list of the New7Wonders of the World. Of course, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for much longer, pronounced as an exceptional architectural and artistic achievement. Indeed, nowhere else on the planet will you experience such a poignant architectural statement dedicated to the enduring nature of human love and inspirational artistry.

The Taj Mahal

4. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

While the Taj Mahal is essential, there are plenty of other must-sees in India. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which takes about 6 hours from Tindharia. Affectionately known as the ‘Toy Train’, it is a 2ft (610mm) narrow-gauge railway which was introduced in 1881 to connect Siliguri with Darjeeling. This helped cut down the enormous amount of time it took to transport passengers by horse and cart to destinations along its route.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in India

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The railway was certainly a highlight for our founder, Tim Littler, when he visited India for our Darjeeling Mail set up trip in 2005. He travelled with our Operations Director, Marina, in a special observation car.

Marina in an observation car on the railway in Darjeeling, India

Marina in an observation car on the railway

Tim says: ‘We were at a water stop that took forever and Marina fell asleep, only to wake sometime later and find a monkey sitting opposite her going through the contents of her handbag.

A monkey in the train's observation car

A mischievous monkey in the observation car

5. Pondicherry

Pondicherry, located on the Bay of Bengal, is the former capital of the French territories in India. To this day there still remains a rich French cultural heritage. Indeed, the French language is widely spoken.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Pondicherry, India

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Pondicherry

Landmarks include Raj Nivas, the residence of the Lt Governor of Pondicherry – a handsome 200-year old building which faces Government Park with its paths and lawns, fountains and sculptures as well as the wide and vibrant beaches and beautiful promenades.

6. Chennai

Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the capital of Tamil Nadu, is located on the legendary Coromandel Coast with a marvellous tradition of music and dance. This city of 4 million people has a pronounced colonial heritage dating back to the 17th century when the British East India Company built a small fort on the banks of the Cooum River and called it Fort St. George. The highlight is a visit to the Shore Temple, which is renowned for its intricate carvings and skilled craftsmanship and is one of the oldest temples in southern India.

The Shore Temple in Chennai, India

The Shore Temple, Chennai

7. Delhi

Our Top 7 would not be complete without India’s capital. Sprawling on the banks of the River Yamuna, Delhi reflects the soul of the country. The city is a curious blend of the modern and traditional, with skyscrapers, beautiful gardens and wide tree-lined avenues. The walled city is crowded, full of activities and still has the influence of the great Mughals who once ruled India through the ramparts of the majestic Red Fort. In Old Delhi you can visit Jama Mosque, which was built in the 17th Century and is the largest mosque in India. Chandni Chowk is a typical Indian market always abuzz with activities. Must-sees include the 12th Century Qutab Minar, the Humayun Tomb which is known for its inspiration for the Taj Mahal, the war memorial India Gate and the massive community kitchen of the Bangla Sahib Gutudwara which feeds thousands of devotees daily.

The Qutab Minar, Dehli

For those visiting India for the first time, the large, highly populated cities can be overwhelming and may be unlike anything you have experienced before. While the people of India are warm-hearted and welcoming to visitors, many travellers find that navigating through the large crowds and the pressure to make the most of the best attractions in the vast landscape of India can prove exhausting. This is why many visitors choose to join escorted tours, which alleviates the stress of planning and allows them to focus purely on the pleasures that this fantastic country has to offer.

With sights ranging from the Amber Fort and Varanasi to the incomparable Taj Mahal, this extraordinary country is one of the most rewarding destinations open to a traveller today. The railway arrived in India in 1853, and the country now has one of the world’s biggest and busiest railway networks – almost 40,000 miles in all. It is said that trains created modern India more than anything else. What’s certain is that today’s India couldn’t exist without it, and that the railway is by far the best way to see the country as it really is. From the warm-heartedness of the people to the scenery and the wonderful sights, a journey through India is something you’ll never forget.

Ghats in Varansi, India, leading to the River Ganges

Ghats in Varansi, leading to the River Ganges

Many of these breathtaking places and much more can be experienced on our Darjeeling Mail and Madras Mail trips. We are already sold out for February 2019 but due to popularity we have added more tours for December 2019 and February 2020. Click here to find out more.