Discovering India – North India Tour

I have many countries on my bucket list, India has always been in the top five.

Growing up I remember looking at photographs of India, the chaotic streets, children laughing as they swam in the River Ganges, wise men meditating in impossible poses and beautiful women wearing vibrant coloured saris with bejewelled nose rings that took femininity to a whole new level.

North India Tour

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These are the images that inspired our dream of discovering India. Here are the highlights of our North India tour.

Boat on Ganges
Early morning on the River Ganges

Planning a North India Tour

We only had 8 days to explore India. With so many holiday destinations in India we had a hard time deciding where to go.

High on our list were the must see places in India, such as the Taj Mahal and the Holy City of Varanasi. Other tourist spots in India also appealed, Kerala in the South and the Himalaya’s in the North, the final decision came down to the time it would take to travel to each region.

Just looking at a map it’s hard to judge the vast distances that you need to travel in India. Cities that look close together can end up being a 6 hour road trip. Public transport can be unreliable so if you are on a tight time frame you may have to consider escorted tours to India to get the most out of Indian tourist attractions.

In the end, we chose the cities of Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi, the most popular tourist destinations in India.

New Delhi to Varanasi

Arriving in New Delhi we caught a Jet Airways flight from New Delhi to Varanasi. We discovered that flying in India is a little different to many other countries.

Tips for Flying in India – Airport Security

In India, there is more than one security area, security tags are given for each piece of luggage including carry-on luggage and handbags, these are then stamped as you pass through security. This is very important because if your luggage isn’t stamped you won’t be allowed on the aircraft, so if you are handed luggage tags make sure you put them on ALL your bags.

Men and women have separate security points, for privacy women will be taken to different area to be screened by a female airport employee.

If you are catching a connecting flight you will have to repeat the process on each leg of your journey.

Places to visit in Varanasi

The holy city of Varanasi is an important Hindu religious site that sits on the banks of the River Ganges. Walking the streets, you will be joined by the thousands of pilgrims coming to wash away their sins in this sacred river.

Varanasi is confronting, it is the most sacred sight for Hindu cremations and Hindus believe if they die in Varanasi their spirit will be released from the cycle of rebirth and transported to heaven.

Our time in Varanasi stands as one of our most moving and memorable travel experiences, I don’t think anyone visiting this city can come away unchanged by their experience, India weaves her magic and it lights up your soul.

Varanasi Ghat
The view of the Varanasi Ghats from the River Ganges

Walking to Dashashwamedh Ghat

We walked through the congested streets to one of the best places to see in Varanasi, the Dashashwamedh Ghat.

I held Alan’s hand tightly afraid that if we got separated we would never find each other. The streets were filled with a sea of people making their way to the Ghats of Varanasi. We passed a group of female pilgrims from South India, their heads shaved as a mark of their devotion.

Colourful saris hung out on display, shopkeepers called for us to come in and buy. Bare chested Holy men walked through the streets, their long hair coiled in a mound on top of their heads.

India Streets
A break in the crowds as we make our way to the Dashashwamedh Ghat

Cows sat in the middle of the road, while cars, motorbikes, trishaws and bikes all tried to steer around them.

We fought our way through this chaos until we arrived at the steps of the Dashashwamedh GhatHere we caught our first glimpse of the River Ganges.

The River Ganges at Varanasi

We joined the crowds and walked down the steps to the flotilla of rowboats that lined the water’s edge. Climbing into our boat we made our way upstream, passing stunning temples and palaces.

Ghats of Varanasi
Joining the crowds of people taking to the water on the River Ganges

The river banks were a hive of activity, children laughed and played in the water, people washed clothing, holy men practised yoga and meditated while pilgrims cleansed their souls with a ritual bath.

Manikarnika Ghat (Cremation Ghat)

We floated downstream to one of the most holy places in Varanasi, the Manikarnika Ghat. The Hindu believe that the Manikarnika Ghat is sacred and considered the best Ghat in Varanasi for cremation.

From a respectful distance, we watched the cremation ritual unfold. The sweet perfume of sandalwood and camphor filled the air. I remember wondering what that lovely fragrance was until I realised it was the smoke from the funeral pyre.

The Ghat had many fires blazing and it was sobering to watch flames engulf the pyre and leap high into the sky. Fires were tended, while cows sat on the steps or walked calmly around the mountains of timber that were stacked against the walls.

We watched as a funeral party began the funeral ritual. I felt uncomfortable intruding on the family’s grief but as the funeral ritual began I was caught up in a ritual so full of beauty, respect and love that it made me question how the Western world deals with passing of a loved one.

Cremation Ghat
Making our way to the Manikarnika Ghat – Cremation Ghat

The chief mourner leads the funeral party. This will always be a male family member as women are not allowed to attend the ceremony. The chief mourner stands out from other mourners by wearing a white robe and having his head shaved.

The family bring the body down to the River Ganges. The body is wrapped in a decorative drape and covered in lavish garlands of flowers and lovingly placed in the water to be cleansed.

The body is taken back up the stairs and has the drape and flowers removed before being laid on the funeral pyre to be burned. The fire is lit from the eternal flame, sandalwood powder is thrown onto the pyre so the air was sweetly perfumed.

The chief mourner will stay with the body until it has turned to ashes. This process takes around 3 hours after which the ashes are then thrown into the Ganges. The spirit is finally free, released from life’s earthly confines.

As the sun set we floated back up to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, I lit some flower fringed candles and set them floating down the Ganges. We were left feeling honoured and humbled to have witnessed such a powerfully moving ritual.

The experience affirmed my belief that we are only here for a short time and we have to make the most of it while we are here, before we ourselves join the great circle of life.

Ganga Aarti at Varanasi

Night began to fall as we arrived back at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The bank was brightly lit, umbrellas of multi coloured lights shone down over the priests as they began the evening prayer to the Ganges, the Ganga Aarti.

The Ganga Aarti is held every evening and begins with the clash of cymbals, drums and sitars. The vibrant swirl of Indian music and chanted mantras intensifies as young priest blow conch shells.

Offerings of fire are given up to the Ganges as multi-tiered brass lamps are raised to the four corners of the Earth. This performance of light, sight and sound enters the soul of this intensely spiritual country.

Varanasi Ghat
The Ganga Aarti – Prayers to the Ganges

As the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi concluded, thousands of people made their way back through the streets.

There was colour everywhere, streets were lit up and brightly painted signs stood out against the sparkle of embroidered saris and flash of shiny trinkets. The heady smell of spices filled the air as we passed street food vendors cooking up exotic treats.

Cars and motorbike horns blasted as we dodged trishaws, bicycles, people, cows and dogs. The experience was a sensory overload that left us laughing and feeling exhilarated, it will always be one of the most memorable nights of our life.

ganga Aarti
Watching the Ganga Aarti from our row boat.

Dawn on the River Ganges at Varanasi

We returned to the Dashashwamedh Ghat and boarded a row boat for a dawn boat ride on the River Ganges.

The misty golden glow of the rising sun brightened the sky and transformed the buildings and temples to a deep orange and crimson. The banks came to life as people came down for their morning bath. We savoured the peace and tranquillity as the oars slapped against the water and the sun shone across the water.

River Ganges
The morning sun turns the buildings orange and deep crimson as we float along the Ganges.

Disembarking at the Manikarnika (Cremation) Ghat, we made our way through a twisted maze of alleys. Tightly packed logs of firewood seemed to go on as far as the eye could see and took up most of the pathway, we wound our way past houses, small shops and shrines which were centuries old.

We came to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (The Golden temple) and caught a glimpse of the golden spires before visiting the small shops selling scarves, clothing and Hindu charms.

We loved Varanasi, it’s one of the best places to travel in India.

Firewood for Cremation
Wandering the back streets behind the Ghats

Where to stay in Varanasi

BrijRama Palace- A Heritage Hotel

BrijRama Palace
Photo Credit: BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel

The BrijRama Palace is located right on the waterfront of the Ganges River. It is simply the best location for taking in the sights and sounds of Varanasi and within easy walking distance to the famous Dasashwamedh Ghat, where the evening ceremony on Ganges (Ganga aarti) happens every evening.  Built in 1812 it is considered one of the oldest buildings on the Ghat and was originally designed to serve as a fort.

It has a rooftop terrace that offers stunning views of the Ganges and surrounding Ghat’s and has 2 dining options including room service and 24hr reception. For something a little different Complimentary boat check in/check is also available.

A stay at this unique hotel is an experience not to be missed and if your looking for a well-appointed hotel in the heart of the action in Varanasi you can’t go past the BrijRama Palace.

Given its location and heritage significance this hotel is very popular and in high demand so it’s wise to book ahead.

New Delhi to Agra by road

Leaving Varanasi, we touched down in New Delhi. Leaving the Airport, we had our first taste of New Delhi traffic. It was chaos, cars were banked up in all directions. Car horns competed with the exotic music that blasted from car radios. It was both daunting and exhilarating.

Our resourceful driver drove around the traffic via the oncoming lane, something that shocked us at the time but we soon came to realise that anything goes in New Delhi traffic and somehow it all works.

The distance from New Delhi to Agra is 233 km and takes around 3 ½ hours by car depending on traffic. The trip to Agra is a smooth journey on the 6 lane Yamuna Expressway.

It’s a chance to see a more rural way of life as you travel to Agra. We passed an interesting range of transport that included horse drawn carts and brightly decorated trucks.

Things to do in Agra

Many people want to know what to see in Agra India and are often surprised to learn that one of the top things to do in Agra India is to visit the Taj Mahal.

Though most people visit Agra to see the Taj Mahal, there are other Agra attractions that shouldn’t be missed. For those on a short time frame the places to visit in Agra in one day are the Mahtab Bagh, the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.

Mahtab Bagh – The Moonlight Garden

One of the places to visit near Taj Mahal is the Mahtab Bagh, better known as the Moonlight Garden.

We went for a walk in the Moonlight Garden in the late afternoon. Fruit trees shaded our path as we walked along the river. Families gathered to relax in this peaceful setting while children played hide and seek oblivious the view of one of most visited places in India, the Taj Mahal.

The Moonlight Garden sits on the banks of the Yamuna River, directly across from the Taj Mahal and was once an extension of the Taj Mahal gardens.

Looking across the river we could see crowds of people walking along the back terrace of the Taj Mahal. I was looking forward to the next day when we would be visit the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Taj Mahal from the Moonlight Garden
The Taj Mahal from the Moonlight Garden.

Agra Fort – The Red Fort of Agra

Other things to see in Agra are the imposing ramparts and grand palaces of Agra Fort. The Agra Fort is also known as the Red Fort due to its deep red sandstone walls. With walls over 21 metres high the Red Fort of Agra stands guard over the Yamuna River.

Once inside this 16th Century fortress you will find a tranquil complex of white marble palaces. Scalloped marble archways lead out on to decorative gardens and the golden domed roof shines bright in the sun. Indoor fountains and ornate floral marble ventilation screens cool the walkways and rooms.

Agra Fort
The scalloped archways of Agra Fort’s walkways.

Attractive floral patterns of coloured marble are inlayed into the white marble walls. Once these beautiful carved walls would have glittered with precious and semi-precious stones but sadly over time these stones have been gouged out by souvenir hunters and robbers.

Balconies look out over the river and take in views of the Taj Mahal that gleams white in the distance.

Alan & Ros at Agra Fort
Alan & Ros at Agra Fort

Taj Mahal Agra

The Taj Mahal is famous and one of the most visited places in India, so when we arrived at dawn we were surprised to see only a handful of people. Walking through the arches of the majestic sandstone gate I caught my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.

Framed by the arches of the gate, the Taj Mahal stood luminous against an early morning sky. One look and its beauty took my breath away. I was flooded with emotion and couldn’t stop the tears flowing down my face, something I have never experienced before.

We walked around the gardens of the Taj Mahal for almost an hour, the white marble of Taj Mahal turned pink in the morning sun. We had our photo taken on “Diana’s seat” and walked around freely with just a few people scattered around the grounds.

Taj Mahal View
Sitting on “Diana’s seat” in front of the Taj Mahal.

With such beauty, it’s easy to forget that the Taj Mahal is the resting place of Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth in 1631. We were reminded of this fact when we entered her tomb.

Walking along the back terrace of the Taj Mahal we looked out across the river to the Moonlight Garden and the red sandstone ramparts of the Red Fort.

As we left I looked back at the Taj Mahal, I marvelled how one man’s grief now gives millions so much joy. Visiting the Taj Mahal has to be one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Dawn at the Taj Mahal
Dawn at the Taj Mahal

Where to Stay in Agra

Jaypee Palace Hotel

Jaypee Palace Hotel
Photo Credit: Jaypee Palace Hotel

As one of the Agra hotels near Taj Mahal. The Jaypee Palace Hotel is perfectly located for exploring the attractions of Agra. This 5 star hotel has huge landscaped gardens and is a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of the nearby attractions.

It has a shopping mall. A large outdoor pool, Spa with Turkish bath and a golf putting green. The games room also includes a bowing alley.

The rooms are elegantly decorated with comfortable furnishings and have direct access to the gardens. Seven dining choices are available at the hotel, including the fine-dining and Chinese restaurant, and the Aqua Grill offers barbequed dishes. We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon Tea in the lounge overlooking the garden and can highly recommend this hotel as one of the best hotels in Agra.

Agra to Jaipur by Road

The 238 km journey from Agra to Jaipur takes around 4 ½ hours. Along the way we passed farms and small villages that were home to goat herds and cows. Camels carts hauled exotic loads as we made our way down the highway.

Jaipur Street Life

Some say Jaipur is the best city in India. We arrived in the afternoon and quickly took to the streets. Jaipur is a major arts and crafts centre where streets are divided by trade. Artisans work in white marble to create intricately carved statues of Hindu Gods.

Shopfront in India
Hindu statues for sale in Jaipur.

Exotic barks, pods and leaves stood in sacks outside spice shops waiting to be ground into bags of sweet smelling spices. Bangle makers sell bangles of every colour. A friendly pickle salesman invited us to sample his wares.

Bangle Shop Jaipur
Bangle making in Jaipur.

The scent of rose and jasmine fill the air as we walked through the flower market. Orange, pink and white flower garlands are made while you wait and the delicate fragrance of floral oils entice you to buy.

flowers for sale Jaipur
Floral garlands at the flower market in Jaipur.

Walking through the hustle and bustle of the streets we listened to the rhythmic chanting of the temples, admired the rich beauty of the palaces and watched as monkeys carried their young from building to building in the Pink City.

The Amber Fort

The first sight of the Amber Fort was breathtaking. Perched high on a hill, the Amber Forts honey yellow ramparts stretch out as far as the eye could see.

We made a grand entrance arriving by elephant. Our slow journey up the hill gave us time to take in the striking views of the Maota Lake and its ornamental gardens in the valley below.

Amber Fort
The beautifully decorated Amber Fort outside Jaipur.

Reaching the top, we discovered the palace hidden within the fortress walls. We were told stories of the Maharajas and their wives and imagined the life they led in the Amber Forts heyday.

The Amber Fort is one of the best places to visit in India. The Amber Fort has a number palaces and walkways of great beauty but my favourite part would have to be the Sheesh Mahal, the Mirror Palace.

Ros & Alan in Amber Fort
Ros & Alan in the Sheesh Mahal – Mirror Palace.

Where to Stay in Jaipur

Shahpura House

Shahpura House
Photo Credit: Shahpura House

Just 15 Km from Jaipur Airport the Shahpura House Hotel is our top hotel pick when staying in Jaipur. This elegant hotel features traditional Rajput architecture and is well located for exploring the sights and sounds of Jaipur.

The rooms are luxuriously furnished and decorated with marble and semi-precious stones. Comfortable beds guarantee a good night’s sleep and the bathrooms are well appointed. It has onsite dining options including a rooftop restaurant with views of the Amber Fort and Aravali Hills. We enjoyed a lovely traditional Indian meal at the rooftop restaurant with entertainment provided local artists performing traditional Rajput music, dancing, and a puppet show. Truly a wonderful experience.

Shahpura House is a great choice for anyone interested in sightseeing ancient landmarks, and historical architecture.

Jaipur to New Delhi

Catching an early morning flight from Jaipur we returned to the vibrant city of New Delhi. We only had one day in New Delhi but we managed to pack in a lot of attractions.

New Delhi Attractions

Chandni Chowk

Passing through narrow winding streets we watched as monkeys climbed the power lines. Oxen pulled heavy laden carts. Shops and stalls sold fresh fruit, trinkets, flowers and street food.

Ox pulling cart
Ox cart in New Delhi.

Entering Chandi Chowk is like entering an Aladdin’s cave of treasures. A shopaholic’s delight that included masses of shoes, jewellery and exquisite saris, definitely a place to spend a few hours in.

Chandi Chowk is close to the popular tourist attractions such as the Jumma Mosque and the Red Fort.

Sari Shop
Exquisite Sari’s for sale in New Delhi

Raj Ghat

The Raj Ghat is surrounded by tranquil gardens a fitting resting place for the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi. A black marble memorial and eternal flame marks the spot where this great man was cremated after his assassination in 1948. Other notables who have their ashes laid to rest here are Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi.

Where to stay in New Delhi

Shangri-La’s – Eros Hotel, New Delhi

Shangri-La's - Eros Hotel
Photo Credit: Shangri-La’s – Eros Hotel

Located in the heart of New Delhi this hotel is one of our top pic’s for places to stay in Delhi. It is located within 3 Kilometres of the major shopping district of Connaught Place which is full of markets and major shopping malls, exotic food and Temples. It has numerous on site restaurants which cater to all tastes.

Rooms are air-conditioned and well-appointed with all amenities you would expect in a 5 star Hotel.

Also available are onsite sauna, steam room, salon, pool, health club and Spa which offer relaxing massages.

Known for it’s reputation as a world class hotel chain a stay at the Shangri-La New Delhi is an oasis in the heart of this bustling city.

Would we visit India again?

Yes, Oh Yes! India was one of my top 5 bucket list destinations and it didn’t disappoint. These were just the highlights of our North India Tour, we saw so much more.

People say India is dirty and it is, some say it is crowded and the streets chaos and it is but if you are willing to look past that you will find a country steeped in history, spirituality and mystery.

There is something about India that goes straight to your soul. It is one of the most exhilarating countries I have ever visited. It is a place everyone should see at least once in their lives.

Have you been to India? Did you love it or hate it? Feel free to leave a comment.

Visit India & you will find a country steeped in history, spirituality and mystery.Click To Tweet

About this trip

India was the last destination in a 3-month World trip. We had been collecting Frequent Flyer points and had finally earned enough points for a free around the world trip in Business Class. This trip took us to dream destinations in South America, Europe, Middle East and Asia.

Discovering India – North India Tour

7 thoughts on “Discovering India – North India Tour”

  1. Rosalind Cuthbertson

    Thanks Mel you’re in for a real treat :). It’s a country that will have you feeling so many different emotions. Have a wonderful time, I’d love to hear your thoughts when you get back. Safe journey!

    Ros & Alan

  2. What an amazing experience! It sounds like you got a real feel for the culture and went beyond the cliche touristy stuff. Your photographs are gorgeous.

  3. Thank you Audrey. India is a wonderful country with so many sights and sounds. The main tourist attractions naturally have to be visited but it also has so many other places worth a visit.

  4. Alan Cuthbertson

    Thank you yes loved our time in India and especially seeing the Taj Mahal. It’s a memory that will stay with us forever.

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