India is a truly magical country, and has sat on top of many bucket lists since the notion of ticking off life experiences first began.
I’ve met seasoned backpackers who have been traveling India for months, tracing the great Himalayas in Ladakh to the North and surfing the waves down in Goa – yet they still admit they haven’t seen all the country has to offer. But you have to start somewhere, and while you can’t cram all of India into seven days like an overflowing suitcase, you can still work a whirlwind of unforgettable experiences into a week.
The best way to experience India is to take a whistle-stop tour of the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’. Starting in Delhi, the country’s capital that walks the perfect line between chaos and beauty, you make your way to Agra – the home of the mystical Taj Mahal. From here you journey on to Jaipur – Rajasthan’s metropolis and a shopper’s paradise.
Day 1: Delhi
Namaste – you’ve finally made it to India! Acclimatize yourself to the burning heat, get used to the beeping horns and embrace a new way of life for the next seven days.
To truly understand India, a good starting point would be getting to know one of its most famous sons. For a simple but striking memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, visit Raj Ghat. From there take a short walk down to the National Gandhi museum. If you still want to learn more about the great historical figure, Gandhi Smitri is the spot where he spent his final days of his life.
Next, check out the colossal India Gate and soak up some more culture by the spiritual banks of the Sikh Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Temple.
Wherever you go, you will find good food on every corner in Delhi. On your first night my pick would be the upmarket Lodi-Garden restaurant for mango cocktails, impossibly cheap and gigantic thalis at Saravana Bharvan or any of the restaurants in Connaught Place.
Day 2: Delhi
The beating heart of Old Delhi, the Red Fort weaves together Mughal, Maratha and British rule to create an essential piece of history. Go and see it early before the baking morning sun kicks in.
As you walk past the grand buildings and soak up the history of the Mughal Dynasty, you might want to forget that the fort has the decapitated bodies of former prisoners built into the foundations. Just for luck. No trip to Delhi would be complete without a deep dive into the oldest section of the city. Featuring winding streets, stalls on every sidewalk and visual tapestry of color, this is how India should be experienced.
Practice your bartering skills in the thousands of shops that make up Old Delhi, buy more souvenirs than you can carry and enjoy watching the street traders haggle through their daily business.
When in Old Delhi, ask the locals what to eat and they’ll recommend a stuffed Paratha every single time. Layers of cooked flatbread filled with anything from spinach to paneer or sweet cashew nuts. There’s actually an entire road dedicated to these fried folds of deliciousness, so navigate your way past the countless jewelry, bead and textile stalls until you reach ‘Paraathewali gali’.
It would be easy to let an entire day go by getting lost in the streets of Old Delhi, but if you fancy a bit more culture then head to India Gate and catch a glimpse of Rashtrapati Bhavan – the country’s equivalent of the White House.
Day 3: Delhi
Spend the morning in one of Delhi’s extravagant markets (Dilli Hallat for a real Indian ambiance, or Khan Market for pure luxury) or take a stroll through the impeccably green Lodi Gardens with a cold lassi for company. Watch out for peacocks too!
The journey from Delhi to Agra is as easy as it is short. Aim to arrive by nightfall and make sure you get there in enough time to taste the modern North Indian cuisine at Pinch of Spice, widely considered to be Agra’s best restaurant outside of the top hotels.
Every guidebook, tourist bureau and seasoned traveler will tell you that the Taj Mahal is best viewed during the spectacular sunrise. I’ll admit I took this advice and went to bed embarrassingly early in order to wake up at 5am. Do the same.
Day 4: Agra
It’s one of the most photographed sites of all time, appearing in magazines, films, documentaries and postcards. But honestly, nothing can prepare you for seeing the Taj Mahal with your very own eyes. Get up close to the marble and check out the optical illusion architecture that cameras can’t pick up.
Train or taxi is your best bet from Agra to Jaipur. If you take the road, look out for the camel trains marching along the highway en-route to the state capital of Rajasthan.
Day 5: Jaipur
They call it the Pink City because, well, everything is pink. It’s the color of hospitality, meaning that just like the cast of ‘The Real Marigold Hotel’, you can really make yourself at home here.
Everything a traveler could ever wish to buy can be found in Jaipur’s roadside shops and bustling marketplaces – where the streets were carefully planned out to make it a shopper’s dream. Hit up the metal district and get an engraved copper cup, take in the sites and smells of the lush flower market and barter for a pair of camel leather shoes. If you need to cool down then grab a coconut or pistachio flavored Indian ice-lolly from Pandit Kulfi, the best in town.
While I’d dedicate your first full day in Jaipur to shopping, (most likely until you drop), make sure you see the Pink Palace and the paper thin Palace of Winds. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you’ll be left wondering how it stands.
For dinner, don’t miss out on the Royal Thali at LMB, a vegetarian feast of soups, dals, dumplings and breads all served on a giant platter. If that doesn’t sound like enough food, there’s also a sweet shop on the way out.
Day 6: Jaipur
Avoid the unsavory use of elephants and make the journey up to Amer Fort by foot instead. It’s a tough task in the scorching Rajasthani sun, but the hilltop view of Maota Lake alone is worth the hike.
From here, take an exhilarating auto-rickshaw ride through the forest up to the Monkey Temple, found on the ancient Hindu pilgrimage site of Galtaji. The reason for the name? It’s home to more than 200 monkeys. So fuel your inner David Attenborough and watch them dive into the sacred pools below.
On your way back into town, stop for a ludicrously cheap cup of the good stuff at Indian Coffee House. At around 10 Rupees a cup (that’s less than 20¢) it puts Starbucks to shame.
For a last minute hit of culture, visit the curiously designed Jantar Mantar. An 18th century observatory, it actually looks more like an abstract sculpture park than a site dedicated to the pursuit of science. Maharaja Jai Singh II built similar structures in Delhi, Varanasi and Ujjaun – but the observatory in the Pink City is the biggest and best preserved.
On your way back, make sure to pick up some sweet Indian treats for the long trip home at Sodhani Sweets. Try a box of their Kesar Barfi, impossibly sweet chewy squares with a rich flavor of saffron and condensed milk.
India in seven days is hectic, hot and one of the most rewarding holidays you will ever go on. But let’s face it, you’ll be back.
You’ve read about India, now go see it. Check out Intrepid’s 8-day group tour of India’s Golden Triangle.
Image Credits (top to bottom): Intrepid Travel, iStock, Ellie Pashley, Intrepid Travel x2, iStock, Ellie Pashley x2