There’s no doubt about it – India is a huge, astonishingly diverse country. And for that reason, travelers often stick to either the north or south, which is a good idea if you’re on a tight schedule and want to get a true sense of a place.
In India, this won’t take long – within a week you can immerse yourself in this dizzying culture; it’s impossible to escape the succulent smells of curries, the vibrant colours of spices and saris, the chaotic busyness of the streets, and the unique sights that will unfold daily in front of your eyes.
Because India can be a little confronting, many first-time visitors stick to exploring the well-established tourism infrastructure of Rajasthan. But although it’s second time visitors that often choose to head to South India, this welcoming part of the country is great for everyone, whether you’re a foodie, history buff, beach lover, or newbie traveller.
It’s true, you could easily spend a lifetime exploring and learning about India and not experience everything it has to offer. A lifetime is not an option for most of us with a job, so a week is a good starting length, and if you travel smartly you will be able to do South India justice in just seven days. Here’s how.
Day 1: Goa
Though technically located in West India, Goa is a great place to start any trip. The coastal gem has been a traveler highlight for decades.
Make your way to Palolem and set up shop in a comfortable bungalow near the beach. From here, you can discover the laid-back beaches, dive right into South India cuisine, explore quaint fishing villages, and learn about Goa’s Portuguese past.
The laid-back vibe here makes it pretty easy to pass the time by laying on the beach and doing nothing. While that’s totally fine – and it may be exactly what you want to do after arriving – we suggest moving around and experiencing as much as possible.
The waters off of Palolem are one of the safest areas to swim in all of Goa. Rent a paddle or surfboard and take to the waves, or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, hop in a kayak and explore the small islands a few minutes from the coast.
Day 2: Goa
Wake up to the sounds of the waves gently combing the shoreline. When you’re ready to go, hail down a rickshaw and make your way to nearby Agonda beach, which is one of the most beautiful beaches in a Goa, and start your morning off with one of the most delicious breakfasts of your life at Little Plantain Leaf Restaurant.
After breakfast, carry on to the laid-back coastal village of Anjuna. Every Wednesday, Anjuna hosts a sprawling flee market, filled with handicrafts, food, jewelry, and much more. It’s the perfect place to practice your bargaining skills. If you’re visiting on Saturday, the energetic, open-air night market in Arpora – one mile away – is not to be missed.
The best way to explore the Anjuna and the surrounding area is by scooter. With the sun shining down and the wind in your hair, zoom around and explore the outskirts of town and nearby beaches, where you’ll find your own little slice of sandy paradise. Calangute Beach is the largest beach in Goa and is filled with both locals and tourists. Dotted with shops, restaurants, and clubs, it’s well worth a trip.
A little farther on the moped, but a sight that should not be missed, is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which holds the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier. Completed in 1605, the church is a special landmark for Catholics and is one of the best examples of baroque architecture in India.
If you’re really feeling adventurous, head inland to the spectacular Dudhsagar Falls – translating to Sea of Milk – the fourth tallest waterfall in India.
Day 3: Kochi
Much farther south in the state of Kerala is Fort Cochin – often known as Old Kochi – whose shores have been luring in traders and explorers for 600 years. There remains a unique and fascinating mix of culture in Kochi, where you can see Chinese fishing nets sitting along the coast, ancient mosques and synagogues, and Portuguese architecture.
Fort Cochin is a historical town in the city of Kochi, and while the area isn’t very large, it makes for great exploring, where you can walk down narrow alleyways and tuck into hole-in-the-wall eateries. One of the best breakfasts I had in India, consisting of a delicate potato sabji and roti, was in Kochi, through a small entrance way.
Kochi is home to the Keralan art forms of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu, and is one of the best places to see live performances. Kathakali is a form of classical Indian dance referred to as a “story play” where performers wear elaborate makeup, colorfully-adorned costumes, and unique masks. Kathakali themes usually focus on folk mythologies, religious legends, and spiritual ideas.
Don’t skip out on visiting the Kerala Folklore Museum, which houses over 4000 artifacts. These include wood and bronze sculptures, ancient terracotta, jewelry, paintings, musical instruments, tribal and folk art, and masks from the past 1000 years.
Day 4: Alleppey
Alappuzha, commonly known as Alleppey, is most famous for its enchanting backwaters, but there’s much more to see an do here than hang out on the waters.
If you can handle the heat, take a stroll along the sprawling Alleppey Beach and wander by the 150-year-old pier that stretches out into the ocean. The beach fills to the brim with locals during the evening when the weather is cooler, as everyone wants to watch as the sun sets over the Indian ocean – something you should try to see every night.
Many Hindu temples here are brightly adorned with intricately-carved mythological creatures, making the temples a feast for your eyes. One of the oldest temples in Kerala, the Sree Subramanya Swami Temple, is a beautiful example of Hindu temple architecture. Even better: tourists are allowed to enter it (which is sometimes not permitted).
If you’ve been following your nose all afternoon and need to satisfy your hunger, head to Thaff restaurant and devour a Keralan thali, so you get a good mix of different flavors. If you visit Alleppey in August, try to catch the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, where teams of locals race on giant traditional snake boats on the Punnamada Lake.
After a day spent exploring Alleppey’s attractions on land, it’s time to get on to the water to explore the vast network of waterways called the Keralan backwaters, which is the attraction that brings most visitors to the region.
You can choose from a simple afternoon cruise or up to a week’s stay, but I suggest one full day and night to fully experience the beauty of the backwaters. It’s better to invest in a top-rated boat, where you can relax while a chef cooks your food and the captain steers the boat, as you navigate through serene lakes, canals, and lagoons on your own floating paradise.
Be on the lookout for exotic bird species, which dot the lake’s surface and sit atop the palm trees that line the canals. You’ve had a busy week so far and have taken in a lot of new information, so dig into authentic Keralan cuisine and float along peacefully!
Day 6: Varkala
Varkala has become one of Kerala’s most popular tourist destinations in recent years, partly due to its beautiful setting along the top of a 15-meter-high cliff, which is lined with neat shops and tasty restaurants. It’s a feel-good town, where you can heal and rejuvenate your body in one of the Ayurveda, yoga, or reiki centers. Ayushi Ayurvedic Retreat is one of the highest-regaled treatment centres in the area, which was have you feeling top-notch in no time.
On top of being a backpacker hangout, a place for beach lovers, and a town of healing centres, Varkala is a temple town at its core. Hindus consider Papanasam Beach and the water to be holy and purifying, and they visit here to make offerings for loved ones who have passed. The most famous temple in town is Janardhana Swami Temple. The temple dates back to the 12th century, but was originally built 2000 years ago, and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
A walk along Varkala cliff is wonderful any time of day, but it’s best to be there during the evening. Grab a table on the upper deck at Café del Mar and order a richly-spiced chana masala with some naan as you watch the sunset.
Day 7: Varkala
As you can see, South India is all about sand, sea, scooters, spices, and creating special memories. To kickstart your last day, grab a freshly-brewed coffee from Coffee Temple and consider sticking around for some breakfast, either Western or Indian.
Though most restaurants are situated along the cliff, there are cheaper options in the town of Varkala (which is a couple of miles away). You have to go to Hotel Suprabhatham and try the masala dosa, a true South Indian specialty. If you’ve got the room, order the idly and sambar, too.
Varkala is a great place to rent scooters from. I rented one for about $5 for the whole day, and cruised to the nearby cities of Kovalam and Kollam, stopping at secluded beaches along the way, and traveling on narrow coastal roads through rural villages. It’s a sense of freedom that’s pretty difficult to replicate.
Is it a crime to start and end your trip near the beach? Definitely not. Head down the giant red cliffs lining Varkala’s coast and talk a relaxing walk along the expansive Papanasam Beach before taking one last dip in the warm waters of the Indian ocean.
Ready to experience this magical part of the world? Check out Intrepid’s wide range of small group tours in India.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x4, Evan Ceretti, Intrepid Travel x3, Evan Ceretti.)