Perhaps you go to India to see the Taj Mahal, the ghats of Varanasi or the backwaters of Kerala. All these places are amazing and total must-sees, but India is a vast country with a huge array of cultures, landscapes and cuisines.
So, if you’re looking to mix up your trip to include the highlights, as well as some off-the-beaten-track choices, here are six up-and-coming spots you should get to and quick!
I’ve seen many stunning sunrises around the world, but one that always comes to mind when I think of breath-taking mornings is the one from Tungnath, the world’s highest Shiva temple. Chopta is situated in Uttarakhand, the Himalayan state that’s home to the start of the River Ganges. Many travellers head to Uttarakhand to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles, who came to Rishikesh in the 1960s to study meditation. But few make it further than the hippie town – a great shame because the state really does get better and better the deeper you go into the Himalayas.
Chopta has lush green valleys, picturesque local villages and vibrant wildflowers in spring. Come here to hike, raft and enjoy connecting with nature. One thing you absolutely can’t miss is the hike to the Tungnath Temple, as it’s one of the best short hikes in the Indian Himalayas.
Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya State
Located in the northeast corner of India, Meghalaya state is one of the wettest places on Earth. The weather has also made it one of India’s greenest and lushest places, with rolling emerald hills, cascading waterfalls and a unique tribal culture. The secret about Cherrapunjee and its root bridges is slowly getting out, and it’s no surprise. These wonders are some of the most unique sites you’re ever likely to come across and trekking through the dense forest to find a hidden one of your own is a must-do when in the area.
As well as the landscapes and root bridges, the local Khasi culture is another reason why you should consider visiting Cherrapunjee. Khasi people are matrilineal, meaning the family name and property is passed down through the female line rather than the male, as is traditionally seen in cultures around the globe. This status of women is a unique thing to see in India and staying in female-run homestays or chatting with local women at the markets is a great way to get to grips with their customs and the power women have in the Khasi society.
If you’re planning a trip through Rajasthan, Jaipur, Jodphur and Udaipur will probably appear on your itinerary, as well as camel riding through the Thar Desert. Whilst these are all enthralling, one place you really can’t miss is Pushkar. This small holy town, located between Jodhpur and Jaipur, is unique in so many ways. The whitewashed town surrounds Pushkar Lake, a sacred spot for Hindus. It’s here you’ll see locals taking a dip throughout the day, and in the evening, you can often catch an arti (a Hindu religious worship ritual) on the ghats. As well as witnessing spiritual life, Pushkar is a wonderful place to observe local Rajasthani life. Particularly during the time of the Pushkar Camel Fair, which takes place every November.
Another hidden gem is Snake Mountain that sits behind the town. Hike to the top for views over Pushkar and the enormous Thar Desert beyond. For the rest of your days here, relish the slow pace of the town – eating local food with lake views and shopping for Rajasthani handicrafts. Pushkar is one of those places you’ll want to stay much longer than planned – but be quick, as the word about this lesser-known spot is getting out!
Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu
If you’re heading to South India, chances are you’ll be looking to check out Goa’s beaches and the Keralan backwaters. I love both these destinations, but I also urge you to look east to Tamil Nadu. Tamil culture is one of the oldest surviving civilisations on the planet, and today you’ll find its people to be fiercely proud of their heritage. Throughout the state, you’ll discover beaches, delicious vegetarian food, hill stations and some of India’s largest temples. My pick though, is Mahabalipuram, a small seaside fishing town a few hours south of Chennai.
The city is known for its impressive carved rock temples, and they are indeed unmissable, but it’s the laidback vibe of this fisherman’s colony with its painted pastel buildings that really surprised me. Venture even further south and you’ll find Pondicherry, an old French colony, and that relaxed French feel has definitely drifted up the coast to Mahabalipuram. At sunset, head to the lighthouse, where you’ll enjoy expansive views over the surrounding countryside.
Majuli Island, Assam
Located in the far northeast of India, Majuli Island is one of those magical places you can’t quite believe isn’t flooded with tourists. What’s kept it a secret for so long is its location, as it can be tricky to travel there from more popular Indian tourist spots. Found in Assam state, in the Brahmaputra River, Majuli is the world’s largest river island. The best way to explore is by bicycle, where you can embrace the leisureliness of life, drifting passed agricultural land and uncovering the many unique cultures on the island.
Stop by one of Majuli’s many satras (or monasteries), which house monks that worship the god Vishnu. Inside you can see examples of crafts such as mask making and traditional performances. Elsewhere, you’ll pass through the villages of the Mishing tribe, the island’s local inhabitants.
Often, you’ll see women weaving under their wooden houses, pottery being shaped on porches, and men setting their nets into the backwaters to fish. It’s hard not to fall in love with this beautiful island, and it’s worth getting there fast as it’s shrinking at a rapid pace because of climate change and rising river levels. Your tourist dollars can help the island put initiatives into place, like planting trees, that could save this unique habitat and its cultures from disappearing.
Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
Find Tawang on a map and you might not even believe it’s in India. Go there, and you’ll be even less convinced. Located in northern Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang is nestled between the Chinese and Bhutanese border. To get there, you must drive over a 4,170m pass, but when you arrive you’ll see just how worth it that was. The valley of Tawang is utterly breath-taking – framed by snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The highlight of the area is the Tawang Monastery, the second largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world. Visit at dawn and you’ll catch the monks in prayer as the sun rises over the neighbouring valleys.
Another reason to visit is to spend time with the Monpa people, a tribe from Tibet who have their own unique cultures, customs and cuisines. Spend the night at a homestay or take a day trip to try their food, enjoy their local songs and dances, and share a drink of arra, a local wine made with millet and butter.
Feature image C/O Photoff on Shutterstock.