The majority of first-time visitors to India head straight to the incredible sites of the famed Golden Triangle of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra, which is understandable when you consider it’s here that you’ll find the Taj Mahal. The evocative deserts and forts of Rajasthan also feature pretty highly on travellers’ wishlist with tigers another prime draw. No doubt you’ve heard of Holi, the festival of colour. And Diwali, the festival of light. In an ideal world would plan your trip around these nationwide celebrations. But what if you’re a returning visitor looking for some hidden gems in India?
Fear not, for this staggeringly diverse country offers a plethora of cultural, historical, and natural wonders. Plenty of these have remained relatively off the beaten track despite their obvious appeal. Whether it’s revered temples in the tropical south or historic cities rich in cultural legacy located in the heart of India, there’s something for everyone. Here’s our choice of the top ten India hidden gems.
Located on the east coast in the state of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) is a slice of Gallic charm beside the sea. This former colonial capital was under French rule until the mid-1950s. It displays lovely colour-washed architecture, cobblestone streets and French road names that transport visitors to the heart of Europe.
Yet despite the immediate appearance of Puducherry, it’s very much an Indian city with an Eastern spirituality that attracts open-minded travellers thanks to the nearby township of Auroville. This experimental “city of dawn” was created with the vision to unite humanity in peace and harmony.
For those not quite ready to cast aside all social and moral conventions, there’s enough in Puducherry itself to keep you interested. Wander along the attractive promenade, dine on fabulous French-Indian fusion cuisine, explore the Government Museum and stay in delightful boutique accommodation, like the Palais de Mahe.
Also located in Tamil Nadu in the rural region of Chettinad, Karaikudi is an old merchant town that encapsulates South India’s opulent past. The local Nagarathar community are historically skilled merchants who prospered in trade and commerce, particularly in the trade of teak with Burma back in the 19th century.
At the height of this prosperity, thousands of lavish palatial homes were constructed here. They were made with materials including marble from Italy and steel from England. Boasting decorative floors, door frames, and window panels, they were something to behold. After the Second World War, many local traders moved abroad. And the mansions soon fell into decay.
In more recent years a number of these properties have been given a new lease of life as heritage hotels, including the elegant Visalam, inviting visitors to step back into a by-gone era. Another reason to visit Karaikudi is for the impressive cuisine that the region is famous for thanks to the masterful use of spices.
Kaziranga National Park
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Kaziranga National Park is one of India’s premier safari destinations yet remains surprisingly under-visited by foreign travellers, losing out to the more popular Ranthambhore. Perhaps it’s due to its location in the far northeast state of Assam but it’s questionable whether an out-of-the-way location is enough to hold back the tide of popularity after the park’s appearance on the BBC’s acclaimed TV series Planet Earth II.
The star attraction of Kaziranga is the one-horned rhino. Hosting two thirds of the world’s population, it’s the best place to see these beasts. With an enviable density of tiger to boot, as well as resident elephant, buffalo, deer and abundant birdlife, Kaziranga provides the complete safari package.
For a taste of what it was like for India’s maharajas, few spots beat Mysore for royal heritage. Recently renamed Mysuru, the city served as the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore for the best part of six centuries and its this history that provides a lasting legacy of magnificent monuments and characterful colonial architecture. Chief among this offering is the Maharaja’s Palace, one of India’s finest with kaleidoscopic stained glass windows, Bohemian chandeliers, detailed friezes and mosaic floors.
Shoppers will delight in the quality silk, sandalwood and incense produced here and sold in numerous stores, markets and government-run emporiums while yoga fanatics can find their zen at the revered Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (booking ahead essential) or at the drop-in classes offered at the Mysore Mandala Yogashala.
Those more interested in history shouldn’t miss the river island of Srirangapatnam, an easy day trip from Mysore. Here you’ll find a fort, palace and mausoleum, all steeped in the history of the 18th century ruler Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan who famously fought against the British.
Set in the north of Kerala, which is often touted as “God’s own country” in tourism literature, the scenic hill district of Wayanad is largely considered the most beautiful region in the state. That’s quite an accolade when you consider that Kerala is home to emerald backwaters, serene beaches, verdant tea plantations and a section of the Western Ghats.
Thanks to the varying altitudes found in the region, Wayanad consists of a diverse assortment of unspoiled landscapes from grasslands to jungle interspersed with coffee and spice plantations. It’s possible to stay in the thick of one of these plantations at the unmissable Tranquil Resort, which offers just seven guestrooms and two charming tree houses. From here it’s possible to visit the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, a remote forest reserve that claims elephant, tiger, deer, wild boar and bear as its four-legged inhabitants.
Ajanta and Ellora
For an insight into India’s ancient civilizations, you’d be hard-pressed to find better places than the exquisite rock-cut temples and caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Located in the same state as Mumbai, these two UNESCO-listed sites display some of the most impressive religious art you’re ever likely to come across.
The Ajanta caves are set on the side of a remote ravine and date back as early as the 2nd century BC. Perhaps because they were lost to the rest of the world for a millennium, the caves are in a remarkable state of preservation with renowned murals decorating the interiors. Of supreme skill and sophistication, the cave paintings are unrivalled in India.
Dating from 600 AD, the breathtaking caves of Ellora represent the pinnacle of Deccan rock-cut architecture and display religious tolerance with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all represented. Over 30 monasteries and temples have been deftly cut from a 2km-long escarpment. The highlight of Ellora is the colossal Kailash temple with intricate carvings, towering pillars, columned arcades, and sculpted alcoves.
Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple town of Hampi is home to the evocative crumbling ruins of the Vijayanagar kingdom and simply has to be on our list of India hidden gems. These ruins may not be the best-preserved that India has to offer. But what they lack in presentation is made up for by their enchanting setting. Strewn across vivid green terrain peppered with giant boulders south of the Tungabhadra River, the forlorn relics include temples, palaces, shrines, pillared halls, large tanks, and forts.
There’s a healthy selection of guest lodgings on both sides of the river, at the original Hampi Bazaar and the more recently developed Virupapuragadda, but the eco-themed Boulders Resort gets our vote with cottages spread out across 100 acres. Be warned – Hampi is the kind of place that keeps you longer than expected. Make sure to allow yourself at least 2-3 nights to explore the ruins in depth and enjoy the relaxed character of the place. The best way to explore the ruined city is by moped, which can be hired locally.
A Danish colony from 1620 to 1845, the small seaside town of Tharangambadi (formerly known as Tranquebar) is well and truly off the tourist radar. Yet it is known amongst historians for its wonderfully maintained fort. The Danish East India Company landed here to establish trade links. They struck a deal with the reigning King Ragunatha Nayaka who leased out Tharangambadi. It was later sold to the British.
The Danes left their mark not only with the Dansborg Fort, which was once the largest Danish castle outside of Denmark but also in the neat grid layout of the streets, the town walls, and Catholic schools. The fort is now a museum that documents the heyday of Danish rule and provides an intriguing insight into this slice of Scandinavian history in the south of India.
The best hotel in town is the Bungalow on the Beach, which stands between a 14th century Pandya temple and the Danish Fort – the perfect reflection of Tharangambadi’s rich heritage.
It may be a state capital and a booming hi-tech centre but the city of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh is another of our India hidden gems and a dreamy illustration of what an old Indian city should be. Dating back to the late 16th century, the old part of town is a web of narrow lanes and colourful markets that set the stage for a cacophony of sights, sounds and aromas from honking rickshaws to the comforting smells of chai tea.
Founded by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, Hyderabad has a rich Islamic heritage with stately royal houses, magnificent mosques, peaceful imperial tombs and the mighty Golconda Fort, which sits on a hill west of the old part of town. Other architectural highlights include the Charminar landmark – a monument and a mosque with four minarets, and the opulent Chowmahalla Palace with its dazzling Durbar hall. If you would like to sample some of this opulence for yourself, push the boat out and stay at the stunning Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel.
Last but certainly not least, the state of Orissa delivers a true gem worth seeking out in the form of Puri. Home to Lord Jagannath – a form of Vishnu – the medieval city is a tremendously sacred site to India’s Hindus. The soaring temple dedicated to the deity draws thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. Crowds peak during the full moon festival of Rath Yatra when idols and chariots are paraded through the streets.
As well as the lure of this religious extravaganza, travellers are also drawn to Puri for its long sandy beach on the Bay of Bengal. Not to mention the town’s laid-back vibe, a hangover from the hippy visitors of the 1970s. It’s also perfectly placed for excursions to the old holy centre of Bhubaneswar. Often referred to as the ‘Temple City’, Bhubaneswar is home to dozens of ancient temples. And these continue to host animated religious life to this day.
Within striking distance from Puri is also the renowned Sun Temple at Konark, Widely considered to be one of the world’s finest religious buildings and the apex of Orissan architecture, the 13th-century temple represents the sun god Surya’s chariot with elaborately carved stone wheels. India’s eminent literary figure, Rabindranath Tagore, said of the temple: “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of human”, an apt description for this exceptional masterpiece.
Have you been to some of these India hidden gems and would like to share your experience? Get in touch via the comments section below. Or if these places have you reaching for your passport, get in touch with our India tailor-made holiday team to start planning your off-the-beaten-path itinerary.