As the seventh largest country in the world, India is a land of incredible diversity. Its landscapes range from the mighty Himalayas to densely populated cities and the arid Thar Desert to lush tea plantations. With so much to see and do, choosing a region to travel is no easy feat. To help you decide whether to go to North or South India, take a look at this handy comparison guide.
Home to the famous Golden Triangle, North India is the place to go for first-timers to this colourful country. You’ll cross iconic sights like the Taj Mahal off your bucket list and have the opportunity to spot the elusive Bengal tiger. But that’s not all this region has to offer, with many other sights and experiences in store.
What are the highlights?
1. The Golden Triangle
The start point for most travellers exploring the Golden Triangle is Delhi, India’s capital. Divided into two parts, Old and New Delhi, this city is home to bustling markets, vibrant temples and the beautiful Jama Masjid, which is the largest and best-known mosque in India.
The next point on the triangle is the Pink City of Jaipur. Gateway to the colourful state of Rajasthan, this city is home to the impressive Amber Fort and City Palace.
Last but certainly not least, the city of Agra is home to the legendary Taj Mahal. Alongside this spectacular monument, other top sights include the magnificent Agra Fort – one of India’s first monuments to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Claimed by Lonely Planet to be the ‘jewel in India’s crown’, Rajasthan offers much more besides the Golden Triangle. Across the state, you’ll find the restored palaces and historic forts of India’s Maharajas.
Udaipur, in particular, is a city known for its stunning royal residences. Its centerpiece being the incredible Lake Palace that appears to float on the waters of Lake Pichola. The Blue City of Jodhpur is overlooked by the imposing Mehrangarh Fort and the remote city of Jaisalmer boasts its own breathtaking fort rising from the sandy plains of the Thar Desert.
Rajasthan is also home to one of India’s most popular wildlife reserves, Ranthambore National Park. Here visitors have a reliable chance of spotting the Bengal Tiger, alongside other native wildlife.
3. Varanasi and beyond
Set on the banks of the River Ganges in North India, Varanasi is one of India’s holiest cities. Pilgrims come to wash away their sins and cremate loved ones by the water, while the city’s maze-like old town is a melting pot of colour and chaos.
Other highlights in North India include the city of Amritsar, famous for its Golden Temple, as well as the hill station of Shimla. Set in the Himalayan foothills, Shimla is best reached by taking the Himalayan Queen Toy Train and offers plenty of hiking opportunities.
What’s the food like in North India?
Although India’s cuisine varies greatly from state to state, the main distinction is between the North and the South. North Indian food typically consists of rich meat and vegetable dishes accompanied by breads such as naan and roti.
Dishes tend to be quite mildly spiced, with thick tomato, onion and yogurt-based sauces. Tandoori chicken is a classic example, with the name referring to the deep clay oven known as a tandoor which cooks the food. Butter Chicken and Rogan Josh are also popular dishes.
When’s the best time to visit North India?
To avoid monsoon rains and scorching summer temperatures, the winter months of November to March are considered the best time to visit the Golden Triangle and the rest of Rajasthan. In contrast, March to June is a great time to visit Shimla as its position at altitude means you’ll enjoy pleasant temperatures perfect for outdoor activities.
A number of festivals also take place across North India that you may wish to time your visit with. Holi Festival in March sees the streets come alive with colour, while Diwali in October/November sees Hindu homes decorated with candles and lights.
In contrast to the desert and mountains of the north, South India features rolling hills, tropical forests and green tea plantations kept lush by the double-barrelled monsoon. With five states, plenty of temples and the scenic Kerala Backwaters as a highlight, this lesser-visited region is much more suited to second-time visitors to India.
What are the highlights?
1. Kerala Backwaters
A must-visit when exploring South India, the Kerala Backwaters are a network of palm-fringed waterways snaking towards Kochi on the coast. The main point of entry to this tropical landscape is Alleppey and from there you can begin a cruise along the waters.
The quintessential mode of transport here is traditional houseboat and you can choose between day or overnight cruises. At the heart of the backwaters you’ll also find Lake Vembanad, the longest lake in India.
Boasting dramatic mountain scenery, Munnar is set at an altitude of over 1,500 metres. This hill station is the centre of some of the world’s highest tea growing estates, with the surrounding hills carpeted in emerald green plantations.
Visitors can enjoy plenty of hiking and scenic bike rides in the area, as well as cooler weather. Nearby, in Eravikulam National Park, you can also spot Nilgiri Tahr, a rare mountain goat species that’s endemic to this region of South India.
3. Temples and towns
South India is home to a plethora of stunning temples, offering a fantastic insight into this region’s history and culture. The city of Trichy offers the imposing Rock Fort Temple, while in Mahabalipuram you’ll find the impressive Shore Temple on the Bay of Bengal.
However, the most impressive of them all is Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Dating back some 2,500 years, this temple draws thousands of devotees each day to its colourful towers. Another top spot in South India is Pondicherry, a city known for its French architecture and unique French-Indian cuisine.
What’s the food like in South India?
In contrast to the cuisine of North India, South Indian food is largely vegetarian and tends to use more spice. Dishes are accompanied with lots of rice, which is served either in its normal state, as steamed rice cakes called idlis or as rice-batter pancakes called dosa. In coastal areas such as Kerala, you’ll also find plenty of coconut-infused seafood dishes.
Interestingly, South India is well known for its filter coffee known as kaapi. Brewed extra strong with lots of sweetened milk, this coffee is served in steel cups on top of containers known as dabarah.
When’s the best time to visit South India?
The best time to visit South India largely depends on the activities you want to do there. Monsoon rains bring heat and humidity from June to September. So avoid these months if you’re looking to cruise on the Kerala Backwaters.
If you’re keen to explore the cities and their temples, you may wish to avoid the hottest months from March to May. And for those wanting to hike, time your visit after the monsoon rains. That way you’ll experience the landscape at its most lush and green.