The Best of North India — in Three Weeks

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It’s no secret that India is massive, both in terms of its land area and its rapidly growing population. The country’s transportation infrastructure generally doesn’t help matters, with its primitive roads and slow trains transforming trips that would take but a few hours in a developed country into all-day affairs. Still, if you plan well — and, most importantly, in advance — it’s possible to see the most popular attractions in the northern part of the country in just three weeks, perfect if your job or school limits the amount of time you can take off.

Flying In

Posh south Mumbai offers Western amenities such a four-star dining — but at prices far low than you’d fine at home.

India has dozens of international airports, although for travelers originating in North America, only two are of any concern: Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Personally, I recommend you fly into Mumbai. Several reasons make me feel this way, some of which I’ll discuss later in this article.

The primary one, however, is that as huge Indian cities go, Mumbai is by the best to ease you into the perpetual hustle-bustle of the world’s largest democracy. Although the taxi ride into the city from the airport may alarm you — what, with all the slums and shanty towns you encounter on the way — central and south Mumbai are about as Western as you’re going to get in India.

Additionally, south Mumbai is home to a number of the city’s — and the country’s — most famous tourist attractions, including the “Gateway of India,” a monument erected in 1924 to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V to the city then known as Bombay, the first of any British monarch. The massive stone arch sits in the city’s cosmopolitan Apollo Bandar district, just adjacent to the Taj Mahal hotel made famous during the November 26, 2008 attack. Other nearby attractions include Elephanta Island, home to ancient Hindu cave carvings, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum.

Second Stop

One of the primary reasons I recommend you enter India via Mumbai is because the city is home to the Chhatrapati Shivaji

A few days in Goa is the perfect antidote to the hustle-bustle of Mumbai.

Railway Terminus, abbreviated to “CSTM.” Formerly known as Victoria Station, it is Asia’s busiest railway hub and has connections to nearly everywhere in India. The second reason I recommend you start in Mumbai is because one of the shortest of these connections is to Magdaon (MAO) Station in the nearby state of Goa, an idyllic, tropical paradise I wrote about last week — and the perfect antidote to urban India’s perpetual clamor.

After spending two or three days in Mumbai — you won’t need any longer and if it’s your first time, you frankly won’t be able to withstand it — hop on a train from CSTM to MAO. Schedules vary depending on the season and day you travel, so it’s a good idea to hit up the Indian Railways website to verify times. Trains fill up quickly, so advance booking is also advisable — you do that at a separate site,, located here. It’s also possible to book Indian train tickets through an official Indian government website, although the site is confusing and experiences frequent outages.

Goa’s a great place to relax, whether you stay on shore or head out to sea.

One-way fares vary depending on your class of service. I recommend booking in “3AC” class — third-class, air conditioned — which provides you with your own bed and air conditioning for the nine-hour journey. You’ll pay a little more than you would for the deceptively-named “Sleeper” class, which features cramped, non-bed seating, but it’s well worth it for a journey of this length.

If you aren’t yet convinced that you should try out train in India, take another traveler’s word for it. Writing for the BootsNAll Travel Network, Mariellen Ward outlines a more specific case for why you should take at least one trip on the Indian Railways, among other suggestions RE: travel on the subcontinent.

Once you arrive in Goa, relaxation will be your only concern, as I detail in this post. Time-wise, I’d recommend you spend at least five days here, adding or subtracting one depending on how much time you spent in Mumbai. Ideally, you’ll depart Goa on the second or third day of your second week in India. The longer you can afford to spend here, the better — the second week of your trip will be the most stressful of the three.

Delhi and Agra — and Kolkata and Varanasi, if You Have Time

Another factor which determines how long you can stay in Goa is how you plan to get out — and since my three-week itinerary calls for a trip to the northeast of India immediately after leaving Goa, I recommend you fly. Several airlines fly the Goa-Delhi and Goa-Kolkata routes, including the fabulous IndiGo, which offers fares as low as Rs. 1,000 one-way, plus tax, even if you don’t book in advance.

Whether you fly to Kolkata or Delhi depends on how slowly you want to take the second leg of your trip, as well as whether or not you want to see the infamous city of Varanasi, where Hindus go to die — I didn’t.

Agra offers little more in the way of tourist activities than the admittely spectacular Taj Mahal.

Instead, I flew directly to Delhi, then immediately hopped on a train to Agra — or at least I tried to, but more on that later. When you arrive at the New Delhi Railway Station, push past hustler who try and lie to you about your train being cancelled and hop on any of the hourly departures to Agra’s Cannt station. The journey takes just over two hours, so you need not book a bed — and due to how frequently service operate, you don’t even particularly need to make an advance reservation.

If you fly to Kolkata, spend no more than three days there, then head to the city’s massive Howrah Railway Station and hop on a train to Varanasi.

As you can see on the Indian Railways website, trains depart several times through the day and take between 12-18 hours. I once again recommend you book in 3AC class due to the length of this journey.

I haven’t been to Varanasi, but most of what I’ve heard about the place suggests that you neither need nor will want to spend more than a day or two there. Since Hindus come here largely to die, the energy is even more manic than you’ll find in cities filled with mostly living people. Additionally, the smells and sights can be overwhelming, emotionally and otherwise.

Getting to Agra — and the Taj Mahal — from Varanasi by train takes about 12-14 hours, with two to three daily departures depending on which day you leave. Like Varanasi, Agra doesn’t require more than a day of your time.

Namely the city’s eponymous fort, which provides a lesser-seen vantage point of the Taj.

Whether you come in from Delhi in the West or Kolkata and Varanasi in the east, the only sites truly worth seeing there are the Taj (obviously) and the city’s impressive fort, located a quick taxi ride from one another. As is the case throughout India, your driver will likely try and convince you to stop at the many shops between the two tourist attractions. I advise to firmly refuse his suggestions.

Returning to Delhi — or, if you came from Kolkata and Varansi, getting there in first place — requires you to hop on any of the dozens of daily departures from the city’s Cantt Railway Station. Once you arrive back in Delhi, have a taxi take you to the Asoka Road area, home to many of the city’s backpacker hostels and budget hotels.

How long you should spend in Delhi depends on where you are in your journey.  You should aspire to be done there by the end of your second week in India, so if you flew directly from Goa to Delhi and then took a train to Agra, you’re looking at three to four days in the capital. If you flew to Kolkata, on the other hand, you can only really afford to spend a day or two in Delhi.

Either is fine! Procure an all-day taxi tour from your hotel — the rate was around Rs. 800 for two people when I visited in March 2009 — which takes you to all of the city’s most famous sites, including the Red Fort, the Lotus Temple, Gandhi’s tomb the Birla House (where he was assassinated) and the India Gate, the massive national monument which overlooks the country’s parliament building and capital complex.


As you roll into the third and final week of your trip, head to Old Delhi Railway Station and take the early morning train to the pink city of Jaipur. It’s important you don’t head back to New Delhi station, as departures to Rajastan don’t leave from here. The journey to Jaipur takes only five hours, so I recommend you book a 3AC bed on the 4 a.m. departure, which leaves you with a full first day in Jaipur.

Rajastan is replete with wonders, pink and otherwise.

Jaipur is positively replete with things to do, from urban activities like the City Museum and Planetarium, to more desert-oriented ones like riding elephants up the Amber Fort or hiking up to the aptly-named Monkey Temple. As was the case in Delhi, it’s possible — and advisable — to arrange a day-long taxi tour to whisk you from one site to another. If you arrive at 9 a.m. as scheduled, I recommend you stay for two days — and if possible, at the Hotel Umaid Bhawan, a four-star, heritage property with gorgeous double rooms available from Rs. 1,600 per night.

Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort rises high above the city.

The pink city — named for its buildings and surrounding sand, which both look more terra cotta in color to me — is only three hours from the blue city of Jodhpur, which you may recognize from films such as “The Darjeeling Limited.” Two days here is enough to explore the blue city itself, both on the ground and from the Mehrangarh Fort, which sits high atop a hill in the northern part of the city. Rest your head at the Ratan Villas, a walled accommodation formerly owned by the city’s royal family. Its spacious, private bungalows start at Rs. 1,000 per night.

From Jodhpur, you have several options. If you follow my itinerary, you should be about three days from needing to return to Mumbai. If you didn’t get your fill of the city the first time, hop an Air India flight back and spend your last few days in the country there. If you’re feeling more ambitious, however, take a bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, located near the Pakistan border, or to the city of Udaipur, home to the famous “Floating Palace.” Be warned, however: if you visit either of these cities, your time there will be extremely limited, particularly in Jaisalmer, from which you’ll have to return to Jodhpur to fly back to Mumbai.

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