India backpacking guide
Holy smokes India, you have completely and utterly blown my mind. If backpacking India isn’t already on your bucket list, then this India Backpacking Guide may just persuade you!
In my eyes the most magical place on earth, India is insanely beautiful, rich in culture and an overwhelming spiritual whirlwind. It’s vibrant, eye popping bursts of colour from sari’s to rickshaws, intense smells of incense and fragrant curries wafting and the constant sound of beeping horns and daily prayer calls ringing in your ear drums. Not to mention the crazily chaotic streets shared by holy cows, camels carrying carts of all sorts and people from all walks of life. The country somehow managed to knock my socks off like no other.
From state to state you’ll find yourself in a whole new world. India is enormous and has the most incredibly diverse scenery from snow capped mountains to tropical hippie beaches, hectic cities to cozy local villages, holy rivers to majestic waterfalls and vast golden desert to lush green forest. You’ll come across enchanting temples, bustling markets, jaw dropping ancient architecture, exotic street food and some of the most friendly, humbling people there ever was. Everything you could ever wish for while travelling encapsulated into one pretty bloody mesmerising country.
I may sound like a broken record but you really cannot experience the beauty of India until you see it for yourself. I never once felt unsafe in my four weeks backpacking through this crazy country and I want to debunk the myth that you’re nuts for backpacking India solo, especially for my fellow girl travellers.
So if you’re planning on backpacking India here is every tip and trick up my sleeve that I learnt along the way to help you do so.
Know before you go
‘NAMASTE’ – Hello
‘DHANYAVAAD‘ – Thank you
There are 22 languages in India, Hindi being the most widely spoken. Most Indians I met knew basic English so conversing with the locals wasn’t too much of a struggle. Learning a few key phrases will go a long way!
INDIAN RUPEE – INR
The national currency of India. The current exchange rate is 1NZD = 45INR
TYPE C – 230v/50Hz
Two round pins is the power plug in India. Be prepared for power cuts on the daily and slow, sparse internet.
Where I travelled
UTTER PRADESH STATE, NORTH EAST
The India of your imagination. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world and possibly the most shocking and enlightening place you may ever visit. Hands down my favourite city I went in India, I honestly thought my heart was going to explode.
Being the culture capital and holiest city of India, be prepared for your eyes to open to a completely different world. Every corner you turn and tight alley way you get lost in you’ll hear the sound of jingling bells and chanting, feeling the magic and spirit of the old city. Take a stroll along the ghats (riverfront steps) and you’ll find yourself weaving amongst local hindus taking their daily bathe on the sacred Ganges River. Be respectful to the holy sadhus- at times naked- going about their daily life and most shockingly witness burning flames from bodies being cremated, lit right in front of your eyes. Hindus embrace death as hundreds of dead bodies a day are wrapped in an orange shroud draped with flowers, laid on a pyre (bamboo stretcher), dipped into the Ganges to be blessed and burnt, before their ashes being scattered on the river. It’s believed to be liberating from the cycle of reincarnation and their soul will reach nirvana (heaven). A raw, other worldly experience.
One thing that would be rude to miss while backpacking India is a sunset boat tour along the river in Varanasi. Every night without a fail the traditional ceremony spectacular of Ganga Aarti is performed on the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Hundreds of thousands of people from pilgrims to tourists arrive here at dusk and like me leave feeling completely captivated by the powerful atmosphere. The chanting of priests, juggling of fire, offering of flowers, circling of brass lamps and waving of incense sticks creates an uplifting experience. Soak it up, release a tea light afloat on the Ganges and make a wish. Prepare to get stuck in a boat jam and be attacked by a trillion and one mozzies.
If you’re an early bird get up at the crack of dawn for the morning ritual ceremony on the ghats. You’ll have no problem finding a guide to take you on a tranquil boat tour to watch the blazing sun rise and vivid colours and patterns from the old city light up the town. Join in with the peaceful communal yoga on the river bank afterwards, if that’s your thing.
From mesmerising fortune tellers, snake charmers, beggars and yoga enthusiasts, smells of sandalwood, chai masala, waste and cow poo, rickshaw and scooters whizzing past and holy cows stopping traffic. Varanasi is not for the faint hearted.
Head to Blue Lassi, a cosy nook hidden in the back allies for the most refreshing and delicious looking lassies- yoghurt drink sprinkled in fruit and nuts. You’ll find these everywhere while backpacking India!
UTTER PRADESH STATE, NORTH
Part of the Golden Triangle travel loop, you’d be bloody silly to come all the way to India and not visit the most famous landmark, the Taj Mahal. Head here at sunrise to catch it in all it’s glory light up from hues of pearly grey, creamy yellow to crisp white. Arriving early will mean you’ll skip the long queues and hoards of people pushing and shoving.
Hot tip– If you love taking snaps like me then head around the back side (if you enter through the main gate) for a quieter, more wide open space. The front fills up quick!
Some of the greatest monuments around the world are hyped up, but in my books this one is definitely not one of them. It’s beautiful white marble walls, delicate detail and striking symmetry made me feel like I was trapped in a fairytale. I’m not complaining.
I didn’t see much else in Agra but solely for the Taj, I wouldn’t give it a miss. Entry costs 1100INR (23NZD) and it’s closed on Fridays.
RAJASTHAN STATE, NORTH WEST
The city of my dreams. Jaipur is known as the ‘Pink City,’ although more terra cotta than pink it definitely ticks all the boxes in the looks department. Every wall and gate is adorned in Moroccan like patterns and iconic terra cotta walls. My kind of colour palette!
Jaipur fuses the old with the new, the city having an elegance to it that’s almost hypnotizing. The city is a little more in order and cleaner than others in India and it’s grid format means it’s much easier to find your way around here while backpacking India.
Home to some beautiful historical forts and royal palaces, each with their own story to tell. Amber Fort is the most popular and up there with my favourite pieces of architecture I have ever seen. Located on top of the hill 11km out of the city is a ridiculously stunning complex made of sandstone and marble textures, enchanting pastel colours and intricate detailing from archway to archway. I’d advise to walk up the hill yourself and not catch a ride with the poor wee elephants trudging up in the sweltering heat.
The fort costs 500INR (10NZD) to enter and it’s well worth it. I mean, come on! The photos speak for themselves.
On the way back to the city stop for a looksie at Jah Mahal, a striking palace floating in the middle of a man made lake.
The City Palace 500INR (10NZD) smack bang in the city centre is another goodie made up of medieval buildings, courtyards and gardens. Just on the edge of the palace is what is known as ‘The Palace of Winds,’ originally built for the royal women to peep out of the shit tonne of windows, 953 to be exact, and watch the world go by. Hawa Mahal’s artisticly perfect honeycomb shape sure does satisfy the OCD in me. It’s free to check out from this view.
For those wanting to shop up a storm I would definitely dedicate a good chunk of time to do it in Jaipur. The lively bazaars are a real treat selling souvenirs a little different to the usual and every textile, gem stone, handicraft, blue pottery and leather good you could ever need. Don’t forget to haggle everything- it’s almost rude not to!
It wouldn’t be a real trip backpacking India without watching a Bollywood film. The extravagant art deco Raj Mandir Cinema, pink of course, sells a range of tickets from 100INR-350INR (2-7.50NZD) depending how fancy you’re feeling. The luxurious interior and ambience is an attraction in it’s self. The movie I watched didn’t have sub titles but I found the storyline surprisingly easy to understand. The crowd hoots and cheers throughout the film which is hilarious!
RAJASTHAN STATE, NORTH WEST
If you’re in need of a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and an authentic village experience sounds like your cup of tea, head 2.5 hours out of Jaipur to the rural village of Tordi. I stayed in a stunning 17th century palace, mingled with the village folk and played with the kids. A soul fuelling way to see how the locals live. The calm vibes and rustic charm of the town make it a worth while stop. A hidden gem.
CAPITAL OF INDIA, NORTH
Throughout my trip backpacking India I kept a travel journal that I wrote in every day. The opening line for my first day in Delhi was ‘Delhi is not what I was expecting, but in a good way.’ And I stand by that.
All the stories I’d heard led me to think Delhi would be extremely intimidating, scary and far too chaotic of a city. Not to mention getting struck by the dreaded ‘Delhi belly’ forever hanging in the back of my mind. Shit yeah it’s chaotic, but somehow it’s an organised chaos that you can work with. It’s absolute mayhem, overflowing mosaic of people, congestion of rickshaws, loud noises, odd smells and bold colours result in one big melting pot that tantalises your mind! And that’s exactly what I love about travelling, immersing myself in eye opening places completely different to the norm.
Delhi has a stark contrast between the old city and the modern. The well linked metro makes it easy to get around, there is even a separate carriage on the train for my ladies if you’re feeling a bit uneasy.
Chandni Chowk Bazaar in the beating heart of the old city is a wicked place to roam around, but probably the most crowded. Weave through the maze of ancient alley ways, bright lights and mumble jumbled power lines overhead. Stop to stuff your face with some indulgent street food and shop for silver jewellery, fabrics and bargains galore.
If you get a chance I’d highly recommend taking a break from the madness and head to the ‘Sheeshganj Gurudwara’ Sikh Temple, an incredibly calm and beautiful experience. Enter and you’ll not only be in awe of the architecture of the place of worship, but the self less people that will leave you inspired.
People from all walks of life, religion and culture come here every single day if they wish and are served a hot, fresh vegetarian meal or cup of warming chai masala. Volunteers serve up roughly 10,000 meals, any time, 365 days a year. Help out in the open kitchen filled with iron cauldrons bubbling away, assembly lines of people rolling dough, cooking and flipping roti breads.
Everyone is so happy and it’s such an inclusive, humbling experience to do while backpacking India. A memory that will linger in my mind forever.
One of the largest mosques in India, Jama Masjid, will impress you with it’s white marble and red sandstone at first glimpse. The Red Fort is also one of the most popular attractions in the city which I’ve heard is worth checking out, however I didn’t quite have time to make it there.
Delhi is the beating heart of India and one hell of an experience. Enjoy the ride and being in the moment as it will be one of the most crazily amazing cities you’ll ever travel, I guarantee.
After two weeks exploring parts of the north I jumped on a plane and headed south to spend more time backpacking India. Ready to find a tranquil hot spot and chill the hell out for a few days, Goa was first on the list.
The smallest state in India with a 120km stretch of tropical beaches along the coastline, the first thought I had when I arrived was how the vibe was completely different from the north. The land of hippie backpackers, yoga and meditation retreats, clusters of colourful beach huts, quirky bars, coconut stalls and palm trees.
I chose to stay north on the red cliffs of Vagator and spent my days exploring the nearby beaches of Arambol, Mandrem, Anjuna and Chapora.
By day sip on cocktails, laze by the pool and explore the boho boutiques. Dance up a storm around a sunset drum circle, wander the local late night markets, or get silly at a trance party till the sun comes up.
Goa was the most expensive place I travelled to on my entire trip, transport prices being a wee bit ridiculous. Rickshaws aren’t really a thing here so your best bet is to hire a scooter to whizz around on. If you’d prefer catching a taxi then download the app Goa Miles. It works just like Uber and I found it to be much cheaper than the price of a regular taxi.
If you’ve backpacked around Thailand or Bali, then Goa is very comparable. A bit more touristy and commercialized than I personally prefer, but heaps of fun. As much as I enjoyed the recharge, laying by the beach for days on end isn’t really my thing so a few days was the perfect amount of time.
KARNATAKA STATE, SOUTH
Step back in time to the stone age. The earthy desert landscape of Hampi gives you the feel of a Flintstones movie set. A fantasy of rusty hued terrain offset by green palm groves and banana plantations. Stacks of gigantic boulders, ancient ruins, stone carvings and cheeky monkeys causing a racket jumping from roof top to roof top. I absolutely fell in love with this laid back, exotic little oasis.
Hippie Island across the river is popular with travellers backpacking India, however I stayed with a beautiful Indian family in Hampi Bazaar, the more local side of the ancient village. The markets here are filled with knick knacks and are worth a nosey.
The main attraction in Hampi are the collection of thousands of year old Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sun beaming off the stones makes it a scorcher, so I’d recommend jumping in a rickshaw and paying a set price for an all day round trip stopping at each temple. I got lucky and had a super friendly driver who was very informative and acted like a tour guide. I paid 500INR (10NZD) and shared the rickshaw with an outrageous 50 year old lady from Spain, boy was she a hoot.
Complexes filled with so much history, well preserved architecture and intricate carvings representing the gods. A 600INR (13NZD) ticket gets you into three of the main temples- Lotus Mahal, Queen’s Bath and the striking Vittala Temple, home to the iconic Stone Chariot. The rest are free! The oldest functioning temple of Virupaksha is conveniently located right in the bazaar.
Head down to the river at 8am to see old mate Lakshmi the Elephant have his morning bath. The pop of colour from the painted rocks and locals doing their morning rituals make the riverside a sight in it’s self.
Matanga Hill is a surreal hike to soak in a one of a kind panoramic view of the sun setting across the village.
KARNATAKA STATE, SOUTH WEST
Clean and green with a sprinkle of glitter. Mysore enchanted me right off the bat with it’s royal heritage, well maintained colonial buildings and charming character.
The grand ol’ architecture of Mysore Palace is fascinating both inside and out. The second most visited building in India, to the Taj of course. A measly 70INR (1.50NZD) to enter, the entire palace dazzles in front of your eyes with it’s gleaming hall ways, stained glass windows, elegant mosaics, fine art work and spiraling suitcases. Rapunzel where you at.
Devaraja Market is a buzzing feast for the senses that comes alive at the crack of dawn as locals hustle and truck loads of fragrant flower garlands and fresh fruit and veges are delivered. The atmosphere has the perfect amount of chaos as you wander the rows and rows of everyday bits and bobs. Heaped piles of spices, oils and sparkling jewellery for days.
KERALA STATE, SOUTH WEST
Ahh, lounging about on a vintage boat as you float along the peaceful backwaters of Kerala sure does sound like a treat. But before heading to the dreamy waterways you have to check out the coastal fishing city of Kochi. I spent most of my time exploring the authentic town of Fort Cochin, a sweet little mixture of Chinese and European history. You can easily see the entire town by foot, wander the grid of artsy streets adorned in graffiti murals, have a bite to eat at the chic cafes and stroll along the waterfront to watch the local fisherman at work lowering the ancient Chinese bamboo fishing nets into the sea.
Jew Town and the Synagogue is located in a more up market quarter of Fort Cochin. It’s old world charm and collection of antique shops make it a nice spot to potter around.
4INR (not even worth the conversion) will get you onboard a ferry to the hub of Ernakulam if you’re keen to explore the city of Kochi a bit more.
Near the top of many traveller’s bucket list while backpacking India is to cruise through the backwaters of Kerala in the south, as mentioned earlier. Overnight houseboats are pretty damn popular but if you’re on a backpacker’s budget like me a day tour on a boat or canoe does the trick! Purchased through my hostel, 1000INR (21NZD) got me a full day tour from Kochi towards Alleppey, which includes the most delicious fresh lunch of traditional thali served on a banana leaf.
Squeeze through teeny tiny canals and drift along the maze of rivers and lagoons whilst passing bright green paddy fields, towering palm and mango trees, fisherman on canoes and families waving from their waterside village. The backwaters are home to many and immersing myself in local life is another one of my favourite things to do while travelling. Our boatmen stopped for smoko at a simple, shackled family home. Here the women were making rope out of dried coconut husks- very cool!
There’s a serenity about the backwaters that make it a perfect escape to mellow out in after the fast paced cities. From blooming lotus flowers and chirping bird life, it’s a slice of paradise!
KERALA STATE, SOUTH WEST
Wow. If you could only pick one beach in South India to visit do me a favour and go to Varkala. This bad boy has a similar traveller scene to Goa but is a more chilled out version and a wee bit less spoilt!
Perched high on top of the red cliffs with sweepings view over the Arabian Sea and a coastline dotted with coves of white and black sand beaches. Take the steep narrow stair case down to the sea to frolic along the sand and dip your toes into the roaring ocean. The cliff tops of Varkala Beach is where all the action is, a gold mine for market lovers. All the souvenirs and hippie clothing you could imagine and a line up of yoga studios, surf classes, hot roasted nuts on the street side and a mixture of decent local and western restaurants.
I met some wicked people and immediately knew Varkala was somewhere I would want to spend weeks on end at, but I had to make the most of the few days I had up my sleeve.
I’d highly recommend joining in on a cooking class at one of the cliff top restaurants. The sweetest Indian man took us for a hoon on his rickshaw to buy fresh tuna at the local morning market, before cooking up a storm in his kitchen, making everything from scratch. The 400INR (8.50NZD) you pay for the class is a steal as you fill your plate with all the aromatic fish curry and traditional dhal soup you can fit.
KERALA STATE, SOUTH WEST
The last stop of my India backpacking experience, I was feeling pretty sad to leave at this point. I felt so welcome in India that I no shit shed a tear sitting at the airport to leave.
Kovalam is a teensy tiny rugged beach town, the perfect spot to spend my last night at before catching my flight from nearby Trivandrum Airport to Sri Lanka. Read my Sri Lanka blog here!
Head up to Vizhinjam Lighthouse on the hill for a nice view over the beach. The slow paced, relaxed atmosphere of the village, alleyways of hidden shops, abandoned ships on the shore, abundance of freshly caught sea food and array of food choices is bliss.
For my fellow kiwis there are two travel visas you can get. The E-tourist Visa is the most popular which you can apply for online and costs 120NZD. This is a double entry visa and lasts 120 days. Take note that this visa can only be used to enter India at the air or sea ports.
The visa I had to get as I was travelling from Nepal to India overland by car was the Regular Visa. This costs 225NZD, is a triple entry visa and lasts one year.
Check out High Commission of India for more in depth information.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
October- April are considered the best months to visit while backpacking India, as they are warm and dry.
I visited in April and was there just in the nick of time before it got unbearably hot and humid. Monsoon season is from June- September.
WHAT TO WEAR
Dress conservatively when visiting temples or a place of worship, meaning cover your shoulders and knees. You can buy a scarf once you’re there to throw over your shoulders or hair when needed. Otherwise you can pretty much wear what you usually would (as long as it’s not too skimpy!) Every city is different so once you get the vibe of a place you’ll learn what you feel comfortable in and what’s appropriate to wear. My biggest tip would be to pack light! I only had one small carry on bag plus my daily back pack and it was my brightest idea yet. No one wants to lug around a ginormous, heavy bag on a long ass train in the heat. The majority of India is humid as heck so pack clothes that are loose fitting, light and airy.
WHERE TO STAY
Backpacker’s and guest houses! Backpacker’s are always a fun time, cheap and a great way to meet other travellers. I absolutely adored staying with local families in their home and learning about their culture and way of life. I used booking.com as I went- no deposit needed!
For the most part backpacking India is incredibly cheap!
1L WATER 20INR (.40 NZD) ‘Aquatabs’ are handy to pop into reusable drink bottles- don’t drink the tap water!
STREET FOOD MEAL 50-150INR (1-3NZD) Always use hand sanitiser before and after eating.
RESTAURANT MEAL 200-300INR (4-6NZD)
DORM ROOM 200-400INR (4-9NZD)
TRANSPORT 10-1000INR (.20-20NZD) This is a toughie as it completely varies, but mainly at the cheaper end. 20c for a two hour local train, up to 20NZD for an overnight AC sleeper bus.
Just like going anywhere it really depends what kind of traveller you are. You CAN get by backpacking India on zilch. I found eating out to be just as cheap, if not cheaper than buying from the supermarket and cooking at your accommodation. Entry tickets into attractions were the most expensive thing.
You can find ATMs in major cities and larger towns, however be aware that you will more than likely have to try a few before you find one that works. Debit, credit and most travel cards are accepted and I found this the easiest and safest way to handle money in India. The maximum withdrawal limit is 10,000INR.
I sat on my bag on the floor for hours on end outside the toilet on a filthy local train, slept like a dream on over night buses with AC, flew across the country on an airplane and was the only westerner packed like a sardine at the back seat of a rickety old bus. I hooned the streets on countless rickshaws and I walked and walked on the back streets of some pretty dodgy roads. Take note that road rules aren’t a thing and transport in India is quite the experience!
For long distance, trains are the way to go.
I could literally do an entire post on the ridiculously vast and busy network of trains in India, but here are a few quick tips-
Travel with patience. Trains in India have a reputation for never being on time and are almost always delayed. However I still made it a rule to arrive at the train station an hour before departure, especially if I didn’t have my ticket yet.
Tickets can sell out months in advance for long distance trips, so book them online as soon as possible. For short distance travel I had no problem buying a ticket on the day at the train station.
3AC is all the regular backpacker needs. There are many different ticket prices and classes to choose from which can be overwhelming knowing what to buy. In my experience air conditioned third class (3AC) is sweet. You’re provided with a pillow, sheets and blanket on a three tier berth, open plan carriage. This class is popular with Indian families so have a pack of cards handy and share stories! I met some of the most adorable families that made those long trips fly by.
12go.com A handy ticketing agency for pre booking train tickets on the most popular routes.
Redbus.com Book long distance bus trips. Again, buy local short distance bus tickets on the day.
Maps.me.com Saved my life so many times! Download live maps for each city while you’re in wifi, which can then be used offline when you’re out and about.
When using rickshaws always barter and agree on a price before you hop in!
I came out alive so trust me when I say India is safe to travel alone. As I mentioned earlier I never once felt unsafe and I truly mean that. Certain people made me feel uneasy at times, of course, but I’ve come across these people all over the world.
Have your wits about you! Don’t go out alone late at night when possible and keep your belongings on you tight- a padlock and chain will come in handy.
People will stare and ask you for photos left, right and centre. Remember, some people have never seen a westerner in their life and you may be their only chance! Get used to being treated like a celebrity.
My god will you get hassled, ALOT. Learn to say ‘no, thank you’ and keep on walking, or even ignore them when appropriate, as harsh as this may seem. Confidence will get you a long way.
India has some of the most beautiful, welcoming people. If you ever need help or feel uneasy just ask and they will run to your side to stand up for you, I promise.
Travel with an open mind and open heart, embrace their culture and your experience will be a million times better!
If you need anymore tips on solo travel check out my dedicated blog post ‘Travelling solo for the first time? My TIPS for SOLO TRAVEL newbies’
If you ever get to experience the magic of India, have the time of your life! If you’ve backpacked through India before then please let me know your favourite place below and where I should go on my next trip to India, I’d love to hear!
Thanks for reading,
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