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A Guide to the Best Cities in India

David Pettitt

India is known for its cities – vast pulsating urban centres of temples and mosques, markets and bazaars, exceptional museums, grand monuments and sites of astonishing antiquity. From the regal fortified cities of Rajasthan and the revered pilgrimage centres of Varanasi, Amritsar and Madurai to the world-famous colonial capitals of the British Raj and those that are less well known, below is a guide to 21 of India’s very best cities.

1. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

India’s holiest city, Varanasi has been a centre of learning and pilgrimage for over 2000 years. Set on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi has changed little over the centuries and the old town is an atmospheric maze of narrow alleyways, colourful temples, ascetic holy men and crowded waterfront ghats. Although principally associated with Hinduism, Varanasi is also considered holy by Jains, was visited by the Buddha in 500 BC and has a strong Muslim influence. Follow pilgrims to the Ganges to attend an evening Aarti ceremony, visit the Durga Temple and learn about Indian Buddhism at Sarnath.

Colourful ghats in Varanasi, India

2. Jodhpur, Rajasthan

The ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur is located on the edge of the great Thar Desert and dominated by the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort. Over the centuries Jodhpur and its rulers were to grow incredibly wealthy through the trade of opium, copper, silk, sandalwood, dates and coffee with Jodhpur becoming one of the most influential and powerful cities in India. Explore the fortified ramparts, large gateways, palaces, temples and royal apartments of Mehrangarh Fort, visit the Clock Tower and Sadar Bazaar Market and experience the crowded lanes and small shops of the old city that sell everything from handcrafts to local textiles.

Mehrangarh Fort towering above the old city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan

3. Mumbai, Maharashtra

Modern and cosmopolitan, Mumbai is arguably India’s most important city and a global economic, artistic and culinary centre. Presented to King Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry when he married Princess Catherine de Braganza of Portugal, in the late 19th century it was the British who dismantled the old fort walls of the city, began sea reclamation and laid the foundations of today's modern city. Highlights include the Gateway of India, which was constructed to celebrate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, the UNESCO protected Gothic and Victorian architecture of Colaba and the colourful Dhobi ghats.

White marble facade of the Gateway of India in Mumbai

4. Ahmedabad, Gujarat

A city of two distinct halves, Ahmedabad lines the banks of the Sabarmati River and consists of a bustling old town and a new post-independent city famed for its contemporary architecture including designs by renowned Indian architect Charles Correa. The Calico Museum of Textiles houses an unrivalled collection of silks, brocades, carpets, embroideries, beadwork and religious paintings whilst the fascinating Sabarmati Ashram, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1917 was the starting point of 385km Salt March to Dandi in 1930. Outside of the city is the 15th century Adalaj step well and 11th century Surya ‘Sun’ Temple at Modhera.

Intricate stone carvings of the Adalaj Step Well close to Ahmedabad

5. Madurai, Tamil Nadu

An ancient city, Madurai is located on the banks of the Vaigai River and has been southern India’s most important centre of learning and pilgrimage for over 2000 years. Famous for its poets and writers, Madurai subsequently grew under the guidance of the Vijayanagar kings and it was through their patronage that the unique architectural heritage of the town developed and grew. Instantly recognisable, Madurai is dominated by the impressive 400 year old Shree Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple with the nine intricately carved and colourful gopurams towering over the old city streets below.

Colourful carved towers of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai

6. Kolkata, West Bengal

Kolkata is a city of intellectuals and, over the years, has inspired numerous writers, artists, thinkers and academics. Developed by the East India Company at the end of the 1600s, Kolkata grew into one of Asia’s foremost commercial centres and served as the capital of the British Raj until 1911. The historic heart of the city overflows with historical landmarks including the Indian Museum, which is the largest in the country, St. John’s Church housing a memorial to the city founder Job Charnock, the silver-domed General Post Office and imposing white marble Victoria Memorial which was completed in 1921.

Grand domed marble facade of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata

7. Mysore, Karnataka

This charming city was the seat of the Maharajas of Mysore until Indian independence and retains a regal heritage. The monumental City Palace, with its Indo-Saracenic architecture and opulent interior, remains a key focal point in the city but Mysore is also known for its vegetable and flower markets, food and drink including ‘Mysore Pak’, its famous sweet. Ascend Chamundi Hill to visit the colourful Chamundeswari Temple and Nandi Bull then travel outside the city to Srirangapatnam – where Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington defeated Tipu Sultan in battle – and the beautiful ancient temples at Somnathpur.

Ornate frontage of the colourful City Palace in Mysore

8. Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Agra is synonymous with the Taj Mahal but this important city is blessed with a number of extraordinary historic sites. Capital of the Mughal Empire, successive rulers embellished the city and Agra quickly grew into a leading centre for the arts, commerce, education and religion. The Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz, is an undoubted highlight of any visit to Agra, however, the 450 year old Agra Fort and Itmad-ud-Daula – also known as the ‘Baby Taj’ – are equally as impressive. A little way to the north of Agra at Sikandra is the grand sandstone tomb of the Emperor Akbar.

Looking towards a misty Taj Mahal at dawn

9. Udaipur, Rajasthan

Considered the most beautiful city in India, Udaipur is set in the Aravalli Hills of southern Rajasthan. Over the centuries Udaipur maintained a fierce independence from both neighbouring princely states and the British resulting in a way of life and cultural traditions that have changed little over the centuries. The impressive City Palace complex is still home to the Maharaja of Udaipur and houses an extraordinary collection of temples, royal apartments and precious objects, a number of historic havelis dot the old town and the Lake Palace, floating perfectly in the centre of Lake Pichola, is the iconic image of princely India.

Afternoon sun hitting the honey coloured stone of the City Palace in Udaipur

10. Hyderabad, Telangana

Unique in being a major Islamic centre and southernmost Mughal city in India, Hyderabad was ruled by a succession of Muslim Nizams until independence in 1947. Exceptionally rich, the city benefitted from this wealth and there are a number of impressive monuments to see including the Chowmahalla Palace, Char Minar and Golconda Fort. Hyderabad is also known as a centre for pearls, fabrics and semi-precious stones that can be found in one of the many traditional markets including Lad Bazaar. For those interested in textiles, a visit can be made to Pochampally which is known for its traditionally produced sarees.

Classic domed Islamic architecture of the Qutb Shahi Tombs in Hyderabad

11. Aurangabad, Maharashtra

Founded in 1610 and named in honour of the last great Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Aurangabad is an attractive town and best known as a base from which to visit the remarkable cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. The predominately Buddhist rock-cut caves at Ajanta are renowned for their frescoes and have been compared to those at Assisi, Sienna and Florence whilst the carvings at Ellora date, at their earliest, to 600 AD. In Aurangabad itself, highlights include the Jama Masjid and the 17th century Kali Masjid mosques as well as the Bibi-Ka-Maqbara mausoleum that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Taj Mahal.

Ancient rock-carved Ellora Caves located close to Aurangabad

12. Delhi, Union Territory

Delhi is the modern day capital of India. Although a city of great historical importance, Delhi only became the country’s capital in the 1930s but it has always been an important economic and political centre. More than any other Indian city, Delhi has two very distinct characters. Old Delhi, a crowded medieval district of mosques and forts, crumbling monuments and bustling bazaars, has changed little over the centuries whilst New Delhi, the purpose-built British colonial capital, could not be more different with wide tree-lined avenues, well-tended parks, pretty bungalows and the official residence of the President of India.

View towards the grand Tomb of Safdarjung in Delhi

13. Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

Still retaining the atmosphere of an English country town, Shimla served as the summer capital of the Raj from 1864 to 1947. Home to Victorian bungalows and pretty gardens, a town hall, theatre and the famous Christ Church, Shimla is an ever popular destination and a day’s journey from Delhi. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas there are a number of enjoyable walks in and around the town, all with excellent views. Rail enthusiasts can board the nostalgic ‘toy train’ which opened in 1903 and traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in the country as it ascends over 1500 metres from the plains to the town.

View of the old British Raj homes and Christ Church in Shimla

14. Amritsar, Punjab

Amritsar is the centre of the Sikh religion and best known for the spectacular Golden Temple complex. Explore the narrow lanes of the 400 year old city where crafts and trades are still being practised, unchanged, for centuries and experience the atmospheric evening Palki Ceremony at the Golden Temple – a nightly rite where pilgrims and worshippers participate in the veneration of the Guru Granth Sahib holy book. For drama and pageantry, travel to the Wagah Border to experience the cacophony of the daily border closing ceremony that has acted as a barometer for Indo-Pakistan relations since partition.

View over water to the spectacular Golden Temple in Amritsar

15. Jaipur, Rajasthan

With its palaces and havelis, grand forts and affluent bazaars, the planned ‘pink city’ of Jaipur is one of India’s most beautiful. Founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727, Jaipur was designed according to mathematic, scientific and astrological principles that were linked to Hindu representations of the universe. Drive to the hills outside of Jaipur to the monumental Rajput capital of Amber Fort then head to nearby Nahargarh Fort for views of the city. The heart of Jaipur is focused on the superb City Palace complex and the elaborate façade of the instantly recognisable Hawa Mahal.

Panoramic view of Amber Fort located close to the city of Jaipur

16. Kochi, Kerala

Established by Vasco da Gama in 1502, influenced by the Dutch and ruled by the British, evidence of Kochi’s rich heritage can be found throughout the city. Over the centuries Kochi developed into the most important port on the Malabar Coast and grew wealthy in the trade of spices and tea. With its warren of pretty lanes, bougainvillea festooned homes, the oldest European church in India and a 450 year old synagogue, there is plenty to see and do. Kochi is also a morning’s drive from the Keralan backwaters and the small town of Chendamangalam with its Portuguese seminary and Syrian Catholic Church that dates to 1201 AD.

Picturesque seafront and Chinese fishing nets in Kochi

17. Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow is a city rich in Indian culture and British colonial history. Indelibly linked to both the 1857 uprising and Indian independence, visit the ruins of the Residency where the siege and consequent clashes occurred and Christchurch which was built to commemorate the events that took place. Lucknow is also known for its monumental architectural masterpieces including the Bara Imambara mosque and domed Hussainabad Imambara. The city still also retains a strong link with traditional arts and crafts and is acclaimed as a centre for zari work, chikan embroidery and attar perfume.

Historic Victorian buildings and High Cross of the Sir Henry Lawrence Memorial in Lucknow

18. Chennai, Tamil Nadu

Settled by a quirk of fate, Chennai, for all intents and purposes, was established by British traders in the early 1600s. Successful commercial operations led to the development of a more permanent settlement and soon the original plot of land was developed into Fort St George, a reinforced East India Company trading outpost complete with church and European residences. Highlights include St Mary’s Church, the first English church in India, an excellent city museum, the homes of Clive and Wellesley, the Basilica of San Thome and the Kapaleeswarar Temple, a 16th century Siva temple with a towering 40m gopuram.

Gothic architecture of Chennai Station in Tamil Nadu

19. Bangalore, Karnataka

One of India’s most progressive cities, Bangalore is a thriving modern global commercial centre. However, few realise it is also a city with a proud heritage that was founded in 1537 and expanded by the British into a spacious garrison town of impressive avenues and beautiful parks, churches, museums and comfortable bungalows. Highlights include Tipu Sultan’s ornate two-storey Summer Palace, 16th century grey granite Nandi Bull and the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens that possess one of the largest collections of rare tropical plants in India with over 1,800 species of tropical, subtropical and medicinal plants.

Beautiful Victorian glass house at the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens in Bangalore

20. Bhubaneshwar, Odisha

Situated on the edge of the lush green paddy fields of the Mahanadi Delta, Bhubaneswar provides a unique mix of both the ancient and modern. Although a planned city established only in 1948, Bhubaneshwar sits in a region of great antiquity and is known as India’s ‘Temple City’ due to its proximity to the spectacular religious complexes at Puri and Konark. Puri is the location of the 12th century Jaganath Temple, a major Hindu pilgrimage site, whilst Konark is home to one of Hindu India’s foremost architectural treasures, the UNESCO protected Sun Temple that was built by King Langula Narasimha Deva during the 13th century.

View of the ancient stone-carved Sun Temple in Konark

21. Hampi, Karnataka

In modern day India Hampi is largely uninhabited, however, until the medieval period it was not only India’s grandest city but also one of the largest and most prosperous urban centres in the world. Capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire, the arrival of Muslim armies from the north of India led to its destruction, decline and eventual abandonment. Today this vast site, and the impressive group of monuments that remain, form part of a significant, and still remarkably impressive, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlights include the Vitthala Temple, Elephant Stables and beautifully proportioned Lotus Mahal.

Stone Chariot and Vittala Temple in the ancient Indian city of Hampi

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