Take in the glitz and glamour of the home of Bollywood, tour the world’s biggest slum (realitytoursandtravel.com) and, if you have time, hire a driver and head two hours to Matheran Hill Station to trek through the dusty red hills, ride horses and stay in a historic colonial mansion.
A former Portuguese colony turned beachside hippy party town, Goa’s the place to head for sun, surf, seafood and, if you’re game, one helluva beach party.
Possibly the most beautiful natural scenery you’ll see in India (think palm trees interspersed with sculpted boulders stacked against the hills), Hampi also has some of India’s most beautiful architecture. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A slice of southern France in the Bay of Bengal, thanks to French colonisation until 1963. Take in the French Quarter on bicycles or stroll along the seafront. Boulevards are lined with chic boutiques and pastel colonial mansions.
Cruising along the palm tree-lined backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat, watching local villages and lush jungle slip by while your on-board chef cooks up a storm, is an essential South Indian experience.
Fly into the nation’s capital and spend 24 hours zooming about in an auto rickshaw, acclimatising to the chaos. A visit to the 17th-century World Heritage-listed Red Fort complex, a drink at the swish Imperial Hotel for a taste of how the British Raj lived (stay from $300 a night, theimperialindia.com), some respite in Lodi Gardens and dinner in hip Hauz Khas village, should all be on the cards.
By Agra we mean the Taj Mahal, because aside from this stunning wonder of the world, Agra isn’t very inspiring. Take a day trip from Delhi (about three hours each way by private car, about $90 return). Try to arrive at sunrise for the best light.
Built around Lake Pichola, India’s most romantic city is all traditional Mughal architecture, gorgeous textiles and delicious North Indian cuisine. Ride a horse into the surrounding desert, tour the 16th-century City Palace and consider splashing out on a stay at the Lake Palace, the floating hotel which was originally a summer palace for kings (rooms from $440 a night, tajhotels.com).
From Udaipur, it’s a five-hour drive to Rajasthan’s bustling Blue City. Its signature powder-blue buildings are scattered about the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, which begs to be toured, as does the Umaid Bhawan palace, where Liz Hurley once got hitched.
Rajasthan’s Golden City rises majestically out of the sands of the Thar Desert; the modern city spills outside the old walls, but inside it’s relatively tranquil. The royal cenotaphs of the erstwhile Maharajas of Jaisalmer are stunning, and a sunset camel trek through the desert just might change your life.
Two days in the holy city of Varanasi are a must for any Indian neophyte, but we wouldn’t suggest staying much longer – its gaggle of ash-covered holy men, bodies burning on the shores of the Ganges and warren of teeny laneways can overwhelm. Take a sunrise stroll along the river to see the morning fire ceremonies, or a wooden boat ride at sunset.
Tucked away in the far north of the country between Kashmir and the Chinese border, the “land of high passes” is where to head for otherworldly Himalayan treks and visits to 15th-century Buddhist monasteries. An overnight trip to Pangong Lake – a 134-kilometre expanse of crystalline blue water – is bucket-list stuff.
The home of yoga and where The Beatles found enlightenment, Rishikesh is a spiritual wonderland full of ashrams, holy men and schools teaching every esoteric art from palm reading to tarot.
Tea is the order of the day at this peaceful Himalayan hill town. Well, that and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples, ponies and the UNESCO heritage-listed toy train that takes visitors chugging through the mountains.