All the information you need to prepare a trip to North India and discover the Taj Mahal!
Travel Guide: North India
It has been several years since I wanted to visit this mythical country that seems to leave no one indifferent.
By January 2020, I was ready. I had mentally prepared to find myself in crowded cities where I would witness social inequality, poverty, begging children, questionable sanitation, and I had even accepted the fact that I might be groped on the trains. I had thought about this because I know that India often comes as a shock to travellers and then polarises opinions. I really wanted to like India, because it has so much to offer, much more than its shortcomings.
Let me reassure you right away, at no time was I in danger, nor did anyone try to touch me. When I inadvertently strayed into an area not recommended, the locals immediately advised me to turn back for my safety. In fact, more often than not, people wanted to help me.
They would negotiate for me, show me the way, or wait with me for the bus to make sure I got the right one. Indians are curious people. They will talk to you, greet you, stare at you intensely, take pictures with you and get involved in your life even if you haven’t asked for anything. If you think you’ll be doing your business discreetly, you’re not. Embrace this sharing of culture.
Here is a portrait of my short 3 weeks in this extraordinary country. If you want to go to India, be prepared to make choices as distances are great and transportation is not always fast. Personally, I had to give up Varanasi, Udaipur and Jaisalmer which are very popular with tourists and for which I heard good comments.
The best advice I received for India is simply to take the time to stop and look around. There is so much going on at the same time in this country, that just contemplating life is probably the most beautiful thing you will see.
Free hotel nights in India
New Delhi is huge and gives me the impression it has endless corners to discover.
Hiring a guide for a few hours to visit the city on foot is a must to learn about the city and see details that would have passed us by. Personally, I found a student on the internet who offered her services as a guide in exchange for tips.
It was convenient to navigate through the bazaars and markets of Old Delhi.
New Delhi is home to many religions and therefore many temples are a must in the city.
- Akshardham Temple
Definitely my favourite of all because of its beauty and complexity. Each stone is engraved, carved, so that you don’t have enough eyes to see everything. Cameras and telephones are not allowed. You have to leave everything at the entrance, so the only picture you get is the one they sell at the end of the tour. For the rest, you’ll have to get into the moment.
- Lotus Temple
It dazzles us first by its unique lotus-shaped architecture and then by the serenity it offers. This temple is entirely silent. It’s an almost implausible contrast to the rest of the city, which is bustling with activity. A real little haven of peace.
- Jama Masjid Mosque: the largest mosque in the country.
You can visit the interior, but a part of it is forbidden to women who are not accompanied by a man. Outside, from the top of its steps, you will have a view of the chaotic bazaar that lies at the foot of the mosque.
- Red Fort
Just opposite the Jama Masjid mosque stands the Red Fort. Often described as the city’s main attraction, the site is large and takes a good two hours to visit.
- Iskcon Temple
Temple of the Krishna sect. The building itself is not impressive, but as I passed by, a lady was chanting haunting prayers, believers were praying while changing directions between prayers, and I sat with women who were designing flower garlands. So the experience was worth it for me.
- Ghandi Smriti
This place is the last abode where Ghandi lived and where he died. You can move from room to room and learn about him. Not to be confused with the Ghandi Museum, which is in a different location.
Taj Mahal and surroundings
As one of the 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal was definitely one of the reasons for my trip to India.
As the emblem of India, I had great expectations for this place and they were fulfilled. To me, it is a majestic work of art. It fascinated me, and even after visiting it, I was always looking for another place to see it from a different angle. Choosing a restaurant with a rooftop terrace to watch the sun set over the Taj Mahal is a must.
Agra has other tourist attractions that are worth visiting. I suggest you rent a tuk tuk taxi for the day, it will wait for you during your visits and the price is affordable.
Tips for the Taj Mahal
- Plan your visit, the site is closed on Friday.
- Arrive the day before our visit to be ready early in the morning.
- Buy your ticket online to get an internet discount and avoid the queue at the ticket office.
- To have less people on the pictures, choose the 6am ticket and arrive 45min-60min before. I was the first one with my friend at the door.
- There are 2 doors with ticket booths. I chose the east door because it was closer to my accommodation, but I feel like it’s equivalent either way.
- There are several lines at each door so choose the right line. Men and women are separated, as are Indians and foreigners. Choose the right line. The one for tourists fills up quickly.
- Having a printed version of your ticket makes it easier to get in. The electronic version was difficult to scan.
- Just about every object is forbidden in the Taj Mahal. So if you bring them, you’ll have to make an extra stop at the locker room. Keep it to a minimum: cash, phone, camera. Among the forbidden things are: tripods, headphones, food, phone chargers, all electronics. Visit the official website for more information.
- Once inside, you’ll make your way to the arched doorway that finally gives a view of the Taj Mahal. My advice: Don’t stop there, because it’s not the most beautiful viewpoint, go directly to the Taj Mahal while there is nobody or almost nobody. You will have the chance to come back later to the entrance.
- With the perfect photo taken, take advantage of your moment to observe the details. Everything is beautiful: the doors, the windows, the ceilings and even the view.
- A bottle of water is included with your ticket. If, like me, you ran to be the first one there, the water bottle was not a priority. It’s not too late at the end of the visit to get it back.
During my visit to the Taj Mahal, I found it really important to be able to see the place almost empty as much to enjoy it as to take nice pictures. When we arrived an hour before the opening, we were really all alone. However, I would say that 30 minutes before the entrance time, the organized groups were already starting to line up.
When the doors opened, the validation process was long with our electronic ticket and several people from other lines were able to enter before us. We were desperate, but everyone fell for the idea of stopping at the first sight of the palace. This allowed us to have our perfect picture and have a few seconds alone with the wonder of the world. You don’t have to do it like I did, but I was saying that if you’re going to wait in an endless line you might as well wait before the line forms and enjoy the benefits.
- Agra Red Fort
It is the largest fort in India and is a UNESCO heritage site. In addition, it offers a view of the Taj Mahal.
- Mausoleum of Itimâd-ud-Daulâ:
With such a complex name, it was unsurprisingly renamed by tourists: “Baby Taj Mahal” looks like the wonder of the world without matching its beauty.
Jaipur is known as the pink city because of its downtown area, decorated with this colour.
I found it to be the best place to shop, as the main streets are full of small shops and bazaars. There are also several well-known and lesser-known attractions that are grouped together on a ticket valid for two days, the “composite ticket”, which is purchased directly at the tourist sites. I took the opportunity to visit the Amber Fort, Jantar Mantar, the Palace of the Winds and Isarlat.
In addition to these places, there is also the City Palace which I did not do for lack of time but which, by all accounts, is magnificent. I did, however, take a stroll to the monkey temple.
- Amber Fort
The site is huge and takes a long time to visit. Some rooms are very well preserved and the ramparts are impressive.
- Palace of the winds
Also called Hawa Mahal, this is another emblem of India that marked my imagination. I was really looking forward to visiting this place because of its history and design that allowed women to observe life outside without being seen.
A tower in the centre of the city that offers a beautiful view. It’s not worth paying just for this attraction, but if you do it with the composite ticket, it’s worth it.
- Jantar Mantar
The site is an astronomical observatory, which made it different from the palace and temple tours. Visiting with a guide would be ideal as the explanatory panels are very concise.
- Temple of the Monkeys
I chose to visit this temple because it was on a hill on the edge of the city and offered a beautiful perspective on Jaipur.
If you feel like it, check out a movie at the famous Raj Mandir cinema which is worth seeing. The movies are in hindi only, but it’s funny to see the customs of other nationalities in a cinema. It was an interesting experience and my film was “Street Dancer” so let’s just say we didn’t need the words to understand.
Ranthambhore national park
From Jaipur, I also made a day trip to Ranthambhore National Park. The park is known for offering safaris at much lower prices than in Africa. In fact, several parks do this in India, but this one was more geographically convenient.
However, don’t expect to see the “big 5” like in Africa. If you are lucky, you will see a tiger, otherwise it will be mostly monkeys, impalas, deer and other quadrupeds. However, the landscape is very pretty. There is a safari in the morning and another in the afternoon. If you leave Jaipur in the morning, you will be on the afternoon tour before returning in the evening.
Pushkar is a lovely stop to make if you are driving between Jaipur and Jodhpur. A well-known pilgrimage destination, it has a sacred lake in the heart of the city.
Two hills on either side of Pushkar provide a perfect vantage point to watch the sunrise and sunset. One of them is accessible by cable car. I recommend a 24-hour stopover to discover this small town on foot.
The blue city is also worth a stop. The main attraction is its huge fort, perched on a rocky hill visible from everywhere in Jodhpur.
The various open-air markets were also interesting, as I was able to witness the artisans at work with their ancestral, not to say rudimentary, tools. While walking around, pass by the clock tower, Gulab Sagar Lake and the stepwell.
After two weeks of temples, forts and palaces in hectic cities, I felt like escaping further north to nature.
Knowing me well, I knew that Rishikesh would be my favourite city. A popular destination for yoga retreats, zen atmosphere, starting point for the Himalayas, crossed by the Ganges river, it is my dream destination!
Without going on a yoga retreat, it is possible to attend classes in various types of yoga, meditation, soundhealing, Indian music, etc. Several beauty centres offer body treatments and massages.
For the adventurous, you can go rafting on the Ganges, discover the falls just outside the city (a must in my opinion), or book a short or medium expedition in the mountains.
Lovers of the Beatles will have the chance to visit the ashram they went to. At sunset, attend a traditional ceremony on the banks of the Ganges. Finally, Rishikesh is the perfect place to simply relax and take time to read while sipping a chai tea in one of those cafes along the river.
Personally, I did a 3 days 2 nights expedition in the mountains and I loved it! The postcard views took my breath away. We ate and slept in small villages.
All the equipment was provided so that you wouldn’t be cold. They are prepared to receive unprepared tourists, who decide on a whim to go on an adventure.
The rafting was fun, but not very intense. Let’s just say it was a family-friendly crossing that you won’t fall down on.
This does not mean that you will be free of adventures. In my case, my driver got lost, then we broke down, then when we were leaving with the raft, a passenger forgot to take a paddle while the equipment truck was leaving, and finally a participant got sick from sea sickness.
Tips and Tricks
You can apply for a visa on the government website. Go and see what you need first so that you are ready when you apply. Among other things, you will need a digital photo.
Please note that the date of arrival in India is not necessarily the date of your departure from Montreal, especially if you fly at night. Also, the port of entry into the country will not necessarily be your final destination. For example, I had a flight to New Delhi but with a stopover in Mumbai first. So I entered the country through Mumbai and the same thing on the way back, I left through Mumbai.
When you apply online for the visa, you will receive an acceptance email. This is not your visa! You must return to the government website with your application number and there you will see your visa issued. This is the document with your photo. You must print it out, as you may be asked for it even before you fly to Canada. You may be denied boarding in Montreal.
I did not get asked any questions in Montreal, but rather during my stopover in NY where they stamped my ticket proving that I had an entry visa.
Print all your documents before departure. Especially your airplane tickets and your visa. India is very archaic and often poorly organized, but they put security everywhere. It is therefore impossible to enter the airport without proof of a plane ticket. Same thing to change terminal, we have to show security that our next flight is really in this area.
Gas & Transit
The New Delhi Metro is modern and very efficient. I recommend it for your trips around town. In addition, there is a section reserved for women, which can be reassuring.
Booking a train ticket can be complex as there are several types of trains, in addition to various classes of carriages and several stations in each city. Do it while at your hotel, the staff will be happy to do it for you. Otherwise, at the New Delhi Railway station on the first floor, there is the International tourist bureau which can help you with this. Be aware! People may try to tell you that it no longer exists or that it has moved. Ignore them and go upstairs. There are three main railway stations in Delhi so pay close attention.
When booking a sleeper seat on the train, I suggest the top one if you are alone, as the bottom one also acts as a bench for everyone so you can’t lie down while everyone else is still sitting.
Arrive at the station early as the place is large and you will have to pass through security points. Once there, keep your eyes peeled for the sign indicating the departure platform. It is not uncommon for the departure platform of trains to be changed. Also, don’t expect the trains to be on time. Personally, I was lucky, but delays are a regular occurrence in India.
Uber works in India and you can even order tuk tuks there in some cities. Although most of the tuk tuks I ordered never showed up, it did give me an idea of the average price of a ride to where I wanted to go. I just had to go out and hail one, being in a better position to negotiate. If you can’t check the price of a tuk tuk ride, halve the price you’re offered. Once you have heard the price, stay firm because some people try to increase it.
In taxis or tuk tuks, always ask for a direct route. If not, they will stop you in shops or kiosks that will give them a commission. Usually a simple no is enough.
Can we eat everything in India?
I have often read that to avoid getting sick in India, one should avoid meat. Personally, I followed this advice and did not get sick. I also dared some street stalls like chai tea and lassi.
Can I get a SIM card in India?
Officially, a tourist cannot own a SIM card in India. Unofficially, you can go to a telecom store and they will provide you with one under a different name. You will need to provide them with a copy of your passport, a photo and fill out a form. The cost is 10-12$.
Points and lounges during a trip to India
My plane ticket was bought thanks to a mega deal found on the Priceline website.
Flights from Montreal to New Delhi for only $350 US are not worth wasting your Aeroplan. The points-based repayment strategy of a bank program such as Scotiabank or HSBC is therefore preferable in these cases.
For internal flights, I flew with Air India which allowed me to earn Aeroplan. Same scenario for my return flight which was cancelled by Air India and replaced by Air Canada via London. By the way, if you can avoid Air India for international flights, I suggest it because they are unreliable and the customer service is terrible.
This last lounge is really strict on lounge entries which can be only 4 hours or less before the flight. Otherwise both offered wifi and an acceptable buffet. Special mention to Wingtips for its candy bar!
For the hostels I booked, I went through Rocketmiles to get even more Aeroplan.
Aeroplan earned through flights :
DEL-BOM = 354
JDH-DEL = 74
BOM-LHR = 4 482
LHR-YYZ =4 433
YYZ-YUL = 79