From the cold foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the remote Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the southeast; and from the deserts of the west to the marshlands of the east – and all the plateaus, forests, grasslands, and beaches in between, India is a place for exploring a whole lot of environments – six climatic subtypes to be exact.
This giant country’s coastline stretches north-to-south and south-to-north for over four thousand miles, out of which, on its eastern edge, explodes the Ganges – one of the most famous rivers in the world. India is also home to an unfathomable amount of wildlife, from tigers and panthers to elephants and rhinos. Without further ado, let’s explore this country’s beautiful regions.
The Himalayan North of India is home to the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and the contested northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir. Besides the politics and modern history of this area, there is nothing to stop this being one of the most beautiful regions in the world: a land of green hills, verdant forests, and jagged, sky-piercing mountains.
To see something like the Swiss Alps but on steroids, take a trip to Valley of Flowers National Park in Uttarakhand. The first week in August sees this green valley painted pink with gigantic Himalayan balsam for a glorious sight. Epic vistas also await in Himachal Pradesh, with the alpine forests of Manali and the famous Dharamshala – home to the Dalai Lama.
Punjab & Haryana
South of the Himalayan regions of India are the two states of Punjab and Haryana. While business-minded Haryana almost envelops the country’s capital of Delhi, Punjab – coming from Persian and meaning ‘five rivers’ – is a different story. This western state encompasses a major cultural region of India, as well as rich history; there are plenty of abandoned forts to explore in the sprawling countryside.
Known for its Sikh population, Punjab is populated by a number of Sikh temples (gurdwara). It’s in this state that you will find the city of Amritsar – or more specifically, its most famous landmark: the Golden Temple. Also known as the Harmandir Sahib, this temple was built in 1577 and is the foremost pilgrimage site for Sikhs.
The vast western state of Rajasthan is the largest in India, and one its driest places. This region is characterized by desert and majestic fort towns like Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, known as the pink city and blue city respectively.
Most notable is the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer, where camel rides and stone ruins exhibit the Mughal history of the region. The Aravalli Range ends up in Rajasthan, at the southwestern-most edge of which is Mount Abu – one of the coldest areas in the state and home to forests, waterfalls, and lakes.
Also situated in Rajasthan is the famed Ranthambore National Park, a large conservation area known for its population of Bengal tigers.
South of Rajasthan is Gujarat, India’s westernmost state and one of the most diverse regions of the country. A portion of the Thar Desert can be found in Gujarat, part of which is made up of the Rann of Kutch – wide salt flats that are also known as the White Desert.
The Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch is an intriguing place; at low tide, the sea rolls back for miles to reveal rocks, sea slugs, and a variety of birdlife. Dry grasslands can be seen at Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar.
Part of the enormous mountain range known as the Western Ghats is located in Gujarat. There’s also Mount Girnar, the state’s highest peak, home to some of the most ancient Jain temples and holy sites in the country.
Located for the most part on the Deccan plateau, the large state of Maharashtra makes up most of west-central India and is the location for one of the nation’s largest and most famous cities – Mumbai. This is the richest city in India, complete with the nation’s largest population of millionaires and billionaires; it’s also home to the largest slums in the country.
Taking up part of the western shore of the country, the 700-kilometer-long Konkan Coast is lined by miles of pristine, untouristed beaches; for example, the relatively isolated Kashid Beach.
Inland, the Amboli Nature Reserve is a hill station where you can be among the clouds and lush treetops, with waterfalls and stunning sunsets to soak up. In the district of Aurangabad are the famous Ellora and Ajunta Caves, a stunning collection of ancient Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monuments set among one of the largest temple-cave sites in the world.
Known the world over for its coastline, the former Portuguese colony of Goa is all about palm-lined beaches. One of the best beaches here is the clean and little known Galgibaga in South Goa; this beautiful spot is where turtles are known to nest. There are more famous beaches though, like Palolem and its beachside eateries; the laid-back atmosphere of Mandrem; or the more hippie-flavoured vibes of Anjuna.
This is a fascinating slice of India, only handed back to the country when the Portuguese governor-general signed a surrender after the Indian army annexed Goa in 1961. Today there is evidence everywhere of the Portuguese legacy, from crumbling fortresses, churches still in use (25% of Goans are Christian), and even in the cuisine.
The capital of India, Delhi is surrounded by the National Capital Region, with districts taken from neighboring Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan making up its area. This frantic, frenetic city is the second-most populous in India and has been lived in – continuously – for over 2,500 years. Naturally, sights abound, from the 20th-century Lotus Temple (HQ of the Bahai Faith) to the colonial shopping district of Connaught Place.
Though this region is marked by increasing urbanisation, there’s still a lot of natural beauty to be found here. Part of the city-meets-nature feeling of the area can be found at Okhla Bird Sanctuary; though it’s a place to spot rare birds in their natural habitat, it’s served by its own metro station on Delhi metro’s magenta line.
East of Rajasthan and bordering Nepal to the north, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state. It’s a cultural home for Hinduism, with Krishna’s birthplace traditionally pinpointed to a location in this state, whilst Buddhism also has a claim to fame; it’s in this state that Guatama Buddha gave his last ever sermon.
It’s also here where the rivers of the Yamuna and Sarswati meet to make the mighty Ganges even more mighty. And it’s along the banks of the Ganges that you’ll find one of India’s most iconally ‘Indian’ places: Varanasi. One of the holiest spots on the river, this is where people come to bathe, wash their clothes, and be cremated.
This is also the state where you’ll find the city of Agra, home to the iconic Taj Mahal, and state capital Lucknow, which abounds with beautiful buildings documenting its history as a Mughal stronghold, Nawab capital and a key city in British India.
Bihar is located to the east of Uttar Pradesh and for the most part, is a subtropical region known for its vast, fertile plains. The only national park in the area is the globally renowned Valmiki National Park. Situated close to the border with Nepal, here you may be able to spot Bengal tigers, Indian elephants, and Indian rhinos amid its lakes and forests.
There’s also the marshy Kanwar Lake Bird Sanctuary, where you can catch a glimpse of exotic avian life – including the Siberian crane – at Asia’s largest oxbow lake. Other natural wonders lie in places like Bodh Gaya, a holy site known for the Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha allegedly attained enlightenment.
This central Indian state bears the remnants of various eras of Indian history, from the Maruyan Empire to the Rashtrakuta dynasty, and much more, leading to its nickname ‘The Heart of India.’ It also happens to be rich in natural wonders, many of which are often neglected by tourists.
Bandhavgarh National Park is a beautiful natural environment, marked by jungle, hilly terrain, and Bengal tigers. Pench National Park, located in the Plains of India, is where you can spot monkeys, deer, and other wild animals very easily; it’s home to the forest that inspired The Jungle Book, after all. There are even 30,000-year-old cave paintings at Bhimbetka.
Eastern India is a varied region of the country. From the high-altitude tea-growing area of Darjeeling to the hot and humid coastal state of Odisha. West Bengal is the home of Kolkata; formerly Calcutta, this city – India’s 7th-largest – is home to grand colonial architecture, arts and culture festivals and was the centre of the so-called Bengal Renaissance in the early 20th century.
Get into the forests and wetlands of the utterly sprawling Ganges Delta at Sundarbans National Park, where over 400 Bengal tigers roam. Heading up to the foothills of Darjeeling, Tiger Hill offers breathtaking panoramic views; if you’re lucky, on a clear day, you may catch sight of Mt Everest in the distance.
Darjeeling itself began life as something of combination health spa and military outpost in the British Colonial days. Fast-forward to modern times and this area has some of the last steam locomotives still in use in India (e.g. the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) as well as some of the best British-style public schools in India.
Far-flung Northeast India provides incredible landscapes – from soaring mountains to deep river gorges. This region is landlocked and bordered by China, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, almost cut-off from the rest of the country.
The state of Arunachal Pradesh is a snowy, mountainous area, while Nagaland is a semi-autonomous region blooming with beautiful floral valleys – like Dzukou Valley, known for its seasonal lilies. Elsewhere in Meghalaya, the Nohkalikai Waterfall is the tallest single-drop waterfall in India, and Mizoram features its own famous Vantawng Falls. Sikkim’s Yumthang Pasture is a meadowed wonderland, and Assam boasts the world’s largest river-island – Majuli Island. Northeast India has a lot to show off.
South of Maharashtra and Goa and north of Kerala, Karnataka is known for its firm place in history; it was a stronghold for ancient and medieval Indian civilisations for around 12 centuries. Today the city of Mysore (or Mysuru) boasts a number of historical buildings, such as the Mysore Palace and the soaring St Philomena’s Cathedral, and is known as a cultural capital of the state.
On the other hand, Bangalore (or Bengaluru) is the actual capital of Karnataka and is a forward-facing urban centre. Replete with Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and Hindu places of worship, this is a multicultural city with skyscrapers and tech companies galore, pushing the way forward for India’s future.
Outside of the cities, Karnataka’s jungles are wild: as well as tigers and monkeys, these are home to the largest population of elephants in all of Asia.
Making up part of what is geographically east-central India, Andhra Pradesh – on the east coast – and inland Telangana were once one entity, until 2014 when Telangana became India’s newest, and 29th, state.
There’s a lot of nature to soak up here. In Andhra Pradesh, situated high in the Eastern Ghats is the Araku Valley. It’s a lush, paradise-like land, with streams, waterfalls, coffee plantations, and different tribal cultures to discover. Nearby is Ananthagiri, a cooling hill station with amazing views.
In Telangana on the Deccan Plateau, there are various parks within easy reach of its capital Hyderabad – like Jawahar Deer Park – while in the north, there is Adilabad, famed for its many waterfalls.
Like practically all of India, Kerala is culturally different from a lot of the country, complete with its own language and script – Malayalam.
It’s also one of the most relaxing places you could visit in the country. Alleppy, at the foot of the Western Ghats, is where you will find the backwaters; canals and rivers where you can stay on ornate boats and drift along on cruises.
Higher in altitude, Munnar is a hill station in the district of Idukki where you’ll find tea plantations. Close to Munnar is also the location of Eravikulam National Park, the state’s first national park, where you can see the endangered Nilgiri Tahr.
The eastern neighbor of Kerala, Tamil Nadu is a distinct entity, a direct descendant of three great empires – Chola, Chera, and Pandya – with influences from the colonial empires of Britain and France, which ruled parts of this state, thrown in for good measure.
Madras (or Chennai as it is known today) is the state capital and is a city pulsing with life; it’s here that you’ll find colonial relics and the heart of the Tamil film industry. Elsewhere Madurai is known as the ‘Athens of the East’ thanks to ancient historic sights like the colourful 6th-century Meenakshi Temple and Koodal Azhagar Temple, as well as the beautifully ornate 17th-century Thirumalai Nayak Palace.
Chettinad mansions and old French bakeries in Pondicherry seal the deal for Tamil Nadu’s cultural credentials. And that’s not to mention the awesome wildlife and jungles of the Western Ghats.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands
Made up of around 300 islands located in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are ringed by coral reefs and inhabited by indigenous communities. They’re closer to Thailand and Myanmar than the Indian mainland.
One of the islands is home to the Sentinelese, an uncontacted people whose technology incredibly remains in the paleolithic era.
Just 38 of the hundreds of islands are permanently inhabited. When it comes to nature, expect tropical rainforests with over two thousand varieties of plants, dense mangrove forest and – of course – palm-tree fringed beaches.