I love travelling solo. (Here are some awesome destinations for solo female travellers.) Though there are certain destinations where I take comfort in travelling with a guide and fellow travellers, especially if it’s my first visit. I undertook my first group tour with other travellers, as part of a hosted G Adventures 21-day Delhi to Kochi by Rail tour. Spending three weeks in India was long enough to make me want to plan a return trip – whether it’s a solo or another group journey, either way, I know I want to return.
How I fell in love in three weeks in India
India is extravagant palaces and hilltop fortresses constructed by the Mughals; opulent British Empire-era hotels; high-rise, million-dollar apartments and slums that necklace railway stations. Here, opportunity and poverty hold hands. It’s a colourful oxymoron.
India is a country where a little goes a long way, where kindness exceeds expectations and smiles are worn like accessories despite circumstances. It is a humbling destination, one that inspired awe and gratitude within me. Despite the poverty and the lack of cleanliness and public services that we so often take for granted. At first, this may be somewhat of a culture shock, especially for less seasoned travellers. I tried to support sustainable initiatives along the way, where I could.
After only spending three weeks in India, she managed to elbow her way among my favourite countries – despite the contrasts, poverty, crowds, smog, dirt. It’s a country that I want to return to again and again. You have to accept India for who and what she is, without cherry picking.
Three weeks in India: A day-by-day itinerary
Below are some of my favourite photographs and suggestions of what to see and do as you make your way from the northern to the southern reaches of the country, or vice versa, along the western coastline. We explored six of the country’s 38 UNESCO World Heritage Sites during our 3 000km-plus journey.
Day 1: New Delhi
After arriving in New Delhi in the late afternoon, I was welcomed with a soundtrack of car horns that signalled the end of the work day. India is characterised by cars giving cows right of way, construction reaching for the sky, lassis being slurped in the sun, the smell of incense and curries, and garland-draped Ganesh statues along the roadside.
Some of my fellow travellers arrived a few days earlier and explored the capital city before the start of the tour. That evening we walked the streets to our first introduction of north Indian cuisine. An early morning wake up call, saw us board the Shatabdi Express train to Agra before sunrise.
Day 2: Agra
A guided tour of Agra Fort took us through the red sandstone and white marble corridors and columns of Mughal architecture. It shares some fascinating tales. The most widely told is probably that Shah Jahan was imprisoned in this palatial fort for eight years by his son. The reason? Well… truth be told I heard many versions, so perhaps you just have to come to Agra to hear them all for yourself and decide which one sounds closest to the truth. From the balcony, we had our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal.
Meanwhile the Baby Taj is often referred to as a jewel box for its intricately detailed architecture and the precious stones that were inlaid into its marble. This mausoleum, on the banks of the Yamuna River, is the final resting place of Queen Nur Jahan’s father.
Day 3: Agra
Whether you’re spending one, two or three weeks in India, Agra find itself on most travel itineraries. That’s because it has become synonymous with the Taj Mahal. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and India’s most famous landmark. It is an icon of Mughal architecture. Emperor Shah Jehan commissioned it in 1631 as the final resting place for his second (and favourite) wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died in childbirth bearing his 14th child. It took around 20 000 artisan 22 years to complete. He too was laid to rest here.
There’s something quite inexplicable about being one of the first people, on a given day, to view the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal while it’s still empty of the hordes. I watched as the sunshine lifted the mist to warm its intricately carved white marble. I walked the 17-hectare complex before it became overcrowded with visitors. That evening we took the Shatabdi Express onwards to Jaipur.
Day 4: Jaipur
Better known as the Pink City, Jaipur is the capital of the north-western state of Rajasthan. Along with New Delhi and Agra it forms the Golden Triangle. The fortified city was declared the country’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Centre in July 2019.
Our G Adventures CEO took us on an orientation walk within the old city centre, through the markets and between the city’s seven Darwazas (entrance gates). Built in the 17th century with its grid-iron street pattern, it is an example of one of the earliest planned cities in modern India. We also gazed up at Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), which was a built in such a way to allow the women of the palace to look out onto the street, but not to be seen.
The afternoon heat brought with it a visit to Amber/Amer Fort, which is reflected in Maota Lake below. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is part of the six Hill Forts of Rajasthan that were built and renovated by various kings between the 5th and 18th centuries.
After nightfall there was the chance to watch a Bollywood film at the spectacular Art Deco Raj Mandir film house.
Day 5: Jaipur
Today was a free day to do whatever we chose. I paid extra to do a sunrise hot air balloon excursion, followed by a tuk tuk expedition to Monkey Temple. After the heat and humidity subsided slightly – it never subsides by much, I walked the streets. I followed boys who were running through the streets with craned heads. Their eyes were tracking the trajectory of kites that swayed like a pendulums through Jaipur’s afternoon. Their exhilarating shouts attracted the stares of children sitting on a carpet with chalkboards resting on their knees. Their teacher continued to speak louder as he pointed their attention to the blackboard.
But it was hard for them to concentrate. Across the street the butcher’s knife struck wooden cutting boards as drool-mouthed dogs practiced obedience. Cows were scrummaging through piles of refuse. Pigs were drinking water from the open drainage channels that border streets. In the distance the call to prayer sounded.
If you have the time and budget to spend more than three weeks in India, then I suggest you extend your stay here.
Day 6: Udaipur
Udaipur captured my heart on arrival and I grew fonder of it with each day. At the end of my three weeks in India, it remained my favourite Indian city. An orientation walk with our CEO took us along the banks of the Lake Palace – one of the city’s five lakes. The old city streets radiate around Jagdish Temple, which pays homage to Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation. He is just one of Hinduism’s 33 million deities I grew acquainted with. When visiting the temple, sneak a look at the black stoned image of this deity within the shrine.
The opulent City Palace claims its role as guardian as it overlooks the city from a hilltop. It is the largest palace in Rajasthan and a step back into the history books for some insights into how India’s wealthiest lived. The balconies look out onto the colourful matchbox houses below – stark contrast to its inordinate grandiosity.
Day 7: Udaipur
I jogged around Udaipur at sunrise in search of graffiti before the air was weighed down with humidity. I watched as the milkman strapped silver canisters of buffalo milk to motorbikes for their daily delivery run, while Poha (flattened rice flakes) sizzled in a wide-mouthed wok over a nearby fire.
Red saris gathered and emptied piles of refuse into wheelbarrows using floor tiles and cow horns. Behind them, the banks of Picholo Lake are lined with heaps of drenched saris and jeans that are being washed. Their vivid colours are reflected in the fruits and vegetables that are laid out facing the street awaiting early morning shoppers.
After breakfast, the day is yours to spend how you wish. There’s also the chance to rent a scooter, motorbike or tuk tuk to explore the lakes that float within the city’s confines. I took a boat to the floating Taj Lake Palace for spectacular views of Udaipur from the water. Then I walked the Saheliyon-ki-Bari Garden, while my fellow travellers did a Rajasthani cooking or art class during their free time.
Sun & Moon Rooftop Restaurant has the best views in Udaipur, which overlook the old city and Lake Picholo. While it also serves Chinese, Continental and Italian cuisine, I always try to eat local. My meal was so delicious that before leaving I ordered a take away dinner for the overnight train ride to our next destination. This is another city where I would recommend extending your stay, if you were to spend more than three weeks in India.
Day 8: Bundi
An early morning jeep adventure took us past Jait Sagar Lake and the lakeside Sukh Mahal where Kipling was said to have penned Kim during his stay. We drove onwards to encounter village life. Here, we walked the streets, as villagers collected water from water pumps, repainted their houses ahead of Diwali and made clay pots.
Bundi is famed for its symmetrical stepwells, also called Boaris. The biggest one in the state, measuring 45 metres deep, was built here in 1699. The stepwells not only provide a source of water, but are often attached to temples, which allows devotees to purify themselves before they worship.
Next we visited the rooms, courtyards and gardens of the dilapidated 14th-century Bundi Palace. Though it was not as beautifully maintained as the other forts and palaces we had visited, it certainly had the most spectacular murals that have survived through time.
The view from Bundi Palace
Day 9: Bundi
On this day, we had free time to relax or explore Bundi at our leisure before an overnight trip on the Mumbai Rajdhani Express train. I walked the streets and explored the marketplaces.
Day 10: Mumbai
We arrived in Mumbai with the sunrise. After freshening up in our hotel rooms, we rented taxis for a full-day tour of India’s biggest city with a population of 20 million people that took us along Marine Drive, also known as Queen’s Necklace, to dip our feet in the Arabian Sea. We visited a Jainist Temple, the Botanical Gardens and the colonial Gateway of India that was built to welcome King George V and Queen Mary on their royal visit in 1911. The Mani Bhavan a two-storied museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi highlighted his links to South Africa.
My highlight, by far, was a visit to Dhobi Ghat. It said to be the world’s largest open-air laundromat. Afterwards we toured a smaller neighbourhood laundromat, where we watched men and women iron and fold bed sheets. This was tailenend by a walk through a low-income neighbourhood.
There was dinner at The Leopold Cafe and Bar, which you might recognise from Shantaram. (I am sincerely not a fan of this poorly written and edited book and have not manged to make it past page 80 on numerous attempts I suggest you read a book by a local author instead, consider The God of Small Things). The restaurant was equally overrated and expensive due to it being a popular culture draw magnet.
Day 11: Goa
While the others slept, I walked to Sassoon Docks at sunrise. There were many children, particularly young girls, crouching on their haunches, backs bent shelling shrimps alongside their mothers, when they should have been making their way to school. This photograph was orchestrated by chance though it looks like a parody of Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam. Symbolic mother and child. One generation tagging the next in the race for work in a country of 1.3 billion.
After arriving in the coastal town of Goa, we relaxed on the beach with a Kingfisher beer in hand, swam in the warm waters, and moseyed around the street-side market stalls that lead into town.
Day 12: Goa
Four of us rented a taxi and visited the city’s many Portuguese-built monuments. We wandered around the churches of Old Goa (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and discover Panjim, the capital of the state. The seafood here is delectable so don’t forget to indulge in Goan cuisine.
Day 13: Goa
Today was another day of leisure that went something along the lines of: swim, sleep on the beach, drink a beer, have some seafood and repeat. Though we did pay extra to take a dolphin sightseeing boat trip.
Day 14: Hampi
We travelled by Visakhapatnam Howrah Express train and then by van to reach Hampi, in the heart of Karnataka state. Hampi is not a city I had heard about in others’ tales of the subcontinent, which is why I was thrilled that we made it here. And by the time we had arrived, I realised that three weeks in India was too short a time in which to experience everything I wanted to.
We climbed the 575 steps to the top of Hanuman Temple (the Hindu monkey god) for sunset. Barefoot. The views were worth every step.
Day 15: Hampi
We spent an entire day exploring the spectacular ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. This ancient 7th-century village is dotted with ruined temples from the Vijayanagara Empire, such as Vittala Temple complex, Virupaksh Temple, and Hazararama Temple. We walked them, peered at them while floating down the Tungabhadra River in a bamboo basket boat, and drove tuk tuks between them. Later that evening, we boarded our overnight Hampi Express train to Mysore.
Day 16: Mysore
We arrived in Mysore shortly after breakfast. Mysore Palace was home to the Maharajas of Mysore, the former royal family, which ruled India from 1399 to 1950. A guided tour took us through its intricate interiors that are in stark contrast to the poverty we often saw in the streets. We returned later that night to see the palace lit up with 15 000 light bulbs – I hope they’re replace them with more energy-efficient ones in the near future. One can hope. Families brought blankets and packed food to sit in the gardens watching the spectacle.
Today we drove to Bylakuppe to explore the Namdroling Monastery, which is home to around 5 000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns. It is famed as being the centre for Buddhist teachings and the Nyingma tradition, which is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. We were awed by the architecture and colours. Then it was onwards to Madikeri.
Day 18: Madikeri
When we finally arrived in Madikeri it felt like a different country.
another world with its luscious tea and coffee plantations. Explore Madikeri (the coffee hub of India) and enjoy a tour of a coffee plantation. Later, enjoy an orientation walk around the town and then enjoy free time to explore in the afternoon. Enjoy a brief walk with your CEO. Head out into the hills to visit one of the many coffee plantations in the region. Learn about the production process and have a sample or two of the locally-grown coffee while taking in the beautiful scenery.
Day 19: Kochi
Today was a travel day, as we drove to the coastal town of Kannur from where we took the Ernakulam Express to Kochi in the afternoon. Read my article The Window Seat: India by Rail written for Traveller24, for more insights into train travel across the country.
Day 20: Kochi
Explore the Fort Kochi area and see the Chinese fishing nets at work. If time permits, visit the Jewish area and synagogue, the Dutch Palace, and Spice Market.
Enjoy your stay in charming Fort Kochi, which evokes an era long gone. Walk through the cobblestone streets, visit delightful tea houses, and have a relaxing drink while sitting by the water. Be sure to check out Vasco de Gama’s tombstone and the famous blue synagogue.
Check out these magnificent Chinese fishing nets, which are an icon of Kochi. They were gifted to the Kochi King by Chinese Emperor Kubalagi in the 14th century as the two empires were trading partners.
This evening we watched a traditional Kathakali performance that is to this region. The best part is that you can arrive early and watch the actors prepare, as they put on their make up and get dressed.
Day 21: Kochi
The morning I was set to leave for the airport, I even managed to fit in a sunrise yoga session. Those three weeks in India passed by quicker than I anticipated, and though I initially wanted to extend my trip and stay longer, work was calling. It was inspiration enough to plan many return trips. Next time I’ll start in Kochi and make my way along the eastern coastline to Calcutta and onwards to Varanasi. India is a country you could travel to multiples times and never tire of it.
India is without a doubt one of most colourful countries I have visited – and not just in terms of its colour palette. The warm-hearted locals have made my experience even more spectacular. So many people are intrigued to know where you come from, what brings you here, when you’ll return and about your experience. Children (especially those that do not attend an English-medium school) are encouraged by their parents to practice their English conversation skills, others follow in your shadow and ask for high fives. All the requests for selfies have made me realise that I would tire very quickly of being a celebrity though.
Is three weeks in India enough?
I think that’s the shortest amount of time for a trip to India if you really want to acquaint yourself with the people, adjust to the heavy heat and humidity.
The best way to get around
If you only have three weeks in India, I suggest that you try to maximise your time as best as possible. Train travel is an affordable way to do so, though flights are even better if you have the budget. India has 120 000 kilometres of railway lines that radiate across the country like the veins of a leaf.
Why I chose G Adventures
While it allowed my parents to sleep at night, I took comfort in that each group hosts no more than 16 people. This allowed us to get to know each other really well. One of the friends I made on this trip has already come to visit me in South Africa.
I hate being rushed, mostly because I am often told that I take far too many photos. So I was really happy that we had own our leisure time to do with what we pleased. This gave us the opportunity to explore each of the 11 cities we visited during those three weeks in India in more depth and to do and see places that appealed to me. It also gave us the opportunity to do it at our own pace and according to our personal interests. These additional activities were at our own cost, as were some of the meals.
And when we were ‘on tour’, our guide handled all the logistics of organising transportation, catching early-morning or overnight trains, getting to our accommodation, tourist attractions and leading the way through crowded stations and markets. We travelled the majority of our 3 000km by rail.
Our guide (also known as a Chief Experience Officer) brought each destination to life as he narrated their history, religious significance, geographic layout and provided cultural context. He also advised us what to explore in our leisure time based on our interests, pointed out some of his favourite restaurants and meals, recommended which cooking or art classes to take, and where to go if we wanted to hire a motorcycle or tuk tuk. Essentially, he gave us insights into India through the eyes of a knowledgeable local.
If you’re planning a three-week trip in India, pin this post for later.
My trip was hosted by G Adventures as part of my work as a freelance journalist and copywriter but all other additional expenses were my own – as always all opinion are my own, but you already know that! ;)