Home to over a billion people, India is a country of contradictions – snake charmers and holy men dressed in loincloths loitering outside internet cafes, and some of the world’s deepest cultural and religious traditions prospering amidst extreme poverty and pollution. Your feelings about India will likely be conflicted as well. One moment you’ll love it, and the next moment you’ll be cursing your train for being 12 hours late. With patience, time, and an open-minded attitude, India will reveal its secrets to you, and the rough moments of travelling solo in India, will all seem worth it.
Start in Delhi, India’s capital and a good place to slowly familiarize yourself with India’s cultures and rhythms. Wander through the streets of Old Delhi, and visit the famous Red Fort. Old Delhi’s twisting alleys and markets are also wonderful for picking up saris, spices, art pieces, and other crafts. If you visit only one museum in India, check out New Delhi’s National Museum, which is packed with historical artifacts from India’s recent and not-so-recent past. New Delhi also boasts some of India’s finest restaurants and nightlight but venturing out as part of a group will definitely be safer.
From Delhi, take a couple of days for a side trip. Visit Rajasthan, with its stunning cities set against a dramatic desert landscape. Highlights include Jaipur (the pink city) and Jodhpur (the blue city). Both cities offer excellent shopping and are exceptionally photogenic due to their monochromatic old quarters. Jaipur is about 5-6 hours from Delhi, depending on whether you take the train or the bus, and Jodhpur is about twice as far. Both cities offer a maze of temples, palaces, and bazars to explore.
Once you’re back in Delhi, you’ll need to decide if you want to branch out into northern India or southern India. If northern India beckons (the best bet for solo female travelers), your next stop is Agra and the nearby Taj Mahal. If instead you’re heading south from Delhi, you can still visit the Taj Mahal as a long day trip from Delhi before departing – it’s about 3 ½ hours one way by train. Not surprisingly, the Taj Mahal is overrun by tourists – Indians and foreigners alike. Your best bet is to visit this spectacular landmark early in the morning to beat the crowds. Agra pales in comparison to other Indian cities, so it’s best to make a quick stop here and continue on to Varanasi via an overnight train.
Hindus consider Varanasi as one of the holiest cities in India, and it is said that if you die here, you will immediately be liberated from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Millions of Indians make a pilgrimage here either to bathe in the sacred Ganges, upon which the city is perched, or to cremate a family member. Touring the old town and wandering through its ghats (steps leading down to the Ganges either for bathing or ceremonial purposes) is intense, picturesque, and not-to-be-missed. It should go without saying, but don’t photograph funerals or cremations, and keep a respectful distance. You can organize boat tours onto the Ganges, and Varanasi’s daily evening ceremonies – complete with music, dance, and all manner of holy men – are amazing.
To reach the true heart of northern India, you’ll need to take the overnight train (or fly) back to Delhi. From Delhi, it’s about 7 hours by train or bus to Rishikesh, first made famous by the Beatles and now considered the yoga capital of India. Rishikesh also sits on the Ganges, and you’ll find a wide variety of yoga courses, meditation retreats, ashrams, and massage classes available to help you wind down from the chaos you’ve likely experienced thus far. Beware – not all yoga and meditation courses are created equal, so do your research before signing up. For more active travelers, Rishikesh is also a fantastic place to organize whitewater rafting trips and treks into the nearby Himalayas.
Another highlight of northern India is Dharamsala and nearby McLeod Ganj, home to the Tibetan government in exile. If you’re lucky, you can catch the Dalai Lama while he’s home, but check ahead, as he travels frequently. These two towns offer a multitude of worthy volunteer opportunities helping the Tibetan refugee community, as well as a glimpse into India’s Buddhist traditions.
If you really want to see the Himalayas in their full glory, head to Ladakh, in the far northwest. Ladakh is accessible by road during the summer months, but you’ll need to fly in the winter as the road closes due to heavy snow. The Buddhist city of Leh is a great base from which to organize further explorations in Ladakh. The region offers outstanding trekking, cultural tours, homestays, and a peek into centuries-old traditions. In general, Ladakh is also one of the safer areas in India for solo female travelers.
If southern India’s beaches and spicy dishes are more your style, head south from Delhi to Goa. Flying is the best choice for this journey, unless you want to spend multiple days on the train. Be careful in Goa – although it has something of a reputation as an international party destination, you’re still in India. Carefully observe what others are wearing before breaking out your bikini at the beach. When you tire of sunbathing, nearby Hampi offers a relatively quiet escape. Time seems to have stopped in Hampi, and you’ll love wandering through 15th century ruins and climbing on the wildly shaped rock formations.
Heading further south, visit Kerala, perhaps India’s most progressive state. Cruise the lazy backwaters between Alleppey and Kollam and if you’ve got a group and rupees to spare, renting a houseboat is the way to travel in style. Visit the ashram of Amma, the famous “Hugging Mother,” and one of India’s few female gurus. Amma’s ashram is in Amritapuri, and as with the Dalai Lama, check her schedule first to make sure that she will be in residence.
If you really want to get away from it all, fly out to the Andaman Islands, featuring pristine beaches, excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities, and dozens of local tribes and cultures.
This is just a sliver of what awaits you in India; a truly dedicated traveler could spend her whole life exploring the subcontinent and still touch only a fraction of it. Whatever portion of India you do visit, you’ll come away enchanted, changed, and glad you undertook the adventure!
India is vast, and travel within the country can eat up huge portions of your time. Internal flights are your best bet for longer legs. Be sure to travel by train at least once during your trip – doing so is a rite of a passage for travelers in India and a tourist attraction in itself. Don’t miss it! For longer journeys, book at least a sleeper car (and a better berth if you can afford it). Bring a padlock and chain to secure your bags overnight, and keep valuables on your person. Tickets can go quickly during holiday seasons so plan accordingly. Train stations in most major cities will have a dedicated tourist desk.
Buses are another option. Book a tourist bus, especially for longer journeys, for both safety and for comfort. Tuk-tuks and rickshaws are a fun way to travel within cities. Set a price with your driver beforehand, or get ready to barter until you’re hoarse once you arrive at your destination.
If you are looking for a recommended guide, interpreter, or private driver for Mumbai, try Servantrip. They connect travellers with local professionals which is ideal if you are travelling alone. They also have guides, interpreters and drivers in New Delhi.
Tours in India
If you are feeling apprehensive about travelling solo, sometimes taking a tour for part or all of your trip can give you the confidence you need before going it alone. I have personally used G Adventures and recommend them as a solo female friendly company.
From the Airport
* Resorthoppa operates a cheap airport shuttle that will take you from various city airports to your hotel. There are too many airports to cover but this to and from the airport guide gives details of transport from each one.
How long do I need?
Three weeks is the minimum you’ll need to see India – and you won’t see very much in this amount of time. Everything in India tends to takes longer than expected, so don’t rush yourself. Two months will give you enough time to explore either the north or the south. If you want to see the whole country, give yourself at least six months.
Travelling onwards (check visas before you travel)
To Nepal – Travel by train to Gorakhpur then take a local bus or travel to Sunauli from Varanasi on a daily bus. Daily buses run from Patna and Kolkata from Raxaul or take the Mithila express train from Kolkata. Another popular crossing is at Jumunaha in Uttar Pradesh.
To Bhutan – A direct bus runs on some evenings from Kolkata to Phuentsholing. You can also take the train from Siliguri via Alipurduar to the border.
To Bangladesh – There are daily buses from Kolkata to Dhaka, then cross the border at Benapol. From Agartala cross to Arkhuara. Trains then take you to Dhaka. From Siliguri in West Bengal take a private bus 2 hours to Jalpaiguri then change at Chengrabandha for the border.
To Pakistan – Crossing into Pakistan is not recommended.
- Can I drink the water? No, buy bottled with sealed tops instead.
- Is tipping expected? Leave a small tip after eating in a restaurant. If you have hired a guide or a driver for multiple days, tip accordingly. Some hotels have “tip boxes” at their front desks, and leaving a tip in such a box is much appreciated but not required. When traveling by tuk-tuk or taxi, if you have agreed on a price with the driver in advance, no tip is necessary. Don’t feel guilty shooing away anyone pestering you for an unearned or undeserved tip – you will probably find yourself doing so frequently!
- Fixed price or barter? Bartering is appropriate and expected at markets and less-expensive hostels and hotels. Expect fixed prices at restaurants and upscale hotels. Often, fixed-price shops will have a sign informing you of the fact that bartering is off-limits.
- Any ATMs? ATMs exist in tourist areas. However, be sure to arrive with at least a little bit of cash, as most transactions require it, and you cannot count on your border-crossing point to have an ATM (even if it is an airport).
- Which side of the road do they drive? On the left-hand side.
- Good for vegetarians? India is a vegetarian’s idea of paradise. Many of the country’s religions mandate vegetarianism, and you will find an abundance of delicious vegetarian dishes everywhere you travel.
- Any seven wonders of the world? Taj Mahal in Agra.
Interested in seeing the highlights of India and Nepal? This Travel Talk Tour 16 day India and Nepal tour covers most of the hotspots.
* This guide was written by fellow solo traveller, Kristin Wieben. This is accurate at time of writing but we appreciate things can change.