Authored by Swapnil Talekar
India is well known for its diversity, and the same is true when it comes to its cities. Each has its own distinct culture, way of life, festivities and even heritage, and each one is completely different from the other.
India has 4,000 cities across the country, so there’s plenty to choose from if you’re after an urban experience. But being that you won’t have time to visit every single one, we’ve shortlisted the most unique for you.
If you’re visiting India for its unique and bustling cities, make sure you check out some of the following. These must visit cities are all cultural treasures!
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Unique Cities You Should Visit in India
Kolkata – A City Stuck in Time
Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is a city that dates back 350 years, and has some of the most well preserved heritage and culture. Though it has also evolved into a city loved for its love of intellect and art – poets, writers, and filmmakers are at home here.
Kolkata was the capital of British India from 1772 – 1911, and today it will make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time, while walking in the old alleys, gazing through the heritage buildings, and riding in the much loved yellow taxi.
There are many grand British colonial buildings to admire here, and an interesting fusion of European and Indian influences which has formed a unique identity, a city full of contrasts and contradictions.
When in Kolkata you must try Bengali delicacies – especially the delicious fish curry and mouth-watering sweets like Sandesh. You can indulge in cafe hopping by visiting the very old cafes in the city like the very popular Flury’s.
If you time your visit to be in Kolkata during the massive celebrations of Durga Puja you’re in for a treat – this annual Hindu festival is known for its grandeur and showcase of faith, an experience you shouldn’t miss.
Mumbai – City of Dreams
Mumbai is known as the city of dreams throughout India, as it’s the city that everyone aspires to visit and live in. It is both the city of dreams, and the city that never sleeps – no matter what hour it is, you’ll find the city alive with energy.
Mumbai is India’s second largest city with roughly 20 million people. The city is cosmopolitan and fast-paced, yet there are areas where you can easily escape the city to breathe in a bit of nature.
It was ruled by both the Portuguese and the British, both of whom left lasting impressions. And while there is much history to explore, the city also offers India’s Bollywood film industry, iconic landmarks, fascinating islands, and one of the most visited national parks in the world.
When in Mumbai, you must visit Film City and see the Bollywood studios in real-time – this is where India’s iconic movies are shot, and you may even get to visit actors and directors backstage. If you’re really lucky you could possibly get the chance to become an extra in a film.
To fully experience Mumbai, eat street food at the popular Chowpatty on Juhu Beach, spend a sleepless night at the beautiful Marine Drive, catch the sunset at Bandstand, and shop at Colaba.
If interested in visiting iconic buildings to understand the history of the city better, The Gateway of India, the Taj Hotel and Public Libraries should all be on your list.
Image credit: Chetan Bisariya (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Jaipur – The Pink City
In the State of Rajasthan, Jaipur is known as the Pink City of India – a city filled with beautiful monuments and known for its tradition, food, and culture.
The city is known for its street food, from the Samosa Chaat to Ghewar and the traditional dish of Dal Baati Churma, though also for its rich heritage and culture – most notably, Jaipur is house to some of the most majestic palaces in India.
When in Jaipur, visit the iconic Hawa Mahal, named because it was a high screen wall built so that the women of the royal family could observe street festivals while unseen from the outside. It is Jaipur’s most distinctive landmark; a stunning pink-painted honeycombed hive, constructed in 1799, that rises a dizzying five stories.
Also stop in at the beautiful Birla Mandir and the mesmerizing City Palace. The city is also a shoppers’ delight and you can buy various local handicrafts – the Rajasthani Attire, silver jewellery, small wooden artifacts, and traditional footwear among many other things.
Jaipur is also known for the many Festivals and Fairs that are annually hosted in the city like the Jaipur Literature Festival, Kite Festival, and Elephant Fair, etc. and this is a great time to visit and experience the city at its festive best.
Pondicherry – French Capital of India
Located among seaside resorts in the south, close to the State of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry has been described as a corner of India forever in France, for traces of French culture are prominent throughout the city.
Here you’ll find colourful alleys, french cafes and heritage hotels. There are European mansions, bougainvillaea laden walls, chic boutiques, and some people still speak French (it was under French rule until 1954, so fairly recent in history).
One beautiful thing about Pondicherry is that it slows time down for you – the place has such a calm vibe to it, that it is the perfect place for those looking for some quiet time or introspection.
You can take a long walk on the beach, or explore the beauty of the town on a bicycle as you cycle the cobblestone streets (the French call them boulevards and rues). There is very much a fairytale charm to Pondicherry.
From solace in empty lanes to socializing at cafes and bars, Pondicherry will leave you with a different experience to the normally chaotic and hectic cities India is more well known for.
Varanasi – City of Temples
For those seeking a religious and spiritual awakening experience, Varanasi is the place to be – it is a devoted religious city on the on the banks of the river Ganges (the holiest river in India), and Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BCE.
The traces of settlements in Varanasi can be traced back centuries. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and is considered to be one of the holiest in the Hindu religion – millions of pilgrims come to the sacred waters of the Ganges.
Because of the shrines, temples, and palaces that line the river banks, Varanasi has become known as the city of temples. As a traveler you can watch as intimate rituals take place on the river – Hindus come here for religious bathing, and to be cremated on the river banks.
One of the most majestic rituals to take in is the evening Aarti. This is an evening ceremony which uses fire as an offering, in a spiritual ritual to pay tribute to the Goddess Ganga – the Hindu Goddess of the river Ganges. Devotees gather to offer their prayers, and the unanimous chantings is electric.
Delhi – The Capital City
India’s Capital City, Delhi is known for its diversity – a melting pot where you will find people living from different parts of the country, making it a hub of culture, life, and a vibrant mix of humanity.
This is truly a city where you can find everything – architecture, shopping, food, modern culture, and history (there are at least eight historical versions of the city, and many ancient monuments that date across multiple eras).
For those into architecture, you can explore the many monuments in the city like the Red Fort, India Gate, and Lotus Temple. And there are shopping opportunities and street food joints everywhere.
Shop at Sarojini Nagar and Janpath for a street shopping haul and eat at the iconic stalls in Chandni Chowk. Old Delhi is where you’ll find the city’s famously frenetic street bazaars.
Delhi is unique in that it allows you to experience a transition from old to new; modern elements of the city like cafes, restaurants, bookstores and art galleries, sit next to history and heritage, and are still alive, regardless of era.
Udaipur – City of Lakes
If you want to see what life looks like in a small city in India with a spoon full of culture, Udaipur is the place to be. The city offers the slow life, and known for its lakes and palaces, has been called ‘the most romantic spot on the continent of India’.
Formerly the capital of the Mewar Kingdom, Udaipur is set around a series of shimmering lakes and known for its lavish royal residences. Set against a backdrop of craggy green hills, the city is also a sight for those who love nature.
With bustling bazaars and tempting food, you can also shop for some great handicrafts at the local market, and it’s a special experience to wear local dresses and clothes around the ghats.
Old-world charm and hospitality make Udaipur one of India’s top destinations for the discerning traveller. The city is “far from unspoilt or undiscovered, though remains a richly rewarding place to visit”.
To delve into the culture of Udaipur, you must see the light and sound show, and take a boat ride in the Fateh Sagar Lake with many old buildings in sight. The City Palace & Museum is also a must visit.
Image: miquitos (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
3 States to Escape City Life
Once you’ve had your fill of city life, there are plenty of regions across India to escape. Rightly called ‘God’s own country’, Kerala is known for its majestic beauty and picturesque sights. Here you can gain insight into rural life, tour spice and tea plantations, and seek out Ayurvedic Therapies.
Goa is everyone’s favorite holiday destination in India, known for its many beaches. The north side of Goa is popular for its late-night parties, and South Side for those looking for a quiet walk on the beach. Goa has many things to do beyond the beach though, including hiking trails, art galleries, the beautiful backwaters.
Himachal Pradesh is the place to go if you want to experience the majesty of the Himalayas. The state is rightly called the Land of the Gods for its beauty, and the mountains have their own way of making you feel at peace. Seek out secret locations and villages here, as every village has its own intriguing culture.