India is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, this was one of the most amazing countries we have ever visited. On the other, it was also one of the hardest. The history is incredible. The food is amazing. The poverty is overwhelming, really overwhelming. There are colors, there are noises, there is hustle and bustle. All of our senses were amazed, horrified, and overwhelmed, all at the same time.
Our basic itinerary looked like this:
- Day 0: Overnight in Munich
- Day 1: Arrival at Delhi hotel at 2:30 A.M. Full day sightseeing in Delhi.
- Day 2: 5.5 hour drive to Mandawa. Sightseeing in Mandawa.
- Day 3: 3.5 hour drive to Bikaner. Sightseeing in Bikaner.
- Day 4: 7 hour drive to Khuri. Sunset camel safari and show.
- Day 5: 1 hour drive to Jaisalmer. Sightseeing in Jaisalmer.
- Day 6: 4.5 hour drive to Jodhpur. Sightseeing in Jodhpur.
- Day 7: 4.5 hour drive to Udaipur. Sightseeing along the way. On arrival, hire someone to get laundry done.
- Day 8: Sightseeing in Udaipur. Pick up laundry.
- Day 9: 5 hour drive to Pushkar. Sightseeing in Pushkar.
- Day 10: 2.5 hour drive to Jaipur. Sightseeing in Jaipur.
- Day 11: Sightseeing in Jaipur.
- Day 12: 4 hour drive to Agra. Sightseeing along the way.
- Day 13: Taj Mahal and other sightseeing in Agra. 4 hour drive to Delhi.
- Day 14: Fly home.
The main takeaways is that this itinerary are:
- Be prepared for a fast-paced, high-intensity, sensory-overwhelming vacation. The only sitting you will have much time for is in the car.
- It is very driving intensive. If you do not enjoy being in the car for vast amounts of time, this is not a good itinerary for you. In retrospect, having a couple more days for this itinerary, or cutting out a city or two, could have been helpful to build in down time.
- We were disappointed in Agra when fog moved in and we had non-existent visibility while touring the Taj Mahal. Two days in Agra would have given us time to work around the issue and go at the optimal time for best viewing. There are plenty of other sights here, so you won’t be bored with the extra time.
- We liked doing the itinerary in this order, rather than the reverse. After the initial day in Delhi, we started with minor sights, and they got better and better as the trip progressed. By the time we arrived at the Taj Mahal, we were well over jet-lag and were able to appreciate what we were seeing.
- Hire an English speaking driver to take you everywhere. It is relatively inexpensive, you get door to door service, and you are not tied to anyone’s schedule but your own. They also suggested this itinerary, given the days and timing. We loved Ashok’s Taxi Tours!
- Family rooms that you can book online are in short supply. Our tour company suggested that we just prebook the initial hotel in Delhi, and that the driver could easily find hotels along the way that would be better than we would find online. We weren’t completely sure about this, so we prebooked cancellable reservations at many of the stops. But early on, were pleased that he was able to get us a decent family room at a lower rate than we would have paid online. At this point, we had him look at our hotel list, and he told us which ones we should keep, and which ones he could probably find us something better. A few taps later on the phone, and most of them were cancelled.
Day 0: Overnight in Munich
Flights to India are long, particularly when coming from California. Typically, it takes about the same amount of time to get there, regardless of whether you go east or west. When looking at ticket prices and schedules, we decided that an overnight in Munich could be fun. The downside was that since it was January, we would need to pack a few winter clothes. The upside was that we would get to see Europe in the winter, which even though we travel a lot, is still a bit rare for us.
We checked our suitcases all the way to Delhi, threw a few essentials in our backpacks, arrived late afternoon, took a train to our hotel, and spent the evening wandering the pedestrian friendly downtown. In the morning, we woke up super early, wandered a bit, found a bakery, and took the train back to the airport. Much better than staying in an airport hotel!
Day 1: Delhi
Our flight arrived in the wee hours of the morning. By 2:30am, we were checked into our hotel, and by 6:30am, we were wide awake. A 10.5 to 11.5 hour time change, depending on the time of the year, is no joke. It is hard and you will feel it.
Our driver picked us up, and our day included the following:
- Shree Lakshmi Narayan Mandir Hindu temple
- Bangla Sahib Sikh temple
- Rashtrapati Bhavan Presidential Residence
- Lodi Gardens
- Qutub Minar
- Humayan’s Tomb
- Old Delhi and the Spice Market
- Jama Masjid Mosque
- Raj Ghat Samadhi Gandhi Memorial
It was a very full day, but tons of fun and really helped us stay awake as we struggled with jet lag. These sites could have easily stretched many days, but seeing so much at once really gave us both an overview and a taste of what was to come. Plus, Delhi smog would not have been pleasant to endure for too many sequential days.
Day 2: Mandawa
Our driver met us in the morning, and we started our 5.5+ hour drive to Mandawa, stopping at a rest stop for a stuffed paratha in the morning. This is where we learned that meal times might be at very odd hours.
On arrival we checked into a hotel, then hired a local guide to show us the sights. As we wandered through town with him, he pointed out various architectural details and brought us into several havelis, or old mansions, for a guided tour.
Day 3: Bikaner
In the morning, we met our driver for a 3.5+ hour drive to Bikaner. On arrival, we checked into our hotel and got a quick lunch at their restaurant. Afterwards, we saw the Junagarh Fort, the Karni Mata Temple (“rat temple”), and hired a local guide to take us on a tuk-tuk tour of the city.
The Junagarh Fort was quite impressive, and we really enjoyed wandering the grounds. If you have ever seen the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, and have wanted to see a real life version, the Karni Mata Temple is for you. You can be completely grossed out by mice everywhere, including the kitchen that people actually eat from. The tuk-tuk tour was much more pleasant.
Day 4: Khuri
Khuri is a long 7+ hour drive from Bikaner, but was a wonderful point of refreshment. We made a stretch stop at a lovely desert reserve and spent a bit of time wandering. Lunch was disappointing, particularly since it is a popular Bollywood star stop, but I guess when you are in the middle of nowhere, you take what you can get.
On arrival, we were shown a couple of different lodging options, and picked the “Swiss Tent.” Next, we went out to the camel rental area and decided to take two camels since we weren’t sure if the kids would enjoy being on their own. It ended up being the right choice, particularly for James. We started out for our sunset tour, stopping at a beautiful rise that was perfect for both watching the sunset and letting the kids play.
On our return, we headed out for the dinner and performance. It was a lovely evening and one of the best days of our trip.
Day 5: Jaisalmer
After several days of driving, the 1 hour to Jaisalmer was quite pleasant. On arrival, we picked a hotel, then went out to do some sightseeing. The morning was spent with a very pleasant self guided tour of the Jaisalmer Fort Palace. On the way to the palace, we made brief stops at a couple of the Jain temples.
We found a nice lunch spot, then went back to the hotel to rest for a bit. In the afternoon, we drove down to the lake and enjoyed our time there. We really should have rented a paddle boat or a row boat.
Day 6: Jodhpur
We briefly stopped at the Jaisalmer War Museum, then continued on to Jodhpur. After a rough night of stomach illness (oops, some Indian sweets expire and shouldn’t be saved), the 4.5+ hours in the car were less than pleasant and we needed to make quite a few stops. Airplane sickness bags were super handy, although it’s helpful to have them open before you actually need them.
Before entering town, we made a stop at the Mehrangarh Fort, which would have been better without a sick kid, but we did the best we could in the short time he was able to walk. On getting back to the car, our driver was enthusiastic about the Jaswant Temple, so again, we made another quick stop, but all we really wanted to do was to get to our hotel and tuck our sick kid into bed.
After checking into a fairly amazing, if a bit old, hotel, Jeremy, our other son, and our driver went for a walking tour of the city. They really like the Jodhpur step well, and also saw the market. Upon their return, we decided to get dinner at the hotel roof top. Both the view and the food were quite good.
Day 7: Jodhpur to Udaipur
Everyone was feeling better, so the 4.5+ hour drive to Udaipur was much more pleasant. On the way, we made a stop in Ranakpur to see the Sheth Anandji Kalyanji Jain Temple. We continued on to the jungle, where the boys were delighted to have monkeys climb all over our car. There was also a stop at a water wheel, where the guy running it allowed the boys to hop on his seat behind the draft animal and try it out.
As we approached Udaipur, we made a stop at the Kumbhalgarh Fort. The forts in India are simply amazing! It is interesting to contemplate the wealth the once had in comparison to the poverty that is now the norm.
Day 8: Udaipur
We began our morning with the City Palace Museum, which was fairly interesting. We then hopped on a boat tour to the island of Jag Mandir, where we were refreshed by being in a very clean place where there were no cows, dogs, tuk-tuks, or motorcycles. In the afternoon, we got a nice lunch, then went to the Jain Jagdish Temple. We went back to the hotel to rest, then went out for an early evening stroll.
Day 9: Pushkar
We met our driver, via tuk-tuk, at a pre-arranged location and began the 5+ hour drive to the Hindu pilgrimage town of Pushkar. One distinctive of this town is that it’s vegetarian food only, disappointing Jeremy.
On arrival, we checked into our hotel and explored the town on foot. The market was our favorite part of town, so we spent quite a while admiring the goods, and even bought a couple of things. We also stopped by the Brahma temple, which was supposed to be the highlight of the town. Upon entry, it wasn’t as impressive as we expected. In retrospect, it was probably the stories/history that were most interesting, so we should have hired a local guide to give us a tour. Pushkar houses over 500 temples, but we were templed out, so we decided to just enjoy the rest of the town.
Day 10-11: Jaipur
After meeting our driver, we took the 2.5+ hour drive to Jaipur. This was a city I could have spent more time in. The ambiance by the water was lovely and there were quite a few sights to see.
We started our afternoon with Jaigarh Fort, which, even though most of the interior parts were either destroyed or inaccessible, was still quite interesting. After leaving, we continued on to the nearby Nahargarh Fort, which again, was mostly just a tour of the exterior, but still a lot of fun. We spent the evening getting caught up on rest.
In the morning, everyone was feeling better, so we started the day with Amer Fort. Be warned that the snake charmers hang out outside, so if that interests you, stop by, and if it terrifies you, keep your distance from anyone carrying a burlap bag with a small box inside. Amer Fort was one of the most impressive forts of the trip, and it is well worth spending some quality time here. I loved the mosaics, and we all enjoyed our game of trying to find our way through the maze of corridors without bribing a guard to give us directions.
We then went to the City Palace, Jantar Mantar, and Hawa Mahal. They are all a very short walking distance from each other. We spent quite a bit of time in the City Palace, again thoroughly enjoying the mosaics. The Jantar Mantar is an ancient time keeping complex that is worth a quick stop. If we wouldn’t have been so famished, we would have spent more time at the women’s palace, Hawa Mahal.
We got a late lunch, then went gem shopping, but it was a bit of a bust since I didn’t find anything I loved in the time we had decided to spend on the activity. We went back to the hotel to rest, then decided to walk from our hotel to the Water Palace, Jal Mahal, which does not allow visitors. Amazing! And the area had a nice community/date night type atmosphere. On return to our hotel, our driver surprised us with an anniversary cake!
Day 12: Jaipur to Agra
Our trip started to feel like it was coming to a close. We started the day with a 4+ hour drive to Agra, but the plan was to break it up with sight seeing. The boys second favorite place of the trip was probably Galtaji Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple. Despite our reluctance, we finally agreed to let the boys feed the wild monkeys. Luckily no one came home with rabies.
Our next stop was the Chand Baori Step Well, which was amazing! Who knew that water wells could be so impressive? We continued on to Fatehpur Sikri, briefly the capital of the Mughal empire in the 16th century.
We arrived in Agra, checked into our hotel, and ran out to try to snap some sunset pictures of the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately, we missed sunset by a bit, so were only able to get a few dusk shots that were shrouded in fog.
Day 13: Agra
After looking at the weather, we knew the morning in Agra was going to be quite foggy. We decided to go ahead and go to the Taj Mahal at sunrise, even if visibility was expected to be poor. We figured it probably wouldn’t be much better later in the day, we had already captured a couple of mild fog shots, and the lessened crowds would be ideal. It was foggy, really foggy.
But the reduced crowds were really nice. We even took two circles through the interior of the mausoleum since there was no line.
After returning to the hotel for breakfast, we decided to go to Agra Fort, which was easily the best fort of the trip. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and the fog even started to lift.
At this point, we got a late lunch and started the 4+ hour drive to Delhi, stopping at the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, better known as the Baby Taj, on the way. On arrival in smoggy Delhi, we met with the owner of Ashok’s Taxi Tours and let him know how happy we were. At this point, we decided to skip any more major sightseeing, stopped by Connaught Place to pick up some sweets and enjoy the atmosphere, then checked into a slightly too inexpensive hotel to nap until midnight.
Day 14: Home Sweet Home
At midnight, our driver picked us up at our hotel, drove us to the airport, and we began the long journey home.
India has a long and rich history. The forts really capture how wealthy they once were and shows what their power may have been like. Exploring these sites really highlighted the differences between Ancient India and Modern Day India.
The parks, preserves, and landscapes were also surprisingly nice. We didn’t have any of these types of activities specifically listed on our itinerary, but were happy when we were surprised by them.
The animals were a continual source of delight for the kids.
There are many different religions in India, and we found ourselves a bit weary from trying to see too much of this, but it really is very interesting if you can figure out how to pace yourself.
There were also tons of tombs and mausoleums that we were able to see, the most impressive being the Taj Mahal, but the others were quite nice as well.
The food was great! Except when it wasn’t. Inside the cities, quality food that is safe for American stomachs is fairly easy to find. We most relied on our driver, Trip Advisor, and common sense to find places to eat. Rooftop restaurants were often a good bet. While we were on the road was a different story. Once you are off the main highways, the quality of the food goes way downhill. Sometimes inexpensive food is fine, but once it gets too inexpensive, you may have to start worrying about stomach problems. For whatever reason, we ended up not taking many pictures of our food. Curry and other soupy dishes really aren’t all that photogenic. The Indian sweet shops were some of our favorite stops, although we learned the hard way not to keep them for long without refrigeration. When we needed a break, McDonald’s was perfect! Finding common American chains was quite easy in the major cities, but quite rare in the smaller villages.
Some people have asked how we managed to take our kids to India during the good (not hot) part of the year. Well, for several reasons that I am not going to go into, we decided to spend one year homeschooling our kids. 4th and 5th grade is perfect for this. They are old enough to appreciate the travel, but not so old that their academics are going to suffer. While at home, we hit the books hard. While traveling, they did their regular math and grammar lessons, but the other stuff was based on what we are seeing. Ancient India is full of history, music, art, and other topics that, at this age, are best learned by experience. Add in journaling, writing assignments, and discussions about what you are seeing, and for this age, there is really little else you need to do on a two week trip. We mostly had the kids do their book work before breakfast (if they woke up early from jet lag), or in the car (dramamine works wonders). If we had extra time in the car, sometimes I would have them do a double math lesson so that we could catch up on other stuff once we got home. Since this was the one year that we weren’t tied to the school calendar, we took full advantage of it by traveling when and where we wanted.
While in India, you need to remind yourself that a hot shower is a luxury, not a basic human right. There are some people in India who have probably never had a hot shower. Even if your hotel claims that they have hot water, it may only be for 1-2 hours per day, or may end up only be lukewarm. To highlight the source of the problem, in one case, we discovered that if we called the front desk, they would send a guy to the roof to shovel coal into a hot water heater. 20 minutes later, we would have hot water. And that was assuming another guest didn’t use it all before we got to it. There were only a few days of our trip that we truly got a hot shower. One of them was surprisingly while we were “glamping” in a Swiss Tent in the Khuri desert.
India is very chaotic, particularly if you are a suburban American kid. The boys had a hard time with all the motorcycles and tuk-tuks weaving in and out of the pedestrians, the incessant honking, the livestock and dogs wandering freely, and numerous local people wanting pictures with them. It is fascinating to see how all the chaos works, but it can be very overwhelming.
Getting in a car with a local Indian driver can be terrifying. My first time in India was in 2007 for a work trip, and I found my driver going a half a block the wrong way down a multi lane super busy street with 4-5 lanes of cars on a street built for 2-3 lanes. Fortunately, Ashok’s Taxi Tours puts strict limits on their drivers if they want to stay employed. Even with an excellent driver, there is no way that they can drive with American safety standards. Lanes are optional. The other drivers are crazy. It is common to see an entire family on a single motorcycle. Dad drives, maybe with a child in front of him, mom sits sidesaddle with a child or two on her lap and maybe a child in a backpack on her back, sometimes they also have a big bag of laundry on board. Once we saw a family that had tied a mattress to the motorcycle, and used it like a boat to transport a large family with lots of luggage. Add in 10 year olds driving tuk-tuks, motorcycles weaving through the pedestrians, cows, camels, and dogs, all doing their own thing, expecting everyone else to get out of their way, and real chaos ensues.
The poverty in India is bad, really bad. As much as I love the country, I was completely overwhelmed with hopelessness and despair at the situation. If you have even been to a homeless shelter or walked around the poorest streets of a major American city, you think you have seen poverty, but it is nothing compared to what you will see in India. It is everywhere. It is worse than you can possibly imagine. It is impossible to ignore. The problem is highlighted by simply looking at this 2017 report that says that only 62% of the rural population has access to toilets. Average incomes are quite low; for instance, India’s per-capita GDP in 2017 was under $2,000 for the year; as a comparison closer to home, Mexico’s numbers were many times higher (4.5 times India’s). Anyone who lives in America with access to government aid, homeless shelters, and other help can almost live like a king in comparison to some of the stuff we saw. Is it any wonder that the people see the “rich American tourists,” which include anyone who can afford a plane ticket to India, and try to sell tours and anything else they can get their hands on to us? It’s both annoying and understandable at the same time.
The history and the food were amazing and made our journey well worth the time. I could have spent much longer exploring many of the forts, some of the lake towns like Udaipur or Jaipur, or soaking up the major sights in Agra. However, the trip was also quite hard. I think this is a country that would have been much easier to visit as a couple. The dangers to the kids are ever present. The motorcycles weaving through the pedestrians is an obvious threat, but simple things like reminding the kids not to drink the shower water, not to pet the dogs, and not to make sudden movements when they walk by a bull are all things that are easy to forget. On the other hand, I am hoping that the kids exposure to both the amazing sights and extreme poverty will be something that will stick with them and will help them appreciate how blessed they really are.
If you are going to travel to India, seriously consider hiring an English speaking driver to take you around. It is cheap, you get door to door service, and you have someone who understands the country with you any time you wish. If you are traveling by yourself on the train and unexpected problems crop up, who are you going to call to help you? Our experience with Ashok’s Taxi Tours was great!
When looking at your itinerary, make sure you build in at least a little down time. We didn’t build in enough, and by the end of the trip we were emotionally and mentally fatigued. This is particularly important if you are traveling with kids who might just need a break from everything that makes India different from America. A day where you simply relax in the hotel, take a nice river stroll, and maybe add in a few coffee shops or rooftop cafes can make a huge difference.