Your Private Tour of India
Where to go depends on what you like!
You could take a hundred trips to India and each would be a unique adventure. What about India intrigues you the most? Answering that question is the secret to planning your perfect itinerary. Consider the disparate landscapes within India. Is your interest piqued by the mountains of the Himalayas, the Ganges River, the Thar Desert, Indian Ocean beaches, or the jungles of Madhya Pradesh?
Perhaps architecture resonates with you. Do you dream of lavish palaces, imposing forts, Mughal monuments, delicately carved Hindu temples, and ornate Indo-Saracenic institutions?
India has three dozen UNESCO World Heritage sites, rich culinary traditions, and some of the world’s most luxurious hotels. It is a place to go for experiences unlike any others. Couples can indulge in romantic moments such as sleeping in a royal palace or sipping Champagne on their private balcony while gazing at the Taj Mahal. For families, there’s always something to delight and awe the kids, be it a ride in a cycle rickshaw, an encounter with cheeky monkeys, or spotting a tiger in the wild.
Below, we can mention only a few highlights; the possibilities are endless. If you are seeking something different—delving into Bollywood, riding the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, visiting remote tribal Nagaland, or exploring the ancient ruins of Hampi—we can customize the perfect itinerary for you.
Forts and Palaces
The state of Rajasthan is the land of opulent palaces, hilltop fortresses, and camels traversing vast deserts. For centuries, this was a region of independent kingdoms controlled by Rajput kings intent on both defending their territory and displaying their wealth. Thus, you’ll find more forts and palaces here than anywhere else in India. Several palaces now operate as hotels or restaurants that we recommend to our clients.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan. Many of the Jaipur’s historic buildings are made of pink sandstone, including its most delightful, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds). This pink confection is a five-floor facade with 953 screened windows through which ladies of the royal court could observe the outside world. The Maharaja’s City Palace is resplendent, with lavish courtyards and doors inlaid with jewels. At first glance, it appears that a modern sculpture garden sits next to the palace. This is, in fact, an observatory: Jantar Mantar, a collection of innovative instruments for watching the stars and tracking time.
Jaipur has several forts, the most famous being the imposing Amber Fort. Inside is a network of palaces, courtyards, columns, and arches. The fort’s masterpiece, the Sheesh Mahal, is a hall that glitters with thousands of tiny, mirrored tiles
Udaipur is a fairytale city of lakes and palaces. The grand Udaipur City Palace blends the best of architectural styles from across Asia and Europe. The Jagmandir Palace and its pleasure garden occupy an entire island. Lake Palace is a vision of white marble, rising up from Lake Pichola. Above it all, the Monsoon Palace sits majestically on a hilltop.
An oasis in the Thar Desert is the blue city of Jodhpur. The massive Umaid Bhawan Palace complex there covers 26 acres and was built with 347 rooms. Few private residences have ever been constructed on a grander scale. Today, the marble and sandstone structure holds a royal residence, a hotel, and a museum. The palace is modern, completed in 1943. Across the city is a much older structure, the formidable Mehrangarh Fort, dating to 1460. The well-preserved fort offers an excellent museum, restaurant, and lovely views of the city, whose buildings painted in blue.
Far to the west in Jaisalmer, the medieval Golden City, Jaisalmer Fort rests atop Trikuta Hill. Within the fort are a palace, museum, shops, and beautifully carved Jain Temples. Jaisalmer Fort has the rare distinction of being a “living” fort: Part of the city’s population still lives and works within its walls. At sunset, the fort is especially stunning as the yellow sandstone takes on a golden glow.
A few hours from Agra is Fatehpur Sikri, a fortified city that was inhabited for only a few decades in the 16th century before it was abandoned due to drought. The result is an immaculately preserved city that looks almost like a movie set.
Indian food is not a single style of cooking but rather, dozens of flavorful cuisines that have evolved with the country’s rich history. Each region has its own blend of spices, favorite ingredients, and celebrated specialties.
Variations also differ from religion to religion. Hindus consider cows to be sacred and thus do not eat beef. Most adhere to vegetarianism, as do some sects of Sikhs and Buddhists. Those who practice the Jain religion have even stricter vegetarian standards, also prohibiting eggs, onions, garlic, and root vegetables. Members of other major religions have their own dietary restrictions. For example, Muslims eschew pork.
As a result, restaurants in India are accustomed to catering to various dietary needs. Visitors with specific needs and preferences are well-served. Chefs are also happy to adjust spice levels for those not up for a fiery meal!
Every tour to India presents a feast of new taste sensations to explore. As you travel, we can arrange all sorts of culinary experiences. Chefs in Mumbai and Delhi are leading the way in fine dining and inventive fusions of Indian and European dishes. In an award-winning restaurant, you can enjoy a cooking class with a top chef. In Udaipur, watch the magic happen as a family that has cooked for royals prepares a feast of Karan cuisine. On a spice farm in Kerala, learn to prepare local dishes with freshly plucked ingredients.
If you are so inclined, we can even create an entirely food-themed tour, allowing you to cook, eat, and drink your way through edible India.
Nature and Wildlife
For some, tigers are India’s most alluring feature. Two-thirds of the world’s wild tigers live within its national parks. Poaching and dwindling territories threaten tigers in the wild, but India has done an exemplary job at protecting them. In this conservation-success story, the number of tigers in India is on the rise.
Of course, the 103 national parks have many inhabitants other than tigers. Rhinos, leopards, lions, elephants, monkeys, and dholes (wild dogs) live in the parks, as do 1000+ bird species. Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan is the most well-known. It also holds the Ranthambore Fort, popular as a playground for local monkeys. Located roughly between Agra and Jaipur, it easily fits into many itineraries.
The national parks in the state of Madhya Pradesh, are more remote than Ranthambore, but worth the travel time. Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench, and Panna National Parks all have diverse populations of animals and excellent jungle lodges.
In the Himalayan regions of northern India, life moves at a slower pace, and the population thins out as the altitude rises. In the former hill station of Shimla, you can hike to hillside monasteries and take in views of snow-capped lower Himalayas. Ladakh is the northernmost state and shares a border with Tibet, so Tibetan culture is prevalent here. The terrain is dominated by mountains, cliffs, valleys, and high-altitude lakes. An invigorating way to take in the dramatic scenery is via a multi-day trek, spending the nights in mountain lodges.
Those more entranced by rolling sand dunes head to the desert around Jaisalmer, at the far Western edges of Rajasthan. This is camel country, whose attractions include a traditional village with thatched roof houses, a strange forest of fossilized trees, and desert sunsets over the dunes. Several small, luxurious tented camps let you spend the night in style.
Southern India offers yet another distinctive landscape. The state of Kerala, in the southwestern corner of India, has a beautiful network of lagoons, lakes, and canals, collectively known as the backwaters. One of the most relaxing days we’ve had in India is lazing on a houseboat, sipping a coconut, watching daily life along the banks of the canals.
Elsewhere in Kerala are the charming city of Kochi, beaches that face the Arabian Sea, Periyar National Park (good for seeing wild Asian elephants), and tea plantations set on rolling hills.
India’s prime beaches lie along the southwest coast, stretching from lively Goa through peaceful Karnataka to laid-back Kerala. These beaches offer a relaxing break from cultural touring in the south. For a truly luxurious beach experience, many add a stay at a fabulous over-water bungalow in the Maldives, in the Laccadive Sea just south of India.
Sacred Art and Architecture
India is often thought of as a land of spirituality. Indeed, many religions are intertwined with its history and heritage. Four major religions originated in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The origins of Hinduism can be traced back to prehistoric times, making it the oldest continuously practiced religion. Even today, 80% of Indians consider themselves Hindu.
Islam’s history in India goes back as far as the 7th century CE, when it was brought by Arab traders to Kerala in southern India. During the Delhi Sultanate (beginning in 1210) and later, the Mughal Empire, it became more widespread.
Over time, several Christian denominations were introduced by early apostles, traders, missionaries, and European colonists, and Southern India has a long Jewish heritage. The Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi was constructed in 1567 and now is open as a museum. In Mumbai, several historic synagogues are still in use.
Given that history, it’s not surprising that India has over half a million religious buildings, representing many faiths. Many of these are in New Delhi, the capital and main entry point for visitors to India.
The profusion of faiths has resulted in interesting fusions such as the 12th century Qutab Minar, where Islamic domes and arches combine with decorative Hindu panels. The Jama Masjid dominates the skyline around Old Delhi with its red sandstone walls topped with distinctive black-and-white striped marble domes. This is India’s largest mosque and can hold up to 20,000 people. The Mausoleum of the Mughal Emperor Humayun is an early example of grand Mughal tombs; it was the inspiration for several later monuments (including the Taj Mahal).
Sikh houses of worship are called Gurdwara. The largest in Delhi is the golden-domed Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. All are welcome to visit, to volunteer in the huge community kitchen, or to partake in a vegetarian meal.
A recent addition is the Akshardham Temple, a sprawling Hindu temple complex completed in 2005. The stunning central temple was built only with the finest traditional materials—Rajasthani pink sandstone and Carrara marble. Carvings of 148 life-sized elephants (imagine the massive scale!) surround the base of the temple.
Other religions have made their mark in Delhi, too. One of the most striking temples is the Baha’i Lotus Temple, built to resemble a gigantic white lotus in bloom.
A few hours south of Delhi is India’s most iconic site and most-photographed building in the world: the Taj Mahal. It was built in 1643 by the Muslim Moghul emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum to honor his beloved wife, who had died in childbirth. Considered a perfect example of Mughal architecture, it was recently named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
For Hindus, Varanasi is a holy city, evidenced by its estimated 23,000 temples. Many of the ashrams here have served as centers for Indian spiritualism and philosophy for centuries. The Ganges River flows down the Himalayas, through Varanasi. The western riverbank is lined with stone steps called ghats. Depending on the place and time of day, the ghats serve as walkways, marketplaces, public baths, places of worship, and cremation grounds. Hindus believe that those who die here and have their remains immersed in the river Ganges achieve moksha—a release from the cycle of reincarnation.
The ghats are teeming with all sorts of life: sadhus (Hindu ascetics), pilgrims, boatmen, and tourists. Also roaming about are cows, goats, monkeys, dogs, and parakeets. Every evening, Hindu priests perform an aarti, a mesmerizing ritual combining, smoke, fire, and bells. To get the full effect, we arrange boat rides at dawn and again at dusk.
Leading to the river is a maze of old streets and passageways whose every turn takes you farther back in time. People walked these same alleys 2500 ago, when Babylon was the world’s biggest metropolis.
Ilex Luxury Travel can arrange private experiences here to immerse you more deeply in the culture. Depending on your interests, you can meet with practitioners of ancient arts such as aromatherapy, astrology, meditation, yoga, and classical sitar music.
Less than an hour from Varanasi is the serene oasis of Sarnath. It was in the deer park here that the Buddha gave his first talk on the concept of dharma. Buddhist groups from Burma, China, Thailand, and Japan have monasteries and temples in the town. The Archeology Museum showcases treasures from the Buddhist kingdom that stood here centuries ago.
At the Khajuraho Temple complex, sensuous and infamously erotic images are immortalized in sandstone. The Hindu and Jain temples were built from the 11th century to the 13th century. Then they fell out of use, and the surrounding jungle hid them for many years, so the true reason for the hedonistic tableaux remains a mystery.
In Rajasthan, Ranakpur is among the most sacred pilgrimage sites for the Jain religion. Built in the 15th century, the temple’s 80 domes are supported by 1444 white marble pillars, each engraved with a unique design. Ranakpur makes a pleasant day trip from Udaipur or a good stop on the long drive to Jodhpur.
In the northwestern state of Punjab, the Golden Temple of Amritsar seems to float above the water of an enormous tank. From early dawn to evening, you can hear the constant sound of priests chanting scriptures from the Sikh Holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Two rituals are performed daily—one to carry the book into the sanctum in the morning and another to return it to its resting place for the evening.
In Mumbai, a boat ride from the dock at the Gateway of India lets you admire the city skyline. The destination is Elephanta Island, known for its ancient cave temples, built over 1500 years ago to honor the Hindu god Shiva. The carvings and paintings adorning the caves show the extraordinary skill of the artisans long ago. Other revered cave paintings in India are at the Ellora and Ajanta Caves, both a short drive from the city of Aurangabad.
Health and Wellness
Ayurveda is a holistic approach to health that began in ancient India, so long ago that its origins may be prehistoric. From that tradition came a focus on maintaining wellness by balancing all aspects of life. Eating a healthy diet and practicing meditation and yoga contribute to this balance.
All the top hotels have spas offering Ayurvedic consultations and massages. There are now more ashrams—yoga centers—than ever.
Most of the hotels we recommend hold morning yoga classes for guests. For a more intensive experience, you can check into a yoga retreat or a resort hotel dedicated to Ayurvedic healing.
For us, there’s no destination we’ve shopped in more, or shopped better, than India. Our favorite goods to seek in India are jewelry, art, textiles, home décor, spices, and tea. New Delhi, the first and last stop for many travelers, is ideal for buying loose, comfortable, Indian-made clothing to wear during your tour or—at the end—last-minute souvenirs. In Old Delhi, sightseeing conveniently merges with shopping as you explore the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk by cycle rickshaw. Each lane is lined with workshops dedicated to different specialties. Gold and silversmiths congregate on Dariba Kalan; at the Kinari Bazaar, colorful trimmings for formalwear and wedding accessories are sold. You’ll catch a whiff of Khari Baoli before you reach it; the shops here display mounds of spices, along with high-quality nuts and dried fruits.
Shopping in Jaipur runs the gamut, from traditional handicraft bazaars to trendy upscale home-décor showrooms to gem shops with display cases rivaling the Crown Jewels of England.
Agra artisans specialize in zardozi embroidery, which uses real gold or silver thread to create three-dimensional designs. (It undoubtedly inspired some of the gown embellishments on Game of Thrones.)
Artists in Udaipur are known for their miniature paintings, capturing scenes from a bygone era with remarkable detail. Local bazaars sell embroidered textiles, hand dyed fabrics, pottery wooden toys, and silver ornaments.
The vibrant city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the most fun and flashiest of India’s cities. Traditional markets such as the lively Crawford Market sell fresh produce and spices (and in one stall, wigs). Nearby, the Mangaldas and M.J. Markets stock miles of fabric. Antique lovers head to Chor Bazaar for antiques, bronze ornaments, and vintage collectibles. And while the Colaba Causeway market is a carnival of souvenir stands, along the side streets you’ll find fantastic boutiques selling clothing, jewelry, and accessories on the cutting edge of design. There’s a bookshop specializing in art-and-design titles here, too.
We provide our clients with a curated list of our favorite shops throughout India for clothing, textiles, jewelry, and housewares.
India Travel Tips
First-time visitors to India usually fly in and out of New Delhi. Depending on your itinerary, it may be wiser to fly into New Delhi and out of Mumbai. An ever-improving modern highway system and a vast domestic-flight network have made traveling around India more efficient. Small planes can be chartered for even greater speed and flexibility.
That said, India isn’t a place you want to move through quickly. It takes time to truly appreciate and absorb all that this culture has to offer. We recommend concentrating your tour on a particular region or on a few key destinations, rather than trying to squeeze it all into two weeks. Due its large size and endless attractions, even months of travel would only scratch the surface, but for those looking to country-hop, both nearby Nepal and Sri Lanka pair well with India. The Maldives makes for an excellent beach destination after your cultural touring.
A country as large and varied as India has several climates, so determining the best time to travel depends on your destination. Conveniently, the destinations most first-time visitors choose offer similar weather patterns. In Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, and Rajasthan (Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, etc.), the coolest, driest season extends from late October through March. While the dry season continues through early June, temperatures and humidity will be extremely high. The monsoon season runs from June through September, during which time any day might bring heavy rains.
For those hoping to see a tiger in the wild, national parks are open roughly from October through June, then close for monsoon season. April is considered the best month to visit most parks. As the dry season ends and temperatures rise, the few, remaining watering holes attract tigers and other wildlife.
In South India (Kerala, Karnataka), the monsoon lingers longer, so the window for optimal conditions is smaller: November through February is the optimal time to visit. Visiting after November is best in Tamil Nadu. Monsoon rains can be especially heavy in the south, damaging roads and delaying flights.
Set in the far north and at a higher altitude, Ladakh is best visited from June to September— contrary to the rest of the country. Cooler temperatures and clear skies make summer a perfect season for hiking and enjoying mountain views.
India’s weather is notoriously difficult to predict, so actual conditions during your trip may vary.