Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi. (Photo: istock)
India’s “Golden Triangle” is a 650-mile circuit of almost fairy tale beauty. Its three points are the capital, New Delhi, in the north; Jaipur, in the historic state of Rajasthan, in the west, and, the fabled Taj Mahal in the east.
Opulent palaces, impregnable forts, and gleaming temples litter this land: witness to 500 years of struggle between the native, Hindu maharajas and their rivals, the Muslim, Mughal emperors. Both sides were fabulously wealthy, and left a legacy of architecture, science, and artistry which survives today.
At minimum, it’s a week-long trip: my itinerary was eight days and seven nights, which I undertook with a hired car and driver.
Day One, Delhi to Jaipur
The Amber Fort in India. (Photo: iStock)
Departing New Delhi in the morning, the first day was six hours on the road, leaving a few hours to explore Jaipur in the late afternoon.
Jaipur, capital of the desert state of Rajasthan, is among the most beautiful cities in India. In 1727, the Hindu Maharaja, Sawai Jai Singh II, moved his capital here from Amber, another fortified city just seven miles away.
The Amber Fort and Palace (1592) sits amid a web of defenses that includes its own “great wall,” ringing the surrounding hills. Accessing the fort is a steep walk up the hill, or a 900 rupee (US $14.50) elephant ride.
Inside the complex, visitors have almost free rein in the warren of rooms, galleries, and courtyards. The palace decoration is unusual for incorporating both Hindu and Mughal styles, reflecting a local alliance. And touch away: surprisingly, the official audio-guide encourages you to feel the 420-year-old stone columns, to appreciate their craftsmanship.
Day Two, Jaipur
The Pink Palace in Jaipur. (Photo: iStock)
A second day is barely enough to visit the sites in Jaipur itself, a tangled sprawl of 6 million people. Known as “the Pink City,” a color associated with hospitality, the old town still wears the Barbie’s-Dream-House paint job it got to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1876.
Jaipur’s fascinating Jantar Mantar (1734), is a garden of architectural astronomy instruments—including a 90-foot-tall sundial, accurate to two seconds—that were the most sophisticated of their time.
Other highlights include the City Palace, with its regal throne room and armory, complete with period illustrations of historic battles. The much-photographed Wind Palace, with its distinctive, pipe-organ façade, was a residence for royal women.
Days Three and Four, Udaipur
A sunset view of City Palace in Jaipur. (Photo: iStock)
Another full day on a bad road gets you to Udaipur, a city to rival Jaipur’s beauty. Built around artificial lakes, it was the setting for the James Bond film, “Octopussy,” and more recently, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Photos of shopkeepers posing with Judi Dench are all over town.
Take a boat tour around the Lake Palace (1743, now a luxury hotel) and visit the ornate City Palace, with its beautiful views, mosaics and artwork. Udaipur is renowned for its traditional paintings, sold in dozens of charming stores in the steep streets of the old city.
Days Five and Six, Pushkar
Pilgrims take ritual bathing in holy lake in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. It is one of the five sacred pilgrimage site for devout Hindus. (Photo: iStock)
Driving to Pushkar takes you through a district of marble quarries. Mom-and-pop marble stands line a dusty road full of slow-moving, flatbed trucks, loaded with huge chunks of white stone, like giants’ teeth.
Pushkar is a holy city of of Hindu pilgrimage. One of the oldest towns in India, it is known for the 52 bathing “ghats” on its scared lake, and an ancient temple to Brahma. Here, on a twilight “camel safari” into the desert scrub, I sliced my hand open on the sawn-off pipe which served as the saddle grip. Bleeding all over myself, and the camel, I silently thanked Lord Brahma for remembering to update my tetanus shots.
Day Seven, Pushkar to Agra
Fatehpur Sikri (Photo: iStock)
Driving east from Rajasthan, the Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Along the way is Fatehpur Sikri, a palace complex built in 1569 by the Mughal emperor, Akbar. (His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal in 1653.) This was another highlight.
Captivating and beautiful, Fatehpur Sikri has towers, a treasury, an active historic mosque, a monument to Akbar’s favorite elephant, and elaborate pavilions for his Hindu, Muslim and Christian wives.
Astoundingly, this small city was abandoned after only 15 years, due to a lack of water.
Day Eight, Agra
Sunrise at the Taj Mahal. (Photo: iStock)
Finally, on the last day, we sighted the great white whale itself. Visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise is advised, and there were already around 200 people waiting when the gates opened at 7am.
(While we waited, I overheard one middle-aged American tourist ask her baffled guide, “is any part of the Taj Mahal outside?”)
Experiencing the Taj Mahal in person is more impressive—even moving—than pictures can express. But something else the brochures don’t capture is the pollution. The smog was so bad, the day I visited, that it made breathing hard and photos murky.
The Agra Fort. (Photo: iStock)
Two of Agra’s less famous monuments wrap up the story that began in Jaipur. The Agra Fort is where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son, in part to prevent his ruinously expensive plan to build a second Taj Mahal across the river, in black. (He also wanted a solid silver bridge to connect the two.)
And in front of the fort is a statue of Shivaji, the Hindu commander who rebelled against Shah Jahan’s son to become king in his own right. Today, he is remembered as a forefather of Indian independence.
My eight-day tour cost roughly $1,400, with a private car and driver to myself. That included driving costs (tolls, gas, etc), good hotels, and breakfasts, but not other meals, entrance fees to monuments, on-site guides, or tips.
I heard some nightmare stories about suspect or unsafe drivers—including one nervous couple who dismissed their pre-paid car, stranding themselves, halfway through the week. But India Visit Tours , which supplied my car and itinerary, was outstanding. I recommend asking for its proprietor, Anil Sharma, as your driver.