Many of the forts and palaces have been converted into beautiful hotels and some of them are surprisingly affordable to stay in. Another option is to stay in one of the many of the traditional havelis (mansions or townhouses), as we did. These buildings are, in fact, ornate and colourful, offering an authentic Rajasthani experience not found in standard chain hotels. Furthermore, staying in them doesn’t break the bank. From the Thar Desert to the pink city of Jaipur, there is something magical about Rajasthan. Here we choose nine highlights of India’s most captivating state:
Known as the Pink City for its pink sandstone buildings, Jaipur is, in fact, one of the stops on the classic Golden Triangle. In all honesty, we didn’t find Jaipur itself to be quite the fairy-tale city that we imagined. In fact, it is hot, crowded, dusty and isn’t short of the hassle factor. Having said that, it has some stunning forts and palaces which shouldn’t be missed.
The magnificent Amer Fort (otherwise known as the Amber Fort) was built in the 15thcentury and is perched on a hill just outside the city. The Mughal-style architecture features ornate archways together with attractive courtyards and hand-painted walls and ceilings. Furthermore, every evening a spectacular light and sound show takes place against the fort walls.
In the city centre, Hawa Mahal is more famously known as the Palace of the Winds and is Mughal in style. From behind the sandstone façade, the women of the royal household would covertly observe the street activities through the latticework openings.
The nearby City Palace, which is Rajput in design, is still used as a residence of the royal family today. Nevertheless, much of the palace is open to the public. As well as several courtyards and galleries, it also has a museum together with a temple.
Another popular attraction is the Janta Mantar, an 18th century astronomical observation site and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The collection includes twenty instruments and above all, it boasts the largest sundial in the world.
Built from yellow sandstone and known as The Golden City, Jaisalmer rises above the Thar Desert like a mirage. With a magnificent 12th century fort at its centre, Jaisalmer is both exotic and unique. Within the fort walls, narrow atmospheric lanes are lined with havelis and temples. Jaisalmer was, in fact, an important stop on the camel trade route and is a city is both steeped in history and shrouded in mystery.
Taking a camel safari is the quintessential Jaisalmer experience. In all honesty, the touts are pretty full-on and it takes a lot of willpower to resist them. In fact, they even boarded our bus and were attempting to sell us a safari while we were still on route to the city! Indeed, it is wise to do your research prior to arrival and choose a tour carefully. Alternatively (if riding a camel doesn’t appeal), you can take a jeep tour to the sand dunes and stay overnight in a desert camp.
Back inside the fort, one of the main attractions are the beautifully preserved Jain temples that date back to the 15th-16th centuries. Consisting of a complex of seven interconnected temples, they were built to protect from Mughal invaders. The architecture of the temples is stunning with intricate sandstone carvings on both the pillars and walls. Jainism is, in fact, actually one of the oldest religions in the world.
Our Hotel 🛕
We stayed at the Hotel Victoria, which is a traditional haveli located within the walls of Jaisalmer Fort.
Located in the Thar Desert, on the trade route between central and western Asia, Bikaner is one of the state’s overlooked gems. With a beautiful fort, several temples together with an atmospheric old town, it’s a small city worthy of exploration. Bikaner also hosts an annual camel fair and furthermore, camel safaris into the desert can be arranged by the nearby camel farm.
While the crowds head to Jaipur and Udaipur, we loved the fact that Bikaner is largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. As a matter of fact, the locals were friendly and welcoming and we weren’t consistently hassled by touts, which made a pleasant change.
Bikaner’s fort, Junagarh, is well-maintained and was built by Raja Rai Singh in the 15th century. Although we had been to an abundance of forts and palaces at this stage of our journey, we were nevertheless impressed. Rajput and Mughal in style, the fort had intricately designed wall paintings, together with glass and lattice work galore. Additionally, there were lots of nooks and crannies to explore, along with a museum displaying an array of royal artefacts.
The Karni Mata Temple is twenty-six miles from Bikaner and is home to 20,000 scurrying rats! Furthermore, it is supposedly auspicious if a rat eats the food which is offered to them. Indeed, it is certainly not for the squeamish!
Many of the buildings in the Bikaner’s old town are built from red sandstone. Rampuria Haveli is the known as the ‘Pride of Bikaner’ – a splendid haveli with a vaguely Victorian exterior. Additionally, the 15th century Bhandasar Jain Temple has an array of colourful frescoes together with elaborate mirrorwork. The temple is also unique in that its foundation is made from a mixture of ghee and mortar.
Our Hotel 🛕
We stayed at Hotel Desert Winds, a friendly mid-range hotel with great room service!
Known as the Blue City, Jodhpur is so-called because many of the buildings are painted in the blue, a colour which is sacred to devotees of Shiva. The main attraction in Jodhpur is the imposing Mehrangarh Fort, which overlooks the city from a cliff top. As a matter of fact, the area at the back of the fort offers the best view of the mesmerising sea of blue buildings.
The fort itself is as impressive inside as out. It contains an wide range of royal memorabilia together with an abundance of beautiful artwork. The rooms are decorative and colourful, especially Takhat Mahal – the party parlour. On the way down, it’s worth a stop at Jaswant Thada, an intricately carved cenotaph which was built in honour of Mahajara Jaswant Singh II.
It’s also worth exploring Navchokiya, the blue narrow streets beneath the fort. The area is, in fact, less busy than the old city and very photogenic. Also worth a visit is one of the last palaces to be built in India, Umaid Bhawan. Constructed in 1944, it has 347 rooms, and is one of the largest private residences in the world. Indeed, a part of the palace is still occupied by the royal family, although it is also used as a hotel.
Our Hotel 🛕
We stayed at the Krishna Prakesh Heritage Hotel, a traditional haveli with amazing fort views, beautiful decor and an excellent chef!
5) Mount Abu
A winding road leads to Rajasthan’s only hill station, Mount Abu, 1220m above sea level. Set in the Aravilla Mountains, it’s a popular retreat from the intense desert heat. The town is additionally known for such outside activities as trekking, caving, rock climbing together with stargazing and camping.
In fact, one of the best hikes in the vicinity finishes at Dhrudhiya Waterfall, which is particularly spectacular during the monsoon season. Additionally, the trek to the highest peak of Guru Sikha, offers panoramic views from the summit. The trail also passes the splendid Guru Dattatreya Temple on route. Leopards and sloth bears together with wolves can be seen at nearby Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary.
Back in town, the five Dilwara Jain Temples, which were built between the 11th and 13th centuries, feature impressive carvings together with marble work. Shopping in Mount Abu is a colourful experience. Locally produced handicrafts including sarees, bangles, puppets, quilts along with sandalwood are among the popular items which are sold.
Mount Abu is also home to Nakki Lake, a man-made reservoir where boats can be hired for a scenic lap around the lake. Furthermore, in the early evenings, crowds gather at Sunset Point to watch the sun sink over the mountains.
Bundi is one of the less visited Rajasthani cities and, indeed, that is what makes it so appealing. We stayed at the Dev Niwas Heritage Hotel, a traditional haveli with spectacular views of the city from the roof terrace. Unfortunately, we were both suffering from food poisoning when we arrived. The staff were super helpful and kind, bringing a constant supply of drinks along with honey and toast to our room!
Bundi itself is a small, but friendly city. Additionally, it is devoid of the constant hassle present in other more popular cities. As we explored the narrow streets, shopkeepers called out greetings and waved good-naturedly. Some of the murals on the shopfronts and buildings are beautiful – both intricate and colourful.
As with most cities in Rajasthan, Bundi is home to a palace. The entrance, known as Hathi Poi, means elephant gate and visitors walk under a pair of elephant sculptures to enter. Although the building isn’t as well-maintained as the better-known palaces, there are some stunning murals together with paintings which depict Indian mythology.
Our Hotel 🛕
We stayed at Dev Niwas, a traditional haveli with incredible views of Bundi from the roof terrace and helpful staff.
The town of Pushkar is located next to a holy lake and is famous for its camel fair, which takes place every November for two weeks. The fair is a colourful spectacle, exuding a carnival like atmosphere. It attracts a crowd of around 400,000 people. Tents and stalls are set up in the desert and camel traders together with horse traders arrive from all over India. Furthermore, the event honours the Hindu God, Brahma, the creator of the universe.
Pushkar, however, is fascinating at any time of the year. Hindu pilgrims are drawn to the town to swim in the holy water and also worship at one of the many temples. Surprisingly, there are around five hundred temples in this small town. Aarti (fire) ceremonies are held lakeside every evening. The sound of drumming, chanting together with the tingling of bells can be heard coming from the ghats. Watching a ceremony as the sun goes down is a captivating experience.
The town’s bazaar is a riot of colour and brims with hippie cafes, juice bars and handicrafts stalls. There are elephant pants, Rajasthani style throws and patchwork bags aplenty. Being a holy town, Pushkar is vegetarian and officially alcohol is banned. However, bhang, a lassi laced with cannabis leaves is available in several cafes.
The romantic lakeside setting of Udaipur is on most traveller’s agenda. Known as the City of Lakes, for the four lakes that it surrounds. it has an abundance of impressive Rajasthani architecture. It is also rich in culture and history. The focal point of scenic Lake Pichola is the stunning Taj Palace Hotel. The Taj Palace has been featured in many a movie including James Bond’s Octopussy. It is at night, when the lights from the hotel glow on the water, that it is at its most beautiful.
The Udaipur City Palace and museum is a highlight of any visit to Udaipur. The grandeur of the Mewer Palace is awe-inspiring from the tinted glass and mirrorwork to the intricate art, balconies and courtyards. Additionally, check out the Monsoon Palace for sweeping views of the lake. The view is especially magical at sunset.
At Bagore-Ki-Haveli, an 18th century haveli next to the lake, there are nightly performances of traditional Rajasthani music and dance. The haveli’s museum is fascinating, albeit somewhat creepy. One room is filled with colourful puppets, while another is dedicated to turbans. The turbans are each placed on the head of a waxwork head, every one of them with their own unique facial features.
9) Ranthambore National Park
If you want to see a tiger in the wild in India, Ranthambore National Park is one of the best places to head for. The nearest town to the national park is Sawai Madhopur. This is where most people stay and arrange their safaris from. Not only is the park home to tigers, but also leopards, sloth bears and sambar deer.
We booked our safari through our hotel and were lucky enough to view a tiger stalk a young deer at close range for an hour or so. Although the deer was oblivious at first, it swiftly made its escape when it became aware of the tiger’s presence. It was, indeed, an incredible experience and one we will never forget. We even spotted a second tiger as we were leaving the park, along with monkeys aplenty!
In addition to tiger spotting, there is a impressive fort within the park, which is also well worth visiting. The fort is situated on a hill-top and is spread over an area of around 12km and majestically looks over the national park. We saw many grey langurs as we made our way up the steps, past colourful shrines. The fort is well-known for its Ganesh temple and is also home to a Jain temple and a Mosque.