Backpacking India: The Best Route and 3 Month Itinerary
“I’m thinking of backpacking India, but where should I go?”
If you are planning a trip backpacking India deciding where to go is not an easy task. India is such a vast and wonderfully diverse country that sometimes the hardest thing when planning a trip to India is deciding where to go.
One of the best things about backpacking India is the amazing diversity in this sub continent – from snow capped Himalayan mountains to tropical beaches, from lanquid backwaters to chaotic cites and desert forts – India sometimes feels like many different countries especially as the languages, food and culture differs in each state.
India really does have it all, there is so much to see, amazing food, welcoming people and it’s still one of the cheapest places to travel in the world and you could travel around India for a lifetime and see something new and fascinating every day! That’s why many people return again and again to spend many months at a time backpacking India. For me, India is the ultimate travel destination!
Let’s be honest, backpacking India is not a walk in the park, especially for first time visitors. The distances are huge, the culture shock and hassle can sometimes be overwhelming and traveling here can at times be challenging and frustrating.
There sure is a lot to see in India but my top tip for anyone backpacking India for the first time is to take it slow! Everything always takes longer than you expect and India is not a place to rush around; trying to see too much will end up in a stressful instead of enjoyable trip.
I learnt the hard way, I tried to fit too much in during my first trip, I tried to cover the whole country in 2 months and ended up stressed, sick, scammed and exhausted with a love/ hate relationship with India. But even this could not put me off giving India another go and when I returned for my second and third visits I took things a lot slower and enjoyed my trips so much more.
So where should you go on your first trip backpacking India?
Traveling this huge and diverse country takes time and I would recommend to come for at least 3 months. However, if you have less than 1 month in India then I would concentrate on one area. Think about what you are interested in – whether it is history, forts and palaces or nature and wildlife, temples or beaches, food. shopping or nightlife.
For first time visitors I usually recommend to start in the less chaotic South of India. While Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle are home to some amazing and iconic sights including opulent forts and of course the Taj Mahal, places like the laid back beaches and backwaters of Kerala and Goa are perfect places to get a good introduction to India to allow you to get acclimatized before tackling the big sights and chaotic cities in the North. Tamil Nadu also has lots to offer as does under rated Karnataka. Or, if it’s warm enough, head to the Himalayan mountains in North India in Himachal Pradesh and the surrounding area.
All visitors to India need to get a visa before travelling – check out my complete step by step guide to applying for an Indian visa to make the process easier.
My Perfect Itinerary for Backpacking India
Here’s a route map of the best places to go in India to help you get your bearings and plan your perfect itinerary:
If I was backpacking India again for the first time, knowing what I know now, this is the route that I would take. Starting from the more chilled out South and heading North to get a good variety of destinations while avoiding extra distance or going back on yourself (it always takes longer than you think to get anywhere in India!)
Read on and I’ll explain each destination, why go, what to see and do, where to stay and how to get there.
Tours of India
If you prefer someone else to do all the planning and organizing (and I don’t blame you, India can be a challenging country to backpack or travel independently in) Check out this post with my 12 favourite India tours and itineraries. I recommend G Adventures – they run some awesome, award winning, socially responsible, small tours for all budgets and tastes and have some great itineraries and tours around India, check out their last minute deals to see if you can grab a bargain.
Intrepid also has a great selection of fun and adventurous tours all over India with reputable local guides. Check out Intrepid’s last min deals to get 25% off. Also, Geckos Adventures do really great value, super fun tours especially for 18 – 29 year olds. You can also compare itineraries and prices from loads of different tour companies and find great deals on Tour Radar – check out this page where you can get 60 % off Asia tours.
For more detail on the tours I recommend check out this post with my 12 favourite India tours and itineraries.
Kerala – 1 week
Fly into Kerala and start your Indian adventure gently in laid back Kerala – a tropical and luscious state known as ‘God’s own country.’
Explore the multicultural history of Fort Cochin before cruising the backwaters, lazing on tropical beaches like Varkala and Kovalam, and enjoying the nature in places like Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and soak up the gorgeous, green views in the tea growing hill station of Munnar
Where to stay: Kerala has a good network of new backpacker hostels. Check out my 12 best backpacker hostels in Kerala here.
How to get there: Kochi (Cochin) and Trivandrum (Thiruananthapuram) both have airports that have some international flights and are also well connected to the rest of India with domestic flights.
How to get around: The coastal side of Kerala is well connected by trains but to reach Munnar or Periyar you can take local or delux buses. Even hiring a car and driver in India isn’t too expensive. GoMowgli also run a hop on hop off backpacker bus around Kerala which makes for a perfect easy start for your backpacking adventure in India.
Kerala to Karnataka
From Kerala continue into the neighbouring and relatively underrated state of Karnataka, a large and diverse state with everything from modern mega cities to ancient ruins and palaces as well as rolling hills, jungles, tiger reserves, quintessential countryside life and beaches to explore.
Mysore – 2/3 days
Mysore (Mysuru) is one of South India’s most popular and flamboyant destinations, famous for it’s glittering royal heritage, magnificent monuments, colourful bazaars, the enthralling, elaborate Mysore Palace and Ashtanga yoga.
How to get there: You can take an overnight delux bus from Kochi to Mysore, or you could break up the journey roughly halfway and cool off in the hill station of Ooty (Udhagamandalam) before heading to Mysore.
Read More: A Flashpacker’s Guide to Mysore
Bangalore – 1/2 days
Bangalore (Bengaluru) is India’s silicon city and IT hub where you can indulge in the delights of modern India, get your fix of Western food, malls and nightlife. There’s a few nice parks and a palace here too and it’s also a good transport hub.
Where to stay: Accommodation in Bangalore can be quite expensive but Social Rehab is a new, smart hostel located in the cool Indiranagar district is an affordable and sociable place to stay.
How to get there: Bangalore is an easy 3 hour train or bus ride from Mysore. Bangalore also has an airport with frequent and reasonably priced connections to other parts of India.
Read More: 10 Things to do in Bangalore
Hampi – 5 days
Hampi is one of the magical destinations in India where a surreal and beautiful boulder strewn scenery surrounds the captivating ancient temples and ruins of the once great Vijayanagara Empire. There’s a big backpacker scene here and the chance to see some out of this world landscapes and idyllic Indian countryside life.
Expect to linger longer than expected! Hampi is one of my favourite places in India and a highlight of many backpacker’s travels in India.
Where to stay: There are cheap guesthouses in Hampi bazaar – one of the best is Gopi Guest House but no meat or alcohol are served on this side of the river. Most backpackers prefer the relaxed, hippy scene on the other side of the river where you can stay in cute, rustic huts with views over the paddy fields, my favourites are the super cute Mowgli Guest House and Shanthi Guesthouse.
How to get there: The easiest and quickest way to get to Hampi from Bangalore is by overnight bus.
Read More: Why I fell in love with magical Hampi
Goa – 1 week
Another place you might find hard to leave are the blissful beaches of Goa with their infectious, easy going way of life. If you can tear yourself off the beach you’ll find there’s plenty of churches, forts, waterfalls, spice plantations, markets and a buzzing nightlife scene to explore here. Goa is the most relaxed state in India with the best nightlife, a vibrant and cosmopolitan food scene and is a great place to meet other travellers.
Where to stay: Goa’s beaches are all different but the most popular with backpackers is the colourful rustic beach in the far south at Palolem and the hippy beaches of Anjuna and Arambol in the north that are close to all the markets and parties. See the Top 10 Backpacker Hostels in Goa for more ideas on where to stay.
How to get there: From Hampi you can take an overnight bus to Goa or take an 8 hour train in the daytime. There are also flights to Goa from all over India.
Mumbai (Bombay) – 3/4 days
Mumbai was previously called Bombay but everyone still calls it by the old name. Bombay is India’s biggest, most buzzing and aspirational city – home of Bollywood and some atmospheric, crumbling colonial architecture. It’s an exciting, dynamic city of dreams and contrasts with so much to do and see. Mumbai is my favourite city in India.
Where to stay: Mumbai has some of the most expensive accommodation in India and there is only 1 backpacker hostel here so far which is The Wanderers Backpackers Homestay in Andheri (near the airport) A good, clean budget option in Fort, near the popular area of Colaba is The Travellers Inn which has dorms and private rooms and is popular with backpackers.
How to get there: Goa to Mumbai is a 12 hour overnight train or bus. The flight from Goa to Mumbai takes only a hour and you can find prices from only 1,000 rupees so it’s worth checking the flight price before you get on the long bus ride.
Ellora and Ajantha Caves – 2/3 days
Break up the journey between Mumbai and Rajasthan by checking out the awe inspiring Unesco listed Ellora and Ajanta Caves near Aurangabad. These caves are one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple caves complexes in the world with amazing ancient Buddhist carvings and sculptures.
Where to stay: There are not many hotels near the caves so Aurangabad, the closest town to the caves makes a convenient base. A good, cheap hotel is Hotel Preetam.
How to get there: Aurangabad is about 6 hours on the train from Mumbai, 5 hours in a taxi or about 11 hours on a public bus. From Aurangabad you can get a bus to the caves but it’s more convenient to hire a taxi to between the two cave sites. It’s about 2 hours drive from Ellora to Ajanta.
Rajasthan – 2 weeks
Rajasthan is possibly India’s most flamboyant state with so many ancient forts, extravagant palaces, colourful bazaars and interesting history there is a lot to explore here.
Udaipur – 3/4 days
If you’re coming from the south of India then make relaxing and charming Udaipur, a romantic city of shimmering lakes and glittering palaces, your first stop in Rajasthan.
How to get there: You can get an overnight train over bus from either Mumbai or Aurangabad to Udaipur. You might even be able to find a good deal on a flight between Mumbai and Udaipur.
Jodhpur – 2/3 days
After chilled out Udaipur head to the Blue City of Jodphur and see the mighty Fort Mehrangarh and explore the old city – a tangle of medieval winding streets, blue coloured buildings and bazaars.
Where to stay: Zostel have a hostel in Jodphur located near to the station or stay in an old haveli or guesthouse in the old city – Bob (Marley) Hostel is a cool, centrally located guesthouse located in the heart of the old city.
How to get there: Buses from Udaipur to Jodphur only take about 7 hours or a taxi takes only 4 hours.
Jaisalmer 4/5 days
Jaisalmer is a little out of the way but this historic golden fort rising out of the desert is quite a sight. Taking a camel safari across the Thar desert is also a popular experience to try in Rajasthan. Many leave from Jaisalmer but Bikaner is another good choice, if you don’t have time to get to Jaisalmer or are looking for something a little less touristy.
Where to stay: Zostel has a hostel designed like a haveli or old palace with views over the desert and fort. They can also organise your camel safari with a reputable operator or check out Surya Paying Guest House, a colourful, quirky place within Jaisalmer Fort.
How to get there: Jaisalmer is only 6 hours on the train from Jodhpur.
Pushkar 3/4 days
The small but charming holy lakeside town of Pushkar is quite a bewitching and magical place with good shopping that is a popular place for backpackers to relax. If you come in October/November try to time your visit the the amazing spectacle of the Pushkar camel fair.
How to get there: From Jaislamer take an overnight train to Ajmer Junction, from there its a 15 min bus or taxi ride to Pushkar.
The Golden Triangle – 1 week
The Golden Triangle consists of the capital Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and is one of India’s most visited routes as it contains some of the most famous sights in India. You could rush round it in 4/5 days but it’s always better to take your time as there’s alot to see here but also alot of hassle.
Jaipur – 3 days
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and known as ‘the pink city’ h0me to the extravagant City Palace, the honeycombed Hawa Mahal and the impressive Amber Fort.
How to get there: Jaipur is only a 2 hour train journey from Ajmer Junction (the closest train station to Pushkar)
Agra – 2/3 days
Agra is home to the most beautiful building the world – the Taj Mahal, a sight you simply can’t miss when traveling India. You can visit the Taj on a rushed day trip from Delhi but Agra is also home to Agra Fort and the nearby ruined city of Fatephur Sikri which are worth staying a few more days to explore.
How to get there: Agra is only about 4 hours on the train from Jaipur.
Delhi – 3/ 4 days
Many travellers go through Delhi as quickly as possible as it can an overwhelming city which is a shame because there is so much to see here. Delhi has a lot of history as well as being a city hurtling into the 21st century. Make time to check out the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutb Minar, Chandni Chowk, New Delhi and India Gate and the Akshardam Temple.
Where to stay: Traditionally most backpacker and budget accommodation in Delhi is situated in the Paharganj area near New Delhi railway station – Hostel Smyle Inn is good or check out Stops Hostel near Chandi Chowk. There are also many cool, new hostels have opened in the suburbs giving you a chance to escape the most chaotic parts of Delhi – one of the best is Madpackers Hostel. See my 8 best backpacker hostels in Delhi.
How to get there: There is a new fast train that gets you from Agra to Delhi in 3 hours. Once in Delhi make use of the new, modern and efficient metro – it can get to most attractions without having to haggle with a rickshaw driver.
From Delhi you could either go East to visit the holy city of Varanasi, or West and visit Amritsar, the Himalayas and Rishikesh.
A Himalayan Loop – 2/3 weeks
From Delhi go west to visit the amazing Golden Temple in Amristar and watch the spectacle of the Pakistan border ceremony.
If it’s warm enough then from Amritsar you could continue up into the Himalayan mountains in Himachal Pradesh visiting Dharamsala (home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet government in exile, Manali and Shimla the queen of the hill stations and the Summer capital of India during the times of the British Raj.
In July and August the weather is warm enough to head up to lovely Leh and Ladakh. On your way looping back to Delhi don’t miss Rishikesh the yoga capital of the world situated on a gorgeous stretch of the holy river Ganges.
From Delhi take an overnight train east bound to visit the holy city of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest inhabited cites and home to the holy river Ganges. Watching all the rituals of life and death played out by the river at sunrise is an unforgettable and essential Indian experience.
There is a reason why I put Delhi and Varanasi at the end of the trip – visiting these loud, dirty, crazy places could be too overwhelming to enjoy at the start of your trip, plus there are a lot of touts and scammers but, once acclimatized to backpacking India, they are fascinating places to visit.
Also consider visiting …
Also, try Tamil Nadu, this could be an alternative starting point although travel is not quite as easy as Kerala. You could also fly into Chennai (Madras) only a few hours South is the seaside temple town of Mahabalipuram that is popular with backpackers, the French city of Pondicherry and nearby alternative ‘utopian’ community of Auroville is worth checking out. Tamil Nadu is all about temples and the best is the Mennakashi temple in Madurai which you could swing by on the way over to Kerala. Check out my perfect itinerary for traveling in Tamil Nadu.
How long do you need to backpack India?
Of course there are still many, many more places to see in India, it would take a lifetime to see them all, but I think this would be the perfect route for an (at least) 3 month visit that eases a first time visitor in gently into this incredible country and also gives a good range of sights and activities without doubling back on yourself too much.
If you don’t have time to do it all how about splitting it up into 2 visits – the 1st time travel the South from Kerala up to Mumbai, and the 2nd visit from Mumbai through Rajasthan and the North.
What if you only have a month for backpacking India?
It’s a shame but if you can really only spare 1 month then I would still suggest to start in Kerala, relax and soak in the nature on the backwaters, or Goa to enjoy the beaches and nightlife and head inland to magical Hampi for an easy introduction to India. You could fly from Goa up to the North and tour the Golden Triangle taking in Delhi, Jaipur and Agra and the Taj Mahal and then taking a sleeper train to visit fascinating Varanasi. And then expect to return to see what you missed out on!
What if you only have 2 weeks for backpacking India?
2 weeks is a short time to try and see this huge country but 2 weeks is better than nothing right!? If you only have 2 weeks to backpack India I would suggest concentrating on just one area. Taking a tour would also be a good idea to maximize your time available so you can see as much as possible and avoid wasting precious time getting lost, scammed or planning your next move.
If you only have 2 weeks to backpack India I would suggest either exploring Kerala and South India for an easier and more laid back option. The Southern India and Karnataka by Rail Tour with G Adventures covers all the best places in Kerala, Karnataka and Goa in just 10 days. Or you could hit up the big sites in North India like the Golden Triangle, Varanasi and Rajasthan. This Geckos Adventures North India Explorer Tour visits the highlights of the Golden Triangle as well as the holy city of Varanasi and the more charming, off beat gem of Bundi in Rajasthan in only 11 days. Check out the other tours of India I recommend here.
What do you think of my backpacking India itinerary? Anywhere I missed out?
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