Traveling through India can be an unforgettable experience. From its rich cultural heritage, and deeply-rooted religious traditions, to mouthwatering street food, India has a distinct raw and exotic flair to it.
“But why go backpacking through it?”, you ask, “why not just get a tour package?”
Good question. Two answers.
Backpacking is a far more intense experience because when you’re zipping across in a tuk-tuk, or wolfing down peppery hot curries with the locals, or getting around in overly crowded buses and trains, you get to have a true adventure. Or get to have a culture shock (something that attracts many travelers to India).
If you opt for a pre-planned tourist package, you’ll miss out on exploring untouched and off-the-beaten-track sites. You will also eat at restaurants which serve food that is ‘watered down’ for tourists. You won’t feel the chaos and nuttiness of this diverse place in an air-conditioned bus being hurtled away from one tourist destination to another. Said in another way, backpacking gives you an authentic experience.
So now that we’ve established why backpacking can be an attractive option for you, let’s talk budget. More often than not, backpackers are on a tight budget. And when you’re backpacking through a country, for weeks or even months at end, expenses will add up. Expenses that not everyone can afford.
But thankfully, that’s not the case with India. As huge as this country is, just about anybody can afford backpacking through it, especially if you’re traveling off-season and don’t mind some discomfort. Everything is cheap. Accommodation.Food.Travel.Dirt cheap.
Apart from budget, accommodation and travel links are another factor you need to take into account before you board your flight. In most backpack-friendly cities, you can find hostels oriented towards backpackers and are inexpensive. Save for remote villages in town, most cities are well-serviced by public trains, buses, and taxis, so getting around shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Lastly, you should consider weather patterns before deciding on an itinerary. You wouldn’t want to backpack through major cities in monsoon, or take a trip through Rajhistan in July, or trek through the Himalayas in winters. If you time it right, you can avoid unpleasant (sometimes unbearable) weather conditions.
With that in mind, here are 5 backpacker-friendly cities in India that should definitely make the final cut in your itinerary.
Hampi is probably one of the most amazing backpacking destinations in India. You can arrive here from either Goa or Bangalore. When you do, you’ll find it teeming with fellow backpackers (though most of them hang around in the far side of the river).
With its countless temples carved from rock, tall boulders, ample marijuana that grows everywhere, chilled parties and stargazing, this backpacker’s paradise has everything to ensure that your trip will be a memorable one.
But first, a bit of history…
It was once the center of the Hindu Empire of Vijayanagara. That was until the empire suffered defeat at the hands of Muslim rulers and the stone-cut temples were deserted. Even if you aren’t a history buff, the gods, animals, and demons carved from colossal boulders, inspire a sense of awe in you.
In addition to soaking in history, there’s a lot of exploring you can do here (which can easily take up a week or more, so schedule accordingly). You can also revel in a number of activities.
I’d recommend hiring a moped to get around, because a) they’re unbelievably cheap b) they’re very convenient.
Start by paying the Virupaksha and Anjaneya temples a visit. Virupasha is the oldest temple in Hampi and is home to the famous rock chariot. Anjaneya is revered by the locals as the temple for worshipping the monkey god – Hanuman. Both these temples house a number of mesmerizing carvings.
Once you’ve done some exploring, go take a swim in the clear water of Hampi dam to cool off. If you fancy a boat ride, hire a coracle – round boats native to this region.
If you don’t mind the crowds of tourists, the gargantuan Elephant Stables is worth checking out. And if you have a penchant for climbing, you can go bouldering too. But I’d advise against it if you visit during monsoon.
What better way to end your day than watching the beautiful sunset on the Sunset Hill, amidst other backpackers (some of them blazed whom you can join if you like weed)? If you’d rather be alone, you can also find a secluded spot on the hill and take in the sunset by yourself.
Probably the most popular tourist destination in India, Goa is known for its amazing party scene, chilled out vibes, and captivating beaches. It’s equally popular with backpackers and hippies.
Although small, Goa is actually a state and not a city. Several towns, cities, beaches, and enclaves are a part of it. And because it’s so vast, it has a little something to offer for almost everyone.
To get the most out of your goa trip, consider visiting between November and February. The rest of the year is either too rainy or too hot. I’d also avoid timing the trip during major holidays because tourists flock to Goa in droves and you’ll have trouble finding decent accommodation. Accommodation and unbearable weather are only some of the problems that come with backpacking here during the off-season.
Depending on what your budget dictates, Goa offers quite a few accommodation options, including shacks, guest houses, hotels, and hostels. Hostels are by far the most popular option for backpackers. Zostel is the most popular hostel accommodation service in India and you can find a decent place to stay here for a very reasonable price.
As for the places to visit when you’re there, you can catch transport to Old Goa, Arambol, Anjuna, and Morjim. Old Goa is a great place to pick up some souvenirs and get the view of old monasteries and churches. Panjim is a good place to shop for gold jewelry but it’s inland and doesn’t have any beaches. If you’re looking to kick back and relax, away from the buzz and partying, Arambol is the place for you.
But if you favor a kickass party, Anjuna is where you want to be. It is known for its rave and acid parties, and it has been that for forty some years. For that reason alone, it has become a hub for backpackers – mostly Israeli ones.
Morjim is a quaint little town and pretty quiet by Goan Standards. If you are visiting during the season, don’t forget to check out the Olive Turtles who come to its beach to lay eggs every year.
Long story short, if a thriving nightlife, heady trance parties, drugs, or shopping interest you, your trip to India won’t be complete without visiting Goa.
If Goa is a bit too ‘touristy’ for your taste, and you’d rather visit somewhere more secluded, head to Gokarna. You’ll find plenty of small beaches here which serve as hippie enclaves. Gokarna is the perfect off-the-beaten-track destination for backpackers because it’s not as commercialized and tourist-oriented as Goa.
There are a few guest houses, shops, temples, dirt roads and a lot of stray cows here. You’ll be dropped at the main bus station and there are Zostel hostels short ways from there. and I’d recommend staying there instead of the guest houses because most of them don’t even have electricity, much less reliable Wi-Fi.
You can go fishing in the seas, you can spend your day playing volleyball, or exploring the temples I mentioned above. You can go trekking to one of the five major beaches in Gokarna. As the night falls, you can get high on shrooms and weed with other hippies.
If you’re looking to pick up a souvenir, go haggle for a necklace from the necklace sellers on the beach. Or you could take a stroll through the streets, and check out the hand-crafted musical instruments, clothing or other artifacts.
Gokarna is not particularly dangerous except for the snakes – which are commonplace here. Most of them aren’t poisonous but there are some poisonous species around.
Colloquially dubbed, ‘pink city’, Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan. Its marvelous architecture and rich history attract backpackers and are a great way to experience the Rajasthani culture. The city is divided into the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ city. The old city is walled and boasts forts, palaces, and havelis (mansions). All of these architectural marvels are painted pink – hence the name. The ‘new city’ part is the first planned city in India and reflects a modern architecture and lifestyle.
You can reach here via bus from Delhi. The ride can easily take up to 6 hours, so your butt might have to take some bruising. You can get around in a tuk-tuk once you get here, and on the cheap too. Don’t be surprised when you see camels, elephants and monkeys here because there’s a lot of them. You can an elephant through the Sun gates of Amer Fort.
After you’ve done some exploring you can go shopping for souvenirs – jewelry, fabrics, slippers, and pottery in the marketplace. The bazaar is great if you’re looking for clothes you can get stitched yourself. You can also buy colorful slippers, silver and gold jewelry here.
While this big city has some attractions, it might be too chaotic for some backpackers. That said, there are some attractions definitely worth checking out – Galtaji temple, City Palace museum and HawaMahal to name a few.
Amritsar comes from the Sanskrit word ‘amrit’ which means ‘eternal’. The city itself is named after the lake that was here where the Golden Temple exists today. Many historians believe that it’s the forest which surrounded that lake is where Buddha spent his time meditating as did Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism. With that in mind, it is not difficult to see why Amritsar is sacred to Sikhs.
The Golden Temple is what brings most backpackers to this city and for good reason too. This shrine receives more visitors than TajMahal or even Times Square every year. The architecture of this temple is simply jaw-dropping. Interestingly enough, the Golden Temple was not always golden. It was only when a Sikh ruler rose into power that this temple was perfected with golden gliding and precious gemstones.
You can go exploring the buildings that surround the pool, the Central Sikh museum in particular, which features artifacts from the Sikh Raj, beautiful paintings and musical instruments. It’s a great way to educate yourself about the rich Sikh history.
While the Golden Temple is Amritsar’s main attraction, many backpackers come here for the food. This city has the world’s only vegetarian McDonald’s and street food is ubiquitous. If you never have before, you have to try the ‘Kulchas’ – puffed up bread cooked in a tandoor, which are served almost everywhere.
For those with a sweet tooth, this city is heaven with its sweets of all shapes, sizes, and flavors. The Khana Sweets is the place to be if you’re looking for some excellent mouthwatering cubes of sweetmeat. I’ll highly recommend trying the lassi here. You can find the dishes and drinks I mentioned at KesarKaDhaba – a food institution which has been in operation for little over a century. Don’t leave Amritsar without trying chicken tandoori if you’re craving meat.
You mostly have limited budget accommodation options but you if you’re planning on staying here a few days, the hotels here might be attractive options, albeit a little pricey. The Hyatt, Holiday Inn, RanjitSvaasa and Ramada Amritsar are some places worth checking out if you’re going to base yourself here for a while.
Stuck in the humdrum of daily life, running up against deadlines, commuting and appeasing your boss, can easily suck the life out of just about anybody. Every once in a while, you need an escapade. Need to venture into the unknown. Meet interesting new people. Find fascinating places. This sense of adventure is what lures backpackers.
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford an excursion halfway across the world. That is unless you are planning a trip to India which even backpackers on the tightest of budgets can afford. And this country has just about everything to satisfy your hunger for adventure.