Do the Golden Triangle differently with this India itinerary
One of the most popular itinerary routes for first-time visitors to India is the classic Golden Triangle. It’s a great start to exploring India and visitors can fit in highlights like the Taj Mahal on a relatively short trip.
This popular route is packed with tourists year-round, but there are a few unique gems and activities that not everyone knows about. I’ve designed my Golden Triangle India itinerary to enable you to explore this well-traveled route differently than everyone else.
Golden Triangle India Itinerary
When people refer to the “Golden Triangle” in India, they are talking about an itinerary that starts and ends in Delhi, connecting Agra and Jaipur along the way. I have opted to add in Varanasi and Ranthambore National Park into my version of India’s Golden Triangle itinerary, though these can be skipped if you are short on time or not interested.
- Days 1-2: Delhi
- Days 3-5: Varanasi and day trip to Sarnath
- Day 6: Agra
- Day 7-9: Ranthambore National Park
- Days 10-11: Jaipur
- Day 12: Delhi
At each destination, I am including the standard “must-see” places, as well as tips and places that can help you do it differently.
Transportation Options in India on the Golden Triangle Itinerary
If you have heard anything about driving in India, I hope it’s that it’s chaotic and that you shouldn’t do it – especially in the cities. Leave it to those who know the roads and traffic patterns of India.
Private Driver or Small Group Tour
This would be the easiest, though likely most expensive, transportation option in India. You would be able to bypass the stress of figuring out the train and bus systems. If you opt for a small group tour, you will likely use a mix of private and public transportation.
Tourist-class busses connect the cities listed in this itinerary. This option will likely be less expensive than any of the others, but possibly more time-consuming depending on the number of stops along the way.
This is one of the most popular ways to travel around India. Trains are often delayed, and the stations themselves are chaotic and can be difficult to navigate. That said, trains are an affordable and reasonably comfortable way for traveling in India. This guide to train travel in India can help demystify the process.
- Read my guide on what to expect on your first trip to India.
- Be mindful of your belongings on any form of transportation in India. Petty theft is common, especially on overnight buses or sleeper trains. I recommend using carabiners to hook your bags to each other or even to you while you sleep.
- Many of the sites in India have religious significance. Keep this in mind and dress appropriately, covering your knees and shoulders (even if you’re a male).
Golden Triangle India Itinerary Day-by-day
Days 1-3: Delhi
Some people skip exploring Delhi entirely, using the city only as their entry and exit point thanks to the well-connected Indira Gandhi International Airport.
The gritty and chaotic city offers plenty of points of interest to keep you busy for a few days.
Jama Masjid mosque
Jama Masjid is the oldest and largest mosque in Delhi. In the middle of such a chaotic city, the massive courtyard (which can hold 25,000 people) is an oasis of calm. It was constructed per the orders of Shah Jahan – the same man who had the Taj Mahal built!
The Red Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for about 200 years until 1856. The Red Fort accommodated the emperors and their families and was the political center of the Mughal state.
This 73-meter tall minaret, or tower, dates from 1192. It is the main monument that remains at the Qutb Minar complex, a World Heritage site.
Mughal Emperor Humayun’s tomb was built in 1569 and is one of the most popular landmarks in Delhi for visitors.
Old Delhi walking tour
One of my favorite activities in Delhi was walking around Old Delhi early in the morning. Explore the alleyways and enjoy a hot chai tea. I recommend going with a guide so you can learn about the history!
Sheeshganj Gurudwara Sikh Temple
In Old Delhi, stop by Sheeshganj Gurudwara, a large Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple Tim and I had ever been to, and we were impressed by what we learned there. At the temple, volunteers prepare food for the community. They’ll feed whoever is in need and wants to come to eat. Visitors to Asia will often visit Hindu or Buddhist temples, but Sikh temples are rarer outside of India. Take the opportunity to learn about this significant religion.
National Gandhi Museum
This museum showcases the life and accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a bit far off the tourist area of Delhi, and it’s a great way to escape the heat and learn about one of India’s most iconic historical figures.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities on earth. It’s not a traditional stop on the Golden Triangle itinerary in India, but it’s worth the detour. Set on the Ganges River, it is one of India’s most spiritual centers. Every morning, Hindu priests greet the sunrise over the river with a worship ceremony, and locals bathe along the ghats (steps) or wash laundry.
Along the same river, families cremate bodies of the dead in funeral ceremonies, sending their ashes down the Ganges in hopes of ending the cycle of reincarnation.
Rituals of life and death unfold daily along these shores in a communion I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world.
Walk along the Ganges
Taking a walk along the Ganges is a wonderful, and free, way of seeing how life unfolds. You can do this at any time of day, but evening and sunrise are particularly special.
Hindu Prayer Services
To really witness the spirituality of Varanasi unfold, I highly recommend observing the sunrise and evening prayer services. The evening aarti (worship) is best observed on a boat on the Ganges, and tours will also give you biodegradable candles you can float on the water with a prayer of your own.
The morning rituals at Assi Ghat coincide with sunrise and do not require a boat or tour (though I do recommend the morning boat ride as well).
Visit a silk shop
Just a 30 min tuk-tuk ride outside of Varanasi lies Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism. In the 4th century BC, Buddha gave his first sermon here. A 34-meter stupa (Dhamekh Stupa) with brickwork dating from 200 BC marks the spot. A nearby temple, called Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, dates much more recent (1931), but the beautiful wall frescoes inside depict the life of Buddha in honor of the significance of this spot as the birthplace of one of the world’s major religions.
I won’t lie to you – most people I know did not like Agra as a city itself when following a Golden Triangle itinerary on their India trips. I recommend going to see the main sites and focus on enjoying those. Don’t worry so much about the city.
A site that needs no introduction, the Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic places in the world. Shah Jahan commissioned the Taj Mahal mausoleum in 1631 as a memorial for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child. Legend has it, that on her deathbed, she asked that he give her a token of his love for her. And this is what he came up with.
Her tomb rests in the very center inside the mausoleum, and his is right beside it, breaking the almost perfect symmetry of the entire complex.
There are large brick gates to the north and south, a mosque to the west and an identical building (though not technically a mosque) to the east.
The grounds are wonderful to walk in, especially in the late afternoon when the light is just right and it’s starting to cool off. The inside of the mausoleum is admittedly not as spectacular as the outside, but it’s still worth seeing for the historical aspects.
Built in the 1500s as a military fortification, it was later converted into a palace by Shah Jahan (the same man who built the Taj Mahal). This fort/palace eventually became his prison when his own son kept him in captivity here during the last 8 years of Shah Jahan’s life.
The walled complex covers 2.5 km in circumference, and there are seemingly endless rooms and courtyards to explore. You could easily get lost wandering here! I loved imagining what palace life would have been like. As it turned out, the Agra Fort was the royal palace my childhood self thought the Taj Mahal would be!
I recommend visiting early in the morning when it first opens to avoid the heat and all the crowds.
Detour to Ranthambore National Park
A few hours away from Agra by private transport or train, Ranthambore National Park is one of the best places to spot wild tigers in India. It’s not part of the classic Golden Triangle itinerary in India, but it’s an easy stop en route from Agra to Jaipur. For the best chances of spotting a tiger, go on several safari drives over the course of your time there.
The so-called Pink City is the capital of the state of Rajasthan and a great base for a number of beautiful sites. It’s a highlight for many travelers of the Golden Triangle itinerary in India.
Amber Fort Palace
Built around 1600, the fort has an extensive palace complex. There are stunning painted gates, marble columns, walls of mosaics and tiles, and many courtyards. My favorite part of the fort was the elaborately painted Ganesh Pol, one of the gates into the palace.
Royal Palace and City Palace
This colorful complex of gardens and palaces is a delight for those who love architecture and photography. The palaces date from different eras and are a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture.
You’ve probably seen this place on Instagram. The colorful Patrika gate is actually part of a garden that sits in a traffic cycle. It is pretty new and doesn’t have any major historical significance. I didn’t visit, but I think it’s great to see cities anywhere in the world incorporating green space where they can.
Panna Meen Ka Kund
Another Instagram favorite, Panna Meen Ka Kund is a super-symmetrical ancient step well and rainwater catchment near the Amber Fort. It’s forbidden to take pictures on them, however, so I recommend getting your photos from afar.
Wind Palace/Hawa Mahal
Hawa Mahal, with its 953 windows on its façade, is where royal women could observe daily life outside the palace. They weren’t allowed to show themselves in public.
The best views of this palace are on the terraces of cafes across the street.
Near the City Palace sits this collection of nineteen astronomical instruments, including the world’s largest stone sundial, built by Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734. Bonus, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
From Jaipur, you can continue to explore Rajasthan or fly onward to your next destination. If you’re returning to Delhi, it’s just a 5-hour drive or train ride away.
I hope this itinerary inspires you to explore the Golden Triangle in India, and especially to get off the beaten path and explore this route differently than the norm!