There’s no doubt about it: India bewitches some and befuddles others. But plan your trip with this beginner’s guide to Rajasthan and you’ll have breathing space to let the country’s colour and vibrancy wash over you. Get set for bustling highways, beguiling palaces, frenetic bazaars, tiger-prowled parks and a dramatic desert hinterland – with an added dose of Smith style…
DELHI & AGRA
Ideal time 2–3 nights
Hotel The Lodhi
First thing’s first: Delhi isn’t in Rajasthan; neither is Agra. But if you’re visiting India’s largest state, you’ll almost certainly start or end your trip in the capital before moving on to the Taj Mahal and the Pink City of Jaipur – ticking off a trio of top-tier sights as you go.
Some people shy away from Delhi’s special brand of bustle. But a great way to get a grip on the city is via a street-food tour of Old Delhi, which takes you through the tangled lanes of Chandni Chowk bazaar to the sneeze-inducing spice market on a four-hour culinary crash course with a woman who founded India’s first food-tourism business.
Another not-to-be-missed highlight is Hauz Khas Village – a leafy enclave on the edge of Deer Park with a giant lake and a 13th-century fort at its heart. The ‘village’ itself is pedestrianised, its narrow streets lined with cosmopolitan bars, boutiques and restaurants, such as the Social for sunset views, and Coast Cafe, for chic interiors and Keralan cuisine.
The Lodhi Gardens are a green lung in the city, with beautiful tombs and architectural relics of the 15th-century Lodhi dynasty, as well as fountains, sari-clad women, palm-lined pathways and picnicking families – plus luxury hotel the Lodhi.
One of the best man-made sites in Delhi is the Persian-influenced Humayun’s Tomb, precursor to the Taj Mahal. However, skip the Red Fort here and save your sightseeing legs for the more impressive Red Fort in Agra – where the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned until his death.
If you’re visiting Agra, of course, you can’t miss the iconic white marble mausoleum: the Taj Mahal. But the good news is, it’s worth it. Go at sunrise or sunset, when the red sandstone walls and pathways of Shah Jahan’s love letter to his favourite wife, glow at their brightest.
Ideal time 3 nights
If you’re a wildlife lover, this national park is one of the best places to see tigers. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time for the bi-daily safari drives, which go out every morning and evening, when the big cats are at their most active.
At the very least you’ll see sambar and spotted deer, blue bull antelope, langurs, macaques and wild boar. Strike gold and you could spy leopards, sloth bears and some of the 60-plus tigers who call the reserve home.
The landscape of Ranthambore is worth the trip alone, with peach-hued ‘flame of the forest’ trees in bloom in early spring and lazy banyans dangling their aerial roots beside the dusty tracks at all times of year. There are glassine lakes with red ruins reflected in the water and a giant fort at the park’s heart that sits atop a crag of the Aravalli Hills.
There are three ways to see the park, open from 1 October to 30 June: in giant 20-seater canter truck (noisy and not advisable); a smaller six-seater gypsy jeep (the most popular option); or private half- or full-day safaris (expensive, but grants unlimited access to all zones and freedom to explore once the gypsies and canters have left).
Hotels such as Aman-i-Khás can arrange all this for you and provide a luxury base to return to after a day spent animal-spotting along the park’s bumpy tracks. The spa comes in useful…
Ideal time 3–4 nights
Hotel Royal Heritage Haveli or Dera Amer
In Jaipur, Royal Heritage Haveli is one of the most atmospheric places to stay. As friendly on the wallet as it is to guests, this former maharaja’s hunting lodge was once surrounded by 3,000 acres of jungle, and today excels at bringing that rich history back to life with dusky, rose-hued walls encircling bird-beloved gardens, with a croquet lawn and a parasol-shaded pool. Two plump basset hounds waddle around and the grounds get illuminated at night by flickering candles and burning incense.
Tucked within the hotel’s tranquil walls, it’s hard to believe the state capital of Rajasthan sits right outside. However, Jaipur – known as the Pink City for the brightly daubed colour of the old town’s walls – doesn’t disappoint.
Start by entering through the elaborately painted Ajmeri Gate, one of seven such archways to guard the labyrinthine old city. Pause for a photo op outside the fanciful Palace of the Winds – or Hawa Mahal – a five-storey honeycomb structure with a thousand jharokha windows, designed so that royal ladies could spy passers-by without being seen. Next, plunge into the sinuous network of streets that form Johari bazaar and meander down lanes lined with street-food stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops, before visiting the City Palace, home to the royal family.
At night, don’t miss Jaipur’s romantic Palladio bar, where canopied seating sits on manicured lawns, surrounded by twinkling lights that leave you in little doubt why Diwali (the Festival of Lights) is celebrated so energetically here…
You may be in need of some downtime at this point, so consider a night outside Jaipur at Dera Amer, a luxury camp which invites you to experience rural Rajasthani life and is best teamed with a trip to the golden-hued Amer Fort, 20 minutes away. The camp and the fort are not entirely unrelated: Laxmi, one of two rescued elephants, was once responsible for the tough task of ferrying tourists up to the fort, but now resides in bucolic surroundings on the farm.
As well as interacting with them, your stay will revolve around sunset walks in the Aravalli Hills, candlelit dinners in a glade of acacia trees and sleeping in luxury tents. At breakfast, you can meet Laxmi again, as she grazes with her mahout and you tuck into massala omelettes.
Ideal time 2–3 nights
Hotel Bujera Fort
Next stop: the Lake City – so named for its five interconnecting lakes, centred around Lake Pichola. Touching down, you may notice the effect all this water has had: the landscape is can be lush and green, as if everything has taken a collective gulp.
A drive to Bujera Fort, 2o minutes outside the city, reveals this splendour, taking you past rural villages, children idling home from school, ambling cattle and corn fields glowing golden in the sun. Indeed, Bujera Fort’s slightly out-of-town location is one of the best things about it: a chance to regroup by the palatial pool after days on the road and drink in the atmosphere of the roof terrace while watching light fade across the Aravallis.
Owner Richard is British – a pedigreed émigré and interior designer, who once sourced signature textiles for Kit and Tim Kemp’s Firmdale Hotels. Rooms at Bujera are replete with the same artful threads, many sourced from Jaipur – Rajasthan’s reigning textiles hub.
It would be all too easy to lounge around here. However, Udaipur is rightly known as one of the most romantic cities in the world. The lakefront City Palace, with its gleaming stained-glass windows, is the chief attraction, followed by a boat ride around the lake. However, just as appealing are the city’s waterfront bars and rooftop restaurants, including Udai Kothi, for its elevated views, and Ambrai, where you can watch local kids do backflips into the water.
The markets around Hathipole will also have your camera clicking, too. But Udaipur is really a city best suited to relaxing, so take time to sit back and enjoy.
Ideal time 2 nights
Hotel Rawla Narlai
A wise man once said that this portion of the Aravalli Hills – between Udaipur and Jodhpur – holds some of Rajasthan’s best scenery. And you’ll be glad you listened, when you arrive at Rawla Narlai – a gorgeous haveli hotel, which spreads itself over several courtyards and two buildings: one with heritage rooms; the other with contemporary takes on the old style. It’s the type of place you’ll want to stay longer.
The list of activities is impressive, too: head out on leopard safaris through the humpback landscape of the Aravalli Hills; dine in a 16th-century stepwell as a saffron-swathed sitar player serenades you; or take a sunrise walk up to the dominant landmark of Rawla Narlai – Elephant Hill. A white-robed local guide, many of whom are employed at the hotel, leads you up the granite mound, via a number of steps. But the views are worthwhile, accompanied by spiced chai and sweet biscuits, beside the elephant statue that gives the hill its name.
JODHPUR & THE THAR DESERT
Ideal time 3 nights
Hotel Rohet Garh or Mihir Garh
And so to the final leg, centred around Jodhpur – the Blue City. First, to Rohet Garh, a romantic haveli hotel outside the city, that’s home to the thakur (lord) of Jodhpur. It’s particularly atmospheric at night, as guests gather for gin and tonics on the lawn and musicians play.
Thakur Siddharth Singh is a celebrated horseman, who still rides every day, and his stable of native Marwari horses are a big draw for equestrians. In cooler months, the hotel offers multi-day trails, camping out at night. In higher temperatures, saddle up for an early-morning gallop along sandy tracks, past grazing antelopes and rural villages.
Spend another day winding through Jodhpur’s indigo-hued houses and lively bazaars, which spread out around Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower. Make sure you visit ‘omelette man’, located by the northern gate of Sadar Market: feted in the world’s press and documented on YouTube for his ability to make thousands of massala omelettes a day from his tiny egg-stacked stall. Ask him for the secret recipe (he won’t tell…)
After eating, continue to an area known as the JDH Urban Regeneration Project, which fans out around the Toorji stepwell. You find these ancient irrigation tanks throughout northern India, but this one is special, as it’s been spruced up. From the Stepwell Cafe, with its Instagrammable interiors and triple-height terraces, watch as daredevil kids dive-bomb into the water. Designer boutiques, such as Ayurvedic cosmetics company Forest Essentials, line the streets. But if you want to bed down in this up-and-coming enclave, stay at Raas hotel, with a rooftop terrace that has superlative views of cliff-raised Mehrangarh Fort – the best site in Jodphur.
After all that adventure, you’ll be in need some rest – and there’s no better place than Mihir Garh. This golden-hued palace emerges from the Thar Desert like a castle crafted from sand. Built a decade ago, it was crafted to include all the bells and whistles of a five-star hotel and accordingly claimed a ‘Best Pool with a View’ nomination at the recent Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Awards. However, you might not spend too much time in the main pool itself, as each of the nine suites has a private Jacuzzi or plunge pool, where you can watch peacocks prance and birds dart across the desert from your roomside terrace.
HOW TO DO IT
All hotels can be booked through Mr & Mrs Smith.
British Airways flies daily between London Heathrow and New Delhi: 0844 493 0787.
V Care Tours and Travel is a tried-and-tested car service in Rajasthan, offering transfers between all destinations, hotels and sightseeing stops: email@example.com.
All story images by Laura Holt; featured image is Rohet Garh in Jodphur