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 time and 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…
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 known as the ‘Golden Circle’ as you go.
Some people baulk at Delhi’s special brand of bustle. But a great way to get a grip on the city is on 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.
Needing a breather? Hauz Khas Village is 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 Keralan cuisine.
Next, head over to the Lodhi Gardens – a green lung in the city, with beautiful tombs and architectural relics of the 15th-century Lodhi dynasty, sari-clad women and picnicking families plus luxury hotel, the Lodhi.
If it’s sights you seek, skip the Red Fort and head to the Persian-influenced Humayun’s Tomb, precursor to the Taj Mahal. In Agra, aim for the real-deal white marble mausoleum, visiting 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
For wildlife-lovers, this national park is one of the best places to see tigers and three nights will give you plenty of time for the bi-daily safari drives, which go out every morning and evening, when the weather’s cool and the big cats are 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, lazy banyans dangling their aerial roots beside dusty tracks, 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.
Hotels such as Aman-i-Khás can arrange everything 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 – a former maharaja’s hunting lodge, once surrounded by 3,000 acres of jungle, which today excels at bringing that rich history back to life with dusky, rose-hued walls encircling bird-beloved gardens, which get illuminated at night by flickering candles and burning incense.
Tucked within the hotel’s tranquil walls, it’s hard to believe the swirling state capital of Rajasthan sits right outside. However, Jaipur – known as the Pink City for the brightly daubed walls – doesn’t disappoint.
Start by entering through the elaborate Ajmeri Gate. Pause for a photo op outside the fanciful Palace of the Winds – or Hawa Mahal – a five-storey honeycomb folly with a thousand jharokha windows. Next, plunge into the sinuous 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 seats sit on manicured lawns, surrounded by twinkling lights that leave you in little doubt why Diwali (the Festival of Lights) is celebrated so fervently here…
Need downtime? Stay at Dera Amer, a luxury camp which lets you experience rural Rajasthani life, near golden-hued Amer Fort,. Two rescued elephants, was once responsible for ferrying tourists up to the garrison, now reside in bucolic surroundings on the farm and your stay will also revolve around sunset walks in the Aravalli Hills, candlelit dinners in a glade of acacia trees and silent nights under canvas.
Ideal time 2–3 nights
Hotel Bujera Fort
Next stop: the Lake City – so named for its five lagoons, centred around Lake Pichola. Touching down, head to Bujera Fort hotel, just outside the city, where rural splendour reveals itself as you drive through local villages, past children idling home from school, ambling herds of 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 here. However, Udaipur is known as one of the most romantic cities in the world, so time to explore. The lakefront City Palace, with its gleaming stained-glass windows, is the chief attraction, followed by a boat ride around the water. However, just as appealing are the city’s waterfront bars and rooftop restaurants, including Ambrai, where you can watch local kids doing backflips into the water.
Ideal time 2 nights
Hotel Rawla Narlai
A wise man once said that the 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: leopard safaris through the humpback Aravalli Hills; dinners in a 16th-century stepwell serenaded by a saffron-swathed sitar player; sunrise hikes up to Elephant Hill… A white-robed local guide from the village leads you up the granite mound, accompanied by spiced chai and sweet biscuits for impressive views from beneath 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, home to the thakur (lord) of Jodhpur, that’s especially 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 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. Don’t miss ‘omelette man’ 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 recipe (he won’t tell…)
After, 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 and 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, it’s time to 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, with nine suites – each with a private Jacuzzi or plunge pool – from where you can watch peacocks prance and birds dart across the desert.