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India: The North

North India Highlights in 16 Days

Stunning Mughal architecture, heritage hotels, old palaces, forts, and colorful markets make North India an exciting experience that imparts a heady, sensory feeling in any visitor. No 2-week trip can exhaustively cover all the main sights, but this itinerary covers many of the most popular tourist attractions of northern India. It's a hectic schedule, so keep in mind that relaxation is required between sights, if only to catch your breath and dwell on what you've seen before leaping forward to the next equally striking sight.

Days 1-3: Delhi

You'll most likely arrive in Delhi in the wee hours of the morning. As a general rule, take it easy on Day 1 in India -- the country takes serious acclimation. There's no better way to ease into your trip than to start your vacation at Delhi's finest hotel, The Imperial. Allow yourself a late morning on Day 2, and hire a car and driver for the day if you want to wander out for some slow-paced sightseeing. Take in central New Delhi's imperial architecture -- beginning at India Gate, built to commemorate those who died in World War I. From there, set off on foot along Rajpath to the beautifully ornate gates of Rashtrapati Bhavan, official residence of the president of India. Then drive south to visit the 12th-century Qutb Minar. For a break, escape to Lodi Gardens, where lawns and golfing greens are studded with the crumbling 15th-century tombs of once-powerful dynasties. A short drive west brings you to the splendid medieval buildings of Humayun's Tomb and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. Finally, stop off at Dilli Haat and check out the range of handicrafts and handmade goods sold by artisans from around India, before you return to The Imperial's Spice Route for dinner.

On Day 3, explore Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad). Must-sees include Lal Qila (Red Fort) and Jama Masjid, both built by Shah Jahan, the most prolific architect of the Mughal empire. You can also stop off at vibrant Gauri Shankar Temple, which has an 800-year-old lingam (a phallic symbol used in the worship of the Hindu god Shiva); Sisganj Gurudwara, an unassuming but atmospheric and welcoming Sikh temple that marks the spot where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was beheaded by Aurangzeb; and Sunehri and Fatehpuri masjids. If you can handle the massive crowds, wander around Chandni Chowk, Khari Baoli (reputed to be Asia's biggest spice market), and jam-packed Kinari Bazaar -- but keep a close watch on your belongings at all times.

Days 4 & 5: Varanasi-Khajuraho

Fly into Varanasi, a crumbling maze of a city that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the Ganges River. Varanasi is in many ways quintessential India -- it is one of the holiest of Indian pilgrimage sites, home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins. Many come here to die with the hope that they may achieve moksha, salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Take a boat cruise past the ghats at dawn; you can repeat this at sunset or, better still, head for Dasashwamedh Ghat to watch the Ganga Fire Arti. For 45 minutes, young Brahmin priests perform age-old prayer rituals with conch shells and burning braziers, accompanied by drummers, while children hawk candles for you to light and set adrift. Aside from these must-sees, you should set aside some time to wander the ancient lanes of the Old City, particularly those around Kashi Vishwanath Temple. When you feel the need for peace and solitude, hire a car and visit Sarnath, where Buddha first revealed his Eightfold Path to Nirvana; spend a few hours exploring the archaeological ruins and the modern Buddhist temple and monasteries. Overnight at Ganges View Guesthouse in Varanasi, a lovely, comfortable colonial lodge at the edge of the river. On the afternoon of Day 5, take a flight to Khajuraho. After you check in at your hotel (preferably The Grand Temple View), head off immediately to either the Eastern or Southern group of temples, with Samson George as your guide.

Day 6: Khajuraho

Khajuraho is known the world over for its beautiful, taboo-breaking erotic sculptures, images that are almost as intimately associated with India as the Taj. But the temples also represent an outstanding synthesis of advanced architecture and refined sculpture. Try to enter as soon as the Western Group of temples opens (sunrise), not only for the light's quality, but to avoid the busloads of tourists who will arrive later. Take your time admiring the beautifully rendered friezes of gods, nymphs, animals, and energetically twisting bodies locked together in acts of hot-blooded passion. Cover the Western, Eastern, and Southern groups (unless you visited them the day before), ending your day at the 50-minute sound-and-light show held at 6:30pm, which provides a fascinating history of Khajuraho.

Day 7: Orchha

From Khajuraho, drive to Orchha, the deserted royal citadel of Raja Rudra Pratap, on a rocky island on the Betwa River. This is one of India's most fabulous Mughal heritage sites and a wonderfully relaxing stop sandwiched between the intense huckster-heavy destinations of Varanasi/Khajuraho and Agra. Orchha, founded in 1531, was the capital of the Bundela kings until 1738. Today the weathered temples, palaces, and cenotaphs are the royal quarters of emerald parakeets and black-faced langurs, while traditional whitewashed, flat-roofed structures house the laid-back villagers. Besides the palace complex, three beautiful temples are worth seeking out, as well as 14 graceful chhatris (cenotaphs) commemorating the Orchha rulers, built upstream along the riverbank. Though all these can be covered in a day, get the most out of this surreally tranquil haven by spending the night at the Orchha Resort.

Days 8 & 9: Agra

Drive to Jhansi, and take an express train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Besides the exquisite Taj, visit the city of Fatehpur Sikri and the tombs of Itmad-ud-Daulah and Akbar, as well as well-preserved Agra Fort. If you can afford it (and this one is worth saving up for), overnight at the Oberoi's luxurious Amarvilas, where your room will have a view of the Taj Mahal. Ideally, visit the Taj at dawn and spend the whole morning there. Built by Shah Jahan as an eternal symbol of his love for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj has immortalized him as one of the great architectural patrons of the world. Not only does the Taj have perfect symmetry, ethereal luminescence, and wonderful proportions, but every inch of marble is covered in exquisite detail.

Day 10: Jaipur

Drive to Jaipur, where you can explore the City Palace and Amber Fort in a day; you'll need a little more time if you want to go to Samode Palace, an hour's drive away. However, no amount of time is enough for shopping; Jaipur is a bargain-hunter's haven, where you will find gorgeous Rajasthani crafts for sale that are hard to resist. In Jaipur, overnight at Taj Rambagh Palace (if you prefer an authentic historical experience close to the heart of the city), or Rajvilas (if you enjoy the illusion of being far away from everything combined with absolute luxury). Alternatively, stay at any of the heritage properties reviewed, which cover a range of budgets.

Day 11: Pushkar

Late in the afternoon, drive from Jaipur to the temple town of Pushkar, stopping en route to view Dargah Sharif, the top attraction of Ajmer along the way. Get your "Pushkar Passport" as early as possible, which will then free you from further harassment by priests. Spend the night on the shores of Pushkar Lake, preferably at Pushkar Palace.

Days 12 & 13: Pushkar-Jodhpur

Start out early to explore Pushkar, a charming (if very touristy) town surrounding a sacred lake on the eastern edge of the Thar Desert. An important pilgrimage site for Hindus, it remains a hugely atmospheric place despite its popularity with foreign hippies. Browse the street bazaar, where you can pick up the most gorgeous throwaway gear, great secondhand books, and CDs at bargain prices. Pushkar can be explored entirely on foot -- it will take you about 45 minutes to walk around the holy lake and its 52 ghats (stairs). From Pushkar, move on to Jodhpur, where you must set aside half a day to visit fabulous Mehrangarh Fort and Museum, arguably Rajasthan's most impressive fort, with sheer clifflike walls that soar above the city. Situated on another raised outcrop, with sprawling grounds creating a majestic ambience, is Umaid Bhawan Palace, built by Maharaja Umaid Singh as a poverty-relief exercise to aid his drought-stricken subjects. Designed by Henry Lanchester, a great admirer of Lutyens (the man who designed New Delhi), it was started in 1929, took 3,000 laborers 13 years to complete, and remains one of the best examples of Indo-Saracenic Art Deco style. If you don't mind the splurge, try to spend the night at the Palace (preferably in one of the beautiful Deco-styled historical suites), and catch the setting sun from the edge of the lovely outdoor pool. Breakfast at The Pillars restaurant, where you can enjoy a spellbinding view of the fort in the distance. Move on to Rawla Narlai or even (if you don't mind a detour) Deogarh Mahal (or its more exclusive sister establishment, Fort Seengh Sagar) to overnight.

Days 14 & 15: Udaipur

Enjoy the morning at Rawla Narlai or Deogarh Mahal, then head to Udaipur, stopping at the Ranakpur temples (and, if you've left early enough, Kumbhalgarh) en route. Overnight at fabulous, fabled Lake Palace or any of the recommended accommodations that have a lake view. Time allowing, take a sunset cruise on the lake. The following day, visit the City Palace and Museum in Udaipur. Prime attractions worth pursuing and doable in the time available are the temples at Nathdwara and Eklingji. Or spend the rest of the day lounging around the pool. If you wish to squeeze in an extra day, do so at Devi Garh, 45 minutes outside Udaipur, where you can explore the local village.

Day 16: Udaipur-Delhi

Enjoy a leisurely morning roaming Udaipur's lovely bazaars, or relax at the Devi Garh pool, before taking an afternoon flight back to Delhi. If you have space left in your baggage (fat chance!), stop for last-minute souvenirs and gifts before you board your flight home.

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