Top 5 Destinations for Backpacking in India

by Dominic James Fusco

A layer of dreamy mysticism belies the prospect of backpacking in India. Visions of ancient golden temples, long thought-filled train rides, and brightly colored bazaars naturally brighten imaginations of the adventurous potential of such a journey. For centuries the Indian subcontinent has beckoned travelers from all across our world, all seeking something, however most have yet to find out what.

Varanasi at Dawn, India

Varanasi at Dawn

In the enigmatic aura it is almost too easy to lose sight of India the country – a colossal nation of 1.3 billion people with advanced sociopolitical systems, competing economic principles, and a richly diverse history which spans millennia. While backpacking throughout India you will slowly come to experience more of the real India, in the deeply spiritual landscape as well as the intense poverty of developing infrastructure. For most foreign travelers, the mysterious haze never lifts. In whatever way the journey tends simply to round off in completion, each taking away from it what they will.

Yet to all backpacking in India is undeniably a life changing experience.

If you are planning to take the leap and backpack through India, then you will likely want some guidance on where to start. Here are five destinations, north to south, which are sure to hit the mark.

1. Darjeeling

High above West Bengal in the shadow of the snow-capped Himalayan mountaintops lies Darjeeling, a restful hill town world-renowned for its sprawling tea estates and antiquated railway line. The most scenically beautiful destination on this list, escaping into the coolly refreshing mountain air will be a welcome relief from the hot and muggy conditions of India’s larger cities. From Darjeeling you can launch on a trek to Everest base camp, take a ride on the toy train, or hang around and familiarize yourself with the uniquely Tibetan-Bengali infused culture. A gateway to the majesty of the Himalayas sitting a mile above the earth, Darjeeling is in itself a premier destination for backpackers in India seeking adventure and natural beauty alike.

2. Varanasi

Akin to a Jerusalem of the East, Varanasi is India’s religious capital and a revered destination for Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims from around the world. A popular destination for backpackers as well, the city is perhaps best known for its open-air cremations which occur all throughout the night along the banks of the holy Ganges River. The morning after you can wake up at sunrise and continue with a boat ride along the Ganges as this deeply spiritual city begins to awaken in communal prayer. Getting lost in Varanasi is a solemnly significant experience, and one that individuals of all creeds stand to gain new insight from while backpacking in India. 

A monkey in the ruins of New Delhi's Tughlakabad.

A young monkey overlooks the ruins of New Delhi's Tughlakabad. Photo by Dominic Fusco

3. New Delhi

New Delhi is the political capital of India and a place where the continued fruition of its national identity is very much a living part of the city. A melting pot of cultures from all across the subcontinent, exploring the streets of Delhi you will discover everything from ancient ruins of empires past to pristinely kept British colonial structures to brand new air-conditioned mega malls. An expansive and diverse metropolis, auto-rickshaws will zip through the chaotic Delhi traffic to take you just about anywhere you want to go in the city. Delhi’s bustling market places, crowded slums, and emerging counterculture districts truly show those backpacking in India a little bit of everything that ancient and modern India has to offer.

4. Mumbai

Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is India’s largest city, primary commercial port, and entertainment and financial capital. Quite simply it is an important place to visit. Though it can feel eerily similar to sunny Los Angeles in places, Mumbai’s appeal goes far beyond the bright lights of Bollywood. It is India’s most global city, with a long history of colonial prominence behind it and a bright future of international importance ahead of it. And there is certainly no shortage of activity to keep backpackers happily occupied – long walks through shaded neighborhoods, ferry rides to beautiful local islands, and a thriving nightlife will all make for a pleasant stay in India’s cultural and economic life-vein.

5. Goa

A Portuguese colony until the 1960s, Goa has quite a unique feel from the rest of the country. Beautiful sandy beaches, Christian churches in place of Hindu temples, and a reputation as the party capital of an otherwise conservative country, all make this western coastal province somewhat of an anomaly under the Indian flag. Yet regardless of whether you come for the moonlight parties, daytime historical tours, or a backpacking trip, you will stay for the relaxed pace of life and long golden sunsets over the Arabian sea. Goa is as distinctive a place as any in India and a worthy getaway for backpackers in India of all mindsets to spend a good amount of time.

Mumbai, India

The Gateway to India in Mumbai