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Photos and story by Annika Ziehen

I had dreamed of traveling to India since I was a little girl. While my notion of India was probably skewed from coverage of British colonial times, my heart still longed to see it all. I wanted to experience all the colors, smells, and wonderful foreignness of it all.

During my first trip, I spent about 2.5 weeks in Kerala and in Delhi. Afterwards, I came back on my own to see the Taj Mahal and Jaipur, and during my third trip I traveled aboard the Maharajas Express. Each trip had its own appeals and challenges—namely my second journey when I traveled to India on my own. I was just getting over a heartbreak which actually happened while I was at the Taj Mahal: said to be the marble testimony to the greatest love there ever was. I realized that in order to love someone you don’t need to build them a marble tomb but rather accept this person entirely.

Stop 1

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

If you come to India, you have to see the Taj Mahal. While it is a big tourist attraction and can get quite crowded, it is also a marvel of architecture with a fascinating story.

Brave the crowds early in the morning to see it glisten in the sunlight, but for sunset head to the Moongarden on the opposite side of the river. Any tuk-tuk can take you there and you only have to pay a small fee to get in. The garden is not only beautiful in itself but also offers some almost undisturbed views onto the Taj Mahal from the back—since the building is completely symmetrical you won’t even notice the difference. And best of all, you won’t have to fight with hundreds of other tourists to get a good shot!

Stop 2

Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh

Fatehpur Sikri, also known as the City of Victory, was built by Emperor Akbar who was well-respected for his military conquests. Emperor Akbar had three wives, each with her own unique palace: a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian. He had each choose her own style of palace as a sign of his belief in interfaith communities. One chose gemstones, one gold leaf, and one nature with an ingenious heating/cooling system that you can still venture through today.

Make sure to hire a guide to tell you all the stories and scandals of the emperor’s life, including tales of his bedroom—he was said to sleep in a huge stone bunk bed to provide safety from assassins. In order to get up there, some of his concubines needed to hoist him up each night.

Stop 3


Fans of the original Jungle Book have to visit Galtaji, better known as the Monkey Temple outside of Jaipur. Technically it is an old Hindu pilgrimage with various temples, which some locals still visit for worship, but the main attraction these days are definitely the new inhabitants of the abandoned temple complex: a tribe of rhesus macaques.

Monkey business is the order of the day at the Monkey Temple, where these cheeky fellows play and fight, hug and scratch each other, and most importantly—swim and jump in the emerald green pools. They don’t mind visitors or their cameras but be careful not to touch them or get in the way of their play. I can say from experience that having a wet monkey baby on your shoulder is not as cute as it sounds.

Stop 4

Ranthambore / Periyar Tiger Reserve

A visit to the Periyar Tiger Reserve starts early. In the morning, board a boat with a naturalist and take a ride through the mist in the hope of finding elephants, sloth bears, fruit bats—and if you get very lucky—one of 24 Bengal tigers that live there.

The Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the best places to see animals in their natural habitat. Considering that there are still so many places in the world where animals are kept for tourist entertainment, this is wonderfully different. Strike up a conversation with any of the employees to learn more about sustainable animal tourism and conservation of endangered species like the ones at the reserve.

Stop 5

Khajurahu, Madhya Pradesh

The Khajuraho Group of Monuments is a collection of beautiful Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples. This is definitely the place to have a good tour guide because many stories surrounding the sculptures are fascinating—and quite racy too, due to some of the sculptures’ erotic nature. Further your knowledge on the subject and pick up a copy of the Kamasutra from one of the many vendors around the temples.

For more innocuous fun, stay for sunset and take a stroll through the complex garden, and don’t forget to make a wish when you walk around the altar inside the temple.

Stop 6


Varanasi is one of the most important and holiest cities in India for devout Hindus. In its center runs the Ganges, the holy river, where Hindus will want to travel at least once in their lives to wash away their sins. Dying in Varanasi and being cremated at the river’s shore is regarded a great privilege as it means you can break the daunting cycle of reincarnation.

In addition, each night is witness to the Ganga Aarti:  a daily ritual where worshippers say goodnight to the river. Visitors can board a boat in the evening and watch the cremations and the Ganga Aarti from the water – an interesting contrast between life and death existing right next to each other, a stark yet somehow beautiful contrast, especially for non-Hindus.

Tours to Varanasi usually include a boat ride or, alternatively, you can find a boat once you are there. Finally, you can observe the Ganga Aarti from the ghats, a spiritual highlight for many during their India trip. Either way, make sure to buy a clay candle to light and release into the water of the Ganges – wishes are said to come true here.

To me, India is a challenging place, and the rewards are oh-so-worth it. In order to fall in love with it, you’ll need to be a little daring and willing to look behind the façade, all the while questioning your own motives and beliefs. A country of this size means a lot of diversity. You will meet a myriad of people with different ideas of what life is all about, different politics, religions, and agendas. I find that especially seasoned travelers can be quite stubborn, and we often set out to explore something new, while our minds may already be made up about it. Don’t! India requires an open mind and an open heart.

It’s easy to get swept up in planning and precautions, but if India is calling you, my advice is to just go. Nothing—no guidebook, no romance novel—will ever prepare you for it and that’s the beauty of India. Visit the places you have always longed to see and let India show you its real faces.