In a country as culturally rich and geographically diverse as India, it’s perhaps not surprising that you’ll find the sixth largest number of UNESCO sites in the world.
We all know the Taj Mahal – one of the seven wonders of the world – but India has so much more out there when it comes to cultural and natural treasures. These range from ancient caves carved into steep gorges to the surreal landscape and remains of the Vijayanagara kingdom.
Here are seven of the country’s most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites, embodying much of what is so incredible about India.
In the heart of south India’s Karnataka state, the landscape around the ancient village of Hampi is so surreal it feels like another planet entirely. Banana palms and plains of lime-green rice paddies contrast with the ruddy, ochre hue of gigantic boulders strewn across the undulating landscape.
These naturally eroded stones perch precariously in clusters and stacks like crumbling sculptures, piled atop hills that serve as vantage points for mesmerising sunsets. But most significantly, Hampi was home to the 14th-century Vijayanagara kingdom, and has over 1,600 remains of temples, forts and other UNESCO-listed monuments.
Book a guided tour or hire a bike and spend days exploring solo; there is lots to see but the most famous sights include Virupaksha Temple, Vitthala Temple and Monkey Temple. Visit in November during Hampi Utsav (a huge cultural festival) for added excitement. Stay at a charming Hampi homestay, Banana Farm House.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and one of India’s most sacred places, lying on the holy Ganges River in northern India. This historical and spiritual importance lends Varanasi a palpably powerful quality, best appreciated by a bewitching dawn or sunset boat ride.
You’ll see flower garlands float across the water and smoke rise from the ghats (riverfront steps) as the daily public cremations begin. Varanasi is the spiritual home of India's sadhus (holy men who have renounced all worldly possessions). Thus, the ghats are filled with devout Hindus ritualistically bathing in the holy water and funeral pyres where bodies are cremated in the sacred eternal fire.
For a particularly unforgettable spectacle, visit during the Dev Deepawali festival. It takes place on the full moon night 15 days after Diwali (between late October and November). And sees more than a million earthen lamps (diyas) lit on the steps leading down to the water. Stay at Brijrama Palace, a heritage boutique hotel by the Ganges.
In the state of Odisha on the coast facing the Bay of Bengal, you’ll find India’s ethereal, 13th-century Konark Sun Temple.
This celebrated UNESCO site is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya, and is built in the form of his vast chariot. Admire the twelve pairs of stone wheels drawn by seven stone horses, depicted in ornate carvings and indicating the time of day according to the sun’s rays.
If you are lucky enough to visit in December, you’ll witness the Konark Dance Festival, a colourful showcase of India’s cultural wealth. Stay at Mayfair Waves, under an hour’s drive from the temple.
Wander the grounds of the Red Fort (or ‘Lal Qila’) to admire its grand red sandstone walls, commissioned by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in 1639. Then visit the magnificent mausoleum, Humayun’s Tomb (‘Maqbara e Humayun’). Its massive, double dome is clad in marble and red sandstone and stands majestically amid symmetrical gardens.
And finally, the beautiful, 13th-century Qutb Minar – it was built for the Muezzin (the crier) to call Muslims to prayer and is the tallest brick minaret in the world. Stay close to the Red Fort at Haveli Dharampura, a UNESCO-awarded boutique heritage hotel.
Northeast of the city of Aurangabad in the hills of Maharashtra, the Ajanta Caves are a series of spectacular Buddhist temples carved into the sides of a steep granite gorge. Many of these caves date back to the 5th century AD, and are prized for their sculptures, murals and frescoes depicting Buddhist teachings.
These stories are illustrated in splendid detail and have been described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art. Meanwhile, just 2.5 hours’ drive away, you’ll find yet more ancient architectural splendour in the form of the Ellora Caves, one of the largest rock-cut Hindu temple complexes in the world.
With artwork that dates from between AD 600 to 1000, these caves were devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, illustrating a spirit of tolerance that was characteristic of ancient India. Stay at the elegant Vivanta Aurangabad.
The walled city of Jaipur is the capital of – and gateway to – the state of Rajasthan but is a wonder in and of itself.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is nicknamed India’s Pink City on account of the magical dusty pink hue of its sandstone buildings. Once a historical centre of Indian trade, these days you can expect an exuberant medley of aromatic street food, markets selling fine cloth and artisanry, and forts and palaces aplenty.
Visit the famous Hawa Mahal, a palace built in 1799 with a stunningly intricate, honeycomb-like pink facade. Or climb the edge of the Aravalli Hills to the 18th-century Nahargarh Fort for a breathtaking panorama of the city. Stay at urban Jaipur retreat, Magpie Villa.
In the northern Indian state of Punjab, the city of Amritsar lays claim to the Golden Temple – the holiest site in Sikhism. Though technically still on the Tentative List for UNESCO status, there’s a spellbinding, poetic beauty to this place.
Appearing to float upon an artificial lake, the central building of the complex is covered with 750 kg of gold, thanks to a flamboyant maharajah in the early 19th century. Remove your shoes at the entrance and walk along the marble promenade while people pray at the water’s edge. You can also join pilgrims in the langar (the world’s largest free kitchen). Designed to uphold the principle of equality by feeding all castes, religions or genders, it can serve free food for up to 300,000 people per day.
Visit during the month of November for the Sikh Gurpurab festival and see the temple decorated with lights. Devotees also light candles to mark this special day; the birthday of Guru Nanak, founder and first Guru of Sikhism. Stay at Country Inn Hall of Heritage, Amritsar.
Whether you’re scrolling or strolling through these awe-inspiring sites, complete your sensory experience with this playlist of incredible Indian tracks.