India is a kaleidoscope of landscapes, peoples and cultures. If it’s your first visit to this dazzling country, you’ll want to experience all the richness it has to offer – and if your time is limited, there are few better ways to get a taster than to explore the Golden Triangle.
The Golden Triangle is one of India’s most popular tourist routes, running between its capital, Delhi, and the historic cities of Agra and Jaipur. When plotted on a map, the three cities form a well-defined triangle, with each side around 200km long. The “golden” moniker refers to the wealth of extraordinary architecture, historic sites and lively cityscapes you’ll find along the way, not to mention some sublime countryside.
To find out more about this complex region, we spoke to some of India’s top local tour companies, who gave us tips on the Golden Triangle’s top attractions and how to make the most of your stay.
The Golden Triangle: a spectacular introduction to India’s riches
From the markets of Delhi to the pink-hued walls and desert landscapes that surround Jaipur, the Golden Triangle provides a satisfying glimpse of India’s many facets, all within an easily accessible space. “The Golden Triangle introduces people to India’s fairy tales, its invaders, wars, kings and forts and palaces,” says Krishna Pujari, founder of Reality Tours. “It includes stunning architecture, the nation’s capital and one of the seven wonders of the world – who could resist all that?”
Because of the number of international flights to Delhi, most visitors start their Golden Triangle tour here, and then make their way onward by private car or public transportation. There are good rail links between the three cities, so you can visit on your own, or join a tour that helps you discover one or more of these fascinating destinations. A local guide is an excellent way to gain a deeper understanding of each city and its culture, as well as to fully appreciate the attractions on offer – including some that are well off the beaten tourist track.
Discovering Delhi: a capital city bursting with life
With its teeming streets, chaotic traffic and colourful marketplaces, Delhi is an unforgettable introduction to the wonders of India. “Delhi brings together Old World charm and New World hospitality in a brilliant way,” says Komal Darira of Delhi Urban Adventures. “It’s multicultural and very rich in history. Every part is so different that it looks like a separate city.”
Delhi Urban Adventures specialises in small group tours that give a local’s eye view of the city, taking you beyond the obvious sights for an authentic taste of city life. “We offer unique tours which connect visitors to the people, culture and city and give them an opportunity to enjoy Delhi like locals,” Darira explains. “Be it culture, food or cooking, we provide all kinds of original, rich experiences, with a perfect flavour of Indian culture, real life and local experiences.”
Tasting your way through the streets of Delhi
Their most popular tour is a food walk through the lively Delhi University area. “India is known for its different varieties of flavourful food,” Darira explains. “Our food walk is all about street food, from yummy shawarmas to different Indian desserts.”
Along the way, you’ll get to browse authentic street food stalls and markets, learning all about the local cuisine. “Our guides explain each food item and tell some humorous stories, which makes this tour even more fun and special,” Darira promises. “At the end of the tour, our guests are happy, with full tummies.”
Unmissable wonders of Delhi
Other than the food, what are Darira’s top three must-sees in Delhi?
The capital’s oldest quarter was founded in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and was for centuries a powerful district filled with mansions, mosques and lush gardens for the wealthy. Today, it is a little on the scruffy side, but still full of atmosphere and a charm all its own. The crowded streets, chaotic markets and never-ending traffic can be daunting for first-time visitors, but there’s something electrifying about the relentless energy. Chandni Chowk, the main marketplace, is a maze of spices, textiles and other fascinating wares, and nearby you’ll find some remarkable architecture, including Jamid Masjid, the country’s largest mosque, and the spectacular Red Fort on the banks of the Yamuna river.
The tomb of the emperor Humayun was the first of a series of elaborate Mughal mausoleums in India, which later served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal. The tomb and its surrounding gardens are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can admire the architecture and peaceful landscape.
The towering red sandstone minaret known as Qutub Minar dates from the 12th century and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nearby you can also see several Mughal tombs, plus an intriguing, perfectly-cast iron pillar that is over 2,000 years old.
Experience another side of Delhi
A tour of Delhi’s Sanjay Colony slums can be a real eye-opener. Reality Tours offers guided visits to Delhi’s poorer neighbourhoods, and the company was born with a social conscience. “We were founded upon a desire to challenge negative stereotypes about slums and to use the profits to affect positive change in these communities,” says Krishna Pujari, founder of Reality Tours. “To do this, we commit 80% of our profits to funding the work of our sister NGO, Reality Gives. They then use these funds to run a variety of local development projects, which make quality education accessible for young people from underprivileged backgrounds.
“[Our] tours challenge the negative ideas many guests have of slums, and show them the spirit and resilience that resides within them. Around half the population of Mumbai and Delhi live in slums, so our guests appreciate that they get a true sense of how people live. Any fears about intrusion or voyeurism are allayed by the fact that we channel our profits back to these communities and observe a number of best practices (like no photography) to ensure the residents feel respected. Many of the residents tell us they feel a great sense of pride that people from all across the world are coming to see and understand their communities and culture.”
On a typical slum tour, you’ll meet the locals and visit a variety of small businesses, residences, mosques and temples to get a feel for daily life in the area. There are also options to enjoy a meal with a local family, or combine the visit with more general Delhi sightseeing. Many visitors are impressed by the positive energy of the community, despite the poverty and deprivation that are still prevalent.
Agra: ancient home of the Taj Mahal
Next on your journey around the Golden Triangle is Agra, home of the world-famous Taj Mahal. Built by the emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favourite wife, the beautiful building took more than 20,000 workers over 20 years to construct.
Pujari agrees that as famous as the Taj Mahal is, you really need to see it first-hand to understand its scale and beauty. “Something truly memorable is getting your first glimpse of the Taj Mahal,” he says. “When I lead a tour, I make sure visitors see the Taj for the first time from the Royal Gate. I try to avoid them seeing it from outside, or from the rooftop of a hotel or restaurant beforehand, so they get the most stunning first glimpse.”
Reality Tours offer day and overnight trips to Agra, as well as a more extensive itinerary that takes in all of the Golden Triangle. “We always try and add something unique to give our guests an authentic experience of India,” Pujari notes. “For example, when going to Agra, you really should visit Mehtab Bagh as well. This village is across the river from the Taj and gives you a fantastic view from a very different side (literally and metaphorically). It’s very quiet and peaceful and really lets you soak in the majesty of the Taj undisturbed by the tens of thousands of people who visit it every day.”
Also worth a visit is the nearby Agra Fort. However, as thrilling as these royal monuments are, Pujari points out how important it is to remember that “the real India resides in its people. It’s easy to be ferried around in air-conditioned vehicles from one great site to the next, but don’t forget to stop, have a chai and connect with real life here, too!”
The desert city of Jaipur
The final stop in your Golden Triangle tour is the historic city of Jaipur, capital of the desert state of Rajasthan. Often called the “Pink City” because of the ochre-tinted walls of its old town, Jaipur abounds with striking architecture and lively street life, including some wonderfully colourful markets and bazaars.
If you’re eager to explore the city with a local guide, Free Day Tours offer a transparent and responsible option that will give you an insider’s look at the city’s past and present. Some of the highlights of their Jaipur tours include:
One of Jaipur’s most intriguing structures is this honeycomb-like building on the edge of the City Palace. With five stories of latticed windows and mazes of narrow corridors, the Hawa Mahal (or “Palace of Winds”) was a discreet observation point for female members of the royal household. The delicate carvings of the pink sandstone building have recently been restored, and you can enjoy spectacular views from the upper floors.
Construction started on this palace complex in the 1720s, with successive buildings and gardens added over the years to create a pleasing mélange of architectural styles and influences. Today, the City Palace is still a royal residence, but also contains a variety of exhibits where you can see a selection of handwritten texts, antique weapons, artwork and even some of the royal dwelling areas.
This unusual UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of a collection of geometrical structures arranged to serve as giant instruments for astronomical observation.
Perched on a ridge overlooking Jaipur, this historic fort was once a strategic stronghold protecting the city. Today, Nahargarh offers impressive views over the surrounding landscape.
Located in Amer, just a short journey from Jaipur, the Amber Fort is an imposing palace located within a defensive complex overlooking Maota Lake. The elegant marble and sandstone structures feature beautiful furnishings and intricate carvings within the maharajah’s apartments, as well as spacious courtyards and gardens.
Plan your trip to the Golden Triangle
Ready to discover the diverse wonders of India’s Golden Triangle for yourself? Virgin Atlantic offers affordable flights to Delhi from London Heathrow, with daily departures throughout the year. Book your seat today and get set to embark on your Indian adventure.