Home to 37 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for any traveler to India these important spots are a key aspect to their trip, and that was especially true on my own journey around the country. While I never make it the focus of my travels, if there’s an opportunity for me to visit a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, I always make sure I stop. In 1972 the UN, through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, began recognizing important sites around the world that they consider vital in order to maintain the cultural and natural heritage we have all inherited. Even though I haven’t even scratched the surface of visiting the more than 1,000 sites in every corner of the planet, I have been to quite a few and think every traveler should make a point to visit them if they can. Some countries make it a little easier due to the width and breadth of UNESCO World heritage Sites within their borders, and India is home to one of the most robust collections of sites in the world. Thankfully, I traveled around India with luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, a company who also values these important sites and incorporates them into their trips whenever they can. That’s how I was able to visit so many in such a short time frame, places that formed the basis of my time in India and sites that I want to share with you today.
Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai
My first stop in India not only set the tone for my trip, but is also the city that surprised me the most – Mumbai. Long the cultural capital of the country, this energetic metropolis isn’t at all what I expected India to look like. Sure, the traffic is chaotic and there are more people packed into the city than I would ever have imagined, but it’s also a green and leafy city, cooled by the air coming off of the nearby water. Mumbai is also a great place for a history aficionado such as myself, tracking the story of the city from colonial times to the present. A strange blend of Flemish and Norman architecture is the theme in some of the city’s more historic areas, temples and churches occupying spaces practically next door to each other. It’s this building boom that started in the 19th and continuing into the 20th centuries that earned India’s its latest UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, the Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of the city. Bordering the popular recreation space the Oval Maidan, these building booms came to define the city and led to incredible changes in Indian design and architectural style. They’re thankfully still preserved today, awing visitors like me in the 21st century just as they would have a century ago.
Off the coast of Mumbai is another important UNESCO World Heritage Site and half the fun truly is in the getting there. Boarding a local boat with my Abercrombie & Kent guide, we made the hour-long trek out to an unusual site, the Elephanta Caves. Hidden in plain sight on this tiny island are a collection of temple caves, intricate figures and statues carved out of the rock itself. The temples are mostly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and were most likely carved between the 5th-7th centuries. Sadly, over the many intervening centuries the temples have been heavily damaged, but there are still many scenes and figures easy to recognize. The island is definitely a popular tourist destination, with shops set up on the long stairway used to reach the caves themselves. As a history buff, I enjoyed visiting the temples, but the boat ride was just as much fun. It was good to see Mumbai from the water and to enjoy the cooling breezes of the boat ride. The sea has played an important role in the life of Mumbai, and I think experiencing that maritime tradition is a key experience for any visitor to the city.
The Jantar Mantar
The old town of Jaipur wasn’t just where my Abercrombie & Kent guide and I started the day, it’s where most tourists to this popular spot along the Golden Triangle begin. It’s here where the city’s most famous and important landmarks still stand, including the massive City Palace and the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jantar Mantar. This site fascinated me perhaps the most, due not only to its size but its purpose. The Jantar Mantar is a collection of 19 larger than life astronomical instruments built in the early 1700s, including the world’s largest stone sundial. These surprisingly precise instruments were built in order to best calculate the movement of the earth and the heavens, so that advisors to the ruler could provide the most accurate astrological advice possible. It’s a remarkable achievement, even more so that it remains intact today, practically adjacent to the equally fascinating City Palace.
Hill Forts of Rajasthan
This UNESCO designation actually includes six majestic forts in the state of Rajasthan, including the one I visited, the gorgeous Amer Fort or Amber Fort, the former hilltop palace complex of the ruling elite before they moved to Jaipur. Once the capital of the powerful princes of Jaipur, the beautifully fortified palace sits high above the surrounding valley, an ideal place to spot would-be invaders. Regional powers lived on this mountaintop for centuries before this magnificent fort was built in the late 16th century, expanded over time by successive rulers. Wandering through the many rooms and courtyards, it’s easy to imagine what life was like for the ruling class here in Amer. From the exquisite designs and embellishments to feats of engineering that kept the palace cool in the hot summer months, it’s as impressive a construction as I’ve seen anywhere in the world. But of course I was constantly drawn to the views from high on top of the fort, gazing across the lake and valley far off into the distance, wondering what others who came before me thought about while standing on that same exact spot.
Agra and nearby regions
It was a long drive from Jaipur to Agra, but a stop not far outside of Agra helped break up the day and added a lot to my own understanding of similar sites found around the country. Sadly, since the Taj Mahal is close by this site may be overlooked, but it should be considered a must-visit complex for any visitor. Long a center of cultural and religious importance, it was in the 16th century when it was made the capital of the Mughal Empire. Walking through the palace/city, the incredible architecture is hard to miss and is one of many reasons why it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It’s this unique style of architecture that came to define Mughal rule in India, and which is often still copied around the country today.
I don’t think I need to explain why this, one of the most famous monuments on the planet is on the list. I knew it would be a remarkable experience, but nothing quite prepared me for the reality of the visit, especially at a very special time of day. Like many other visitors, I spent the night in Agra and enjoyed seeing this incredible building complex at two different times of day. For me though, my favorite time to be at the Taj Mahal was during the quiet morning hours. As it turns out, there’s a reason why my guide insisted on visiting at two very different times of day. The experiences could not have been more different from one another. While there was a short line, the crowd entering the Taj complex that early morning was nothing like the night before. With so few people there, it was an intimate and almost private experience. Don’t misunderstand, there was still a 5-minute wait to sit on the so-called “Diana bench,” and to grab that one famous selfie also required a wait. But overall, the crowds were negligible and as I waited for the perfect morning light, I walked right into the main mausoleum itself, skipping the hour-long wait that was there the night before. The tomb perhaps was the one aspect that was disappointing, a simple nod to a great love affair. But the complex isn’t about that one final resting place, it’s about a love so deep and profound that it inspired one of the most remarkable structures that the world has ever seen. And, for the most part, it looks just as perfect as it must have the day it was finished.
A normal stop on the tourist tour of Agra is a visit to this impressive fort overlooking the city and surrounding countryside. Also known as the Red Fort of Agra, this former imperial city is still surrounded by its ancient walls, containing fairy-tale palaces inside. It’s also where the mighty ruler and builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was imprisoned by his son. His view was of the Taj itself, giving him the perfect view of the final resting place for his true love. While it naturally pales in comparison to visiting the Taj Mahal itself, I really enjoyed exploring this large complex, seeing how the ruling class lived and marveling at how remarkably intact everything still is. The Mughal Empire defined India for centuries and to visit the remnants of this civilization is important to truly understand the history of the country.
I was surprised to discover not one but two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Delhi, starting with another impressive funerary complex, Humayun’s Tomb. Today we think of these massive mausoleums as an important aspect of the Mughal Empire, but this was the first, and created a tradition that was expanded upon throughout the years. Built in 1570, this elaborate garden-tomb is a peaceful and serene enclave, just as it was meant to be. Although it’s located in the middle of a massive and chaotic city, all of that seems to fall away as soon as you enter the complex itself. For some reason I’m drawn to this unique style of architecture, a combination of graceful and perfectly executed symmetry along with garden elements that add meaning as well as style. It’s a quick and easy place to visit, and a fun addition to a tour of Delhi.
Qutb Minar and its Monuments
The region that is today New Delhi has been settled since at least the 6th century BC and its long history can be found everywhere, but especially at this unique monument. Although the eye is naturally drawn to the massive 236-foot red-sandstone minaret, an incredible feat of engineering when it was built in the 13th century, it’s just one part of a larger complex. Surrounding the tower are ancient mosques, funeral chambers and more, making this an incredibly important place for a very long time. It’s still the tallest minaret built entirely of bricks in the world and although it’s had its encounters with near disaster over the centuries, it still stands tall in the heart of the city.
India is home to a variety of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, far too many to visit on just one trip. These 9 sites though were the backbone of my own journey around the country and, for most first-time visitors, play an important role in understanding the history and culture of this incredible country.