The best road trips to take in India: Scenic mountains, architecture and enchanting heritage sites

The best road trips to take in India: Scenic mountains, architecture and enchanting heritage sites
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As a child growing up in the heart of the Indian capital, I took road trips for granted. The spontaneous feeling of just packing your bags, hopping in a four-wheeler and zooming off to another unexplored state was simply unbeatable.

If you're looking to hire a local guide, or just driving down on your own to explore the country of vibrant colours, breath-taking sites and a rich culture, here are the best routes in the Indian sub-continent.

Delhi to Manali

Drive Time: Approx. 12 hour drive from Delhi to Manali.

One of the most popular routes among the locals, the trip from the capital city north towards the town of Kullu is nothing short of stunning. Great for friends, families, or couples looking to steer up some romance, the 536 km trip would definitely be something to remember.

On the way, you'll be crossing other states like Haryana and Punjab, which also serve as good spots for quick respites and meals. If you have time to spare, stop over in Chandigarh to see iconic monuments like the Rock Garden, a sculpture park located near the Sukhna Lake or to the grand Bhakra Dam, the second tallest of its kind in Asia, near the Bilaspur district.

A personal favourite, themed eatery Haveli in Murthal, Haryana captures the essence of Punjabi food and living. Here you'll find traditional-looking sculptures, antiques, yummy butter chicken, along with familiar household hospitality.

Once you've reached the Kullu, you'll be able to get a stunning view of the Himalayan ranges and shop for Tibetan teas at the local market. Or head to Manali hill station, where you can embark on adventurous activities like skiing, river rafting and camping at the famous Solang Valley.

Mumbai to Goa

Drive Time: Approx. 11 hour and 30 minutes' drive from Mumbai to Goa.

If you're not looking to go too far out to the outskirts, Mumbai to Goa is an easier road trip. From one major state to another, you can expect plenty of amenities (snack stores, pharmacies, restaurants etc) on the way.

Though the roads are generally pretty safe, avoid going in the monsoon due to landslides, and skip peak seasons of December and January in Goa if you're not a fan of crowds.

On your 594 km drive, stop at the town of Panvel for the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, where one can spend time bird-watching and being one with nature or hiking to the lusciously green Karnala Fort.

History enthusiasts can take a peek at the Karla and Bhaja Caves near Lonavala, featuring centuries old temples and religious sculptures and carvings. Only half an hour away, the three-tiered Kune Falls are not to be missed, sitting at an altitude of 622m against the backdrop of the gorgeous Sahyadri Mountains.

In Goa, you'll get a chance to break away from hectic life, and enjoy beaches such as Baga and Palolem.

Delhi to Jaipur & Udaipur

Drive Time: Approx. five hours drive from Delhi to Jaipur, and seven hours from Jaipur to Udaipur.

A quick trip from Delhi unveil Rajasthan's rich royal heritage and culture housing many forts, temples and other royal grounds. Known as the 'Pink City', Jaipur is not to be overlooked when visiting India.

Here, Hawa Mahal (Palace of Breeze) has made to the itinerary of many travellers. Built in the 16th century to allow royal ladies to watch street-festivals without being seen, it's a detail-oriented architectural landmark with a crown-like façade, colourful glasswork, and 953 windows.

In juxtaposition 20 minutes away, the modern-built Akshardham Temple sees incredible pure-gold statues and paintings of Hindu deities. To meditate or get lost in your thoughts, check out the peaceful garden sporting a variety of flora and fountains.

If you are looking to continue the adventure, you can extend your trip to Udaipur next. Founded by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1559, the city is set against a series of tranquil lakes.

There's much to do here, from boating the glistening Lake Pichola to witnessing the incredible cultural dance show at Bagore Ki Haveli. Hit the bustling street markets or hunker down for the night at the five-star floating Taj Lake Palace hotel.

Kargil to Leh

Drive Time: Approx. five hours drive from Kargil to Leh.

Travelling between these two cities in Ladakh can only mean one thing: hauntingly beautiful views. Between rugged valleys, and prickly mountain tops, each windy road will bring a spectacle to remember.

Starting off the journey in Kargil, Drass War Memorial has to make your checklist, honouring Indian military troops emerged victorious against infiltrators in the battle of Tiger Hill (the highest peaks in the area). En route to Leh, you'll come across villages like Pashkum and Shargole, with the former showcasing the ruins of ancient forts and castles.

The latter is known for the Shargole Monastery, rooted into a cliff and offering gorgeous scenic views.

In Leh, not only will you find yourself surrounded by natural beauty. It's a cultural immersion with Buddhist monasteries and stupas. Featuring relics of Buddha, the Shanti Stupa is a temple built by Japanese and Ladakhi Buddhists. Pangong Lake is also a standout, known for the changing colours of water, from blue to green to red as the day passes.

Chennai to Pondicherry

Drive Time: Approx. three hours drive from Chennai to Pondicherry.

One of the closest retreats in proximity to Chennai, Pondicherry is a favourite destination amongst the locals too. On one of the most enjoyable drives in South India, you'll be traversing the East Coast Road with sites like Mahabalipuram Lighthouse and Alamparai Fort along the way. The lighthouse boasts jaw-dropping views of Mahabalipuram beach, and the sun heading up or down the horizon.

Heading into the peaceful Pondicherry, you'll be welcomed by bright coloured buildings, with a history of old French colonial heritage, and effortless beauty of the bay. Start your mornings with a stroll along the Promenade, a 1.5km stretch adjacent to the bay, and return in the evening to enjoy a rooftop dinner at the Bay of Buddha restaurant.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus also bears beautiful gothic architecture. Take in the motif-covered walls, and stained glasswork for an easy afternoon in the city.

Kochi to Kanyakumari 

Drive Time: Approx. six hours drive from Kochi to Kanyakumari.

See the best of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost part of the Indian peninsula, from Kochi. The drive takes you across cities like Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Alappuzha, and Varkala, until you reach the southern tip of Kanyakumari. The Alappuzha Beach is worth the stopover, with a beautiful waterfront, lighthouse and rustic houseboats.

The Palaruvi Waterfalls is enchanting - and the perfect spot for a picnic - while the Konni Elephant Reserve, where the large mammals and their calves go about their daily lives, will entertain the young and young at heart alike.

A land rooted in history, arts and culture, pay a visit to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial upon reaching Kanyakumari. A ferry ride from the main beach, this monument honours Indian poet and philosopher Swami Vivekananda. 

A confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati River rivers, a dip at the Triveni Sangam is said to wash away all your sins and offer freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

ALSO READ: 1 of the best places to see wild tigers in India, a conservation success

This article was first published in City Nomads.

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