Agra, commonly referred to as ‘Taj City’, is the country’s most prized city, recognisable by the iconic Taj Mahal – an ivory-white mausoleum built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz. This UNESCO World Heritage Site (and a symbol of love, too) is reason enough to visit Agra. Besides the allure of this spectacular white mausoleum, the city is home to two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the 16th-century Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, which are just as noteworthy.
Nestled on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. For centuries, culture, religion, history, art and education have thrived here, and that’s exactly what makes it one of the most visited cities in the country. This holy place is associated with Lord Shiva, and is the most sacred place for Hindus. People from across the world come here to attain nirvana and seek blessings of the Lord. Attending a Ganga aarti (Hindu ritual of worship) is a must, along with taking a dip in the Ganges river, which is believed to wash away all your sins and bring you a step closer to salvation. Visitors can just sit at one of many ghats and observe people from different walks of life; or take a boat ride along the shore for a stunning view of the ghats (flights of steps leading to the river). For moments of peace and spiritual experience, there is no better place than the City of Gods.
Sarnath is one of the most important Buddhist sites in India, where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. During the 3rd century BC, the town was expanded by Emperor Ashoka, and several monasteries and stupas were built, which made it a popular place among Buddhist devotees. Every year, during Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday in April/May), hordes of people from across the world flock here to take part in the celebration. The virtues of Buddhism are palpable in almost every nook and pillar of this must-visit town in UP.
The capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow is a beautiful historical city that hardly merits a mention in many travel guides. Whether you’re a history buff, culture vulture, wildlife explorer or a food connoisseur, there’s something for everyone in the Land of Nawabs. Awaiting you are the Mughal ruins dating back to 17th and 18th centuries, such as Bara Imambara, Chotta Imambara and Rumi Darwaza; the early 19th-century Dilkusha Kothi built in English baroque architecture, the bustling Hazratganj, and the many cultural and natural places. Not to be missed is its rich Awadhi cuisine – you must definitely try the kebabs (tunday, seekh and galouti) and lucknowi biryani (a combination of rice, spices and marinated chicken).
Mathura is the birthplace of the Hindu God, Krishna, and also among the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. The town is filled with temples dating back centuries. Of particular note are Sri Krishna Janma Bhoomi, Dwarkadhish temple and Gita Mandir. Also, the sacred Yamuna River flows past this town and is dotted with 25+ ghats, of which the Vishram ghat is considered to be the most sacred. Every year, thousands of devotees visit these temples and ghats to seek blessings and spiritual experience, particularly during Holi (Feb/March) and Janmashtami (Lord Kirshna’s birthday in August/September). The scenes of devotion near the ghats, set against the backdrop of ancient temples, are definitely one of the most stunning in the world.
If you’re a temple lover, then Vrindavan is a must-visit. Located just 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) from Mathura, it is another sacred retreat dedicated to Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. It is the place where Krishna spent his childhood years. This heritage town has about 5,000 temples with intricate architecture and carvings that showcase the divine love of Krishna and Radha. Some of the noteworthy ones include Banke Bihari temple, Krishna Balaram temple, Prem Mandir and Radha Raman temple.
The birthplace of Lord Rama, Ayodhya is also one of the seven sacred places for Hindus. With temples on almost every corner, Ayodhya is a spiritual seeker’s paradise. Ramkot is the main hub of worship in the town that attracts devotees from across the world. Other significant temples worthy of a visit include Nageshwarnath temple, Hanuman Garhi, Treta Ke Thakur, Kanak Bhawan and Ram Janmabhoomi temple. Away from the temples, Moti Mahal and Mausoleum of Bahu Begum in Faizabad (just a few kilometres from Ayodhya) are well worth a visit for their spectacular Mughal architecture and grandeur.
The moniker ‘the Sangam City’ is befitting to Allahabad as it is the meeting point of Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers in India. Known for its Kumbh Mela and historical landmarks, Allahabad is the second-oldest living city in the country dating back to the Vedic period. The city is rife with Mughal architecture and British-era buildings and structures, which makes it a must-visit for those with a penchant for architecture and history. The Allahabad Fort, Khusro Bagh, Swaraj Bhava, Triveni Sangam, Anand Bhavan and All Saint’s Cathedral are particular highlights.
Nestled on the banks of the Ganges river, Kanpur is a beautiful city in its own right, brimming with religious and historical sites. Kanpur Gardens, Allen Forest Zoo, Shri Radhakrishna temple, Kanpur Memorial Church, Kamla Retreat, Moti Jheel (reservoir), JK temple and Jajmau (one of the largest tanneries in India) are some of the must-visit spots.
Jhansi is synonymous with bravery and valour of the 18th-century queen, Rani Lakshmibai, also known as Jhansi ki Rani. It has temples, forts and churches reminiscent of a bygone era, and a stroll among these is an evocative affair which will leave you enthralled. The Jhansi Fort, Rani Mahal and the Government Museum are particularly noteworthy.