Where do I start?! I’m infatuated with India. It’s one of the cuisines I feel least comfortable speaking about; and oddly enough, the more I learn about it the more uncomfortable it gets. I am a forever student. It’s my first time in India and I’m starting in the romantic city of Udaipur – The City of Lakes.
I only have one and a half days here so I have to make the most of it, and part of me just wants to spend it all at The Leela Palace – Udaipur – one of the most beautiful properties in Rajasthan. The hotel experience is very much part of experiencing India and it was the most elaborate, romantic, culturally satisfying, and royally over-the-top welcome. Since it’s India, the dining choices can’t be too adventurous (unfortunately foreign stomachs might not handle it well), but if I’m going to “hotel dine”, I want to do it here.
India thrives on tourism and it’s set up for this, and The Leela Palace in Udaipur has one of the top upscale restaurants. Travel + Leisure named it the “World’s Best Hotel” and that comes with incredible hospitality, on-site activities, and cuisine led by top chefs. Don’t miss the open air fine dining Indian restaurant Sheesh Mahal, which overlooks Lake Pichola and specializes in Ragasthani cuisine. The Laal Maas, a lamb curry made with onions, tomatoes, and red Mathania chillies is special to the region, and the dal makhni made with whole black lentil, red kidney beans, butter and cream is literally fit for the king.
You don’t have to be religious to get emotional or spiritual at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. In fact, you don’t have to be anything here, or you can be everything. There is no judgement, and it is a place honouring respect, humanity, equality and peace. Everyone is welcome and everyone is served.
Besides being one of the oldest worship places for Sikhs, it is also the largest free kitchen in the world. Millions of followers, many from Indian villages, donate their time to cook, clean and serve over fifty thousand meals (langar) a day at the temple. Over 85% of the people who work here are volunteers and they peel garlic, cook, serve tea, wash dishes and prepare roti in the on-site community kitchen.
Five hundred thousand rotis are made a day by hand and machine, and everyone is invited to eat in the 5000 seat dining hall which opens 24/7, 7 days a week. The vegetarian meal consists of roti, dal/channa/paneer, veggies, rice and kheer, and ingredients are bought via donations. Even though there are 5 rounds of washing, eat at your own risk if you’re not used to the local water. Also don’t forget to come back to the Golden Temple at night. It transforms into another beauty. This monument is not only breathtaking, but awe-inspiring and a humbling experience.
**Travel tip: I only had 2 precious days in Amritsar and it’s worth flying for. I recommend staying at the Hyatt Regency Amritsar which is the closest 5 star hotel to the Golden Temple and Jalliawalla Bagh (4.2km away or 10-20 minutes drive depending on traffic). There are even complimentary shuttles to the temple which makes it very convenient.
New Delhi, India
The national capital of India and the home for government. Here you’ll get a mix of everything and it is the most modern city of the three I visited. It’s a lot more lush than I expected and the traffic is just as I expected. Luckily I had help with navigation from India Driver Tours who offers private day tours and transportation services in Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.
There are two parts of Delhi – old Delhi and New Delhi and both are worth exploring. New Delhi is manageable on your own, although I still suggest hiring a tour guide and driver to help navigate at least for one day. Old Delhi, on the other hand, I would not recommend doing alone. It’s chaotic, dusty, historic, and for safety reasons, it is best to go with a driver and guide. Again I used India Driver Tours to set up a guided tour to both areas which was educational and ideal.
Agra, India (Taj Mahal)
Love immersing myself in the culture of a new place and it came easily in India. There is no place like home and no place like the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There were only a precious few days left and Taj Mahal was top of list, but I saved it to the end. I didn’t even have time to stay overnight in Agra, so I did a day trip from New Delhi starting at 6 am (arriving back in Delhi at 7 pm).
I highly recommend India Driver Tours who was reliable, professional and safe. Try to request Bhoopi as your tour guide too. He doubles as a historian as well as a solid photographer (he directed this shot and knows all the good places). He’ll tell you the love story of this white marble mausoleum inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones, which took 22 years to build. Not much more to say because no words can do the Taj Mahal justice. A must see for all the reasons you’ve been told and more.
**Tip: Have lunch or dinner at Peshawri at ITC Mughal in Agra. It’s an outlet of Bukhara which is the trademarked original at ITC Maurya in Delhi. Bukhara can draw hour lines ups daily without a reservation, so this is your next best bet if you want to try it out. It’s excellent.