One of the quintessential itineraries for India - these are the cities many people think of as their 'must-do' in India.
This was actually quite a personal visit for us as we were married in Agra and used our time in Delhi for wedding shopping and a little sightseeing. The remainder of the trip we travelled with family through Rajasthan.
Delhi often gets a bad rap, and it is important to remain vigilant with your belongings and personal safety as you would in any big city. Same goes for the rest of the itinerary. I won't bore you with details of being 'relieved' of our camera during our wedding ceremony in Agra, but suffice to say it was a great shame and a reminder not to let valuables out of sight - even during a wedding!
Parts of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are also incredibly congested and not the prettiest in India - but some of the architectural jewels of the country are also in these three cities, as are a number of other charms - you'd be mad to miss them.
Our journey saw us begin in Delhi for three nights for some wedding shopping, but we also had plenty of time to see some of the sights of this great city.
Then on to Agra by train for four nights for our wedding. It is completely unnecessary to spend four nights in Agra. The city itself is not attractive, but of course its great sights - the Taj Mahal and Red Fort - are magnificent. One or two nights is entirely sufficient for the visit.
We then arranged a driver to take us on to Jaipur, the 'pink city' of Rajasthan. A fascinating diversion along the way is the village of Abhaneri, to see the amazing Chand Baori - otherwise known as the Abhaneri step well. Jaipur is the perfect introduction to Rajasthan, with its spectacular Amber Fort the highlight of our visit.
After having our fill of architectural gems and possibly the world's best lassi, we head further into the desert to the fort city of Jaisalmer - the State's spectacular 'gold city', on a long overnight train journey.
On this trip, we forewent beautiful lake city of Udaipur - the 'white city' - for Jaisalmer as we had been to Udaipur previously. Both Udaipur and Jaisalmer are spectacular in their own right and if you can fit in both it would be great - we cover both in this itinerary.
Finally a stop at the 'blue city' - Jodhpur, which we reached with a car and driver in about 5 hours from Jaisalmer. Views from the amazing Mehrangarh fort help to appreciate the city's colours - blue for sure!
Delhi - 3 nights
Indian friends warned me about Delhi. 'Don't go out by yourself', they said. 'You will get scammed in the first five minutes', they said. Ya ya ya. Did I pay attention? Not really. Maybe I should have, because I did get scammed in the first five minutes, but that is now many visits and many years ago.
Delhi is many visitors' first introduction to India, and while there are undoubtedly a few pitfalls, there are lots of things to enjoy in India's capital - which boasts a rich heritage, some great food and - there is no point being shy about it - Delhi is my favourite place to shop anywhere on earth. I always pick up great gifts and outfits that I couldn't find anywhere else - including online, so it is worth devoting a little time to retail if you are even remotely interested in fashion. Local designers are well priced, interesting and can be found alongside international offerings in many malls and markets. And for handicrafts from all over India arranged by State - head to the Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan, just a short stroll out of Connaught Place.
We have been to Delhi a few times, and on this visit we eschewed our usual cheap and cheerful favourites in the Karol Bagh, for the heritage hotel Vivanta by Taj Ambassador next to the Khan Market, where we wasted no time in exploring and making purchases. The Khan Market isn't exactly the place for bargains, but fixed price favourites Anokhi and Fab India are there, as are lots of other boutiques and snack options.
The hotel is also within walking distance of the lovely Lodi Gardens, which we explored the following morning before breakfast. Full of people taking their early morning walks or doing yoga, the gardens also preserve Mughal-era ruins.
For the remainder of the day, we had wedding shopping to do. I had enlisted the help of a sort of personal shopper, who specialises in helping brides who come to Delhi specifically to shop for their wedding trousseau. She had lined up the perfect range of shops in South Extension and the Greater Kailash markets to fulfil my wedding outfit dreams within my budget. Her service turned out to be well worth it - three outfits with alterations and all accessories were arranged in just over six hours - a feat I never could have achieved alone.
I would return to a number of the shops - Frontier Raas in South Extension has a great sari and ready-made selection - perfect if you are attending a wedding as either guest or bride! Bombay Selections also has a number of branches around the city and they had a good range as well from what I could tell on my whirlwind shopping visit.
With wedding shopping done - there were more sights to be seen.
On another of our morning walks, we wandered to India Gate, a monument to those that have served India in times of war, and the nearby Parliament buildings. When we visited, Independence Day was approaching within a month, and marching drills were being practiced along our route - the drill sergeants certainly had their work cut out for them on the day we visited!
On this visit we also chose Humayun's Tomb to visit, which some liken to a mini Taj Mahal, but is much older and often credited with some of the architectural innovations that followed in the construction of the Taj Mahal.
If Humayun's Tomb isn't sufficient to satisfy your craving for Mughal architecture - don't worry - you have barely scratched the surface of Delhi's treasures in that regard. On previous visits - Lal Qila and the Qutub Minar have certainly been worth the effort.
For something completely different - Delhi's Lotus Temple welcomes people of all faiths to come together in a peaceful, contemplative space. Think Sydney Opera House rearranged to look like a lotus, and you're getting close.
Most folks come to Agra for one reason only, which is of course the great Taj Mahal. Of course you know how it looks, but you might find yourself surprised by a visit to India's most famous building. The size for one thing - it's pretty enormous. The people for another - when you see postcards, the Taj is usually people free. Not so in real life. Millions of people from all over India and around the world visit every day - making for funny interactions, people watching and to me - the vibrant colours of Indian women's dress against the white marble is a beauty that has to be seen to be appreciated.
It is also possible to line up to see inside the Taj Mahal, which is of course, a tomb. This is not for the claustrophobic, but it is a sight that you will have to go to the Taj to experience - photography is not allowed.
For an alternate view of the Taj Mahal, the Mehtab Bagh ('Moonlight Garden') is a nice vantage. The gardens are also worth knowing about if you are so unfortunate as to be visiting Agra on a Friday - when the Taj Mahal complex is closed to visitors.
While the Taj Mahal overshadows everything else in Agra, it would be folly to leave the city without also visiting the magnificent Red Fort, with a reasonable guide. Both monuments have amazing stories behind them - although many of us know that the Taj is a 'monument to love' built by the Mughal King Shah Jahan, the Red Fort is the counterpoint in that it was where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb and only permitted to view his masterpiece from the window. But there is much, much more to the fort's story than that, having been originally been built by Akbar the Great, and added to by the Mughal kings that followed. It contains a number of incredible palaces and mosques within its imposing red sandstone walls.
Out of town the Fatehpur Sikri complex is another treasure of the Mughal era - also built by Emperor Akbar. Fatehpur Sikri is truly impressive and worth the 39km schlep out of Agra if you have time. Again a good guide is essential to bring the story of this place alive. The Bollywood film Jodhaa Akbar is a fictionalised account of the story of Emperor Akbar, a Muslim, and his Hindu Rajput wife - a nice watch before you go - if not for historical veracity, the songs and outfits will get you in the mood for your visit!
We stayed at the rather grand Wyndham Grand - which is built in Mughal style and it was a lovely, comfortable stay with good food but patchy service at times.
One of India's most overlooked sights is just off the Agra-Jaipur highway, and an easy sidebar if you have a knowledgeable driver and/or keep your eyes peeled for the Abhaneri turn-off. We didn't, so had to backtrack the next day - but it was well worth it.
The Chand Baori, otherwise known as the Abhaneri step well, is located in the tiny village of the Abhaneri. As the name suggests, step wells are water wells cleverly comprised of steps - which allowed users to move to wherever the water level happened to be. The result is something that M.C. Escher might have drawn - you feel as though you are actually in an optical illusion.
Billed as Rajasthan's 'pink city' - you might have to wear some rose coloured glasses to be fully 'in the pink' in busy, smoggy Jaipur. But don't let that deter you. There are plenty of diamonds - even pink ones - in this fascinating city.
We stayed at a friendly guesthouse which was decorated throughout in lovely Rajasthani style. As it was New Years' Eve when we visited, the owner was throwing a party with Rajasthani dancers and musicians, which was excellent.
The guesthouse was walking distance from the flagship store of my favourite Indian clothing brand - Anokhi - which has a great cafe and hours of browsing pleasure for the hand-blocked prints on cotton for which the city is famous. The company prides itself on sustainability and the relationship with its craftspersons as well as lovely contemporary designs.
We covered most of the key sights in Jaipur in a very full day that began with the most fabulous traditional lassi. Although the yoghurt drink has been made famous everywhere with the addition of mango, at Lassiwala in MI Road you will taste just the pure yoghurt variety, pot set overnight and each one served in a brand new terracotta pot. Once sold out for the day - that's it - so go for breakfast!
The most iconic sight - and probably the pinkest one - in Jaipur is undoubtedly the Hawa Mahal - or Palace of the Wind. The intricate, honeycomb facade of pink and red sandstone can be viewed at its best from the street below.
Just around the corner, City Palace is actually a complex of palaces which are now primarily museums, as well as courtyards and gardens.
Again walking distance from Hawa Mahal and City Palace is the fascinating Jantar Mantar. A world heritage site, it is a beautifully preserved astronomical observatory with around 20 fixed instruments. You can wander around blithely trying to figure out what each one does - some are easy, others less so - or get yourself a guide.
After all that sightseeing it was time for a vegetarian lunch at LMB, where you can sample traditional Rajasthani thali, after which we stepped out for some shopping in the busy Johari bazaar - where jewellery and traditional trinkets are on display. On a couple of occasions we have picked up traditional slippers - brightly embroidered or embossed camel leather - which you can wear with just about anything!
After the main city sights, a short drive out of town to Amber, takes you to one of Jaipur's most imposing buildings - the Amber Fort.
Our driver deposited us in the carpark in front of the Fort - a magnificent sight. The fort, not the carpark, that is. To get up the steep approach to the Fort you can walk (nope!), ride an elephant or take a jeep. We chose the jeep.
The scale of the Fort, the myriad of spaces within it and views of the surrounding countryside are worth traveling to Jaipur for.
The forts of Rajasthan - Amber Fort included - are sights that will make you glad you visited in winter, or rue that you didn't. To take them in fully, you need to walk, and often climb steps and inclines - obviously Forts are built on hills on purpose. And as impressive as they are, when it's 48 degrees, everything looks meh.
We took an overnight train to Jaisalmer and it was magical to wake up and pull into the town that rises from the desert in golden sandstone.
A large part of the town is itself a fort, which is where tourists flock and stay - in and around the fort's walls. A stay within the fort is somewhat controversial for heritage preservation reasons, but honestly, the lure of staying in the fort was too much for us and we found a friendly, modest but comfortable option with a rooftop restaurant with spectacular views. This choice will bother some, and I respect that - if it is likely to bother you on your visit, there are a number of hotels that have views back towards the fort.
Truly spellbinding, the fort is full of temples and historical buildings housing the most incredible treasures. Our hotel arranged a lovely guide to take us on a walking tour of the main sights of the town both within the fort and also from a few vantage points in the wider city. As the light changes in the winter afternoon, the city's buildings truly have a golden glow which is magnificent to wander.
Our hotel also arranged our camel rides in the desert. This was less successful for us, and although this is the reason many folks come to Jaisalmer, you need to investigate your options carefully if you are keen on a desert/camel experience and rug up. Our camel ride was less than 10 minutes and deposited us among sand dunes that were covered in rubbish where we waited for sunset over the desert, which was rather less mystical than we had imagined, especially on a bitingly chilly desert winter's evening. This was followed up by a meal and open air folk music performance - but it was so bone-chillingly cold, we headed back to the hotel before it was over. The moral of the story - do your research and be prepared!
Although we didn't stay in Udaipur on this visit, we have visited previously and have included here for a more complete itinerary. Certainly it is a place on many people's lists of must dos and its attractions are numerous.
A stay with a view of Lake Pichola is ideal - there are plenty of budget options if your cashflow doesn't extend to that of James Bond for a stay at the Lake Palace - one of the famous 'landmarks' of Udaipur which has to be reached by boat. Actually it looks quite nice from a distance, especially at night from one of the restaurants around town with a lake view.
Udaipur also has a lovely City Palace - not to be confused with the one in Jaipur. Situated on the east bank of Lake Pichola and something of a focal point for Udaipur, it is absolutely worth the visit - even if you are a bit 'palaced-out' by this point. The main market streets in front of the Palace are worth perusing for silver and other handicrafts, but bargaining is essential!
Udaipur is a great city to wander, especially around the lake, and it is possible to get out on a boat for close-ups of the Lake Palace and such.
Although Jodhpur may not have the spectacular siting of either Udaipur or Jaisalmer, in some ways I liked this city more. It is relatively easy to get around and find what you are looking for, there are some great restaurants and I could spend days exploring the mighty Merangarh fort, which has truly splendid views and looms imposingly over the city.
It is from the Fort that you get an appreciation of why Jodhpur is called the 'blue city' of Rajasthan. A whole district of houses is painted in a distinct hue.
But that isn't the only reason to visit the fort, which is truly gargantuan and full of great treasures. Merangarh's rugged beauty makes the other forts and palaces of Rajasthan quite dainty in comparison. There is a steep hike up but you are rewarded with palaces, gardens and courtyards and collections of palanquins, weapons, paintings and costumes fill the intricately decorated rooms.
In Jodhpur we stayed at the lovely heritage hotel Ratan Vilas, which was conveniently located and had great service.
Around the clocktower in central Jodhpur you will find a busy market and delicious lassi at Shri Mishrilal. A different proposition entirely to the lassi we had in Jaipur - which was perfect in its unadorned simplicity, the Makhania lassi at Shri Mishrilal was thick, sweet and beautifully spiced with cardamom and saffron. Worth trying both if you are a fan of lassi and visiting both cities!
There are many restaurants with great views of the fort, which is spectacularly lit at night. We tried Indique, which has a very popular and romantic terrace, and good Indian standards.