The world’s seventh largest country is complex, bewildering at times, mainly magnificent and, as a family holiday, it has no equal anywhere.
There are 29 states and a population of 1.2 billion people, so choosing where to go isn’t always easy. Some areas are best avoided and if you’re in any doubt, check UK travel guidelines online.
Very young children may struggle with the crowds and chaos in Mumbai and Delhi but the cities of Rajasthan are wonderful and an easier introduction to the hectic that’s part of every day life here.
But whether you go to see tigers, play on the beaches, explore the desert, dive into the great metropolis or trek with teenagers in the Himalayan foothills, travel wisely, with an open mind and you’ll fall in love with India, because everyone does.
Direct flights all year round from London to Mumbai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai.
Expansive rail network
India has the world’s third largest rail network after Russia and China: over 63,000km of railway, 6800 stations and at least 5 of the greatest all time rail journeys including: the Goa Express, the Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express and the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey from Mumbai to Delhi.
India has a total of 6100km of coastline washed by the Indian Ocean.
India has 35 World Heritage sites including the Taj Mahal, the Mountain Railways of India and the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area.
In 1970, India had five National Parks today it has 166. Kaziranga National Park in Assam has the largest known tiger population in the world.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are known as India’s Maldives and float between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, closer to Burma than India.
The country’s mountains include the Eastern Himalayas, Sulaiman, Kirthar, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges.
Where to go and stay in India
Down in the south west, Kerala mixes up wildlife with outdoor adventure, adds in more than a few of the mesmerising sights which make India such an enchantment and is just about perfect for kids. Blissfully free of the country’s big, relentless, chaotic and often daunting metropolis and more given to ancient cities, quaint towns, rivers and rice fields, this is the state that could convert kids to the magic of India for life.
Visit Kochi (Cochin), once known as ‘the Queen of the Arabian Sea’, its Kerala’s major port. Built on the spice trade, the Old Town’s as charming as the newer city’s fresh and bright and both are good for family hotels, gorgeous heritage guesthouses and self-catering in captivating historic homes.
Kerala’s Kuttanad (backwaters) are one of the reasons why the state’s so loved. They’re as thrilling for kids as they are romantic and the best way to see them is by renting a houseboat. Called Kettuvalam, these lovely floating homes come with their own boatmen to pilot, chefs to cook and childcare for young children.
Don’t miss: Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kochi Old Town, Wonderla Waterpark, Kathakali theatre, the Munnar tea plantations, sailing on Lake Kundala, Mattancherry Palace and Kochi waterfront for the amazing boats.
June to August is monsoon season in Kerala. The best time to visit is between October and April.
Goa’s beautiful beaches give the southern state more of a party reputation than it entirely deserves. There are areas where life’s livelier than most families want in a holiday, but they’re not difficult to avoid in favour of a calmer sort of seaside fun. Goa’s also one of India’s most revered pilgrimages and the temples, shrines and World Heritage sites are just as stunning as the white sand and blue, blue Arabian sea.
Give touristy Colva a miss: the beaches are big and long but the crowds make it unbearable with kids.
Head slightly further south of Colva to Benaulim, a pretty village without party-loving visitors and just the right size and style for families.
Don’t miss: Anjuna Market, getting about by water taxi, dolphin spotting and bike tours in Benaulim.
Definitely visit Old Goa – an hour north of Benaulim – for World Heritage Bom Jesus Basilica, the romantic Indo-Portuguese mansions and the collection of convents and churches, also World Heritage sites.
Goa’s best for beaches so the time to visit for sunshine, swimmable seas and cooling breezes is between mid-November and mid-February.
In the north west, Rajasthan is the land of high desert, Mughal palaces, lakes, majestic forts and spectacular cities like Jodhpur, Ajmer, Udaipur and Bikaner. Indian families holiday in this state to escape stuffy cities and the humid south in summer. And, if you have an image of ancient India in your mind, it probably looks very similar to Rajasthan.
Jaisalmer to the far east is the western edge of the Thar Desert and the place for camel safaris on the Desert National Park, Jaisalmer Fort and the historic city itself, which looks as if it’s built out of sand.
Visit Udaipur for Lake Pichola and fantastic palaces.
Visit Jodhpur for the Mehrangarh Fort, walled city and Jodhpur-blue painted buildings.
Bikaner is brilliant for huge markets, Junagarh Fort and elaborate Junagarh Palace.
Don’t miss: the tigers at Ranthambhore National Park; Pushkar for dozens of Hindu temples and almost as many kite shops; Thar Desert camel safaris; the Desert National Park and Gadsisar Lake.
Ornate townhouses (haveli) are wonderful places to stay – sort of like India’s version of Moroccan riad. The state also has a good choice of family campsites and luxurious national park lodges.
*Please check UK travel guidelines before travelling to western Rajasthan near the Pakistan border!
What to do and see with kids in India
Andaman Islands A chain of six islands off the coast of Burma, known as India’s Maldives and famous for luxury eco-resorts, white beaches, great water sports and fascinating history.
Wonderla Amusement Park, Kochi Kerala’s biggest amusement park is packed with slides, chutes and rides from white-knuckle terrors to cute teacups and carousels.
Periyar Tiger Reserve, Thekkadi, Kerala One of India’s finest community reserves is an eco environment for man and animals. One of the best places to see tigers, you can day-safari or holiday here in one of the reserve’s traditional family lodges.
Kerala Kathakali Centre, Kochi The only Kathakali theatre in Kerala where kids can see everything from ancient ritual dances to martial arts, classical music and, of course, dark and dramatic Kathakali performances.
Ranthambore National Park, Sawai Madhopur, Rajastan Legendary Ranthambore is one of India’s biggest national parks and an amazing safari destination for short and long stays. An excellent range of family lodges and luxury resort hotels.
Goa State Museum, Goa It’s said Goa can date its history back 200,000 years. This well-curated museum is a good place to explore a little of that long, long past.
Great Indian Rail Journeys India has some of the worlds greatest rail journeys and even a short trip with kids is an amazing experience. Alternatively you could spend an entire holiday living on a classic Indian train – it’s a great way to see several states with older kids.
Camel Safaris, Jaisalmer Half-day and overnight safaris with expert guides and camping on the magnificent Thar Desert – kids over 7 are allowed to ride solo, if they want.
Khangchendzonga National Park, Sikkim Set in the heart of the Himalayas on India’s north eastern border with Nepal, this is one of earth’s most awe-inspiring national parks. Unforgettable adventure for fit, hardy teenagers.
Kuttanad, Kerala The flat, ethereal waterways and paddies of Kerala’s Kuttanad (rice bowl) are where to hire a houseboat and go on an expedition. It’s one of India’s loveliest areas and the boating is thrilling for kids.
Educational value for kids
Vast cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata are a culture shock for young kids. But they can also be a remarkable experience if you leave visiting to the end of a holiday when everyone’s acclimatised to strange and wonderful India.
Family volunteer holidays in India are amazing experiences with teenagers.
Go on at least one train journey. Almost every station (the country has 6800 in all) sells a copy of Trains at a Glance, it’s only guide you need.
India’s the land of myth and legend, get a book of folk tales and fables from the area you’re visiting and read them to kids before you go.
Nowhere is quite as different and odd (at first) as India. People are very friendly and it’s considered impolite not to engage visitors in conversation. A quick study of some basic customs pre-holiday is a good idea for younger kids.
880 different languages are spoken in India, so it’s almost impossible for children to avoid learning new words and phrases.
Getting about with kids in India
Driving in India is a bit of an art and one you’re unlikely to feel like mastering on holiday. Train services are excellent and widespread. Inter-state air travel is inexpensive and the best way to cover longer distances in this huge country. Water taxis are good on the coast at Goa and if you’re in cities like Kochi, take tri-taxis with kids, they’re fun, and everywhere.