Where To Go, What To Do: South
India is huge. And not only is it physically large, but each region is vastly different culturally, many with their own distinctive written and spoken languages as well. It can take hours to travel short distances (it once took me seven hours in a cramped share jeep to travel 127 km), and transit doesn't always work out like you planned.
That being said, experiencing the different regions can prove so rewarding, and can give you such deep insight into the different aspects that make up Indian society. I've been blessed with two years of exploring (albeit having a full time job at the same time), which has allowed me to really travel around the country and experience different parts.
Lots of people message me asking for advice for planning their trips to India, and generally my advice is to pick one area and really see it. One of the most rewarding things for me has been to be able to spend time wandering villages and back-lanes, and to really get a feel for a place. Most regions will have more than enough to do to spend your average two- or three-week short vacation. Rushing through multiple regions in a short amount of time won't let you access that feeling of India - it will just leave you frazzled and frustrated.
The Lonely Planet guide to India is massive and can be wildly confusing if you're not familiar with India's 29 states (and seven Union Territories). How do you figure out where to go? For your convenience, here are itineraries for most of the trips that I've done, along with recommendations and suggestions for different things to see. This post has all of my South Indian destinations, and the North Indian destinations are in a separate post here.
A Note About Accommodation
I've traveled true backpacker style - as cheap as it can get. Mattresses are often pretty hard, walls a bit mouldy, floors sometimes not as clean as they could be (although sometimes they are). Usually I've had a private bathroom, although not always. Hot water is not always available. Sometimes the showers are bucket only (no shower head, just a bucket to fill and pour on yourself). There's never wifi or air conditioning, but always a ceiling fan (unless it's somewhere cold). That being said, I've never had a real problem - no bed bugs, always very safe. Unlike many other places, it's usually cheaper to get a private room than to stay in a hostel, as hostels are usually run by chains and usually provide extra services (they're a bit nicer [even cute], usually have air conditioning, etc.). When I have stayed in hostels it's been in big cities (Mumbai, Calcutta, Cochin), where private rooms can be a lot more expensive. On average, I paid around 350 to 400 rupees per night for a private single room without air conditioning. It also varies by region - in Himachal Pradesh I usually paid 250 rupees, while in Sikkim I paid 800.
A Note About Religious Observance
I keep Shabbat, meaning that I don't use any form of electricity, transportation or money from sunset on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. I always have found plenty to do on these days, whether it's strolling through busy markets or relaxing on a beach. There are many Chabad Houses all over India (many are unofficial - find them here.) Backpacker Chabads usually charge 200 rupees per meal on Shabbat, and you can usually just show up in season, although it's nice to come RSVP (and pay) Thursday or Friday afternoon. I don't always spend Shabbat somewhere with a Chabad though. In general, I've found people to be exceptionally accommodating in terms of helping me keep Shabbat, by allowing me to pay in advance for meals or keep a tab to pay later, etc. In terms of itineraries, it means that sometimes I spend an extra day somewhere over the weekend, which if you don't keep Shabbat you could do with one day less.
I eat Pure Veg food, which is an Indian system meaning that the restaurant serves strictly vegetarian food (yes dairy, no eggs, no fish or meat). If you eat that, you're set. Many Hindus follow these rules strictly and you'll find these restaurants everywhere. Backpacker restaurants are usually not Pure Veg (because they cater to foreigners), but sometimes they'll have a set of Pure Veg dishes they can cook for you on. If you have any questions, most people will gladly welcome you into their kitchen so you can have a look around and see if it meets your standard of Kashrut. All Chabad Houses have kosher restaurants (in season) where you can eat if you require certified kosher food.
I spent 10 days in Kerala in February 2018.
Flight to Cochin - 3 nights (including Shabbat)
Bus to Munnar - 3 nights
Bus to Alleppey - 2 nights
Bus to Cochin - 2 nights (including Shabbat)
Flight to Mumbai
I arrived in Cochin early in the afternoon, and took a public bus to Fort Kochi, which is where you'll be spending most of your time. There is a small seafront with stalls and fish restaurants, and one backpacker street (Princess Street) with backpacker cafes, piercing shops and places to buy crafty things. One afternoon I took a ferry (5 minutes) to nearby Vypin Island, where I took a rickshaw to Lighthouse Beach, which was nice but not amazing, although I did go for a swim in the ocean. Cochin is known for its Chinese Fishing Nets, which you can see (and even try out - for a donation) along the stretch of Fort Kochi Beach. Follow the footpath further south, and there's a nice area to peoplewatch at sunset. There's also the Dutch Palace, which was closed so I didn't go.
There are a number of Jewish things to visit in Cochin. I visited the Pardesi Synagogue (Rs. 5/-, closed Friday afternoon and Saturday, no photos), which is quite lovely. On a later trip to Cochin for work I also visited the Synagogue in Ernakulam, a bit further away, but located inside an aquarium shop and quite lovely. The main Pardesi Synagogue is in Jew Town, a 30-minute walk south of Fort Kochi. There is also a Jewish Cemetery a 5-minute walk away, which is locked, but you can look through the gate. Shops sell mass-produced Judaica along with souvenirs, and there are several Jewish-themed murals painted during the Kochi Biennialle. There is also the shop of Sarah Cohen - one of the last of the once vibrant community of Cochini Jews. You can go into her shop - she used to embroider the challah covers herself - and the shopkeeper will tell you all about her. She recently passed away, but you used to be able to visit with her. There are also a few other synagogues in villages to the north of Cochin, which my parents did and said it was quite nice, but you need a private car and an extra day for that.
When I went to Cochin, there was a Rabbi and Rebbetzin living there. They've since left, and another couple is living there sometimes. Chabad has closed. I was hosted by the couple for Shabbat meals both Shabbats I was there. They also hosted services in the Pardesi Synagogue, which run sometimes but not always. The Rebbetzin took me around with her, visiting the elderly Jewish ladies in Jew Town and bringing them challah, which was very nice.
I really felt that I had too much time in Cochin. There's not too much to see, it's a bit touristy for me, and the sights aren't that amazing. Two days would have been more than enough, and I only spent so much time because of Shabbat, but the Shabbat experiences I had there were lovely.
Munnar is absolutely incredible, although there's not necessarily all that much to do. You really need some form of transportation there, as the highlight is just travelling around the winding highways between the tea plantations. Since I was alone, I got a motorcycle driver, who I used both times I visited Munnar. He's great, call him - Raja +91-9745388404. He also has a car if you're more than one person. Seeing Munnar by bike is the best because you can see all around you, you're not limited by a car or rickshaw window. A rickshaw for the whole day should cost between 550 to 800 rupees. There are a number of waterfalls, short hikes, etc. you can do. There's a place called Top Station, just over the border in Tamil Nadu, which has a short but steep hike down to a mountain viewpoint, which is quite lovely, especially late in the afternoon. Just make sure you're back in town by dark because the roads are a bit scary.
You can stay in Munnar Town, which I did my first time, but even better is Zina Cottage - it's right out in the middle of a tea plantation and you can go on amazing walks right from the front door. They bring you fresh tea all day, and you can just sit in the yard and look out at the wonder that is Munnar. Call them - +91-4865230349.
The roads leading up to Munnar are quite steep and windy. The buses take a long time to get anywhere. I arrived on an early morning bus from Cochin, and left on a bus to Alleppey, both around 6 hours. The views are amazing though. On a later trip I arrived from Madurai, and left to a village called Theni on my way to Kanyakumari.
Alleppey - See here
Alleppey is very interesting. Many people (including my parents) opt for staying on a houseboat which goes through the larger canals. They can be quite expensive though, so I stayed at a cute homestay in town. One day I did a village tour, by the government tourist office, but it was a bit too touristy for me, and there were lots of people. The other day I took the public ferry to an island called Kainakary, and just walked around myself, which was absolutely amazing. When you take a smaller boat you can see the smaller canals, which are much more interesting, whereas the big houseboats stick to the big canals. I stopped by the beach but it was nothing to see. I could have had an extra day here just to check out more islands by myself. From Alleppey I took a bus (1.5 hours) back to Cochin for Shabbat.
I spent 21 nights in June and July 2019 going all the way from Mumbai down to Goa, across to the East Coast, down to the South tip, and back up the West Coast.
All day train from Mumbai to Margao, taxi to Palolem (3 nights, including Shabbat)
Bike lift to Margao, train to Hosapete, rickshaw to Hampi (4 nights)
Overnight bus to Chennai, bus to Mahabalipuram (2 nights, including Shabbat)
Bus to Pondicherry (2 nights)
Bus to Trichy (1 night)
Bus to Madurai (1 night)
Bus to Munnar (4 nights, including Shabbat)
Bus to Kanyakumari, via Theni and Madurai (1 night)
Bus to Varkala, via Trivandrum and Kallambalam (2 nights)
Bus to Trivandrum, flight to Mumbai
Palolem - See here
Despite being tiny, Palolem has so many areas to explore and I could have spent a lot longer here. The beach is long and I walked up and down several times. Because it was monsoon, many of the restaurants were closed, which wasn't ideal, but there was enough open and it meant it was quieter and more peaceful. I stayed on the main road, but if I was there longer I could have found somewhere cuter. I rented a motorcycle there. I'd never driven one before (although I've been a passenger on many) but it was a great place to do it because there are so many beautiful country roads with hardly any traffic. I headed south to Talpona Beach, which was so beautiful! I also visited Galgibag, Agonda and Rajbag beaches on the way back - all were lovely. I spent Shabbat sitting and reading and strolling. I easily could have spent a few more days riding around. I also would have gone on a boat ride up the Palolem River, and maybe a day trip to Old Goa or Panaji. There is a Chabad in Palolem, but it was closed for the monsoon. There is a bus to Palolem from the train station in Margao, but it was late so I took a taxi there, and on the way back my train was too early so I got a ride on someone's bike. There are motorcycle taxis available at the back side of Margao station.
Hampi - See here
In season there are tourist buses between Palolem, Gokarna, and Hampi, but not in the monsoon. It was a long train ride from Margao to Hosapete, and it only goes once a day early in the morning. From Hosapete I took a rickshaw to Hampi Bazaar, though there is a bus, which I took on the way back. There was so much to do in Hampi. I visited the main ruin sites all on my first full day, and hired a rickshaw to do it. I initially wanted to rent a bike, but having someone to show me which ruins were good to see was quite helpful, and a lot of them were accessible only by walking and I might not have found the paths without the guide. It gave me a good basis to explore on my own on the subsequent days. There's also a small museum in a town called Kamalapur which has a model of the valley, which really helped me understand the geography of where I was. The museum, as well as the Vittala Temple and Elephant Stable complex are the only ticketed sites, and they share the same ticket (600 rupees), so do them all in the same day.
The river ghats are amazing early in the morning. The villagers and pilgrims all come to do their washing and you can see so much. The Temple Elephant Laxshmi also comes for her bath around 8 am. I walked to Hampi Waterfalls, but the water was low. All the same, the rocks and walk were nice, and there's lots of cute villages to walk through. The walk east towards Vittala Temple is really nice. There's two ways, one cuts through the ruins, and one goes down the hill a little and through a forested area. On the lower one there's a beautiful banyan tree shrine. My favourite thing to do was just sit and drink chai in nice ruins along the river, and explore the small shrines and temples. Make sure to check out the Virupaksha Temple both at night and during the day for the different vibes.
I stayed in Hampi Bazaar, which I would suggest, especially in low season, because it's just easier to get around. There are backpacker areas across the river in Hunumunhali, Anegundi and Virapapur Gadi, but then you have to worry about crossing the river before sunset - the public boats stop then and anyways they try to charge foreigners extra. I didn't even cross, although with more time I would've. Hampi Bazaar is lined with the same tourist cafes you find all over India, but I usually ate at one called Trishul, owned by a sweet woman named Latta, which was just a little bit better. There's also a great dosa and chai stall right at the beginning of Hampi Bazaar where I had breakfast everyday.
Mahabalipuram (Mahabs) - See here
From Hampi I took the government bus to Hosapete, and then an AC sleeper bus to Chennai. From Chennai I directly caught a bus to Mahabs. It really wasn't as exciting as I was expecting, especially after Hampi, because the monuments are similar, but there are fewer, they're not still in use, and the landscape is not nearly as captivating. I didn't even go into the main Shore Temple or Five Rathas, because they were quite expensive (600 rupees), and you can see them decently from the outside. Also my guesthouse owner was quite adamant that they were nothing special. I stayed in a nondescript guesthouse on Othavadai Street - there were plenty to choose from. On Shabbat I just walked around. There's a super cute and trendy cafe that I spent lots of time at called Surf Turf, tucked away on the beach. I mostly went to Mahabs because I thought it would be a cute fishing village, but it wasn't really that, so I left right after Shabbat.
Pondicherry (Puducherry) - See here
There's not all that much to do in Pondicherry, but it has a very nice vibe for walking around and taking it in. You can stay in really nice converted French villas, although I stayed in a 300 rupee ashram guesthouse. I mostly just walked. The Pondicherry Museum was interesting but not a must-see. I did a half-day in Auroville by rickshaw - also interesting but could have skipped it. I feel like if you have a few days in Auroville to go and stay there and get involved it would be more meaningful. I also went to the Shri Aurobindo Ashram, where you can see only a small area for tourists, and the Shree Vinayagar Temple. My favourite thing were the sunset walks, and coffee at Villa Helena and Coromandel Cafe - a bit expensive but worth it for the beautiful atmosphere. I also had a great fresh croissant from Bon Bakes, on Nehru Road. From Pondicherry, I had to take a bus to Vilapuram in order to catch another bus down to Trichy.
Tiruchirappali (Trichy) - See here
Trichy was the one place I feel like I could have skipped this trip, although there were some interesting things for one day. It's not a backpacker place, so I stayed in a cheap hotel mostly for low-budget Indian men travelling for work. I was the only woman there, but it was ok, just a bit weird. I got all around Trichy on public busses, but it was a bit complex, rickshaw would have been easier. I only visited the Shree Ranganathaswamy Temple and the Rock Fort Temple, both interesting but not necessarily must-sees. I visited the Rock Fort Temple before sunset which was pretty. The bazaar area around the temple is busy.
Madurai - See here
I didn't spend long in Madurai but it was very interesting. I visited the Meenakshi Amman Temple twice, once at night, and once in the morning, which was nice to see two different aspects. Nighttime was nice because the inside of the temple is quite dark, and I could see better at night without the backlight from the sun drowning out the dimly lit idols. I didn't get a guide because I like to wander, but it might have been interesting to hear some of the symbolism. You're not allowed to take cameras or phones into the temple, and they check your bag thoroughly. You can leave your phone in a locker for 10 rupees, or in a checked bag for 2 rupees, but I left everything in my hotel room. Give yourself lots of time, the temple is big and there's so much happening. Non-Hindus can't go into the inner sanctum, but there's plenty else to see.
I also visited the Gandhi Memorial Museum, which was interesting, if quite strongly anti-British. There were lots of interesting photos and stories, and I spent quite a while there. They also have the dhoti (loincloth) Gandhi was wearing when he was murdered, and several of his other personal artefacts, which I appreciated. The other highlight of Madurai for me was the Madurai Banana Market, which was small but quite photogenic. I only spent one day in Madurai, although I could have had another to explore the alleys.
The heat of Tamil Nadu was too much, so I headed up to Munnar to escape it, via direct bus (which was lucky, considering the trip out of Munnar after). It was my second time in Munnar, so see my Kerala itinerary for more information. Monsoon was enjoyable in Munnar, and provided a different experience, although winter might have been more enjoyable (my first time was February).
Kanyakumari - See here
There is a new direct bus from Munnar to Kanyakumari once day at 4 pm, but I wanted to leave early morning and get to Kanyakumari in the afternoon, so I took one bus to Theni, another to Madurai, and another to Kanyakumari (there was no direct bus to Madurai that day). I only spent two half days and one night in Kanyakumari, but I went because of the symbolism, and I'm glad I did. I visited the Gandhi Memorial, and took the ferry out to the Swami Vivekananda Memorial, although really it wasn't so interesting, and took a lot of time (especially the line to get back on the ferry to leave), so I could have skipped it. I also visited the Kumari Amman Temple (foreigners are allowed in the inner sanctum here, albeit without cameras), but my favourite was just sitting by the beach watching the pilgrims immersing in the water.
Varkala - See here
From Kanyakumari I took a bus to Trivandrum, and another one north, and I got off in a town called Kallambalam from where I took a rickshaw to Varkala. There are tons of places to sleep and eat along the ridge. My favourite was North and down some stairs, near Black Sand Beach (the sand isn't black). You can take courses, but I just relaxed and drank coffee. I also walked along the path all the way to Kappil Beach (it took just over an hour, slowly), but it wasn't amazing. There were several seaside mosques and a Muslim cemetery which were interesting. As it was monsoon Varkala was pretty quiet and many things were closed, but I wasn't looking for such a social vibe so it was ok. From Varkala I took a rickshaw back to Kallambalam, and a packed bus to Trivandrum, where I took a rickshaw to the airport. If you're transferring through Trivandrum, the Indian Coffee House right next to the bus station is very nice, in an interesting spiral building, with the waiters spiraling up and down between the tables - and cheap delicious South Indian food. The Trivandrum Airport security was perhaps the strictest airport security I've ever encountered.
While Mumbai is an amazing city, there are lots of nearby places you can get away to and explore:
Revdanda - see here
Revdanda is a small fishing village in the district of Alibaug. There's an hour-long ferry from the Gateway of India in Mumbai to Mandwa, the port of Alibaug. The ferry companies offer a free transfer into Alibaug town, from where you can get a share rickshaw (with some difficulty, a taxi might be easier) to Revdanda. In the monsoon the ferries don't run and it's a five-hour government bus ride down the coast from Mumbai.
There's really not much to see in Revdanda, but it's just a sleepy, non-touristy fishing village where you can really get a glimpse into Indian village life. It's quite rustic, so don't expect anything too fancy, but it can be quite fascinating to see such a laid-back setting. There are also beautiful crumbling Portuguese ruins along the palm-fringed coastline, and decent sand. I went in the water, although it's not great for swimming. Revdanda was maybe the only place in all of India where I felt a bit uncomfortable being a solo Western female, not because anything was actually unsafe, just because it's so far off the tourist trail that everybody just constantly stared. There were also some very aggressive dogs on the beach, but the locals came to my rescue. (These things aside, it was still a great trip!)
One of the most interesting things about Revdanda is the Jewish history - there's a synagogue right in Revdanda, as well as in Alibaug and nearby Pen. You can visit all of them but may need some local contacts to unlock them. You can visit the memorial in Navgaon which marks the spot where the Bene Israel Jews landed 2000 years ago, where today people offer coconuts along the rocks. There are also several Jewish cemeteries in the area.
Lonavala + Lohagarh Fort - See here
I went to Lonavala for two days in August 2018, spending one night in a hotel. I prebooked, for 1000 rupees, although I probably could have shown up and found something cheaper. I took the train from Mumbai, and spent the first day exploring the town, including the Lonavala Waterfall, and Monkey Point in Khandala. Everything is so green and beautiful, that it's so nice just to walk and drink chai and explore. My second day, I got up early and took the train to Malavli Station, where I began the trek to Lohagarh Fort. It was quite uphill, and you can actually drive up to the fort (in a good car, lots were stopped on the side of the road because they couldn't make it up). There were some rickshaws, but I frankly would have been terrified to go up that road in a rickshaw. The views were totally misted over in the monsoon but it was green and beautiful. I got soaked though, so I'm glad I went my second day so I could go home after and clean up. From Malavli I got a train back to Lonavala, and then Mumbai. I was a bit nervous about trekking by myself, but it felt very safe, and there were enough people about, even on a weekday. I found good instructions online, so I didn't get lost. On the way are the Bhaja cave temples, but it's quite expensive for foreigners and I didn't really have time. There are lots of places to buy chai and biscuits at the base of the fort, and near the train station. The top of the fort was beautiful, and I explored for a long time.
Matheran is a hill station just outside of Mumbai. It's quite easy to reach, you can take the normal Mumbai train to Neral (not Nerul, that's different). From Neral, there are share-jeeps to Dasturi, from where you can hike up (30 minutes), or take the toy-train. When it's not monsoon, the toy-train runs all the way from Neral, although I've heard some pretty questionable reviews of the experience. I hiked up from Dasturi.
Matheran is really made for domestic tourists, and many guesthouses we tried wouldn't take foreigners. We found a place for 1100 rupees a night over the weekend (it's much cheaper during the week), but it was not very nice. The wife did make us lovely thalis for dinner though, and we ate them in bed. The main activity in Matheran is walking (or riding a horse) to the various lookout points around the hill. It would have been a lot more enjoyable had it not been the weekend that Matheran received the most rain in the entire country for the whole year. All the same, it was green and peaceful and enjoyable.
We heard the trains had shut down because of the rain (we couldn't confirm that because neither of us had reception up there), so instead of coming down the way we came, we hiked down from Sunset Point to a village called Dhodani. It was quite steep, and slippery from the rain. The bus from Dhodani never came, so we hitchhiked to Panvel, from where we could catch the Mumbai Local back to the city.
Make sure to check out the twin post for the places I visited in the North of India!