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Delhi
Don't let your first impressions of Delhi stick like a sacred cow in a traffic jam: get behind the madcap facade and discover the inner peace of a city rich with culture, architecture and human diversity, deep with history and totally addictive to epicureans.

Mix four major religions, thousands of years of history and cultural development, significant movements of different populations, invasions and colonialisation and you get one of the most vibrant and profound cultures in the world. This civilisation is evident in the plentiful historical sites around Delhi.

Agra
The Taj Mahal has become the de facto tourist emblem of India. This poignant Mughal mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the emperor so heartbroken that his hair is said to have turned grey overnight.

The city's other major attraction is the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, also on the bank of the Yamuna River. Stunning walls, a maze of superb halls, mosques, chambers and gardens which form a small city within a city. Unfortunately some of these buildings are closed to visitors.

Jaipur
The capital of Rajasthan is popularly known as the 'pink city' because of the ochre-pink hue of its old buildings and crenellated city walls. The Rajputs associated the colour pink with hospitality, and reputedly daubed the city in preparation for the visit of Britain's Prince Alfred in 1853.

Jaipur is a city of broad avenues and architectural harmony, built on a dry lake bed surrounded by barren hills. It's an extremely colourful city that radiates a magical warm glow in the evening light. The most obvious landmark in the old city is the Iswari Minar Swarga Sul, which overlooks the city.

Udaipur
The most romantic city in Rajasthan, built around the lovely Lake Pichola, has been dubbed the 'Venice of the East'. Founded in 1568 by Maharana Udai Singh, the city is a harmonious Indian blend of whitewashed buildings, marble palaces, lakeside gardens, temples and havelis (traditional mansions).

It boasts an enviable artistic heritage, a proud reputation for performing arts and a relatively plentiful water supply, which make it an oasis of civilisation and colour in the midst of drab aridity. The lake is the city's centrepiece and contains the island palaces of Jagniwas and Jagmandir.

Varanasi
For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the 'eternal city', has been one of the holiest places in India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here is transported straight to heaven.

Varanasi has over 100 bathing and burning ghats. The best ghat to hang out at and absorb the riverside activity is Dasaswamedh Ghat. You'll find a dense concentration of people who come to the edge of the Ganges not only for a ritual bath, but to do yoga, offer blessings, and follow other pursuits.

Shimla
This was the most important hill station in India before Independence, and the social life here in the summer months when the Brits came to escape the torrid heat of the plains was legendary - balls, bridge parties and parades went hand in hand with gossip, intrigue and romance.

Today, the officers, administrators and lah-di-dah ladies of the Raj have been replaced by throngs of holidaymakers, but echoes of Shimla's British past remain strong. The famous main street, The Mall, is lined with stately English-looking houses. Shimla sits at an altitude of over 2100m (6890ft).

Kochi (Cochin)
The port city of Kochi is located on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas. The older parts of the city are an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English country village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Most of the historical sights are in Fort Cochin or Mattancherry.

Down near the waterfront you can see St Francis Church, India's oldest; a 450-year-old Portuguese palace; Chinese fishing nets strung out past Fort Cochin; and a synagogue dating back to the mid-16th century. Ferries scuttle back and forth around Kochi and dolphins can often be seen in the harbour.

Kolkata
Formerly Calcutta and, more rarely, Kolcutta, Kolkata by any name still conjures up images of squalor, poverty and urban disaster. Too few bother to discover its enchanting colonial beauty, the energy and humour of its people and the charm of the city's distinctly Bengali soul.

Kolkota isn't an ancient city like Delhi - in fact it's largely a British creation that dates back a mere 300 years. As a crumbling snapshot of British colonialism, it is unrivalled. For such a smoggy, frantic city, it is also notable for its lovely green spaces.

Mumbai
Mumbai (AKA Bombay) is the glamour of Bollywood cinema, cricket on the maidans on weekends, bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty and red double-decker buses. It is also the infamous cages of the red-light district, Asia's largest slums, communalist politics and powerful mafia dons.

Many travellers spend their time cocooned in Colaba, but there's much more to explore - take the time to check out the majestic remnants of colonial history, the galleries showing the latest in Indian contemporary art, the busy markets and the evening parade of locals at Chowpatty Beach.

Goa
It's a shame Goa comes burdened with a reputation for louche living, because there's so much more to it than sun, sand and psychedelia. The allure of Goa is that it remains quite distinct from the rest of India and is small enough to be grasped and explored in a way that other Indian states are not.

It's not just the familiar remnants of Portuguese colonialism or the picture-book exoticism that make it seem so accessible; it's the prevalence of Roman Catholicism and a form of social and political progressiveness that Westerners feel they can relate to.

Mysore
This charming, easy-going city has long been a favourite with travellers since it's a convenient size, enjoys a good climate and has chosen to retain and promote its heritage rather than replace it. The city is famous for its silk and is also a thriving sandalwood and incense centre.

Until Independence, Mysore was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore, a princely state covering about a third of present-day Karnataka. The Maharaja's Indo-Saracenic Palace is the town's major attraction, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass, ornate furnishings and carved mahogany ceilings.
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