By Briana Seftel
The north of India may get all the attention - think the Taj Mahal, Jaipur and New Delhi - but South India is no wallflower. Boasting a tropical climate, golden-sand beaches, coconut-infused cuisine and countless architectural wonders, this region of India is the lush, laidback counterpoint to the busy north.
Comprising five states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana - plus three territories, navigating southern India can be intimidating, unless you know where to go. To help make your vacation that much easier, check out the 10 must-see places in South India.
Consistently ranked as one of the most liveable places in India, Goa is a small state famous for its golden-sand beaches along the Arabian Sea. This palm-fringed paradise is the place to relax and get in touch with your spiritual side (yoga is a major draw), but it's also famous for its vibrant nightlife. A haven for expats, Goa's Portuguese colonial architecture and heritage rounds out the region's appeal.
Kerala is a nature lover's paradise and one of South India's most picturesque states. Explore its mesmerizing backwaters, or network of canals, that weave through various villages, coconut groves and lush green landscape. If you really want to experience the backwaters of Kerala like a local, book a houseboat tour!
Kerala is also a great place to visit a spice or tea plantation. Did you know that Kerala produces 97% of the national output of black pepper? Woah!
Pondicherry, officially known as Puducherry or "Pondy" for short, is a union territory nestled on the Coromandel Coast. Once known as India's largest French colony, the European influence can still be felt today with its old-world architecture and Catholic cathedrals. Two of the major draws to Pondy are Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a major spiritual center for integral yoga, and Auroville, a utopian community dedicated to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Its golden-dome temple is surely one of the most surprising sights you'll see in India!
Known as the "City of Temples," Madurai is the cultural heart of the state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the banks of River Vaigai, this ancient city is awash in Tamil history and heritage. The can't-miss site is Meenakshi Amman Temple, a Hindu temple covered in thousands of candy-colored statues depicting animals, gods and demons. Talk about a perfect photo op!
Once the capital of the powerful Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi is a magnificent lost city reminiscent of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Founded in the 14th century on the banks of the River Tungabhadra, it was once known as the world's largest city. Dotted with countless gems blending Hindu and Islamic styles, notable palaces and temples include King’s Palace, the Virupaksha Temple and the Vittala Temple. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
History buffs won't be disappointed with Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Telangana. Its old quarter teems with Persian and Islamic influences like the towering Charminar, a beautiful monument built in 1591 to commemorate the founding of Hyderabad. But the real reason to visit the city is its incredible food! The city is known as the birthplace of biriyani, a mixed rice dish with succulent chunks of meat mixing with cinnamon, clove and other spices.
Periyar National Park
Situated against the Western Ghats mountain range in Kerala, Periyar National Park is the place see wildlife in India. Home to the country's largest elephant population, the 300-square-mile park is also a haven for leopards, monkeys and wild boar. Another popular wildlife park in South India is Mudumalai National Park, home to one of the largest concentrations of Bengal tigers.
Officially known as Mysuru, Mysore is one of South India's most alluring cities. Travelers flock to the opulent Mysore Palace, the former seat of the Wodeyar dynasty that blends Hindu, Gothic, Rajputs and Islamic styles. Admire the symbolism behind Keshava Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna, before exploring Devaraja Market - a feast for all five senses!
The capital of Tamil Nadu, the city of Chennai is known as the Gateway to South India. Formerly known as Madras, the city lacks in major monuments but makes up in fabulous local cuisine, friendly locals and museums. Check out the history behind the East India Trading Company at Fort St. George, a former English fortress that's now a museum. Cap off an exciting day of sightseeing by watching the sunset from Marina Beach.
Also known as Cochin, Kochi is a port city in Kerala and a cultural melting pot with Chinese, Portuguese, British and Dutch influences. Known as the "Queen of the Arabian Sea," Kochi was an important spice trading center beginning in the 14th century. Its natural harbor, built by the Portuguese, continues to be the hub of activity with giant Chinese fishing nets rising gracefully from the sea. While exploring the city, don't miss taking a look inside Pardesi Synagogue, originally built in 1568.
A few helpful tips for travel to South India:
- December and January are the peak travel months. If you're looking for fewer crowds, travel in October and November.
- Don't expect to find chicken tikka masala in South India. The cuisine is very different from the north and is heavily reliant on coconut, hot chiles, seafood and vegetables. Try masala dosa, one of the most popular dishes!
- It's common to bring an offering to a Hindu temple. Purchase some flowers and offer these at the main statue as a sign of respect or in prayer.