This article originally appeared in the 2012 India Travel Planner. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel guide, visit the digital edition.

Taj Mahal in Agra.

Quintessential India

If there’s an image of India that lingers long after the suitcases have been unpacked and the mind begins flashing a mental slide show of impressions, it’s that India is a human beehive of scattered chaos—wonderful chaos—complemented with dazzling landscapes, mottled cultures and unqualified magnetism.

The mind will undoubtedly conjure images of implausible beauty thriving under the distinctive and bright sunlight of southern Asia. The mental slide show, like India itself, will be one of absolute contrasts and contradictions: staggering noises and absorbing melodies, blistering heat and shivering cold, arid deserts and drenched rainforests—all compelling evidence that India is a formidable world destination befitting “incomparable,” the adjective most often used to describe it.

No matter how many times one visits, something unexpected always seems to lurk behind every turn. There are festivals with roots reaching back more than 5,000 years, charming and authentic villages, vibrant modern cities churning out more movies in a month than Hollywood does in a year, and enough color and flavor throughout the country that a noted writer once said if you could harness the energy of India for one year, you could power the entire world for centuries.

India has it all, whether sailing down the Ganges on a sunset cruise, venturing to the remote tribal lands and hiking within Arunachal Pradesh (the Himalayan region known as “The Land of Mountains Lighted by Dawn”) or bicycling through a rainforest.

Wonders in a Triad of Cities

Visitors should plan to spend at least a few days exploring the three cities most commonly identified with India: Delhi, in the north, has been an Asian powerhouse and a tourist magnet for more than a millennium; Mumbai, on the humid southwestern coast, is a hectic and colorful sprawl of 20 million souls packed in 1,600 sq. miles; and Kolkata, far to the east in Bengal, was a port established by the East India Trading Company in the 1600s as Europe’s foothold in the so-called sub-continent.

In fact, everything we think of as “Indian” begins in Delhi. Lauded as one of the ultimate cities that one must visit and explore, this great, ancient, bustling and exotic destination will astound—much like India itself—by its regal contrasts. Old Delhi (an easier name for Westerners who seldom recognize its official name, Shahjahanabad) teems with sites from its rich Mughal pedigree like the Jamad Masjid—India’s oldest mosque—and the Red Fort, a mammoth structure built in the 1600s as an imperial residence. This is also the site of the Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated. Visitors never fail to be enthralled by Chandni Chowk (Silver Street), a marvelous zone full of alleys housing gold and silversmith shops, spice markets and stalls where silk merchants hawk fine fabrics.

Old Delhi is where mansions rest easily in narrow streets that stun with their crowds, scents and noise. New Delhi is the generic term given to the part of the city mapped by the British. It’s so huge that it encroaches into two neighboring states, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The Lutyens Delhi, a historic and long avenue full of imposing government buildings and museums, should not be missed. Each Indian state is represented by its individual bhavan (State House) where epicures find the opportunity to sample food from each Indian state.

South Delhi is a gleaming area of residential zones with must-see sites like Humayun’s tomb and the Qutub complex, built almost 1,000 years ago and dominated by the Qutub Minar, a dazzling minaret. This is India’s most visited site, far surpassing the Taj Mahal, and a definite stop for those who want to see the wonders of ancient architecture.

Kolkata, meanwhile, lies on the Hooghly River and its most iconic landmark is BBD Bagh (once known as Dalhousie Square), a place that astounds with its magnificent flavor and the mansions from a British colonial past.

The first impression is that Kolkata thrives on chaos. It only takes but a few days to realize that there’s logic to its madness. An explicit magnificence pulses under its surface as reflected in temples like the Kalighat, named for Kali, the goddess for whom the city is named, and in other significant landmarks like its Marble Palace and Town Hall. This is where one finds the strongest remnants of the British Raj. After all, Kolkata (once known as Calcutta) was the capital of India, the country the British considered the jewel of its colonial crown.

And then there’s Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India’s capital of fashion, cinema and finance. It’s as if someone rolled Milan, Hollywood and Wall Street into a steaming and spicy Indian roll. Here, one will find sprawling parks and marvelous monuments, while Victorian mansions and exotic temples stand side-by-side with modern high-rise glass buildings.

It’s easy to understand why Mumbai beckons, as this is India’s most distinctive gateway city—an improbable sprawl accented with colonial remnants standing next to ultra-modern buildings. An aura of the past bathes Mumbai and its museum quality is quite distinctive. This is where you’ll find some of India’s most exciting nightlife and restaurants. After all, Mumbai is to Indian cuisine what Paris is to French gastronomy.

The Golden Triangle

Despite their vast differences, India’s three major cities are singularly attractive places offering such a diverse menu of adventures and stimulating places to explore that the days will merge seamlessly.

Newcomers will get a fascinating glimpse of this exotic land by exploring the so-called “Golden Triangle,” a region of approximately 200 miles on each side where the most alluring sites in India sit. The area oozes beauty and charm and it’s no surprise that this section is India’s main lure for tourism. One can easily traverse the Golden Triangle in a week, but some find that a 10- to 14-day trip is more appropriate to admire all the sites within it.

The Golden Triangle holds India’s most iconic sites: the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Pink City of Jaipur and the multi-faceted wonders of Delhi.

Visiting Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, about one hour’s flight from Delhi, is like venturing into an Indian fairy tale. It stuns the senses with its elan and a staggering hodgepodge of cultures and dazzling colors. Its sidewalk shops overflow with dyed fabrics, pottery and metal sculptures, while camel carts, rickshaws and even the occasional cow adorned with flowers wander through congested streets.

Pink buildings dominate the Old City, a place swarming with bazaars and restaurants. Jaipur is known for its desserts, mouth-watering wonders that are as delightful to the palate as the city is to the other senses. While in Jaipur one should not miss the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Wind), built as a harem by a maharajah for his wives who could watch the street without being seen. It’s a five-story marvel precisely positioned for the breeze to flow through its windows. Jaipur’s most famous landmark, however, is the Amber Fort, an ancient architectural marvel made up of intricately carved gates paying tribute to the Elephant God.

There are some inviting, typical Rajasthani villages just outside the city worth a visit. Chokhi Dhani, about 20 minutes away, is where one goes to sample local cuisine, dishes invariably doused with ghee (pure clarified butter). The exotic festivals for which India is known are prevalent in Rajasthan. The Bikaner Camel Fair is a January fest that consists of brightly decorated camels parading against the grand ramparts of Junagarh Fort in the desert city of Bikaner.

A recent development that has proven popular with tourists to Jaipur is the conversion of a number of opulent palaces and old forts into “heritage hotels.” The Raj Mahal Palace is a bijou wonder built in 1729 by a maharajah. Huge lawns surround it and peacocks roam the grounds where the serenity of the property reflects the glory of its heyday. Almost directly east of Jaipur is Agra, the city that beckons with its magic. This is the site of the fabled Taj Mahal, a “must” stop in any passage to India.

Adventurous drivers will delight in the 4-hour trek from Delhi to Agra that passes some of India’s most alluring scenery. The splendid ruins of an ancient Mughal capital, Fatehpur Sikri, sit roughly midway between the two cities and is one of the regional wonders.

Other noteworthy nearby sites include a stop at the Agra Fort and Itmad-ud-Daulah (affectionally dubbed “The Baby Taj”), considered a pocket version of its more famous and larger cousin.