Ticking off trendy neighbourhood cafés or checking out the iconic hotspots of a destination might seem like the obvious thing to do while travelling, but ask an insider, and your itinerary will change. Indian cities and towns brim with relatively obscure treasures when it comes to travel, and as it turns out, our readers are also keepers of the best-kept secrets of their hometowns. We’ve assembled anecdotes of off-beat hiking trails and secret beaches, remote ruins and birding delights, all from your backyard.
In Rajasthan’s Aravalli hills, there is a less-trodden hiking trail that starts from the pond in the premises of the Galta Ji temple (monkey temple), winding straight for a few 100 metres, after which one must chart their own way. This trail is locally popular as a route where dacoits lay in ambush in olden times, and the ruins of a palace on the top of the adjacent hill, named Chor Mahal (Thieve’s Palace), account for the stories. Climb up, and you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama of the the Aravalli range on one side, and Jaipur city on another. The region’s wild aura is amplified by the presence of deciduous forests, and the waves of wild, chirruping birds that sometimes emerge out of them.
Bhavani Island, on the Krishna river—which flows through Vijayawada—is considered one of the largest river islands in India. Named after one of goddess Durga’s 108 names, it is your veritable ‘Isle of Adventure’. Reach after a pleasant boat-ride, park yourself at one of its resorts, and head out indulge in some water sports. Lush green views and the calm of lapping of water makes it the ideal getaway from those looking to escape urban chaos.
Back in the 1950s when cafe culture wasn’t common in Vadodara, Canara Coffee House was the only coffee hub in the city. To the day, the cafe, despite its name and origin, remains famous for a flavourful Marathi delicacy called Puna Misal. And although the place has undergone renovation recently, its menu and prices are delightfully stuck in time.
Another historic element to the city are a series of old bungalows near the Vadodara railway station, known as the Contractor’s Bungalows. The buildings are said to have been built by contractors close to the royals of Baroda at least a century ago—and are fully-functional till date. Currently privately owned, one of them has been recently converted to a heritage cafe, showcasing its proud Parsi heritage.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city’s obscure icons, turn to Rasalpur. The small, scenic village lies a short drive from of the city, and offers a backdrop of laid-back rusticity by the Mahisagar river.
If you’re at Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island, part of the Andaman Islands, a brisk 2 kilometre/15 minutes walk along the coast will bring you to the beautiful Neil Cove. Rustling sea-mohwa forests fringe one side of the rock-ringed, concave beach, and freshwater streams gurgle out of the wilderness. If you are lucky you may spot dugongs and sea turtles swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the bay.
A hike through the famous Galtaji or Monkey Temple in Jaipur not only presents scenic views, but also offers the curious traveller with ancient lore. Photo By: AlexAnton/Shutterstock
Uttarakhand’s touristy areas belie the beauty of its more pristine pockets—like my hometown Champawat. Believed to be graced by the ‘Kurmavatar’ (Vishnu turtle incarnation), this picturesque town in the Kumaon Himalayas is a sight for sore eyes. Come winter, rows of pine, deodar and oak trees stand like silver sentinels at the base of snow-laden mountains, and its dewy mornings are a sublime dewy affair. Abbott Mount (named after 20th century English businessman John Harold Abbott), an hour’s drive from the town, is a serene location populated by beautiful wooden cottages, forests, wild mountain birds and even an ancient church. If you are one for spooky thrills, Morris Hospital, established in the early 1900s, adds an element of alleged mystery to the hill station’s already-haunting beauty.
Chaturmukha Jaina Basadi is situated deep inside the evergreen forests of Sharavathi valley on the banks of Sharavathi River in Karkala. Although the place is largely inaccessible to common tourists due to inadequate information and lack of public transport, Jain devotees do visit using private vehicles.
The Jain temple is located near the town of Gerusoppa, which functioned as the capital of Saluva family of Vijayanagara empire. The shrine is built during the reign of Queen Channabhairadevi in 1562 AD who was known as ‘Raina de Pimenta’ (the Pepper Queen) by the Portuguese. Chaturmukha Basadi is made up of grey granite stone and is open on all four sides (chaturmukha) which leads to four statues of Jain Thirtankaras. All in all, a rare, gorgeous find for history and architecture buffs.
Basistha is a rolling, green suburban landscape, located in southeast part of Guwahati, Assam. The hilly area is contiguous with Meghalaya, the neighbouring state of Assam. Expect groves of deepest greens, tall trees swinging with native flora, wild animals like jackals, monkeys or even elephants, and a stunning variety of birds that go well eyond the usual mynah, cuckoo and cattle egret. Not surprisingly, the area is a part of Garbhanga Forest Reserve.
Through the wilderness, a road leads up to the Basistha temple. The ancient edifice is situated in one of the hills near the Basistha or Bahini river, a trickling arm of the Bharalu, which in turn is a tributary of the Brahmaputra river. The ancient temple and the gurgling rivulet make a formidable combination for travellers drawn to nature, and regional history.
Despite it being a small town in Madhya Pradesh, Mhow is packed with a plethora of unique experiences and landscapes. Photo By: Rjsngh55/Shutterstock
Not so far from the daily hustle of the Maximum City lies a meandering trail of wilderness. Starting from the last village of Aarey (Bangud), it winds towards a lake, situated in the thick of the forest.
On some lucky occasions, usually around dawn, I have seen spotted deer, scampering, a crocodile, and even a leopard near the lake. Camping, star-gazing and connecting with nature are some great options.
In the city of Mysore, stands Hotel Original Vinayaka Mylari, a part of the city’s gastronomic history since 1938. Their highlight—soft, crisp, melt-in-mouth dosas that you will not find anywhere else. Served with a dollop of white, unsalted butter and creamy coconut chutney, the dosas alone are worth a trip to the eatery. That is not to say that their fluffy, cloud-like idlis are any less of a treat. Prepared on woodfire, the taste is unforgettable, making the 10-12 seater establishment a humble but proud legacy of the city.
Located about 40 kilometres north of Kolkata, Naihati is the hometown of Bengali poet and novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. The creative force credited with shaping modern Bengali prose as well as penning the Indian national song, Vande Mataram—Chattopadhyay lived and created in what can be described as an architecturally precious mansion, now turned into a museum and research center for his works. His abode is located in a peaceful, green area of Kanthalpara, a 10-minutes walk from Naihati Railway Station. Travellers can buy a ticket and enter the complex, which has retained its gorgeous medieval-style facade over the years. See the study room used by the writer who gave birth to Vande Mataram in his novel Anandamath (the song eventually used as a rallying cry by Indian freedom fighters), to bask in the palpable history of the place. Every year, a Rath Yatra fair adds colour to the landscape in front of the Jagannath temple of the house, filling the area with the scent of delicious mela-food.
Reasons to visit the Ahar Museum in Rajasthan are many. The Ahar civilisation, dating back to around 2500-500 BC, was an ancient settlement along the banks of the rivers Ahad and Banas, in the Western region of India. Think present-day Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In this lesser-known museum, discover characteristic white-painted black and red pottery pieces, some of the excavated water pots similar to those found in Iran. On your visit, learn about their well-equipped houses, made of stones with bamboo roofs and with chulhas (earthen ovens), or admire recovered statues of lost deities, ornaments, and ancient coins from the advanced civilisation.
The Ahar Museum is a must for all history enthusiasts, especially for those looking to gain knowledge around the Ahar civilisation. Photo By: Christina R Miller/Shutterstock
In Dandeli, where I grew up, a unique experience is the white water rafting which provides the adventurous with a healthy dose of adrenaline rush. River Kali is ferocious and rocky and hence there are lots of ups and downs through the journey, which offers tourists a thrilling challenge.
Raigad lies at the heart of the Sahyadri Mountains which is a dream for photographers, birders and travellers of all kinds. The Raigad Fort, which is 23 kilometres away from Mahad, served as the capital of all forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. The architecture here is remarkable, with a vast expanse of greenery. En route to the fort, are some spots like the Koturde Dam and local strawberry farms that make for leisurely pitstops. Nearby lies the Gondale area, which is a small forest-like reserve area where biodiversity is abundant. To understand local culture, I visited the village of Taloshi, also on the way to the fort. Interacting with the locals opened up a treasure trove of history and information.
Aaruku Valley is one of the most verdant valleys in the Eastern Ghats. One must dig deep through its deep forests for startling discoveries. Hailing from Visakhapatnam, I had travelled to the valley on an organised trekking event, guided by none other than the tribes of the valley. Here, we set out on the Gosthani Cave Trek within the Borra Caves, towards the end of which lies the Gosthani River.
An intriguing story is linked to the river’s nomenclature. According to locals, residents of the region were initially unaware about a river flowing beneath the cave, and it only came to light when a cow fell from a hole in the Borra Cave but managed to stay alive by landing up in the water body. Thus the river was given the name Gosthani (Abode of the cow).
Another secret spot in the valley is the Aradakota Waterfalls. Only known to the locals, this beautiful waterfall is the perfect halt for those planning a short trek in the region.
Lakdi Bazaar (wooden market) in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur is a place full of colour and character. Usually brimming with crowds, the narrow alleys and wide roads of the market are open every day save Friday. From small shops selling select items to big showrooms with an entire floor or two dedicated to export goods, the market has something for all age groups.
As a kid, I learnt about this place from my family, a rite of passage as a local. Whenever anything made of wood had to be bought or repaired, Lakdi Bazar was the place to go to. During one of my summer breaks, I had convinced my mother to accompany me to this famous market. There, I was fascinated to see the woodwork hanging on both sides of the road.
I was spoiled for choice with wooden toys, photo frames, carved furniture, shoe racks, magazine holders, combs, cutlery and a whole lot more!
Dandeli in Karnataka is the perfect place for the adventure-junkie, offering challenging rafting experiences. Photo By: Bubz/Shutterstock
Jawhar, 130 kilometres from Mumbai, was once the capital of the princely state of Jawhar, ruled by the Mukne family. It is the nodal point for 80 tribal villages. Jawhar is known for its natural beauty and mixed cultural heritage. A huge population of Jawhar has migrated from Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat, enhancing the rich tribal culture it already had.
The Jai Vilas palace of the last king of Jawhar is well known and a sought after destination. But before the royal family moved to this palace, they lived in a stone and wood palace right in the centre of the town. After they relocated, the old palace was abandoned and left to the forces of nature. The palace walls have been taken over by huge Ficus trees, it’s roots running deep through the walls and merging with the palace’s foundation.
The entrance to the main hall is now framed by the living roots of trees and is a sight to behold. On closer inspection, one will be able to see the minute and artistic wood carvings on the pillars inside the wall. Thick roots now run alongside the ancient flooring. The main palace wall has also been claimed by nature and one will be able to see trees at different angles jutting out from rocks. The well, situated just outside the palace grounds, is now surrounded by thick foliage and one would think twice before venturing too close as the area is now an abode of snakes. The old palace which is hardly ever visited by tourists, is a marvellous place to witness the magic of history and nature.
I live in a small village in West Bengal called Satgachia. During monsoon, my village looks like a green carpet, as local farmers cultivate paddy. In the lap of nature, you can enjoy simple but delicious regional cuisine like the traditional Bengali fish curry with rice. From here, you can also visit the Burdwan Rajbari and 108 Shiva Linga Nawab Bari, which is approximately 30 kilometres away. Nabadwip, the birthplace of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, lies close by.
I’m from Kankroli, which falls in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Kankroli has one of Asia’s largest man-made sweet water lakes—Rajsamundra Lake. During World War II, the lake was used as a base for sea-planes and mammoth iron shackles from that time still lie deep within its waters. The holy temple of Dwarkadhish Ji and Nau Chauki, which lie on the banks of the lake, have beautiful carvings and irrigation gardens–a must-see for all visitors. What’s more, the gorgeous royal city of Udaipur is just an hour’s drive away.
Amid the lush landscape of Assam hides a small town. It’s name originated when an engineer named Mr. W. L. Lake in the late 1800s had shouted “dig, boy, dig”, after having discovered stains of crude oil under the feet of elephants. ‘Digboi’ is an unassuming town where time seems to stand still. A walk down its clean roads will lead you to uncover a host of colonial architecture, starting with the Chang Bungalows standing over low hills, its sprawling lawns and golf-course maintained to this day, and its gardens swarming with bees and butterflies.
The Raigad Fort served as one of the central forts under Chhatrapati Shivaji’s rule. Photo By: Satish Parashar/Shutterstock
Bhopal hosts a 300-year-old Qadimi hammam (a kind of Turkish bath) which is in the Kamala Park area of the city. The women of the city use the hammam during the day, while the men use it at night. Oil massages and steam bath options are available, however the recipes of the scrubs remain a secret. The hammam opens every year on Diwali and functions till Holi.
Not many have heard about Latpanchar in West Bengal, a beautiful mountain hamlet offering stunning views of the Kanchenjunga. It is also home to a diverse range of wildlife such as the barking deer, wild boar, leopard and elephant. To make matters greener, Latpanchar contains cinchina plantations used for curing diseases like Malaria.
Also in West Bengal, Lamahatta is another calm and peaceful village surrounded by alluring pine trees. It has beautiful gardens, blossoms of orchids and Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind, with an encompassing view of the Kanchenjunga. Manebhanjyang serves as the gateway to the Singalila National Park, which is the highest altitude park in West Bengal and offers several trekking routes towards Sandakphu. Sprawling within the lush green valleys of an alpine forest, Tinchuley is another delightful and hidden gem near Siliguri. The alpine forest is a dream for birders between the months of September and December.
Kozhikode is known for its food culture, where age-old restaurants serve everything from spicy regional delicacies to pasta and falafel. However, the hidden gem I would like to talk about dishes up delicious views of nature. Mango Park, situated in Govindapuram, near the Kendriya Vidyalaya school, was a barren land on top of a hill which was in time converted into a mango grove by a group of dedicated morning joggers. With benches dedicated to passersby, it is an ideal spot to spend an evening, with a view of the rumbling Arabian Sea in the distance. It is said that during the British Raj, soldiers used to camp here as it served as vantage point to observe the whole city and the sea. For those who visit Kozhikode for a gastronomic holiday, this sweet little spot should be on the list, for equally sumptuous sunsets.
For a town that is all but five kilometres from one end to another, Mhow in Madhya Pradesh packs a punch. A melting pot of culture and faiths, it has churches of all denominations dotting the undulating vistas. Temples in the main market street stand cheek by jowl, with mosques and even a Parsi fire temple tucked in a back lane. I discovered the interiors of a church I’ve crossed a million times only this last Christmas, always having observed its needle-sharp spire kissing the sky from afar. The pews of the church, which was built in the 1820s, contain brackets to hold rifles, an additional structure added after the 1857 mutiny, when the mutineers on their way to Indore burnt the outhouse that was the residence of the priest.
The famous ridge just above Mall Road in Shimla is actually a continental divide. If you spill water on the left side of the ridge, it will eventually go into the Arabian Sea and if you spill water on the right side, it will flow into the Bay of Bengal.
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