Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Regal Romance”. Updated in November 2017.
Udaipur’s romantic landscape is as enduring as the city’s seductive monuments. The lake city’s enchantment appeals to travellers tired of making last-minute dashes to Jaipur. With its placid waters, gently gliding boats, and graceful havelis, Udaipur looks like a delicate watercolour. It originally grew on the banks of the lovely Lake Pichola, which continues to dominate the south of the city along with the City Palace and Fort that rises from its edge in breathtaking splendour.
Udaipur is named after Maharana Udai Singh II who founded the city in 1559 as the capital of the Mewar kingdom, presided over by the Rajputs of the Sisodia clan. Its name translates to “city of dawn”, but curiously, it springs to life at dusk. It is carved out of the Girwa Valley, set among lakes ringed by the hazy Aravallis. Despite this deliberate positioning, Udaipur’s romance is guileless, neither affected nor contrived. A symphony between man and the elements weaves through its filigreed balconies and rippling waves and rises in a crescendo.
In tourist-friendly Rajasthan, Udaipur is one of the biggest draws. The royal family of Mewar has shown the way by converting parts of the palace into luxury retreats—the old city area around the palace complex and Lake Pichola have followed suit. Right outside the palace entrance is the colourful Lal Ghat, crammed with tourists, shops, and restaurants. To the north lies the equally lively Gangaur Ghat. On the opposite bank, across the bridge outside Chand Pol is the relaxed Hanuman Ghat, lined with beautiful lakeside restaurants. Aside from these spirited attractions, there is an unobtrusive yet robust side to this dainty city, waiting to be explored.
When the fiery desert sun dims, the harsh light of the day is replaced by a soft pink glow shot through with purple streaks. This light shines on the sprawling City Palace and Fort, creeps into its delicate inlay work and the stained glass, and teases out the finer details of the exquisite masonry. The mansions and ghats that flank Pichola play their part and the twilit sky crackles with an electrifying display in dazzling shades.
The palace complex is as majestic as any royal fortress, but shimmering in the deep waters of Pichola, it looks luminous. It is really a series of palaces that were built by the different Mewar rulers over a staggering four and a half centuries, which makes its uniform design all the more impressive. You file down countless staircases, troop into vast courtyards, pop into durbars, catch your breath in geometric terrace gardens, and this is just a fraction of the sprawling complex. There are hotels, restaurants, bars, more galleries and arcades sprinkled across.
The Mardana Mahal and Zenana Mahal have been preserved and developed as the City Palace Museum. Its well-maintained, original furnishings, paintings and artefacts can be seen in the same spots they have occupied for years. A very large number of people visit the palace complex and the museum, which means you sometimes have to queue up on narrow staircases, crane your neck and balance on your toes to peer over bobbing heads to view the exhibits (daily 9.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m.; entry ₹250 during the day and ₹560 between 9-9.30 a.m.; www.hrhhotels.com).
Don’t miss the incredibly rare, world-class crystal collection displayed in the Crystal Gallery in the Durbar Hall Sabhaghar. Maharana Sajjan Singh ordered it from F&C Osler in Birmingham but he passed away before it could reach India. The fabulous crystalware that includes thrones and goblets lay unopened and half-forgotten for a century until it was put on display in 1994 (daily 9.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; entry ₹550).
Understandably, the palace is a popular destination for weddings. I visited right after the fairy-tale wedding of the royal scion, Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar. Three days after the celebrations, lavish decorations were still being dismantled and wedding guests kept emerging from the palace to pick up curios before their departure.
Rather than glide on Lake Pichola, take a walk along its banks. On the fringes of the ghats you can experience a slice of authentic local life—unhurried, relaxed, and very homey. You’ll likely pass an akhada, see pickles and spices put to dry, grannies snoozing in the sun, men playing chaupar, vermillion-smeared mini-temples burrowed in tree trunks. Eateries on the water’s edge have delightful names like The Frog Prince.
Back in the bustle of the old city, I quickly learned to sidestep ponderous cows and truculent autorickshaw-drivers. Its steep, narrow lanes are hemmed in by equally narrow traditional havelis. Their impossibly slender staircases lead to the rooftop—earlier, where papad and spices would be spread on muslin saris, now there is alcove seating with faded cushions. The converted haveli restaurants host backpackers and have multicuisine menus: a wholesome Indian thali or a set American breakfast, alongside special lassi and the ubiquitous nutella pancake. The ground floors usually retail Rajasthani silver jewellery, cloth bags, mojaris, leather-bound notebooks, statues, and artefacts.
But Udaipur’s truly unique craft is Mughal-style miniature painting. This painstaking artwork is created on paper, cloth, wood, and glass. Several miniature artists hold classes where you can pick up the technique and try your hand at painting a fine canvas.
The Maharaja’s vintage car collection has some award-winning beauties, all in mint condition. Over a dozen cars are on display in a semi-circular arc of garages and the centrepiece stands with its bonnet open, inviting you to examine its mechanical entrails. The pièce de résistance is a 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II. All these cars are lovingly preserved and proudly displayed. An old companion from their heyday—a peculiar looking gas pump—stands guard, keeping a watchful eye on visitors (Garden Hotel, opposite Sajjan Niwas Garden main gate; 0294-252 8016; daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; entry ₹250).
It is impossible to miss Jagdish Temple, near the City Palace’s Badi Pol entrance. A long flight of stairs leads to this gleaming white landmark on Jagdish Chowk. It is an oasis of equanimity in the midst of the busy crossing and the peal of temple bells frequently drowns out the blaring horns. The temple has elaborate carvings on its walls and a black stone idol of Lord Jagannath within.
At dusk, the tangle of weeds in the water, the untidy electrical wires overhead, all the messy bits melt into the darkness. The lakeside is festooned with orbs of bright lights. It’s a treat to walk along the lively lanes, catch snatches of music and merry laughter drifting from cafés, while the shop-owners lounge outside in a relaxed, truly holiday vibe. There are many bridges on Pichola and you will likely cross the one outside Chand Pol, between Gangaur Ghat and Hanuman Ghat. It has kissing gates on both ends and a beautiful view of the brightly lit banks.
Dinner time brings with it some difficult choices, because of the sheer number of restaurants populating the banks. One of my favourite parts about the city is the sumptuous all-you-can-eat thali at the Garden Restaurant. This is not a meal but a crash course in the mind-boggling richness of Rajasthani cuisine and hospitality. The food won’t stop until you do. Waiters coaxed me to eat more, sliding steaming halwa under my nose (Garden Hotel, opposite Sajjan Niwas Garden main gate; daily 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. and 7-10.30 p.m.; thali ₹200).
The area around the Fort is dotted with rooftop restaurants, which are festive and great for budget travellers. On the opposite bank, al fresco restaurants are gathered along Hanuman Ghat Marg. They are slightly upmarket but each rivals the other in fantastic views of the radiant fort. You can examine the menu, view, and ambience before settling down at your handpicked spot for the perfect evening. The James Bond movie, Octopussy (1983), was shot in Udaipur and the city has claimed the legacy. Signboards outside restaurants advertise dinner-time movie screenings.
The Monsoon Palace on Banswara Hill is located in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. It was built in the 19th century by Sajjan Singh as a hunting lodge. Originally named Sajjan Garh, it’s now locally known as Badal Mahal—like its more famous counterpart in Kumbhalgarh—because of the seasonal cloak of heavy clouds it wears during the monsoon. While you can drive all the way inside, visitors on foot can take a jeep from the gate of the sanctuary to the palace-museum, a rather dramatic vantage point to view the setting sun. From the wide-arched windows on the top floor you can get spectacular views of Udaipur. The tranquil, scenic retreat is ideal to while away an afternoon, perhaps playing Scrabble, just like an elderly couple I met here. The palace has a sweeping, semi-circular terrace that juts into the surrounding forest. In the evenings, tourists troop in to watch the sun sink into hills and trees (about 10 km/20 min from City Palace; entry ₹20; ₹130 for cars).
In Kailashpuri Village (22 km/40 min from city centre) is the shrine of Eklingji, an avatar of lord Shiva. There are 108 shrines in the complex. Eklingji is considered Mewar’s real ruler with the kings functioning as his representatives (daily 4.30-7 a.m., 10.30 a.m.-1.30 p.m., 5-7.30 p.m.).
Amet is a luxurious heritage haveli with deep roots in the city, its history and royalty. Its indulgent layout of arched corridors connecting pristine lawns is inspired by the Mughal Gardens of Agra Fort (02942431085; amethaveliudaipur.com; doubles from ₹7,500).
Jaiwana Haveli is a comfortable mix of modern amenities in a heritage property. It has a great location, next to the palace in the heart of the old city. This efficient, well-managed hotel is good value for money (0294-2411103; www.jaiwanahaveli.com; doubles from ₹3,995).
For a romantic dinner, pick from restaurants on Hanuman Ghat which have unhindered views of the lake and fort. Ambrai in Amet Haveli sits right at water level and serves Indian, Chinese, and continental fare. This al fresco restaurant’s decor is tasteful: a leafy canopy overhead, packed earth underfoot, and wrought iron chairs. If you prefer a loftier view, Upre By 1559 AD, Lake Pichola Hotel’s rooftop restaurant has alcove seating, and a well-stocked bar. The dhungar maas (smoked mutton curry) here is delicious.
Dharohar is a daily performance featuring swirling, whirling song and dance recitals by local folk artists. They perform in a very atmospheric setting, the Neem Chowk courtyard of the 18th-century Bagore ki Haveli, where similar performances were held for the royal family in days of yore. The haveli is the former residence of Amarchand Badwa, the prime minister of the princely state. This mansion of 138 rooms now houses a museum, which has frescoes and some fascinating displays like the world’s longest turban (Gangaur Ghat; daily 7-8 p.m.; entry ₹60).
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Regal Romance”. Updated in November 2017.
Udaipur is a city in southern Rajasthan that lies close to the state’s border with Madhya Pradesh. It is 680 km/11 hours southwest of Delhi and and 421 km/6 hours from Jaipur.
Air Dabok Airport is 24 km from the city centre. Daily flights connect Udaipur with Jodhpur, Jaipur, Mumbai, and Delhi.
Rail Udaipur is directly linked by rail to Delhi. The most convenient options are the overnight Chetak Express and Mewar SF Express that depart from Delhi in the evening and reach Udaipur early in the morning.
Road Several deluxe and luxury buses connect Delhi and Udaipur. The journey takes about 14 hours (one-way fares start at ₹450).
Unmetered autos are plentiful and the most convenient way to navigate the town. Negotiate the fare beforehand. The old town is best explored on foot. Regular city bus service is available for Dabok Airport.
The best time to visit, as with any place in Rajasthan, is between September and March when days are sunny and the evenings cool. The nights however, can be very chilly during the winter months from December to February.