India has 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites: 32 cultural, 7 natural and 1 mixed. These represent just a very tiny fraction of the cultural and natural heritage of India – which is one of the world’s oldest cultures and most geographically diverse nations. These 19 incredible UNESCO World Heritage sites of India are just the tip of the iceberg.
This list includes a variety of sites, such as ancient temples, world wonders, Mughal architecture, Buddhist art, and national parks of India. But when it comes to India, this is just the beginning. Travellers to India encounter an astounding array of natural, historic, religious, and cultural monuments, sites and experiences, and landmarks of India. Many historic buildings and monuments in India have not been inscribed: some are protected by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI), but many neither protected nor maintained. There are simply too many.
I have been to many of these UNESCO World Heritage sites of India, and others too. They are all equally impressive. As a subcontinent with an ancient culture, India is blessed with both natural and manmade treasures. Though I have been a travel blogger in India for more than 17 years, I still feel I have just scratched the surface. I think it would take several lifetimes to see all of India — or even most of it.
Table of Contents
1. Taj Mahal
India’s Shakespeare, writer / poet Rabindranath Tagore, said the Taj Mahal is a “teardrop on the face of eternity.” This wonder of the world, considered the most beautiful building ever constructed, is of course very well known. The Taj Mahal is the very symbol of India and no list of historic sites in India would be complete without it. It’s also one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
But what many people don’t know is that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. It was constructed in the mid 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj Mahal’s beauty and uniqueness arises from a combination of factors that include symmetry of design, architectural innovations such as the raised platform that supports it, and the way the white marble changes colour and glows depending on the weather and time of day. Most people who visit the Taj Mahal experience a kind of elation that is palpably evident on their faces as they behold it for the first time. It’s a must-see of the highest order.
The Taj Mahal is the highlight of every Golden Triangle tour of India.
2. Humayun’s Tomb
There are a lot of things to do in Delhi. The city is blessed with three UNESCO sites and many more historic and cultural monuments, tombs, forts, and temples. It is, in fact, one of the world’s most historic cities. The city has been the capital of at least seven epochs, including the British and the Mughal empires. Humayun’s Tomb dates from the Mughal period (built in 1570) and is the most beautifully restored of the three UNESCO sites (the other two are Red Fort and Qutb Minar)
A predecessor to the Taj Mahal by about 80 years, it was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. The tomb was built in honour of the Mughal emperor Humayun with the patronage of his son, the great Emperor Akbar, who was only 13 years old when his father died after falling down a flight of stairs. Humayun’s tomb is of a monumental design, and surrounded by extensive lawns and gardens. It’s located in an area of Delhi that is of extreme archaeological significance, due to the nearby shrine of the 14th century Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin and the presence of many medieval Islamic buildings.
3. Qutb Minar
Though Delhi is a city full of incredible monuments and architecture, the Qutb Minar is one of only three UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s a magnificent monument, with immense cultural and historical significance.
The Qutb Minar (minar means tower) is one of the tallest brick minarets in the world, standing at a height of 73 metres. The minaret has five storeys, with each storey adorned with intricate carvings.
It’s also one of the oldest and best examples of Indo-Islamic architecture. The construction of the Qutb Minar was started in 1193 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who was the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. Qutb Minar was thus the first mosque in Delhi.
The minaret’s base is made of red sandstone while the upper three storeys are made of marble. It’s covered in beautiful inscriptions and motifs, including verses from the Quran, plus Hindu deities and floral patterns.
In addition to the Qutb Minar, the surrounding area contains several other historic and significant structures, including the Alai Darwaza Gate, and the Iron Pillar of Delhi, which is a seven-metre-tall pillar made of iron, famous for its resistance to rust and corrosion.
Contributed by Ellis from Backpack Adventures, a cultural anthropologist specialized in South Asia and the Caucasus who loves to travel to off-the-beaten-path places.
4. Red Fort
Red Fort is located in Old Delhi and is also known as Lal Qila. One of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Delhi, it was inscribed in 2007. Red Fort has gone through a series of important events over many years and is considered a symbol of India. The image of Red Fort is printed on the 500 rupee note in India, marking the landmark as culturally significant.
Commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638 when he decided to move his capital from Agra to Delhi, the fort took 10 years to build. Originally, the fort was called Qila-i-Mubarak, which meant the Blessed Fort, as it was the main residence of the Mughal Emperors. The fort’s name was later changed to Lal Qila after its huge red sandstone boundary walls.
There are many museums, and palaces within the complex of Red Fort. It is open to visitors Tuesday to Sunday between 9:30 AM and 4:30 PM. The best time to visit the fort is during the winter season (from October to February) as the weather is pleasant. As the fort is usually very crowded, it is advisable to book and buy the entrance ticket online so as to avoid a large queue at the ticket office. Ensure you carry a valid government identification for verification.
Contributed by Raksha Nagaraj, an adventurous Indian/Australian solo female travel blogger at Solopassport.
5. Jaipur City
The old walled City of Jaipur – known as the Pink City – was inscribed by UNESCO as a historic city in 2019. Founded in 1727 by Sawai Jai Singh II, Jaipur was built on a grid pattern and is considered an exceptional example of indigenous city planning in South Asia. The plan for the city was inspired by Vastu Shastra, a treatise on traditional Hindu architecture.
Built over the course of about four years, from 1727-31, it was remarkable in its time for many reasons and brought together eastern and western ideas, as well as Hindu and Mughal architecture. The grid plan was a new idea in India, and so was choosing to build a commercial capital on a flat plain, at the foot of hilly terrain.
You can see the emphasis on trade within the walled city to this day. It was designed to be a commercial capital and has continued to maintain its local commercial, artisanal, and cooperative traditions. The main streets were designed to be markets – and they remain Jaipur’s famous bazaars to this day – and the colonnaded streets allow people to stroll and shop, protected from the harsh summer sun.
The artisanal traditions of commercial Jaipur originally included 36 craft industries such as gemstones, lac jewellery, stone idols, and miniature paintings, each with its own dedicated street. Today, there are 11 surviving crafts in Jaipur, which contribute to the conservation of the city and the renown of Jaipur craftsmen.
The plan for the city also included nine city gates, royal palaces, havelis, and temples, plus exceptional architectural sites such as Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar, and remains intact to this day. Royal and public spaces are now monuments, while shops, temples and residences retain their original use. The walled city of Jaipur was an extremely innovative example of town planning and inspired other town builders in South Asia. It is a living treasure and not to be missed. A very special UNESCO World Heritage site of India.
6. Fatehpur Sikri
One of the most underrated attractions within India’s Golden Triangle is Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a fascinating history.
Located just 40 kilometres from Agra, and 200 kilometres from Jaipur, this abandoned city can be easily incorporated into any Golden Triangle itinerary. The best way to do so is to stop off at Fatehpur Sikri on your way from Agra to Jaipur.
But what is it that makes Fatehpur Sikri so extraordinary?
Established by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, this magnificent city served as the Mughal Empire’s capital for just over a decade before being abandoned due to a lack of fresh water. Impressively, its red sandstone buildings remain perfectly preserved to this day.
Wander around the complex and you’ll be greeted by a blend of architectural styles, pulling together Hindu, Persian, and Islamic influences and reflecting Akbar’s appreciation of religious diversity. You’ll pass through palaces, courtyards, and mosques – and could easily spend three hours attempting to see it all.
The most impressive part of Fatehpur Sikri is Panch Mahal: a five-story palace at the centre of the fortress, which was used as a place of relaxation by the royal family. The structure is supported by a total of 176 intricately carved columns and overlooks a beautiful ornamental pool.
Fatehpur Sikri is a fantastic destination for history buffs, architecture lovers, photographers and explorers, offering up an exceptional opportunity to explore some of the remnants of the Mughal era.
When it comes to travel costs in India, you don’t have to break the bank. Fatehpur Sikri costs just 550 rupees for foreigners to enter the complex, while locals will pay just 35 rupees. Entrance to the on-site mosque, Jama Masjid, is free for everyone.
Contributed by Lauren Juliff of NeverEndingFootsteps.
7. Khajuraho Group of Monuments
Khajuraho is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This small, relaxed, and charming town is home to three groups of temples, though the most frequented and magnificent is the western group. The Khajuraho temples were built during the Chandella dynasty, about 1,000 years ago, and they belong to two religions, Hinduism and Jainism.
Striking a perfect balance between architecture and sculpture, the temples are considered to be among the masterpieces of Indian art. They are both beautifully designed and covered with intricate carvings made by the finest sculptors. The skilful carvings demonstrate a wide range of human experience, including sexuality.
It’s the so-called “erotic” carvings that have made Khajuraho famous – though many believe these have been wrongly interpreted. Created after the Kama Sutra was written, the carvings are probably not intended to be instructional, but to represent some of the many human desires and experiences devotees are to overcome to reach spiritual union with the divine. Some feel that the faces portray divine ecstasy rather than mere sensual pleasure. The unabashed celebrations of feminine beauty and sensuality depicted in the carvings are also worth noting.
8. Group of Monuments at Hampi
Hampi is a marvel, an underrated wonder of the world that deserves much wider recognition. It’s a massive, grandiose, abandoned city spread out over about 25 square kilometres in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka. Set among dramatic rocky hills, and along the Tungabhadra River, the city features the ruins of about 1,600 surviving Dravidian forts, temples, shrines, palaces and other structures. Built between the 14th and 16th centuries by rich princes, Hampi was the capital city of the Vijayanagara Empire, the last great Hindu Kingdom. It was pillaged and partially destroyed by the Deccan Muslim invaders in 1565.
It can take up to a week to see the entire city. It’s a great place to relax, soak up the peaceful atmosphere, and see a significant archaeological site all at the same time. The ruins are truly fabulous as Dravidian architecture flourished under the Vijayanagara Empire – characterized by massive dimensions,
lofty towers, and decorated pillars. There are several hill top temples that offer great sunrise and sunset views, plus you can enjoy a coracle (small, round basket-like boat) ride to see some of the temples that are only accessible by river.
9. Rani ki vav
Rani ki Vav is the only step well in India to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and many believe it is the finest in the country – in fact, it graces the back of the 100 rupee note in India. The name means The Queen’s Step Well, and it is indeed the queen of all step wells due to the size and the magnificence of the architecture and carvings.
Located in a small town called Patan in Gujarat, the 11th-century step well is bound to blow your mind with its seven levels of ornate carvings and ancient architectural mastery. One visit and I could see why this majestic structure is often compared to an inverted temple.
Rani ki Vav was built by Queen Udayamati of the Solanki dynasty as a tribute to her husband King Bhimdev I. There are more than 500 large sculptures of Hindu deities and scenes from everyday life carved along the step well walls. Interspersing these huge bas reliefs are more than 1,000 minor stone carvings. The exquisite stories inscribed on these walls kept me mesmerized for more than an hour.
The massive step well is spread across 12 acres and built in the Maru-Gurjara style. The entire structure is built using a unique interlocking system to help it withstand floods.
Rani Ki Vav is 128 kilometres from Ahmedabad, the capital city of Gujarat. It is open from 8 am to 7 pm. If you are a SAARC national, you need to pay only INR 40 as the entrance fee. For others, the charges are INR 600.
Contributed by Ami Bhat, a marketing post-graduate by qualification who has turned into full-time travel writer and blogger by passion. Travel with her virtually on her travel blog Thrilling Travel.
10. Ellora and Ajanta Caves
The Ellora and Ajanta Caves are in fact two separate UNESCO sites, but they are both located near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Most people take two days in the area, one day for each site. However, aside from the fact they are both groups of caves in the same region, they are very different in just about every other way.
The Ellora Caves are dug into the wall of a high basalt cliff and extend over two kilometres. The temple sanctuaries date from 600 to 1,000 A.D. and are devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The centrepiece is the Kailasa Temple – and its outstanding by every measure. It was carved literally into the cliff, requiring the removal of some 220,000 tonnes of rock. The shape of a giant chariot, Kailasa is covered in sculptures depicting scenes from the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
The Ajanta Caves are smaller than the Ellora Caves and older, and they are largely composed of cave paintings. The oldest date from the 1st and 2nd centuries, while more were added in the 5th and 6th centuries. They depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and are considered masterpieces of Buddhist art. The Ellora and Ajanta Caves are stupendous and worth the trouble to visit.
11. Konark Sun Temple
Odisha’s most famous tourist site, Konark Sun Temple, is a Hindu temple dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. It was built by King Narasimhadeva I of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty in 1250 CE to celebrate his victory over the Muslim ruler of the Mamluk Dynasty.
It took 12 years and about 1,200 artisans to craft the exquisite architectural masterpiece you see today. UNESCO inscribed Konark Sun Temple as a World Heritage Site in 1984 due to its importance in Indian culture & history.
A unique example of Kalinga architecture, Konark Sun Temple is made of Khondalite rocks. It represents the chariot of the Sun God, which is pulled by seven horses and has 24 stone wheels. The horses represent the days of the week, the pairs of wheels represent the months of the year, and the wheels signify the hours of the day. The temple was constructed so that the first rays of the sun would fall on the deity in the main temple.
Intricate carvings and sculptures adorn the temple’s base and walls. They narrate the life and times during the Kalinga period and include Hindu deities, celestial women, mythological figures, animals, erotica, and men and women engaging in daily chores.
The structure is on the verge of collapse and needs immediate restoration. While the government is replacing the crumbling sections with new blocks (albeit plain and dull) to save the masterpiece, the damage is conspicuous. Nevertheless, the ethereal and artistic beauty of the monument continues to mesmerize visitors.
Contributed by Anjali of Travel Melodies.
12. Elephanta Caves
The Elephanta Caves are located on Elephanta Island, which you can reach by boat from the Gateway of India in Mumbai. The small island contains numerous ancient archaeological sites that date back to the 2nd century B.C. The Elephanta Caves house five ancient temples that date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. It was at a time when Buddhism was starting to decline and other religions were starting to spread throughout India, so you can see a mix of Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples throughout the island.
You can reach the caves within an hour from the Gateway of India. Once you arrive on the small island, you either walk or catch the train that takes you to the foot of the stairs leading up to the caves. It can be challenging to walk up more than 100 stairs in the humid and hot climate, but there are several shops along the path where you can stop to get some refreshments.
The temples are cut into solid basalt rock, and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The primary Hindu temple is the most impressive of the five Hindu temples since most other artworks were damaged or defaced. It contains rock-cut stone sculptures, mainly in high relief, depicting Shiva as the Lord of Dance, the Lord of Yoga, or the three-faced Shiva.
Taking a boat to the Elephanta Caves is a great half-day program from Mumbai.
Contributed by Agnes Simigh, who inspires people to visit less travelled or misrepresented countries that often offer the most transformative travel experience on her blog Voice of Guides.
13. The Churches and Convents of Goa
The Churches and Convents of Goa are some of the most iconic UNESCO Heritage sites in India. The collection of churches dates back to the 16th century when the Portuguese occupied Goa. The Portuguese took over a village named Ella and made it their capital, building many magnificent chapels, churches, convents, and cathedrals. The architecture was influenced by European styles such as Gothic and Baroque, but adapted to the local conditions, creating an east-west fusion. Only seven of these buildings survive today and they are together in one area, which is now known as Old Goa.
The Bom Jesus Basilica houses the mortal remains of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa. The feast is celebrated every year on December 3rd and is a big event with many religious services and fairs.
Other interesting places to visit in Old Goa include the Se Cathedral and the St. Augustine Tower. The St. Augustine Tower is a protected ruin and isn’t a functional religious site, unlike the other churches.
The Churches and Convents of Goa are easily accessible from all over Goa, a very small state, and can be easily reached from the capital city, Panjim. Visiting these churches every year has always been a part of the Goan way of life, especially for the Catholics that reside in the region. I remember heading there as a little girl with my grandmother and now I go there with my children.
Contributed by Penny from Globetrove.
14. The Great Living Chola Temples
The Great Living Chola temples are a group of three Dravidian temples built by the Chola empire in the 11th and 12th centuries. They are excellent examples of the architectural marvels created by the Chola dynasty.
The temples are located in the state of Tamil Nadu, in South of India. The three temples are:
- the Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur,
- the Airvateshwara temple in Darasuram, Kumbakonam,
- the Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram.
Even though the Thanjavur temple is the most famous, and was the first to be inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the other two are equally impressive and are definitely a must visit. All three are dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, but all the temple complexes include representations of other deities such as Ganesha, Shakti, and Vishnu.
With the renewed interest in the Chola dynasty due to recent hit movies in India, the three Chola temples have gained popularity. All three temples are about a 6-8 hour drive from Chennai and Bangalore. The best option is to base yourself in Thanjavur and do a temple hopping tour.
Contributed by Soumya Nambiar of the blog Travel, books & Food.
15. Champaner Pavagadh
The stunning, and somewhat forgotten, Champaner Pavagadh became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 for its outstanding mix of Hindu-Muslim architecture. Champaner Pavagadh dates to the 16th century when it was a city in the Gujarat. The cultures that are represented there have long since disappeared, but the site is still a popular place of pilgrimage for Hindus.
Though the architecture is stunning, you will see very few people at Champaner Pavagadh, aside from pilgrims. Usually, the Jami Masjid is quite empty – and quite glorious. The lack of crowds adds to the enjoyment of this magnificent site. You’ll find one of the best views from the top of the Kevda Masjid, which will give you a perspective of the entire site.
While at Champaner Pavagadh, be sure to buy the Archaeological Society of India’s guidebook as it contains a huge amount of detail and will help guide you around the site, and help you understand what you’re seeing.
The closest city to Champaner Pavagadh is Vadodara, Gujarat. It’s a very long day trip from the capital, Ahmedabad. While there are local buses that go to Champaner Pavagadh, it’s an enormous site, so it’s recommended to take a car and driver from Vadodara. If you do take a bus, then you’ll find an autorickshaw driver at the site to take you around.
Contributed by Sarah Carter of A Social Nomad.
16. Sundarbans National Park
At the mouth of two mighty rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, the Sundarbans is the world’s largest and richest mangrove forest, and one of the most biologically productive of all natural ecosystems. At about 10,000 square kilometres, Sundarbans National Park is approximately half in India and half in Bangladesh. Its forests and waterways support a wide range of flora and fauna, including many threatened species such as Irrawady and Ganges River dolphins, and provides nesting for Olive Ridley, Green and Hawksbill turtles.
The Sundarbans is also the only mangrove forest inhabited by tigers. The large Royal Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans are capable of swimming long distances and feed on fish, crab and water monitor lizards – and are known to be “man-eaters” largely because they frequently encounter local people.
This region is also known for being culturally significant, for providing a natural storm barrier, and as a source of timber and natural resources. It has been celebrated in such books as The Hungry Tide by award-winning writer Amitav Ghosh.
17. Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks
Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks are among the most spectacularly beautiful wilderness areas in the Himalayas. Located in the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, these parks are rich in biodiversity and dominated by rugged Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain peak (7,817 metres).
The Valley of Flowers is on many trekkers’ bucket lists because of its remoteness and near mythical stature. Exceptionally beautiful all year round, in summer (July-September) it is blanketed in a glorious carpet of flowers. A core zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, the Valley of Flowers is about 87 square kilometres. It’s a three or four hour hike each way to access it, and no overnight stays are allowed.
Both parks contain a high diversity of Himalayan flora and fauna, including endangered species such as snow leopards and Himalayan musk deer. As they are very remote, and extremely well protected, the parks offer visitors a pristine wilderness environment and scientists a significant ecological habitat. Nanda Devi has been celebrated by explorers, mountaineers, and botanists for over a century and in Hindu mythology for much longer. The mountain is considered to be a “bliss-giving goddess.”
18. The Western Ghats
The Western Ghats is a mountain range that stretches 1,600 kilometres along the western part of the Indian peninsula. The Ghats, as they are also called, run through six states, starting in Gujarat, and then across Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Dense forests and peaks averaging 2,000 metres are the hallmarks of the Western Ghats, which were inscribed as “a region of immense global importance for the conservation of biological diversity” by UNESCO in 2012.
The rich, unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats makes it one of the eight most important biologically diverse hot spots in the world. More than 300 threatened species are found in the tropical and subtropical environment of the Western Ghats, home to a vast array of species, plus various national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and tiger reserves.
Many native tribes call the Western Ghats their home, where they live in small villages and hamlets hidden in the jungles.
For tourists, the most accessible parts of the Western Ghats to visit are located in Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala. In Goa, a trip to the ancient Tambdi Surla temple located in the jungles near Karnataka is highly recommended. If you travel in the rainy season to the Ghats, head to Amboli in Maharashtra, a small village known for its waterfalls. Or, visit the massive Jog Falls in Karnataka.
Our most memorable trip was to the tea gardens and Nilgiri forests of Munnar in the Western Ghats. On our road trip to Munnar, which I highly recommend, we crossed the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve road and saw wild elephants, peacocks, and the Indian sambar deer.
Contributed by Paul D’Souza of the website Paulmarina.
19. Kaziranga National Park
Kaziranga is a national park in the northeastern state of Assam. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1985. Known for its wildlife conservation efforts, the park is home to two-thirds of the world’s population of endangered one-horned rhinoceros.
Kaziranga also has a high density of tigers, and it was declared a tiger reserve in 2006. It is a breeding ground for Royal Bengal tigers, Asian elephants, Asiatic water buffaloes, and Swamp deer.
The Brahmaputra River passes through Kaziranga making it an important biodiversity hotspot for its grassland ecosystem. The hills of Karbi Anglong surround the park, and the Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh can also be seen on a clear day, if lucky.
Kaziranga National Park serves as a perfect outing for a family. Jeep safaris are available in the Central, Eastern, Western, and Burapahar Zones of the park. There are two safaris available each day, morning and afternoon. The park remains closed in monsoon months due to flooding. Therefore, the best time to visit is from November to May.
The park attracts tourists both from within India and from around the world. They come to see the pristine wilderness and the rare and endangered animals.
[Please note: Kaziranga offers elephant safaris, however Breathedreamgo does not endorse elephant riding. Please read How to protect Indian elephants to find out why.]
Joydeep Phukan is the creator of the Northeast India Travel Blog – The Gypsy Chiring where he shares about travel, culture, adventure and blogging.
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