Rajasthan is a hymn to India’s mythic history. Ancient monuments of intricately carved marble stand silhouetted against sunset skies. Painted cities surround haveli courtyards inlaid with tiny sparkling mirrors and precious stones. Cobras dance out of street baskets. The air holds the scent of flowers, spices, chai and tandoor smoke. Cows and camels wander the roads chaperoned by dogs and giggling children. Turbaned men in white dhoti lead herds of goats across wild hills. Tigers skulk silently through thick jungle. And yet, the state also feels excitingly contemporary and trail-blazing; alive with entrepreneurship and the spirit of a new generation with global aspirations. Go now before the word gets out.
Ranthambore National Park is tiger territory and Khem Villas is its original and most authentic safari lodge; set up by the family of Fateh Singh Rathore, the man hailed as the founding father of tiger conservation in Rajasthan. This is sustainable, eco-friendly travel at its most luxurious, and with a sensible price tag. Phenomenal vegetarian food is grown, cooked and served on-site by local people. The grounds are a re-wilded haven of long grasses, watering holes and fragrant trees. Wildlife is abundant, if alarmingly close: crocodiles, tigers, leopards and antelope are all regular visitors to the grounds. Choose a thatched cottage overlooking the lake, sit back on the veranda’s teak safari chairs and revel in everything jungle.
Samode Haveli in Jaipur is one of the few hotels in the world to have an elephant ramp as an entrance. Built over 200 years ago as a royal city retreat, the entire hotel is an ornate and staggeringly beautiful example of regal haveli design. Well worth a snoop even if you don’t stay. Rooms are large and surround private courtyards. The pool and spa are wonderful retreats from the bustling city outside the walls, service is exemplary and the food is sublime. Head to the rooftop bar for staggering sunset views over the city. Or head out of town to Brij Lakshman Sagar, a restored hunting lodge in the wild “badlands” of Rajasthan, that we made Hotel of the Month. Read more about that here
A stop at a chaiwala is an essential part of the morning ritual, the subcontinental equivalent of gulping down a coffee at an Italian espresso bar. Arguably the best chai in India, certainly in Rajasthan, is Sahu, an iconic destination with a loyal local following. Started in 1968 by Shree Ladhu Ram Ji from a cart in the main bazar, it is now an atmospheric Jaipur social hub run by his grandchildren. Pop in for the perfect pick-me-up after an early morning market visit. For lunch, choose between two of Jodhpur’s finest: Stepwell Café with its outstanding views of the 18th-century Toorji’s Step Well and beyond to the Mehrangarh Fort. Settle on the third floor with its vintage design, sofas and muslin curtains and tuck into tangy chana chat or its near-perfect Thali platter. Or head to Khaas Bagh, a palatial Raj-era relic and wonderful respite from the city’s frenetic pace. Grab a table in the genteel, gentleman’s club-style restaurant with its collection of classic cars; from the Rolls-Royce that sits proudly in the entranceway to the fleet of immaculately restored Willys Jeeps lined up around the fountained courtyard. It’s not all about the cars, the food here is devastatingly good. Don’t miss the Viceroy’s Tandoori Chooza and the Gila Ke Seekh. For pudding, seek out the Shri Mishrilal Hotel at the central clock tower, and order its sublimely spicy chilled Makhaniya Lassi.
Jaipur’s Kitchen with a Cause is a brilliant social enterprise aimed at alleviating India’s devastating street poverty. Started by Govind Jha and Abhishek Chhetri in Delhi, this small but bustling restaurant has relocated to Jaipur post-pandemic and, in just over two years, has already given internships to 18 young people rescued from life on the street; offering them accommodation, food and, importantly, an apprenticeship in catering and hospitality to launch their future. Not only is the concept great but the food is delicious; try the Dal Makhani Dhungari here, one of the best tandoor-smoked dahls you’ll ever eat. For a break from Indian cuisine, Jaipur locals head to Steam – arestored train carriage and, endearingly incongruous, replica Victorian station in the garden of Rambagh Palace – for its excellent pizza options.
For romantic indulgence, spend a whole evening at RAAS Hotel in Jodhpur, starting with rooftop cocktails at the bar, followed by dinner of Malai Broccoli Kebab and Jhinga Adrak Masala with a view of the Mehrangarh Fort lit up under the starry sky.
Rajasthan is chockful of cocktail bars, some with sumptuous interiors, some with staggering views, and some with both. In Jaipur, try Bar Palladio for on point Indo-Italian design and inspirational cocktails. Or for a sundowner under a pink sky, peppered with homemade kites, head to the Rooftop Bar at the Samode Haveli. In Jodhpur, the night scene buzzes with eclectic craziness at On the Rocks, wheretroglodyte cave design meets a Wild West theme. For something more sedate and timelessly romantic, opt for the lakeside beauty of The Bar at Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur.
On the Rocks, Near Circuit House, National Highway 65, Ajit Colony, Jodhpur 342006;
Maharani Textiles and Handicrafts in Jodhpur is a veritable Aladdin’s cave and a must-stop market warehouse. Think floor-to-ceiling fabrics, hand-woven throws, intricately patterned furniture and reclaimed interior delights. Fabulously easy to ship directly home from the store and scarily good value for money. A trip to Jaipur would not be complete without a stop at the Gem Palace. The iconic jewellery house is the shopfront of the Kasliwal family, who have been trading gems and creating jewellery for the elite since the 1700s. From the royal family of Amber through to Lord Mountbatten, Jackie Kennedy and King Charles III, there’s few that haven’t been through these venerated doors. If you’re after rugs and fabrics, pop in to the Carpet and Textile House, alsoin Jaipur. The tour of the factory begins with hands-on demonstrations of the workmanship in the traditional block printing fabric art of Rajasthan and walks you through the Persian rug-weaving techniques, traditionally manufactured for generations in this area.
There are always small children on roof tops in Jaipur, their dazzling homemade kite-flying skills are an iconic sight against a sunset sky; but on 14 January every year the sky becomes flooded with kites of every size, colour and design. The annual Jaipur Kite Festival is a remarkable celebration of airborne acrobatics, held to celebrate the sun moving into Capricorn. The heaving roof top displays of battling kite flyers giggling and shouting across at each other as they attempt to out-wit and out-fly their opponents are definitely worth watching. Grab a cocktail, find a roof top charpai, lie back and enjoy. There is nothing that can prepare you for the sensory overload of spending a morning walking around Phool Mandi, Jaipur’s biggest flower market. The crazy bartering, pushing and shouting. The heady smell of jasmine. The dazzling colours of marigold flower heads tumbling out of the growers’ sacks. India is home to 75 per cent of the world’s tigers and Ranthambore National Park has the largest population. For the best sighting opportunities, book a private open top Jeep with a naturalist guide through the specialists at Natural World Safaris and stay for at least a few days, allowing you to enjoy as many safari drives as you can handle.
Phool Mandi – Choti Chaupar, Tripolia Bazar, Modikhana, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302002
Held annually on the banks of the Pushkar Lake at the beginning of the Hindu holy month of Kartik (usually in November), the Pushkar Camel Fair is one of the most explosively colourful and fascinating events in India. Originally set up as a trading accompaniment to the Hindu Pushkar pilgrimage, it is now an eight-day-long cultural carnival where tribal people from across Rajasthan come to trade camels, horses and cattle as well as celebrate together in the traditional ways of this desert state. Expect everything from camel racing and bedecked camel parades to Rajasthani wrestling, a highly-prized competition for the longest moustache and en-masse Hindu full moon bathing in the sacred lake.
Written by Melanie O’Shea, a freelance writer and editor