India is one of those countries you’ve seen, read, and heard so much about. You can almost imagine what it’s like without ever having visited. However, it’s also one of those places that is exactly what you imagined while somehow being nothing like you imagined at the same time. Traveling through India is an adventure of a lifetime. The sights, smells, and sounds are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.
Diving into the culture of India is one of the best ways to really get to know this country. From eating at local restaurants and historic sites to going out on Tinder dates, there are many different ways to immerse yourself in this inviting, welcoming, and fascinating culture. To help you get started, we’ve come up with a list of the best ways to experience Indian culture as a tourist.
Roaming Around India
Looking for a unique way to experience the culture of India? Let’s Roam offers several tours and adventures in India. Try out scavenger hunts near Chennai, Jaipur, Kolkata, New Delhi, and Pune! Whether you’re a local looking to rediscover a familiar place or a tourist yearning for an educational trek, each option provides an entertaining way to spend some time exploring. These exciting expeditions will lead you to popular attractions as you conquer challenges and test your ability to answer trivia questions about your surroundings. No matter which you choose, you’re bound to have a blast!
Important to Know Before You Go
People travel to India for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe they are history buffs. Or perhaps they adore Indian cooking. Luckily, India is a country that fully immerses you in its culture even as a tourist. It can be bewildering and overwhelming at first. But my first trip there was life-changing, and I hope the same for you.
Before we get started on all the great ways to immerse yourself in Indian culture, there are a few really important things to know about India and what it’s like to travel there.
Disclaimer: This article is written based on my own experience living in Delhi for two years as a single American woman working full-time for an NGO. Overall, I had an amazing time there and am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time in incredible India.
Learn a little bit about India’s background.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when visiting India is that historically, India wasn’t really one united country. Instead, it was made up of a number of different kingdoms. This all changed when the British arrived on the subcontinent and combined India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan into British India.
When India got its independence in 1947, there was a pretty violent separation from Pakistan and Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Since then, the relationship with Pakistan has been pretty rocky. This has had a huge impact on how the two countries interact and how the populations view one another. The Constitution of India was signed in 1949 by Jawaharlal Nehru (the country’s first prime minister), officially creating the country we know and love today.
This unique history is what accounts for the incredible array of languages spoken in India today. Although Hindi and English are the two official languages of India, you may also encounter other Indo-Aryan languages. That includes Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Urdu, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, and many more. India’s history also explains the strong connection that people have with their regional “homeland” even if they have never actually lived there or even visited.
Religion is important everywhere.
In a country that has virtually all the major world religions, it probably comes as no surprise that religion is really important in India. You will encounter it literally everywhere. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, and Sikhism all have huge populations of followers there. You can’t go very far without seeing a Hindu temple, a mosque, a Sikh temple, or a church. For the most part, these religions have coexisted peacefully for well over a thousand years. In urban areas, you’ll find Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs all rubbing shoulders throughout the country.
However, this pervasiveness of religion impacts almost every aspect of Indian culture. Because of religious beliefs, Indian women don’t have as much freedom as we have in the U.S. or Europe. As annoying as it may be at times, it’s important to be cognizant of these restrictions while you’re there.
India is a safe travel destination.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that India is a safe country to travel to, even as a solo female traveler. In my experience, people are generally curious about foreigners who come to visit. This usually manifests itself with a little bit of chattiness and a lot of staring. However, it’s very rare that any violent (or even non-violent) crime is committed against foreigners.
While it’s a good idea to always be aware of your surroundings and to follow the same safety protocols you would at home, try not to let stereotypes regarding safety in India negatively impact your trip there.
You WILL be asked for lots of selfies.
I’m not sure what it is about India and selfies, but you’re also often asked to pose for photos with people. This could be families, kids, couples, or groups of young men. It’s okay to say no to these. Most people will understand if you don’t want to have your photo taken.
As a general rule, I normally always say no when it’s single men or groups of men who want a selfie. In my experience, this is sometimes used as an opportunity to touch your back or side. So for me, it’s better to simply say no. However, if there are women or children present, I will normally say yes. It’s a good idea to come up with your own set of “selfie restrictions” early on to save yourself a lot of aggravation and some potential feelings of guilt later on.
Decide where you want to go, but stay flexible.
If you’re planning on traveling to India long term, it’s a good idea to know roughly what areas you want to explore. However, stay pretty flexible in the places you go. This gives you plenty of wiggle room in case your trains, buses, or flights are delayed. You might also suddenly decide there’s another place you just have to see (trust me—that happens A LOT!).
Most visitors begin their trips in either New Delhi or Mumbai. As the capital of India and also one of the oldest cities in the country, Delhi is home to many of the country’s best museums and monuments. It also serves as a gateway to explore North Indian destinations like the Taj Mahal, Jaipur and Rajasthan, Varanasi, and Rishikesh. This is where you will find the bulk of India’s fascinating Mughal architecture, which incorporates Indo-Islamic architecture. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
Meanwhile, Mumbai lets you easily access Goa and Kerala. Mumbai is the commercial hub of India, so this is also where you will find the largest amount of international companies and expats. Overall, it’s safer and more female-friendly than Delhi and the country’s rural areas.
How to Experience the Culture of India
1. See the historic sights.
India is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Many of its cities and villages are well over 1,000 years old. The country has gone from a fragmented group of kingdoms to a British colony to a unified country. All of these periods of time have left their mark on the cities and landscape, and India is basically a treasure trove for history buffs.
As mentioned, Delhi and the nearby Rajasthan state are some of the best areas of the country to see historic sites left behind by the Mughals, a Persian-speaking dynasty that ruled much of Northern India before the British arrived.
Expert tip: Some of Delhi’s most famous sites can get very crowded during the weekends. If possible, try to do as much of your sightseeing as possible on weekdays. This will make it a much more enjoyable experience and greatly reduce the number of selfies you’re asked to be in.
If you’re interested in seeing some of the colonial buildings left behind by the British, Portuguese, and French occupations, destinations in South India, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Pondicherry, and Goa all boast a breathtaking array of colonial architecture.
2. Eat your heart out.
Samosas, naan, paneer, oh my! There’s a reason why you can find Indian restaurants all over the world. Indian food is good. Really, really, really good. It’s also one of the most vegetarian-friendly cuisines on the planet.
Typical North Indian cuisine consists of heavy curries and dals, naan bread, and chickpea flour-based delights, like samosas. This is basically what most people think of when they imagine Indian cuisine. It is by no means diet-friendly, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you will lose weight in India. You just won’t (unless you’re unlucky enough to pick up a stomach bug, but that’s another story). Rather than trying to count calories or even keep an eye on how tightly your pants are fitting, I recommend just leaning into it and enjoying every opportunity you have to try such an amazing cuisine right from the source.
South Indian food, on the other hand, tends to be rice-based and usually uses a lot of vegetables and coconut milk. Dishes like dosas, rice cakes, and biryani are some of the most popular South Indian foods. You can find them on pretty much any street corner between Mumbai, Kolkata, and Kerala.
If you fall in love with the food, you may even want to take a cooking class to learn how to replicate your favorite dishes back at home! These cooking classes don’t have to be anything fancy. In fact, it’s probably better if you simply have a random granny teach you!
3. Practice yoga.
India is the birthplace of yoga, so there’s no better place to get into the habit of practicing this body- and mind-bending exercise. However, yoga in India goes way beyond a simple exercise routine. Instead, it is a way of life that impacts your spiritual and physical well-being. People have been practicing yoga in India for thousands of years, and it is viewed as a body of knowledge rather than a way to get into shape.
Many foreigners go to India to complete yoga teacher training in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh. This adorably charming town offers an amazing place to spend a few weeks. And there are a ton of different ashrams and yoga schools where you can enroll in various yoga programs. If you don’t have time to commit to the whole teacher training course, don’t worry. There are drop-in classes you can attend.
Expert tip: If you aren’t planning on visiting Rishikesh, there are plenty of other yoga schools throughout the country. There are also sometimes free yoga classes held in local parks. I used to go to an early morning class at the park near my apartment in Delhi. I was the youngest person there by about 40 years and by far the most out of shape. It was certainly a humbling experience that made me promise myself that I would focus more on flexibility and agility in the future!
4. Watch a Bollywood film.
The Bollywood film industry is one of the largest in the world. While it used to be infamous for putting out some mediocre films with way too many musical numbers, a lot has changed in the past few decades. Today, Bollywood puts out some truly fantastic films. There’s no better way to experience this than going to the cinema and watching one yourself.
Expert tip: If there is a film you really want to see, try to go when you’re in Mumbai rather than Delhi. While everyone in Delhi generally speaks Hindi, this is not the case in Mumbai. You’re much more likely to find Bollywood movies with subtitles in Southern India than you are in Northern India.
5. Wear a sari.
For me, one of the most fascinating things when I visited India for the first time was that so many Indian women still wear colorful saris. These skirt/scarf combos are worn over pretty (uncomfortable) blouses that may or may not show off your stomach and most of your back. The sari is then wrapped around you before being pleated, tucked in, and pinned in place. You’re then left praying to Krishna, Buddha, or Allah that it somehow doesn’t all fall apart the moment you take a step. Although this probably doesn’t sound like the most pleasant experience, wearing a sari is a great way to experience Indian culture.
Expert tip: When I moved there, wearing a sari was at the top of my Indian experience wishlist. For foreigners, the key to having a not-so-memorable sari experience is to buy a ready-made one that has the pleats already sewn in and hooks that make sure it stays in place throughout the day. When you’re getting the blouse made, make sure they give you extra room in the armpits and across the chest. This is basically the only way you’re going to be able to breathe or raise your arms while you’re wearing it. For some reason, they like to make the blouses very tight.
You can have a ready-made sari made at most tailors specializing in sari fabric. Saris make a great souvenir at the end of your stay. It may feel a bit strange at first to wear an Indian sari in public, but trust me; you’ll get so many compliments from men, women, and children that you will never want to take it off again!
6. Attend an Indian wedding.
If you’re lucky and happen to be at the right place at the right time, you may receive an invitation to an Indian wedding. If you do, GO! Unlike American weddings, which usually tend to be smaller, more intimate affairs, Indian weddings are like full-scale celebrations that include everyone and their brother. Being invited to one is a special honor, and you definitely won’t regret it. Not only will it give you a chance to experience Indian culture, but you’ll feel like a family member in no time. Besides, isn’t this the perfect opportunity to wear your brand-new sari and a face full of makeup?
7. Get ready to celebrate.
After spending a bit of time in India, you may get the idea that as far as celebrations go, you either go big or you go home. Holidays like Holi and Diwali are taken very seriously. If you’re invited to join in on the festivities, definitely try to do it!
Held in early March, Holi is one of the best celebrations for foreigners to attend. It’s a celebration of good over evil and the eternal love of Radha and Lord Krisha. Everywhere you look, the streets explode into a sea of people gleefully throwing handfuls of colorful powder at one another. If you don’t want to play, you can tell people, and they may leave you alone. Or, you may get to your destination looking like you just walked through a rainbow. Don’t worry, though—everyone will understand!
Meanwhile, Diwali is a bit more sedate. Translated from the original Sanskrit, Diwali means the festival of lights. It’s the most important Hindu celebration of the year and is basically our equivalent of Christmas. People prepare by lighting lanterns and surrounding them with beautiful designs.
8. Take the trains.
The Indian rail system is the fourth largest rail system and one of the biggest employers in the world. Trains crisscross all of India, giving visitors easy access to some of the country’s most famous sites. They are also one of the best ways to experience Indian culture as a tourist.
Generally, you will find the trains full of families, elderly couples, and single travelers who are either completely indifferent or very curious to know where you’re from and how you like India. For the most part, trains depart on time. Since many of them are night trains, they are perhaps one of the best ways to get around the country efficiently and cheaply. Believe it or not, they are usually much faster than taking a private car since you don’t have to worry about getting caught in India’s notorious traffic.
Expert tip: If you’re feeling really brave (and are a woman), you can try riding in the women’s only cars on the Mumbai commuter train. This is the perfect opportunity to interact with locals. You also have a high chance of getting elbowed in the ribs by an Indian auntie who is surprisingly strong for her age. You may get the feeling that you’re riding an amusement park ride as you peer out the open door and see the streets of Mumbai zooming by.
If you aren’t feeling that brave, you may want to stick to the mixed cars where the men ride. These seem to be much more civilized than the women’s cars and much less terrifying overall.
9. Go on a few Tinder dates.
As many people have discovered, one of the best ways to learn more about a foreign culture is to date someone from there. Luckily, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have made meeting someone in a foreign country much easier. Going on dates in India is a good way to learn firsthand what everyday life is like for people from all different walks of life.
While it can be a fascinating experience, make sure that you don’t let your guard down. Always be careful who and where you meet. Never agree to go to anyone’s house, and always meet in a very public place.
10. Visit a slum.
Unlike in other countries, slums in India are simply considered neighborhoods built on government land. Contrary to what many people may think, many of the slums in India are vibrant communities with surprisingly strong economies. Local shops, restaurants, and services line the streets while kids play and aunties people-watch nearby.
Visiting a slum will certainly change your perspective about what life is like there and can be an eye-opening experience. While it’s possible to visit on your own, we recommend joining a guided tour led by a member of the community.
11. Make friends with some expats.
Another interesting way to experience Indian culture is to make friends with the expats who live there. You can connect with people through networks or apps like Couchsurfing or InterNations, and this can be a way to gain a new perspective on what life is actually like there as a foreigner.
You may be wondering why you would want to go all the way to India to meet people from the U.S. or Europe. But I promise it will give you an even more well-rounded idea of Indian society since you’ll be hearing about it from outsiders who had to figure out how to navigate through it on a daily basis.
12. Go on a shopping spree.
As you can probably imagine, India is a great destination for buying everything from colorful fabrics to aromatic spices. One of the best places to go on a shopping spree is the jumble of streets known as Old Delhi. Designed by Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, Old Delhi features meandering back alleyways, beautiful historic homes, and more shops than you can imagine.
If this is a little overwhelming, you can also visit some of the market areas located in most of the major cities in India. You’ll still be able to find a wide array of options to choose from, but everything will be a bit more low-key.
Expert tip: While you’re in Old Delhi, you should also take the time to indulge in the street food. This area is famous for having the best street food in the entire country. If you’re a little nervous about jumping right in, you may want to join an Old Delhi food tour, which will take you to some of the most popular street food stalls. Make sure to come hungry though as the food is so good that you may find yourself asking for more!
13. Go for lunch or dinner at a Sikh temple.
One of my absolute favorite things to do when I lived in Delhi was to go to the Old Delhi Sikh temple for either lunch or dinner at the langar (community kitchen) and then hang out in the main hall listening to their melodic chanting and singing. The langar is open to everyone regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity. Everyone sits on the floor and eats together, and the meals are always delicious and vegetarian.
When I first moved there, it was one of the few places where I didn’t feel like people were staring at me. Although I eventually got used to that aspect of life there, it was still a place to go where I always felt comfortable and welcome.
14. Scratch off an adventure.
For the most part, Indians are extremely welcoming and friendly. Bring along a Let’s Roam Adventures From Scratch Book to find even more ways to interact with locals! Whether it be on a long train ride, when you’re out and about exploring, or during a visit to a local friend’s home, these are a great way to break the ice and turn the ordinary into extraordinary!
So, Ready to Roam?
How does that all sound? Are you getting hungry for adventure?
We hope this list of unique ways to experience the culture of India has left you inspired to pack your bags, book a flight to the subcontinent, and bring out your best namaste. An Indian adventure will be one you’ll never forget. If you’d like to learn more about different destinations in Asia or around the world, check out the Let’s Roam Explorer blog. Here, you’ll find hundreds of destination guides, must-see lists, and travel articles that will make planning your next adventure as easy as pie!
Before you go, don’t forget to download the Let’s Roam app. This gives you access to all of our fun-filled scavenger hunts as well as user-generated travel tips and tricks for destinations all over the globe. Scavenger hunts are a great way to learn more about a place while having a great time doing it. They’re suitable for people of all ages and mobility levels. Make sure to try one out on your next trip!
Frequently Asked Questions
Some of the best ways to experience the culture of India as a tourist include visiting historic sites and religious buildings, eating in local restaurants, and shopping in the bustling markets.
If you want to experience Indian culture, the best holidays include Holi and Diwali. These are fascinating to watch, and in the case of Holi, you’re more than welcome to join in on the festivities!
Much of India’s unique culture is due to its long history. India is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It was colonized by the British and finally became independent in 1947.