25 Best Places to visit in South India for Nature, Adventure and Heritage lovers
India is the most diverse country in the world by all possible dimensions – history, culture, and landscapes. It’s a pity that most people limit themselves to the North-West region when they visit India. Speckled with temples, nestled in the lush green hill-forests, surrounded by the Indian ocean – South India is infinitely different from the North and equally spectacular. Here is a collection of best places to visit in South India clustered by different areas of interest. The scope of this article is limited to the following 6 states in peninsular India only – Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana.
Top Destinations in South India
If you are planning to visit South India on a vacation this is the guide for you to skim through before you plan your itinerary. If you still don’t know whether you will visit South India, by the end of this chapter you will be sure. Each of the 6 South Indian states except Goa is almost the size of an average West European country. So planning a south India itinerary is like planning a Euro-trip. You can either spend the whole vacation exploring one state or navigate between states easily through short-distance flights and trains.
The top attractions can be divided into the following 4 clusters.
- UNESCO Heritage Sites
- Nature Trails of the Western Ghats
- Beaches and Backwaters
- Other throbbing destinations
UNESCO Heritage Sites
There are 6 man-made wonders that have been recognized by UNESCO as world heritage sites of South India. Most of them are not just one structure credited to one architect but are rather a group of monuments built over centuries.
1. Churches and Convents of Panjim, Goa
The Hippie heaven Goa is no stranger to travelers around the world. For many years this tiny coastal paradise has welcomed more foreign tourists than any other state of India. However, beyond the beaches and nightlife, there is a part of Goa that will transport you to 17th century Portugal. You heard it right, the Portuguese churches and convents build during the 16th and 17th centuries are concentrated in the old Panjim. These are some of the most exquisite examples of Portuguese Baroque architecture.
Basilica of Bom Jesus and Church of the Rosary are two of the most famous churches here.
Related: 10 Facts about Goa you didn’t know
2. Pattadakal Group of Monuments, Karnataka
The Pattadakal group of monuments is the epitome of the Chalukya style of art and architecture. The eclectic style of art that originated in Aihole and blended with the Nagara and Dravidian architecture to create these masterpieces of 7th and 8th century. There are a total of nine Hindu temples and a Jain sanctuary which are grouped under the UNESCO Heritage site. The Virupaksha temple of Pattadakal (not to be confused with the one at Hampi) is the most famous of them all.
3. Hampi group of monuments, Karnataka
Located about 135 km away from Pattadakal is the erstwhile capital of the Vijayanagara empire, one of the most prosperous empires of the 14th century. The city was pillaged by invaders in 1565 and subsequently abandoned, but the remains of the temples and structures still inspire awe. The Hampi group of monuments is known for the intricate rock carvings characteristic of the Dravidian style. It will be right to say that they didn’t just stand the test of time and tide, they conquered it.
Hampi can be explored in two days but extend it to 4 days to include a day trip to Pattadakal and some other adventures in Hampi. These include bouldering, coracle ride in the Tungabhadra river, a self-drive safari at Daroji wildlife sanctuary and enjoying nightlife at the Hippie island. Don’t forget to read this 3-day Hampi Itinerary to plan your trip.
To know more about Hampi, its history and architecture, don’t forget to read this ultimate guide to Hampi. The Kindle edition is a mere Rs. 225.
4. Nilgiri Railways
The Mountain Railways of India are a group of three heritage railway lines on the mountains of India.
Two of them, the Darjeeling railways and the Kalka-Shimla railways are on the Himalayas. The third one is the Nilgiri Railway that runs on the mountains of the Western Ghats of India. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway runs from Ooty to Metupattalayam via Coonoor. This is where the iconic Bollywood choreography “Chhaiya Chhaiya” was shot.
Check out the original video shot in the breathtaking Nilgiris here.
5. Chola Temples, Tamil Nadu
Comprising of three imposing architectural wonders of Chola dynasty, this group of monuments can be found in Tamil Nadu. While there are many such temples in Tamil Nadu, the Brihadisvara Temple, the Temple at Cholapuram and the Airavatesvara Temple are the epitome of the religious architecture of Chola dynasty. They are famous for the architecture, sculptures, paintings and bronze casting.
These are living temples, that is unlike most of the sites in Hampi, Pattadakal, and Mahabalipuram, these temples are active religious sites. Thousand-year-old rituals are still held in these temples. Visit the temples to not only marvel at the architecture but also at the spirituality and religious fervor that kept the temples alive for ages. All three of them are well-connected by buses and can be seen in a day.
6. Mahabalipuram group of temples
Think about beautiful ancient temples on the beach – that’s Mahabalipuram for you. It is a narrow strip of land between the Great Salt Lake and the Bay of Bengal which is dotted with historic monuments of the 7th and 8th centuries. The shoreline ornamented with these shrines is a visual and spiritual treat.
The Mahabalipuram group of monuments in a UNESCO world heritage site. You can also see the “Pancha rathas”, a group of monolithic structures in the shape of chariots, and the Shore temple overlooking the sea. Among these man-made wonders lie Krishna’s butterball, which is simply a boulder miraculously perched on a hill slope!
Nature Trails of the Western Ghats
The Western Ghats is the long stretch of the Sahayadri mountains which plays a critical role in the monsoon cycle of India. It is older than the Himalayas and famous for its insanely rich biodiversity. Recognized as one of the hottest ecological hot-spot of the world, the Western Ghats of India is a natural world heritage site of UNESCO.
Adventures in the Western Ghats include innumerable trekking trails in the Sahayadri Hills, exploring medieval hill forts, kayaking in the spectacular lakes, whitewater rafting in Coorg and road trips. Besides nature trails, the Western Ghats is home to numerous old hill-forts built by Shivaji, Tipu sultan, and other powerful rulers before them.
Here are my favorite places in the Western Ghats.
7. Coorg, Karnataka
Often referred to as the Kashmir of South India, Coorg is the most beautiful district in Karnataka. The vast stretches of forests on the rolling hills, stunning waterfalls, and a small Tibetian settlement is what inspires such comparison. Trek to the Tadiadmol peak, visiting the holy place of Talacauvery which is the origin of the river Cauvery, exploring the Buddhist monasteries of Bylakuppe and white-water rafting Barapole are some of the best things to do in Coorg.
8. Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu
Ooty, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal from the golden triangle of Tamil Nadu’s hill stations. Out of these Kodaikanal is my favorite. It’s the high altitude and forest cover helps maintain a temperate climate throughout the year. This is something you would really enjoy in the otherwise hot and humid Indian peninsula. The pine forests, the scenic mountain peaks, and waterfalls are the highlights of Kodaikanal.
Do not forget to walk in the beautiful Crokers walk when in Kodaikanal.
9. Bandipur-Nagarhole-Mudumalai – The Tiger’s Haven
These forests in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu form the largest settlement of tigers in the world. It has almost half of the world’s tigers. A trip to one of these four national parks must be on your books when you visit South India. The huge diversity of flora and fauna in these forests is no less than Africa. Tigers, leopards, black panthers, elephants, spotted deer, and sambars are just a few of the many exotic species that you will find on a safari in this park.
Related: Tiger Safari at Bandipur
10. Idukki, Kerala
Idukki is the brightest jewel in the crown of the Western Ghats. The most famous hill station in the Idukki district is Munnar. The queen of hills is known for its impeccable beauty, the unending vistas of tea estates, the rolling hills, the perennial waterfalls, and crystal-clear lakes. But there are many places around Munnar within the Idukki district which are equally breathtaking.
Drive to Chinnakanal which is one of the most naturally beautiful offbeat places to visit in India. You can also visit the Eravikulam national park to walk in the mystic mountains and spot the endangered Nilgiri Tahr. Visiting with children? Take a cruise in the Periyar lake of Thekkady to watch the wildlife, birds and if lucky, even the carnivores.
Read more on Munnar in monsoon.
11. Wayanad, Kerala
Wayanad is a fascinating place, not just for nature-lovers but also for history-buffs. It is most famous for its scenic coffee estates, tea gardens, and spice plantations. Archeologists found traces of human civilization that have existed here for over 6000 years. The Edakkal caves are the glowing evidence of the claim. However, there is not a much-documented history of this region before the 18th century. You need to spend at least 2 days in Wayanad or more.
12. Shivamogga in Karnataka
Shivamogga, better known as Shimoga is one of the most under-explored beauties of Karnataka. Famous for Jog Falls, one of the tallest cascades in India, Shimoga has many other hidden gems. The Sharavati valley wildlife sanctuary, lakes that host many a migratory bird and ancient temples – Shimoga is one of my favorite destinations in the Western Ghats. A trip to Shimoga can also be combined with a trip to Chikmagalur – the land of coffee and Agumbe – the Cherrapunjee of the south.
Interested to know more about the world’s ecological hotspot? I strongly recommend these books for you-
- The Western Ghats and the Bounteous Services Showered on the Planet
- The Road to Puthukkad – The Birth of Tea Estate in South
- Whispers from the wild
Beaches and backwaters of South India
The biggest attraction of south India is its long coastline. With the Arabian Sea on the West and the Bay of Bengal in the east, there is no dearth of vitamin sea here. While the Konkan coastline in the west is famous for the mythological and historic significance, the beaches of Kerala are known for their serenity. The waves of the Arabian sea are dwarfed by the gigantic roaring tides of the Bay of Bengal splashing on the eastern coast of India. That’s how the face of the sea changes as you go from the west to the east. The main city on the east coast for international transfers is Chennai. On the western side, it is Bangalore. Besides Mahabalipuram which I have mentioned in the list earlier, here are my other favorite beach destinations in South India.
This is actually a large number of gems put together for a beach-lovers delight. Goa is the original hippie state of India. It is well-equipped with everything that a tourist looks for – stunning locations, heritage sites, nightlife, water sports, organized tours, and even hop-on-hop-off buses. You should spend at least 3 days in Goa.
Check out this guide for selecting the best place to stay in Goa depending on your trip.
14. Udupi and St. Mary’s Island, Karnataka
Udupi is a beach town of northern Karnataka which is home to the famous Sri Krishna temple as well. The beaches in Udupi are much off-the-radar for tourists, unlike Goa. They are usually serene most of the year. A ferry ride from the Malpe beach takes you to the picturesque St. Mary’s island. The white sand and the beauty around can be compared to the Andaman Islands.
15. Karwar and Gokarna, Karnataka
Karwar beach is the gem of coastal Karnataka, a place that inspired the poetic genius Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore in his early years. We just stopped at the beach for a while on our way back to Bangalore from Goa, via Karwar. It is the cleanest public beach I have come across, since my trip to De Haan. There is a small beach park called Tagore Park, with few cafes where we stood mesmerized by the pristine beach, after our rendezvous with the crowded beaches of North Goa. South to Karwar is Gokarna which has some famous beaches like the Om beach and Paradise beach.
Check out the Best places to visit in December in India, beyond Goa.
16. Kovalam, Kerala
Kovalam is where I found some of the most beautiful beaches in India. The water from an elevation looks Prussian blue. With Palm trees along the beaches, Kovalam is picture-perfect in every frame. The most famous beach in Kovalam is the Lighthouse beach, which of course has a lighthouse from where you can get spectacular panoramic views. When in Kovalam you can also take a boat ride in the serene backwaters of Poovar lake.
17. Backwaters of Alleppey and Kumarakom
If anything in South India comes close to the international acclaim of the beaches of Goa, it is the serene backwaters of Kerala. The network of canals, lakes, and backwaters is found in the Alappuzha district, which is also known as the Venice of the East. Staying in a houseboat floating on the lake is one of the best things to do in South India. Even if you do not decide to stay in a floating villa, you will have many cheap homestays right across the backwaters in the villages of Alleppey and Kumarakom. One of the best boat tours begin at the Vembanad Lake, the longest lake in India and goes through the narrow canals that branch out of the lake into the villages of Kumarakom.
Read about the idyllic backwaters of Kerala. Another lesser-known destination for enjoying the backwaters of Kerala is Bekal in Kasargod district. Apart from the backwaters, Kasargod is notable for the largest fort of Kerala – the Bekal Fort.
Pondicherry is known for 3 things – French colony, Auroville and beaches. You should reserve at least two days in Pondicherry in your South India itinerary. Explore the French colony of Pondicherry on a walking tour in the White Town and Promenade. So beautiful beaches of Puducherry (Pondicherry) are the Paradise beach, Serenity beach, and Auroville beach.
Apart from that Pondicherry is famous for the revolutionary freedom fighter turned spiritual guru Rishi Aurobindo. Auroville, the city of Dawn is a spiritual retreat in Puducherry which does not identify itself with any religion, community or even country.
Check out the best guided tours in Pondicherry.
19. Dhanushkodi and Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu
Dhanushkodi is a 14 km long narrow strip of land connecting the Bay of Bengal and the Indian ocean. It has a special place in Hinduism for the mythical Ram Setu. Also called Adam’s bridge, Ram Setu is a chain of limestone rocks connecting the Rameswaram island of India with the Mannar island of Sri Lanka. Read our Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi Itinerary here.
According to Hindu Mythology, it was made by Lord Ram and the army of monkeys to bring back Ram’s wife Sita who was abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka. Scientific studies have concluded it to be a natural wonder. However, the carbon-dating of the rocks put the age at 7000-year-old, coinciding with the date of the events of Ramayana.
Religious or not, Dhanushkodi is a treat to the senses and must-visit places of South India. The town is deserted so the closest place to stay in for a trip is Rameshwaram. The beaches of Rameshwaram are also fabulous.
20. Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh
Visakhapatnam, popularly called Vizag is a port city of Andhra Pradesh famous for some stunning palm-lined beaches and sacred Hindu temples. Ramakrishna Beach, Rushikonda beach, and Yarada beach are some of the famous beaches of Visakhapatnam. Another must-visit place here is the INS Kusura, a submarine museum.
Lakshmi Narayana temple is a spectacular shrine perched atop a hill offering great views from the hilltop. Another such scenic religious site is Kailasagiri, a hill-top park with a white statue of ShivaParvati.
Other amazing attractions of the South
Well, not everything can be clustered and for them we have a group called others. The attractions below are equally awesome and include the important cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad which would likely be the starting point of your South India trip.
21. Mysore, Karnataka
While Bangalore is the famous Silicon city and the capital of Bangalore, Mysore is indeed the cultural capital of Karnataka. If you want to acquaint yourself with the culture and history of Karnataka, there is no better place than Mysore. It also happens to be among the top 3 cleanest cities of India and the seat of the Royal Family of Karnataka. Visiting the spectacular Mysore Maharaja Palace and the beautiful Brindavan Gardens are the two best things to do in Mysore. Other fascinating places around the city are the Chamundi hills, the Ranganathittu bird sanctuary and the lost land of Talakadu.
22. Hyderabad, Telangana
Hyderabad is the capital city of Telangana and a cosmopolitan city with a booming IT industry. But the old-world charm of old Hyderabad, the delicious Hyderabadi biryani and the historic sites attract travelers the most. The most iconic monument of Hyderabad is the Charminar, followed by the Golconda fort. The other places of interest include the Chowmahalla palace built by the erstwhile Nizams of Hyderabad, the Salar Jung Museum and the Hussain Sagar lake. You can also take a day trip to the Ramoji Film city, which is the largest studio complex in the world.
23. Bengaluru (Bangalore), Karnataka
The Silicon Valley of India might disappoint you if you are looking for the typical Indian experience. Once a peaceful retirement destination owing to the great climate and lower cost of living, Bangalore is now an over-crowded cosmopolitan city. It’s a melting pot of cultures where people from all over India come to find jobs in the throbbing tech industry. Bengaluru (Bangalore) is currently the 4th largest technology hub in the world, but there is more to it than that.
When in Bangalore don’t forget to spend time in the Cubbon park, an open public park which is a green oasis in the heart of the city. Lal Bagh botanical garden, Bangalore Palace, Sankey tank and Bannerghatta National Park are some of my favorite places.
24. Madurai – the Temple Town (Tamil Nadu)
Madurai is an ancient city of Tamil Nadu with a vibrant skyline defined with 8 towers of the Meenakshi temple. This gorgeous, colorful temple is the icon of Dravidian architectural styles. In the south, you will find many temples in nooks and corners build in a similar Dravidian architectural style. Meenakshi temple is one of the most opulent and iconic temples of India. The other symbol of opulence in Madurai is the Thirumalai Nayak Palace with a mix of Dravidian and Islamic architectural features. The sound and light show at the palace are worth watching.
25. Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Chennai is the capital city of Tamil Nadu and is one of the 4 original metropolitan cities of India. It also has one of the busiest international airports in India. The city is known for sprawling beaches, beautiful temples and remains of the British colonial architecture. Marina beach is one of the best beaches in Chennai. It is also home to the Tamil film industry and the best place to know about the throbbing entertainment scene is in the MGR film city. Chennai is a great spot to base yourself for short trips to Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram and many other top attractions of the south.
So this was my humble endeavor to present to you the highlights of south India in a single post. Apologies if I missed some of your favorite destinations. You will find many more offbeat, lesser-known destinations of South India on this blog, which did not make it to this list. This region is truly a treasure trove for travelers and deserves to be higher up on the bucket-list for foreign tourists in India. What do you think? Tell me in the comments section.
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