India is much more than the Taj Mahal. In this post I present you 10 places to visit in South India across the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This list features popular destinations as well as off the beaten path places, including cities, temples and nature.
India. It’s difficult to describe India. Some say that you either love it or hate it, and that’s because everything there is very intense. The colors, the movement, the smells, the sounds, the music, the spicy food, the heat of the sun, the relation with people.
The emotions you feel are also very intense so the experience cannot be indifferent. You either like it or not. Or there are things you like and some you don’t, and you feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, and you’re tired but also fascinated, and you’re willing to leave but you’re already thinking about coming back.
This is my relation with India.
For me it will always be special because it’s been the beginning of many things. South India was the first place I visited in Asia and the first stop of my round the world solo trip. I’ve traveled there with foreign friends, alone and with local friends who helped me live the country with a unique perspective.
Among the 6 weeks I’ve spent in India (between the two trips) I was only 3 days in the north. I spent 5 weeks and a half in South India, across the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. That’s why I’ll only talk about places to visit in South India, including popular destinations and hidden gems.
Mamallapuram (or Mahabalipuram)
Mamallapuram, 60km south of Chennai, is a coastal town which is full of history. Its historial monuments were built during the 7th-8th centuries and have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among them there are the 5 Rathas (five monolithic temples, constructed from a single stone!) and the Shore Temple, next to the beach.
The city is known for its rock carvings and was one of the cities affected by the tsunami in 2004.
Annamalaiyar temple (in Tiruvannamalai)
Honestly, the city of Tiruvannamalai didn’t impress me much, but the Annamalaiyar temple is awesome. With 10 hectares (24 acres) of temple grounds, it’s one of the biggest in India. The tallest tower is 600 meters (217 feet) high, so it can be seen from far. Makes you feel so small! The carvings are very detailed and all of them have a specific meaning.
The Annamalaiyar temple receives hundreds of thousands of pilgrims per month, but still its interior feels quiet and peaceful.
Kanyakumari is the southernmost point of India. Thanks to its location the sun rises and sets over the sea. Just in front of the coast there is a rock memorial for Swami Vivekananda, a spiritual teacher who introduced hinduism to the western world.
The funny thing about Kanyakumari is that it’s a popular destination for local tourists but not for foreigners. So I became the curiosity of the memorial and a group of women who were traveling with their husbands wanted to get photos with me. They made me feel like a star.
More about Kanyakumari: Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India
Chitharal Jain Temple
This is one of the places I wouldn’t have discovered if it were not for my local friends. The Chitharal Temple is a Jain temple, an ancient religion which was originated in India during the 6th century BC. The temple if from the 9th century and it’s built over a hill (attention to the sun while going up!). Part of the temple is constructed inside a cave which contains rock carvings and sculptures.
The Chitharal Jain Temple is located in Tamil Nadu near the border with Kerala. I actually visited it during my trip in Kerala.
The backwaters of Kerala! My favorite place in South India is Munroe island, a hidden gem in the backwaters of Kerala.
The backwaters are composed of channels, lakes and islands with palm trees. So beautiful. There are cities, villages and remote areas. From Allepey you can visit them by motor boat or house boat, a big boat where you can sleep. I preferred spending a couple of days in Munroe island, which is quieter, and explore the backwaters by canoe.
More about the backwaters:
- Backwaters of Kerala: Poovar
- Munroe island, a hidden gem in the backwaters of Kerala
- Backwaters of Kerala: Allepey by local ferry
Kochi (or Cochin)
Kochi is a coastal town of colonial origin. At first sight I thought it was very touristic and didn’t find it so special, but later on I discovered that it was worth a visit. The center is quite charming with its colonial style, and it was interesting to see the old Chinese fishing nets still in use.
Outside the city center, which is the most touristic part, I saw a Christian Indian wedding, a ceremony with elephants and had dinner in a local restaurant that I keep in my memory as one of the best meals of the trip.
More about Kochi: Kochi: friends, weddings and elephants
From the ocean to the mountains. Munnar is a mountain region about 3000 meters above sea level which is well known for the tea plantations. The landscapes are incredible and the cold and mist add to the experience, it feels a bit mystical. Silence in the middle of nature. In addition to the tea plantations there are lakes, a couple of dams and a tea museum.
I recommend staying in town, specially while traveling alone (I was supposed to go there with friends so we booked a place outside the town. It wasn’t easy for me being there alone).
More about Munnar: Munnar, thoughts between tea plantations
Somanathapura, Halebeedu and Belur temples
A lot of the places to visit in South India involve temples, and in Karnataka I saw some of the most impressive ones (together with Annamalaiyar in Tamil Nadu).
Somanathapura, Halebeedu and Belur didn’t impress me for its size (they’re smaller than Annamalaiyar) but for the sculptures and carvings. The details are just amazing, and they all have a meaning. It’s worth to pay a guide to fully appreciate. The three temples are open to visitors but only Belur is still used as a temple.
More about the temples in Karnataka: 5 highlights of Karnataka, part 1
Mysore was unique, special, it was the first city in India that I thought “hey, it’s beautiful”. It has wide streets, beautiful architecture and it’s quite clean. My friends told me that it used to be better, “clean as an European city”, with less traffic and more green areas.
The best of it was the Mysore palace. It’s huge and the architecture, sculptures and paintings are impressive. You can visit the interior during the day (paying) and can see the night illumination from the outside (for free).
More about Mysore: 5 highlights of Karnataka, part 1
Golden temple (Tibetan temple)
This is another place I wouldn’t have visited if it were not for my local friends. Yes, I know, another temple to the list… but this is a different one, it’s a Tibetan temple.
In Bylukuppe there is a Tibetan settlement, one of the largest in India. There are 15 refugee camps with their own schools, hospitals and festivities, and one of them has a temple, the Golden temple, a wonder of art and peace.
More about the Golden temple: 5 highlights of Karnataka, part 2
Have you visited any of them? Can you recommend any places to visit in South India?
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