Ancient monuments, protected wildlife sanctuaries, early Buddhist buildings and mountain railways are just a few of the multitude of World Heritage Sites in North India.
Nominated and designated by UNESCO as deserving special international protection, World Heritage Sites are man-made or natural areas, landmarks, sites or structures recognised as having cultural, historical or scientific significance.
17 sites of the architect and designer Le Corbusier spread over seven countries form this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Complexe du Capitole in Chandigarh is a government compound made up of three buildings, three monuments and a lake, including the Palace of Assembly or Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, High Court, Open Hand Monument, Geometric Hill and Tower of Shadows.
Built in 1570, the statuesque Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi was the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent and inspired many architectural innovations, including the Taj Mahal. As the resting place of over 150 Mughal family members, the tomb is also known as the ‘dormitory of the Mughals’.
Named after its enormous sandstone walls, the Red Fort Complex was constructed in 1546 for Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor of India, as the palace fort of the new capital Shahjahanabad. Since 1947, the Prime Minister of India has hoisted the Indian flag at the main gate of the fort and delivered a speech from the ramparts to celebrate the Independence day of India (15th August).
Established in 1984, the Great Himalayan National Park is home to a variety of flora and over 375 species of fauna. The park was designated a World Heritage Site under the criteria of "outstanding significance for biodiversity conservation" and its inhabitants are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.
Dating back to the 2nd century B.C., the Ajanta Caves contain masterpieces of Buddhist religious art, depicting Buddhist traditions the past lives and rebirths of Buddha, pictorial tales from Aryasura's Jatakamala, and rock-cut sculptures of Buddhist deities. The caves were a monsoon retreat for monks and a resting place for merchants and pilgrims in ancient India.
Formerly known as Victoria Terminus Station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai was designed by British architect F. W. Stevens and built over 10 years from 1878. A great example of Victorian Gothic Revival architecture, the combination of British architects and Indian craftsmen working together created a unique style.
The Ellora Caves are a collection of 100 caves, monasteries and temples built side by side in a high basalt cliff, 34 of which are open to the public. The caves show the religious harmony that existed in ancient India, and include Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monuments.
The sandstone Qutub Minar stands at a lofty 72.5m and is believed to have been either a victory tower to mark the start of Muslim rule in India, or an Islamic minaret for muezzins to call the faithful to prayer. Researchers argue that the monument lacks the appropriate inscriptions and that 379 steps would have been too challenging for the muezzin to climb five times a day!
The Hill Forts of Rajasthan are mainly in the Aravalli Range and consist of Chittor Fort at Chittorgarh, the Amer Fort in Jaipur, Jaisalmer Fort, Gagron Fort in Jhalawar, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Ranthambore Fort in Sawai Madhopur. Built between the 5th and 18th centuries by several Rajput kings, some of the forts still contain surviving urban centres and use water harvesting mechanisms.
Named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019, the fortified city of Jaipur contains rows of colonnaded businesses and markets, stalls, residences and temples on the main streets with matching facades. The architecture borrows from Hindu and modern Mughal along with Western cultures and the layout follows a grid structure in the style of Vedic architecture.
The largest of its kind in India, the The Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is an astronomical observation site built in the 18th century. It features a set of instruments that assist with star gazing, including the world’s largest stone sundial which measures the time of day correct to half a second.
Formerly known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, Keoladeo National Park is the former duck-hunting reserve of the Maharajas is the perfect place to spot a multitude of our feathered friends. The park has recorded over 350 species of bird including the rare Siberian crane and is one of the major wintering areas for large numbers of aquatic birds.
The Mountain Railways of India is made up of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a hill passenger railway dating back to 1881, the 46-km long metre-gauge single-track Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Tamil Nadu and the 96-km long Kalka Shimla Railway, all of which are fully operational and offering amazing views of the surrounding mountain landscape.
High in the West Himalayas, you’ll find rugged mountain wilderness of Nanda Devi National Park, complemented by the beautiful India’s Valley of Flowers National Park, famous for its meadows of endemic alpine flowers. Living in this diverse area are rare and endangered animals, including the Asiatic black bear, blue sheep, brown bear and snow leopard.
The Red Fort of Agra is a 16th-century sandstone Mughal monument located near the Taj Mahal, also known as Agra Fort. Hidden inside its 2.5-km-long walls you’ll find the imperial city of the Mughal rulers, along with fairy-tale palaces, audience halls and two beautiful mosques.
Also known as the City of Victory, Fatehpur Sikri is believed to have been built to provide leisure and luxury to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The site contains the Buland Darwāza (lofty gateway), mosques, tombs, elephant tower and a drum house for musicians to announce the arrival of the emperor. In Pachisi Court, there’s a square marked out for a human version of Ludo!
One of the world’s most famous landmarks and the jewel of Muslim art in India, the Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1653. Commissioned by the Mughal king Shah Jahan as the final resting place for his beloved wife Mumtāz Mahal, the ‘Crown of the Palaces’ would be his view during the last eight years of his life in Agra Fort after being imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb.
Founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century, the Historic City of Ahmadabad showcases architecture from the Sultanate period. It includes the Bhadra citadel, Fort city, mosques, tombs and Hindu and Jain temples and housing clusters called pols with their distinctive bird feeding poles called Chabutros.
Located in the heart of Assam, Kaziranga National Park is one of the last unmodified natural areas in the north-eastern region of India, undisturbed by human presence. It houses the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses, along with mammals, elephants, panthers and bears, and thousands of birds. The park was declared as a Tiger Reserve in 2007.
A biodiversity hotspot covering an area of 39,100 hectares, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary is where large populations of numerous threatened species such as the tiger, pygmy hog, Indian rhinoceros and Indian elephant continue to survive. This beautiful place also includes forested hills, sedimentary grasslands and tropical evergreen forests.
Dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 13th century CE, Nalanda Mahavihara is one of the most ancient universities of the Indian Subcontinent. The stupas, shrines, viharas (educational and residential buildings) and important art works in metal, stone and stucco show the development of monastic and educational traditions, and portray the growth of Buddhism.
Translating as "Great Awakening Temple", the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is a Buddhist temple honouring the spot where Buddah gained Enlightenment after sitting under a sacred fig tree for three days and three nights. This holy sites related dates back to the 3rd century B.C., attracts numerous pilgrims each year and was one of the first Buddhist temples to be built entirely in brick.
Hidden in a landscape of prehistoric (chalcolithic) sites, a hill fortress and the remains of the 16th-century capital of Gujarat lies Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, the only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city. The site houses largely unexcavated archaeological, historic and living cultural heritage properties dating from the 8th to 14th centuries.
Head to the fort area of Mumbai to see the 19th century Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai. This distinctive set of 94 buildings Neo Gothic public buildings and 20th century Art Deco buildings was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2018.
The stunning Sun Temple at Konarak is a representation of the sun god Surya's chariot, led by six horses and with 24 ornately decorated wheels. Situated on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the temple, built in the 13th century, is one the most famous Brahman sanctuaries in India.
A unique variety of glaciers, lakes, snow-capped mountains, plains and valleys combine to form Khangchendzonga National Park in the Himalayas. Here you’ll find Mount Khangchendzonga, associated with many myths, alongside numerous natural elements (caves, rivers, lakes, etc.) worshipped by the indigenous people of Sikkim.
Sundarbans National Park is home to the world's largest area of mangrove forests, along with numerous rare or endangered species including aquatic mammals, birds, reptiles and tigers. The 10,000 km2 of land and water in the park is split between India and Bangladesh.
The Buddhist Monuments on the hillside at Sanchi is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence. The site was a prominent Buddhist centre in India, and is made up of monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries dating back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.
The Khajuraho Group of Monuments are famous for their nagara-style architectural symbolism and erotic sculptures. Only 20 temples remain from the 85 built between 950 and 1050 by the Chandela dynasty. One of these is the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, decorated with intricate sculptures considered some of India’s greatest art masterpieces.
Nestled in the foothills of the Vindhyan Mountains, the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka consist of 7 hills and over 750 rock shelters. The site has the oldest known rock art in the Indian subcontinent with some of the paintings in the shelters dating back to around 10,000 years old.
See our separate page on South India World Heritage Sites.
Originally constructed as a memorial to an 11th century king, Rani-ki-Vav is a decorative stepwell. A subterranean water resource and storage system. The stepwell has the appearance of an upside down temple and has over 1,500 sculptures over seven levels of stairs, referencing religious, mythological and literary imagery.
The ornate Elephanta Caves are an unmissable excursion. Located on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour, these rock cut stone sculptures hewn from solid basalt rock portray Hindu and Buddhist ideas and iconography. The ornate carvings include the 20 feet high Trimurti Sadashiva (three-faced Shiva), Nataraja (Lord of dance) and Yogishvara (Lord of Yoga).
Many of our suggested tours feature visits to heritage sites, but feel free to take inspiration from this list and devise your own bespoke culture escape. Happy heritage hunting!