I recently traveled India for the first time and because it is such a huge and overwhelming country, I asked a friend, who had lived in Delhi for two years, for advice on how she would go about doing it right for the first time. She gave me great advice, some of which I bundled here in one of my other India posts, but one recommendations that stood out was to hit the road as soon as possible and drive to Pushkar.

Pushkar, she said, would be the perfect place to begin our India adventure, and it turns out she was right. Although I was nowhere close to even seeing a good junk of India (we were only there for 10 days) Pushkar was by far our favorite destination of the trip – here are a few good reasons why.

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1. It’s one of a kind in terms of Hindu culture and history

Pushkar is one of India’s major holy cities in Rajasthan and one of the country’s oldest, dedicated to the god Brahma. If you believe the legend, Brahma himself created the city and its artificial lake by dropping a lotus flower on the ground. When I first read, how many temples there are in Pushkar (over 400!) I thought it was impossible; but once we arrived and learnt that the term ‘temple’ is quite flexible (if you count all the shrines we walked past, I could definitely point out hundreds myself).

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On our first morning, we did a guided tour with Mr Sharma, who is a local business man and priest, and stems from one of the oldest religious families of Pushkar. He picked us up from the hotel (more on that below) first thing in the morning, walked us to the Temple of Flowers where we witnessed the morning ritual of distributing sweet and salty rice, and then took us around the central markets and the lake. All the time he was telling us stories about Pushkar, Brahma and Hindu religion. We asked a lot of questions – like ‘Why are cows holy?’ – as for both of us the religion and culture were completely new ground. I’d say, this was one of the most interesting tours I have ever done and gave us great confidence to then explore everything on our own the following hours. Knowledge is power!

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2. The best hotel in town* is basically heaven (or nirvana?)

To be honest, as soon as my friend had sent me the link to her hotel recommendation for Pushkar, I knew where we would stay: Inn Seventh Heaven, which is indeed heavenly. It was not easy to find, because its address is quite literally ‘next to the Temple of Flowers’, but our driver mastered the tiny alleys leading into town successfully. One foot inside the massive wooden doors of the hotel, and we were in awe. Gone was the chaos of our journey from Delhi. The traditional haveli building has a large courtyard and is five stories tall. There are lush plants hanging down from the higher levels, the morning rain had wetted the marble floors which smelled so fresh, and in no time we had moved into our large room on the second floor. Our windows were facing out towards the road and we could watch children playing, cows dotting the little lanes. Although we were warned, that the WiFi might not work in the room, it did either way – time for Instagram. We had a large fan above our bed and beautiful embroidered pillows everywhere. We couldn’t believe where we had arrived.

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The heart of the hotel lies high above – the roof top restaurant, The Sixth Sense. It is open to the public, however when the hotel is fully booked, you might not be able to get a table. Funny enough, the kitchen is all the way downstairs and all drinks and meals are brought upstairs in a wooden bird cage via a pulley apparatus. The food is amazing – breakfast as well as snacks and main courses, and I can highly recommend to taste every juice and shake on the menu. From the restaurants you get a great view over the town, the neighboring Temple of the Flowers and the famous temples up in the hills.

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The hotel staff is very helpful – whether it was about arranging our guided walk with Mr Sharma or preparing an early breakfast for us on the day we left. The best thing about the hotel for me though, was that it was our safe haven and retreat when the heat or the flood of new impressions on the streets got too intense. It is just a stone’s throw away from the centre, but super quiet and relaxing. Nothing better than watching the hustle and bustle from above, coconut milkshake in hand. A real gem!

* It is Lonely Planet’s top pick for a good reason too.

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3. You get eased into the Indian chaos

The streets of central Pushkar are narrow and windy. Not that scare off mental drivers on their motorcycles and tuktuks, but it does mean, that there are (close to) no cars around. If you are in Asia for the first time, getting used to the chaotic traffic could take up most of your energy the first couple of days, but the calmer roads in Pushkar make the transition a lot easier.

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The level of chaos you will encounter in Pushkar depends on the season. The city is busiest around November, when Rajasthan’s largest camel market vitas town, but particularly before and during monsoon season, the town is basically empty – for Indian taste. As we were there in mid-July, roughly two weeks before the monsoon rain set in, the town was bustling, but not overwhelming – perfect for us Asia newbies.

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4. Making contact with locals is so easy

The great thing about Pushkar is, that it is tiny, but still touristy. It’s small enough so people in the streets are interested in you, but it’s not like you are the only European around getting all the stares. We were asked to pose for photographs as often as we asked locals to pose for us. People were so friendly, many spoke English and could give us recommendations – particularly important because many restaurants were closed for the season.

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I couldn’t get enough of the women in Pushkar – hence a slight overload of photos… oops!

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5. The shopping is amazing

In most cities we visited, I had the feeling that the stalls on the main markets were all selling rubbish imported from somewhere else, no authentic jewellery, fabrics or souvenirs at all, but mainly poor quality knock-offs. Not so in Pushkar. One of my Indian friends at home had already told me to leave heaps of space in my backpack and get some serious shopping done here. Between the two of us, my best friend and I could now probably open an Indian jewellery shop. Pushkar is particularly known for its silver jewellery, and little shops are dotting every main road and side alley.

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We picked out two favorites – Robin Shop near Brahm Ghat, because it was off-the-beaten track but had amazing stuff, and Ashok Silver Smith around the corner from the hotel, because he silver smith really did his best to fit a nose ring through my nose and didn’t laugh when I almost started crying…

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In total, I got about 80% of my souvenirs in Pushkar and am sad I didn’t get more. Nowhere else did I feel the quality was that good (except for maybe Laxman Jhula in Rishikesh).

6. The food

I love Indian food – if I had to choose one cuisine to live off for the rest of my life, it would be Indian, no question. And yet, I can’t eat super spicy, my stomach won’t play along… Pushkar was perfect for that. Every restaurant could accommodate my ‘a little spicy, but not too much’-request, without making the food ‘tourist-friendly’ (which is Indian for ‘no spices at all‘).

Top tip: If you’re worried that your food might be too spicy, always order yoghurt at the side and stuff your face with it, if your mouth burns.

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Here are a few of our favorite restaurants, cafes and dishes:

Thali at The Sixth Sense (rooftop restaurant at Inn Seventh Heaven): The concept of Thali is to serve 6 different flavors of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy on one single plate. Our vegetarian Thali was served with rice, naan and pompadoms, but we also ordered additional Dal soup and emergency yoghurt.

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Salad and juice at Lakeview Cafe (at Lakeview Hotel): While everybody else will tell you that eating raw salad in India is one of the big NO-NO’s when trying to avoid diarrhoea, I felt adventurous that day – and did not regret it. The red beet-carrot salad I had at Lakeview Cafe, along with my fresh lemon mint juice, overlooking the sacred lake of Pushkar and the surrounding hills was among my favorite meals ever. It was rare to find refreshing salads on menus, despite the high temperatures and sticky humidity, so this was a gift sent from heaven.

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Coconut milkshakes at Cafe Enigma: You could think every restaurant and cafe in Pushkar is located on a roof top – so how could you not love it? I spotted the terrace of Cafe Enigma  from The Sixth Sense, as it lies just opposite of it, towards the Main Market. Although we felt like we didn’t belong in that dark staircase leading up to it at the side of the house, we were greeted by a friendly little Indian woman, who apologised about only serving beverages, but no food. Fine by us, we ordered a coconut milkshake and watched the bustling roads beneath us.

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Indian breakfast rice at the Main Market: I got my first taste of Indian breakfast rice at the Temple of Flowers, where the priests hand out handfuls of sweet and savoury rice every morning, but for the real (belly-filling) deal head to the Main Market. The rice stalls are surrounded by locals, so should be save to buy from. (It even says ‘Best Food in Town’!)

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Overall, Pushkar was our favorite place, maybe because it was quieter than the other cities we visited, or because it felt more off-the-beaten-track. I can certainly recommend expanding your tour of the Golden Triangle by spending one or two days in Pushkar, calm down, get some shopping done and just float with the masses of pilgrims in the streets.

For us it was the perfect first pitstop and an easy way into our Indian adventure. Have you had a similar experience, or felt the same way about another city? Let me know in the comments – I can’t wait to return to India!

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

Disclaimer: We were invited to spend two nights at Inn Seventh Heaven free of charge. All opinions expressed are of course still my own.

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