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Best tourist places in Karnataka to visit main

Karnataka is a southern Indian state with its capital in Bangalore that is famous for historical places like Hampi. Although it is quite large in size and full of places to visit, Karnataka tourism is not as developed as some other parts of India so even the best places to visit in Karnataka are mostly devoid of tourists.

In this article I will be sharing the list of the best tourist places in Karnataka so you can plan a trip based on your preferences and what you enjoy doing the most on a trip. Although most foreign visitors to India may have never heard of this beautiful Indian state, there are a lot of historical places in Karnataka that played an important role in the development of India as a whole so let’s take a look at the best Karnataka destinations and the places this southern state is famous for plus some hidden gems that you probably have never heard of before.

Interesting facts about Karnataka

Here are some cool and interesting facts about Karnataka that even Indians don’t know about.

1. Karnataka has a population of 65 million people although it is spread over the many cities in the state so population density is low.

2. The capital of Karnataka, Bangalore, has received many nicknames among which Garden City, IT City, Green City, etc. and it is always cooler than most of India with very temperate weather. This is one of the main reasons for the IT industry to have found a great home as the lower temperatures, when compared to most of India, made it cheaper and more efficient to keep computers cooled.

3. Karnataka is a major producer of some of the most precious goods like 85% of the country’s raw silk, 80% of the coffee and most of the cashew and spices like pepper. But it is not just rich in agricultural produce, Karnataka is also responsible for 65% of the aerospace production of India with companies like Boeing and Airbus having plants there.

4. Bangalore regularly ranks in research reports as one of the largest, most important and best developed tech hubs. It ranked 20th in the cities at the “forefront of the global tech industry” according to Savills and number 4 in a report by Focus by Expert markets which ranked the top tech cities in the world to live and work.

5. Karnataka State was formed with India’s reorganisation in 1956 but was originally called after its main city of Mysore. The renaming of Karnataka took place in 1973.

6. Karnataka is home of many tourist attractions and feats of architecture including the second largest pre-modern dome in the world at Gol Gumbaz after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the tallest monolithic statue to Gomateshwara.

A lot of India’s first, largest, tallest, grandest are in Karnataka. The first private radio station began in Mysore, the state has the most amount of tigers, the second tallest waterfall at Jog Falls, the oldest library at the Oriental Research Institute of Mysore and the first city to have electricity. It is also home to the only manufacturing company authorised to produce the Indian national flag and the only one producing the ink for the elections.

History of Karnataka and its dynasties

The earliest signs of human presence in Karnataka date back from the Stone Age. Implements and tool from the period were found in the area. Subsequently, vestiges have been found from the Neolithic and Megalithic ages.

I have designed an infographic with the chronology of the main historical points in Karnataka history including the main dynasties that ruled the area.


Infographic of the history of Karnataka

Infographic of the history of Karnataka


In more recent times, Karnataka has been ruled by many dynasties each with its own religious and cultural set of beliefs. Most of these dynasties left their imprint in the many historical places in Karnataka that one can visit today. This is a chronology of the main ruling dynasties.

The Maurya Empire dominated the area from the 3rd to the 1st century BC and is the largest empire to have ever occupied the Indian subcontinent.

The Maurya Dynasty was succeeded by the Satavahana Dynasty who ruled from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.

The Satavahana Dynasty was replaced by 3 dynasties: Kadamba Dynasty of Banavasi, a Brahmin native of Talagunda in modern Shivamogga district and the Western Ganga Dynasty in southern Karnataka.

The above dynasties were followed by Badami Chalukyas who ruled from the 6th to the 12th century and the Rashtrakuta Dynasty whose empire lasted from the 7th to the 10th. These were the rulers who built some of the most relevant historical sites in Karnataka like the Badami Caves, Pattadakal or Aihole. The Rashtrakuta Dynasty was replaced by the Western Chalukya Empire who dominated the southwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from the 10th to the 12th century. Both empires contributed to the development of the architectural footprint in the main UNESCO sites in the area, namely Pattadakal, Aihole and Badami, and the Jain contributions in these complexes can be attributed to the Rashtrakutas who were first Hindu and then Jain.

In the 11th century, the Tamil Chola Dynasty conquered parts of Karnataka and expanded from its original southeastern focus. The Chola Dynasty is one of the longest ruling Indian Empires and first mentions to it date back from the 3rd century BC. They were also a mighty power in the Indian Sea and in Southeast Asia where they expanded into by annexing parts of the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia. As the Chola were great supporters of religion and the arts, their contributions are also visible in temples of Indonesia like Prambanan next to Borobudur. In Karnataka, the Cholas built the first temple in Srirangapatna.


Belur shrine is one of the places in Karnataka to visit

Belur shrine exterior


The Cholas were defeated by the Hoysala Dynasty who ruled most of modern day Karnataka from the 11th to the 14th century. They had their capital in Belur first and then Halebidu, two of the most important historical places in Karnataka.

In the 14th century, the Vijayanagara Empire succeeded the Hoysala in dominating the south but they were in perennial struggle with the Sultan of Bijapur who eventually defeated them in 1565. This made the Vijayanagara Empire the last Hindu Empire in the south of India.

The Sultanate of Bijapur didn’t stay in power for long as the Mughal Empire took over in the 17th century. The Mughal Empire was key in the development of India and, at its peak, it ruled over the entire subcontinent including Pakistan and Bangladesh and represented the world’s largest economy generating 25% of the world’s GDP and having a fourth of the world’s population. The empire left an imprint in many famous Indian landmarks like the Charminar in Hyderabad, the Taj Mahal or Pakistan’s UNESCO-listed Lahore Fort both of which were built at its zenith under the rule of Shah Jahan. Although the first two Emperors were of Central Asian Turco-Mongol descent, the subsequent rulers were Rajput and Persian due to intermarriage alliances.

The Mughal Empire rose and declined equally fast as their decentralised model gave way to many smaller rulers declaring independence. The Marathas managed to defeat them in several areas from Punjab to Bengal.


Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace


In Karnataka, the Wodeyar had been ruling the Kingdom of Mysore since the 14th century, first under the Vijayanagara Empire and then leasing the land from the Mughal Emperor. They stayed in power until India’s independence except for a brief period after the death of Tipu Sultan when the area was annexed to the British East India Company, later the British Raj.

With India’s independence, the Wodeyar Maharaja acceded into India and Mysore became an Indian state in 1950. India’s State Reorganization Act of 1956 provided for some parts of Coorg, Madras, Hyderabad, and Bombay to be incorporated into the state of Mysore which was then renamed Karnataka in 1973. The map below shows India before reorganization and the state of Karnataka superimposed.


Photo by AreSay used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo by AreSay used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0


Now that we have a good idea about the state’s history, it will be easier to understand why certain destinations are important tourist places in Karnataka as they are related to the past and the various dynasties who ruled over this state. The dynasties all had their own architectural design and this can be easily traced to the best Karnataka tourism sites.

In the next section, I have sorted my suggestions for the best places to visit in Karnataka chronologically so you can follow historical events.

Best places to visit on your vacation to Karnataka

There are a lot of beautiful destinations in Karnataka and this section contains a very exhaustive list of Karnataka’s best points of interest.

You do not have to visit them all, nor should you expect them to look alike: Karnataka is famous for several different sites and not one stands to represent the state. Your preferences and interests should determine your personal list of what to see in Karnataka.

Bangalore


One cannot explore Karnataka and not visit the capital city. I wrote a long post about the best things to see in Bangalore which contains all the details, but in brief it is often referred to as the Garden City. Bangalore is green, slightly elevated and cooler than any other Indian city. This makes for a pleasant base to start your trip to the most famous places in Karnataka.


KR market Bangalore

KR market Bangalore


Make sure you do not leave Bangalore without visiting the flower market in KR Market, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, ISKCON Temple and the impressive Vidhana Soudha building. Of course, Bangalore is known for great dosa so you definitely make sure to have some before leaving.

How to visit Bangalore

Bangalore is connected to main international airports like Singapore or Dubai by plane and can also be accessed from all major Indian cities.

Stay at the Leela Palace Bangalore for a true royal experience or choose the Taj West Lake for a heritage inspired colonial feel

Read my guide to the best things to do in Bangalore

Wineries of Nandi Hills


Nandi Hills grapevines

Nandi Hills grapevines


Wines in India? You bet. India is not even considered fully a New Latitude Wine region like the wines of Thailand or Bali because some of the regions are actually at the same latitude as New and Old World Wine Regions, although many of them are indeed below the regular wine growing line.

Indian wineries are located in either the state of Maharashtra or Karnataka, close to Mumbai or Bangalore respectively.

Here is a map of the wine regions of Karnataka courtesy of Wines of India website.


Map of the wine regions of Karnataka

Map of the wine regions of Karnataka


If you are looking to go on a wine tour, the best winery to do it with is Grover Zampa as it is one of the two most international and acclaimed wineries in India together with Sula Wines and its founder started to grow vines in Nandi Hills in 1988. Due to the warmer climate, the region is able to grow two harvests a year.

Check out this video of Grover Zampa and see how vineyards in India look like.

How to visit Nandi Hills

Grover Zampa also has locations in Nashik, the other main wine region in Maharashtra and organises half-day tours in both locations including a visit to the wine making facilities, the cellar and wine tasting. In the weekends, lunch is also included. Nandi Hills is about an hour’s drive from Bangalore

Nandi Hills is best explored as a day trip from Bangalore so you should stay in the city. Choose the Leela Palace Bangalore for a true royal experience or the Taj West Lake for a heritage inspired colonial feel

Mysore Palace


Durbar Hall Mysore Palace

Durbar Hall Mysore Palace


Although the current palace was only built in the 20th century, the Mysore Palace is one of the grandest and most incredible buildings in India. It is located in the city of the same name and used to be the residence of the Wodeyar Dynasty Maharaja of Mysore.

It is believed that the earliest construction at the site dates from the 14th century but was destroyed and rebuilt four times to today’s Indo-Saracenic exotic grandeur.

The palace’s many halls and rooms are all absolutely incredible with vaulted ceilings in tainted glass, golden pillars, marble floors and exquisite designs if a bit over the top.

You can visit the palace inside and you can also watch the light and music show that happens in the evening every day but Sunday. After the show ends, the palace is lit by almost 100,000 bulbs.

How to visit Mysore

Mysore is 150km or 3h drive from Bangalore so it makes for a possible day trip. You can also arrive by train.

The best hotels in Mysore are the Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden Palace & Spa and The Windflower resorts and Spa Mysore. For a slightly more affordable option, try the Grand Mercure Mysuru or the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Mysore

Read my detailed article on the Mysore Palace

The Gomateshwara Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola


Gomateshwara Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola

Gomateshwara Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola


The large statue was built in the 10th century BC in honor of a Jain monk called Gomateshwara (known in Kannada) or Bahubali (known to Jain) and is located on top of a hill in Shravanabelagola. The statue can be accessed via 700 steps. Because of its size, almost 20m tall, it is considered the largest monolithic statue in the world.

The statue is a major Jainism pilgrimage destination in India and every 12 years, a very special festival takes place where thousands of devotees congregate to pray and anoint the statue with water, turmeric, etc.

How to visit the Gomateshwara Bahubali statue at Shravanabelagola

Shravanabelagola is located 80km from Mysore, 145km from Bangalore and the nearest train station is in Yesvantpur.

Shravanabelagola is best explored as a day trip from Mysore so you should stay in the city. The best hotels in Mysore are the Royal Orchid Brindavan Garden Palace & Spa and The Windflower resorts and Spa Mysore. For a slightly more affordable option, try the Grand Mercure Mysuru or the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Mysore

Shiva of Murudeshwara


The amazing view of Shiva of Murudeshwara

The amazing view of Shiva of Murudeshwara


The second tallest statue of Lord Shiva in the world is in Murudeshwar on the southern Karnataka coast. The complex also has a temple with a tall 20 storey tower which you can climb on an elevator for great views. The location of the statue is also magnificent, set on a hill against the backdrop of the sea, they are reason enough to visit. Murudeshwar Beach is another place you can visit on the same excursion.

How to visit Murudeshwar

Murudeshwar is around 150 kilometers from Mangalore (not to be confused with Bangalore) where there is an airport but the journey takes 3h by car.

The best hotel in Murudeshwar is the RNS Residency, a 3 star hotel in front of the sea. If you prefer to visit on a long day trip from Mangalore, the best hotel there is The Gateway Hotel Mangalore. You can also stay in Gokarna for a day trip to Murudeshwar which should take 1.5h by car.

Chitradurga Fort


Chitradurga Fort

Chitradurga Fort


What is left of the Chitradurga Fort is one of the hidden gems of Karnataka and one of the coolest places to see.

The fort spans several hills and was built as seven fortifications between the 11th and 13th centuries AD and expanded until the 18th century.

Inside, there are mosques, temples, watchtowers, gateways, a citadel, several interconnected water reservoirs and many other constructions. The fort is impressive to visit. Check out the official website for more details.

How to visit Chitradurga

Chitradurga is 150km from Hampi and 200km from Bangalore and about 3.5h drive from both. It can be reached by road or by train to the station of the same name. If you go by train you will have to spend the night there

There are not a lot of options for accommodation in Chitradurga so you could also drive straight back to Bangalore or Hampi if you are on a day trip or to the other as it makes for a good stop on your drive through from Bangalore to Hampi

Hampi


The ruins of Ancient Hampi

The ruins of Ancient Hampi


Hampi is Karnataka’s most famous historical place and it is also one of two UNESCO sites in the state, with a third one shared with other Indian states.

The historical city of Hampi was the center of the Vijayanagara Empire and named Vijayanagara at the time. The city flourished in the 14th century, peaked in the 15th and was destroyed in the 16th leaving behind an expansive empire in ruins with 1,600 monuments spread over 41 square kilometers that is one of the highlights for anyone visiting Karnataka.

At its highest point, Hampi was known from Persia to Portugal (through its Goan colony) and documents talk about it as a city of grand bazaars and monuments. Its destruction also signified the end of Hindu dynasties in southern India.

Today, one can spend days exploring Hampi and getting lost in the many buildings, monuments, temples and constructions. Its red boulder and barren landscape dotted with trees and greenery, especially in the rainy season, give it an oasis-like look.

Hampi’s most relevant sites include the Queen’s baths, the elephant stables, the Royal Enclosure with its famous stepwell, the Stone Chariot, the active Virupaksha temple, the Shiva linga, the Vitthala Temple and beautiful sunsets against the river. Although most of Hampi’s architecture follows the Aihola-Pattadakal movement, some parts are of Indo-Islamic influence.

How to visit Hampi

Hampi is 350km from Bangalore or 385km from Hyderabad. You can reach by car from either places or by train to Hospet Station which is only 13km away.

There are a few accommodation options in Hampi in all category levels. For a beautiful resort with all the comforts and pool villas, stay at Evolve Back Orange County, the best luxury resort in Hampi with views over the ruins, stunning architecture and over the top luxury. More affordable options are Heritage Resort and Hyatt Place Hampi.

Pattadakal


Pattadakal

Pattadakal


Pattadakal was built between the 8th and 12th centuries AD and is part of a UNESCO listed group of temples which includes Aihol and the Badami Cave temples on the banks of the holy Malaprabha River.

The temples were named after their use by the Chalukyan Dynasty, so these temples in the “Place of Coronation” (translation of Pattadakal) were part of an architectural movement that set the tone for many other constructions in India.

The complex includes 150 monuments of which 10 are main temples, 9 Hindu and 1 Jain. The buildings were constructed of the red rock that covers the area and so have a very different feel from the rest of the temples and tourist places in Karnataka. Because of its UNESCO status and its architectural influence on the rest of the country at the time, Pattadakal is one of the most famous places to visit in Karnataka. And with reason, it was one of the highlights of my trip.

How to visit Pattadakal

Pattadakal’s closest airport is in Belgaum which lies 190km away and takes 4h to reach. Alternatively, the fastest way to get there is via the railway system. The closest station is in Badami which is just 6km away.

There are not any luxury accommodation options in the area near Pattadakal, Mahakuta, Badami and Aihole. The best option is Badami Court, a decent 3 star hotel in Badami from where you can explore all four sites.

To find out more, read my detailed Guide to Pattadakal

Aihole


Aihole’s Durg Temple

Aihole’s Durg Temple


Aihole is an archaeological and historical site in Karnataka built between the 4th and 12th centuries and credited, together with Badami, with being the center of experimentation in southern India designs and rock cut architecture, which was later established in the Badami caves complex.

The Aihole complex includes 120 monuments from cave temples to free standing constructions, most of which are today in ruins. Together with Badami and Pattadakal, Aihole is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Most of Aihole’s constructions are quite unique, making this one a rare tourist site in Karnataka, and one which is quite unique. Aihole’s most famous temple is the Durga Temple, not devoted to the Goddess but having acquired its name from a different word and with an apsidal design. The Suryanarayana nearby has a pyramidal shikara on top. There are several rock cut cave temples, some of which look like smaller replicas of Badami.

How to visit Aihole

Like Pattadakal, the closest airport to Aihole is also Belgaum which lies 190km away and takes 4h to reach. Alternatively, the fastest way to get there is via the railway system. The closest station is in Badami which is just 6km away.

There are not any luxury accommodation options in the area near Pattadakal, Mahakuta, Badami and Aihole. The best option is Badami Court, a decent 3 star hotel in Badami from where you can explore all four sites.

Mahakuta group of temples


Mahakuta tank

Mahakuta tank


The Mahakuta group of temples were built between the 6th and 7th century by the Chalukya Dynasty, the same as Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal.

The complex is a famous tourist place in Karnataka, especially because of its Shaiva Monastery. The temple is another example of the architectural might of the artisans of the time because it combines the dravidian style of the south with the nagara northern style.

A spring runs through the temple and fills the Lotus pool of God Vishnu and an Ablutions Tank where kids swim and play.

How to visit Mahakuta 

 Mahakuta is near Aihole. The closest airport is in Belgaum which lies 190km away and takes 4h to reach. Alternatively, the fastest way to get there is via the railway system. The closest station is in Badami which is just 6km away.

 There are not any luxury accommodation options in the area near Pattadakal, Mahakuta, Badami and Aihole. The best option is Badami Court, a decent 3 star hotel in Badami from where you can explore all four sites.

Badami caves


Entrance to Badami cave no3

Entrance to Badami cave no3


The Badami Cave Temples are one of the most famous tourist places in Karnataka and are regularly filled with visitors looking to admire the state’s signature rock cut architecture that was pioneered in Aihole and perfected in Badami. Badami is part of the UNESCO World Heritage that also includes Aihole and Pattadakal.

Badami was the capital of the Chalukya Dynasty and was built between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The city still stands and its roofs can be seen from the caves. The complex contains four Hindu Temples and one Jain Temple at the top and is structured in various levels up the side of a mountain. The caves are next to a man made lake whose green waters contrast with the orange of Badami’s sandstone and numbered 1 to 4. The fifth cave is located 500m away and discovered later.


Interior of Badami cave

Interior of Badami cave


Each cave has a veranda with pillars, a main hall called mandapa and a small shrine in a room at the end of the cave. The interior pillars are carved with intricate designs and the entrance is guarded by various figures of Gods.

How to visit Badami Caves 

 Badami is near Aihole and Pattadakal and easily reached by train from Bangalore.

 The best hotel in Badami is Badami Court, a decent 3 star hotel from where you can explore all four sites.

Belur


Belur Chennakeshava Temple Sanctum

Belur Chennakeshava Temple Sanctum


Belur is in the Hassan District of Karnataka and best known for its walled compound of temples and shrines that surround a 12th century AD Hoysala style Chennakeshava Temple, one of the most remarkable examples of Hindu workmanships in India and a main point of interest in Karnataka. The temple is still active and a pilgrimage site for the Vaishnavism Hindu sect followers.

Chennakeshava was commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana and contrasts with Pattadakal and other historical places in Karnataka because it was carved out of a single piece of black soapstone, a truly impressive feat which took over 100 artisans more than 100 years to complete. The designs on walls, ceiling, pillars and even the floors are remarkable in detail and effort. Stepping inside is a very spiritual experience. Various priests are available by the Sanctum where the Vishnu statue rests.

The Belur temple complex together with Halebidu, are in the tentative list of new UNESCO World Heritage Sites for India.

How to visit Belur 

Belur is 35 km from Hassan city and about 200 km from Bangalore. The temple can be reached by car from Bangalore on a 3.5h drive or by train to the Hassan train station. It is also half an hour from Chikmagalur where there are a lot of accommodation options

The best place to stay when visiting Belur and Halebidu is Chikmagalur. There are a few options to stay there. You can choose the luxurious Trivik Hotels and Resorts Chikmagalur with an infinity pool overlooking the entire valley, the mountain-top Java Rain Resorts or the rustic charm of The Gateway Hotel Chikmagalur. For an extra interesting experience, stay at The Serai Chikmagalur where spice and coffee plantations surround a luxury hotel up on a hill. You can go on spice and coffee tours and see how the coffee is made. The resort belongs to India’s largest coffee company, Coffee Day.

Halebidu Temple


Halebidu outer walls covered with intricate carvings

Halebidu outer walls covered with intricate carvings


Halebidu is the name of a town but is commonly used to refer to its Hoysaleshwara and Kedareshwara temples, one of the best places to visit in Karnataka and fine examples of Hoysala architecture. The town was the capital of the Hoysala empire in the 12th century after Belur and until it was plundered by the Delhi Sultanate and left deserted.

The temple is unique because it is a twin structure and dedicated to both the Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara Shiva lingas each with a Nandi facing its respective sanctum.

The most impressive part of Halebidu is the outer walls covered with intricate carvings and stories of incredible detail. Inside, there is little light and the temples are more sober although the many pillars are also heavily decorated.

Halebidu Temple and the complex around it, together with Belur, are in a tentative list of UNESCO sites to be added for India.

How to visit Halebidu 

 Halebidu is 120km from Mysore and 30km from Hassan and can be reached by train and road. Halebidu is very close to Belur making it a great combo excursion. It is also half an hour from Chikmagalur where there are a lot of accommodation options

The best place to stay when visiting Belur and Halebidu is Chikmagalur. There are a few options to stay there. You can choose the luxurious Trivik Hotels and Resorts Chikmagalur with an infinity pool overlooking the entire valley, the mountain-top Java Rain Resorts or the rustic charm of The Gateway Hotel Chikmagalur. For an extra interesting experience, stay at The Serai Chikmagalur where spice and coffee plantations surround a luxury hotel up on a hill. You can go on spice and coffee tours and see how the coffee is made. The resort belongs to India’s largest coffee company, Coffee Day.

Chikmagalur


Chikmagalur trees above the coffee beans

Chikmagalur trees above the coffee beans


Chikmagalur is the most relevant of Karnataka’s hill stations. The state’s many hill stations produce 70% of India’s coffee with most of the remaining grown in Kerala. 80% of India’s coffee is exported as the country is a large drinker and producer of tea but a visit to one of the few coffee plantations is sure to give you a different view of this state.

Coffee came to India hidden in the beard of a Muslim pilgrim who brought the beans from his trip to Mecca. He planted them in a hill station that was later named after him, Baba Budan Giri, near Chikmagalur. Although this was in the 17th century, the first coffee plantation didn’t open until the 19th century.

Karnataka’s coffee is prominent for growing in the shade, that is, the bushes grow under tall trees and often times, mixed in with spices like pepper, also grown in the same land.


Coffee and spice plantation tour at the Serai

Coffee and spice plantation tour at the Serai


There are many coffee plantations you can visit but at The Serai resort, owned by India’s largest coffee chain Coffee Day, you can tour the coffee and spice plantations, go on hikes and waterfall excursions and enjoy the mountain air while in luxury.

Karnataka’s highest peak is also in Chikmagalur. Mullayanagiri peak stands at 2,000m above sea level and can be reached on foot. A temple stands on top of the mountain.

For waterfall lovers, there are two waterfalls worth a visit. Kalhatti falls, dropping from 400m among thick foliage, and Manikyadhara falls, considered holy for many.

How to visit Chikmagalur 

Chikmagalur is about 4h drive or 250km from Bangalore and can also be reached by train from Kadur station (40km away) or Hassan (60km away). The nearest airport is Mangalore at 170km. Chikmagalur makes a good combo with Belur and Halebidu

When in Chikmagalur you will find a lot of accommodation options. You can choose the luxurious Trivik Hotels and Resorts Chikmagalur with an infinity pool overlooking the entire valley, the mountain-top Java Rain Resorts or the rustic charm of The Gateway Hotel Chikmagalur. For an extra interesting experience, stay at The Serai Chikmagalur where spice and coffee plantations surround a luxury hotel up on a hill. You can go on spice and coffee tours and see how the coffee is made. The resort belongs to India’s largest coffee company, Coffee Day.

Coorg or Kodagu


Sunset at Coorg or Kodagu

Sunset at Coorg or Kodagu


Coorg, locally known as Kodagu, is the name of a district in the mountains of Karnataka that is on the border between the state and Kerala. It is not connected by train or airport and so it is remote and peaceful. The capital of Coorg is Madikeri.

People flock to Coorg in search of nature, coffee plantations, waterfalls, hiking and the like. The district is similar to Chikmagalur. Some of the best things to do in Coorg happen outdoors. Go up to the Raja’s Seat for the best views at sunset like the Maharaja used to do. Although Coorg is not best known for temples, you can visit some interesting ones like Omkareshwara temple which has a water tank in front. In Bylekuppe there is one of the largest Tibetan settlements in south India with 16,000 Tibetan refugees and 7,000 monks and nuns.

Other monuments in Madikeri include the Gaddige or the tombs of Virarajendra and Lingarajendra which are beautiful complexes of domed buildings with tourrons, the Madikeri Palace, reminiscent of the British architectural style of other hilltop stations like Cameron Highlands and the Madikeri Fort, built by Tipu Sultan.

For those who love trekking, the mountains of Mandalpatti are a good choice. Many make the early morning trek to Tadiyandamol peak to see the sunrise over the fog covered mountains. There are a few holy rivers and ponds in the area, just ask a local if you are interested in visiting.

Lastly, Coorg is also home to most of the Nagarahole Game Sanctuary also known as Rajiv Ghandi National Park which spans other districts. The park is a mere 100km from Mysore and it borders Bandipur National Park. Nagarahole is a place to spot elephants and, if you are lucky, tigers and leopards.

How to visit Madikeri

Madikeri can only be reached by road. It is 2h or 120km from Mysore and 260km or 5h from Bangalore

Coorg has a lot of luxury hotel options. In order of luxury and price, you can try the uber luxe Evolve Back Orange County Coorg resort made of individual private pool villas, the stunning Taj Madikeri Resort and Spa where rooms and pool have incredible unobstructed views of the mountains and valleys below, the wooden cottage Tamara Coorg which has a mountain feel like no other, with rooms perched on hills and outdoor jacuzzi or The Wildflower Resort and Spa

Mangalore


Panambur beaches

Panambur beaches


Mangalore is Karnataka’s main port city. It developed in ancient times as the main connection in the area to the Arabian Sea and references to it can be found in many old texts. Today, Mangalore handles almost all the coffee and cashew exports of the Indian State.

Although Mangalore is today Karnataka’s main seaport, it was not part of the state until 1956 with the reorganisation of India and used to be under the Madras presidency until then. The area was briefly ruled by the Portuguese and heavily disputed between the Mysore Dynasty and the British Empire later, until the defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799 when the British finally annexed it. Mangalore is also a fishing port and supplies Karnataka with fresh fish.

As a coastal destination, it is also a great place to kick back and relax away from the more crowded beaches towards the north in Goa. Try the beaches of Panambur, about 10km from Bangalore, for one of the cleanest and nicest beaches in India.

How to visit Mangalore 

Mangalore can be reached by plane from Bangalore in less than one hour.

There are not a lot of accommodation options in Mangalore. The best hotel there is The Gateway Hotel Mangalore

Gokarna


Beaches of Gokarna

Beaches of Gokarna

Gokarna is slowly establishing itself as the younger brother to Goa. Laid-back, less developed and far less known and visited than the well-known beach town further north, Gokarna is a great place to retire to when in search for a peaceful beach escape.

Historically, the town attracted Hindu pilgrims from all over India to its well known Mahabaleshwara temple devoted to Shiva which is believed to house the original image of Shiva linga. The town’s name translates to “cow’s ear” which is where Shiva is known to have come out of originally. Apart from the Mahabaleshwara temple, there are a few other worth a visit.


Om Beach in Gokarna

Om Beach in Gokarna

Today, more foreigners are visiting Gokarna for a more authentic and unspoiled experience. The beaches are clean, the town is small and banana trees sway to the wind. Due to its location, it is always hot and humid in Gokarna making for that perfect holiday mood. Some of the best beaches are Om beach (named after the shape of the symbol), Half moon Beach, and Paradise Beach.

How to visit Gokarna 

Gokarna is 240km from Mangalore and 440km from Bangalore. It can be reached by road from either on overnight bus trips. There is a trains station 6km away called Gokarna Road that is served by the trains going from Goa or Mumbai to Mangalore. The nearest airport is in Hubli but it is only served by domestic flights

Gokarna is a beach destination so there are a few luxury and comfortable hotels to stay at. One option is the beautiful SwaSwara from Keralan hotel brand CHG Earth or Arthigamya Spa and Resort

Gulbarga or Kalaburagi


Gulbarga Fort

Gulbarga Fort

Gulbarga’s history lies with the original dynasties of Karnataka but fell under the control of the Sultanate of Delhi in the 14th century and remained Muslim practically since. Gulbarga is the original Urdu name meaning “city of flowers and gardens” and was renamed, together with other Indian cities in Karnataka, into Kalaburagi meaning “stone fort” in Kannada for its famous fort.

Bijapur is one of the most famous places in Karnataka because of the high concentration of historical and religious places from all faiths.

 

Start with the Fort where you can visit the Jama Masjid Gulbarga, which was designed by Moorish architects who drew inspiration from the Mosque in Cordoba. Because of its design, the mosque has no similar construction in India. It is made of a large dome, four smaller ones and 63 even smaller ones. It reminded me of the baths in Baku, Azerbaijan.

 

Then go for the Hazrat Khwaja Bande Nawaz mausoleum which holds the remains of a prominent sufi saint who is famous for many quotes and for expanding Islam in India. His mausoleum resembles the Taj Mahal.

 

The Hindu temple Sharan Basaveshwara temple built in honor of a saint and teacher who helped develop the Karma philosophy.

Buddhists also have their representation in the Buddha Vihar temple inaugurated by the president of India and the Dalai Lama.

How to visit Gulbarga 

The closest airport to Gulbarga is in Hyderabad, 170km or 4.5h away. You can also get there by train to the station of the same name

There are no luxury accommodation options in Gulbarga. The best hotels are the Hotel Central Park and the Hotel Heritage Inn

Bijapur or Viyajapura


Gol Gumbaz

Gol Gumbaz


Bijapur, historically known as Viyajapura, is a historical city and one of the oldest in Karnataka. It was built in the 11th century by the Chalukyas of Kalyani and named Vijayapura, City of Victory. The city has changed hands between the Kannada dynasties and the Nizam of Hyderabad and has been under Muslim influence since the 16th century. This past, and the distance from Bangalore and Mumbai (both over 500km away) reflects on the architecture of the city and its monuments.

In Bijapur you can visit the citadel, the city and the fort. The most relevant tourist attraction is the Gol Gumbaz, the tomb of Mohammed Adil Shah. It is the largest dome in India and its main chamber echoes sounds seven times. Check out the video below for a sense of place.

 

A similar building is the tomb of Ibrahim Adil Shah II which has a mirroring mosque. There are several other buildings and landmarks in Bijapur, like mosques, citadels, gateways and mausoleums, that are part of Karnataka’s most historical places.

How to visit Bijapur 

Bijapur is best reached by train from major cities in Karnataka, Badami is closest at 2.5h and there are several trains per day. The nearest airport is in Belgaum, 200km away and Bangalore is 550km away, the same distance as Mumbai.

There are only basic accommodation options in Bijapur, the best one of which is the Hotel Pearl which is also located near Gol Gumbaz

Safaris and national parks


Happy elephant in Karnataka's safari parks

Happy elephant in Karnataka’s safari parks


Like other parts of India, Karnataka is famous for its safari parks where you can spot tigers and leopards if you are lucky. Around 20% of Karnataka’s territory is covered in national protected parks and the state has 25% of India’s elephant population and 20% of the tigers, albeit spread over several parks.

Although there are a few safari parks, the most popular, developed and therefore, easier to guarantee you a sighting, are Bandipur National Park and Kabini.

Bandipur used to be the private hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Mysore and today, it covers 800 square kilometers and extends over Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It has the highest concentration of tigers in India (75+) increasing your chances of spotting one on your safari. Bandipur also has over 3,000 Asian elephants and around 90 leopards.

Kabini is well known for not only its plains but also its river where river cruise safaris provide a change to the dusty jeep game drives.

How to visit Bandipur and Kabini 

 Bandipur and Kabini are both about 80km from Mysore and can only be accessed by car.

Both Kabini and Bandipur have real luxury accommodation options.

In Kabini you can stay at the top of the range, rustic chic pool villa Evolve Back Kabini Lodge which will make you feel as if you were on an African safari. For a luxury tented camp choose KAAV Safari Lodge Experience. The Serai Kabini is another great luxury resort in Kabini with a colonial feel, in-room pools and open park views.

In Bandipur there are less options but you can also find luxury at The Serai Bandipur with their wooden cottage suites. For an eco-friendly refined rustic feel, try Dhole’s Den named after an extinct animal. Lastly, there is also The Windflower Bandipur.

Shimoga or Shivamogga


Job falls in Shimoga

Job falls in Shimoga


Shimoga is the name of a town in the countryside that is the destination in Karnataka for adventure and nature-driven activities the most important of which is Karnataka’s best known waterfall, Jog Falls, which is also the second-highest plunge waterfall in India at 253m and is located about 100km from Shimova. The fall is best visited in the monsoon season when the water level is highest. There is a trail made of 1,400 steps that goes all the way down to the bottom of the fall.


Sun escaping through the clouds in Agumbe

Sun escaping through the clouds in Agumbe


If you like hiking, rainforests and nature, Agumbe is another point of interest near Shimoga. It receives the highest rainfall in Karnataka and is lush and green, with a permanent cloud cover that gives it a mystic feel.

The area is also known for the Sharavathi backwaters where you can go trekking or on a backwaters tour. There is also kayaking, rafting and other water sports.

Lastly, there are a lot of temples around the town of Sagar. Varadhalli is one of them where lunch is served every day. Although it is free, like in most temples in India, a donation of about 50-100 Rupee is appropriate. Ikkeri is another stone temple devoted to Shiva.

How to visit Shimoga 

Shimoga can be reached by train from Bangalore or Mysore and by bus from Bangalore (7h journey).

There are no 4 or 5 star hotels in Shimoga but the Royal Orchid Central is an adequate option in town.

Udupi

To most Indians, including my partner, Udupi usually means a type of South Indian vegetarian cuisine but it is also a town and tourist spot in Karnataka.

Udupi’s most famous monument is the Krishna Temple and one of the main reasons to visit are the St. Mary’s Islands, four tiny islands off the coast of Malpe.


The beautiful Malpe beach in Udupi

The beautiful Malpe beach in Udupi


It is believed that the name was given by Vasco da Gama who landed there in 1498, fixed a cross and named one of the islands O Padrão de Santa Maria after the Virgin Mary. The islands can be reached by ferry in the dry season. The islands are rocky and unknown to most so it makes for one of the coolest places in Karnataka to visit. The beaches in Udupi are also clean and usually devoid of the hordes of tourists that flock other parts of this stretch of western Indian beaches.

Sri Krishna Temple and Mutt, dedicated to Krishna, was built by the founder of the Hindu strain and is another well known monument complex of Karnataka that attracts many visitors to Udupi. It follows Dravidian architecture, and the Lord is worshipped only through an intricately carved nine hole window that is silver plated. The complex includes several temples and monasteries near a pond. Make sure to enjoy the free lunch served daily.

How to visit Udupi 

Udupi is 58km north of Mangalore where there is an airport. Bangalore is 400km away and can be reached by train. The roads would make for a very long journey.

There are no luxury hotels in the area but the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson in Manipal is a good 3-star hotel

How to plan a trip to the best tourist places in Karnataka

The best way to explore Karnataka would be by car. It is the most efficient and convenient way to reach all the places mentioned in this guide. If you wanted to visit them all, you would probably need 2-3 weeks as some are hard to reach, the roads are often times winding and narrow and the distances are large. If a car is not an option, the train would be the second best but you would have to budget for a much longer time as some trains only run on certain days and you may have to retrace your steps to the main hub cities to reach a new destination.

Alternatively, a good way to see some (although not all) of the tourist places in Karnataka is by luxury train. The Golden Chariot covers Bangalore, Mysore, safari parks, Hampi, Belur, Pattadakal, Badami and even has a stop in Goa. You can read my detailed review of the Golden Chariot train journey and see if it was worth it. Here’s my video of the trip for some eye candy.

If you don’t have such a long time and only want to discover a part of Karnataka in a week or less, here are some sample itineraries across Karnataka which you could easily discover by car.

Suggested south Karnataka itinerary: history, wines and wildlife at Bangalore – Nandi Hills – Mysore – Tigers

This is perhaps the easiest of all the tours in Karnataka. You could spend a week exploring the capital of Karnataka, Bangalore, then head to Nandi hills on your way to Mysore where you can discover everything about Tipu Sultan, the Wodeyar and the heritage that abounds in the area and then end the trip in one of the safari parks where you can relax, enjoy game drives and even river cruises.

Suggested Karnataka itinerary: Heritage and architecture at Chitradurga – Hampi – Aihole – Pattadakal – Badami

This is a classic trip that could start in Bangalore with a stop at Chitradurga for the night and to explore the fort and then continues to Hampi where 2-3 days could be spent exploring the ancient city in ruins. From there, the last few days could be used to complete the journey through South India’s most important architectural influences in Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal.

Suggested Karnataka itinerary: Heritage and plantations at Chikmagalur – Belur – Halebidu

The trip could start in the coffee and spice plantations of Chikmagalur where adventure and hiking abounds and then continue with a more relaxed time visiting the temples of Belur and Halebidu in the last couple of days. While this trip could be done over a week as there is plenty to do in Chikmagalur, it could be a shorter one.

Suggested north Karnataka itinerary: Heritage at Bijapur – Gulbarga

These two important cities in Karnataka are best explored from Hyderabad as they are more easily reached from the Telangana city than from Mysore or Bangalore. This is a chance to explore the strong Islamic influence in the country of India and it can start with two days in Hyderabad where you can get a glimpse. Then drive to Bijapur and onwards to Gulbarga for impressive sightseeing.

Other things to know when visiting Karnataka

Karnataka has the same time zone as the rest of India which is GMT+5,5h. The weather can be really hot from March onwards except for the higher mountains and plantations and Bangalore which is more temperate. Hampi is a boiling plate with no shade so bring an umbrella or a hat and lots of water.

The monsoon season in southern India starts in May and lasts until October. The months of June to September should be avoided as even the roads can become impassable. The best time to visit Karnataka is between December and February.

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The Best Places to Visit in Karnataka India