India has been on my bucket list for years and last December I had the great pleasure of partially crossing it off my list with a visit to Jaipur. Abe and I went in celebration of my birthday and made the wise decision of joining Grant Gibson on one of his intimate tours of India. Grant is a San Francisco based interior designer who has combined his two great passions, design and travel, to create boutique travel experiences for small groups of designers and design minded adventurers. I'm not sure what we would have done without his guidance and planning expertise, especially with how little time we had. Jaipur was an absolute dream, an explosion of color and a feast for the senses, and that's an understatement. I left happy, fulfilled and utterly inspired. Earlier, I said I had only partially crossed India off my travel bucket list . . . that's because I'm already scheming my return. I LOVE INDIA.
There are many ways to experience Jaipur when it comes to accommodations. A popular option is to stay at one of the many luxury hotels. These former royal palaces and resorts include Samode Haveli, Amanbagh, and Rambagh Palace. They are worth visiting even if not staying the night. We were lucky enough to stay at an intimate guesthouse called 47 Jobner Bagh located in the heart of Jaipur's city center. Each of the 10 guest rooms are uniquely and tastefully designed by owner and jewelry designer Shiva Gujar. Everything, from yoga and hot chai in the mornings to delectable dinners by candlelight in the various courtyards, was absolute perfection. By the end of the week, we left feeling like we made lifelong friends with the owners and staff. Honestly, it was just lovely.
Must Sees . . .
- Amer Fort: Amer Fort is located on a hill just a few miles from Jaipur. Built in 1592, the palace is located in the state's former capital. It's best known for its combination of both Hindu and Muslim architecture. Take your time to roam through the stunning courtyards and take in the views of Jaipur below.
- The City Palace: Jaipur's City Palace was the ceremonial and administrative seat for the Maharaja of Jaipur from 1727 to 1949. Don't miss Pritam Niwas Chowk, an inner courtyard with four doors dedicated to the four seasons. They are simply spectacular. Another must-see is Chhavi Niwas, a rooftop room drenched in blue and white.
- Hawa Mahal: The Hawa Mahal, also known as the Palace of Winds, is probably the most iconic landmark in Jaipur, immediately recognizable from its jaw dropping facade of pink sandstone and 953 latticed windows. It was built as an extension of the City Palace in 1799 so that the royal women could discreetly observe Jaipur's street life through any of its many windows.
- Jantar Mantar: Before or after visiting the City Palace, you must visit Jantar Mantar. It's a collection of nineteen astronomical instruments built by the Maratha Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II, the founding father of Jaipur. I recommend you go through this area with a guide who can explain how all the instruments work. It's all just so fascinating!
- Galta Ji: Also known as the Monkey Temple, Galta Ji is an ancient Hindu temple and pilgrimage site. It consists of a series of temples built into a narrow crevice in the ring of hills that surround Jaipur. If you come, come during golden hour, when the monkeys come out and play. Eek!
The best way to truly experience Jaiper is on foot. Or by rickshaw. The moment we checked into our beloved Jobner Bagh, we were whisked away by a fleet of pink riskshaws. The Pink City Rickshaw Company is a non-profit organization that aims to employ and empower women from low income households and urban slums to earn a living wage by driving tourists around Jaipur in their bubblegum pink rickshaws. The sounds, the color, the people, the traffic, the chaos - they were all feeding my soul! What an incredible way to preview the city for the first time. I highly recommend it. On other days, we walked around around the local shops and vegetable and flower markets by foot - bought plenty of souvenirs, including the most incredibly fresh and fragrant spices.
What is Jaipur without the rich handicraft of its artisans? After all, Jaipur brings to mind textiles, jewelry, saris, rugs . . . all so skillfully crafted by artisans who's craft has been passed down from generation after generation. One of the most memorable moments was visiting the Studio Bagru, an artisan block-printing workshop in the small village of Bagru, just about an hour outside of Jaipur. Studio Bagru is all about creating a seamless supply chain supported by quality, creativity and most importantly, transparency. From washing the fabric to seeing it freshly dyed and drying out in the fields, we got to witness the process from beginning to end. And what a better appreciation we all had for this labor intensive craft. We even got a chance to try block-printing for ourselves, which by no surprise, is far harder than it looks!
Eat & Drink
The biggest revelation when it came to food in India was that it's unlike anything I've ever experienced back home. Because of its arid climate, cuisine in Rajasthan includes lots of lentils, beans and best of all, spice. I was just blown away by the flavors, which were so insanely and wonderfully complex. One of my favorites was lunch at Laxmi Misthan Bhandar, where we had Rajasthani thali, a large platter of tasty vegetarian lentil curries, stews and chutneys. We also enjoyed dinners at the beautiful Suvarna Mahal at the Rambagh Palace and outdoors at Samode Haveli. The settings were luxurious and the food was outstanding and cuisine was specific to the region of Rajasthan. And of course, you can't mention drinks in Jaipur without calling attention to the beautiful blue-drenched Bar Palladio, designed by Dutch designer Marie-Anne Oudejans. It's located in the garden of the historic Narain Niwas Palace Hotel. Even though the interior is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous, try to get a seat outdoors, under a canopy, if the weather is nice.