Sandwiched between Maharashtra and Rajasthan, Gujarat is a treasure trove least explored by many. However, Gujarat has always been very high on my list of places to visit in India for multiple reasons. After all, it is the Citadel of 6000 years old Harappan Civilization, land of colourful nomadic and wandering communities, located at the confluence of ancient Spice and Silk Route, a melting pot of cultures, religions, festivals, traditions and world views, land of Lord Krishna and Mahatma Gandhi. While there are innumerable reasons to visit the vibrant state, I have listed the 10 must-visit places in Gujarat during winters for you:
The bustling capital of Gujarat, which is India’s first UNESCO World Heritage city, blows your mind with its centuries-old heritage, culture and terrific food scene. Start your day by enjoying a fafda-jalebi breakfast at Swaminarayan temple before heading on a ‘Mandir to Masjid’ heritage walk in the old city which has 2700 listed UNESCO buildings. I highly recommend hiring a local guide such as Nirav Panchal (+91 9825626387) as he shared so many small and big details about the city that I would have otherwise missed out. The two-and-a-half-hour walk revealed many eye-popping facts about Ahmedabad such as the old town is made up of 600 Pols (neighbourhoods), inhabited based on occupation. Every Pol had a Chabutro (bird feeder) and all the old buildings were earthquake resistant. Reliving the grandeur of the ancient city through Nirav’s narration, we took many pit stops – at Pols, a royal mausoleum, temples, bird feeders, bridges, and havelies (royal houses) – before finally culminating our journey at Jama Masjid.
After the walk, we headed to Lucky restaurant. This restaurant is no ordinary restaurant, it was built 60-years ago over a graveyard and even today upon your arrival, two graves welcome you. Sounds spooky, right? However, this place has been a favourite hangout of who’s who of the country for decades. It was so close to the late MF Husain that he even gifted a painting to the restaurant.
Reserve the rest of the day for sightseeing such as Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati, Calico Museum of Textiles and World Vintage Car Museum among other places of interest in Ahmedabad. But most importantly, keep enough time to sample the local cuisines. Being a massive fan of Gujarati cuisine, I couldn’t stop myself from gobbling down the lavish spread of authentic Gujarati thali at Agasiya, a rooftop restaurant in the MG House that serves Gujarati food. Run by the famous Mangaldas family of Ahmedabad, it is a must-visit. It has a typical village setting, and the quality of the food is finger-licking good. Even though it’s a bit expensive, but the lovely experience makes it worth the money.
Keep your evening reserved for Manek Chowk, a bustling city square in old part of the city that is surrounded by historical structures. In the morning, it functions as a vegetable market, a bullion market in the noon and the street food market at night. Must-try food items are Pav-Bhaji, Mirchi Wada, Fresh Green Variyari, flavourful Tava Pulav and Fusion Foods like Amdavadi Special Sandwiches and Chinese Bhel. After the delicious savouries, satiate your sweet craving with Kulfi, Falooda and Ice-Creams or the Chocolate Sandwiches.
Ahmedabad is also a perfect place to get a glimpse of the early life of Mahatama Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. If you have limited time and wants to explore Gujarat in two days or more, then you can combine your Ahmedabad trip with day tours to nearby places like Gandhi Nagar, Modhera and Patan.
What not to miss:
- Festivals: The nine days long Vibrant Navratri-Mahotsav in Sep-October and Uttarayan Kite Festival in January. Both the festivals are extraordinary spectacles. While during Navratri people dance their heart out for 3-4 hours daily straight for nine days, on Uttarayan the skies of Ahmedabad and other cities are filled with a kaleidoscope of kites, from gigantic whales to tiny 1-rupee kites.
- Food: Don’t leave the city without trying the popular Gujarati breakfast – Fafda and Jalebi. Locals say that the secret to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fitness is this breakfast. Though not exactly a street food place, you should try the ethnic Gujarati food served on biodegradable leaf plates and pottery at rustic Vishala that seeks to create the rural Gujarati village environment. If you are a fan of Dal Vadda, try Ambika Dal Vada Centre in Navrangpura
- Accommodation: MG House for a heritage-laced stay where the local community benefits too
2. Gandhi Nagar
While there are vestiges from Mahatama Gandhi’s life spread across the state, Dandi Kutir is India’s largest & only museum dedicated to the life and teachings of the father of the nation. While we all have read, and seen so much about the great man, it was quite impressive to get a glimpse of his early life through sophisticated technology using high-end life audio-visuals, 3D technology and 360-degree shows. Besides showcasing the freedom movement, the museum also captures other significant milestones from his life – from his birth in Kathiawad to his childhood days, from his marriage to Kasturba to his experiments with youth. The Biography of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The initiator of Disobedience and nonviolent campaign for Independence of India’, was the inspiration behind the museum.
What not to miss:
- Don’t forget to carry the audio-visual device provided at the entrance and maintain silence in the museum. Roughly 1.5 hours to 2 hours are enough to explore the entire museum.
- The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 am to 5 pm. The entrance fee is Rs. 10/- for Indian Nationals and Rs. 200/- for Foreign Tourists. The gift shop and canteen are worth a visit.
Built in 1026 CE by Solanki king Bhimdev I, the Sun temple of Modhera is one of the best examples of Solanki architecture and a prestigious recipient of the UNESCO World Heritage Site award. As I entered the historical complex, I was left speechless by the timeless beauty and open mindset of the Modhera Sun Temple of Mehsana. The entire temple is divided into three segments. First, you come across the rectangular-shaped Surya Kund, a deep, stepped tank right in the front of the temple, which was earlier used to store pure water. What used to be a stepped tank had temporarily transformed into a waterfall, thanks to the unseasonal torrential rains.
After the Surya Kunda, I came to the Assembly Halls or Sabha Mandapa which used to be the place for religious gatherings and conferences. Finally, you reach the sanctum sanctorum or Guda Mandap by crossing the passage with pillars and arches. As per the Archaeology and Tourism Guide, Girish Goswamy (+91 7698516388), the popular mythological belief is that the walk from the kund to guda mandap via the main temple is the transcending journey from death to moksha.
Not only this 11th century constructed temple is an extraordinary piece of art but also breaks many stereotypes. Firstly, the whole temple is pillared on a lotus-shaped structure, and every inch of its walls showcases edgy, detailed carvings. And those carvings represent every bit of our culture: from Ramayana to Mahabharata, from the human lifecycle to Kamasutra. Yes, you heard it right, Kamasutra has always been an integral part of our culture since time immemorial. We were far ahead of our times and were rightly called the “Sone ki Chhidiya” (Golden bird). Even after multiple attempts, Alauddin Khilji failed to destroy this brilliant piece of art.
What not to miss:
In the adjoining temple where a Shiv ling, carvings of Lord Ganesha and Hanuman are displayed in a unique form, hardly seen anywhere else in the country
4. Rani Ki Vav
Built in the 11th century, the splendour of the Rani Ki Vav (Queen’s Stepwell) features on the new 100 Rupees note, but this stunning piece of architecture was lost for centuries. It was rediscovered and brought to life by decades of painstaking restoration work by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
Rani Ki Vav beats all historic structures with their sheer size and fine craftsmanship. Sixty-four metres in length and twenty-seven metres in-depth, this subterranean seven-storey structure is richly adorned with sculptures of gods, goddesses and other mythological creatures that give it the look of a royal or divine abode. But what struck me the most was that at a time when kings used to build monuments for their deceased queens, it was just the opposite here. Rani (Queen) Udayamati commissioned this vav (stepwell) in 1063 in the memory of her late husband King Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty. Indeed, the Solankis were way ahead of their time.
What not to miss:
Visit the nearby 11th-century village of Salvivad, where out of 700 Salvi families, only one family makes Patola saris using natural dyes, and UNSECO even recognises their art. Unfortunately, they don’t teach this art to other families; only their sons are eligible to learn. A Patola from Patan lasts up to 100 years and keeps its colour for approximately 300 years.
5. The White Desert, Rann of Kutch
Located about 100km from the Arabian Sea in Gujarat, a vast expanse of snow-white salt coats a desolate desert, creating a surreal landscape like nowhere else. Known as the Rann of Kutch, this tortoise-shaped landmass is divided into two parts: The Great Rann, which covers 18,000 sq km, and the Little Rann, which comprises more than 5,000 sq km. Together, these dazzlingly white mudflats form one of the world’s largest salt deserts and supply up to 75% of India’s total salt harvest.
The Great Rann of Kutch is open for just four months a year, and during this time Rann Utsav, an annual carnival of music, dance, colours, and exclusive Kutchi culture is organised. Currently, the festival is ongoing from 28th October 2019 to 23rd February 2020.
What not to miss:
- Sunset and sunrise to capture the best pictures of the white desert
- Cultural performances during the Rann Utsav
- Try quad bikes and camel rides on the salt desert
- Accommodation: Toran Rann Resort at Dhordo, which is a government property very close to the White desert, every night a cultural performance is organised and the stay is pretty comfortable and economical.
6. Wildlife in Little Rann of Kutch
Adding to the charm of Rann of Kutch is the wildlife of the region. The salt plains of the Little Rann of Kutch, spread across a 5000 square kilometre area, are also home to the Wild Ass Sanctuary – the only place on earth where the endangered Indian Wild Ass still lives. With more than a meter in height and two meters in length, the wild asses are very agile and can run for long distances at a speed of 50 km/h, making them more like wild horses than their domesticated cousins.
But the Sanctuary is home to far more animals and birds than just the wild ass – 32 species of mammals, two types of desert fox, jackals, caracals, nilgais, Indian wolves, blackbucks, and striped hyenas.
Moreover, due to the proximity of the wetlands of the Gulf of Kutch near sanctuary, LRK is the breeding ground for hordes of flamingos and other migratory birds. Every year, approximately 75,000 birds nest in reserve, they come from as far as Egypt, Siberia, Europe, Iran, Iraq and many more far-flung areas.
And, it’s not just the wildlife that LRK is famous for. You’ll be surprised to know that the salt pan workers in the Sanctuary produce about 65% of India’s salt.
What not to miss:
- Go on a cross-desert safari across the Little Rann of Kutch in open jeeps
- Visit the villages and communities of Kharapat Rabaris and nomadic Mir
- Accommodation: Rann Riders Resort in Dasada for a luxurious eco-friendly stay and desert safaris
7. Colourful tribal villages of Gujarat
If you are a culturephile like me, Gujarat will reward you with a lot of surprises. From the picturesque festivities, unique landscape, gifted artisans and effervescent tribes—every nook is steeped in history, creativity and colour. And every part of Gujarat has something different from others. From appliqué to beadwork, exquisite embroidery to the signature block print, kalamkari to patola and so much more— there’s always something extraordinary. While the entire state has a vast heritage of handiwork, I decided to stick to begin my journey of temples, tribes and textiles from Ahmedabad and the Kutch region. Have already mentioned Modhera Sun Temple, Rani ki Vav and the weavers of Patan above. Let me share what I discovered in the hub crafts and tribes – Kutch.
As I dived into the depths of Kutch, I discovered that embroidery is not just a fashion term, but an integral part of the fabric of the state. In Kutch, even as a visitor, you get used to beauty. Talent is everywhere, and colours are taken for granted. The ochre landscape is dotted with cattle, camels, sheep and the occasional donkey. Here villages specialise in specific crafts like Ajrakh block printing, mirror work embroidery of Hindu pastoral groups like Rabari and Ahir, woodcarving, wool weaving, bandhani and metalwork.
While staying at Rann Riders Resort in Dasada village of Little Rann of Kutch, I got an opportunity to meet and observe the life of many tribes carefully. First was the pastoral Kharapat Rabaris, renowned for their exquisite embroidery interspersed with small mirrors, and then the nomadic Mir community that makes artistic beadwork jewellery such as earrings, necklaces, trinkets and bangles among other knick-knacks.
And, if you go a little further, up to Bhuj, you can find several villages of pastoral nomads and semi-nomadic tribes specialising in various kinds of handicrafts. Below is the list of artistic villages you must visit:
What not to miss:
- Dhorodo for Mutua embroidery, leather embroidery and silver jewellery
- Hodka for quilts and leather bags. It is a site promoted by Gujarat Tourism but owned and run by the village in cooperation with hospitality professionals. Local guides show visitors around the town where one can buy embroidery direct from the artisans
- Sumrasar is famous for its Ahir embroidery and Soof embroidery
- Loria (Ludia) for its wood crafts. The village huts are painted and have mirror inlaid walls.
- Zura for embroidered footwear and other leather crafts along with Copper bells
- Nirona for embroidery, lacquered wood crafts, wood carving and Rogan painting
- Nakhtarana for tie-dye work
- Bhujodi for pitloom weaving
- Padhdhar for Ahir embroidery using round mirrors with floral and geometrical patterns
- Dhamanka for its block printed fabrics, table and bed linen and garments using vegetable or chemical dyes
- Anjar for its metalcrafts, bandhani and block printing
8. Statue of Unity
The 597 feet (182 metres) tall Statue of Unity at Kevadiya colony of Narmada district is the tallest statue in the world and twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. The statue was constructed to honour the real ironman of India – Sardar Patel, who is a role model of unity and statesmanship. At the time of independence in 1947, India was divided into more than 560 princely states, and it was Sardar Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, who with his iron determination, could transform that imperialism into one unified nation.
Constructed on an island in the Narmada river overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam, it took four years and US$420 million to build this colossal structure. The project is expected to bring in a lot of Tourism dollars in the country by providing world-class hospitality and a wide range of activities for all age groups. Besides visiting the Statue of Unity, you can see the Laser Light and Sound Show, tour the Valley of Flowers, Sardar Sarovar Dam and its dykes, go boating, take a helicopter ride or trek in the Zarvani Eco-Tourism Area.
Visiting the grand statue personally, I wasn’t surprised to know why The Time magazine mentioned the Statue of Unity as among the 100 places to visit in 2019. Moreover, India has chosen the iconic site as the official “wonder” for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ahead of other iconic sites like the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Hampi (Karnataka) and the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra and the iconic Taj Mahal.
What not to miss:
- The memorial garden, exhibition center, museum and the statue’s observation deck
- Visiting hours – 9 am to 5 pm from Tuesday to Sunday
- Tickets start at Rs. 350 (about $5 US)
- Accommodation: Stay at Ramada Encore for proximity to the Statue of Unity (just 5 km away) but the service is really bad, especially the food.
The city of Champaner in Gujarat at an hour’s distance from Vadodra was once a thriving capital of the Sultans of Gujarat in the 15th century. However, it was overrun by the Mughals in 1535, yet surprisingly the city was left unscathed. Perhaps, that’s why you can still see the city ruins frozen in time. The Sultanate of Gujarat had risen from the ashes of the crumpling Tughlaq Empire in the 14th century. The Sultans of Gujarat were great builders and had constructed some of the biggest cities of their time such as Bharuch, Khambat, Junagadh, and Ahmedabad along with Champaner. After capturing Champaner, Sultan Mahmud Begada decided to shift his capital city here from Ahmedabad. Bagada didn’t destroy the Rajput fortifications, instead, added many palaces, mosques, and tombs within the fort. Therefore, the structures that you see in Champaner represent a perfect combination of Hindu-Muslim architecture.
One of the must-sees among the buildings here is the remains of seven mosques at Champaner, of which the centrally located Jama Masjid built in 1523 CE is the most elaborate one. As you enter the mosque premise, you see two 30m tall minarets flanking the main entrance, two floors of open arcades, and detailed carvings and jaali around the pillared courtyard.
Champaner remained the capital of Gujarat until 1535 when it was looted and conquered by the army of Humayun. Post that, it was abandoned. Champaner-Pavagadh is a UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological park and is an excellent place for photography and heritage lovers.
What not to miss:
- Arrive here before sunrise to capture the golden era beauty of Champaner-Pavagadh
- Must visit places: Kalika temple, Kevada and Nagina Masjid, Lakulisa temple atop the Pavagadh hill, Fort of Pavagadh and other ruined Hindu and Jain Temples
- Accommodation: Stay at Grand Mercure Vadodara Surya Palace. Their buffet, decor, central location and massages are pretty awesome.
10. Gir National Park
I first time visited Gir National Park in 1987 when I was a little kid and barely understood what wildlife tourism is and what this National Park means to Gujarat and India. This 1412-sq-km Sanctuary situated near Junagadh is the last refuge of the Asiatic lion, best spotted between December and April. In terms of wildlife conservation, Gir is a big success story, with lion numbers doubling since 1965. Apart from Asiatic Lion, you can also spot sambar (the longest Indian deer), chinkaras (gazelles), chital (spotted deer), nilgais (large antelopes), elusive jaguars, four-horned antelope, jackals, striped hyena, foxes and marsh Crocodiles
Snakes like Indian Cobra, Russell’s viper, Saw-scaled viper and the Krait can also be seen here. Large forest area, a wide range of wild animals and a perfect habitat of Asiatic Lions makes it to the top of the list. A must-visit for all wild animal lovers. One can visit the Sanctuary from 16th October to 15th June every year.
What not to miss:
- Secure it before visiting the park or get it from the Devalia Safari Park – a small reserve within a reserve
- Stay in the wildlife lodges and hotels in and around Sasan. For something more luxurious, stay at Woods at Sasan.
So, these are my 10 must-visit places in Gujarat during winters. Needless to say, there are many more tourist attractions in Gujarat but these places are good enough to give you a taste of khuhboo gujarat ki (fragrance of Gujarat). Right from a weekend trip to spending months, there’s a lot in the colourful state to keep you busy. So, when are you booking your tickets?
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I was hosted by Gujarat Tourism. However, everything expressed above is based on my personal experience. Images used are either shot by me or provided by the destination. Please do not copy anything without written permission.