The northern states of Uttarakhand and populous Uttar Pradesh (UP) stretch from the snowy Himalayas to the steamy plains of the Ganges. They have, between them, almost every type of landscape apart from the sea: cold glaciers and hot deserts, huge forests and teeming cities. And they contain some of India's most venerated sites: the source of the Ganges, the mountain temples of the Char Dham, the holy Hindu city of Varanasi and the unfailingly spellbinding Taj Mahal palace in Agra. You can also visit Victorian-esque hill stations, the tiger-inhabited Corbett National Park and the once lavish Muslim capital, Lucknow. These lands have inspired everyone from the great Buddha and Mahavira (founder of Jainism) to the Beatles, who stayed with the Maharishi at Rishikesh, now home to countless ashrams, gurus, yogis and one of the world's finest spas.
Uttar Pradesh has also been the most dominant in Indian politics and culture since Independence, with huge religious fairs (millions of Hindus congregate at Allahabad every January and February) and poignant traces of Muslim rule and British imperialism.
Agra, capital of India under the Mughals, needs little introduction as the home of the dazzling Taj Mahal mausoleum - an architectural marvel, described as poetry in marble, that will enchant even the most jaded sightseer. Built by Shah Jahan in homage to his dead wife, the Taj Mahal features 28 different kinds of precious and semi-precious stones. Shah Jahan was later imprisoned by his son in Agra Fort (a fascinating complex that's well worth a visit), where he viewed his creation on the romantic Yamuna river from his prison window.
Escape the tourist crowds by basing yourself at Chandra Mahal, a lovely heritage hotel an hour from Agra by road, just across the border into Rajasthan.
In the south east of Uttar Pradesh lies Varanasi, the city of Shiva and one of the most sacred places in India. A centre of learning and devotion for over 2000 years, pilgrims flock here to wash away their sins in the holy Ganges, inspiring reverance and amazement in equal amounts in Western visitors.
The 100 or so ghats - used mostly for bathing but some are also open-air crematoriums - line the western bank of the Ganges. They're best visited by boat at dawn for the best light, although you can easily walk from one to the next. Photographers will delight in a never-ending parade of subjects: people brushing their teeth, selling marigold garlands, engaged in sacred rituals, chanting, swimming, smoking marijuana. There are also several temples to explore, and yoga to practice; best of all is wandering the labyrinth of alleyways in the Old Town.
Varanasi is noted for its silk and beautiful saris, as well as cotton cloth. It's a good place to get clothes made up, but be careful of getting ripped off. You can also buy toys, musical instruments, and carpets.
Between Bharatpur and Agra lies the red sandstone and marble fort complex of Fatehpur Sikri. Built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century, it was abandoned shortly after completion and remains largely intact. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompassing palaces, harems, courts, mosques and gardens.
32km north of Bharatpur (and actually just inside the Rajasthani border), the town of Deeg was built in the 16th century as the home of the local Jat rulers. It's known for its forts, its elegant moat-encircled palace, and its gardens, which are bisected by water channels and shaded by arches.
This renowned bird sanctuary (also sitting just inside the Rajasthani border) is home to over 350 species of birds, along with many mammals and reptiles.