On my Gujarat travels, I saw a meteor shower in a desert, lived with locals and immersed in offbeat Gujarat destinations. Take my Gujarat travel guide to discover its living culture, pristine wilderness and unique cuisine.
Featured photo by Koshy Koshy (CC).
On a chilly December night, I lay on the roof of a watch tower in the darkness of India’s stark salt desert – the Little Rann of Kutch. The silence of the night was occasionally broken by the howling of a lone jackal or the running footsteps of a group of Asiatic wild asses. But the real show was unfolding above – a Geminid Meteor Shower, with bright green shooting stars falling through the dark skies!
As I felt wonderstruck in the vast silence, my host joined me with yummy local snacks khakra and fafra. Together we took in the wonder above, delving into stories of life in the desert. It struck me then that the many versions of the Gujarat travel guide I had read online did the state no justice.
Gujarat travel guide
I was a bit skeptical while planning my maiden trip to Gujarat, India. But over an incredible fortnight, I stayed in a restored heritage haveli in Ahmedabad’s old city, stumbled upon an abandoned flamingo colony in the Little Rann of Kutch, met nomadic tribes that live deep in the Banni Grasslands, spotted a majestic pride of eight lions in Gir, and treated my tastebuds to the delightful flavors of the state’s unique cuisine.
If you plan to travel to Gujarat, ditch the usual tourist places in Gujarat to seek out offbeat places to see in Gujarat, spectacular landscapes, traditional heritage, local friendships and incredible (vegan) food:
- Places to visit in Gujarat
- 1. Old Ahmedabad
- 2. Little Rann of Kutch
- 3. Banni Grasslands
- 4. Gir National Park
- Is it safe to travel solo in Gujarat?
- How to reach Gujarat and get around by public transport
- Gujarati cuisine and vegan food
- Best time to visit Gujarat
- Other offbeat places to visit in Gujarat
- What would you add to my Gujarat travel guide? What’s on your wishlist?
Places to visit in Gujarat
1. Old Ahmedabad (a convenient place to start your Gujarat trip)
The first time I visited Ahmedabad, on my way to Diu, its crowded streets and oppressive heat made me want to leave immediately. But thanks to the work of Threee Foundation, a heritage restoration project in the 400-year-old walled community of ‘Dhal ni Pol’ in old Ahmedabad, I got a chance to travel back in time.
Rajiv Patel started restoring heritage buildings as a hobby and gradually turned it into a sustainable business, realizing the immense tourism and economic potential of India’s centuries old architecture. If all goes to plan, they could be hosting traditional music concerts and plays in restored heritage houses in Dhal ni Pol as early as next year!
Where to stay in Ahmedabad
Staying at the French Haveli, a restored 150-year-old Jain haveli with a central courtyard, an ancient rainwater harvesting system and charming corners to sit and write, I felt a little like India’s erstwhile royalty.
2. Little Rann of Kutch (one of the best places to visit in Gujarat)
I was surprised to learn that the Little Rann of Kutch is neither little nor in the Kutch region! But perhaps the biggest surprise was driving for miles through this vast expanse of cracked earth without seeing another soul. The only way my host could find the way back was by leaving distinguishable wheel tracks in the desert!
Why is the Little Rann of Kutch among my top 10 places to visit in Gujarat?
World’s only refuge for the Indian Wild Ass
These Asiatic Wild Asses migrated from Kabul, barely survived a deadly disease and adapted to the cold, arid desert of the Little Rann. In 1971, their habitat became a protected Wild Ass Sanctuary – India’s largest wildlife sanctuary – and they share this arid space with blue sheep, blackbucks, Indian fox and short-eared owls.
Tracing the journey of salt
14% of India’s salt is made in large salt pans in the Little Rann – through back-breaking work by local families who spend half the year in makeshift homes in the desert heat. Hearing their life stories definitely put the food on my table into perspective.
Flamingo nesting colonies
When the water level falls after the monsoon in the Little Rann, the migratory flamingoes fly off with their young ones, abandoning the eggs that haven’t yet hatched. One salt worker tipped us off a colony deep in the desert, and when we found it, I was shocked to see newborn flamingoes baked in the sun and eagles feeding on the dead eggs; nature can be cruel like that.
Solitude in a white salt desert
When I confessed to my host that even though I wanted to see the white desert of the more popular Great Rann, I wasn’t ready to share it with a thousand other people, he took me to a secret place in the Little Rann which accumulates salt too! Walking alone in that white, limitless space made me feel like I was on another planet.
Gemenid Meteor Shower and shooting stars
I spent late nights on the roof of a watch tower in the Little Rann, watching the awe-inspiring Gemenid Meteor Shower in the dark skies in the company of my host – hatching plans to rent a boat and explore the Little Rann when it’s flooded in the rains!
Where to stay in the Little Rann of Kutch
I stayed in a traditional kooba (circular mud hut) right across the road from the Little Rann, set up by Devijibhai Dhamecha – a passionate environmentalist and wildlife photographer, who was instrumental in the conservation of the Little Rann and its wild ass sanctuary. Indeed, I could see wild asses trotting in the desert even from the charpai (traditional rope bed) in my balcony!
3. Banni Grasslands, Kutch (one of the most underrated Gujarat attractions)
Before I arrived in Kutch, I had only heard of two things: the white desert and the Kutchi crafts. Luckily my host, a renowned environmentalist, wanted me to the unexplored delights of the region.
Why Banni Grasslands encapsulate the best of Gujarat travel
Nomadic ways of the camel herders
Our adventures began with a serendipitous encounter with the nomadic Fakirani Jath people and their large herd of camels! They invited us to their makeshift homes deep in the wild scrub desert of Banni, and shared stories of how when the India-Pakistan borders were still lax, brides and grooms would walk across the length of Banni to get married. Their resolve to keep their traditional way of life in the confines of Banni, when urban civilization is literally at their doorstep, amazed me.
A million cranes flying into the sunset
In the seemingly lifeless scrub land of Banni, I was mesmerized by the vast species of birds we saw, and even more so in witnessing a million cranes flying together to their home in the wetlands just as the sun set.
Strange mineral-infused landscapes
On an early morning, I witnessed sunrise over the Grand Canyon-like landscapes in a secret part of Kutch – once under the sea, with minerals accumulated on unearthly rock formations to give them a strange shiny white color.
Where to stay near the Banni Grasslands
I would’ve been quite lost in Kutch without my host Jugal Tiwari, a professional ecologist and an inspiring soul. CEDO Homestay, his home in the village of Moti Virani, is a hub for birding enthusiasts, and his work and stories of Kutch made me fall in love with the region.
4. Gir National Park (one of the places to go in Gujarat for wildlife enthusiasts)
It’s one thing to go on a jeep safari through Gir National Park; quite another to live inside the park’s buffer zone and hear about hair-raising lion encounters from your Gujarati hosts on moonlit nights!
Why Gir National Park belongs on your Gujarat travel itinerary
Living in the buffer zone of Gir
That experience of casually strolling outside on a moonlit night and seeing a pair of shining eyes moving through the bushes, looking right at you! Living in a charming house on an organic farm, with just a fence separating me from the territory of Asiatic lions, was the highlight of my time in Gujarat.
Saurashtrian (vegan) food – and a precious lesson about Gujarat food
In the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, which has traditionally been famine-prone, the rule is that nothing gets wasted. That meant I feasted on sev tamatar by night, and on poha and saunf (fennel) stuffed roasted tomatoes for breakfast. My host family veganized their delicious traditional dishes, and I promised to come back, stay longer and indulge further in the culinary delights of Saurashtra.
Jeep safari through Gir National Park (Sasan Gir)
I could score a booking for a jeep safari in Gir thanks to someone’s heads up on Instagram; bookings can only be done online and as far as 3 months in advance. I chose to pay a bit extra and have a jeep and guide all to myself – and I’m glad I did, because there is so much more in that dry teak forest than lions.
All other jeeps zoomed past us in search of lions, while we took our time, watching birds, smaller mammals and discussing the lives of people who live inside the park without electricity. Just as we were on our way out, a majestic lioness crossed our path, and led us to a tribe of 8 lions – 3 lionesses and 5 cubs! What a sighting.
Gujarat sightseeing tip: AVOID Devaliya Park
Even if you see no lions on a safari, please don’t go to the adjacent Devaliya Park – which is essentially a zoo of Asiatic lions where older lions are kept in enclosed areas and fed manually. What a pity that the forest department encourages this form of cruel wildlife tourism – let us be responsible and not support it.
Where to stay in Gir
Staying at Aranya Eco Farm, an organic mango farm in the buffer zone of Gir National Park, hosted by a sweet Gujarati couple, was totally worth the splurge – and something you’d never find on a regular Gujarat trip itinerary.
I spent time with their friends in the village, cooled off in the pool on warm days, saw stunning sunsets on the hill nearby, appreciated their approach to organic farming and eco-friendly living, and promised to come back in the rains and stay longer.
Is it safe to travel solo in Gujarat?
I loved journeying through Gujarat all by myself – my hosts, co-passengers on long day bus rides and random people I interacted with were all very friendly. I never got cheated, rarely saw touts, and the few autos / taxis I took were very decent. I read a lot about Gujarat travel places online, but little about travelling solo in Gujarat, so this was a pleasant surprise!
In retrospect though, most of my interactions were with men; I rarely met women leading tourism initiatives.
How to reach Gujarat and get around by public transport
I was surprised to arrive at the intra-state bus stop in Ahmedabad – a fancy, clean, well maintained space for people in transit. But my elation quickly crashed when my bus arrived – no different from the dingy, rickety state buses across India.
I ended up traveling fairly long distances on such buses (thankfully it was winter and the heat was bearable), for no volvo or luxury buses run during the day. I hope Gujarat tourism fixes that soon.
Gujarati cuisine and vegan food
As a newbie vegan, I was apprehensive of my tryst with the dairy capital of India. I found that people are incredibly proud of their vegetarianism (except the small meat-eating population), but no one quite engaged with me to debate the cruelty in dairy farming.
Ghee (clarified butter), butter, milk and curd feature in several dishes and veganism is an alien concept – so I had to constantly remind and check whether the food being offered to me was dairy free. It was worth the effort, because from my first Gujarati thali at the House of MG in Ahmedabad to Saurashtrian food in Gir, I loved every morsel I ate!
I think I finally get the Gujarati obsession with carrying theplas for emergency meals 😉
Best time to visit Gujarat
Best season to visit Gujarat
I travelled to Gujarat in winter, and highly recommend the months from late October to early March to visit the state. Expect cool mornings and evenings, and warm days, pretty much everywhere you go.
Places to visit in Gujarat in December
The Little Rann of Kutch is the best place in Gujarat for a winter trip, followed by Gir National Park, especially for forest and wildlife lovers.
Offbeat places for my next trip beyond regular tourist attractions in Gujarat
I’m glad I didn’t rush through my fortnight in Gujarat, but I’m definitely going back to explore more of the state:
- The tribal area of Dang in West Gujarat
- Marine National Park, off the Gulf of Kutch near Jamnagar
- Saputara, the only hill station in Gujarat
- Blackbuck National Park in Velavadar. If you know of an environmentally-conscious place to stay nearby, please let me know!
- If you know of interesting beaches in Gujarat, let me know too.