An insider’s guide into the top palace hotels in India, including the best for royal residences, opulent interiors, romantic settings, extravagant architecture, extensive gardens and refined Indian cuisine, in locations including Rajasthan, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur and Udaipur.
Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
This former hunting lodge and royal residence occupies a 47-acre plot just south of the city center. Given that the Maharaja of Jaipur once called this place home, it’s predictably opulent. Rooms, each with extraordinarily high ceilings, mahogany to spare, and packed with antiques, are arranged around a beautiful courtyard; there’s a croquet lawn, strutting peacocks, and fountains that wouldn’t look out of place in an Roman piazza. Dinner in Suvarna Mahal, which offers refined Indian cuisine from four regions, is a must; the gilded setting is the main draw and feels like one has snuck into Buckingham Palace.
The Oberoi Grand
Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Kolkata’s Oberoi is the grand old dame of hotels in north-east India. Opened in 1888, this luxury heritage hotel is a palatial landmark in the City of Joy and offers well-appointed rooms, excellent dining, great facilities and truly wonderful service a stone’s throw from the main sights. The rooms exude quiet charm, a world away from cold chain hotels and the mad bustle in the streets outside. The standard rooms are compact, comfortable, with plenty of nods to the city’s heritage – from old prints and miniature paintings on the walls to the stylishly traditional wood furnishings that almost hide the state-of-the-art conveniences.
Rawla Narlai, a meticulously restored 17th-century royal retreat, is one of Rajasthan’s best-loved heritage hotels. A rambling country house, beautifully restored and maintained, it oozes romance. There are 32 rooms set around a series of courtyards bright with flowers. A magnificent pool is hidden in a walled garden. Evening drinks are served in the lamp-lit entrance court where you can also dine under the stars. Each room is different and full of surprises: delicately painted arches framing a bed; original murals of a royal procession; a bathroom that opens onto a tiny private terrace with a view over the town.
Nagaur, Rajasthan, India
A rare chance to stay in a private 18th-century garden palace that is being painstakingly restored by the maharajah of Jodhpur. A superb restoration of the former royal zenana or women’s quarters set in a flower-filled garden. The 10 stone havelis, each originally built for a queen and her servants, have been restored entirely in keeping with their origins. Each now contains several handsome rooms which share a large courtyard with daybeds and swings. Meals are taken in the majlis, an open-sided pavilion where the queens would meet each other and their maharajah.
Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, India
The hotel sits atop the massive sandstone walls of Maheshwar Fort. From the terrace you can look down on Indian life as played out on the banks of the holy Narmada River, a miniature Varanasi where pilgrims come to immerse themselves and pray to the Hindu god Shiva. Rooms are scattered among the 18th-century, half-timbered buildings set around shady courtyards. There are plenty of nooks to hide away with a book, a lovely large pool and a vegetable garden that is a work of art. The whole effect is of staying in the home of an aristocratic relative, one with unusually good taste.
Taj Lake Palace
Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
One of the world’s most romantic destination hotels, the Palace floats like a beautiful white ship on the waters of Lake Pichola, with 360-degree views of surrounding Udaipur. Built in 1743 as a summer escape and pleasure resort by the royal dynasty of Mewar, it was converted into a hotel when the Maharana started accepting paying guests in the 1960s. The transition to hotel has been seamless, with the original fountains and fretwork expanded to include 66 luxury rooms. Rooms are sumptuously decorated with rich colors and quality Indian textiles, and all featuring a view of some kind.
Aravalli Range, Rajasthan, India
A crenelated vision in white set high on a granite knoll with far-reaching views, this is no ordinary palace hotel. It’s a glamorous, modish retreat and a refreshing change from the dark interiors of traditional Rajasthani fort-palaces. A symphony in white offset with silver and gold and vivid splashes of peacock green and saffron yellow, the interiors will delight those who love clean and contemporary design. The palace is truly labyrinthine. It’s worth taking a tour with a member of staff to find hidden courtyards and balconies that look out over a landscape little changed since Rajput rulers hunted here 200 years ago. It’s an hour’s drive east from Udaipur off National Highway 8, the hotel sits among wheat fields deep in the Aravalli Hills.
Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
Set in extensive gardens, the palace is a 15-minute walk south of Jaipur’s old walled city. A country manor in the heart of the city, tea is still served on the lawn of what was once the British Residency. There’s still a sense of being a guest of the family. But the faded Rajput grandeur has been replaced by exuberant modern interiors using custom-made wallpapers to interpret traditional motifs in fun new ways. Even the smallest rooms are palatial with high ceilings and sitting areas scattered with the sort of books, photographs and curiosities found in an English country house.
The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, India The original building is a seven-tiered wedding cake of Gothic, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Rajasthan architecture topped by a glittering Florentine dome. The extravagant interiors are adorned with Italian marble floors, Belgian chandeliers and 4,000 works of art, most of them antique. The erstwhile horse and carriage entrance is a swimming pool shaded by mature palms. Palace rooms start at luxury grand, which are relatively small but supremely comfortable with Italian marble bathrooms and Rajput bay windows overlooking the sea, the pool or the city.