Updated February 14th, 2018.
Welcome to Goa. Why go?
Goa is India’s smallest state, famous for it’s laid back lifestyle and with over 101 km of tropical beaches there is a beach here to suit everyone. From the colourful beach huts of Palolem in the far South to the hippie and backpacker vibe of Arambol and Anjuna in the North and with everything from luxury resorts and laid back sands to the busy, party and package holiday central Baga and Calangute.
Goa became famous in the 1960s and 1970s in the days of the ‘hippie trail’ and you can still soak up the hippie vibe on some of Goa’s beaches (and meet some of the hippies at a trance party!) Nowadays you really can have it all in Goa, from next to nothing beach shacks to luxury hotels, from thumping trance parties to mellow yoga retreats and spicy Goan curries to fine dining European cuisine.
And yes, this is India there are cows, dogs and hawkers on the beaches, it all adds to the unique Goan charm! There’s nowhere else quite like it!
What makes Goa so interesting and captivating is that there is so much more to a holiday or visit to Goa than just beach bliss. Laid back Goa is much less of a culture shock than other parts of India and offers a good introduction to the subcontinent whilst still having that special Indian magic, the fascinating, captivating Indian culture that sometimes frustrates or bewilders but never fails to surprise, endear and amaze.
Where to go in Goa?
North Goa vs South Goa
All of Goa’s beaches have their own unique vibe and different charms. Generally speaking South Goa is quieter, less developed, more laid back and a perfect place to unwind. Whereas, North Goa is where the action is – nightlife, markets, watersports and a bigger range of accommodation, entertainment and eating out options. However, you can also find some busy stretches of beach and parties in South Goa and you can still find some areas of North Goa completely to yourself.
A beach hawker sells her wares
The Best Beaches in Goa for Backpackers…
It’s impossible to say which is the best beach in Goa really because each beach in Goa has a different vibe and attracts a different kind of traveller, it just a case of finding the best beach in Goa for you.
My pick of the best beaches for backpackers (and hippies) are Arambol, Anjuna and Vagator in the North and Palolem and Agonda in the South. The wide, flat beaches of Mandrem, Ashwen and Morjim are also worth a mention if you are looking for a low key, chilled out scene with many great yoga schools. These beaches are also a nesting ground of rare Oliver Ridley turtles and attract many long staying Russians.
(From North to South)
This backpacker and hippie haven has a long wide beach with loads of cheap beach huts, more hippie clothing stalls than Glastonbury, and every natural healing and alternative therapy you’ve ever heard of, plus, some you never thought existed, the odd drumming circle and a laid back, friendly vibe. It’s a great place to practise yoga and meditation, or if you’re staying longer, even take a yoga teacher training course. Also make time to climb over the rocks and go paragliding over cute Kalacha beach and swim in the sweet lake.
Mandrem, Ashvem, Morjim
These three beaches in-between Arambol and Vagator are family friendly beaches, now very popular with holidaying Russians. The accommodation can be more upscale and expensive here, but if you look hard enough, you can still find some cheap huts. The sea here is calm. clean and good for swimming. The north end of Mandrem beach touches to south end of Arambol and can be a great place to stay to get the best of both worlds; hippie markets, the option of party if you want it, and a quieter beach scene during the day.
Anjuna and Vagator:
These were the beaches that became popular back in the days of the hippie trail in the 60’s, they still offer a great choice for backpackers and budget travellers today and some of the hippies are still here! Vagator has three beaches, they are a bit rocky but the views over the charismatic red Goan cliffs are pretty mesmerizing especially at sunset, whereas Anjuna’s beach is more sandy and better for swimming. Both have a good choice of cheap guesthouse accommodation and beach shacks, great eating options, a friendly, hippie vibe that attracts a lot of long stayers. You will also find pys trance and techno parties and the infamous Anjuna flea market and that special Goan hippie charm.
Anjuna Beach in North Goa
Baga, Calangute and Candolim:
These are the most famous and busiest beaches in Goa and this is where most of the package holiday tourists (Indian and international) come. These beaches offer the best choice in everything (apart from quiet that is) including restaurants serving food from all over the globe, lively Saturday Night markets nearby that go on till the early hours, live music bars and nightclubs like Mambos, Titos and Club Cubana. There is budget accommodation here but these beaches and busy, crowded and over developed – if you come to Goa and only see these beaches then you are really missing out!
Your guide book will tell you that Cola Beach is an undiscovered, deserted gem, where your footprints will be the only ones on the sand. Those days are certainly over, and these days it’s more like Coca Cola beach, as there are now three busy restaurants and a few large resorts being built on the small strip of sand. Yet with its picturesque lagoon and beautiful setting, this is still a Goan beach worth visiting for a day!
A great wide sandy beach that sometimes feels like you’ve got it all to yourself and a rustic, laid back vibe that is a good quieter alternative, not too far from Palolem. Agonda has only been recently discovered the beach is often pretty empty. The sea is clean and there is hardly any litter on the beach. There is a good choice of budget accommodation and beach huts to choose from (Agonda Waves and Secret Garden are our favourites) and there are some great restaurants! Try the delicious curries and tandoori at ‘Fatimas’ on the corner as you enter over the bridge to Agonda. Little Plantain Leaf also has amazing curries and thaalis. If you fancy a cheap lunchtime dosa, there are dosas from 45 rupees at the Thaali and Dosa House and check out the German Bakery for a variety of well cooked food. Apart from Friday nights at Leopard Valley, there is no nightlife to speak of yet but we feel like this place will get more popular and busier every season! There are also a few yoga schools here for those wanting to do their yoga teacher training course or just take a few classes while they are here. Try Sampoorna Yoga, Shiva Shakti Yoga School and TriMurti Yoga.
Palolem and Patnem:
Calm turquoise sea that is perfect for swimming, the white crescent beach backed with palm trees and colourful, affordable beach huts and plenty of laid back, beachside eating and drinking options. Palolem is a laid back paradise on one of Goa’s best beaches although it is getting increasingly busier, and more mainstream every year and it does not have so much the hippie or party scene that you find up north. You could also try Patnem next door which is beautiful but a little quieter.
We may be exaggerating (as we haven’t been to them all!) but this beach is perhaps the most pristine and protected beach in the whole of India! That’s because it isn’t for tourists, it’s for turtles! The Olive Ridley Turtles hatch their eggs here every year during the months of Nov – Feb (which just happens to coincide with high season in Goa!) and so the government have made a big deal about keeping this beach a safe haven for the reptiles.
Where to stay in Goa?
NB: High Season in Goa is November – February when prices can rise for accommodation.
Most of the budget guesthouses and beach shacks in Goa can be found for between 500 and 1000 Rupees (£5 – £10 /$8 -$16) Even without feeling like you are penny-pinching it would be hard to spend over 2,000 Rupees (£20/ $30 ) a day backpacking in Goa.
It’s hard to recommend beach huts to stay in as many of these get taken down for the monsoon and can change from season to season. The best thing to do is just show up in the morning, walk around, take a look at a couple and then negotiate the price. Most of the time (apart from the busy period over Christmas and New Year you will find something without pre-booking, in fact most of the real budget places aren’t online anyway) Don’t rule out staying a little further away from the beach too if you want a better deal, less noise and more stable accommodation – beach huts look pretty but often a cheap guest house of the concrete box variety is cheaper and more comfortable!
There are also some pretty nice resorts in Goa that won’t break the bank if you fancy treating yourself. Here’s a guide written by our friend Anna of the travel blog, Global Gallivanting, about the best places to stay in Goa for all budgets.
Backpacker hostels in Goa
There also a few backpacker hostels that have just opened up in the last year or so if you’re looking for that traveller vibe. The quirky chain, Hostel Crowd have hostels in Anjuna, Vagator, Panaji and Palolem. (Prison Hostel is a unique party hostel in Anjuna and the Jungle Crowd is a chilled out place in Vagator.) Roadhouse Hostels also have hostels in Anjuna and Palolem and are soon opening in Arambol. These hostels can be fantastic for single travellers looking to meet people, however, if you’re a couple, it can be cheaper just to get a cheap guesthouse instead of two hostel beds.
Check out this article, by our friend Anna, on the Best Backpacker Hostels in Goa.
Where have we stayed in Goa so far?
Hidden Garden, North end, Agonda Beach
We loved southern Goa so much, that we decided to rent a coco hut for one month on beautiful Agonda Beach. The hut usually costs 1,800 rupees / night, but because we were staying one month, the price was 1,200 rupees. We were very happy with the accommodation; a beautiful beach hut with sea views, hot shower, WIFI (most of the time, it’s not so great in Agonda!), and you could hear the waves crashing onto the shore at night. We would recommend to stay here, as well as the beach bungalows managed by the same owner, Secret Garden.
We also stayed at Agonda Waves for a few nights at the south end of the beach, which has excellent huts from 700 rupees / night – absolute bargain!
Renting a house longer term in Goa
Perhaps you will love Goa and end up wanting to stay for months, as many do. Look out for the ‘House for Rent’ signs and find somewhere to chill out and enjoy the unique Goan vibes for a few months. Many you can rent on a casual monthly basis and it can work out cheaper than a guesthouse.
Check out the costs of living in Goa and How to rent a house in Goa.
Where to Eat and Drink in Goa
The beaches of Goa are lined with beach shacks that serve a standard traveller orientated multi cuisine menu – including Indian, Chinese, Western and Italian food for between 100 and 300 rupees and the quality of the food that comes out of these beach shacks, for relativity little money, is surprisingly good. There are also many great and still good value restaurants.
Goa loves trance and most of the parties revolved around techno or pys trance music. Anjuna and Vagator and Baga and Calanagute are the best nightlife spots with clubs or beach parties that go on late into the night. Palolem has a more chilled out scene but you can usually find a silent (headphone) disco happening in the peak season.
Places to go and things to do in Goa?
Of course Goa’s beaches are the main draw and beach hopping is fun, but prise yourself from your sun lounger and get out and explore to find the real Indian culture and magic of Goa. Goa is tiny, so if you have time to explore by motorbike or by car, you’ll be able to see it all!
- Exploring Goa by motorbike
One of the best ways to explore Goa is by hiring a scooter or motorbike (even a Royal Enfield!) (approx 300 rupees per day) and set out to explore Goa. You don’t need to get far from the beach resorts to get an intoxicating taste of India’s incredible heritage. Along the way you will probably stumble upon green paddy fields, wandering cows, white washed Portuguese churches and colourful Hindu temples, bustling market places, chilled out farms, colourful villages, crumbling colonial villas and forts, sari draped ladies, curious children and crumbling forts complete with stunning coastal views and feel the breeze along a riverside road – it doesn’t really matter where you go – just explore!
- Old Goa
Goa spent over 400 years under Portuguese rule and the legacy of the Portuguese is still apparent today. Take a day trip to visit Old Goa, once the capital of Goa under Portuguese rule and once so grand and important that it was known as ‘the Rome of the East’ and rivaled Lisbon. However, it was was blighted by illness and disease and was abandoned for the new capital of Panjim in 1843 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Marvel at the massive churches they left behind, including the largest church in Asia and the remains of an over 300 hundred year old, very slowly, decomposing corpse of St Francis Xavier in the Basilica of Bom Jesus.
- Yoga and Alternative Therapies
Goa is a popular place to practice yoga. From Ashtanga to Hatha and everything in between, yoga is everywhere in Goa and with so many yoga schools every inclination is catered for – from beginners, drop in, casual classes to more intensive retreats and teacher training courses. You can also try Ayurveda – an ancient science of plant based natural medicine, meditation, Reiki, Tai Chi, Pilates, acupuncture, reflexology, Bollywood dancing or Indian cooking classes the list goes on…
If you already practice yoga on a regular basis, perhaps you’ve thought about getting qualified as a yoga teacher whilst you’re here. The basic 200 hour Teacher Training Course (TTC) lasts four weeks and you will be practising and studying 6 days / week, almost 10 hours / day. The course is intense, so make sure you’re fit and fully committed to becoming a teacher before you sign up for a course. TTCs are around 1000 Euros per person, more if you include accommodation and three meals a day, which many of them do. The main centres for Yoga Teacher Training Courses (TTCs) are Arambol, Anjuna and to a lesser extent, Agonda.
South East Asia Backpacker is currently working with Parimukti Yoga School in Arambol, northern Goa. Check out our daily diaries of our experience at Parimukti Yoga from the links below:
- Part 1 – A journey of 200 hours starts with 1 hour…
- Part 2 – No one said it was going to be easy…
- Part 3 – The final week and qualifying as a yoga teacher!
- Learn how to haggle at a Market
Opportunities for shopping in Goa are endless, from designer malls to hippie flea markets. If you can learn how to haggle, you can take home many bargains from souvenirs to hippie chic clothing. Anjuna’s famous hippie flea markets is held on Wednesdays by the beach, visit Saturday night markets in Arpora and Vagator complete with live music and food stalls or for something more local and authentic visit Mapusa’s local market on Fridays.
At the flea market
- Take in the view from a Fort
Everyone wanted a piece of Goa and her colourful history has left many crumbling forts. There’s not that much left of many of the forts themselves but whether it’s Cabo de Rama Fort in the South, Fort Aguada with it’s lighthouse and views over Panjim or Chapora Fort above rocky Vagator in the north the climb up is worthwhile for the views over the coast alone.
- Visit a Spice Farm
Delve into Goa’s Hindu Heartland and discover why spices were such a big deal they pretty much started empires. Near Ponda are many Hindu temples and spice farms, most are pretty touristy but well organised and include a buffet lunch and an enlightening tour of the spice plantation for your approx 400 rupees entry fee.
Colourful spices of India
- Spot wildlife at one of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries
Animal lovers should head to one of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries. In the south, check out Cotigao National Park, (which costs 20 rupees per person to enter), which is part of the Western Ghats mountain range. Animal sightings are rare, but to up your chances of seeing elephants, leopards, bison, king cobras and a variety of different birds, you can stay overnight in a jungle hut (which costs 800 rupees / night) where you can spot creatures at sunrise and sunset. The park closes at 5.sopm.
In the north, check out Bondla Sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. Bondla Sanctuary houses Goa’s only zoo which is home to many Indian tigers, hippopotamus and crocodiles. Entry is 20 rupees. Also check out Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at the Western tip of Chorao Island in north Goa. The rich mangrove habitat is home to a variety of birds, such as purple herons and blue-winged teals. Boat trips are available October to May.
- Swim under India’s second highest waterfall, Dudhsagar Falls
You can combine a visit to the Goa’s largest sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, with a trip to the nearby Dudhsagar Waterfall where you can take a bumpy jeep ride through the jungle to swim in the refreshing waters of Dudhsagar India’s second highest waterfall. The entry fee is 20 rupees. Hiring jeeps from Collem to the waterfall will cost 400 rupees per person.
- Visit the Capital Panjim (Panaji)
Make time to discover Goa’s laid back state capital – Panjim. If you haven’t been to any other cities in India this will be an interesting taste of the hustle and bustle of India. If you have visited the likes of Delhi and Mumbai then Panjim will be a pleasant surprise – a laid back, clean and beautiful Indian city! Don’t miss the elaborate white Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, see the colonial buildings and take time to explore the old atmospheric and colourful Portuguese districts of Sao Tome and Fontainhas.
- Celebrate a Festival
Especially in the dry/ tourist season there seems to be a different event or festival on every week. From photography, dance, art, food, music to religious festivals – there’s all something new going on in Goa. Check out the craziness and join in the party on the streets of Panjim to celebrate the massive annual carnival in mid February before the beginning of lent.
Getting to Goa:
Goa has an airport (Dabolim) situated roughly in the middle of the state. You can fly to Goa from most major Indian cites and in the season time there are charter flights from the UK and Russia. From Bangkok or KL it’s cheapest to take a flight to one of the big cities in the South of India like Chennai, Bangalore or Kochi and then a domestic flight from there.
Once in Goa you can explore the rest of India on the huge Indian railways network (just make sure to book tickets in advance because it is very busy) or by bus but the train is for sure the most preferable way to travel rather than the hectic Indian roads.
Goa is a perfect place for a gentle introduction to Incredible India but don’t stop there…
The incredible, enigmatic and bewitching ruins of Hampi are not far from Goa in the neighbouring (and underrated) state, Karnataka. It takes about 8 hours on the train or an overnight bus but these ancient ruins steeped in legend and scattered amidst a surreally beautiful boulder strewn landscape make a rewarding and cultural couple of days jaunt from Goa. You may love Hampi so much that you don’t want to go back to Goa!
The luscious, laid back state of Kerala is also known as ‘God’s own country’ and once you are relaxing on a houseboat on the serene backwaters you will understand why! Kerala is also one of the most popular places to visit in India because of it’s rich history as part of the spice trade and tropical, green natural beauty from the beaches and hill stations to the backwaters. It’s a long overnight train ride from Goa (13 hours) but worth it!
Mumbai, or Bombay, is India’s answer to Hollywood – a city of dreams and also a city of contrasts. A city that is both rich and poor, modern and traditional. Mumbai is a crazily captivating, buzzing, inspiring, ambitious, city of dreams with grand, crumbling colonial buildings and enough to keep you entrained for at least a couple of days. Mumbai is an overnight train ride from Goa. Check out our Mumbai guide here.
About the Author: Anna Phipps left her job and life in the UK in Dec 2012 to pursue her dreams of a life of travel and adventure. Her only regret is that she didn’t do it sooner! Her first stop was India where she fell in love with the country and now spends a much time there as possible, traveling slow, independently and on a budget. Anna often immerses herself in the destinations she visits by working, volunteering or living abroad, at the moment she is based in Anjuna, Goa. You can find out more travel stories from India and tips on Anna’s blog Global Gallivanting or You can keep up with Anna’s adventures in India on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Recently added to by Nikki Scott 2016.
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