Sitting at an elevated height on the outskirts of Hyderabad, Golconda -- seat of the Qutb Shahis -- was once a magnificent citadel and center of the world diamond trade. The fort took 62 years to build, and when it fell to Aurangzeb in 1687, he tore the place apart looking for diamonds and gold. Left to the birds of prey that circle high above the once-daunting battlements, Golconda would have become a tranquil retreat were it not for its popularity with visitors, who noisily explore the ramparts of Hyderabad's most illustrious attraction. That's why it's best if you visit it as soon as it opens, or around twilight (when it's far cooler and the dimming evening sky sheds a mysterious aura over the stone ruins).

Enclosing the graffiti-smeared remains of bazaars, homes, fields, barracks, armories, mosques, camel stables, Turkish baths, and water reservoirs, the battlements incorporate 87 bastions and extend some 5km (3 miles) in circumference. Four of the original eight gates are still in use; present-day visitors enter via the Bala Hissar gate -- large teakwood doors with metal spikes designed to withstand charging elephants. Guides can assist by demonstrating the tremendous acoustics of the structure -- a clap here is heard clearly when you are at the fort's highest point, 1km (1/2 mile) away; this was once an invaluable security-cum-intercom system. The Royal Palace complex comprises buildings constructed by the Qutb Shahi kings during different periods. Most are decorated with floral designs, glazed tilework on the walls, and cut-plaster decorations indicative of the Qutb Shahi style. Sadly, where royalty once went about their daily lives, rats, bats, garbage, grime, and tourists have taken over. At the top of the fort is the Baradari, reached by three stone stairways. As you make your way up, look along the walls for the remains of limestone pipes once part of a sophisticated plumbing system that used Persian wheels to carry water up the hill, so that it could be piped in for bathing, flushing cistern systems, and keeping the palace cool. The climb to the top is worth it for the excellent views alone.

The fort hosts an extremely popular sound-and-light show that recounts the history of Golconda using the illuminated ruins as a backdrop. There are performances in English each night; but be warned that power failures can disrupt the performance -- and be sure to take insect repellent.

Getting a Good Guide -- You'll be confronted by many would-be guides at the entrance to the Golconda Fort -- ask around for M. D. Rathmath or Shaikh Rajiv, who both have a good grasp of English. The going rate is around Rs 350 for 2 to 3 hours (you could up this to Rs 450 if the service is really good). At the end of the day, the guides gather on the lawn outside the fort entrance, near the ticket booth; join them if you're interested in learning more about Hyderabad culture.