Sixteenth-century visitors to the royal courts of present-day Karnataka returned to Europe with stupendous tales of wealth -- cities overflowing with jewels, and streets littered with diamonds. Over the centuries, the lush green state that occupies a vast chunk of India's southwestern seaboard and much of the Deccan plateau saw numerous kingdoms rise and fall, powerful dynasties that left legacies of impressive palaces and monumental cities scattered throughout the interior, some of them well off the beaten track, but worth the effort and time it takes to seek them out.

The postindependence state of Karnataka, unified in 1950 on the basis of common language, is predominantly made up of the once-princely state of Mysore and the Berar territories, which used to be part of the Nizam of Hyderabad's kingdom. Once one of the richest cities in India, Hyderabad is now the vibrant capital of neighboring Andhra Pradesh, and a possible excursion from Bangalore, state capital of Karnataka. Bangalore may have been renamed Bengaluru in yet another attempt to strip away the legacy of the Raj and assert its Indian identity, but it remains in many ways the country's most "Western" city, famous for its energetic nightlife, sophisticated design sense, and highly evolved computer and technology industries. Although it offers little by way of sightseeing attractions, it's a great place to relax; you can shop by day and explore the bars and clubs at night before taking an overnight train to explore the ancient city of Hampi. The great medieval Hindu capital of the south is said to have once rivaled Rome in wealth and, with the ruins of the 14th-century Vijayanagar kingdom set in a boulder-strewn landscape that proves fascinating in its own right, this is deservedly Karnataka's most famous attraction.

Karnataka's other primary destination is Mysore, the famous "City of Incense," where vibrant markets are perfumed with the scents of jasmine, musk, sandalwood, and frangipani. Ruled by India's most enlightened maharajas, Mysore is home to some 17 palaces, of which Amba Vilas is arguably India's most opulent. Just a few hours south of Mysore is Rajiv Gandhi National Park, home to herds of wild elephant and the elusive Bengal tiger. Northward lie the "Jewel Box" temples built by the mighty Hoysala warriors in the cities of Belur and Halebid, best reached via Sravanabelgola, home to one of the oldest and most important Jain pilgrimage sites in India: an 18m (60-ft.) statue of the naked Lord Gomateswara, said to be the tallest monolithic statue on earth and one of the most spiritually satisfying destinations in India.