India can be quite a hot country most of the year. But what many people don’t know is that a big portion of the Himalayan mountain range is located inside India, which means that, at the North of the country, not only it’s cold in the winter, as there is plenty of snowy mountains and even ski stations!
The infrastructure overall can be less developed than other traditional winter destinations, but it offers amazing landscapes, very interesting food, a good amount of Tibetan influence and, of course, the unique feeling of being at the most imposing mountain range in the world!
Check out below 7 amazing places to visit in the Indian Himalayas:
Our all-time favorite, Manali is an adorable town located at the state of Himachal Pradesh. It’s a tortuous 12h bus drive from Delhi, or a 2h flight to the nearest airport, Kullu and an extra bus. The town is surrounded by pine trees and apple orchards and receives plenty of foreign tourists during the summer, so you’ll find a good number of restaurants that offer Italian, Hebrew and other international cuisines. We recommend renting a scooter/bike for a couple of days and exploring the area by yourself. You can visit temples, like the Hidimba Devi Temple, waterfalls, do rafting and paragliding during the summer or even do some trekking. However, we recommend visiting the town in offseason, as it tends to get crowded during the summer because a lot of Indian couples go for their honeymoon and to escape the scorching heat in the North. In the winter, some restaurants and hotels stay closed, but it’s still worth a visit. We’ve been there 3 times, in the months of April, July and November. This place has a special place in our hearts. Whenever we wanna escape from our daily routine and want to give each other some cozy time, we travel there.
Easily reachable from Delhi by plane, Dharamsala is the capital of Tibet in the refuge. Home to the Dalai Lama, it is possible to visit the monastery where he lives (though he travels often), go trekking in the Himalayas and try some exquisite Tibetan food. McLeod Ganj is the central area where many restaurants and hotels are located. There are some lovely cafes, famous for their food and mountain vibes. From Dharamsala, there are several treks that you can do and also go camping up in the valleys in the arms of nature, in total peace. Dharamsala is a bit more crowded because of accessibility to nearby cities, like Chandigarh.
So far, “the one who got away” from us. Ladakh has been in our radar for years, and we’ve tried to visit it twice with no success. The area is located at a 4000m altitude at the Indian-Chinese border and can be only reached between May and October. The rest of the year, the roads are blocked by snow, and planes can’t reach it either. Flights to Leh, the capital of the region, are more expensive than to other locations, but it’s sure worth a visit. The area seems like a mist of desert and snow, something truly wonderful and out of this world. You can visit Buddhist monasteries and enjoy exquisite views, such as the Pangong Lake.
The ancient Summer capital of the British Empire, and current capital of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla still holds neo-gothic buildings from the colonial area, many of which are now lovely hotels. It can be reached from Delhi by bus, train or plane (although the airport in Chandigarh is more recommended). If you choose the train, a part of the trip is done with a lovely toy train, which will give you some beautiful views of the Himalayas. Shimla was very popular in the 90s, but with time since it became more commercial, therefore tourism there dropped but still, a lot of families go there for Summer holidays.
The capital of the Indian state of Kashmir, Srinagar is quite different from the rest of India. Apart from the diverse architecture, the weather is cooler all year round and the population is mostly Muslim, so you’ll see many women wearing abayas on the streets. The state is famous for beautiful handicrafts and dry fruits, so the local dishes often have cashew or other types of nuts, and are milder in spice compared to the rest of North Indian food.
Speaking of spices, Kashmir is one of the main areas in the world where saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is grown, so you’ll find plenty of places selling it (beware to check the legitimacy, though), and the famous cashmere (the term derives from Kashmir) shawls as well, with beautiful colors and embroideries. The best way to reach Srinagar is by plane (we’ve done the bus as well and it wasn’t a pleasant experience) and a unique experience is to stay at a houseboat. The city has the beautiful Dal Lake, and many homes and hotels are inside the boats! We stayed at one with a wonderful view of the mountains, and you can take rides around the area at smaller boats. We DID get scammed though, but this is a topic we’ll cover on a next post so you won’t do the same. There are so many delicious desserts and a type of bread which you will not find in the rest of India. Srinagar also has the second largest tulip field in the world, which is big, beautiful, and blossoms in April.
A couple of hours drive from Srinagar, Gulmarg is way up the mountains, and it offers that beautiful view of snow-capped mountains and snow-covered trees that we love so much. The town is quite small, but it offers a ski station, all sorts of snow activities and nice hotels to stay in. At night, the town becomes dark, so there are not many options of things to do, but the starry sky is just breathtaking!
Far off from the other locations mentioned, Darjeeling is located in the Eastern state of West Bengal, at an elevation of 2000m. It can be reached by bus from Kolkata, or a flight from Delhi to the closest airport of Bagdogra, at the town of Siliguri, and an additional 2-hour drive in shared taxis, which are safe and easy to catch. You’ll find many Nepalis in the area, and the official language is actually Nepali, as Darjeeling used to belong to Nepal 2 centuries ago. If you’ve heard of the famous Darjeeling tea you’ve guessed it right. The town is surrounded by beautiful tea fields, it has a nice market area and a lovely toy train. Unlike most other places in India, there are more women than men, so you’ll find lots of younger women walking down the streets (a comforting thing for female travelers).
Points to be aware of:
The Indian Himalayas are NOT as developed as the French Alps or traditional winter destinations in developed countries. This means you should adjust your expectation setting and know that not everything will be pretty and perfect, such as:
- You’ll still encounter some garbage on the roadsides, although some places (like Darjeeling) are incredibly clean.
- We haven’t stayed at luxury hotels, but decent reasonably priced hotels. Many of these don’t offer a central heating system, but heaters that are offered for each room at an extra cost. Some rooms have fireplaces. The bathroom can get pretty cold.
- As of the rest of India, you will see poverty, but seeing poverty in the cold is an especially heartbreaking experience. Once we stopped to buy some cotton candies from a street vendor, it was already evening. Our total purchase was not even 1USD, and that man got emotional saying this was his ONLY sale in the entire day. I kept imagining how his home must have been ill-equipped for the winter season, and this really broke my heart. When you visit, support small vendors, they really have a rough life.
- The roads are not as great, especially at the mountain areas, so it may take hours to reach places. If you can afford it, planes are always more convenient. We decided to go back from Kashmir by bus, it shook so much that a window broke, and we found some pro-Pakistani groups on the way (Kashmir is a separatist area that occasionally has turmoil).
- Srinagar and Gulmarg are located in the state of Kashmir, which is a separatist area. For this reason, Kashmir IS heavily militarized, so you’ll find many army people and trucks in the area, which can provoke a little tension. It’s a beautiful state, but it’s always advisable to read about the political moment in order to assess if it’s safe to visit the area at that moment. The district of Ladakh is also inside Kashmir, but closer to China and not of Muslim majority, so Indian-Pakistani conflicts are not found in this area, and it is safe to visit overall.