The Sikhs’ holy city of Amritsar is the largest city in Punjab, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of India. Sikh pilgrims and tourists arrive en masse for one gleaming reason – the fabled Golden Temple, whose domes soar above Amritsar’s teeming streets, is certainly one of the most captivating sights in the whole country. The temple aside, Amritsar is a little noisy and congested, but its old city in particular is as lively as any in India, and a stretch of it was recently pedestrianised and gentrified, which at least provides escape from the hubbub.
The best travel tips for visiting Amritsar
Some stay in town for a couple more days than they need – it’s the kind of place that grows on you, even if there’s not too much else to see other than Jallianwalla Bagh, host to the greatest single atrocity of colonial times, and the new Partition Museum.
Amritsar is also an important staging post for those crossing the Indo-Pakistan frontier at Wagha, 29km west – or, much more commonly, for those seeking to witness the astonishing border-closing ceremony, which takes place there each evening.
Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, beside a bathing pool famed for its healing powers. The land around the tank was granted in perpetuity by the Mughal emperor Akbar to the Sikhs.
When merchants moved in to take advantage of the strategic location on the Silk Route, Amritsar expanded rapidly, gaining a grand new temple under Ram Das’s son and heir, Guru Arjan Dev. Sacked by Afghans in 1761, the shrine was rebuilt by the Sikhs’ greatest secular leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who also donated the gold used in its construction.
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Best things to do in Amritsar
From The Golden Temple to bedlam at the India–Pakistan border, here are the best things to do in Amritsar.
#1 Bow down at The Golden Temple
Even visitors without a religious bone in their bodies cannot fail to be moved by Amritsar’s resplendent Golden Temple, spiritual centre of the Sikh faith and open to all.
Built by Guru Arjan Dev in the late sixteenth century, the richly gilded Harmandir rises from the middle of an artificial rectangular lake, connected to the surrounding white marble complex by a narrow causeway.
Every Sikh tries to make at least one pilgrimage here during their lifetime to listen to the sublime music (shabad kirtan), readings from the Adi Granth and also to bathe in the purifying waters of the temple tank – the Amrit Sarovar or “Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar”.
#2 See The Harmandir, the “Golden Temple of God”
Likened by one guru to “a ship crossing the ocean of ignorance”, the triple-storey Harmandir, or “Golden Temple of God” was built by Arjan Dev to house the Adi Granth, which he compiled from teachings of all the Sikh gurus; it is the focus of the Sikh faith.
The temple has four doors indicating it is open to people of all faiths and all four caste divisions of Hindu society. The large dome and roof, covered with 100kg of gold leaf, is shaped like an inverted lotus, symbolizing the Sikhs’ concern for temporal as well as spiritual matters.
The long causeway, or Guru’s Bridge, which joins the Harmandir to the west side of the Amrit Sarovar, is approached via an ornate archway, the Darshani Deorh. As you approach the sanctum check out the amazing Mughal-style inlay work and floral gilt above the doors and windows.
The interior of the temple – decorated with yet more gold and silver, adorned with ivory mosaics and intricately carved wood panels – is dominated by the enormous Adi Granth, which rests on a sumptuous throne beneath a jewel-encrusted silk canopy.
#3 Pay your respects at Jallianwalla Bagh
Just 100m northeast of the Golden Temple, a narrow lane leads between two buildings to Jallianwalla Bagh, a grassy compound whose prettiness belies a rather gruesome history – this was the site of one of the bloodiest atrocities committed by the British Raj, and today the park functions as a memorial to those martyred here.
A wall at the southwest corner sports 36 bullet holes created during the massacre; oddly, this has become a popular selfie spot with smiling domestic tourists. Coins are also thrown into Martyrs’ Well, housed under a pretty pink structure to the east of the park.
#4 Geek out at the Partition Museum
A relatively recent addition to the city is its Partition Museum, set in the pretty, redbrick Town Hall buildings; it’s the default thing to see in Amritsar when you’ve seen the Golden Temple and been to the border ceremony, and have run out of things to do.
Still, the exhibits are absorbing enough, with a series of artefacts, photos and documents charting the course of the independence movement, the subsequent demands for separation, and finally the partition and its consequences.
#5 Witness the bedlam at the India–Pakistan border
Every evening as sunset approaches, the India–Pakistan border closes for the night with a spectacular and somewhat Monty Pythonesque show. It takes place at a remote little place 27km west of Amritsar called Wagha (the nearest town, 2km away, is Attari), to which hundreds – often thousands – of Indians make their way each evening to watch the popular tourist attraction from what is effectively a small half-stadium.
The other (considerably smaller) half is over the border in Pakistan, and it likewise receives crowds each evening – strictly
gender-segregated, you’ll most likely wonder what they make of the Indian side, at which females are often encouraged to dance like mad to the sound of ear-splitting Indopop.
After the crowd has been built into something of a flag-waving frenzy, guards from both side – all sporting outlandish hats – perform synchronized speed marching along a 100m walkway to the border gate, where they turn and stomp back. The guards strut their military catwalk several times and then vanish into the guardhouse.
Best areas to stay in Amritsar
As well as a choice of hotels and hostels in the lanes around the Golden Temple, it’s also possible to stay at the niwas within the Golden Temple complex itself. Here's where to stay in Amritsar.
Around the Golden Temple
Aside from staying inside the Golden Temple itself, almost everyone will bed down in the old city lanes close to it. Expect decent, clean midrange hotels and a handful of cheaper stays. Some hotel rooms don't have windows, so ask ahead.
Golden Temple niwas (pilgrim hostels)
Undoubtedly the most authentic places to stay in Amritsar are the five niwas or pilgrim hostels run by the Golden Temple management committee. Intended for Sikh pilgrims, these charitable institutions also open their doors to foreign tourists. Charges are nominal (by donation, which is at your discretion), but stays are limited to a maximum of three nights.
The first building as you approach on the east side of the temple is the Guru Arjan Dev Niwas, which has the check-in counter for Indian citizens. Foreigners have their own dedicated room at the Sri Guru Ramdas Ji Niwas, which is the next one.
The Sri Guru Nanak Niwas was where Bhindranwale and his men holed up prior to the Golden Temple siege in 1984. The downside of staying at these niwas is that facilities can be basic (charpoy beds and communal wash-basins in the central courtyard are the norm) and security can be a problem, although lockers are available.
Browse the best hotels in Amritsar.
Best restaurants and bars
There are lots of Cheap, good, vegetarian places to eat in Amritsar but there’s essentially nowhere to drink within the city gates. Venture outside and it won’t be long until you find a liquor store – most of them seem to be called “English Wine & Beer Shop”.
The Golden Temple
Try and eat at Guru-Ka-Langar at least once. This huge canteen inside the Golden Temple is for pilgrims.
Around the Golden Temple
For inexpensive food, try the simple vegetarian dhabas around the Golden Temple and bus stand, which serve cheap and tasty puris and chana dhal. Local specialities include Amritsari fish (fillets of river fish fried in a spicy batter – sohal or river sole is the best, but singara is cheaper).
How to get around
It is easy to get around Amritsar. Most visitors will walk, but taxis can be useful too. Here’s how to get around Amritsar.
You may find Amritsar too large and labyrinthine to negotiate on foot; if you’re crossing town or are in a hurry, flag down an auto-rickshaw. Otherwise, stick to cycle rickshaws, which are the best way to get around the narrow, packed streets of the old quarter.
If you’ve got the app, it’s often worth giving Ola taxis a try – they’re often the same price as (or even cheaper than) auto-rickshaws, and you won’t even need to haggle.
What is the best time to visit Amritsar?
As ever in northern India, spring (March–April) and autumn (Oct & Nov) are the best times to visit. Winter (Dec & Jan) can be rather nippy, and summer (June–Aug) very hot, although nothing like the south, of course.
Summer is also the wettest season, with rainfall peaking in August, but the monsoon is largely spent by the time it gets this far, so it isn’t anything like as full-on as it is further south and east.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Amritsar?
To fully experience the essence of Amritsar and its renowned attractions, it is recommended to spend a minimum of 2-3 days in the city. This timeframe allows you to visit the iconic Golden Temple, witness the solemnity of the Wagah Border ceremony, explore the historic Jallianwala Bagh, and indulge in the vibrant local markets and street food.
Additionally, if you wish to delve deeper into the cultural and historical aspects of Amritsar, you can consider extending your stay to 4-5 days. This will allow you to visit other notable sites like the Durgiana Temple, Ram Bagh Gardens, Maharaja Ranjit Singh Museum, and enjoy leisurely walks around the old city lanes.
How to get here
As a major pilgrimage destination, Amritsar is easily accessible from most cities across India.
The railway station is centrally located, just north of the old city, though since it faces north you’ll have to get across the tracks – time-consuming, even in a vehicle.
For Pathankot and HP destinations, you are restricted to state transport buses from the large bus stand on Grand Trunk Rd (NH-1), north of the old city, Most private buses, including a/c services, leave from just north of Gandhi (Hall) Gate.
Find out the best ways to get to India.