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Chandigarh is the state capital of both Punjab and Haryana, but part of neither, being a Union Territory administered by India’s federal government. Its history begins in 1947, when Partition placed Punjab’s main city of Lahore in Pakistan, leaving India’s state of Punjab without a capital. Nehru saw this as an opportunity to realize his vision of a city “symbolic of the future of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, (and) an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. The job of designing it went to controversial Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier.
Begun in 1952, Chandigarh was to be a groundbreaking experiment in town planning. Le Corbusier’s blueprints were for an orderly grid of sweeping boulevards, divided into 29 neat blocks, or Sectors, each measuring 800m by 1200m, and interspersed with extensive stretches of green.
Le Corbusier saw the city plan as a living organism, with the imposing Capital Complex to the north as a “head”, the shopping precinct (Sector 17) a “heart”, and the green open spaces as “lungs”.
Some applaud Le Corbusier’s brainchild as one of the great architectural achievements of the twentieth century, but detractors complain that the design is self-indulgent and un-Indian. Le Corbusier created a city for fast-flowing traffic at a time when few people owned cars, while his cubic concrete buildings are like ovens during the summer.
The city has expanded from the first phase comprising sectors 1 to 30 (there is no Sector 13), through a second phase – sectors 31 to 47 – and is now into the third phase with (half-size) sectors 48 to 61.
Despite Chandigarh’s shortcomings, its inhabitants are proud of their capital, which is cleaner, greener and more affluent than other Indian cities of comparable size, and its rock garden is Punjab’s second-most visited tourist site after the Golden Temple.
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From the Government Museum and Art Gallery to a surreal fantasyland fashioned from fragments of shattered plates known as the Rock Garden, here are the best things to do in Chandigarh.
Situated in the green belt known as the Leisure Valley, Chandigarh’s museums form part of a cultural complex that includes the neighbouring Rose Garden.
The Government Museum & Art Gallery is best of the lot, housing a sizeable and informatively displayed collection of textiles, Harappan artefacts, miniature paintings and contemporary art, including five original Roerichs and a couple of A.N. Tagore’s atmospheric watercolours.
The ancient sculptures are the most compelling exhibits, notably the Gandhara Buddhas with their delicately carved “wet-look” lunghis and distinctly Hellenic features – a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests.
A stone’s throw to the west, the small but modernist Chandigarh Architecture Museum illustrates the planning and construction of Chandigarh, with models and photographs in a concrete pavilion based on one of Le Corbusier’s designs.
Beyond that, the Natural History Museum has a few stuffed animals, some bits of fossilized mammoths and diorama depictions of early humans.
Visits to the Capital Complex are by guided tour only – security is tight here, and has been since 1995, when Punjab chief minister Beant Singh was assassinated in front of the Assembly building by Sikh nationalist hardliners.
The complex’s most imposing edifice is the eleven-storey Secretariat, Chandigarh’s highest building, which houses ministerial offices for both Haryana and Punjab, and has a roof garden with good views over the city.
The resemblance of the adjacent Legislative Assembly building, or Vidhan Sabha (home to the legislatures of both states) to a power station is no coincidence: Le Corbusier was allegedly inspired by a stack of cooling towers he saw in Ahmedabad.
Opposite the Secretariat is the most colourful building in the complex, the High Court (also serving both states), which is said to incorporate elements of the Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri, and is decorated inside with huge woollen tapestries.
Close to the Capital Complex, the Rock Garden is a surreal fantasyland fashioned from fragments of shattered plates, neon strip-lights, pots, pebbles, broken bangles and assorted urban-industrial junk. The open-air exhibition was a labour of love by retired Public Works Department road inspector Nek Chand.
Inspired by a recurrent childhood dream, he began construction in 1957. His intention was to create just a small garden, but by the time it was discovered in 1975 – to widespread astonishment – it covered twelve acres.
Though it was completely illegal, the city council recognized it as a great artistic endeavour and, in a conspicuously enlightened decision, awarded Chand a salary to continue his work (which he did until his death in 2015), and a workforce of fifty labourers to help.
Opened to the public in 1976, the garden now covers 25 acres and contains several thousand sculptures.
Though less interesting (in an architectural sense) than the City Architecture museum, Sector 19’s Le Corbusier Centre has a more interesting array of exhibits, including a lot of black-and-white photos of the fella himself boating around Sukhna Lake, plans of the envisioned city, and more photos of the buildings during and after creation.
Pinjore, 22km north of Chandigarh and 7km south of Kalka on the Shimla road, is one of many sites associated with the exile of the Pandavas as chronicled in the Mahabharata, and is best known for its walled gardens, and it makes a good half-day trip from Chandigarh.
Originally belonging to the rajas of Sirmaur, the gardens were taken over by Aurangzeb’s foster brother, Fidai Khan, who erected three pleasure palaces for his wife amid the cypress trees.
Legend tells that the raja reclaimed his summer retreat by sending a female fruit-seller with goitre to the imperial impostors. On being told that the woman’s unsightly swelling was caused by the local water, the begum and her entourage fled.
The gardens are on seven levels, bisected by waterways with fountains; the best time to visit is in the evening, when it’s all aglow with pretty lights.
Near the gardens, excavated remains of the tenth-century Bhima Devi Temple – destroyed during the Muslim conquest of the area – have been assembled in a pleasant park with four exhibition rooms that the caretaker will open for you if he’s about.
Chandigarh’s high property prices make accommodation here expensive, especially at the bottom end where choice is limited, and places are very often full (so book ahead if possible).
Hotels line the northern side of Himalaya Marg, which runs right through the centre of the city. There are also places to stay on the roads running north from here.
Just south of Chandigarh Hockey Stadium are a collection of cheap hotels that cluster northeast of Attawa Chowk roundabout.
The Shivalik Vihar neighbourhood close to Rajindra Park also has plenty of mid-range places to bed down for the night.
Browse the best hotels in Chandigarh.
You’ll most likely eat well in Chandigarh, where a number of great international options have popped up in recent years. Most of the best nightlife action takes place along a strip running down the west flank of Sectors 7 and 26.
There are plenty of good, cheap places to eat near Panjab University, including plenty of decent Indian restaurants and fast-food places like KFC.
This road, which runs northwest from Section 28, has lots of places to eat en route, including some food malls.
Getting around well-planned Chandigarh is rather effortless but probably best explored on foot.
Chandigarh is rather spread out, but with actual paths and some quiet inner-sector roads and parks, it can actually be a pleasant place to explore on foot.
Cycle- and auto-rickshaws cruise the streets and are best for short distances.
There’s a taxi stand in the northwest corner of Sector 17 ISBT, with others dotted around town. Uber and Ola cabs operate in the city, and are usually about the same price as the auto-rickshaws.
As ever in northern India, spring (March–April) and autumn (Oct & Nov) are the best times to visit Chandigarh.
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.
To fully experience the attractions and ambiance of Chandigarh, it is recommended to spend at least 2-3 days in the city. This timeframe allows you to visit the iconic Rock Garden, explore the beautiful Capitol Complex, stroll through the serene Sukhna Lake, and immerse yourself in the architectural marvels of Le Corbusier.
Additionally, you can take time to explore the vibrant markets, indulge in the local cuisine, and appreciate the meticulously planned urban spaces that make Chandigarh a unique destination.
Chandigarh is a major regional hub, and also a useful jumping-off point for Shimla, to which there are direct buses, as well as the “Toy Train” from Kalka, 26km northeast of Chandigarh and connected to it by trains and frequent buses.
Chandigarh’s airport is at Mohali, 8km east of the city. There are regular flights here from Delhi, Mumbai and Srinagar.
The railway station sits an inconvenient 8km southeast of the centre – it’ll cost ₹100 by auto or app taxi, or ₹10 on a local bus. Superfast a/c Shatabdi trains run to Delhi, and there’s a rail reservation centre at the Sector 17 ISBT. Connections include Amritsar, Delhi , Jodhpur, Kolkata and Mumbai.
The main Inter-state Bus Terminal (ISBT) is on the south edge of the main commercial and shopping district, Sector 17, with regular services to Delhi (via Delhi airport). However, daytime services to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh use the Sector 43 bus stand, connected to the ISBT by frequent local buses.
Tickets can be pre-booked at both terminals, or for less busy services, bought on the bus. There’s a prepaid auto-rickshaw counter across the road from the west side of the Sector 17 ISBT (next to the pedestrian underpass exit).
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