Ruffled by the lower ridges of the Shivalik Range in the far south, cut through by the Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges in the northwest, and dominated by the great Himalayas in the north and east, Himachal Pradesh (HP) is India’s most popular and easily accessible hill state. Sandwiched between the Punjab and Tibet, its lowland orchards, subtropical forests and maize fields peter out in the higher reaches where pines cling to the steep slopes of mountains whose inhospitable peaks soar in rocky crags and forbidding ice fields to heights of more than 6000m.
The best travel tips for visiting Himachal Pradesh
Together with deep gorges cut by rivers crashing down from the Himalayas, these mountains form natural boundaries between the state’s separate districts. Each has its own architecture, from rock-cut shrines and shikhara temples to colonial mansions and Buddhist monasteries.
Roads struggle against the vagaries of the climate to connect the larger settlements, which are way outnumbered by remote villages, many of which are home to semi-nomadic Gaddi and Gujjar shepherds.
An obvious way to approach the state is to head north from Delhi to the state capital, Shimla, beyond the lush and temperate valleys of Sirmaur. The former summer location of the British government, Shimla is a curious, appealing mix of grand homes, churches and chaotic bazaars, with breathtaking views.
The main road northeast from Shimla tackles a pass just north of Narkanda, then follows the River Sutlej east towards Sarahan, with its spectacular wooden temple, before entering the eastern district of Kinnaur, much of which is accessible only to those holding Inner Line permits.
Kinnaur becomes more austere and barren as it stretches east to the Tibetan plateau, its beauty enhanced by delicate timber houses, temples and fluttering prayer flags.
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Best things to do in Himachal Pradesh
From Kinnaur’s prime spot, Kalpa, to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Rewalsar, here are the best things to do in Himachal Pradesh.
#1 Ride the toy train to the Raj-era hill station of Shimla.
A rattly ride through verdant mountain scenery from Kalka to the Raj-era hill station of Shimla. Until the construction of the Kalka–Shimla Railway, the only way to get to the Shimla hill station was on the so-called Cart Road – a slow, winding trail trodden by lines of long-suffering porters and horse-drawn tongas.
By the time the 96 km narrow-gauge line was completed in 1903, 103 tunnels, 24 bridges and 18 stations had been built between Shimla and the railhead at Kalka, 26 km northeast of Chandigarh.
These days, buses may be quicker, but a ride on the “toy train” is far more memorable – especially if you travel first-class, in one of the glass-windowed rail cars.
Hauled along by a tiny diesel locomotive, they rattle at a leisurely pace through stunning scenery, taking between five and a half and seven hours to reach Shimla.
#2 Visit Kalpa for stunning views of the Kinner-Kailash massif
Kalpa can be reached by the twisting 9 km road from Rekong Peo or on foot along various steep tracks. Its narrow atmospheric lanes, crammed with rickety wooden shops, and dramatic location, high above the right bank of the Sutlej, make it by far the most attractive base in the immediate vicinity.
The ancient Tibetan gompa here was founded by Rinchen Zangpo, and there is also a small Shiva temple. The village and its growing number of hotels are quite spread out up the hill, which is festooned with apple orchards, and along the roads that radiate from the centre.
Facing the village, the magnificent Kinner-Kailash massif sweeps 4500m up from the valley floor. The mountain in the middle, Jorkaden (6473m), is the highest, followed by the sacred summit of Kinner-Kailash (6050m) to the north, and the needlepoint of Raldang (5499m) in the south.
#3 Find peace at the Buddhist pilgrimage site Rewalsar
If you’ve any interest in Buddhism it’s worth taking a detour to Rewalsar (Tso Pema in Tibetan), 24 km southeast of Mandi, where three Tibetan monasteries (Nyingma, Drikung Kagyu and Drukpa Kagyu) mark an important place of pilgrimage.
The devout complete a chora around the small sacred lake and along narrow lanes full of shrines and stalls selling Tibetan curios, before lounging beneath the prayer flags on the lake’s grassy fringes. It’s believed that Padmasambhava left many footprints and handprints in rocks and caves up in the hills around the lake, and steep paths lead up from the lake to caves that are used today as isolated meditation retreats.
Of the three monasteries around the lake, Tso-Pema Ogyen Heruka Gompa is the most venerated and atmospheric.
#4 Take in McLeod Ganj, one of Himachal’s most irresistible destinations
Home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, and starting point for some exhilarating treks into the high Himalayas, Dharamsala, or more correctly, its upper town McLeod Ganj, is one of Himachal’s most irresistible destinations.
Spread across wooded ridges beneath the stark rock faces of the Dhauladhar Range, the town is divided into two distinct and separate sections, separated by 10km of perilously twisting road and almost 1000m in altitude.
Originally a British hill station, McLeod Ganj has been transformed by the influx of Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese oppression in their homeland. Tibetan influence here is subsequently very strong, with temples, schools, monasteries, nunneries, meditation centres and the most extensive library of Tibetan history and religion.
Many visit India specifically to come here, and its relaxed atmosphere can make it difficult to leave.
#5 Ride the Kangra Valley Railway
India has five of the twenty or so vintage “toy trains'' or narrow-gauge mountain railways in the world – three in the Himalayas and two of these in Himachal Pradesh. Most famous is the Kalka–Shimla line, but the little-known 163 km Kangra Valley Railway is also a magnificent engineering feat.
Unlike the Kalka line, with its 103 tunnels and tortuous switchbacks, engineers of this route preferred bridges – 950 in all, many of which are still considered masterpieces – that give passengers uninterrupted views all the way from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar.
Although it’s slower than the equivalent road journey, the scenery along the way is far more impressive, particularly the stretch between Kangra and Mangwal. All services pass through Kangra.
#6 Head to the remote mountain village Bharmour for trekking
Bharmour is a delightful small town, made up of slate-roofed houses, apple trees and small maize fields, draped across a verdant ridge above the river and shadowed on all sides by high snowy peaks.
It is well worth the effort to travel the extra distance from Chamba and you are likely to be rewarded by being the only foreigner in town. From the bus stand, the main street winds up through the bazaar area to the picturesque main square, which is dominated by the magnificent Chaurasi temple complex.
The temples, whose curved shikharas dominate the large, neatly paved central square, are more dramatic and better preserved than their rivals at Chamba.
The sanctuaries are unlocked only for puja in the mornings and evenings, permitting a glimpse of bold bronze images of Shiva, Narsingh, Ganesh and Parvati, unchanged since their installation in the seventh and eighth centuries when Bharmour was capital of the surrounding mountainous region.
#7 While away the days at Naggar
Stacked up the lush, terraced lower slopes of the valley as they sweep towards the tree line from the left bank of the Beas, Naggar is the most scenic and accessible of the hill villages between Kullu and Manali.
Clustered around an old castle, this was the regional capital before the local rajas decamped to Kullu in the mid-1800s. A century or so later, European settlers began to move in.
Seduced by the village’s ancient temples, peaceful setting and unhurried pace, visitors often find themselves lingering in Naggar, a far less hippified village than those further north. Numerous tracks wind up the mountain to more remote settlements, providing a choice of enjoyable hikes.
Naggar is a very pleasant place, often overlooked by travellers making a beeline for Manali. The refreshing elevation, stunning views and a variety of interesting sites make it an excellent spot to while away a few days.
#8 Head to Spiti Valley, one of the most remote inhabited places on earth
Tiny Tibetan villages and beautiful white gompas dot Spiti’s astonishing, weathered landscape. From its headwaters below the Kunzum La pass, the River Spiti runs 130 km southeast to within the flick of a yak’s tail of the border with Tibet, where it meets the Sutlej.
The valley itself, surrounded by huge peaks with an average altitude of 4500m, is one of the highest and most remote inhabited places on earth – a desolate, barren tract scattered with tiny mud-and-timber hamlets and lonely lamaseries.
Until 1992, Spiti in its entirety lay off-limits to foreign tourists. Now, only its far southeastern corner falls within the Inner Line – which leaves upper Spiti, including the district headquarters Kaza, freely accessible from the northwest via Lahaul.
The last main stop before reaching the restricted zone is the famed Tabo gompa, which harbours some of the oldest and most exquisite Buddhist art in the world.
#9 Drive the Manali–Leh Highway, the second-highest road in the world
Since it opened to foreign tourists in 1989, the famous Manali–Leh Highway has replaced the old Srinagar–Kargil route as the most popular approach to Ladakh.
In summer, a stream of vehicles set off from the Kullu Valley to travel along the second-highest road in the world, which reaches a dizzying altitude of 5328m at Tanglang La.
Its surface varies wildly from fairly smooth asphalt through potholes of differing depths to dirt tracks sliced by glacial streams, traversing a starkly beautiful lunar wilderness.
Depending on road conditions and type of vehicle, the 485 km journey can take anything from seventeen to thirty hours’ actual driving. Bus drivers invariably stop for a short and chilly night in one of the spartan tent camps along the route.
#10 Take the early-morning hike up to Jakhu
The early-morning hike up to Jakhu, or “Monkey”, Temple is something of a tradition in Shimla. The top of the hill (2455m) on which it stands offers a superb panorama of the Himalayas – particularly breathtaking before the cloud gathers later in the day.
The relentlessly steep climb takes thirty to 45 minutes. The path starts just left of Christ Church; during the season, all you need do is follow the crowds.
After the hard walk up, the temple itself, a red-and-yellow-brick affair crammed with fairy lights and tinsel, comes as something of an anti-climax, although the new 30m-tall orange concrete statue of Hanuman is an impressive sight.
The shrine inside houses what are believed to be the footprints of Hanuman himself.
Legend has it that the monkey god, adored by Hindus for his strength and fidelity, rested on Jakhu after collecting healing Himalayan herbs for Rama’s injured brother, Lakshmana.
Best places to stay in Himachal Pradesh
Himachal Pradesh allows visitors to immerse themselves in the natural splendor while enjoying warm hospitality. From the bustling towns to serene villages, Himachal offers a wide range of accommodation options that cater to all preferences and budgets.
Unsurprisingly for a state capital that is also a major holiday destination, accommodation is costlier than average. In May and June prices soar and it’s essential to book in advance. At other times, most places are willing to bargain.
The junction town of Manali, 158km north of Shimla, straddles the River Beas, its riverside ghats dotted with stone temples where sadhus and pilgrims pray. Once a major trading post for Ladakhis heading south – mandi means market – the town still bustles with commercial activity, now centred on the attractive Indira Market and its sunken garden, in the centre of the town square, which is where the best hotels are situated.
Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj
Finding accommodation is only a problem during Losar, the Tibetan New Year (Feb/March). Almost all foreign visitors stay in the upper town, McLeod Ganj, so there is little reason to stay in Dharamsala itself.
Those planning long-term stays often head to the small settlements of Bhagsu or more peaceful Dharamkot, where there is a mixture of rooms in family houses and a growing number of hotels, serving Indian tourists and hippie travellers.
Accommodation ranges from basic rooms in village houses and simple lodges to more organized hotels, while Kasol’s travellers’ cafés are cheap and plentiful. Alpine Guest House off the main road is among the best places to sleep.
Browse the places to stay in Himachal Pradesh.
How to get around
From private jeep and toy trains to slow buses, here is how to get around Himachal Pradesh.
Most travellers will arrive via plane at Shimla’s airport, which lies 20km southwest of town on the Mandi road at Jubarhati. However, antiquated facilities and frequent bad weather cause frequent delays.
There are also daily flights from daily that go to Gaggal (31km from Dharamsala) and Bhuntar (12km from Kullu).
The toy train connects Shimla with Kalka, where you can change onto the main broad-gauge line for Chandigarh and Delhi, the best services being the Himalayan Queen #14096 or the faster Shatabdi Express #12012.
Long-distance buses cover much of the state, but be warned: roads are often winding and slow.
By private jeep
If you’re travelling In a group then a private jeep is a great way to get around as it's cheap, economical and can leave whenever you are ready.
How many days do you need in Himachal Pradesh?
You will need a minimum of 7-10 days to tick off the best that Himachal Pradesh has to offer. A week will give you enough time to visit Shimla, Manali, and Dharamshala, including a trek, but extend to 10 days or more and you can delve deeper into the lesser-known gems of Himachal Pradesh like Spiti Valley or Kinnaur.
Considering the mountainous terrain and occasional roadblocks due to weather conditions, it's advisable to keep some buffer days in your itinerary. This ensures that you have flexibility in your travel plans and can make the most of your time here.
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What is the best time to visit Himachal Pradesh?
Being a mountainous state, Himachal Pradesh is generally best visited between late March and mid-November, as it is freezing cold and snowy for much of the winter and few facilities remain open in the more remote parts of the state such as Spiti.
The main high season from April to June, though blessed with clear skies, is also when the touristic parts of the state are at their most crowded and expensive, thus not ideal. The monsoon can make it extremely cloudy and wet, especially in places like Shimla and Dharamsala, for much of July and August.
So the best time to visit overall is at the end of the monsoon in September and October, when the skies are mostly clear again, the days still warm and the nights not too chilly.
There are also a number of festivals worth attending in Himachal Pradesh:
- Losar (late Jan to late Feb) Tibetan New Year, marked with dancing and music in areas with large Buddhist populations, principally Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj and Spiti.
- Suhi Mata (early April) Four-day local festival celebrating the legend of Rani Sunena in Chamba.
- Baisakhi (usually April 13) Fairs are held throughout the state and people take dips in holy waters. Women are especially prominent with colourful dress.
- Minjar (early Aug) A week-long riot of singing and dancing in Chamba to celebrate the growth of maize.
- Flaich Ukhayang (Sept, date varies) Colourful festival of flowers throughout Kinnaur, marked by a procession of the village deity and goat sacrifice.
- Dussehra (late Sept to late Oct) Important throughout India, in Himachal this ten-day festival is particularly spectacular in Kullu.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How to get here
Most people will arrive in Shimla by aeroplane however it's also possible to get here by long distance bus.
Shimla’s airport lies 20 km southwest of town on the Mandi road at Jubarhati. In 2017, after five years with no flights, Air India started a daily route between Shimla and Delhi.
Long-distance buses travel to most major cities across India and there are services that go from Delhi to Shimla but the state is also well connected to most tourist destinations nearby.
Find out the best ways to get to India.