Shimla and around
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Shimla, Himachal’s capital, is India’s largest and most famous hill station, where much of the action in Rudyard Kipling’s colonial classic Kim took place. While the city is a favourite spot for Indian families and honeymooners, its size does little to win its popularity among Western tourists. It is, however, a perfect halfway house between the plains and the Kullu Valley. It’s also the starting post for forays into the remoter regions of Kinnaur and Spiti. Whether you travel by road or rail from the south, the last stretch of the climb up to Shimla seems interminable.
Deep in the foothills of the Himalayas, the hill station is approached via a sinuous route that winds from the plains at Kalka across nearly 100 km of precipitous river valleys, pine forests, and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards.
It’s not hard to see why the British chose this inaccessible site as their summer capital. At an altitude of 2159m, the crescent-shaped ridge over which it spills is blessed with perennially cool air and superb panoramas.
Southeast of Shimla, Kasauli is a peaceful place to break your journey from Chandigarh in Punjab, while nearby Nalagarh Fort has been converted into the finest hotel in the state. The southernmost area of the state, Sirmaur, is Himachal’s most fertile area, with the major Sikh shrine in Paonta Sahib as a noteworthy sight.
Northeast of Shimla, the apple-growing centre of Narkanda and Sarahan, site of the famous Bhimakali temple, set against a backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, can be visited in a two- or three-day round trip from Shimla, or en route to Kinnaur via the characterless transport hub of Rampur.
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From seeing Pir Panjal from The Ridge to hiking to Jakhu Temple, here are the best things to do in Shimla.
Shimla’s busy social scene revolves around the broad and breezy piazza that straddles The Ridge, overlooking rippling foothills with the jagged white peaks of the Pir Panjal and Great Himalayan ranges on the horizon.
It is said all water that drains off the north side of The Ridge ends up in the Arabian Sea, while from the south side it ends up in the Bay of Bengal.
During high season it is a hive of activity, with entertainment provided by brass bands, pony rides and a giant screen showing sporting events.
The Victorian Gothic spire of Christ Church is Shimla’s most prominent landmark. The stained-glass windows, the finest in British India, depict (from left to right) Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Patience and Humility.
At the other end of The Ridge, Scandal Point is the focus of Shimla’s famous mid-afternoon meet when crowds gather here to gossip.
From The Ridge, a tangle of roads and lanes tumbles down in stages, each layer connected to the next by stone steps. The Mall, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, curves around the south slope of the hill.
Flanked by a long row of unmistakably British half-timbered buildings, Shimla’s main shopping street was, until World War I, strictly out-of-bounds to all “natives” except royalty and rickshaw-pullers. These days, rickshaws, man-powered or otherwise, are banned and non-Indian faces are in the minority.
The quintessentially colonial Gaiety Theatre was renovated in 2008 and puts on regular performances and exhibitions, now billing itself as a Heritage Cultural Complex.
Walk down any of the narrow lanes leading off The Mall, and you’re plunged into a warren of twisting backstreets. Shimla’s bazaar is the hill station at its most vibrant – a maze of dishevelled shacks, brightly lit stalls and minarets, cascading in a clutter of corrugated iron to the edge of Cart Road.
Apart from being a good place to shop for authentic souvenirs, this is also one of the few areas of town that feels Himalayan: multicoloured Kullu caps (topis) bob about in the crowd, alongside the odd Lahauli, Kinnauri or Tibetan face.
The HP state museum is well worth the effort to get to. The ground floor of the elegant colonial mansion is given over largely to temple sculpture, and a gallery of magnificent Pahari miniatures – examples of the last great Hindu art form to flourish in northern India before the deadening impact of Western culture in the early nineteenth century.
The Mughal-influenced Pahari or “Hill” school is renowned for subtle depictions of romantic love, inspired by scenes from Hindu epics. Among the museum’s paintings are dozens of Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures and a couple of fine “Company” watercolours, produced for souvenir-hunting colonials by the descendants of the Mughal and Pahari masters.
The fakirs, itinerant sadhus and mendicants they depict could have leapt straight from the pages of Kipling. One room is devoted to Mahatma Gandhi, packed with photos of his time in Shimla.
Some 3km west of the centre Shimla’s single most impressive colonial monument is the old Viceregal Lodge, summer seat of the British government until the 1940s and today home to the Institute of Advanced Studies.
The solid grey mansion, built in Elizabethan style with a lion and unicorn set above the entrance porch, surveys trimmed lawns fringed by pines and flowerbeds – the grounds and the exterior of the lodge are most impressive.
Inside looks a little tired, with only a few rooms on the ground floor open to the public: a vast teak-panelled entrance hall, an impressive library (formerly the ballroom) and the guest room.
The conference room, hung with photos of Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, was the scene of crucial talks in the run-up to Independence. On the stone terrace to the rear of the building, a plaque profiles and names the peaks visible in the distance.
The short hike up to Prospect Hill (2176m), a popular picnic spot, ties in nicely with a visit to the Viceregal Lodge. By cutting through the woods to the west of the mansion, you can drop down to a busy intersection known as Boileauganj, from where a tarmac path climbs steeply up to the small shrine of Kamana Devi, which affords fine views.
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 to 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 30 m-tall orange concrete statue of Hanuman is an impressive sight.
Unsurprisingly for a state capital that is also a major holiday destination, accommodation in Shimla 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
At the heart of Shimla, The Ridge and Mall Road epitomise the charm and vibrancy of this hill station with some colonial-era buildings now hotels. There are also plenty of midrange options too.
On the city outskirts, Chotta Shimla is the place to go for a quieter stay. Located a few kilometres away, this upscale residential neighbourhood is dotted with elegant houses, picturesque streets, lush greenery, and more upmarket resorts.
Browse the best hotels in Shimla.
Few restaurants in Shimla retain any colonial ambience but standards have improved and a number of decent places complement the hotel restaurants, while the many bakeries and ice-cream parlours offer comfort for the sweet-toothed.
For a really cheap and filling meal, try the fried potato patties (tikki) or chickpea curry and puris (channa batura) at one of the snack bars that line the steps opposite the Gaiety Theatre.
The bazaar has plenty of options but is particularly good for cheap dhabas.
How to get around
Wherever you arrive in Shimla, you’ll be mobbed by porters. Most of the town is pedestrianized, and seriously steep, so you may be glad of the extra help to carry your gear. Taxis and buses operate on the outskirts.
Taxis are the best way to get to the pricier hotels on the outskirts. The main Vishal Himachal Taxi Union rank is 1 km east of the Local Bus Stand, at the bottom of the lift that connects the east end of Cart Rd with The Mall. Another, more central, taxi rank can be found just above the Local Bus Stand on Cart Rd
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.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
For a comprehensive visit to Shimla, it is generally recommended to spend around 3 to 4 days. This duration allows you to explore the main attractions, enjoy leisurely walks on the famous Mall Road, and visit landmarks like the Ridge, Christ Church, and Jakhu Temple. You can also take a toy train ride on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kalka-Shimla Railway, which offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
If you have more time available, you can extend your stay to include nearby destinations such as Kufri, known for its scenic beauty and adventure activities like skiing and horse riding. Additionally, you may consider visiting Naldehra, famous for its golf course, or Mashobra, a serene hill station located a short distance from Shimla.
Shimla can be reached by various means of transportation. The most convenient way to reach Shimla is by road, with well-connected highways linking it to major cities in the region. Alternatively, you can also take a scenic toy train ride on the Kalka-Shimla Railway, or fly to the nearest airport in Chandigarh and continue the journey by road.
Wherever you arrive in Shimla, you’ll be mobbed by porters. Most of the town is pedestrianised, and seriously steep, so you may be glad of the extra help to carry your gear, but it’s better to politely refuse their offer to tout you a hotel.
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. Note that antiquated facilities and frequent bad weather cause frequent delays.
The train station is a 15 min walk southwest of The Mall. The toy train connects Shimla with Kalka, where you can change onto the main broad-gauge line for Chandigarh and Delhi.
Long-distance buses use the new multilevel bus stand 6 km southwest of the centre, on the Chandigarh road. Frequent minibuses link it to the Local Bus Stand on Cart Rd.
Find out the best ways to get to India.