Long before Kashmir was immortalised in the eponymous Led Zeppelin song it had already achieved legendary status with Western travellers, from officers of the British Raj to the first hippie overlanders in the 1960s. No stint in the Subcontinent was complete without a sojourn on the famous houseboats of the capital Srinagar, in the heart of the idyllic Kashmir Valley. By the end of the 1980s, the tourist business was booming and had in fact overtaken agriculture as the region’s main source of income. This all came to an almost overnight halt with the onset of the conflict in 1989.
The best travel tips for visiting Kashmir
With the situation stabilising in recent years, visitor numbers have risen again (mostly domestic, thanks to the burgeoning Indian middle class), though they remain below the 1980s zenith.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the hot and dusty plains around Jammu and the cool green of the Kashmir Valley. Geographical divides aside, separated as they are by a rise in altitude of more than 1000m, there persists cultural and religious differences.
The area around Jammu is predominantly Hindu, while the Kashmir Valley and its capital, Srinagar, are distinctly Muslim, a key factor in the sectarian problems. Most people content themselves with a visit to Srinagar, although the towns of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, both in prime trekking territory, are regarded as safe these days, as is the lovely town of Sonamarg on the Kargil road.
Nevertheless, before setting off for Kashmir, do check the current security situation. Guarded by the grandeur of the surrounding peaks, including the mighty Pir Panjal, whether you approach the Vale of Kashmir via the Jawahar Tunnel, which cuts through the mountains from the south, or via the Zoji La pass from Kargil to the east, you will find a lush rural paradise.
What to do in Kashmir
From staying on a houseboat at Srinagar to hiking to exploring the atmospheric Old City, here are the best things to do in Shimla.
#1 Visit Srinagar
Srinagar is set in one of the most dramatic locations in India – a mile above sea level, with majestic mountains pressing in on three sides. This city of almost one million inhabitants is famed with tourists for the houseboats that line the fringes of Dal and Nageen lakes, as well as the central section of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus.
Like the rest of Kashmir, Srinagar is predominantly Muslim. For centuries this region was known for its religious tolerance, where adherents of all the major Eastern faiths lived side by side. As such, away from the lake, most of the sights here are religious in nature, including two venerated mosques – Jama Masjid, deep in the heart of the atmospheric Old City, and the lakeside Hazratbal – and the Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, as well as the Shankaracharya Mandir, a Hindu temple atop a hill overlooking Dal Lake.
#2 Discover Dal Lake’s floating flower market
Dal Lake and around Srinagar would be a major draw on the strength of its Himalayan scenery alone, but it is the city’s serene lakes and grand gardens that make it irresistible.
There are several large bodies of water dividing the urban sprawl into its constituent neighbourhoods by far the largest is Dal Lake, Covering, 21 square kilometres, the lake is usually as flat as a mirror and incredibly photogenic, with the surrounding peaks reflected in its greenish-blue waters.
Apart from the houseboats that cover its southern end, nearest the town centre, the lake is famous for its floating gardens, as well as a floating flower and vegetable market – well worth the 4am wake-up you’ll need to see it at its best. The best way to tour the lake is on a shikara, a colourful flat-bottomed water taxi that is steered with a heart-shaped paddle.
#3 Waterski for (almost) free at Nehru Park
A shikara ride from the mainland, Nehru Park may be the lake’s largest island, but it is still pretty tiny. Visitors will find pontoons for swimming and the excellent Gulshan Books café. Thrill seeks who want full throttle adrenaline at a fraction of the price will find the water skiing facilities, available at rates that must be among the world’s lowest.
#4 Stroll through The Mughal gardens
The perimeter of Dal Lake is punctuated by lavishly ornamental gardens, a legacy of the seventeenth-century Mughal period.
Incredibly popular with locals and Indian tourists alike, who flock here to picnic and frolic in the fountain pools, these collections of terraced lawns and flowerbeds – containing an array of flowers and plants sufficient to delight any botanist – reach their zenith in Nishat Bagh, halfway along the eastern shore, and Shalimar Bagh, set a little way back from the northeastern corner.
A short way back from the southeastern shore, Cheshmashahi Bagh is a smaller but equally delightful spot, which attracts people for the curative properties of its spring waters.
#5 See the skyline from Shankaracharya Mandir
The city’s main Hindu temple, Shankaracharya Mandir stands imperiously above Dal Lake, occupying the crest of the eponymous hill south of the Boulevard.
The temple itself is nothing special architecturally speaking and security is predictably tight, but the views across the city and lakes to the mountains beyond are quite breathtaking.
The walk up is a gentle thirty-minute stroll, although security guards sometimes demand that you take an auto-rickshaw.
#6 Admire the architecture in the Old City
Crammed with wooden buildings, the Old City displays the typical Kashmiri architectural style of carved balustrades and ornate frames on windows and doors. Away from the lakes, the venerable and atmospheric Old City is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating corners of Srinagar and in it’s heart stands Jama Masjid, the city’s largest mosque.
Built of sturdy stone and brick with the distinctive pagoda-style wooden minarets unique to Kashmir, it was erected between 1398 and 1402 by Sikander But-Shikoh but has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times, most recently in 1961. Look out for the fascinating family tree of the Prophet Mohammed going all the way back to Adam and Eve, which hangs on the wall near the main niche.
#7 Admire a museum fit for a maharaja
The outstanding Sri Pratap Singh Museum is in Lal Mandi, south across the Jhelum River from Lal Chowk. The former maharaja’s palace (and an adjacent newer wing) house a huge collection that includes archeological findings such as terracotta tiles and Buddhist tablets, decorative arts from enamelware to papier-mâché, textiles, manuscripts and miniature paintings.
#8 Take a closer look at the fort on the hill
Atop the eponymous ridge that dominates the Old City, Hari Parbat Fort is officially called Durrani Fort, after the emperor who had the current structure built in 1808. It is also known locally as Akbar Fort, however, because the first battlements were constructed here under the reign of Akbar in the late sixteenth century.
For many years the fort was completely off limits as a military zone, but it reopened to the public in 2015, despite an ongoing army presence. Though there are plans for development, there’s not much to see inside; the ramparts are the main surviving feature, and you may content yourself to admire them from afar.
Those who wish for a closer inspection, it is best to arrange a visit through the Tourist Reception Centre.
#9 Admire the intricacies of the Khanqah Mosque of Shah Hamdan
Sitting on the east bank of the River Jhelum, the Khanqah Mosque of Shah Hamdan was originally built in 1395 by Shah Sikandar, though the current structure dates from 1732. It is inaccessible to non-Muslims but still worth a visit for the intricate wood carvings of its exterior. You can also get a glimpse of the equally beautiful interior from the door.
#10 Visit the tomb of Jesus Christ
A couple of kilometres to the southeast of Jama Masjid, the small square mosque of Rozabal, with its simple octagonal dome, is purported to enshrine the tomb of Jesus by those who subscribe to the theory – the subject of Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived In India – that Christ actually lived to a ripe old age and died here in Kashmir.
The mosque is kept locked but you may be able to peep inside through the gate. Note that this is one place where foreigners sometimes encounter hostility from locals, so it is best to move on if asked.
#11 Take the cable car to Makhdoom Sahib
One of Kashmir’s most vibrant places of worship, with frequent live music, the Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib is located on the northern edge of the Old City, halfway up towards Hari Parbat Fort on the hill of the same name.
The inner shrine housing the tomb of the saint is open to men only. Good views across Nageen Lake and further afield can be enjoyed by all from the nearby steps, though it’s now possible to save yourself a gentle walk by taking the cable car.
Best places to stay in Kashmir
Although most foreign tourists stay on houseboats, there are plenty of conventional hotels and lodges. During the domestic high season (April–June) the prices are likely to double.
Jammu has a wide range of options to suit every budget with lots of basic budget options around Vinaik Bazaar. For those seeking midrange bargains, the lanes off Residency Road are your best bet.
Popular with Indian holidaymakers, Srinagar has a multitude of hotels but most people who visit will want to stay on the houseboats adorning the lakes.
The ski resort of Gulmarg has plenty of high-quality accommodation options.
There are hundreds of hotels to pick from at Pahalgam, ranging from five-star luxury to basic and budget.
Browse the places to stay in Kashmir.
Sleep on a houseboat
Few experiences are as romantic as lounging on an exquisitely carved houseboat, watching kingfishers diving for their dinner between the floating lilies, or gazing at the moon reflected in the lake’s dark waters.
These floating hotels of one to four rooms have existed for generations; many originated at the peak of the British Raj, when Victorian families would spend the entire hot season here. They originally chose to stay on boats to get around laws that forbade them from owning land.
The default option is staying at one of the many houseboats facing Boulevard Road at the southwestern corner of Dal Lake; the westernmost ones are accessible by footpath, which makes things easier, if a little less romantic, and the rest are a set ride by shikara from the road.
There’s another glut of houseboats a little further north; again, some are accessible on foot, and many of these have the benefit of having the city out of sight. Also quiet are the boats on Nageen Lake, which are usually accessible by footpath; there are also some houseboats floating on their lonesome at various points around Dal Lake, though their peace is often interrupted by the lake’s perimeter road.
How to choose a houseboat in Kashmir
Although it’s now very easy to book a houseboat stay online, this comes with an element of risk – while the reviews on certain booking engines may be genuine and informative, the boat’s purported position on the lake can be way, way off, with obvious implications when trying to actually find it.
The best bet remains to hole up in a town hotel for the first night, then either walk or hire a shikara to embark on a scouting mission, armed with a few ideas from online research; this way you can compare the prices, amenities and location of a number of boats, though do note that you’ll be pestered regularly on the way.
Another approach is to organise your stay through the Houseboat Owners Association whose office is opposite the Tourist Reception Centre on Residency Road. They can arrange rooms in different categories of boat from Deluxe Class with full board, though often discounted down to D Class. They do, however, often seem keen to push the boats of their buddies.
How to get around
There are several ways to get around the mesmerizing valleys, serene lakes, and snow-capped mountains of Kashmir. All of them slow.
There are airports at Srinagar, Jammu and Leh which can be helpful if you're travelling large distances.
The train links Katra, Jammu and Udhampur but is more limited than other Indian states.
Buses lumber across steep, winding mountain roads throughout the state and will close if there is heavy snow. It's best to add a couple of day's leeway due to the weather.
By private jeep
If there are several of you, it can be worth hiring a 4WD and a driver to get you between towns.
How many days do you need in Kashmir?
To truly immerse youiself in Kashmir, it is generally recommended to spend at least 7 to 10 days in Kashmir.
During this time, visitors can experience the enchanting Dal Lake and stay in a houseboat, explore the picturesque valleys of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, and witness the breathtaking beauty of Sonamarg and its surrounding glaciers.
Additionally, a visit to the iconic Mughal Gardens in Srinagar, such as Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh, is a must. Extra days would be needed if you’re interested in exploring the lesser-known regions of Kashmir, like the Lolab Valley or Gurez Valley.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? Check our India itineraries.
What is the best time to visit Kashmir?
Kashmir’s harshest climate is in Ladakh, with passes into the region open only between late June and late October, when the sun is at its strongest and the weather, at least during the day, pleasantly warm.
Although it is officially a high-altitude desert, recent years have seen increasing bouts of rain in July and August, sometimes making trekking difficult.
From November onwards, temperatures drop fast, often plummeting to minus 40°C between December and February, when the only way in and out of Zanskar is along the frozen surface of the river.
Note that nearly all hotels and guesthouses are closed from some time in October until April, while many garden restaurants only open in the peak summer months.
Kashmir is at its best (though also at its busiest and most expensive) during late March and mid-May, when spring flowers abound, and from September to early November, with its golden days and chillier nights.
Although the region’s climate is less harsh than Ladakh and the road up from Jammu kept open by the army, the winter months see some seriously subzero temperatures and heaps of snow.
By contrast, as much of the Kashmir Valley (including Srinagar itself) is well under 2000m in altitude, high summer can be surprisingly hot, sometimes topping 35°C.
It can also get quite wet in July and August. Sitting at the top of the plains, the Jammu area can be visited at any time of year, though it can get extremely hot and humid between April and August and rather cold and foggy in the middle of winter.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How to get here
Most travellers will arrive in Kashmir via Srinagar with plenty of ways to explore the state from there.
Srinagar’s airport lies 14 km south of the city centre. Taxis and Auto Rickshaws will take you into town.
Government buses pull in on Residency Rd, a few minutes’ walk south of Dal Gate, while the private bus stand is around 1 km further west.
Jeeps, which also pull in on Residency Rd, run to Jammu, Kargil and Leh and operate more flexible hours. Shared minibuses are the best way to travel within the Kashmir Valley.
Srinagar does have a railway station, but at the time of writing it was only for local services west to Baramulla, and south to Anantnag; by 2020 the stretch to Jammu should have been completed, enabling rail access from the rest of the country
Find out the best ways to get to India.