If you are searching for best Places to visit in India and want to travel to the North of India towards the Himalayas then this article would help you get clear on what you should be visiting. As I have mentioned in my earlier article as well trying to put Best places to visit in India in a Single article would make it impossible to read and achieve.
If Himalayas interest you not for Adventure but culture then I would recommend an Itinerary along these lines. This Itinerary would take you to Leh in the Indian Himalayas
Table of Contents
Starting out Delhi & Agra
Your entry point on this Journey would be New Delhi, as it is the most well connected International Airport. Your stay in Delhi would be decided on a number of things for example whether this is your first trip to India or not. If it is your first trip to India then you would want to plan some sightseeing in and around Delhi and maybe even visit Agra to see the Taj Mahal.
In this case you need to plan for atleast 3 nights in Delhi, One full day to explore Delhi and visiting the Sites in both Old and new Delhi and 1 full day for a day trip to see the Taj Mahal.
Delhi is home to 3 World Heritage site monuments, has 6 cities which are in Ruins, the 7th city is where the Red Fort stands and then there is the New City a.k.a 8th City of Delhi. Since it has been ruled by multiple dynasties and each has left their mark on the city, there is plenty to be seen and explored here. You want to plan your day to the full visiting Red Fort, Jama Mosque, British Delhi (India Gate and president palace) the tomb of Humayun and the Qutub Minar.
PRO TIP: Visit the Sikh Temple, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, visit not only the main shrine but also the Communal kitchen called Langar, which serves food to everyone irrespective of religion, color or caste. It is run purely by volunteers and the food served is purely on donations. Plan this to be in the middle of the day around lunch or towards the very end to really get the feel of the place as the Sun sets.
Your next halt should be Agra, with excellent connectivity from Delhi, you should be in Agra in under 3 hours (Leaving Delhi early around 7 AM is a good time) This ways you would be in Agra by 10, visit the Agra Fort first and then have an early lunch. Plan your visit to the Taj immediately after the early lunch. This close after lunch is usually less crowded and would allow you a great opportunity to enjoy it in multiple lights. Despite what you may have read or you may be told, 2-2.30 hours is more than enough to appreciate this building and photograph it from every angle.
Agra is also famous for its Inlay Work of semi precious stones on marble, referred to as Pietra dura by the Italians who invented it, the artisans in Agra perfected this art and have taken it to the next level. Agra is a Great place to see this exquisite work and if you like something even buy it and have it sent to your home.
Try and start back from Agra by 4-430 pm and you should be back in Delhi in time for Dinner.
Travel North – Train ride to Amritsar
The next day you would have an early start, take the express train from Delhi to Amritsar. The Train departs at 0720 from Delhi and reaches Amritsar by 1345 covering a distance of 448 kms. Once you have checked into your Hotel and settled in visit the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in the late afternoon and plan to stay there it gets Dark. It would be an experience unlike anything you would have ever experienced.
The ambience, the atmosphere, the colors, the faith all of these need to be felt and experienced and I can promise you if you spend some time at the Golden Temple you surely would.
Amritsar is in the state of Punjab and eating good food is a big thing. I would not recommend jumping straight to places we would go to as your stomach may not be able to digest the heavy food, but in your Hotel do experiment and see what are the local delicacies being served.
Dharamshala – Residence of Dalai Lama in Exile
The next morning, I recommend an early morning visit to Harmandir Sahib to experience it in a different time of day. Post breakfast you should start your Journey to Dharamshala, the residence in exile of the Dalai Lama.
In March of 1959 Tibet was in Turmoil, After years of scattered protests, a full-scale revolt had broken out in March, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee as the uprising was crushed by Chinese troops. On March 31, 1959, he began a permanent exile in India, settling at Dharamsala, where he established a democratically based shadow Tibetan government. India has always been home to all the religions in the world and Buddhism has always thrived here.
Though Buddha was born in modern day Nepal, he attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya and preached his first sermon in Sarnath, Varanasi and left this body in Kushinagar all cities being in India. Some of the largest universities and Monasteries ever built were in India so Buddhism has always been an Integral part of India since 6th Century BCE.
When you reach Dharamshala you have already entered into the State of Himachal Pradesh. The Himalayan State and from here onwards the next few days are going to be spent in this very state travelling in the Himalayas.
Your Dharamshala Itinerary would begin the next day with a visit to Dalai Lama Temple complex also known as Namgyal Monastery. If your visit coincides with Dalai Lama being in residence you may also get to hear him preach. (This cannot be advised in advance) Inside the temple are many large statues of Buddha, Avaloktwshwara, Pamasambhava and others. Inside the comples are also numerous ancient books related to Buddhism.
People not only visit this temple for meditating and rituals, which could be turning the prayer wheels on the outside while chanting the mantra Om Mani Padmehum or at holding a small prayer wheel in the hand and rotating it while chanting the mantra and walking around the temple.
The Monastery also houses an Institute which offers courses for study of Buddhism. As is the case with a visit to the Golden Temple spending time here and observing the Lamas as they go around their day learning and practicing Buddhism on a daily basis is a magical experience.
Other place to visit in Dharamshala is the Norbulinka Institue, The Institute was set up for the preservation and continuation of Tibetan art through self-sustaining means. Under the guidance of talented masters, artists and craftspeople are endowed with ancestral knowledge, This in turn has helped in providing jobs to a community of over 300 Tibetans.
Learn about the Tibetan art here and if something does catch your eye, you can even buy the same.
If you are upto it you can visit the Gyuto Monastery, Gyuto Monastery is known for its study of Tantric meditation, Tantric ritual arts and Buddhist philosophy. It was founded in Tibet in 1474 by the main disciple of the first Dalai Lama, Jetsun Kunga Dhondup. After the Chinese invasion in 1959, the monastery was re-established in India.
The monks here practice the major Tantric texts including Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara and Yamantaka. They have passed these lineages on to the younger generation of monks for more than 500 years.
The main chamber of the monastery has a majestic statue of the Buddha and with the backdrop of the snow-clad mountains, this is an extremely serene and peaceful place to spend an afternoon.
Late Afternoon is best spent exploring this Hill Station and enjoying the old colonial heritage with the modern day Dharamshala.
Up North to Manali
The next day takes you further up north along the river Beas to Manali. Manali used to be a sleepy little town that served as the transit point to go to Leh, Ladakh. However in 1989 when terrorism destroyed Tourism in Kashmir, Manali came to life, Today it is a prominent hill station and is visited by millions of Indian Tourists every year.
You would be using Manali as a Transit point as well but with a 2 day halt to gradually acclimatize your body to the high altitude. Where Dharamshala is at an Altitude of 1400 metres above Sea level, Manali is 600 metres higher and from here on we would be gaining altitude so these 2 days are needed.
Manali has minimum sightseeing, The Indians who visit it come here to escape the heat of the plains and spend a few days enjoying the cool weather and going up to Rohtang pass to see the snow as many of them have never seen Snow.
You should start the day with a visit to an Old village, though the Manali you see is modern, but just a few minutes travel would bring you one of the many villages close by where not much has changed.
People still live the way they used to, albeit with some modern conveniences. After the visit of the village head on over to the small Buddhist Temple located in the middle of the city.
For lunch try out one of many cafes that are there, Manali has some amazing locations along the beas river and some exceptional restaurants due to the huge volume of tourists who come here.
Your afternoon should be best spent walking one of many hundreds of trails in the mountains to get your lungs used to the less Oxygen that you are likely to experience over the next week or so.
High Altitude Roads, High Passes and Paschmina Wool.
The next day, set an early departure from Manali, you would be travelling for roughly 6 hours in some of the highest roads in the world, the initial part of the Journey you would encounter traffic but as you cross the Atal tunnel and turn towards Keylong, traffic just starts to fade away. You are now in the region of Himachal Pradesh, which sees very less visitors.
You would stop along the way as there are multiple Army check points here and your Documents would be checked at every check point. I recommend taking a refreshment stop at Jispa, before the opening of the tunnel one had to drive 2 hours up to the Rohtang Pass from Manali and then reach Jispa in around 5 hours and this became the first night halt.
Now however since the Travel time is reduced by half, Jispa is a refreshment stop now. From Jispa you would be crossing your 1st High Altitude pass called Baralachla (5030 metres / 16500 Feet) from here it is an hours drive to Sarchu which would be your night halt.
This is one of the Surreal & Breathtakingly Beautiful Highways of Incredible India. It is 473 Kms. long Highway in the midst of Indian Himalayas and most celebrated Highways all over the world among Adventure seekers. Bikers, Jeep enthusiasts from all over the world come here for a drive of a lifetime.
Sarchu is nestled between Baralacha La Pass and Lachung La pass at an altitude of 14,500 ft. widely known as Sir Bhum Chun, it serves as an overnight layover spot for travellers and explorers who are traversing on the Manali-Leh highway. From this point onwards Leh is about 250 km and is located on the boundary of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh.
Sarchu is an epitome of beauty, the landscape a mix of the verdant Manali landscape and the desert like Ladakh landscape is breathtaking. There are no traditional hotels in Sarchu but the camps in Sarchu make up amply for this. These camps are semi-permanent camps which operate from May to early October and provide a convenient accommodation option for travellers.
During winters, this highway and high passes along the road gets blocked and camps are closed. In the olden days Sarchu was an important trading point of the Ancient Silk Route.
You will be staying for 1 night here, post arrival you should be resting and letting your body get acclimatized to the high altitude. The Tents are basic but functional as is the food since it has to be brought from Manali.
The next day you will be crossing 3 high altitude passes, the Nakee La 4,739 Mtr (15,547 ft) the Lachunla high 5,065 Mtr (16,616 ft) and finally Tanglanla 5,328 Mtr (17,480 ft), on your Journey to Leh, the Capital of Ladakh. Expect a late afternoon arrival into Leh as you would be stopping often on the way. For this day it is advisable to have Packed lunch from Sarchu with you.
One cannot cross such High passes and not stop for Pictures along the way. The natural beauty of what you would be seeing cannot be described in words and despite best efforts cannot be captured in a Photo or a video. Enroute you also come across small settlements of changpa tribals,
The Changpa are semi nomadic pastoralists who raise Yaks and Goats. For many Changpas, rearing of animals, and consuming and selling their produce (milk and its products, hair and meat) is the only means of livelihood.
The Changpas rear the highly pedigreed and prized Changra goats (Capra Hircus) that yield the rare Pashmina (Cashmere) fibre. The Changra goats are not raised for their meat but for their fibre (pashm). The pashmina fibre (Pashm in Persian) is the finest fibre of all goat hair and used for high quality Shawls and Pullovers.
If you get a chance to visit a Traditional Tent or pet a Changra goat don’t hesitate, an opportunity like this comes only once in a lifetime.
Smile you are in Leh
Upon arrival in Leh, just relax and settle in. You have reached a lower altitude of 3500 mtrs / 11500 feet so your body should not have any problems acclimatizing to a lower altitude.
However it is best to rest this day.
You will be in Leh for the next 4 nights.
The first Day in Leh should be spent exploring the Leh Palace, Shanti Stupa, Namgyal Tsomo and Sankar Gompa. Leh Palace is a former royal palace overlooking the city of Leh.
It was constructed circa 1600 by Sengge Namgyal. The palace was abandoned when Dogra forces took control of Ladakh in the mid-19th century and forced the royal family to move to Stok Palace.
Once you have visited the Leh Palace you should then move to Namgyal Tsomo Monastery, founded in the early 15th century, around the year 1430. It stands atop the crag behind Leh palace, having a full view of the town of Leh. And because of this position, it offers some of the most splendid visuals of the town.
The Namgyal Tsemo Gompa of Ladakh was founded by King Tashi Namgyal and has been named after him only. It boasts of a rich collection of some ancient manuscripts and wall paintings.
One of the most treasured possessions of the monastery is a three-story high solid gold idol of Maitrieya Buddha (future Buddha, also known as the laughing Buddha). Namgyal Tsemo Monastery of Leh Ladakh also houses a statue of Avaloketesvara and Manjushri, approximately one story high.
Start your afternoon with a visit to Sankar Gompa or Sankar Monastery. This is a Buddhist monastery within an easy half-hour walk from Leh market, It is a daughter-establishment of Spituk Monastery and the residence of the Abbot of Spituk, the Venerable Kushok Bakula, who is the senior incarnate lama of Ladakh due to his ancient lineage and personal authority.
The last halt for the day should be Shanti Stupa, The Stupa is a white-domed stupa (chorten) on a hilltop in Chanspa, in Leh. The Shanti Stupa holds the relics of the Buddha at its base, enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama. The stupa has become a tourist attraction not only due to its religious significance but also due to its location which provides panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
The Monasteries of Shey, Thiksey & Hemis
The Second Day you should be visiting three main monasteries, Shey, Thiksey and Hemis Monasteries. The Shey Monastery or Gompa and the Shey Palace complex are structures located on a hillock in Shey, 15 kilometres to the south of Leh. Shey was the summer capital of Ladakh in the past.
The monastery is noted for its giant copper with gilded gold statue of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha. The statue is so named since Buddha was the sage (muni) of the Sakya people who resided in the Himalayan foothills and their capital was Kapilvastu. It is said to be the second largest such statue in Ladakh.
From Shey you drive for about 10 minutes to the Thiksey Monastery, built in 1430 AD it belongs to the Gelukpa Order of Buddhism. Lakhang Nyerma a Temple dedicated to Goddess Dorje Chenmo is within the Thiksey monastery. Apart from Lakhang Nyerma there are a few more shrines inside the monastery complex. It is most well known on account of the resemblance to the Potala Palace.
Thiksey Monastery hosts the Gustor ritual, organized from the 17th to 19th day of September. Celebrated on an annual basis the sacred mask dance is also performed during the Gustor ritual. The Maitreya Buddha statue here is probably the most photographed statue of the Buddha of the future! The 15 m (49 ft) magnificent high statue took over 4 years to craft.
Next you will drive around 30 minutes along the Indus river to one of the most popular and well known, Hemis Monastery. Also close by is the Hemis National park which is home to the Snow Leopard.
Hemis Monastery is also dubbed the richest monastery in Ladakh. The major attraction during the annual 2-day religious event / festival is the unfurling of the giant thangka (religious painting). In fact, every 12 years, during the Hemis Festival, one of the largest thangkas in Ladakh is unfurled infront of a large crowd.
The monastery has a museum that houses a wide collection Tibetan books, Thangkas, gold statues and Stupas embedded with precious stones, weapons, carriers, and even a stuffed vulture pup.
All these monasteries involve walking, some more than the others, one also needs to remove shoes before entering the main prayer hall and other rooms. It is best to carry an extra pair of socks with you. One should always do a couple of photo stops either before you approach the monastery or after the visit of the monastery.
Spend the remainder of the day in the main bazaar area of Leh.
Magnetic Hill and Alchi
This would be your last full day in Leh if you are following the 4 night pattern, for today I recommend taking a drive to Alchi. Along the way you will pass the Spituk Monastery first, then there is a great spot for taking pictures of the Indus river before you reach the Magnetic Hill.
The hill does not really have a magnetic force but it just creates an optical illusion of sorts so that the road, which actually goes downhill, seems as if it goes uphill. Therefore, when you see the vehicle going upslope, it is actually the opposite and does not defy the laws of nature.
However it is interesting to see this optical illusion and well worth a stop.
From here you should continue to Alchi, the Alchi monastery is one of the most sacred and holy places in the region. It was constructed by legendary Guru Rinchen Zangpo between the era of 958 and 1055 AD.
Devotees from all across the globe swarm here in search of eternal peace. Revered all over the world as the oldest Buddhist Learning centre in North India, this is definitely a must-visit when in Leh.
What makes it stand out from other Buddhist monuments are the mesmerising carvings on the walls. The complex of the monastery consists of several chortens and temples that belong to different periods of time. The oldest wall paintings of Ladakh have also been well preserved in this monastery.
There are great places to have food, as a matter of fact the open garden in Alchi resort is an excellent place to stop for lunch. At the time of writing this Article Alchi Resort was transforming itself into a Meditation retreat and a Buddhadharma centre. However the Garden restaurant is functional.
Later afternoon return back to Leh. This would probably be the final night in Leh unless you are wanting to spend longer here and wanting to visit the Nubra Valley as well.
You have only covered some monasteries, in my experience after a while it becomes difficult to differentiate one monastery from the other. So adding any more would not get you a lot of benefit unless you are a Buddhist and this is a religious trip for you. As a Traveller this would give you an amazing over view of what Leh, Ladakh has to offer and add to this the Road trip you have done, you have accumulated memories to last a lifetime.
Extension – Nubra Valley
If you however choose to cover Nubra Valley then you need to add 3 more days to your trip, Travelling to Nubra you would be heading North from Leh, It takes around 445-500 hours to reach Nubra, enroute you would have breath taking scenery, Cross the 2nd Highest motorable pass Khardung La 5,359 m (17,582 ft) (this used to be the highest motorable pass till Indian Armies Border Road Organization opened the Umling La pass 5,798.251 m (19,024 ft) also in Leh)
Nubra Valley in Ladakh is popular for its cold desert and picturesque landscape. Nubra Valley’s Hunder Village is known for its cold desert and the opportunity of camping and riding on Bactrian Camel (double-humped camel).
The Diskit Monastery is the oldest and largest one in the region and the main attraction here is the 32-meter statue of Maitreya Buddha which is hard to miss out due to its size.
Turtuk, an offbeat village has been made accessible for the tourists since 2010. Here, tourists have the chance to enjoy tribal tourism; interact with the locals and learn and understand about their culture and lifestyle. There’s also the opportunity for enjoy eco-friendly camping at Turtuk.
Nubra can be done in 24 hours or you could spend 3 days here alone, in my opinion if you are here for 24 hours, the best thing to do is to spend the half day after your arrival and next morning visiting the Diskit Monastery, riding the Bactrian Camel and visiting the Hunder Sand dunes and travel back to Leh post lunch.
The Next day early morning you would be flying back to Delhi and depart from there.
How I can help
Leverage my 3 decades plus of expeience as a Traveller and let me help you craft the perfect Itinerary for your Trip. This would be made in Consultation with you and would help you maximise your time in India.
If after that you wish to have it booked, I would get it booked for you locally which would
A) give you a Huge price advantage 15-20% cheaper than what you would pay in your Country.
B) You will benefit from last minute upgrade deals that are made available locally.