The first thought that comes to mind while seeing the majestic Dhauladhars for the first time could well be ‘if these are the foothills of the Himalayas, how enormous the actual Himalayas would be’! Dhauladhar mountain range situated in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh is pristine, snow-clad (most time of the year) and full of beautiful treks. The most famous hill town in these mountains is Dharamshala, which shot to fame when His Holiness the present Dalai Lama established Tibetan government-in-exile here. One of its suburbs, the upper Dharamshala (McLeod Ganj) became a paradise for foreign and Indian travelers who wanted to experience Tibetan culture, enjoy a melange of cuisines from Indian to Tibetan, Israeli to Italian, meet the Dalai Lama, learn meditation or yoga, and escape from the mundane city life.
Even today, Dharamshala and its surrounding little villages, McLeod Ganj, Dharamkot, Naddi, and Palampur are full of foreign travelers and dignitaries concerning business with Tibetan government or tourists that come here for pleasure. However, like any other touristy place this one also gets a lot of tourist footfall, which has led to an increase in vehicular traffic and urbanization. So, if you are visiting Dharamshala to escape the city crowd you might be disappointed especially over a long weekend! But peace and tranquility still prevail here amongst the numerous monasteries, cafes, trails and beautiful sunsets. We will explore more of this interesting hill town in this article which I will call as a comprehensive travel guide for visiting Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj.
Location & Weather
Located at higher altitudes of Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala has a cool climate most of the year. Though summers, especially the month of June can get really hot here with temperature soaring as high as 40-degree Celsius. However, monsoon in July bring immediate respite from the heat and keeps the region wet till mid-September. In fact, Dharamshala is one of the wettest places in Himachal. Dharamshala city has an average elevation of around 5500 feet while McLeod Ganj is located at 7800 feet above sea level. October onwards it starts getting chilly and winter is at peak during December and early January with the city witnessing the good amount of snowfall in the upper reaches (McLeod Ganj, Naddi, and Bhagsu). Amongst Dharamshala’s suburbs, McLeod Ganj is most frequented by travelers. The little town is nicknamed mini Lhasa or ‘Dhasa’ (mix of Dharamshala and Lhasa) by Tibetans.
Best Season to visit Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Dharamsala can be visited throughout the year and roads are accessible during all seasons. However, the best and safest months to travel are March-May if you want to avoid the heat and October-December if you want to avoid chilly winters. Snowfall can be best enjoyed during the month of January and if you are lucky, you can get to see it in late December too. February remains chilly as well, but spring onsets during March and make the weather pleasant. In my personal experience traveling there during Oct-Nov gives you the best of both worlds. The hills are fresh green after the monsoon but the snow hasn’t set in yet. It is cold but not too chilly, just the perfect weather to trek around and explore the place.
How to Reach Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj from Delhi
I have written about Dharamshala’s connectivity to Delhi and rest of India in my previous article on monasteries in Dharamshala. Here I will elaborate on the details. The city has developed a lot in the past few years and last year it was chosen as the second capital of Himachal Pradesh. It has also been listed under PM’s smart cities program. As I mentioned before, Dharamshala is well connected by road, air, and train to Delhi and other major cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai, and Jaipur.
Plenty of private bus services operate from Delhi to Dharamshala, Punjab and many cities of Himachal too. From Delhi, most operators run Volvos providing a comfortable night journey to Dharamshala. There are multiple pick-up points for these buses in Delhi, including Ramakrishna Ashram Marg, Majnu ka Tila, and ISBT. Though these operators provide blanket and water during the journey. I would advise you to carry an extra cover for yourself especially if you are traveling during winters. Mostly, these journeys are safe even for solo women travelers. I have traveled on these buses many times with my female friends and alone too. Travel time could be anything between 10 to 13 hrs depending on road and weather conditions. Of course, you can always hire a taxi or do a self drive trip to Dharamshala from Delhi.
The nearest train station from Dharamshala is Pathankot (85 km away). Taxis are easily available at the station to travel further or you can pre-book a taxi too. You can also take a bus from Pathankot to reach Dharamshala. Both state transport and private buses operate on this route. Pathankot to Dharamshala drive duration is approximately 3 hours. Overnight train journey from Delhi is a comfortable option, there are multiple trains available from Delhi that halt at Pathankot. Those fascinated by the narrow gauge trains (toy trains) can also take the toy train from Pathankot to Kangra. Six different toy trains run from Pathankot to Baijnath / Joginder Nagar that stop at Kangra. Cabs and buses regularly ply from Kangra to reach Dharamshala.
I recently traveled by Jhelum express which started the journey around 9 pm from Delhi and reached Pathankot at 7:00 in the morning. As I was traveling with family (kids), we needed to break our journey for some refreshments while driving down to Dharamshala. There is a decent hotel in Nurpur, Jyoti Hotel & Restaurant, almost 30 minutes (13 km) away from Pathankot station which offers clean and comfortable garden seating area, restaurant and washrooms to travelers. The staff was good and they even cooked customized meals for small kids. It is a good place for families to freshen up and even stay for a night if necessary, their rooms are clean and affordable.
Kangra airport located at Gaggal is 13 km away from Dharamshala and about 15 km from McLeod Ganj. A flight from Delhi takes a little over an hour to reach here. Besides Delhi Dharamshala airport is connected to other cities like Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur, and Hyderabad. It is a domestic airport and most international flyers reach here via Delhi. Air India and SpiceJet run most flights in Dharamshala and last flight leaves the city around 5 pm for Delhi. You can easily hire a taxi from the airport to reach the main city. If you are traveling from cities other than Delhi then you can fly to Chandigarh (244 km away) and then take a taxi or bus from there. Delhi to Amritsar is a comparatively reasonable flight route, Amritsar is 200 km away from Dharamshala and distance can be conveniently covered by a taxi or bus. Alternately, one could also fly into Jammu, which is around 230 km away.
How to Get Around Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Dharamshala and its suburbs – McLeod Ganj, Bhagsu, and Naddi are all beautiful hilly places that can be easily walked around if one chooses to. However, there are plenty of transport options available in the city including taxis, public & private buses and auto-rickshaws.
Private and Public Buses touch almost all major destinations in and around Dharamshala. They are the most economical option to travel around and are easily available but more time-consuming. Besides waiting for the buses (almost half an hour) you lose time while they make multiple stops to drop off and pick up passengers. You can hop on a bus either at the Dharamshala bus stand or at any of the bus stops around. Fares range between 10-30 INR.
Auto-rickshaws are accessible for local sightseeing with fixed rates for a particular number of sights. They follow tariffs fixed by their union which can be anything between 100 to 500 depending on the number of places you want to visit.
Taxis are a convenient way of intracity travel in Dharamshala. Similar to auto-rickshaws, taxis also have fixed rates for sightseeing and most-frequented destinations in and around the city. The government approved taxi-union is located near Kotwali Bazar in Dharamshala, you may hire taxis from here. You can find many taxis near McLeod Ganj market or down at Dharamshala. You may view and pre-book a sightseeing package at taxi union’s website Dharamshala taxi union. You can also get connected directly to some of these taxi drivers in Himachal Pradesh. These drivers can also come and pick you up from Manali / Shimla / Delhi / Chandigarh too, of course with a price of a pickup as well.
You should always carry your own water bottle and refill it as many times as you need water. It will not only keep you hydrated always, but you will also help in saving the Himalayas from plastic garbage. Remember, every tiny step counts and your step in this direction can help save the Himalayas too !! 🙂 🙂
Food options at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Dharamshala’s food culture is an amalgamation of Himachali, Punjabi, Tibetan, Italian and Israeli cuisines. In lower reaches of the city, you will mostly find Indian and Tibetan food, while the higher you move (McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot) you will see more variety of Italian, Israeli, European, American and even Japanese food joints. Because of the high number of foreign travelers visiting the city, (some of them have started living here and opened their own restaurants) the quality of global is cuisines is pretty good here. I will elaborate more on Dharamshala’s food culture and restaurants in my coming article, here is a snapshot of what all dishes you should try there:
This is one place in India where you can get authentic Tibetan food cooked by the Tibetan people in a rustic way, devoid of too many spices, unlike the Indian version that’s usually available in Delhi or other cities in India. If you are looking for more than Thupka and Momos in Tibetan food then you must try Kailash restaurant which is located on temple road in McLeod Ganj. This eatery is pretty famous amongst the local Tibetan population and a lot of them are likely to recommend this place for the taste of authentic Tibetan food. It offers a good view with a rooftop seating with decent service and tasty food. For starters you should try Gyuma, a local dish, especially to go along with some beer or fruit wine (if you order). They also offer a variety of Tibetan bread and teas which are a delight to sample. When in McLeod Ganj, one must taste mutton momos and Thupka at a number of places. Don’t forget to try Tibetan street food – visit Sheila Chowk in Dharamshala for mutton momos. A street vendor there sells delicious momos.
While Jimmy’s Italian is locals’ favorite and very popular amongst tourists too, you get extremely delicious and well served Italian food up in Dharamkot at Trek & Dine. However, if you are craving Pizza, head to Namgyal cafe in McLeod Ganj without a doubt in your head (don’t forget to choose to sit on their terrace).
Himachali and Punjabi Food
When in Himachal, taste one of their famous street foods – Bun Chhole. You can find it at street vendors dotted along Himachal, including Dharamshala and also try juice of locally grown Keenu. You can start seeing Keenu juice vendors while driving down from Pathankot all the way to Dharamshala (it has to be in season through – spring or late winter).
While you can get Indian/Punjabi food at most of the places in the city, I would suggest trying some dishes at Mcllo restaurant. It is the most famous restaurant in town, mainly because of its location and ambiance. Situated right at the McLeod Ganj market square, it is the biggest four-story place with a rooftop. Travelers come here mostly to enjoy alcoholic drinks and beer.
Dharamkot and Bhagsu are dotted with numerous cafes and bakery serving global cuisines. I discovered a little gem of a place during my recent visit to Dharamkot earlier this year – Trek & Dine. A hillside cafe with laid-back setting serving the most delicious food I have had in Dharamshala. From Hummus, Pita, and Falafel to Ziva you will get all delicious Israeli dishes at this restaurant. There are many other cafes in Dharamkot serving Israeli cuisine, so go explore!
Some of the good restaurants you should try are Hummingbird, Moon peak cafe, Illiterati, Woeser bakery, Snow Lion, Morgan’s place. Further details in my upcoming article on ‘Food culture in McLeod Ganj’.
Shopping options at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
There are numerous shops and sellers in Dharamshala selling everything from Tibetan handicrafts to apparels. I brought home some Tibetan crockery and clothes from main McLeod Ganj market. Here are some suggested places to shop from:
Norbulingka Shop – Norbulingka institute has been nurturing Tibetan artisans and Buddhist art forms such as statue-making, thangka painting, thangka applique, wood painting, tailoring. You can buy all of these and more from here.
TCV Handicrafts – This is a non-profit organization working towards welfare and education of Tibetan refugee children, especially orphans and destitute. Their stores (refer to link for store locations) have an array of handicraft items to choose from, such as woolen garments, carpets, silverware, Tibetan ritual items etc. You can visit their website for detailed information about what to buy from them.
Palaco Handmade Crafts – This one is situated close to the Dalai Lama temple and is famous for selling high-quality crafts, usually priced a little more than other shops. However, the variety and quality of crafts justify the cost. You may find good woolen wraps (shawls, scarves), lamps and thangkas here.
Explore the Kotwali Bazar and Jogibara road for a variety of Tibetan fare such as singing bowls, prayer flags, Buddha statues, bells, Tibetan jewelry, decorative hangings etc. They serve well as souvenirs.
Attractions & Things to Do around Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Dharamshala has plenty of places to explore and activities to do both within the city and in its neighborhood. If you are planning a 3-4 days long trip and would like to see a maximum of the city then you should divide your time experiencing Lower Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, and Dharamkot. If you have more days to spend then you may head out to nearby getaways such as Dalhousie, Bir Billing, and Palampur. I will elaborate more on these places in my subsequent articles. Here are my recommendations for Dharamshala sightseeing:
Monasteries – Even if you aren’t a spiritual soul you should visit them to experience Buddhism and Tibetan culture at their best. Not to mention the peace and serenity you will feel at these places. The Dalai Lama Temple (Tsuglagkhang Monastery), Namgyal Monastery, Gyuto Monastery and Norbulingka Institute are not to be missed during your visit to Dharamshala.
Bhagsu Nag Temple, Bhagsu waterfall and Shiva Cafe – Bhagsu is located at upper McLeod Ganj and is one of the main tourist attractions here. A 3 km trek from McLeod Ganj town center leads to Bhagsu Nag temple (2 km away from center) and Bhagsu waterfalls (Little over 1 km away from the temple). It is an easy trek and people of all ages can make it depending on their medical condition. As we traveled with family, my three-year-old son and 60-year-old father both did this trek on their own. There are tea shops and small cafes along the trek (near the temple), if you are not able to move ahead you may relax in one of those. Surrounding view is beautiful; stairs have been built for the most part of the trek which is covered with railings. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and it is believed that He visited this temple during the ancient period. This legend makes it a famous religious spot, locals revere this place. The ancient 18th-century temple is built in stone and its walls still contain some beautiful carvings and inscriptions. There is a pool inside the premises of the temple which is open for the public to take a dip into.
Most travelers with kids and elderly people end their journey at Bhagsu falls, but if you wish to visit the famous Shiva Cafe you will have to trek a little further from the falls. The path to Shiva cafe is not well carved and is a little rough but the journey is worth the effort, which you would realize after reaching Shiva cafe. It is quaint, beautifully done and located well up in the mountains. The ambiance is serene and you will find people chilling in different moods here. They serve good food. Try their sumptuous Israeli breakfast, fresh juices and much more
Dal Lake – This small but natural lake derives its name from the Dal lake in Kashmir and is a popular tourist sight in Dharamshala. Set in the backdrop of Deodar forest the lake could have been a quaint little gem. However, the presence of activities like boating and throngs of tourists have made it another tourist spot. You won’t miss much if you don’t visit. Consider yourself lucky if you can hear the silence of the nearby forest! It is well in the reach of all major public modes of transport and there are good chances of you passing by the lake while entering or leaving the town.
Tibet Museum – I am a connoisseur of history and politics, so I love museums. If you want to know in detail about the history of Tibet, their relationship with China and what caused the great escape of The Dalai Lama and Tibetan people from their homeland you must visit this place. Extremely informative depictions, pictures, and movies will enlighten you about the Tibet cause. Entry to the museum is free and they run documentaries on Tibet twice a day. You may get all related information on their official website.
Sunset Point – This one will definitely find a place in your list of ‘most beautiful sunsets in my life’. It is not just about the actual sunset, but what makes it magical is the sight of mighty Dhauladhars on the opposite end. You would walk through the scenery of Dhauladhars to reach the sunset point and as the sun is setting, the golden orange glow will lit up those mountains situated exactly opposite the sight point. You wouldn’t be able to decide which one to click first! The point is located on Naddi road with a couple of eateries to keep you nourished with tea and Maggi as you wait for the sun to go down. The road itself is extremely beautiful to walk on, even post-sunset, – especially if you have a nice company.
Masroor Rock-Cut Temple – Situated 45 km from Dharamshala city, these temples date back to the 8th century and are built from monolithic rock, quite similar to the temples located in Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu) and Elephanta Caves (Mumbai). According to locals, Pandavas stayed here during their exile period and built this temple. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has an exquisite architecture that holds mythological value for locals. Guides are not available at the site but temple priests and locals are quite welcoming to tourists and their questions about the place. Photography is prohibited in some parts of the temple. There is a pool located inside the complex and it is believed to cure pilgrims of all evil if they take a dip in it. So if you are looking for a dose of history, mythology, and archaeology, this is the place to be!
Kangra Fort – Located around 25 km and almost an hour’s drive away from the main town, this one is the largest fort in the Himalayas. History enthusiasts and curious tourists should give it a visit. It can be easily reached by public buses or taxis. Like any other fort, you will have to walk around a lot to explore this place but the climbs are gentle and if the weather is nice you will enjoy exploring. Audio guides are available at the ticket counter which gives you the freedom of getting around the fort at your own pace. Normally it takes 1.5 – 2 hours to see the entire fort. Built by Katoch dynasty this fort has an interesting history which traces back to the Trigarta Kingdom from Mahabharata. The hilltop location makes it a perfect viewing point for the entire valley. The visit to the fort and Masroor rock-cut temples can be clubbed together as they are a little over 30 km away.
Triund Hill Trek – This one is not to be missed because this is where you will see the best of Dhauladhars, walking amongst cloudy trails, locating herds of sheep, see the stunning evening sky and spend the night camping here. The trek level is easy and it passes through the forest with some of the steep ascents. However, it is not advisable to trek with small kids as there are few steep and rocky sub-trails. But you can reach easily till Galu Devi temple (on the way to trek) and return. You may choose to camp at Triund for the night and watch the beautiful sunrise next morning or plan your return the same day. Both the options are feasible. In case you have missed, you can always read our complete guide on the trek to Triund.
If you are planning for a hike to Triund, you should local at our 12 Must-Have Things to Carry on Hiking or Trekking Trips
Paragliding – Paradise for paragliding, Bir – Billing, is just 70 km away from Dharamshala. Because of its topography, wind direction, and wind speed, this is the best location for paragliding in India. Couple it with the amazing view of the valley it provides from the air and the professional paragliding operators, you will have the time of your life here. It is a one day trip from Dharamshala.
Besides the above-listed places, there are a few moderate to easy treks around Dharamshala that will give you gorgeous views of lakes, valleys, and Dhauladhars. You can choose to go to Kareri Lake, Laka Got Glacier or Indrahar pass treks. I will give detailed information about these in my article on ‘Treks around Dharamshala’.
Places to Stay at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
There are numerous stay options in entire Dharamshala for every budget and requirement. From luxury resorts to beautiful, rustic homestays which give you a slice of local life.
Hotels and Resorts
Asia Health Resort and Spa located in lower Dharamshala is a good option for travelers with family. Located in strawberry hills near Dal lake this hotel is for people looking for a luxury stay. Staff is nice and cooperative, the chef here customized the food for kids when we were staying there. There is a pool, terrace-seating restaurant with a good view and game area for kids.
Udechee Huts is for travelers who like their surrounding free of the usual hustle-bustle of touristy places. Situated in Naddi village, 5kms from McLeod Ganj, this boutique hotel provides an amazing view of Dhauladhars and a quiet stay. The food here is simple, not too many options, but delicious. The hotel is suitably located for pursuing various treks around Dharamshala.
Gandhi’s paradise is a budget hotel that provides all basic amenities with a beautiful view from their balconies and a common terrace. The hotel is in front of the highest peak of Dhauladhar mountain range, the “Hanuman Ka Tiba” – so the view is without a doubt gorgeous. This one is very close to Bhagsu, and the trek to Bhagsu waterfall is a short walk away from here.
These are the hotels managed by Himachal Pradesh’s tourism department and the government is doing a very good job maintaining these hotels. They are an excellent option for budget travelers and also for people who want more than just basic facilities. Some of the hotels are beautifully located, like Hotel Bhagsu.
Hotel Bhagsu is situated in McLeod Ganj, a short walk away from the main market square. The property is surrounded with Deodars, has a backdrop of snow-clad peaks and spacious, clean rooms with huge reading-windows. Windows are built with a big sill which means you can comfortably sit on the window and look down upon the beautifully curated garden full of dahlias or look at the mountains at a distance. It has a garden-restaurant and terraces seating area along with a beer bar. What more can you ask for! 🙂 This one is for nature lovers who like to sleep, walk and eat amongst trees and mountains.
There are other options from HPTDC as well – The Clubhouse in McLeod Ganj, Hotel Dhauladhar, Hotel Kashmir House and Hotel Kunal in Dharamshala. HPTDC hotels can easily be booked through their website.
Homestays at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
The best homestays in Dharamshala are located in Dharamkot, including the Eagle’s nest – famous for hosting few celebs and foreign dignitaries. McLeod Ganj and lower Dharamshala also have many options to enjoy the hospitality of a homestay. Staying and eating with locals is the best way to have a first-hand account of the amazing culture of McLeod Ganj – Dharamshala. Locals – both Gaddis and Tibetans are warm, welcoming people who love to host guests and even accompany them to the treks.
Suggested Itinerary for Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
If you want to do all the things listed above, below is the itinerary for a trip to Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj covering it all.
Day 1: Arrive at Dharamshala in the morning following any of the modes mentioned in the article. After freshening up at your place of stay, explore lower Dharamshala (if you are staying there). Visit Gyuto Monastery and check out Kotwali bazaar and visit Dal lake, if you wish.
Day 2: Head to McLeod Ganj, visit the Bhagsu fall and temple, relax at Shiva cafe if you go there. Post-lunch you can visit Dalai Lama temple. During your return in the evening, you can check out McLeod Ganj bazaar.
Day 3 & 4: If you are up for Triund trek, dedicate two days for it. You can easily find fellow trekkers in town if you are looking for company. There are many trek operators and guides available in Dharamshala for it.
Day 5: Take it easy post trek; visit Namgyal monastery and Tibet museum, enjoy the sunset at sunset-point. Don’t forget to check out the suggested restaurants at McLeod Ganj.
Day 6: You can head out to explore the Masroor rock-cut temple and Kangra fort. You can also club a visit to the famous Dharamshala cricket stadium, it is a small but beautiful stadium with picturesque mountains as a backdrop.
Day 7: Go for paragliding at Bir-Billing. Catch an evening bus or train back home from Dharamshala. Or schedule your return for the next day.
You can also check out our sample common itinerary for a trip to Dalhousie – Dharamshala – Manali – Shimla
ATMs at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
There are enough ATMs in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj so you are not likely to face a cash crunch. But I would still advise you to carry sufficient cash especially if you are traveling to the place around long weekends. Tourist rush sometimes makes ATMs run out of cash. Most of the ATMs are located in markets – both and McLeod Ganj and lower Dharamshala. While traveling from Pathankot to Dharamshala, you would find only a couple of ATMs – none of which worked when we visited them. But don’t fret, there are plenty of options in the main city.
Mobile Connectivity at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Being the second capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh and also listed amongst ‘smart city project’ of the central government, Dharamshala has good mobile and internet connectivity of almost all major operators such as Airtel, Vodafone, and Jio.
Medical Facilities at Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj
Tourism and the establishment of Tibetan government-in-exile have contributed a lot towards the development of Dharamshala. The city has decent medical facilities including many clinics and hospitals, so finding one in need should not be a problem.
Avoid visiting the place during long weekends to escape the crowd. Rainy season here gets very wet, so it is better to not plan your trip during the months of July-August. If you are interested in experiencing the culture mix here and love peaceful surroundings then stay at Dharamkot (preferably in a homestay) and venture out to McLeod Ganj / Dharamshala to savor the rest of this hilly town.
Dharamshala or McLeod Ganj are both beautiful hill towns with good infrastructure and facilities. All kinds of travelers get everything that they need here for a comfortable stay. The adventurous ones can venture out for treks and paragliding while the families can soak in the mother nature at the foothills of Dhauladhars.
Do you still have any questions or suggestions or need any help in planning your trip to Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj? If yes, please feel free to post them either in the comments section of this article below or in “Ask a Travel Question” section of the website. You can also take guidance from many travel experts in our DoW Community Forums and discuss your upcoming travel plans for Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj 🙂
If you like the article, please feel free to share it with any of your family or friends who are planning a trip to Dharamshala & McLeod Ganj. In the next article of the series, I am going to talk more about paragliding in Bir – Billing and how to make a trip to Bir – Billing.
Now step out to experience the charm and beauty of this amazing place in the Himalayas 🙂 :).