I last visited McLeod Ganj almost exactly 9 yrs ago. So much has changed, and yet so little. This beautiful town I fell in love with all those yrs back has gotten busier, crowded, so much more touristy (is that an actual word?). The lanes all look the same, covered with shops selling the same trinkets and souvenirs. But step out for a walk when it’s still early for the shops, and step away from the main streets, everything I loved is still right there. 🙂
I’m not deluding myself tho, I’m just as much of a tourist as everyone else there. So while it was my second trip, I still wanted to see, do, eat and buy all I could!
And I can’t wait to share all of it, along with how to get there and when to go, for you to plan your next getaway!
Mcleod Ganj is actually upper Dharamshala in Himachal’s Kangra district, and not really a town in itself. At the base of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, it makes for a good destination all around the year. In the summers it’s a perfect get away from the heat everywhere else. In the monsoons it’s at its lushest, but prone to landslides, so the period post (sept – oct) is usually preferred. The snowfall in winters turn the place into a beautiful wonderland, one I intend to return to.
And for how long? I know I’d be happy spending maybe 2 weeks walking up and down the same lanes, stopping at some favorite cafes, reading, talking, people watching… sigh. I also know of Pple who’ve stayed a month and then those who’ve just visited over the weekend. My take is, to just ‘see’ some of the sights, the weekend is good. Keep adding days from there. Soak in the place – +2 days, bir for parasailing – +1 day, Triund Trek – +2 days, and so on. Always remember, the perfect holiday is what you want it to be.
Once you’ve decided when you want to go, here are some routes you could consider getting there.
Fly in – The nearest airport is at Gaggal, 10km from Dharamshala. Notably, this connects to only Delhi and the fares can be rather steep!
Train – nearest station is Pathankot, a 2.5 hr drive by taxi. There are also regular buses on the route.
Bus – overnight from Delhi. Try and book the state transport ones tho, and insist on being dropped to McLeod.
Drive down / taxi – if you have the time, it’s definitely the most scenic option. This is how we’d got to McLeod the last time. It was a long drive, but comfortable coz we kept taking food/pic breaks and stopped overnight (can’t remember where!)
Ok! You’ve reached McLeod, the place is probably already buzzing and you just have a few days to make the most of your trip. So here are the top 10 experiences I loved there, and hope you do too.
- Eat! A lot, or at least often, or both! The food in McLeod is awesome. It’s what we started our trip with, an awesome breakfast while we waited to be checked in, and thankfully food continued to be great (except for 1 unfortunate meal) all thru. I’ll shortly put up a post dedicated to our gastronomic adventure and link it here
- Stroll, Walk and Trek – walk around town, mini treks to the nearby villages of Dharamkot or Baghsu, longer ones to the popular Triund or even the Dhauladar range. We skipped the Triund Trek since I’d done it about 9yrs ago and my glutes still hate me for it! 😑 Walking is awesome, but nope, treks aren’t for me. Also possibly the fastest way to get thru town!Pro tip – take the Jogiwara road for a shorter (and steeper) walk down to Dharamshala. Much lesser crowds with nice cafes and lil shops to browse. Random fun fact – locals call the Jogiwara road ‘Khada Danda’ 😁(that’s innuendo for those who don’t follow Hindi) Orrrrr… rent a Bullet! My partner insisted riding a bullet in the Himalayas has been high on the list. So after a shaky start (for me!), we spent the day just riding around some of these places. It was lovely🙂
- The monasteries! The large Tibetan refugee settlements have made monasteries integral to McLeod, and I can’t imagine a better way to experience the culture. The Namgyal monastery was relocated here from Lhasa. The road leading up to it is very commercialized, but inside the complex there is calm. Go in the afternoons to hear the monks debate with the ritual hand slapping and foot stamping. Else, around sunset to hear them chanting against arguably the best spot to view the sunset in town. Don’t miss the very serene lit candle room. The road to the right of Namgyal is actually the end of the beautiful 1.5 km prayer flag lined Kora Circuit around the Tsuglagkhang complex (Dalai Lama’s residence). This replicates the ancient sacred Lingkhor path in Lhasa that devotees circled praying for the happiness of all beings. While we didn’t walk the entire circuit, we loved the time we spent here, almost alone. Just below the Tibetan library is the Nechung Monastery. A lesser visited, more intact view into the traditional way of life, do try and make time for this gem. The Kalachakar temple on the Jogiwara road is beautiful, but so surrounded by hawkers on both sides, you could well miss the entrance!
- Hang out in Dharamkot for its chill vibe, far lesser crowds and lovely walks. In addition to some very nice cafes and restaurants, it also has a Vipasana center. Possibly one of the reasons it’s been labeled a ‘hippie village’ 🤨. We spent quite a few hrs sitting at cafes and walking around town. With no vehicles beyond a point, you’ll find it a relaxed stroll with no threat to limbs! If you feel upto it, there’s a ‘no name waterfall’ not a long walk away.
- Immerse yourself in local traditions and culture. The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts lies between McLeod Ganj and Dharamkot – try and catch a folk show, or maybe even a local movie. About 1.5km from Dharamshala is the Norbulingka Institute, a monastery dedicated to preserving the local arts. You can stay here, take or watch workshops, shop (rather expensive tho) and also eat at their quaint café
- Naddi viewpoints – Yes! for a gorgeous view of the Dhauladar range. The popular sunset view point is next to this as well. If you’re planning on heading there in time for the sunset, DON’T. You’ll just spend 30-45 mins in traffic jams. Instead, go see range a little early on, say 5, and then find yourself a cozy spot enroute and settle down with a picnic basket for the same, but quieter sunset
- Go Paragliding! I’ve really kept the best for the last here 😀 The paragliding site at Bir-Biling is the best in India and the 2nd best in the world. Being suspended midair at 14k feet is exhilarating at the least, and surreal at its best.The tandem guides tend to put you thru a few acrobatic stunts mid-air (excessive if you ask me!), so make sure you don’t eat a heavy meal just before! As with any other adventure sport, there are risks involved, so make you jump off the mountain with a trustworthy organizer (details of the guys we went with below). While buses are an option, the 65km distance from McLeod is best covered in a cab that’ll take 2-2.5 hrs and probably charge you INR 2k for the return trip. When there, of the two monasteries at Bir, try and visit the incredible Chokling Monastery. I visited it almost 9 yrs ago and still remember how serene the place is.
- Shop! No itinerary of mine is ever complete without my take on what and where to shop. The main streets are overrun with souvenir shops, so you will no doubt find something. But if there’s only 1 thing you get yourself, try to make it a meaningful Thanka. These are traditional Tibetan Buddhist paintings of either deities, mandalas or other scenes. I got myself a gorgeous meditating Buddha. It was love at first sight, so obviously I went well over budget. 🤦🏽♀️ Look around, understand them and find one that really speaks to you. The prices will be based on the size and detailing, there’s really no standardization there. So try and go to a reliable place. The 2 I’d recommend are listed below. I also got myself stone (non-precious) encrusted Tibetan teapot simply coz it caught my eye. I strongly believe that if you fall in love with something when you travel, just buy it.
The last 2 are actually popular sights. But having visited them, I wasn’t too pumped. So read on…
- Bhagsunath temple and Bhagsu falls – The falls would definitely be worth a visit during or post the monsoons, but in the summers there was barely a trickle. The Bhagsunath temple, unless for religious reasons, is best visited in the early morning, or not at all. Unlike what numerous write ups would have you believe, there is nothing serene or tranquil about this overtly commercialized complex. Right from the approach in, to the men cavorting in the pool, it’s a chaotic overload that’ll just mess with the Himalayan vibe you’ve been building up.
- Dal lake – a pretty small splash of water on the way to Naddi. I understand post monsoons it fills up and they have boating and the like, but for now it was a pretty uninspiring spot that we just rode by. Pic taken on the go!
So that’s my round up on ideas to spend your time at McLeod Ganj. If you have longer, there’s actually so much more to experience in the Kangra district itself, let alone the rest of Himachal! I definitely intend to go back, to either McLeod in the winters, or maybe a different part of Himachal altogether.
Have you already been to McLeod, or any other region in Himachal? What would you recommend?
Recommended contacts –
Bir Hotel / Bir Paragliding – Karan Vir (+91-7832072422). Bir Hotel could be an option should you stay overnight
Thankas: Almost every second shop on the main roads sell Thankas! While you may find your perfect one in any of them, these two stood out for me.
- Same same but different shop – (+919882358517, +918261832925) A tiny family run place on the McLeod – Bhagsu road, where you’ll probably find the husband painting while the wife tends to their adorable baby. While possibly not the highest quality, I really liked some of their work, and found it comparably rather reasonably priced.
- Thankas & Gifts – (firstname.lastname@example.org, +919816337053) A small and welcoming place run by Marleen who is quite knowledgeable and also happy to show and explain some of the exquisite pieces she has. I ended up buying mine from her coz I simply could not take my eyes off that one!
Stay: I find that accommodation in the north India regions is some much more affordable than the south!
I really hate spending too much on stay, unless the plan is to laze around in the room. We stayed 3 nights at the Green Hotel (Tripadvisor) in McLeodganj. The location was perfect, the rates cheap and the room clean and adequate. A small balcony looking over town was a nice place to end up for a drink after the day out. The hotel attached also serves up good food and excellent cakes!