When travelers consider northern India, thoughts run to the Golden Triangle, the popular India tourist circuit of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. While we appreciate the appeal of sights like the Taj Mahal, there is much more to experience in northern India — without the crowds, scams and hustle of being on the tourist path.
That’s where some of the lesser known places in northern India like Amritsar, Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj, and Shimla come in. These destinations fall outside the popular and traditional India tourist itineraries and feature smaller towns with fewer foreign visitors (we were often the only ones), cooler temperatures, beautiful temples, a diversity of religions, a toy train that features one of the most picturesque train journeys in the country, and opening vistas to the edge of the snow-covered Himalayas.
This Experiential Guide offers 20 ideas and inspiration on what to do and places to visit in northern India outside the Golden Triangle, focusing instead on Amritsar, Dharamshala/McLeod Ganj, and Shimla. There is good reason why these areas of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have been our travel wish list for over a decade
Northern India (Beyond the Golden Triangle): 20 Things to Do, Places to Visit, and Dishes to Eat
For those of you who love maps — as we do — here is a visual of our 7-9 day route through northern India on our G Adventures tour.
1. Catch a ride from Delhi airport with a women only taxi company
Here’s something you don’t see every day: an all-women driver taxi service. Unusual in any destination, but especially so in India. As we exited Delhi airport all the drivers waiting to collect passengers were men, except for our driver, Reena.
Women on Wheels is a Planeterra Foundation project which partners with the Azad Foundation and the Sakha organization as they provide training and employment to disadvantaged women in Delhi. All G Adventures travelers arriving at Delhi airport have a Women on Wheels pickup included in their tour. This not only provides travelers a safe and comfortable ride to their accommodation in town, but it also means a steady source of income for the women drivers.
Reena, our driver, possessed the requisite nerves of steel and calm required to drive in Delhi, especially during its morning rush hour traffic.
Note: In addition to Delhi, Sakha also operates similar women-only taxi services in Kolkata and Jaipur. You can book your taxi online here.
2. Sit back and enjoy tea on the Delhi to Amritsar Shatabdi Express train
One of the reasons we chose this particular G Adventures tour in northern India: trains. We are train junkies. It’s our favorite way to travel, especially in India where the experience is more than just getting from A to B. It’s about the movement of the train, the flow of landscapes from urban to rural, the people you meet, and the melodic rhythm of life on an Indian train.
Even tea time on the train is special.
3. Admire the high kicks, posturing and mustache competition at the Wagah India-Pakistan border ceremony
Although we’ve experienced our share of bizarre land borders as we’ve crossed from one country to the next, we’ve never encountered anything like the Wagah border ceremony between India and Pakistan. The ceremony takes place daily in the late afternoon as the gates between the two countries prepare to close for the evening.
Imagine a stadium that seats 30,000 fans (on the Indian side), a military officer emcee who riles up the audience to cheer as loudly as possible to drown out the Pakistani crowds on the other side, an Indian flag waving parade of young women and girls, and a mosh pit where riled hordes dance to their favorite Bollywood songs.
And this all goes down before the actual ceremony even begins. Bollywood couldn’t script it any better. Here’s a video taste of what you get:
Don’t worry though. At the end of all this machismo and power posturing, the sides shake hands, indicating peace holds for yet another day.
Visiting the Wagah border ceremony: Foreigners are separated from Indians as they enter the stadium, then seated in a separate section. It can get very hot waiting for the festivities to begin. Consider choosing a seat in the shade up top before making your way down later. Security is tight. Leave all belongings in your vehicle, except the basics: passport, wallet, phone, and camera. Although small purses are usually allowed, camera bags are not.
4. Enjoy the Golden Temple at night
The Golden Temple in Amritsar by night: stunning. Not only does the physical beauty of this place make it so. The atmosphere — welcoming, peaceful and inclusive — does, too.
As the preeminent pilgrimage site of Sikhism, the temple complex courses around the clock with visitors. Despite the constant flow of people, a calm, quiet and meditative feeling prevails. All are welcome, respected and even cared for, no matter their circumstances. ⠀
Even though we’d had the Golden Temple in Amritsar on our minds for years, the nuanced sort of wonder that defined our experience exceeded expectations.
Our suggestion: after taking a walk around the temple complex, find a quiet place to sit and simply be present.
5. Admire how a team of volunteers feeds 60-100k people each day at the Golden Temple langar (kitchen)
One of the most remarkable features of the Golden Temple at Amritsar is its langar, a sprawling kitchen serving free hot meals to 60,000-100,000 people each day. Just try to get your head around that. The scale of food service here boggles the mind.⠀
Also remarkable is that food preparation and service is accomplished mainly by volunteers, with ingredients and money donated by members of the community. Seva, or “selfless service,” is a key precept of the Sikh religion. The Golden Temple attracts volunteers from all over India, and the world.
During our morning tour, our local guide took us through the kitchen area to witness volunteers preparing for the breakfast shift. Everyone worked side by side — from fire-stoking to chapati-making to dish washing — focused solely on serving others. The atmosphere, humbling. The rhythm, meditative.
6. Enjoy winding views of the Himalayan foothills in Himachal Pradesh
As you depart the lowland plains of Amritsar and head into the hills of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the journey begins to switchback wind its way up into mid-mountain territory. Temperatures dip a bit, air freshens.
And the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas and Ladakh begin to reveal themselves in the distance, just as they accompany us on our drive to the towns of Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj.⠀
When you look at a map and consider distances in northern India it’s easy to think, “Oh, those distances aren’t so great. It won’t take long.”
What you’re not taking into consideration: the small 2-lane winding mountain roads. Yes, it can take 5-7 hours to go 140-150 km.
The upside? All the views. Lush terraced fields, little villages, endless hills, and snow-covered mountains peaking in the distance. As a bonus, if you have a driver like ours you also get some Punjabi hits to accompany the Himachal Pradesh landscapes and 10 different horn melodies he uses to blast warnings to others on the road.
7. Turn the prayer wheels – and keep your eye out for the Dalai Lama — at Tsuglagkhang Buddhist Temple at McLeod Ganj
McLeod Ganj, a once-sleepy town just up the hill from Dharamshala, is now the home of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. Since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, it has become home to tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees, lending the town a strong Tibetan cultural feel.
Although the Tsuglagkhang Temple Complex is where the Dalai Lama resides today, don’t expect to just run into him in passing. He’s busy about the world. But you can enjoy a peaceful walk around the temple – and enjoy its impressive collection of murals, statues and prayer wheels.
Turn each mani prayer wheel clock-wise. Or just be present in the moment.
Note: If you want to learn more about Tibetan culture, arts and religion, be sure to check out the Norbulingka Institute near Dharamshala. The rest of our G Adventures group visited and said that the grounds and gardens were incredibly peaceful and pleasant.
8. Hit the hills outside of Dharamshala for a day hike to Triund Hill
We couldn’t resist getting closer to the mountains outside of Dharamshala. So we hiked up to Triund Hill (2,800 meters / 9,200 feet). The view from the top includes sweeping looks of the Dhauladhar Range. This is the reward for a day hike up a fairly well-defined but rocky path from McLeod Ganj through the village of Dharamkot. It’s definitely worth the steep climb and the 20km round trip of hiking.
Note: The hike from McLeod Ganj is around 9km one way, and 7 km from Dharamkot. We began our day further down the hill. That’s why our walk turned out to be 20km. We were tired by day’s end, but it’s easily accomplished as a day hike.
9. Get your momo fix in McLeod Ganj
I have a bit of a dumpling obsession, no matter the variety or origin. After our descent from Triund Hill, the first thing on my mind were momos, Tibetan dumplings filled with vegetables or meat, served either steamed or fried. They are usually served with a roasted chili hot sauce. Delicious at any time, but especially so after hiking 20km.
The steamed veggie momos are my favorite. If you’re sharing with a group, you can sample fried and steamed and come to your own conclusion. Although we enjoyed the fried greens at Tibet Kitchen and believe that their momo skins are ideal, we actually enjoyed the flavor and filling of the veg steamed momos at United Restaurant and Café, just down and across the street.
10. Hang with the pilgrims at Rewalsar Lake
Rewalsar Lake near the town of Mandi is perhaps an unlikely stop, but it’s one which helps break up the long journey from Dharamshala to Shimla. It’s a peaceful and welcoming one, too.
Legend has it that the great Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) took flight from Rewalsar to Tibet and spread Mahayana Buddhism there. Today, Rewalsar is a sacred destination for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists; temples from each religion ring the water. Pilgrims circle around the lake with Mani prayer wheels in hand and prayers on their lips.
Given the surprised looks our group received, foreign travelers – as yet, anyhow – typically don’t visit this sleepy pilgrimage town. However, that didn’t stop locals and visiting pilgrims from flashing smiles and engaging with us as they gathered with friends on park benches at the end of the day.
11. Walk The Ridge in Shimla and feel transported to England…and another era
The British chose the once sleepy hill station of forested Shimla as their summer capital (1864 – 1947) so as to escape the heat and crush of Delhi. You can still see the surprisingly well-maintained remnants of this today. Shimla is now a bustling and not-so-little hill town filled with pedestrian-only promenades, churches, and British mock Tudor and colonial architecture.
With its cooler temperatures and views of the Himalayas, Shimla is a fun place to wander, enjoy the hillside perspective and take in some easy-going shopping. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular destination for both Indian and foreign visitors.
12. Lose yourself in Shimla’s Lower Bazaar
Just down the street from what feels like little England, bustling Indian markets burst with spices, color, and tons of activity. Our suggestion: just walk, poke your head into stalls, take a turn or two on the laneways, and enjoy some sensory overload.
The spread of spice stalls across Shimla’s Lower Bazaar features sacks and tins, and ancient wooden racks, drawers and dividers that ought to have a voice so that they might tell us their stories. Colors are earthy and bright, chili peppers of the deepest red, turmeric of an otherworldly yellow. Scents waft among it all. The whole and the ground; the sweet and the pungent; the blended and the masala’d all help make Indian food so delicious and complex.⠀
Wander, question, show curiosity, and perhaps add something familiar and needed, or unfamiliar and unknown to one’s spice rack back home. For as many times as we’ve been to India, we always discover something new or encounter something unusual. And, we always meet someone interesting along the way.
13. Explore the grounds and gardens of the Viceregal Lodge (Rashtrapati Niwas)
Not far from central Shimla on Observatory Hill is the grand and impressive Viceregal Lodge, the former residence of the British Viceroyal of India from 1888 to India’s independence in 1947. As you take a guided tour of the interior you also hear the story of how the lodge played an important role in negotiating India’s independence. Black and white photos tell the story of the major players of Indian independence and Partition, its split with Pakistan.
The lodge that once served as a symbol of British colonial power is today the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, considered the top academic and research center in the country for the humanities and social sciences. What were once grand dining halls and ballrooms now serve as libraries and areas of research and academic thought. A rather apt twist of history.
After your tour of the lodge’s interior be sure to take some time to explore the surrounding gardens.
14. Enjoy the breakfast of champions — masala dosa and coffee — at the Indian Coffee House in Shimla
The India Coffee House on Mall Road in Shimla is more than just a cafe or restaurant; it’s an institution. It was established in 1957 as part of a program to allow coffee workers to set up, run and manage coffee houses, and to generate additional income. Over 50 years later the oldest cafe in Shimla is still going strong.
To our sense, not much has changed — in a good way.
A masala dosa and a strong cup of filtered coffee — the real stuff, not instant — is one of our favorite ways to start the day. Although I’m sure all their food is good, we heard from our guide that they are best known for their southern Indian dishes (e.g., dosa, idli, etc.). Visit to the Indian Coffee House not only for the food. It’s the atmosphere of the place, including the professional waiters (see the photo above), that really make for a fun and engaging experience. Not to mention, because its run by coffee workers, the coffee is actually quite good.
On a practical note, the Indian Coffee House seems to be the only cafe open in Shimla before 9AM. If you’re an early riser or have an early morning train to catch, this is the place to go.
15. Take the ropeway down from Hanuman statue for views of Shimla
If you really want to get above it all in Shimla take a walk up to the giant Hanuman statue at the top of the hill. It’s not a long walk, but it is steep and you need to beware the pesky and aggressive monkeys that want to take your sunglasses, water bottles, and snacks.
Take note of the sign at the bottom which indicates the average amount of time to walk to the top, according to one’s age and relative fitness. Then compare your results!
On the return, however, we suggest you take a relaxing ride on the ropeway, or gondola. You get a beautiful view of the town below and of the expanse of hills surrounding Shimla. The clearest days yield views of the snow-covered Himalayas.
16. Pair an Indian craft beer with some pani puri
One thing we were not expecting to find in Shimla: a craft beer brewpub. We enjoyed a pale ale and shared fusion-inspired snacks at Brew Estate. Though it doesn’t fall into the category of “traditional Indian,” it does reflect a segment of modern India. It also makes for a delightful and safe way to order several small plates and share some Indian street food favorites. You can also order a full proper dinner here, too.
If you’ve had your fill of high-octane “strong” Indian beer, then enjoy a flavorful citric pale ale, red ale, or hefeweizen wheat ale in Shimla. Then, order several rounds of pani puri for your group to enjoy.
Pani puri is common street food snack made of puffed balls filled with potato and topped with tamarind juice, plain yogurt and coriander sauce. Delicious, but often the various liquids, herbs and ingredients can leave a traveler with Delhi belly.
That’s why the pani puri at Brew Estate was perfect. Everyone in our group tried this unique and fun combination of flavors, but in a safe and perfectly hygienic setting. Everyone loved it, so several orders circulated the table.
17. Take the Toy Train from Shimla to Kalka and Count the Tunnels (Hint: 103)
Built in the late 19th century, this narrow gauge railway winds itself through the hills of Himachal Pradesh, often twisting and turning back on itself in feats of navigation and engineering. At almost 100 km, this 5 hour train ride is one of the most scenic, ambling and pleasant in India. Stops in several stations offer ample opportunities for milk tea and snack breaks along the way.
18. Take a city walking tour in Delhi led by former street kids
Although this experience isn’t included as part of the G Adventures Northern India by Rail tour, it is offered as an optional activity. If you have a free day in Delhi before or after your tour begins, we recommend you seek it out. Just ask your G Adventures tour leader (CEO) to help organize it. If you’re not on a G Adventures tour, then you can inquire here.
This tour is like no other typical city walking tour — in a good way. Here’s why.
Anny, pictured above, guides us through a narrow alley near Delhi railway station. Her personal story is one of having been orphaned at five years old. For the last ten years she has lived in a shelter run by Salaam Balaak Trust, a local organization providing support, education and training to children who once lived their lives day and night on the street.
Besides sharing her knowledge of Delhi, Anny gave us some more background on the street children in India – the various ways many of them end up on the street, their survival tactics, and the ways they spend the money they make and steal. Their dreams, too.
This Planeterra Foundation project together with Salaam Baalak Trust offers youth the opportunity for English language courses and training in guiding and tourism. The goal: to build new confidence and give the children practical skills and experience in preparation for the time they must leave the shelters (at 18 years old) and they begin seeking employment.
19. Savor the charcoal dal makhani at Kitchen with a Cause and support disadvantaged youth
We consider ourselves pretty savvy and knowledgeable when it comes to Indian food, but we’d never had dal makhani served to us stewed with a smoldering piece of charcoal.
Smoke-infused creamy lentils equals amazing.
This social enterprise restaurant provides hospitality and restaurant training to former street kids and disadvantaged youth. Completion of a minimum 6-month training period also helps them find full-time employment in restaurants or hotels afterwards. To eat well and support disadvantaged youth: satisfying.
Address: 15A/63, Ajmal Khan Rd, Block 15A, WEA, Karol Bagh, New Delhi. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from the Karol Bagh metro station.
20. Deck yourself out in Indian clothes and colors at Fabindia
On our first trip to India together over ten years ago I discovered Fabindia, an Indian clothing shop that uses high quality natural cottons and materials and works with rural communities so as to provide local opportunities for employment. The colors, designs, and cuts for both traditional Indian clothing (e.g., kurtas, tunics, dupattas, saris) — as well as more western-style items — are beautiful, unusual and high quality.
In other words, it’s the perfect place to get yourself outfitted with some traditional Indian clothes for your travels in India. This not only helps you fit in and shows respectful dress, but the clothes are loose and comfortable for the local climate. For women I recommend picking up a couple of tunics and kurtas that you can wear either with jeans, light walking trousers or as a set with a pair of their colorful matching trousers. All the choices, sizes and colors are a bit overwhelming at first, so don’t be afraid to ask for help from the local staff. Or from your husband.
There are several Fabindia locations in Delhi. I had especially good luck at Connaught Place.
As always, the thoughts contained herein — the what, the why, and the how — are entirely our own.
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