Dharamsala is scattered along the incline to the Himalayas, but right up the top is the small town of McLeod Ganj – my favourite place in India.
Himachal Pradesh, North India Why Go?
Like many Indian towns, McLeod Ganj is a bit ramshackled and slapped together, but the location at the foot of the Himalayas and chai-sipping café culture is addictive. While very touristy, Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian locals bring a rich mix of sights, souvenirs, and food to the town.
When To Go?
While November gives the best view of the mountains, you can go anytime between then and late March to experience the atmospherically cool climate (0-15 degrees). Between March and September would provide a nice respite from the rest of the heat-riddled country, but be aware July and August are pretty wet.
There are a couple of ways you can do this. While there are luxury buses from Delhi and Amritsar (go in to any travel agency and they’ll help you), it’s easy and cost-effective to go with government buses.
From Amritsar, go the bus depot and jump on a bus to Pathankot (4 hours), then switch over a bus heading to Dharamsala (3 hours). From the bus depot there, catch the shuttle up to McLeod Ganj (30-40 minutes). This sounds much more complicated than it is, but the whole thing will cost about 250-300 INR and everyone at bus depots are more than willing to help and point you in the right direction.
Either go back the way you came, or step in to one of the many tourist agencies for help. We headed to Rishikesh (12 hours) on an overnight bus, but a word of warning, avoid sitting along the back of the bus! The seats don’t recline at all and sleep is virtually impossible.
The food in McLeod Ganj caters to all tastes, with a wide variety of pizza at the famous McLlo Restaurant, to homemade cakes and treats at local cafes like Green Hotel Restaurant or Peace Cafe. If you’re out and about, try a warm bowl of Nepalese thupka (noodle soup, traditionally eaten by Sherpas) and Tibetan momo (curry dumplings with a sweet sauce) at any of the roadside stalls.
Though small, McLeod Ganj is home to a vast array of shops and stalls selling everything from Kashmir and wool scarves, jumpers and shawls, to hand-crafted chess sets, carvings, Buddhist monuments and leather-bound books. The touristy nature of the place means the prices are seriously inflated, but quality is largely quite high, and if you’re looking for some warm clothes after hanging out in the hot south, you’ve come to the right place.
You might be looking for somewhere with a nice hot shower after freezing your ass off hiking from the bus station to the town, but it’s important to note that the cold mountainous location means hot water is harder to come by. While going budget will often mean the receptionist will give you hot water in a bucket to use as you please until it gets cold, there are a few places that a hot water tap in each room (be patient as it heats, it can take a while…) – useful if, like me, you’ve been wearing inadequate socks and need to heat your toes to avoid the beginnings of frost bite. I recommend Kareri Lodge for spectacular views at backpacker prices.
The whole place is really one giant site – walk around and you’ll find something to marvel at, but I do recommend the home of the 14th Dalai Llama. Even if you’re not in to Buddhism or temples of any kind, go for the Tibetan museum and find out why there are so many Tibetan people in the area. It’s a really eye-opening experience.
Want to know more about where to go in India? Check out my India Travel Guide!