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‘I feel like I’m in another Country’. These were my words on my Instagram Stories after arriving in the town of McLeod Ganj, a town within the Dharamshala area of India, up in the state of Himachal Pradesh with a big Tibetan Influence.
I went from Amritsar to Dharamshala by bus which was only about 5 hours and not that bad. To be honest I nearly didn’t go because it was November because winter was descending and I’d heard it gets very cold in Himachal Pradesh in Winter.
Thankfully I did visit Dharamshala (I also wanted to go to Manali but it was so much colder there so I decided not too) and now I’m here to tell you that you have to go to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj on your trip to India, especially if you want fresh mountain air, mountain views, peace and quiet and to see the home of the Dalai Lama, and who doesn’t want that??
So here is my guide to the area of Dharamshala for travellers and backpackers including things to do, where to stay, places to eat and things to note about Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj especially!
To SEE Dharamshala, have a watch of my Youtube Video here:
Dharamsahala or Dharamsala (it’s the same place, slightly different spelling) is in the North Western state of Himachal Pradesh in Kangra. It’s one of the hill stations in Himachal Pradesh and it’s part of the traveller and backpacker trail but I feel that if travellers are coming to India for the first time and only for a short time it’s likely they won’t make it up here as it is a bit out of the way and that’s a shame. I visited just after being in Northern India for 1 month.
Dharamshala is an area and it’s also it’s own town, however within this area is also McLeod Ganj, Dharamkot and Bhagsu. So when people say they are visiting Dharamshala, like I am saying, I mean the area it’s in with it’s other towns and villages. This confused me when researching where to stay in Dharamshala so I wanted to clear this up for you!
Getting to Dharamshala By Train
Dharamshala does not have a train station, the nearest station is Pathankot which is 85km to the East of Dharamshala and a then a 2.5hour drive up very windy roads, so getting to Dharamshala by train is not really an option.
Getting to Dharamshala By Air
Kangra Airport is the closest airport and only a 30 minute drive from Dharamshala, internal flights in India can be pretty cheap so if you are coming from further away flying to Dharamshala could be an option. Check out flights on Skyscanner here and look at transfers from Kangra Airport to Dharamshala here!
Getting to Dharamshala By Bus
Travelling to and from Dharamshala by bus is the easiest and cheapest option, even if it’s not the nicest!
There is an overnight bus from Delhi to Dharamshala which I heard is ok and only really bumpy and windy once you’re close to Dharamshala.
Other popular places to visit before or after Dharamshala are Amritsar, Rishikesh and Manali.
There’s a day bus from Amritsar to Dharamshala which is what I took to get there, it was a mini bus with Laxmi Travels, took 5 hours and cost me 1000Rs and it wasn’t too bad at all. There’s also a public bus which will be cheaper.
I went to Rishikesh afterwards and took an overnight bus from Dharamshala to Rishikesh, this was one hell of a journey as the roads are very windy and bumpy all of the way! I didn’t enjoy it I’ll admit, but it was the only option really! It takes 11 hours and cost 1000Rs.
Manali is another place in Himachal Pradesh and a good place to go to before or after (although I didn’t as in November it was already chilly in Dharamshala and it was snowing in Manali!) a bus from Dharamshala to Manali is only a few hours.
Pathankot to Mcleod Ganj by bus is pretty easy too and cheap as Pathankot is not too far away.
I booked my bus tickets with agents in Dharamshala and Amritsar but you can also book buses in India on Red Bus and Via. Buses do also go to McLeod Ganj bus station and they might even go to Bhagsu so if you are staying up there try and get a bus there rather than to Dharamshala town as you’ll then need to get a taxi to one of the other towns!
Related Posts: Tips for Visiting Amritsar!
Getting to Dharamshala By Car
Getting a private car in India is a popular thing to do, it’s not as cheap as public transport of course but for tourists with more money to spend or for people on a tight timeframe a private car is often the preferred option.
Taxi’s are readily available, a lady in my hotel was taking a day taxi from Dharamshala to Rishikesh which cost 10,000Rs. If you are visiting from Amritsar and want a private car, have a look at this good option on Viator!
As mentioned I stayed in the town of McLeod Ganj which I would really recommend as it’s only a short walk from Bhagsu and Dharamkot, it has plenty of cafes and shops to keep you busy but it can also be very quiet off the main streets. This is also where the Dalai Lama Temple and the Tibet Museum are which are some of the main things to do in Dharamshala, so McLeod Ganj is a great central base I think.
I stayed at Ram Yoga House which I loved and I think is the best hotel in Dharamshala! It only has 10 rooms, all with balconies and mountain views. It books up fast and I was lucky to get the last room on Booking.com! I had the budget room and it was ‘budget’ as the balcony view had a building in front, but I still had a good view to the side, especially of the sunrise and at roughly 1100RS per night it is great value for a double room with private bathroom!
Ram Yoga House also has a cafe on site which makes it really convenient to get breakfast or dinner if you don’t want to go back into the town. The staff are really lovely including Ram who owns the place. And perhaps best of all is the Yoga Studio on the rooftop with an incredible view over the valley. Daily lessons are offered in high season but whether lessons are on or not, you can use the studio on your own for free which is so great if you want to practise yoga in Dharamshala! As you can tell, I did love it and you can check availability and rates here on Booking.com!
There are plenty of Guest Houses and Hotels in McLeod Ganj and more in Dharamkot, Bhagsu and Dharamshala. Most will be quite basic and the decor may be quite outsdated but that’s kinda the vibe of this place. I’d just make sure you get somewhere that is warm if you are visiting in Winter!
In terms of hostels in Dharamshala, there are a few although there are none of the Chains like Zostel, Moustache, Backpacker Panda which is kind of a shame but hostels that I heard are popular are: Hostel LaVie, Flugler Hostel although these are further up in Bhagsu.
Search for Guest Houses, Hotels and Hostels here on Booking.com! I always use Booking.com as they offer really flexible options!
When I say ‘Dharamshala’ I mean the whole of this area! The top things to do in Dharamshala are:
The Dalai Lama Temple – This wasn’t tooo impressive to be honest but it’s a must visit in McLeod Ganj because Dharamshala is now the home of the Dalai Lama so you have to visit his temple. Although he travels a lot, it’s also worth checking to see if he’s around when you’re there! You can view the Dalai Lama’s schedule here!
The Tibet Museum – This is a must must must visit in McLeod Ganj too. It’s right next to the Dalai Lama temple and it explains the history of Tibet and why it is in the situation it is in today. To be honest I didn’t know much about the history and it kind of surprised me how many Tibetans I saw in McLeod Ganj when I arrived but it all made sense after visiting. The history (and the current day situation) is really shocking so you really should visit and I recommend visiting on your first day as it will help you understand the area and people better. If you want to start reading up now, look into the history of Tibet from 1950-Present here!
Bhagsu Falls – This is another popular thing to do in Dharamshala and Bhagsu. It’s possible to walk from McLeod Ganj to Bhagsu and then up to Bhagsu falls. It isn’t the most impressive falls and it’s very easy to get to via a path which means it’s very touristy and heavily visited by Indians (who will probably want a selfie – see how to deal with selfies in India in my video here!) but it’s worth going and if you’re not staying in Bhagsu it’s a reason to visit the village.
Walk around Upper Bhagsu – Whilst I didn’t really like Bhagsu as it’s very touristy, I walked around the small paths of Upper Bhagsu and really enjoyed this so definitely venture up here too!
Tushita Meditation Centre – Up in Dharamkot is Tushita Meditation Centre, a Buddhist Centre which offers Buddhism Courses from 2 to 10 days most of the year, but also a daily meditation class from 9:30 everyday except Sunday. I only went once (actually I went twice but the first time it was cancelled due to there being another course on, so call them in advance to check it will be on!), and I really enjoyed it. We did 2 simple meditations which lasted about 10-15 minutes each and it is on a donation basis. The centre is very quiet and relaxed and visiting made me really want to go back and do a course! I walked from McLeod Ganj to Dharamkot one day, it was ok but very steep! The second time I took a taxi which was 150Rs! Check out the location and courses here!
Yoga & Classes – There’s not a huge yoga scene here, not like in Rishikesh but there are plenty of yoga classes in Dharamshala, Bhagusu and McLeod Ganj. Plus classes for Dance, Chakra Healing and all things like this.The best thing to do is to get there and check out the flyers that are on the walls to see what is on offer!
Cafe Hop! – There are few cool cafes and restaurants around so it’s easy to pass a morning or afternoon in these, see more on those below!
Cricket Ground – Not something I was interested in but in Dharamshala is Himachal Cricket Ground which is the highest Cricket Ground in the world at 1457 metres, it’s said to be one of India’s best cricket grounds too so if you like cricket, try and see it! Check out the schedule of games here.
Explore the Area by Foot or Moped – There are plenty of walks you can do around the area. If you want to go hiking with a local guide, have a look into this hiking day tour. If you want to get up high towards the snow of the base of the Himalayan Mountains you can walk depending on the time of year or hire a car or moped to get there!
Adventure Activities – Whilst nearby Manali is better for adventure activities if you are not going that way you can still book day tours and go Paragliding from Dharamshala as well as Rock Climbing and Camping in Dharamshala.
In general, this area is a good place to visit to chill out a bit, take in the fresh mountain air, explore and connect back to Nature. However if you want to see a lot Dharamshala in one day or with a guide so you can understand the area more, there are lots of day tours of Dharamshala on Viator which range in price, so I would recommend checking out these Dharamshala Tours!
There are plenty of places to eat in McLeod Ganj but here were my favourites:
Firstly I would say to note the time of year you want to visit. I feel like there is no best time of year to visit Dharamshala as it depends what you want weather wise and what clothes you have. I visited in Mid November and it was chilly at night but when the sun was out during the day it was quite warm, although I was still well covered up. As a backpacker I had to wear quite a few layers as I didn’t have any majorly warm clothes. From Dec-Feb it gets a lot colder and may even snow. Spring time is nice- especially April and May when it gets warmer but it also gets a bit busier in this time, especially with Indian travellers. Summer in Dharamshala is warm but they do get a monsoon season so keep this in mind. With that said, there are plenty of market stalls and shops in McLeod Ganj especially selling Hiking Wear and clothes for all seasons!
The Altitude is another thing to note, it’s quite high up here and if you get out of breath quite quickly this will be why.
There are quite a few people begging, older Tibetans and poorer women and children.
The area is not totally pretty, I mean the mountains are, they are spectacular but the towns are quite tired, old and a bit dirty, this is part of the charm (except the dirt and trash part) but I just want to warn you now so you know what to expect!
For more of my posts on India see:
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