Amritsar and the Golden Temple: The Complete Guide

A man observes the Golden Temple in Amritsar reflected in water at dawn
Adrian Pope / Getty Images  

Amritsar, the spiritual capital of the Sikh religion, is best known for its landmark Golden Temple (officially called Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib). The city's name comes from the water body surrounding the temple and means "Holy Tank of Nectar of Immortality". As one of the top places to visit in north India, Amritsar is also famed for its local cuisine and heritage related to The Partition of India. This travel guide will help you plan your trip.

History

Guru Ram Das, the fourth guru of Sikhs, founded Amritsar after being appointed in 1574. It's thought that the land was donated by Emperor Akbar. In order to establish his new base, the guru invited merchants and artisans from nearby areas to settle with him there. In 1977, Guru Ram Das inaugurated the excavation of the holy tank, which became the center point of the city. His youngest son and successor, Guru Arjan Dev, later designed and built the temple complex. Its foundations were laid in 1588 by popular Muslim Sufi saint Miyan Mir (in keeping with the notion that people of all faiths are welcome) and construction was completed in 1604.

The Golden Temple complex was further developed by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, who added the Akal Takht in 1606. This throne of spiritual authority is one of five seats of power for Sikhs. Unfortunately, the original temple sustained extensive damage during fighting between Sikhs and Muslims. In 1762, Afghan invaders led by Ahmed Shah Abdali blew up the temple, but fortunately, it was quickly rebuilt. The temple didn't get its glorious golden glow until more than 200 years after it was originally constructed. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the 19th century Sikh Empire, sponsored the gold plating and other marble work in 1830. It was during the fair and courageous reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that Amritsar truly had its golden years.

British rule followed, and in 1919 Amritsar was the site of an horrific but defining incident in India's struggle for Independence -- the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, where British troops opened fire on more than 10,000 unarmed protesters in an act that propelled Gandhi's independence movement.

In order to spruce up Amritsar and boost its image, the government completed a series of city beautification projects in 2016. Part of this included revamping the heritage street that runs between the Town Hall, Jallianwala Bagh, and the Golden Temple. A towering statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was installed in the plaza near the temple, and a Partition Museum established in the refurbished Town Hall.

Old Indian street, architecture and everyday life in Amritsar, Punjab
Pavel Sipachev/Getty Images

Location

Amritsar is located in Punjab state in the northwestern India. The city is about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Pakistani border.

How to Get There

Amritsar's airport has direct flights from various cities in India including Delhi, Srinagar, Chandigarh, and Mumbai. However, northern India (including Delhi and Amritsar) suffers from fog in winter, so flights can often be delayed during that time. An alternative option is to take the train. There are frequent services from major Indian cities. From Delhi, the 12013/New Delhi-Amritsar Shatabdi Express will get you there in six hours. It departs from New Delhi Railway Station at 4.30 p.m. and arrives in Amritsar at 10.30 p.m.

You can also travel to Amritsar by road. Regular bus services run from Delhi and other destinations in North Indian. Travel time from Delhi by bus is around 10 hours. Check Redbus.in for options (if you're a foreigner, you'll need to use Amazon Pay to book because international cards aren't accepted).

Numerous companies offer tours to Amritsar from Delhi. An inexpensive option is the one-night Indian Railways Amritsar Rail Tour Package that includes train travel on the Swarna Shatabdi Express, all meals, accommodations, transport, and sightseeing. The itinerary includes the Golden Temple, Wagah Border, and Jallianwala Bagh. It departs early Friday and Saturday mornings from New Delhi Railway Station.

When to Go

Amritsar has quite an extreme climate, with very hot summers and very cold winters. The best months to visit are October and November, and February and March. If you don't mind feeling a little chilly, December and January are also good times to visit. The temperature starts to climb in April and the monsoon rain arrives in July.

Most of the festivals that take place in Amritsar are religious in nature. Diwali, Holi, Lohri (bonfire harvest festival in January), and Baisakhi (Punjab new year and commemoration of the founding of the Sikh religion brotherhood in April) are all celebrated there on a grand scale. Baisakhi is particularly boisterous, with lots of bhangra dancing, folk music, and fairs. Major celebrations are organized at the Golden Temple on this occasion, and it becomes carnival like outside. There's also a street procession. Other festivals in Amritsar include Guru Nanak Jayanti in November, and the Ram Tirath Fair, also in November a fortnight after Diwali.

How to Visit

Amritsar is divided into old and new parts of the city. The Golden Temple is located in the old part, which is full of bazaars, only 15 minutes from the railway station. The temple's management committee runs frequent free shuttle buses around the clock from the railway station to the temple. However, these buses are very basic and get awfully crowded during peak times.

For tourists, a special Hop-On-Hop-Off sightseeing bus links 11 of the city's top attractions. Do note that museums and Jallianwala Bagh are closed on Mondays.

If you're feeling energetic, City on Pedals conducts themed bicycle tours of the city.

What to See and Do

The Golden Temple is the main attraction in Amritsar, and it's what makes this otherwise normal Punjabi city so special. The temple—so exquisite, it was formally named Sri Harmandir Sahib, "The Abode of God,"— is the central place of worship for all Sikhs. It attracts pilgrims from all over the world who pay their respects and do voluntary service in numbers that rival the yearly visitors to the Taj Mahal in Agra. The temple also provides a place of worship and shelter for everyone, irrespective of their faith.

The temple looks particularly arresting at night when its imposing pure gold dome is illuminated. In addition to the dome, one of the temple's most incredible features is the langar, or free food from the community kitchen, provided to pilgrims or anyone else in need. The temple is said to have the largest free community kitchen in the world and feeds up to 100,000 people per day. It's possible to take a tour of the kitchen—an opportunity you should not miss—and even volunteer there.

Volunteer cook at Langar (Community kitchen) at Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple
Huw Jones/Getty Images

If you have time, the Golden Temple is well worth two visits—one during the day and one at night. Special rituals are performed at dawn, when the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) is taken out, and upon closing when it's returned to bed. The scripture is treated as a living person, or guru, out of respect. Sikh weapons are put on display at around 8 p.m. after the evening scripture. The temple is open almost 24 hours a day. Details of its schedule is available here. Visitors note: Heads must be covered and shoes removed when you enter the temple complex.

Other Things to Do in Amritsar

Amritsar's Old City is really worth exploring. This Heritage Walking Tour of Amritsar will guide you through its narrow lanes. On the walk, you'll get to see historic mansions, traditional trades and crafts, and captivating architecture with intricately carved wooden facades.

Amritsar is known for its hearty street food. There are various options for guided walking tours including this Amritsari Food Trail offered by Amritsar Magic, and Amritsar Food Walk offered by Amritsar Heritage Walk.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre site has a memorial with an Eternal Flame of Liberty. The walls of the garden still bear bullet marks, and the place where the firing was ordered can also be seen. A gallery with pictures of Indian freedom fighters and historical memorability is another attraction there.

Amritsar's new Partition Museum is dedicated to recording and preserving the experiences of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India, which was enacted as part of the deal to grant India independence. It's one of the top museums in India and showcases an important event in India's history that has had wide-ranging effects of world politics.

Gobindgarh Fort, on Old Cantt. Road in Amritsar, is worth visiting as well. This fort was the heart of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's empire. It housed an armory and mint, and has almost 300 years of fascinating history. The government opened the restored fort to the public in 2017. It has been developed into a cultural center with a museum dedicated to Punjab’s history.

Where to Eat and Drink

Century-old Kesar Da Dhaba is an iconic eatery in the Old City, near the Golden Temple. You'll need to take a cycle rickshaw there or walk, as it's tucked away in a narrow lane. Do note that it only serves vegetarian food.

For lunch, try the Amritsari kulchas (with potato, cauliflower or cottage cheese fillings) at Bhai Kulwant Singh Kulchian Wale, situated down a side street between Jallianwala Bagh and Golden Temple.

Near the Town Hall, Bharawan da Dhaba has been in business since 1912 and is best known for its winter specialty of sarson da saag (mustard greens) with makki ki roti (cornmeal flatbread). One of the owners opened the equally popular Bare Bhai Ka Brothers Dhaba next door.

If you're a hardcore carnivore, head to Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner or Beera Chicken House (known for its roast chicken).

Adventurous foodies shouldn't miss sampling hot paaya (a curry made with goat trotters) and keema parathas (flatbread stuffed with spicy minced goat meat) at Pal Dhaba at Hathi Gate.

Where to Stay

Some reasonably priced budget options are Hotel City Park, Hotel City Heart, Hotel Darbar View, and Hotel Le Golden. These are best for those who prefer to stay close to the Golden Temple, but this area won't suit everyone because the streets are congested. The contemporary new Taj Swarna Amritsar is the best luxury hotel in the city. Golden Tulip Amritsar is a decent mid-range option close to the railway station.

For a characterful heritage hotel, head to the WelcomHeritage Ranjit's Svaasa. This boutique Ayurvedic spa retreat is housed in a 200 year old mansion, just off Mall Road (around 10 minutes drive from the Golden Temple). Expect to pay 6,000 rupees upwards for a double. 

Alternatively, Amritsar has some fabulous boutique properties on the outskirts of the city, such as the Farmer's Villa farmstay and Windsong BnB.

If you'd prefer to stay in a guesthouse, Mrs. Bhandari's Guesthouse receives good reviews. It's situated in a peaceful area surrounded by a garden and has a swimming pool. Double rooms are available from 2,600 rupees per night. Jagaadus Hostel is the most popular backpacker hostel in Amritsar and arranges local tours.

What Else to Do Nearby

Most people who visit Amritsar also take a day trip to the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. The big attraction there is the flag lowering ceremony, which happens at the checkpoint every evening at sundown. It has been going on since 1959 with great fanfare. You can get there by taxi (about 1,000 rupees return), auto rickshaw, shared jeep (150 rupees per person), or join one of the many tours.

Boutique tour companies also conduct day trips to local villages, farms, and wetlands for birding and nature walks.

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