Your Guide to Visiting Amritsar and the Golden Temple

Golden Temple in Amritsar at dawn.
Adrian Pope/Getty Images  

Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Guru Ram Das, the fourth guru of Sikhs. It’s the spiritual capital of the Sikhs and gained its name, meaning "Holy Tank of Nectar of Immortality", from the body of water surrounding the magnificent Golden Temple.

Plan your trip to Amritsar and the Golden Temple with this essential travel guide.

Getting There

Amritsar's Rajasansi 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 plenty of 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 by road. Regular bus services run from Delhi and other places in north Indian. Travel time from Delhi by bus is around 10 hours. Check for options (if you're a foreigner, you'll need to use Amazon Pay to book because international cards aren't accepted).

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 operates frequent free shuttle buses around the clock from the railway station to the temple.

However, these buses are known to get awfully crowded during peak times.

Tours to Amritsar

Numerous companies offer tours to Amritsar from Delhi. An inexpensive option is this one-night Indian Railways Amritsar Rail Tour Package. Rates start from 5,244 rupees per person (triple share) and include train travel on the Swarna Shatabdi Express, all meals, accommodations, transport and sightseeing.

Singles can expect to pay 8,192 rupees. Places visited are the Golden Temple, Wagah Border, and Jallianwala Bagh. The tour departs from New Delhi Railway Station every Friday and Saturday at 7.30 a.m.

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 climbing from April, and the monsoon rain arrives in July.

The Golden Temple

The exquisite Golden Temple (formally known as Sri Harmandir Sahib, "The Abode of God"), is what really makes this otherwise unremarkable Punjabi city special. This sacred Sikh shrine attracts pilgrims from all over the world, who pay their respects and do voluntary service. Astonishingly, the number of visitors per year rivals the Taj Mahal in Agra. The temple looks particularly arresting at night when it’s beautifully lit up, with its imposing pure gold dome illuminated.

The Golden Temple is the central place of worship for all Sikhs. It also provides a place of worship and shelter for everyone, irrespective of their faith. The temple was designed and built by the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan.

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 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 temple was blown up by Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali in 1762, following an ongoing battle between Sikhs and Muslims. Although the temple was extensively damaged, it was quickly rebuilt.

Notably, the temple didn't get its glorious golden glow until more than 200 years after it was constructed though. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the 19th century Sikh Empire, sponsored the gold plating and other exquisite marble work in 1830.

Apart from that, one of the temple's most incredible features is the langar (free food from the community kitchen) it provides to pilgrims or anyone who wants it. The temple is said to have the largest free community kitchen in the world. It feeds up to 100,000 people per day! It's possible to take a tour of the kitchen (don't miss seeing it) and even volunteer there.

The temple complex is open for about 20 hours, from 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. (depending on the time of year). The exact timings are available here. It's well worth two visits -- during the day and night. Special rituals are performed at dawn, when the Guru Granth Sahib (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.

Do note that heads must be covered and shoes removed when you enter the temple complex.

Other Things to Do in Amritsar

Amritsar's fascinating 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.

Jagaadus Hostel also organizes interesting and reasonably priced tours in and around Amritsar. Choose from a tour of the Golden Temple, a food walk, a village tour, and tour to the Wagah Border.

Jallianwala Bagh is one of the top historical sites in India, and is where a woeful yet defining moment in India's struggle for freedom occurred. The massacre of more than 10,000 unarmed protestors there by the British in 1919 propelled Gandhi's movement to seek Independence from British rule.

Amritsar also has a new Partition Museum dedicated to recording and preserving the experiences of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India (which took place as part of India's Independence). It's one of the top museums in India that showcase the country's heritage.

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

If you want to try the local cuisine without taking a tour, century-old Kesar Da Dhaba is iconic. It's located 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. If you're a hardcore meat eater, head to Makan Fish and Chicken Corner or Beera Chicken (renowned for its roast chicken).

Festivals and Events

Most of the festivals that take place in Amritsar are religious in nature. Diwali, Holi, Lohri (bonfire harvest festival), 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.

Where to Stay

If you'd prefer to stay close to the Golden Temple, some reasonably priced budget options are Hotel City Park, Hotel City Heart, Hotel Darbar View, and Hotel Le Golden. This area won't suit everyone though 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.

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 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.

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

Side Trips

Most tourists who visit Amritsar also take a day trip to the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan, around 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the city. The big attraction there is the flag lowering ceremony, which takes place 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 on one of the many tours.