Punjab, with its fertile farming land, is one of India's most prosperous states. Home to energetic bhangra music and the brotherhood of the Sikh religion, it has a distinctive and lively culture. To get a real taste of Punjab, it's necessary to venture out of the cities to discover the simplicity and charm of rural life. Visit these top tourist places in Punjab to experience the best of what the state has to offer. Balle, balle!
Amritsar is the spiritual capital of the Sikhs and a must-visit place due to the exquisite Golden Temple. It attracts pilgrims from all over the world, and looks particularly arresting at night when it’s beautifully lit up with its imposing pure gold dome illuminated. The memorial at Jallianwala Bagh near the Golden Temple is one of India's top historical sites and is also worth seeing along with Gobindgarh Fort, and the new Partition Museum dedicated to preserving the experiences of those affected by the 1947 Partition of India. Amritsar is renowned for its street food as well, making it a foodie's delight! A heritage walk is interesting too. Plan your trip there with this Amritsar travel guide.
The Wagah Border, between India and Pakistan, is a popular side trip from Amritsar. Everyday of the year, just before sunset, a flag lowering ceremony takes place there as the border is closed for the day. It starts with high patriotic spirits from both sides of the border and lasts for about 45 minutes. Here's more information about it and how to best experience it.
Farms and Farmsatays
Farming is at the heart of Punjab, and the state has some outstanding boutique farmstays where you can experience rural living (and at the right time of year, even frolic among the yellow mustard fields like in a Bollywood movie). It's possible for guests to participates in farming activities and go for tractor rides. Punjabiyat, about an hour northeast of Amritsar, is a unique tribute to Punjabi culture with four cottages surrounded by fields. Farmer's Villa is conveniently located about 20 minutes north of Amritsar. Citrus County is set on a sprawling kinnow fruit orchard in Hoshiarpur, a couple of hours east of Amritsar and northeast of Chandigarh. It has luxury tents for glamping. Kailash Farms is also popular (and less costly) in Hoshiarpur, and is great for families. Prakriti Farms, about an hour southeast of Chandigarh, is another recommended option with luxury tents and huts.
Anandpur Sahib is flanked by a 17th century fortress, and framed between a towering mountain range and river, about two hours north of Chandigarh near the Himachal Pradesh border. This holy place has been an important pilgrimage destination for Sikhs for hundreds of years. Known as the "Holy City of Bliss", it was the birth place of the Khalsa (Sikh brotherhood) and the remarkable new Virasat–e-Khalsa museum tells the story of the Sikh community there. The magnificent, ornate gurudwaras (places of worship) are another attraction.
Visit Anandpur Sahib during Baisaki to catch the carnival like celebrations that take place there. However, the most impressive display of Sikh fearlessness can be seen during Hola Mohalla, held during the Holi festival. It's one of the best places to celebrate Holi in India. Instead of throwing colored powder, be prepared for testosterone fueled mock battles featuring sticks, knives, axes and swords. One of the best places to stay is Bharatgarh Fort heritage homestay (yes, it is inside a real fort!) about 20 minutes away in Rupnagar.
Capital city Chandigarh is a modern-day planned city that's different to any other in India. It lacks chaos and color but has some interesting attractions. The highlight is the extraordinary 25 acre Fantasy Rock Garden, open daily. Artist Nek Chand used all kinds of urban and industrial waste, as well as local stone, to personally create a multitude of quirky sculptures (including more than 2,000 statues) over 20 years. It's junk art at its finest!
The city's other off-beat attractions include the iconic Open Hand Monument (located in the UNESCO World Heritage Capitol Complex) and a 56 foot tall replica of Paris's Eiffel Tower (located in Leisure Valley, in front of the Government Museum and Art Gallery). If you enjoy nature, visit Sukhna Lake (which has paddle boats), and the city's various parks and gardens as well. There's a Rose Garden with 1,500 varieties, and a Bougainvillea Garden. The convenient and inexpensive Hop On Hop Off Bus stops at many of these places.
Chandigarh has also been undergoing a hip transformation in recent years, with the opening of a number of microbreweries (try Malt & Co at the Piccadilly Hotel, and Hops N Grains at Sector 9 in Panchkula) and the luxurious Oberoi Sukhvilas spa resort.
Step back in time to Punjab's royal past at Patiala, where you'll get a glorious glimpse into the history of 18th and 19th century Punjab, particularly the Malwa region. Situated an hour and a half southwest of Chandigarh, Patiala was once an independent Sikh kingdom and one of India's richest princely states. The city is graced with numerous heritage buildings, gardens and parks. Its main attractions are a temple devoted to Goddess Kali, Moti Bagh Palace (which houses an excellent art gallery), and the vast 10 acre Qila Mubarak complex (with its series of palaces, inner fort, audience hall, and war museum). It's a rare and remarkable example of Sikh palace architecture in India. Punjab Tourism offers an insightful guided heritage walk of the old Patiala area. Haveliwala Mohalla, once Patiala's poshest neighborhood, is captivating to wander through as well. It's full of faded mansions.
Patiala is also famous for the generous Patiala peg of whiskey, traditional salwar suits with loose pants, pagdi (turban), and paranda (colorful hair decorations for women). Slip-on leather footwear, known as the Patiala jutti, is another hot item that you can shop for in the busy local markets.
Stay at Neemrana's Baradari Palace, a delightfully atmospheric and centrally located heritage hotel. Quite a few scenes from the Bollywood movie Bodyguard were filmed there.
History lovers will be enthralled by Qila Mubarak at Bathinda, about three hours south of Amritsar and west of Patiala. This robust fort is one of the oldest surviving forts in India and is believed to have mud bricks from the ancient Indus Valley Civilization. The fort was expanded into its present form by various rulers from the 1st century onward, including 18th century Patiala rulers who substantially repaired it. Inside is a gurudwara, made to honor tenth Sikh guru Gobind Singh, who is said to have exorcised a demon from the fort in the early 18th century. The tale of the first female ruler of Delhi, Empress Razia Sultana, being imprisoned in the fort in the 13th century is interesting too.
Bathinda has another, less impressive, fort that has been converted into a heritage hotel. Bahia Fort was built in 1930 and accommodated the army of Patiala ruler Maharaja Bhupinder Singh.
Harike Wetlands and Bird Sanctuary
Did you know that Punjab has the largest wetlands in northern India? It's situated where the Beas and Sutlej rivers meet, under two hours south of Amritsar. Harike Wetlands hasn't been developed as a tourist destination, so it lacks facilities and often falls under the radar of many visitors. However, it's a prominent breeding ground for migratory and resident water fowl, with more than 360 recorded species. Boating isn't possible without special permission but there are trails, accessible by vehicle (drive your own or hire a jeep in Amritsar), that offer fine bird sightings. Entry is free and the Harike Wildlife Office issues permits. November to February is the best time to go. It's an appealing destination for nature lovers looking for peace.
Not far from Ludhiana, the village of Kila Raipur hosts the weird and wonderful Rural Olympics every February. This spectacle has earned world-wide recognition. The adrenaline-pumping bullock cart race is the main attraction. Other events that are big on entertainment include a tractor race and a tug-of-war. You'll also get to see some really bizarre activities such as people lifting bicycles with their teeth, pulling cars with their teeth or ears, or riding a bicycle ringed with a burning tire, and other daredevil stunts.