A visit to Srinagar wouldn't be complete without exploring the glorious countryside of the Kashmir Valley (after all, Kashmir isn't called the "Switzerland of India" for nothing!). The Kashmir Valley lies between two major mountain ranges -- the Pir Panjal Range to the southwest, and main Himalayan range to the northeast. It's filled with flowers in spring and snow in winter. Pretty Kashmiri villages with traditional wooden houses and colorful rooftops dot the region. Read on to discover the best places to visit in the Kashmir Valley on side trips from Srinagar.
The easiest way of getting around is to hire a car and driver. Your hotel or houseboat owner will be able to readily arrange tours. Otherwise, if you're on a budget, the state bus company runs day trips. Tickets can be booked from the Tourist Reception Center in Srinagar.
Gulmarg ("Meadow of Flowers") is India's version of a ski resort. The ski season runs from mid-December to mid-March there. If you're not into skiing, you may still want to let the gondola whisk you more than 12,000 feet up Mount Apharwat for outstanding views. Apparently, it's the world's highest cable car/aerial tramway. If you feel like splashing some cash, treat yourself to a couple of nights at the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, one of the top Himalayan Spa Resorts.
- Location: About 2 hours west of Srinagar.
- Travel Tips: The gondola is very popular, so do buy your tickets online to avoid long queues. Unfortunately, you'll still have to wait to board it though.
Sonamarg ("Meadow of Gold") is the last major Kashmiri town on the way to Ladakh. It's famous for its Thajiwas Glacier, and what's really remarkable about this glacier is how accessible it is. From the highway, you can hike up to the glacier and back in about five hours. It's possible to ride a pony or take a shared taxi part of the way there too. Scenes of many Bollywood movies have been filmed in the area, and you won't have to try very hard to feel like you're in one! There are a number of options for eating and staying at Sonamarg. Ahsan Mount Resort has Swiss tents for glamping. Hotel Snowland is conveniently positioned but could be managed better.
- Location: On the Srinagar-Ladakh Highway, 2.5 hours northeast of Srinagar.
- Travel Tips: Be aware of aggressive local touts, pony owners, and taxi drivers who try to exploit tourists. They quote really high prices, especially during peak season. Do bargain hard. The Tourist Reception Center opposite the main market in Sonamarg is the best place to get information and approved taxi rates. Visit from mid-April to June if you want to go there for the snow.
Pahalgam ("Valley of Shepherds) is a popular destination for trekking and adventure tourism. Visitors commonly head to Betaab Valley (the Bollywood movie "Betaab" was shot there), with its fresh flowing Lidder River and surrounding snow-capped hills. However, do note that you'll only be allowed to take your vehicle up to a certain point to reach the Valley. After that, you'll need to hire a prepaid vehicle provided by the local transport association or walk. Entrance to the Valley is regulated and costs 10 rupees. Other possible activities around Pahalgam include golfing, trout fishing, and river rafting.
- Location: About 3 hours east of Srinagar.
- Travel Tips: It's near the departure point for pilgrims going on the Amarnath Yatra, so avoid visiting during July as it will be very busy then. Try to allow time to see the impressive temple ruins at Awantipora, en-route between Srinagar and Pahalgam.
Yousmarg ("Meadow of Jesus" -- yes, locals believe he stayed in the area) is a sprawling meadow that's refreshingly noncommercial and uncrowded, with only a couple of restaurants. The highlight is the Doodh Ganga River, which is reached by a picturesque 30-minute walk along a forested trail down a hill. Alternatively, you can take a pony. (Don't give into the insistent pony owners if you want to walk). On the way to Yousmarg, you'll pass numerous apple trees, as well the town of Charar-i-Sharief. Do stop there, as it's home to one of the holiest Sufi Muslim shrines in India, and has some of the biggest halwa parathas you'll ever see! It's possible to stay right on the meadow at Yousmarg in wooden huts run by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department, and go on various 1-2 day local forest treks.
- Location: 2 hours southwest of Srinagar.
- Travel Tips: If you spot anyone selling apples on the roadside, get some as they're delicious!
Doodhpathri ("Valley of Milk") is a secluded and undeveloped bowl-shaped valley that only recently opened to tourism. This makes it perfect if you're looking for an offbeat destination to enjoy pristine nature near Srinagar. The valley's name is often attributed to the legend of Kashmiri saint Sheikh Noor din Noorani, who is said to have been looking for water to wash himself with. When he broke the ground with his stick, milk came rushing out and later changed to water. Some say the river has a milky appearance.
- Location: About 2 hours southwest of Srinagar.
- Travel Tips: It's possible to trek between Yusmarg and Doodhpathri over a couple of days. There's also a little-known route between Doodhpathri and Yusmarg, via Budgam and Chadoora, that will enable you to visit both places on the same day trip from Srinagar if you leave early enough.
The Jhelum River that runs through Srinagar originates from Verinag, the entry to the Kashmir Valley at the foot of the Pir Panjal mountain range. Mughal Emperor Jehangir and his son Shah Jahan transformed the pool from which the water flows into a magnificent Mughal-style garden in the 17th century. Such gardens can also be seen at Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and the Taj Mahal.
- Location: About 2 hours southeast of Srinagar via Anantnag.
- Travel Tips: Verinag is one of the top spots around Srinagar to witness the stunning crimson fall foliage of the chinar trees in mid November.
Sinthan Top is an uninhabited mountain pass that connects the Kashmir Valley with Jammu at 12,500 feet above sea level. The main attraction there is snow -- it's one place in Kashmir that has snow all year round, even when the meadows of Gulmarg have turned green. Sinthan Top is yet to be developed though, so there's an absence of facilities for tourists. If you want to stay in the area, there are some accommodations at Daksum or Kokernag. They're marvelous destinations to experience the great outdoors, including Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary. A nature trail leads all the way up from Daksum to Sinthan Top.
- Location: About 3.5 hours southeast of Srinagar via Anantnag and Kokernag, and 2.5 hours south of Pahalgam.
- Travel Tips: Stop at Daksum, downhill, where there are tourist facilities. The road from Daksum to Sinthan Top has many sharp curves, which may be an issue for people who get car sick.
Most people will say that the real beauty of the Kashmir Valley lies in the hidden parts that are inaccessible by road. The Great Lakes Trek is often labeled as the most beautiful trek in India. This moderate, seven-day trek will transport you to a magical world filled with sparkling turquoise alpine lakes, vibrant flowering meadows, and craggy mountains patched with snow. Adding further interest are the names of the lakes, which are associated with Hindu gods and tales from Hindu mythology. The challenge of long high-altitude trekking days, with steep ascents and descents, is so worth it!
- Location: The trek starts out from Sonamarg and ends at Naranag.
- Travel Tips: The best time to go is from July through early September. This area, on the other side of the Pir Panjal mountain range, receives much less monsoon rain that the rest of India. Summer showers encourage the flowers to explode into bloom. It's an ideal offbeat (although harder) trek instead of The Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand.