Manali, with its soothing backdrop of the Himalayas, offers a blend of tranquility and adventure that makes it one of northern India's most popular travel destinations. You can do as little or as much as you want there. It’s a magical place bordered by cool pine forest and the raging Beas River, which give it a special energy.
Manali is 580 kilometers (193 miles) north of Delhi, at the northern end of the Kullu Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
The nearest main railway station is at Chandigarh, 320 kilometers (198 miles) away in Punjab state, so it’s necessary to travel quite a distance by road to reach Manali.
The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation and Himachal Tourism both operate buses from Delhi and surrounding locations. The trip from Delhi takes about 15 hours and most buses travel overnight. It’s possible to book a sleeper, so you can actually lie down and rest properly, although many people prefer the semi-sleeper reclining seats in the deluxe Volvo buses. It's also possible to book bus tickets online at redbus.in (foreigners will need to use Amazon Pay, as international cards aren't accepted).
Alternatively, there's an airport in Bhuntar, around two hours from Manali.
When to Go
The best time for travel to Manali is late March until mid July (before the monsoon rain arrives), and September to October.
From October onward, the nights and mornings are cold, and it usually starts snowing in December. The spring (late March to late April), when nature starts coming alive again after the cold winter, is a beautiful time to visit. The crisp clean air, rows of blossoming apple orchards, and masses of butterflies are a real treat.
August is apple season, and the orchards around Manali are filled with them.
What to Do
For ideas of things to do, check out these top 10 places to visit in and around Manali.
Anyone looking for thrilling adventure sports will love Manali. Fishing, whitewater rafting, paragliding, skiing, mountaineering, and hiking are all on offer in or around Manali. You’ll find many companies that organize and run adventure tours. Some reputable ones with high safety standards are Himalayan Journeys, North Face Adventure Tours, and the government operated Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports.
Himalayan Trails in Old Manali offers a wide range of outdoor activities including guided treks. Yak and Himalayan Caravan Adventure is also recommended for trekking and outdoor adventure activities, including day hikes, rock climbing, and rafting. For extra adrenaline, you can also take on the Himalayas by bike!
In addition, many people head off on a road trip to Leh from Manali.
The three-day Dhungri Mela at Hadimba Temple, which takes place in mid-May each year, provides an interesting glimpse of local culture. Gods and goddesses from local villages are dressed up and carried in procession to the temple, and local artists perform traditional folk dances.
There’s also a carnival for the kids. Another popular festival is Kullu Dusshera, which falls in October each year. Outdoor trance parties are held in the hills around Old Manali, mostly from May to July, but police interference has put a huge dampener on the party scene and it’s not what it used to be.
Where to Stay
If you feel like splurging, Manali has some wonderful luxury resorts with tranquil mountain settings. Choose from these top luxury resorts in Manali.
Uphill from Manali town, Old Manali has village homes and inexpensive guesthouses, surrounding by apple orchards and snow-covered peaks. Head there if you want to get away from the crowds. These guesthouses and hotels in Old Manali are among the best places to stay.
Nearby Vashist is another option that will appeal to backpackers and budget travelers.
Where to Eat
If you don't necessarily want Indian cuisine, you'll find the most atmospheric restaurants and best food in Old Manali. Cafe 1947 has a refreshing riverside location there and serves yummy Italian dishes. Il Forno is another place to get outstanding Italian food, and it's set right in the middle of an apple orchard in a traditional ancestral home. You'll get authentic Mediterranean food, with an emphasis on Spanish, at Casa Bella Vista Cafe. Also, The Lazy Dog is renowned for its western food and live music (it also has a branch at Beach Street Resort in north Goa). It's an ideal place to hangout in the evenings. Drifters has new owners and isn't quite what it used to be but still draws a crowd.
For the best coffee and cookies, visit Dylan's Toasted and Roasted Coffee House. It's right near the government school in Old Manali.
Keen to try the local specialty -- Himalayan river trout? Johnson's Cafe serves 10 different preparations of it!
About 20 minutes drive from Manali along Naggar Road, the Fate Plate serves homely food made from ingredients grown on the property. It's set amid a garden by the river, and there's accommodations as well.
Kasol, around three hours away in the Parvarti Valley, is a popular side trip from Manali. It's frequented by hippies and Israeli backpackers, and it's there that you'll find most of the psychedelic trance festivals. It does get crowded from April to July though. Kasol is also home to the remarkable Himalayan Village resort. Another attraction in the area is Manikaran, with its hot springs and enormous riverside Sikh Gurudwara. If there's too much commotion in Kasol for you, make your way to offbeat Kalga village.
Manali is divided into two parts -- Manali town (New Manali) and Old Manali. The town is a commercial area that caters to the masses of middle-class Indians (both honeymooners and families) who flock there to escape the scorching summer heat. It's noisy and chaotic, and distinctly lacks the charm and village atmosphere of Old Manali. Foreigners and cosmopolitan young Indians usually stay in Old Manali for this reason.
Delicious local fruit wine is available for a few hundred rupees a bottle. It's worth trying!
You'll see marijuana plants growing wildly on the side of the road all around Manali. However, do keep in mind that it is illegal to smoke.