In the furthest far flung corner of northern India, in Ladakh near the Indus Valley, lies the town of Leh at 3,505 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level. This remote place has become a popular tourist destination since Ladakh was opened to foreigners in 1974. It's the most beautiful and most common entry point to the Ladakh region.
Bounded by two of the world's largest mountain ranges and surrounded by alpine desert, Leh's dry barren landscape full of historic Buddhist monasteries makes it an incredible sight to behold. This Leh travel guide will help you plan your trip.
Flights to Leh operate regularly from Delhi. Flights are also available to Leh from Srinagar and Jammu.
Alternatively, the roads to Leh are open for a few months of the year, when the snow has melted. The Manali Leh Highway is open from around June to October each year, and the road from Srinagar to Leh is open from June to November. Bus, jeep, and taxi services are all available. The trip takes around two days because of the difficult nature of the terrain. If you have the time and are in good health, do travel by road as the scenery is amazing.
When to Go
The best time to visit Leh is between May and September, when the weather is the warmest. Ladakh doesn't experience rain like elsewhere in India, so the monsoon season is the perfect time to travel to Leh.
- Read more about the best time to visit Ladakh.
Attractions and Places to Visit
Leh’s Buddhist monasteries and historical monuments are the biggest draw for visitors. The most imposing of these is the Shanti Stupa, located just outside the town. In the heart of the town, on top of a steep mountain, the 800 year old Kali Mandir houses a fascinating collection of masks. You can stop to spin a huge prayer wheel on your way there. The 17th century Leh Palace, built in traditional Tibetan style, offers a captivating view of town. Southeast of Leh, Thiksey Monastery is the place for seeing amazing sunsets.
The Hemis Monastery is the wealthiest, oldest, and most important monastery in Ladakh.
- Find out more about must-see Buddhist monasteries in India.
The Ladakh Festival is held during September. It opens in Leh with a spectacular procession through the streets. Villagers dressed in traditional costumes dance and sing folk songs, backed by an orchestra. The festival also features musical concerts, dances performed by masked lamas from selected monasteries, and mock traditional marriage ceremonies.
The two-day Hemis Festival takes place in June/July at the Hemis Gompa to commemorate birth of Guru Padmasambhava, who founded Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. There's traditional music, colorful masked dances, and a fair full of beautiful handicrafts.
Adventure Activities Around Leh
Nature and adventure lovers will find excellent hiking and paragliding opportunities around Leh. There are also many longer trekking trails to choose from, such as the ones from Likir to Temisgam (for beginners), and Markha Valley from Spituk.
- Take a look at these 6 best treks to take in Ladakh.
Mountain climbing trips can be booked to peaks such as Stok (20,177 feet), Goleb (19,356 feet), Kangyatse (20,997 feet) and Matho West (19,520) in the Zanskar mountains. White water rafting is also possible in July and August along the Indus River in the Leh area, as well as the Shayok River in the Nubra Valley, and Zanskar River in Zanskar. The Nubra Valley has camel safaris as well.
Dreamland Trek and Tours is an eco-friendly adventure company that organizes a wide range of trips in Ladakh, Zanskar and Changthang. Other reputable companies include Overland Escape, Rimo Expeditions (costly but high quality), and Yama Adventures. It's recommended that you compare many companies to see what's on offer.
Side Trips Around Leh
One of the most spectacular side trips possible from Leh is a journey along the Zanskar River. You’ll see hanging glaciers, green villages, Buddhist monasteries, and huge Himalayan peaks.
Khardung La connects Leh to the Nubra Valley and is one of the world’s highest motorable roads, and another unforgettable trip. As well sights of Himalayan icicles, wild yaks and horses, and hairy double humped camels, you’ll be rewarded with water, mountains, and desert all in the one area.
Most people who visit Leh also visit Pangong Lake, which featured in the Bollywood move The 3 Idiots. It's one of the world's highest saltwater lakes and looks really surreal.
- Use this complete guide to Pangong Lake to plan your trip.
The requirement for Indian citizens to obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for visiting many areas in Ladakh (including Pangong Lake, Khardung La, Tso Moirri, Nubra Valley, and Changthang) was reintroduced in 2017. Foreigners, including OCI card holders, need a Protected Area Permit (PAP) to visit these areas.
The permits are now being issued online here. However, Indians can also obtain ILPs from the Tourist Information Center near Jammu and Kashmir Bank in Leh's Main Bazaar. The easiest way to get a PAP is from a registered travel agent in Leh, especially if you're traveling solo. However, citizens of Afghanistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China need permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi for a PAP, and should apply through the Indian consulate in their country.
Permits are not required for local sightseeing around Leh, Zanskar, or the Suru Valley.
Where to Stay
A short distance away from town in the agricultural and backpacker hamlet of Changspa, family run Oriental Guesthouse is a charismatic place with clean rooms, hot water, Internet, library, delightful garden, and stunning view. There's accommodation for everyone in three buildings, ranging from economy to deluxe. You’ll also love the home-cooked, organic, freshly prepared food. This area is a popular place for homestays.
- These 6 best homestays in Leh are recommended for budget travelers.
Padma Guesthouse and Hotel, on Fort Road, also has rooms for all budgets and a fabulous roof top restaurant. The Spic n Span Hotel on Old Leh Road, close to the market, is a relatively new hotel with modern amenities and rooms from around 5,000 rupees per night. The Hotel City Palace is recommended as well. Rates also start from 5,000 rupees per night for a double.
Looking for somewhere exceptional to stay? Try these captivating luxury camps and hotels in and around Leh.
Homestays with Trekking and Expeditions in Ladakh
An appealing alternative to camping out while trekking around Ladakh is to stay in people's houses in remote villages, which you reach along the way. This will give you a fascinating insight into the life of Ladakhi farmers. You'll even be fed traditional home cooked meals, prepared by the farmer families. Local Ladakhi trekking expert Thinlas Chorol organizes such trips, as well as many other custom trekking itineraries to places off the beaten path. She's the founder of the notable Ladakhi Women's Travel Company -- the first female owned and operated travel company in Ladakh, which uses only female guides.
Also, consider the expeditions to remote villages offered by Mountain Homestays. You'll get to stay in people's homes and take part in initiatives that enhance the livelihoods of the villagers. This includes documenting the traditional handcrafting and organic farming techniques of Ladakh.
Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to acclimatize after arriving in Leh (ideally three days if you've flown in) because of altitude sickness. Medication called Diamox (acetazolamide) can help speed up acclimatization process. A doctor's prescription is required. Anyone who has a pre-existing condition such as heart or lung disease, or diabetes should also consult a doctor before traveling.
Laptops also don’t appreciate the high altitude and hard drives are known to crash.
Nights still get chilly during the summer so do bring warm clothes to layer.
Leaving Leh by flight can be a lot more challenging than arriving. Demand for flights is high in peak season, so book well in advance. In addition, flights are sometimes canceled because of weather conditions, so it’s advisable not to book the last flight of the day. Hand luggage also poses a problem. Only laptops, cameras and cell phones are permitted as hand luggage. Also keep in mind that passengers must identify their checked-in luggage, outside the departure lounge, before it's loaded on to the plane.
It will be marked against the luggage tags on the boarding cards.