The hill station of Nainital was a popular summer retreat for the British during the time they ruled India. It was discovered in 1841 by British businessman Peter Barren. These days, tourists from Delhi flock there to escape the summer heat. The town is actually made up of two areas, Tallital and Mallital, which are on either end of the lake and connected by The Mall. Mallital, at the top, is the older colonial part of town.
The Mall, an action-filled strip that borders Naini Lake on the east side, is lined with restaurants, shops, hotels, and markets.
Nainital is 310 kilometers (193 miles) northeast of Delhi, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand (previously known as Uttaranchal).
How to Get There
The nearest airport is at Pantnagar, about two hours away away. Air India flies there daily from Delhi. Tickets costs about 5,000 rupees one way.
The nearest train station is at Kathgodam, about an hour away. If you'd prefer to travel overnight, you can take the 15013 Ranikhet Express from Delhi. It departs daily from Old Delhi Junction at 10.05 p.m. and arrives at 5.05 a.m. Otherwise, the 12040 Kathgodam Shatabdi Express is a good option. It departs Delhi at 6 a.m. and reaches Kathgodam at 11.40 a.m.
Alternatively, Nainital is well connected with other parts of India by road and buses frequently run. It takes about eight hours to drive from Delhi to Nainital.
When to Go
Weather-wise, the best months to visit Nainital are from March to June and from September to November. The area experiences heavy rainfall during the monsoon in July and August, and landslides do happen. Winters, from November to February, are very cold. Sometimes it snows in December and January.
If you want peace, avoid peak season from May to mid-July, and Diwali vacation in October or November. Indian holidaymakers converge on the place in droves and hotel prices skyrocket. Nainital is extremely crowded during these months, resulting in traffic jams and chaos.
What to Do
You can walk all the way around Naini Lake in about an hour. There are quite a few Hindu temples on the west side of the lake, including one dedicated to Naina Devi. Naini Lake is said to be a manifestation of the emerald green left eye of Lord Shiva's wife, Sati. According to Hindu mythology, her eye fell to the spot while Lord Shiva was carrying the charred remains of her body. She immolated herself because her father didn't approve of her marriage to him.
Boating on the lake is an iconic thing to do in Nainital. Peddle boats, row boats, and small yachts are all available for hire.
If you have kids, they'll enjoy visiting the spacious and well laid-out Govind Ballabh Pant Zoo, which has some wonderfully exotic high-altitude species. Get there by taxi, shuttle bus from India Hotel, or a steep 20 minute walk from the bottom end of The Mall. The zoo is closed Mondays and national holidays. Tickets for Indian adults cost 100 rupees, and children 50 rupees.
Foreigners pay 200 rupees for adults and 100 rupees for children.
For panoramic mountain vistas, take the cable car/aerial tramway up to Snow View. It departs from the top end of Mall Road (the lane behind Sakley's Restaurant and Pastry Shop leads to the ticket counter). Tickets cost 230 rupees for adults and 120 rupees for adults, for a round trip. Try and get there before 9 a.m. to avoid long lines. There's a small amusement park at the top, plus the usual snack and souvenir stalls. If you're feeling energetic, it's possible to hike to nearby viewpoints from Snow View. Local guides are available.
The hike up to Dorothy’s Seat picnic spot at rocky Tiffin Top, west of the lake, is also popular. From there, you can continue 45 minutes onward through the forest to Land's End. Alternatively, horse rides to these places are offered just west of town on the road to Ramnagar.
To see a memorable sunset, head to Hanuman Garhi temple south of town.
Those who are interested in British-era architecture should go on a tour of Raj Bhawan (Governors House), an immense Victorian Gothic-style building designed to resemble a Scottish castle. The tours depart every hour, with the first one starting at 11 a.m.
The town's market, Bara Bazaar, is the best place to pick up some souvenirs including locally-made candles. Check out Mehrotras House of Wax, the oldest candle shop there. The Pahari Store, which stocks products handmade in the hills, is another fabulous place to shop.
Where to Stay
Nainital has some delightful heritage hotels in the vicinity of the lake. These include the luxurious Naini Retreat (the former summer residence of the Maharaja of Pilibhit), the Palace Belvedere (which belonged to the erstwhile rajas of Awagarh), Balrampur House, the Grand Hotel on The Mall, the Pavilion Hotel, and Emily Lodge and Cafe.
If you'd prefer a boutique heritage homestay, Abbotsford is recommended.
Shervani Hilltop is a popular luxury choice that's quietly nestled into the hills above town.
Conveniently situated lakeside on The Mall, Hotel Alka has a wide range of colonial-style rooms (including a family apartment) from about 4,500 rupees per night. Hotel ChanniRaja and the Classic Hotel are also good options on The Mall.
Hotel Himalaya, near the bus stand in Tallital, provides decent budget accommodations.
Where to Eat
Most of Nainital's restaurants are located on The Mall. Popular ones include Sakley's Restaurant and Pastry Shop for global cuisine, Zooby's Kitchen for North Indian food, Chandani Chowk for mouthwatering jalebis and Indian snacks, and Pot & Stones Cafe for Continental cuisine and coffee.
Quaint Cafe Cicha, at the Abbotsford Heritage Homestay, has a relaxing garden setting and serves delicious Continental fare. Weekend cooking classes are conducted there.
Nainital is an excellent base for exploring the lakes and other hill towns in the area. You'll find plenty of tour operators in The Mall who offer excursions. A half-day tour to nearby lakes such as Sat Tal, Bhimtal and Naukuchiatal is a popular option. The forested areas of Kilbury, Vinayak and Kunjakharak are an ideal option for nature lovers. The Pangot and Kilbury Bird Sanctuary is renowned for its many species of birds.
In addition, it’s possible to visit Corbett National Park on a side trip from Nainital.