The mirage-like golden city of Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan's Thar desert, conjures up images of an Arabian Nights fable. A former medieval trading center, the most notable characteristic of the town is the abundance of structures built using distinctive yellow sandstone—making any location a picture perfect spot.
To avoid the searing summer desert heat, it's best to visit between September and mid-March. The best time to experience the full splendor of the city is if you go during the annual Jaisalmer Desert Festival, usually held in early February or late January.
Explore Jaisalmer Fort and Palace Museum
Jaisalmer's ethereal sandstone fort, which resembles a massive sandcastle rising from the desert, is the city's focal point.
The fort was built in 1156 by Rajput ruler Jaisal, who also founded the city at the same time. What really makes it unusual is that it's one of the few living forts in the world. Thousands of people reside inside its walls. It's also home to numerous hotels, guesthouses, temples, handicraft stores, restaurants, and the former maharaja's palatial palace.
The palace is open to visitors for a fee, although it does get crowded and could be better maintained. Tickets cost 500 rupees for foreigners, including an audio guide. You'll need to pay 100 rupees extra to take your camera inside. Jaisalmer Magic runs a daily, three-hour heritage walking tour through the fort.
Unfortunately, the condition of the fort is deteriorating, as drain water is seeping into its foundations. Hence, many people choose to stay outside the fort in hotels with evocative views of the structure.
Visit the Jain Temples
One of the main attractions inside the fort is a stunning series of seven interconnected Jain temples that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Carved out of sandstone, the detail on them rivals that of the marble Jain temple complex at Ranakpur. You'll need to remove your shoes and all leather items before entering. The temples are open daily from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., although foreigners may only enter all the sections after 11 a.m. Timings are prone to change, so do check first.
Tickets cost 300 rupees for foreigners, and while locals don't have to pay, there is a camera charge for everyone.
Walk Through Havelis
Jaisalmer is also known for the fairy-tale architecture of its magnificent historic havelis (mansions), located both inside and out of the fort. Many can be found in the narrow lanes about 10 minutes walk north of the fort.
In this area, the 19th century Patwa Haveli is the city's biggest and most important one. It's actually a cluster of five mansions built by a wealthy Jain trader and his sons. Kothari’s Patwa Haveli is particularly impressive, with its breathtaking intricate stonework and artwork, and has been converted to a museum.
The entry fee is 250 rupees for foreigners and 100 rupees for Indians. In the same area, the distinctively shaped Salim Singh Haveli and extraordinary Nathmal Haveli are worth visiting as well. Inside Nathmal Haveli, the beautiful gold paintings are a highlight.
Ride a Camel
Most tourists take a camel safari—it's the quintessential Jaisalmer experience. A camel safari will also give you the opportunity to witness the rustic, rural desert life of India.
It's possible to go on a quick one-day safari or a hardcore safari as long as 30 days. However, choose the provider carefully as the safari business is extraordinarily competitive and tourists definitely get what they pay for. A few recommended vendors are Sahara Travels (next to the Fort gate), Trotters Independent Travel, and Real Desert Man Camel Safaris.
Sand Dunes and Desert National Park
Hordes of people head to the famous and picturesque Sam Sand Dunes, around 50 minutes west of Jaisalmer, at sunset. Cultural performances and camel rides create a carnival atmosphere.
It's also possible to stay overnight close to the Sam Dunes in a unique, non-touristy experience by bunking at a desert camp for glamping. On the way to the Dunes, Kuldhara Abandoned Village is a spooky but interesting place to visit.
If you'd prefer a more peaceful desert sojourn, the dunes around Khuri village in Desert National Park an hour southwest of Jaisalmer are more suitable. Accommodations are available in traditional-style huts (Badal House is recommended for an authentic local experience) and small resorts. You can go on a camel safari there as well.
Eat Breakfast With Peacocks at Khaba Fort
If you don't mind getting up early, it's possible to have breakfast at the ruins of an old fort in the desert while marveling over the remarkable spectacle of a huge flock of peacocks coming to be fed by a local boy.
The magnificent birds arrive at sunrise at Khaba Fort in an abandoned Paliwal village, about 40 minutes west of Jaisalmer (towards the Sam Sand Dunes). As well as seeing the peacocks, you'll get an evocative view over the village and can explore the fort afterward. To sign up, contact the luxurious Suryagarh Hotel.
Watch the Sunset at Vyas Chhatri
Vyas Chhatri, on the edge of Jaisalmer north of the Fort, is dedicated to the great sage Vyasa who authored the Hindu epic The Mahabharata. This haunting place is used as a cremation ground for Pushkarana Brahmins and contains many cenotaphs (empty tombs) erected in honor of notable ones. The cenotaphs are referred to as chhatris because of their domes, which look like umbrellas (chhatris). Go there for spectacular sunsets over the city.
Visit Bada Bagh
Jaisalmer has another group of similar looking cenotaphs, in a large unkempt garden around five kilometers further out, erected in honor of the city's royal rulers from the 16th to 20th centuries.
The last cenotaph to be built is dedicated to Maharaja Jawahar Singh, who reigned after India’s Independence. However, it remains incomplete due to his death a year after Independence, which was viewed as a bad omen by the family.
Most intriguing are the plaques on the cenotaphs. The plaques showing both maharaja and maharani together indicate that the queen committed sati (threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre). In contrast to the cenotaphs, modern wind turbines now populate the breezy hill as well, to generate electricity.
Paddle a Boat at Gadsisar Lake
Gadsisar Lake, also called Gadisar Lake, is a huge artificial reservoir built by Maharawal Gadsi Singh in the 14th century and situated on the southeast edge of the city. It provided the only water supply to the town until 1965.
The many small temples and shrines that surround the lake make it an inviting place to relax and spend some time. Migratory waterfowl are an added attraction in winter, along with numerous catfish in the water that love to be fed. Boats are available for hire nearby too.
Learn Local Heritage at Culture Museums
Jaisalmer has a few small, privately-owned museums that you can learn about the heritage of the area.
The Thar Heritage Museum was set up on Gandhi Chowk Road by characterful L N Khatri, owner of the nearby Desert Handicraft Emporium, and he gives informative and entertaining guided tours. The museum contains an eclectic assortment of artifacts, all collected by Mr. Khatri throughout his life. Inside visitors will find fossils, documents, portraits, photos, sculptures, coins, manuscripts, turbans, weapons, and kitchen equipment. There's a 40 rupees entrance fee.
The Desert Culture Center and Museum, near Gadsisar Lake, is deservedly popular. It's run by a local historian and teacher, who also runs the Folklore Museum. The diverse collection includes regional musical instruments, old currency, traditional jewelry worn by desert women, textiles, hunting items, royal memorabilia, artillery, and armor. The 50 rupees entry fee covers both museums.
At night each museum holds a puppet show.
Dine at Rooftop Restaurants
Jaisalmer's atmospheric rooftop restaurants are ideal for a special meal overlooking the fort and market.
If you'd like to sample some delectable local cuisine, head to The Trio at Gandhi Chowk. Nearby, the friendly Pleasant Haveli Hotel rooftop restaurant is recommended for its fresh north Indian cuisine and view. Gaj's Restaurant, a few minutes walk north, is the only place serving Korean food in Jaisalmer although it's Indian food is great too.
Cafe the Kaku on Patwa Haveli Road is an appealing restaurant to enjoy the sunset. It dishes up fine global cuisine. Jaisal Italy is situated on the fort's boundary wall just inside First Fort Gate and specializes in fabulous Italian food (and coffee). Nearby the restaurant atop the boutique Hotel First Gate Home Fusion is also excellent. The cuisine is a fusion between Italian and Indian vegetarian food. The hotel has a cocktail bar with live music as well.
Alternatively, on the outskirts of the city, Wyra Rooftop Restaurant at the Marriott Resort and Spa is worth a splurge for grills. Reservations are required, and it's only open for dinner.
Smoke Out at Bhang Shop/Lassi Shop
You may be surprised to discover that bhang (marijuana) is sold openly in Jaisalmer.
The renowned Lassi Shop (previously called the Government Authorized Bhang Shop), outside the first fort gate at Gopa Chowk, has been in business since 1977. It attracts a steady flow of curious customers who are served by the aptly named Doctor Bhang. There's a tempting array of bhang lassis (marijuana milkshakes) bhang cookies, cakes, chocolates, and sweets, with potencies ranging from weak to strong. The safari packs, promising a smooth camel ride, are popular with travelers.
Note: Make sure you go to the original bhang shop, now called the Lassi Shop, next to Trotters Travel at the fort gate. The new "government authorized" bhang shop down the street is reportedly not as good.
Learn History at the Jaisalmer War Museum
It's a must-visit for anyone who's interested in the history of the Indian military, and the bravery of its soldiers during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War and 1971 Battle of Longewala. The exhibits feature military equipment, war trophies, and the Hunter aircraft used by the Indian Air Force in the Battle of Longewala.
The museum is located at the Jaisalmer Military Station, not far from Jaisalmer on the Jaisalmer-Jodhpur Highway. It's open daily and is free to enter.
Visit the Tanot Temple
In Tanot village, about two hours drive northwest of Jaisalmer near the Pakistan border, the deity at Tanot temple is believed to have protected Indian soldiers by stopping bombs from exploding there during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.
The temple is managed and maintained by the Indian Border Security Force. Some of the bombs can be seen on display at its museum.