Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, is constructed on a cloudy ridge 5,500 feet above sea level. It's perhaps the cleanest city in India, making it a pleasing place to spend a few days sightseeing and organizing onwards travel. If you feel like some pampering, one of India's top Himalayan spa resorts is located in Gangtok. It also has a casino.
Many of the places to visit in Gangtok can be seen on ubiquitous "three point", "five point", and "seven point" local tours offered by travel agents, hotels and taxi drivers. The "three point" tours incorporate the city's three main viewpoints (Ganesh Tok, Hanuman Tok, and Tashi Viewpoint). Variants such as Enchey monastery can be added for "five point" tours. "Seven point" tours include monasteries outside Gangtok, such as Rumtek and Lingdum.
Sikkim's monasteries are among its most popular attractions. You'll find Enchey monastery perched on a ridge above Gangtok. The name of this serene place means solitary monastery. It was initially constructed in 1909 but had to be rebuilt after catching fire in 1947. This monastery is relatively small and noncommercial. However, it's beautifully decorated inside, with colorful murals, statues, and a large collection of masks used in ritual dances. The founder, Lama Druptob Karpo, was a Tantric master known for his ability to levitate and fly!
Enchey monastery is open from 4 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and until 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Two renowned monasteries can also be seen on scenic day trips from Gangtok: Rumtek, and the newer and more eye-catching Lingdum (Ranka) with its huge golden Buddha statue. Be at Lingdum at 7.30 a.m. or 3.30 p.m. to hear the monks chanting in mesmerizing unison.
Ganesh Tok and Hanuman Tok
From Enchey monastery, take the road northeast up to colorful Ganesh Tok with its fluttering prayer flags, for dramatic views over Gangkok. There's a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh there, along with cafe and souvenir shops. Higher up beyond Ganesh Tok, and arguably with a better viewpoint, sits Hanuman Tok. Visitors are greeted by a towering orange statue of Lord Hanuman. The Hanuman temple there is maintained by the Indian Army, so it's clean and peaceful. It's surrounded by lovely sprawling gardens, walking trails, and the splendid sight of Mount Khangchendzonga on a clear day.
Himalayan Zoological Park
Opposite Ganesh Tok, the Himalayan Zoological Park is one of India's better maintained zoos with a natural jungle setting. It's spread across 230 hectares of hillside and houses rare animals, many of which have been rescued from traders and poachers. They include Himalayan bears, snow leopards, Tibetan wolves, and red pandas.
The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., except Thursdays. Tickets cost 60 rupees.
Tashi Viewpoint, north of town, is said to offer the best views of Mount Khangchendzonga within Gangtok. However, some people complain that it's not worth the climb, and similar views can be found elsewhere. The views are very weather-dependent and you'll most likely be disappointed on a cloudy day. There are telescopes that you can pay to use, and a gift shop by the roadside that's run by the Indian Army. The money from sales helps support it.
Those interested in Buddhism and Tibetan culture will find the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology worth exploring. Established in 1958, its traditional Tibetan-style building houses a museum, and a library with one of the largest collections of Tibetan works in the world outside of Tibet. The museum has a rare collection of statues, relics of monks, ritual objects (including a thöpa bowl made from a human skull and kangling human thighbone trumpet), art works, thangkas (painted, woven and embroidered scrolls), and ancient manuscripts in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese and Lepcha. There's also a souvenir shop and coffee shop on the premises.
The Institute is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday. It's closed on Sundays, the second Saturday of every month, and official government holidays. The entrance fee is 10 rupees.
The gleaming white Do-Drul Chorten is located not far from the Institute, on the same road. According to its fascinating history, this stupa was built by a powerful Tibetan lama who came to rid the site of evil spirits that were haunting it. It's surrounded by 108 prayer wheels, and at dusk hundreds of lamps are lit in a glass room beside it to guide the way for departed ancestors.
Close to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and Do-Drul Chorten, board one of Damodar Ropeway's cable cars for a bird's eye view of Gangtok and the surrounding valley. It will take you high up the ridge to Tashiling Secretariat.
The Ropeway runs daily from 9.30 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. Tickets cost 110 rupees per person, and there's a discount for children.
Flower Exhibition Center
If you're visiting Gangtok during April to June or September until the end of November, after disembarking the cable car at Tashiling Secretariat stroll through Ridge Park and to the Flower Exhibition Center just below it. This greenhouse is bursting with high altitude blooms, especially orchids. Orchid bulbs and seeds are also available for purchase there. It's open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and tickets cost 20 rupees each.
Deorali Orchid Sanctuary, near the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, is another place to see exotic varieties.
Or, stay on an orchid farm at one of India's best homestays near Gangtok, Hidden Forest Retreat.
MG Marg Market
From the Flower Exhibition Center, it's an easy walk down to MG Marg, Gangkok's atmospheric main street. The street is refreshingly free of litter, spitting, smoking, and vehicles -- as all are banned there. It's a popular hangout place though, and can get very crowded and carnival-like in the evenings. Go there to shop, and to make travel arrangements with the many tour operators that have outlets there. The Golden Tips tea showroom (Punam Building, First Floor, MG Marg) is sought after for its boutique teas, including temi tea that's grown in Sikkim's only tea garden.
The shops along MG Marg usually open by 9 a.m. and close by 8 p.m. In addition, many shops are closed on Tuesdays.