Darjeeling, at the base of the Eastern Himalayas in West Bengal, is a scenic hill station with a turbulent history. Before being developed by the British in the mid-19th century, it was part of the kingdom of Sikkim and was also temporarily ruled by invading Gorkhas from Nepal. Darjeeling quickly grew into a popular summer retreat for the British and they soon discovered that the climate was perfect for growing tea, their favorite brew.
Not surprisingly, Darjeeling is one of the top tourist places in West Bengal. You'll quickly notice that the culture there is very different though. The town is home to many immigrants from surrounding countries such as Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Nepali, not Hindi or Bengali, is the main language spoken. These top things to do in Darjeeling incorporate the area's distinctive heritage.
Ride the Himalayan Mountain Railway Toy Train
Apart from tea, the other thing that Darjeeling is famous for is its historic toy train. The Darjeeeling Himalayan Railway was completed by the British in 1881 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It runs all the way from the lower reaches of the mountains to Darjeeling town. The full journey takes nearly a whole day. However, shorter joy rides are possible. The most popular of these is from Darjeeling to Ghoom via Batasia Loop. The train stops for 10 minutes at Batasia Loop, where there's a lookout and war memorial dedicated to Gorkha soldiers from Darjeeling. It also stops for 30 minutes at Ghoom, where there's a railway museum.
Tour the Tea Gardens
More than 80 tea gardens carpet the hills around Darjeeling and any trip there wouldn't be complete without visiting a few. As you leave Darjeeling town, you'll come across gardens everywhere and can stop at any that appeal. Most will allow you to take a stroll around. Many sell teas too.
- Happy Valley Tea Estate is the most famous tea garden. It's only five minutes from town, making it invariably visited by tourists. The estate has a long history dating back to 1850 and grows among the finest organic teas in the region. For an additional 50 rupees, you can get dressed up in a traditional Nepali outfit and pose in the tea gardens.
- Badamtam Tea Estate, about 15 minutes north of Darjeeling town, is notable for having a towering Buddha statue presiding over its tea bushes.
- An hour and a half south of Darjeeling, you'll find some outstanding tea gardens near Kurseong. These include Makaibari Tea Estate (which produces some of the rarest and most expensive tea in the world), Castleton (which actually has a castle of sorts and has been owned by Kolkata royalty) and sprawling Ambootia Tea Estate (their organic Darjeeling black tea is highly regarded).
If you're flying into Bagdogra Airport and driving to Darjeeling, you may also want to drop into Nuxalbari Tea Estate. This commendable tea estate is only 15 minutes from the airport. It's owned and run by women, and is the first large tea estate in India to produce "Certified Elephant Friendly Tea". Elephants are free to pass through the tea gardens!
Learn How Tea Is Processed
Witnessing, and even participating in, the tea harvesting process is a big attraction from March to November. Some of the bigger tea estates offer guided tours of their factories. Happy Valley Tea Estate, closest to town, is the best place to go. You'll get a full demonstration of how the leaves are plucked, oxidized, segregated and processed. Fascinating! The guided tea tours are conducted regularly from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. daily and cost 100 rupees.
Makaibari Tea Estate is another recommended place to learn about tea processing. Their tea factory tour is well-organized and insightful, and there are samples for tasting. The cost is 20 rupees. They also have a pioneering homestay scheme, whereby you can stay overnight in the village with a family of tea pluckers and join them in their morning work for an immersive experience.
Stay on a Tea Estate
Want to escape the hustle of Darjeeling town? Estate owners have embraced tea tourism by converting their tea planter bungalows into exclusive guest accommodations. Check out these top places to stay on tea plantations in India for our pick of them. They're not cheap though, so be prepared to splurge!
Alternatively, Rainbow Valley Resort on Kalej Valley Tea Estate, 50 minutes south of Darjeeling, is a popular budget option. Wooden cottages cost about 3,500 rupees per night for a double. Tathagata Farm is part of an experiential organic tea farming community 45 minutes northeast of Darjeeling. It provides an authentic local experience, with village walks and day hikes. Guest accommodations consist of cottages and luxury tents. Rates start from about 4,000 rupees per night.
Meander Along the British-Era Mall
Similar to other hill stations in India that were settled by the British, Darjeeling has a Mall Road that runs through the town. It stems off from one end of pedestrianized Chowrasta Square, the local hangout spot at the center of town, and connects to another end of it after doing a big loop around Observatory Hill. The shady, forested road is dotted with important historical buildings dating back to the British Raj era and has numerous viewpoints, including one to Mount Kanchenjunga. The whole walk can be completed in about 20 minutes. If you're not feeling energetic or fit, you can hire a pony for a couple hundred rupees. Chowrasta Square is a fantastic place for people-watching, so do sit and enjoy the atmosphere for a while too.
See Where Hindu and Buddhist Faiths Coexist
Take a detour off Mall Road up to the remarkable Mahakal temple complex on Observatory Hill. This site was previously home to a Buddhist monastery, built by Lama Dorjey Rinzing in 1765. Apparently, he also built the Mahakal temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, in 1782 after three Shiva lingas (symbols of Lord Shiva) manifested themselves there. Unfortunately, the monastery was plundered by invading Gorkhas from Nepal in 1815. However, the temple still remains, evocatively surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags and prayer wheels. Don't be surprised to see a Hindu priest and Buddhist monk praying alongside each other. Nearby, are a few other temples and a sacred cave. Plus, lots of monkeys. Avoid carrying food because they may make a lunge for it!
Soak Up the Views with Tea at Sunset Lounge
Where else to spend sunset than at the Sunset Lounge at Chowrasta Square. This tea bar belongs to Nathmulls, a prominent Darjeeling tea merchant, and is attached to their tea shop. As is to be expected, the variety of teas available is extensive. If you're finding it difficult to choose, the owner will give suggestions. Or, have a tea tasting session (600 rupees for two people). It consists of six teas — three black, two green, and one white. Pastries and cakes, made from the bakery on the premises, are delicious to eat with it. There's also free wireless Internet. Nathmulls sells all kinds of tea accessories, as well as tea, which make great gifts for tea-lovers.
Want to get a feel for how Darjeeling was during the time of British rule in India? Windamere Hotel on Observatory Hill is the place. Some may say it's lost in a time warp, while others will find it delightfully quirky. The hotel was constructed as a boarding house for British planters in the 1880s and not much has changed there in over a century, including the vintage furniture and old-fashioned customs. The hotel prides itself on serving formal meals (there's no room service) in the dining hall, with set times for children and adults. Guests are requested to dress appropriately for dinner — no nightgowns, pajamas, or "short pants"! The highlight is the traditional afternoon high tea, presented by waitresses dressed as tea maids from the 1930s. You're guaranteed to meet some engaging people there. Rates start from 13,500 rupees per night for a double, inclusive of all meals.
Gaze at Mount Kanchenjunga
If the weather is expected to be clear, most tourists head up to Tiger Hill early in the morning to watch the sunrise over the snowy peaks of iconic Mount Kanchenjunga (the highest mountain in India and third highest in the world). The best months to do this are from mid October to December, and March to April. Unfortunately, notoriously unpredictable mist or fog may ruin the show though. The cold temperature and waking hour also deter some people from going.
Depending on the time of year, you'll need to leave your hotel by around 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. to beat the massive crowd. Otherwise, you may be stuck in the convoy of cars, and fail to get a spot at the Observatory Tower and Deck. Ticket prices range from 30 to 50 rupees, depending on the floor. Don't worry too much if you miss the spectacle, as Mount Kanchenjunga can be seen from many locations around Darjeeling town.
Marvel Over the Buddhist Monasteries
The prevalence of Buddhist monasteries in and around Darjeeling are reflective of the region's predominant religion, Buddhism. Their bright murals, gigantic golden statues, and pervasively peaceful vibes make them captivating places to visit. Bhutia Busty Monastery is closest to town. It sits downhill from Chowrasta Square and was built there in the 19th century, after being relocated from Observatory Hill where the Mahakal temple is.
There are many more monasteries around Ghoom. These include Yiga Choeling Monastery (the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery to be built in the region), Guru Monastery (you can attend morning worship from 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 a.m. when returning from Tiger Hill), and Samten Choeling Gompa (with the largest Buddha statue in West Bengal). Dali Monastery, formally known as Druk Sangag Choeling Monastery, is also a must-visit between Ghoom and Darjeeling.
Join in the Prayer for World Peace
The Japanese Peace Pagoda is another calm and compelling attraction between Ghoom and Darjeeling. It's one of many peace pagodas erected worldwide under the guidance of Japanese Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii, in response to the brutal atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The monk was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and strong supporter of unity and non-violence. The pagoda has striking gold statues of Lord Buddha in various postures and artwork depicting his life. A small Japanese temple sits not far from it. Upstairs in the prayer hall, prayers for world peace take place in the morning from 4.30 a.m. to 6 a.m. and afternoon from 4.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors are invited to join in and play a drum if they wish.
The Tibetan Refuge Self Help Center on West Lebong Cart Road is an insightful place to watch the traditional art of rug weaving. This center was established in 1959 to support the Tibetans who fled their homeland after occupation by China. It provided them with an outlet where they could produce and sell Tibetan handicrafts to generate an income. The workshops aren't as productive as they once were because most of the refugees have aged. However, various handcrafts are still sold on the premises, including rugs. You can even design your own rug or choose from the catalog. Visitors can also see an educational exhibition of old photos and documents dedicated to the Tibetan cause. The center is closed on Sundays.
Feast on Momos
Along with the culture, the cuisine in Darjeeling is strongly influenced by Tibet and Nepal. Momos, the quintessential mountain soul food, are everywhere. However, the curiously-named Hot Stimulating Cafe on the way to the zoo dishes up some of the best momos in India (although they're vegetarian only). This simple cafe is actually one of the best places to chill out in Darjeeling, as its rear deck provides a marvelous view over the valley and tea gardens. Devour the momos with local tumba (millet and wheat beer). You can even learn how to make momos, as informal cooking classes are conducted! The cafe is open daily from early morning until evening.
Explore the Local Market
Hit up Darjeeling's indispensable Chowk Bazaar (also known as Lower Bazaar) for a real local market experience. It's situated to the south of town, downhill off Hill Cart Road, and is where the town's residents go to buy pretty much everything at bargain prices. Its lanes are filled with an assortment of products including wholesale spices, tea, vegetables, meat, Buddhist artifacts, masks, household items, shoes, textiles, rugs, and caps. The market is open daily, except Thursdays, from early morning until night. Weekends are especially busy, as vendors bring in bulk produce from surrounding villages to sell. Be prepared for crowds and chaos!
Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoo is one of the best in India and a top attraction for families in Darjeeling. This high-altitude zoo was established in 1958 to help conserve and breed endangered native Himalayan animals such as the snow leopard, Himalayan wolf, and red panda (which Mozilla's Firefox Internet browser is said to have been named after). It also has bears, birds, panthers, deer and reptiles. Notably, many animals are kept in a protected open area, so it's like observing them in the wild.
In addition, there's a museum with a variety of stuffed animals and birds. The zoo is situated to the north of town, about a 20 minute walk from Chowrasta via Lebong Cart Road. It's open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., except Thursdays. Allow a couple of hours to see everything. Tickets cost 60 rupees for Indians and 100 rupees for foreigners. An additional camera fee is payable.
Behind the zoo, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was founded and by the late Tenzing Norgay, who conquered Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Its museum is an inimitable repository of information about climbing Mount Everest and other major mountain expeditions undertaken. It can be visited in conjunction with the zoo, as tickets cover both. The institute is also a functioning mountaineering training center that offers mountaineering courses for all levels and fun rock climbing sessions. There's an indoor rock wall that costs 30 rupees to climb. Otherwise, the more strenuous outdoor rock climbing happens at Tenzing Norgay Rock, on the northern outskirts of Darjeeling.
Experience the Thrill of Paragliding
Thrill-seekers will be happy to know that paragliding is possible in Darjeeling. Off Road Adventure started the activity there in 2006. Blue Dragon Adventure and Travel also does paragliding and is recommended. Flights typically launch from Saint Paul School near Jalapahar, about a 10 minute drive above Darjeeling town, and land at Lebong Ground. You'll get an amazing bird's-eye view of the town, tea gardens and mountain peaks. Paragliding is dependent on wind conditions and only takes place from October to April. Tandem flights are offered for those who aren't experienced. Expect to pay 3,500 rupees per person for 15 to 30 minutes, based on the conditions.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
In addition to the walking opportunities around town, Darjeeling is close to some popular hiking and trekking trails that can be covered in a day or longer. If you want to hike independently, ascending the Tiger Hill summit is a good option. Take Tenzing Norgay Road from Chowrasta or Gandhi Road. Otherwise, day hikes to Tonglu or Tumling villages have rewarding views of Mount Kanchenjunga. These hikes start two or three hours from Darjeeling. Adventures Unlimited, Blue Dragon Adventure, Off Road Adventure, and Ashmita Trek and Tours are reputable companies that conduct the hikes with transport and guides.
If you'd prefer a multi-day trek, try the trek to Sandakphu at the summit of the Singalila mountain range. It can be completed in four or five days, and you don't need to be super fit if you're used to walking. The views, flora and fauna are superb. For an added challenge, continue on to Phalut from Sandakphu (or drive to Sandakphu and start trekking from there). The above companies, as well as Tenzing Norgay Adventures, all provide trekking packages of different lengths.
Are you a fan of The Beatles, the wildly famous English rock band from the 1960s? You'll feel right at home at Revolver. This characterful budget guesthouse is themed on the band, with each of its five rooms named after one of the Fab Four (plus manager Brian Epstein). Naturally, the owners are mad about The Beatles. They've filled the guesthouse with Beatles memorabilia such as photos, posters, and stamps. They also sell Beatles souvenirs, including mugs and coasters. Guests are welcome to play the Washburn acoustic guitar in the restaurant. Even the restaurant's menu is decorated with Beatles trivia. The healthy specialty Naga food is a treat! Rates start from 1,400 rupees per night for a double room.