Exploring Ladakh

Ladakh was part of the former Tibetan Kingdom and is still home to a predominantly Buddhist population today. This means that the culture, language, food, atmosphere and architecture of the region are all completely different to what you might find elsewhere in India.

Located in the Greater Himalayas in far North India, Ladakh is one of the most incredibly beautiful places I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. The rugged arid valleys are flanked by the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram ranges and hilltops are dotted with crumbling ancient monasteries.

It’s undoubtedly an incredible adventure to even reach Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The town sits at a lofty altitude of 3500m and requires a long road journey or spectacular flight to reach. From there, you can explore the surrounding area, which has plenty of things to do and see.

I based myself in Leh for six weeks and would go back in a heartbeat. It’s one of my favourite places on earth, so I’ve put together this guide to the best things to do in Ladakh. It will give you a detailed look at the must see sights in the Ladakh region for your next trip to North India. See you there!

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About Ladakh

Leh is the main town and transport hub of the Ladakh region. This is where you’ll want to head if you want to explore Ladakh. While some people confuse Leh and Ladakh as being the same thing, Leh is the town while Ladakh is the name of the broader region.

Ladakh covers the far northern extent of the Indian subcontinent and is bordered by Pakistan to the west and China and Tibet to the north and east. Technically, the broader Ladakh region is now divided between Pakistan which is known as Gilgit-Baltistan region and India which is referred to as Ladakh. This region is culturally, ethnically and historically very similar.

The border with Tibet is also contested by China. The area around Pangong Lake has recently been a source of tension between the two regional superpowers, but much is left unresolved.

Ladakh was also considered part of Jammu and Kashmir state in India, but since 2019, is known as a union territory. The politics of the region can be confusing and can flare up at any time. Leh town has remained peaceful for many years, but the border regions close to Pakistan and close to Tibet occasionally have tensions flare up. Keep your eye on local news if you plan on heading up to Ladakh.

Nubra Valley at sunset
View from Diskit at sunset

How to get to Leh, Ladakh

You can reach Leh by road or by air.

The journey to Leh by road is one of the greatest road trips in the world and is not for the faint-hearted. To reach Leh by road, you can come from two directions: from Srinagar or from Manali. There are public buses, shared jeeps or private jeeps tackling the roads in both directions during summer.

For most travellers, coming from Manali is convenient and the most popular option, although the road is more arduous with three high passes. On the other hand, the Srinagar-Leh road is less travelled but is a great option if you want to explore Kashmir or think you might suffer from altitude sickness. The Srinagar-Leh route has a more gradual altitude change compared to Manali.

If you prefer to fly, there is a small airstrip in town at Leh Airport. There are frequent flights to Delhi throughout the year. In winter, this is the only way in and out for tourists. Prices can vary hugely and when any of the roads from Delhi to Ladakh are washed out or closed, expect prices to skyrocket. The flight time is around 1.5 hours and tickets can cost between 3000 rupees (AU$60) up to 6000 (AU$120) rupees one way.

Getting to Leh is no easy feat, especially if you decide to take the road option. I have put together an extensive guide to getting to Leh for anyone planning to navigate the public transport system to reach Ladakh.

Driving to Leh
Kargil-Leh Road

When is the best time to visit Ladakh

High season runs from June to August in Ladakh. These are the best months for road safety, as the weather is at its warmest and the snow has been cleared from most passes. However, it’s also the busiest time and, prices tend to go up.

Still, if you want to join any tours or treks, then it’s the perfect season to meet other travellers and join groups. Outside of these months it can be hard to find regular departures for tours.

On the other hand, you can also go to Ladakh between April and June or from September to October, before and after most of the tourists arrive and leave. However, road conditions can’t always be guaranteed and you’ll have to check closures before departing.

Monasteries on the Kargil-Leh Road
Monasteries on the Kargil-Leh Road

Where to stay in Leh

There are plenty of accommodation options for all budgets in Leh. For budget travellers, the best accommodation are the family-run guesthouses that you can find around the bazaar and Fort Road. You could easily find somewhere to stay upon arriving by walking around, but here are my top picks if you want to book ahead.

Odbar Guesthouse | This is one of the most popular budget options in town. They have dorms and private rooms, starting from 400 rupees (AU$8) per night. It’s within walking distance to the main bazaar and the owners are lovely. Check availability here.

Mandarava homestay | This homely guesthouse is a great option for budget travellers. Spacious rooms and great hosts all just a 15-minute walk to the centre. Check availability here

Atisha Guesthouse | This family-run guest-house is my favourite place to stay in Leh. It’s tucked down a skinny pedestrian only alleyway and is a real hidden gem for budget travellers. The owners are lovely despite little English spoken and the rooms are comfortable and affordable.

Bodhi Greens Cafe
Bodhi Greens Cafe

Where to eat in Leh

I think I tried every cafe in Leh and spent days cafe hopping while I waited for transport and to catch up on photo editing and writing. My top picks for restaurants in Leh are:

Bon Appetit Cafe and French Bakery – My go-to for breakfast with super friendly staff who, by the end of my time in Leh, knew my order before I’d even sat down. They have a large menu, offering South Indian, Israeli and Western food.

Bodhi Greens – New to the restaurant scene in Leh, an all vegan cafe hugely popular with backpackers. Their main meals were a bit expensive, but their breakfast options and smoothies are amazing. It has an unbeatable view of the surrounding mountains and the best Wi-Fi I found in all of Leh. 

Brazil Cafe – A small cafe upstairs overlooking the main bazaar. It offers drinks and cake and some light meals. The staff are always smiling and happy and the view looking down on Old Leh is a pretty nice spot to sit back and relax in.

Chopsticks – One of the best restaurants I’d eaten for a while in India. We ate there almost every night for a week. Everything was delicious and not too badly priced considering the quality. I can highly recommend the Pad Thai. The waiters all knew us by the end of our time in Leh as well!

Ladakhi Women’s Cafe – Run as a not-for-profit by Thinlas Chorol, the woman who started the first all female trekking company in Ladakh. They have a set menu each day of the week and for 80 rupees per plate, it’s the best value I found in Leh. Half of the money goes back to helping local women.

Nubra Valley
Nubra Valley

Permits and ticket prices for exploring Ladakh

For some places around Ladakh, travellers require an Inner Line Permit or Protected Area Permit. These places include Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley and Tso Moriri, with check points on some of the roads and passes. Permits are approved by the Deputy Commissioner’s Office in Leh and are valid for a maximum period of 15 days for foreigners.

While you can arrange the permit yourself, if you’re joining a jeep tour to Pangong and Nubra Valley the travel agency can easily arrange it for you. The permit cost 600 rupees (AUD$12) for a standard three night tour from Leh for a foreigner.

Apart from the permits, there are not many fees or tickets required to enter most places around Ladakh. Most monasteries don’t have any entry fee, except for Alchi Monastery which is 50 INR, Leh Palace which is 100 INR and Hemis Monastery which is 100 INR for foreigners.

Best things to do in Ladakh

Ladakh is a large area, covering numerous valleys, villages, monasteries, lakes and peaks. There are plenty of sights and attractions to keep you busy for weeks. Even after six weeks there, I still have places on my list that I want to visit next time.

Below I’m outlining the 18 best things to do in Ladakh, based on my experience in the region. This covers the essential things to see and do if you want to get the most out of your trip to North India. But it also includes a few off the beaten track places as well, such as Zanskar Valley, for those that have extra time.

Leh Bazaar in Ladakh
Leh Bazaar

1. Leh Bazaar

The main bazaar and tourist area in the middle of Leh town is the hub of all the action. It has everything you might need, such as souvenir shops, trekking gear shops, travel agencies, cafes, supermarkets, banks and a government-run tourist information office (which may just be the most helpful one in all of India).

It’s the best place to people watch and enjoy the best that the town has to offer. The main thoroughfare is Old Fort Road and Main Bazaar Road, with part of the Bazaar Road being pedestrian only. Most of the cafes and restaurants I mentioned above are found around the bazaar area. You can also access Leh Palace on foot from the northern end of the bazaar, which is worth a visit (outlined more in detail below).

I can also recommend the Central Asian Museum which is located on Main Bazaar Road. It’s the best place to learn about the history of the ethnic groups that call the Ladakh region home.

View from Shanti Stupa
View from Shanti Stupa

2. Shanti Stupa

Shanti Stupa is one of the most popular things to do in Leh. The white washed stupa sits atop a hill to the northwest of Leh town. It’s nowhere near as old as many of the monasteries around Ladakh and was built just in 1991.

However, the appeal for non-Buddhists is the incredible vantage point of the stupa, which offers one of the best views over Leh. You can either drive up to the stupa or walk. If you want to walk, you can find a steep staircase at the end of Changspa Road which consists of around 500 steps to reach the top.

It’s best to head up there at sunset, when the last light offers an incredible glow across the valley and mountains. It’s free to visit and open from dawn until dusk.

Leh Palace
Leh Palace

3. Explore Leh Palace

Leh Palace is the remaining evidence of Leh’s status as the royal capital of Ladakh from the 17th century. It was the residence of the royal family who ruled over most of Western Tibet at the time. The incredible structure still stands tall above Leh town and is one of the best things to do in Ladakh.

You can drive around to the back of the palace by road and explore the now mostly empty buildings and rooms. The ticket price to go inside is 100 INR for foreigners. Or, you can climb up from Leh Bazaar on foot and just admire the incredible view over the valley. It’s a great place to watch the sunset and far less crowded than Shanti Stupa.

If you want to keep hiking up above Leh Palace, you’ll eventually come to Tsemo Goenkhang, a Buddhist Temple which is an even higher vantage point. This can also be reached by road or on foot.

Pangong Lake
Pangong Lake

4. Pangong Lake

Pangong Tso is one of the highest saltwater lakes in the world. Sitting at 4250m, it’s one of Ladakh’s biggest drawcards. The fluorescent blue colour of the water amongst the arid slopes of the mountains is a truly spectacular sight.

It’s considered sacred for Buddhists and almost 2/3 of the lake actually lies across the border in Tibet. Pangong is over 150km east of Leh town and requires a long drive to reach, including crossing a high mountain pass over 5000m.

Many people travel to Pangong Lake to spend the night there or as part of a multi-day tour to Nubra Valley from Leh. You’ll find a few hotels, glamping style accommodation and guesthouses strung along the shores of the lake to choose from.

Most people stay at a place called Spangmik, a cluster of hotels on the lake shore. However, we asked our driver to continue to the last village called Man, which only had a couple of places and a more laidback vibe. They offered mostly glamping-style tents and we found a family who had four basic tents for 600 INR (AUD$12) per person including meals. However, prices can vary wildly, up to 2000 INR per person at some more comfortable places.

Double humped camels in Nubra Valley
Double humped camels in Nubra Valley

5. Nubra Valley

One of the most popular excursions from Leh is to travel north to Nubra Valley. This is the most recently opened area of the Ladakh region and was once an important valley through which traders on the Silk Road passed through. Nubra Valley stretches from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the border of Tibet. 

The main town in Nubra Valley is Diskit, which has a beautiful monastery and plenty of hotels and restaurants servicing all the bikers and tours en route. We stayed at Ama Guesthouse, a new place opened by an extremely friendly family, who were so thrilled when we found their place tucked down a side road. He offered us one large room that slept six people for 350 rupees (AUD$7) per person, including meals.

On the outskirts of Diskit, you’ll find a stretch of sand dunes, which offer a bizarre contrast to the snow-capped mountains surrounding them. Double humped camels roam around the dunes, and there are plenty of people offering camel trips and tours. This is by far the most popular thing to do in Nubra Valley, but we decided to just spend time patting the camels instead!

Turtuk village
Turtuk village

6. Turtuk

For those with more time, a drive further west from Nubra Valley will bring you to the village of Turtuk. This is the northernmost accessible village in India. Technically a part of Baltistan, which is mostly now in Pakistan, the village is home to ethnic Balti people.

It’s a picturesque village on the banks of the Shyok River and if you climb up to the small temple on the side of the slope high above, you can even get a glimpse of the peak of K2 across the border.

The town is not always included on a tour but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful and unique places to see in Ladakh and is worth the long drive. There are various homestays available in Turtuk if you want to spend the night, and I highly recommend that you do.

We stayed at Khan Homestay and shared three rooms between the six of us for 500 rupees (AUD$10) per person, including dinner and breakfast. He even had Wi-Fi, which actually worked pretty well believe it or not.

Khardung La
Khardung La

7. Khardung La Road

While there are numerous high passes you can cross while exploring Ladakh, the most famous is Khardung La. This road pass was once considered to be the highest road pass in the world and sits at 5360m. It connects Leh with Diskit and is usually included as part of a tour or drive to Nubra Valley.

Once you make it to Khardung La pass, it’s considered mandatory to get out and take a photo at the sign at the top. However, be prepared for a lot of crowds and traffic, with a bit of a chaotic atmosphere! It can be a little treacherous after heavy snow, and it’s often closed due to bad weather conditions, so check with your driver before departing.

There are a couple of teahouses up there and a military outpost, so you can have a break and soak in the feeling of driving up over 5000m.

View from Shey Palace
View from Shey Palace

8. Shey Palace

Shey Palace is just 12km south of Leh town and an old royal palace and monastery complex dating back to the 17th century. It was used as a summer retreat by the royal family until they fled during the Dogra invasion of the 19th century to nearby Stok.

While the palace is now in ruins, the monastery is worth visiting and requires a bit of a steep climb to reach. The main temple houses a large copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, which is the second largest of its kind in Ladakh.

From the vantage point offered by the complex on the edge of the valley, you can see right across the area, including further down to Thiksey Monastery, Stok and Stakna.

Thiksey Monastery
Thiksey Monastery

9. Thiksey Monastery

Further down the Keylong-Leh Road from Shey Palace, you’ll come across the impressive Thiksey Monastery. This is one of the grandest monasteries in the Ladakh region and I highly recommend a visit. It consists of 10 temples, a nunnery and an assembly hall, all of which are built up over the top of a hill, similar to many other monasteries in the region.

Thiksey is known to have a distinct resemblance to Lhasa’s Potala, the former seat of the Dalai Lamas. It’s incredibly impressive as soon as you arrive in the car park at the bottom and gaze up at the structures cascading down the hill. You can walk your way up through the complex, following narrow passageways to reach the more important temples at the top. It’s free to just roam around, but please respect any prayers or lessons that might be going on.

Towards the back of the complex, the monastery also operates a restaurant open all day for visitors. While an unlikely highlight, we thought it had some of the best North Indian food we’d eaten in Ladakh and at very reasonable prices.

Dalai Lama in Leh monastery
Dalai Lama

10. Spituk Monastery

If you’re short on time and looking for a monastery closer to Leh, Spituk Monastery is just 7km outside of town on the other side of the airport and past the Hall of Fame Museum. While it appears much smaller than other monasteries like Thiksey, it’s far less visited and offers a quieter experience.

The view from the top of the monastery complex is quite stunning, with a vista across Leh town, Leh Palace and the valley towards Stok Kangri. It’s best visited at sunrise or sunset if you want the perfect lighting.

There’s a small museum and a few temples to visit around the top of the monastery, with friendly monks to show you the way.

11. Hemis Monastery

Arguably the most important monastery to visit during your time in Ladakh, Hemis Monastery is the largest in the region. While it was officially established in the 17th century, many believed that it was used as a temple as far back as the 11th century.

It’s built in between a gorge in the Hemis National Park with a large courtyard at its centre. The buildings are intricately carved in a traditional Tibetan technique with paintings around the windows and doors. There is also a small museum with a collection of artefacts and relics.

One of the best times to visit the monastery is during the festival dedicated to Guru Rinpoche which is held in June or July each year. It’s an incredibly popular event on the Ladakh calendar and one that attracts hundreds of people every year.

Hemis is an hour’s drive south from Leh off the Leh-Manali Highway.

Monastery in Ladakh
Traditional monastery architecture

12. Stok Monastery

Just outside of Leh and across the valley at the base of Stok Kangri, Stok village is home to the royal family of Ladakh, the Namgyals. They fled Shey during the invasion of the Dogras and have remained in Stok ever since. The small settlement is dominated by the old Stok Monastery, founded by Lama Lhawang Lotus in the 14th Century.

While the monastery is the dominating highlight, the village is also home to Stok Museum and a number of homestays and small restaurants. It’s worth spending some time there while in Leh, with plenty of interesting history and culture to be found away from the more popular places to visit.

Stok village is also the beginning of the Stok Kangri trekking route. More on this below.

Markha Valley trek trail
Markha Valley Trek

13. Markha Valley Trek

There are numerous treks in Ladakh, however, the most popular one for independent hikers is Markha Valley trek. It’s easily accessible from Leh and can be organised completely on your own because there’s a good network of homestays along the way and the trail is very clear. You can also arrange local taxis to drop and pick you up from the trailheads at Chilling and Shang Sumdo.

The trek takes around 4-5 days to complete, including the crossing of Kongmaru La at 5250m. It offers one of the best ways to explore the landscapes of Ladakh at a slower pace and enjoy the hospitality of the old Tibetan villages in the remote parts of the region. Make sure you check out my guide if you plan on doing it yourself, otherwise you can also hire a guide or join a tour from Leh.

Read more: A Guide to Hiking the Markha Valley Trek

Phuktal monastery in Zanskar
Phuktal monastery in Zanskar

14. Zanskar Valley

Zanskar Valley is seldom visited by tourists who travel to Ladakh. It’s very remote, has only very basic infrastructure and is a challenging place to reach. However, it’s also one of the most rewarding places to visit in the entire country.

The high altitude, Zanskar Valley sits in the lower Ladakh region south of Leh amongst breathtakingly rugged mountains surrounded by crumbling ancient Buddhist monasteries. While it doesn’t appear too far away from the town of Leh, the journey to reach Zanskar Valley is not for the faint hearted with a multi-day road trip required via Kargil.

Once you reach Padum, at the centre of Zanskar, however, you’ll likely be one of only a few visitors to explore the area per year. There are some fascinating old monasteries and palaces to explore, as well as a rewarding trek out to Phuktal Monastery, one of the last remaining places like it in India.  

Read more: How to Explore Zanskar Valley in North India

Alchi Monastery
Alchi Monastery

15. Alchi Monastery

Hidden away off the main highway connecting Srinagar to Leh, Alchi Monastery is often forgotten on a trip to Ladakh. However, its strategic location has allowed it to remain untouched even during countless invasions by enemies over the centuries.

Instead of being built cascading down a hilltop, the complex is spread out with multiple temples, shrines, assembly halls and a monastic school. The old Buddhist buildings are uniquely carved with decorated wooden details on the doors and windows.

However, one of the complex’s most important feature is the almost 900-year old colourful murals which have remained intact and well-preserved over the years inside the temples. Some depict historical events while others include thousands of pictures of Buddha. It’s considered one of the most important historical sites in Ladakh.

It’s located an hour and half west of Leh, on the way to Lamayuru and Srinagar.

View of Lamayuru from the road

16. Lamayuru

Along with Hemis Monastery, Lamayuru is one of the most important monasteries in the Ladakh region. The awe-inspiring complex is built amongst the otherworldly landscape and rocky terrain between Srinagar and Leh. The main highway passes right through Lamayuru village and the view of the monastery from the road is certainly worth a quick photo stop before exploring it further.

Lamayuru is the oldest monastery in Ladakh, with the central gompa dating back to the 10th century. The remainder of the complex was built in the 16th century by King Namgyal. 

There is an annual festival known as Yuru Kabgyat held at Lamayuru sometime between June or July each year. It’s one of the best experiences in Ladakh, attracting Buddhist pilgrims from near and far, as well as many tourists who wish to witness the famous masked dances.

The village around the monastery has plenty of guesthouses and restaurants open for visitors who wish to spend time at the monastery. Lamayuru is two and a half hours drive from Leh, on the way to Kargil and Srinagar.

17. Tso Moriri

While everyone who travels to Ladakh wants to visit the huge Pangong Lake, there is another just as beautiful lake known as Tso Moriri or the “Mountain Lake”. It’s located on the Changthang Plateau south of Leh at an altitude of 4522m.

The lake and surrounding area are protected under the Tso Moriri Wetland Conservation Reserve, as it attracts a range of wildlife, including migratory birds, marmots and on rare occasions, the Tibetan wolf.

The lake is very remote and requires an epic 6-7 hour drive to reach from Leh. There’s very limited infrastructure around the lake, but you can find some basic homestays and glamping accommodation in Karzok village on the western side of the lake. Any travel agency in Leh will be able to help arrange a jeep and driver to get you to Tso Moriri, but expect it to be pricey.

View of Stok Kangri
View of Stok Kangri peak from Leh

18. Stok Kangri

For any keen adventurers, one of the ultimate experiences in Ladakh is climbing Stok Kangri. The peak stands at 6153m just across the valley from Leh town. It’s considered the perfect introduction to mountaineering for beginners, with little technical skills or experienced required. But it’s not for the faint hearted.

The expedition takes between 4-6 days, including beginning from Stok village and heading to base camp. The main challenge during a Stok Kangri trek is the summit day. Trekkers have to brave sub-zero temperatures and trek on a glacier for about 6-7 hours in the dark, before walking on the ridgeline for two hours to reach the actual summit.

It’s recommended to spend at least a couple of days around Leh town before you attempt the climb to acclimatisation. A few agencies in Leh will easily be able to arrange a Stok Kangri climb, with most ascents done in the summer time. 

Jeep tour to Pangong Tso
Jeep tour to Pangong Tso

How to get around Ladakh

Once you find yourself in Leh town, getting around Ladakh to all of the attractions listed above is relatively easy with a variety of options. Whether you hire your own transport or opt to go with public transport, travelling by road in Ladakh is one of the best experiences in the region.

I opted for a combination of public transport and organised jeep tours to get around to most places. I found this the perfect balance as a budget traveller. Find out more about how I did it below.

Hiring a motorbike

Hiring a motorbike is a popular choice for Indian nationals who love to explore the Ladakh roads on two wheels. There’s plenty of places in Leh to hire a Royal Enfield, with prices starting relatively low per day.

However, the roads are not for the inexperienced rider and I would suggest making sure that you’re competent and have a motorbike license before thinking about hiring a bike in Ladakh.

Pangong Tso
Pangong Tso

Jeep tour to Pangong, Nubra Valley and Turtuk

Some places around Leh like Turtuk, Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake and Tso Moriri are best seen on a sightseeing jeep tour. While you can technically reach all of these places by public transport you’ll need weeks of your time and a lot of patience to get around to them all.

The typical Nubra Valley sightseeing tour is three nights, four days, with the first night spent in Turtuk, the second in Diskit and the third on the shores of Pangong. I joined one of these tours from Leh with other travellers.

The jeep cost around 4000 rupees (AUD$80) per person for the entire four days, for six people. The government has set prices for these kinds of Ladakh tours, and the agencies all work off an official price list. We walked around to a few agencies but they all quoted us the same price. It just depends on which agency has a group departing on your preferred day. We went with Great Himalaya Adventure on Changspa Road, which is a very popular agency for backpackers.

The price only includes the vehicle and a driver, so it was up to us to pay and organise our own accommodation and food. It’s easy to find accommodation in Turtuk, Diskit and Pangong upon arrival and we simply drove around until we found a place for a reasonable price.

View from the road to Nubra Valley
View from the road to Nubra Valley

How to explore the monasteries

To explore the monasteries around Leh, the easiest way is to hire a taxi for the full day to cover most of the main ones close to Leh like Shey, Thiksey, Stok, Stakna and Hemis. However, it’s also possible to see some of the monasteries using public transport and that’s what I did.

Along with a couple of other travellers, we decided to take the local buses that shuttle up and down the road from Leh to Choglamsar. They leave frequently from the main gate in Leh, just five minutes down from the main bazaar. From Choglamsar, there are buses going to Shey and Thiksey or you can also take a taxi from there to Stok, or even walk if you have plenty of time. 

To get back to Leh, you have to flag the buses down on the main road or hitch a ride with someone driving past. Bus tickets are as little as 20 INR for the short rides.

Heading to Spiti Valley next? A Travel Guide to Spiti Valley in North India

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