Dal Lake in Srinagar

Srinagar is the summer capital of the contested state of Jammu and Kashmir in North India. It’s quite an interesting experience to explore the city, and it has a very different feeling to the rest of India.

Srinagar has a predominantly Muslim population thanks to both Mughal and Afghan rule over the city from the 14th to 18th centuries. It has since become a significant battle ground during the post-independence conflict between India and Pakistan and according to the locals, much is still unresolved.

While it’s a heavily politicised place, Kashmir is an incredibly beautiful region with fascinating sights and, most importantly, friendly people. Srinagar is located around the shores of Dal Lake, with a stunning backdrop of towering mountains. It was my first stop in Kashmir after leaving Jammu and I spent a week exploring the city with a couple of other travellers.

Here’s my guide to the best things to do in Srinagar, a city worth taking the time to explore in North India.

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How to get to Srinagar

By road, Srinagar is best reached from Jammu. However, the Jammu-Srinagar highway is perhaps one of the most contentious parts of travelling through the state. It’s a heavily militarised road that is often shut by the Indian army for a variety of reasons and sometimes for no apparent reason at all.

When we arrived in Jammu and inquired about transport to Srinagar, we were repeatedly told that for at least the next two days there would be no buses running because the celebration for the end of Ramadan was considered a potentially provocative time for Kashmir-India relations. 

Of course, nothing is impossible as long as you have some cash, and we soon had a couple of drivers willing to drive us to Srinagar overnight. After much discussion and deliberation, we decided to go with it.

The shared taxi I took with five other people cost us 1100 rupees each (AUD$22) for the 10 hour journey overnight.

Houseboats in Srinagar
Houseboats in Srinagar

Otherwise, if the buses are running, you will find both a morning and overnight bus leaving Jammu for Srinagar with the State Transport Corporation abbreviated to JKSRTC. The buses take 10-12 hours and cost around 650 INR per person.

You can also fly to Srinagar. There are regular flights from Delhi to Srinagar which take around 1.5 hours and cost on average USD$50 one way.

Best things to do in Srinagar

There’s actually plenty of things to do in Srinagar to keep you occupied for days. From the impressive Dal Lake to the many historical sights and beautiful gardens, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the Kashmiri city.

Dal Lake at sunrise
Dal Lake at sunrise

1. Stay in a houseboat on Dal Lake

Dal Lake is by far the city’s biggest attraction, taking up 18 sq km, and playing a significant part to play in shaping its culture. The Maharaja of Kashmir prevented the British from owning land or building houses in the entire valley and so to get around the restrictions they began to build lavish houseboats, which have been maintained and expanded since independence. The lake also plays an important part in the city’s economy with many local relying on fishing, harvesting floating gardens and taking tourists on shikara (boat) rides.

The quintessential Srinagar travel experience is to spend at least a night in a houseboat on Dal Lake. While there’s plenty of options from budget choices to extravagant upscale ones, it’s definitely a must do in Srinagar.

Pari Mahal
Pari Mahal

2. Visit Pari Mahal or the Palace of Fairies

Srinagar has an endless supply of beautiful gardens to enjoy. However, the most beautiful garden in my opinion is Pari Mahal, or The Palace of Fairies. Located up on the side of a hill around 10km away from the city centre, it’s worth the short rickshaw drive.

We went around sunset to find a stunning view of the lake below and perfect lighting with the golden hues of the setting sun. You can see right across the city and surrounding landscape, making it one of the best views in Srinagar.

Hari Parbat
Hari Parbat

3. Head out to the Hari Parbat Fort

Seen from almost anywhere in the city is the Hari Parbat fort, on top of a hill 5 km away from Dal Gate. From a distance, it looks very much like something you would see on the cityscapes of Rajasthan, however, it is far less grand up close.

The view of the entire city is stunning from the fort, however, the Indian military have set up base inside the empty fort walls. There is nothing to see inside, other than the soldiers dirty laundry hanging out to dry and a small Hindu temple that seems more of a political statement than much to do with the significance of the site.

Still, you’re free to roam around the walls of the fort and the view is worth the trip on a clear day.

Shah-e-Hamdan
Shah-e-Hamdan

4. Admire Shah-e-Hamdan, one of the oldest mosques in the city

Shah-e-Hamdan is easily one of the most striking mosques to visit in the city. It’s also one of the oldest remaining in Srinagar and was built in the 1700s on the site of one of the first mosques to be built in the area.

The incredibly unique design of the mosque was built without any nails and instead by painted paper mache reliefs and coloured wood panels. Non-Muslims can enter the mosque grounds and peek through the window, but cannot enter.

Jama Masjid
Jama Masjid

5. Explore the markets around Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid or otherwise known as the main mosque in Srinagar was built in 1672. The quadrangle shaped courtyard and mosque has a central fountain surrounded by a huge room for prayers. It’s a very peaceful place to visit, although can be chaotic for Friday prayers.

The area around the mosque is a vibrant market place. We stumbled across plenty of deep-fried street snacks, market stalls and other beautiful mosques within walking distance. We definitely felt as if we were wandering the bazaars of the Middle East or Central Asia rather than anywhere close to India.

White Mosque
White Mosque

6. Check out Hazratbal Shrine

Located on the western shore of Dal Lake, this shrine is often referred to as the White Mosque. It enshrines Kashmir’s holiest Islamic relic, the Moi-e-Muqqadas, which is believed to be beard hair of the Prophet Mohammed.

It’s a beautiful spot to visit and you’ll find locals congregating in the mosque’s outdoor patio area. The view over Dal Lake and the backdrop of the mountains is also pretty incredible and worth a visit to this side of the city.

Floating market
Floating market

7. Take an early morning shikara to the floating market

We rose around 5am one morning so our houseboat hosts could take us on a shikara (local boat) to the famous floating market that operates only in the wee hours of the morning in summer.

The men come to a particular spot on the lake to trade their goods, most of which are grown in the lake’s floating gardens. It’s also very much a place for socialising rather than just for making money, and boats were floating in clusters while men smoked shisha and chatted, before dispersing back out onto the lake for another day.

It’s become quite a popular tourist attraction and most shikara owners will offer to take you to the market. It’s still worth doing, as it has a more authentic feel than many other markets in India and the few tourists that do make it to Srinagar don’t make it seem overly commercialised.

Shikara owners charge around 2000 INR for the trip.

Sellers at the floating market
Sellers at the floating market

8. Eat some traditional food at Mughal Darbar Restaurant

Widely considered to be the best place to try some traditional Kashmiri and Wazwan food, Mughal Darbar is a longstanding restaurant on Jhelum River east of Lal Chowk.

While it’s not overly cheap, any local will recommend tourists to go purely because of the wide selection of traditional food in a nice setting. The staff can help you make choices and recommend certain dishes depending on what you want to try. Their menu is in English.

Sunset over Dal Lake
Sunset over Dal Lake

9. Enjoy the Mughal gardens

Srinagar is home to a variety of gardens, particularly some incredible Mughal era gardens. While Pari Mahal is arguably the most beautiful, there are plenty of others to check out during your visit to Srinagar.

Nishat Garden is one of the more popular gardens. Built in 1633 across 12 landscaped terraces, it’s a very peaceful place to spend some time.

For budget travellers, the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar are some of the best attractions as the ticket prices for each garden is just 24 INR.

10. Visit the Shankaracharya Temple, an important Hindu site

Sitting perched on a forested hill above Dal Lake, Shankaracharya Temple is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Previously known as the Throne of Solomon, the site is believed to date back to the 5th century.

To reach the temple, you need to drive the windy 5.5km road up to the top. From there, you have to enter the temple on foot and leave all cameras and phones behind. The views from the temple is incredible, stretching right across the lake and city.

Market near Jama Masjid
Market near Jama Masjid

Day trips from Srinagar

Staying in Srinagar means you can take a few day trips to popular places. Being surrounded by stunning scenery and mountains, there are some incredible skiing and hiking destinations just a couple of hours from the city.

Each of these places can be reached by either private taxi hire or public transport. Keep in mind that with public transport you will need some patience and it’s better to allow more than one day to get there and back. As with many places though, I recommend spending longer than a day in each place to really get the most out of it anyway.

Sonmarg: Just a two hour drive from Srinagar this beautiful town is right amongst some stunning scenery. You can either simply admire the beauty of the place or head out on a hike or rafting trip through one of the hotels there.

Gulmarg: In the opposite direction, another two drive west of Srinagar leads you to this well-known skiing destination. Gulmarg has a popular gondola offering beautiful views, plus skiing fields in the winter.

Pahalgam and Aru Valley: A pretty hill station in the stunning Aru Valley, this very much reminded me of Switzerland when I visited. While a decent drive of around three hours from Srinagar, it’s worth taking the time to explore.

Read next: A Travel Guide to Aru Valley

Houseboat on Dal Lake
Houseboat on Dal Lake

Where to stay in Srinagar

When we arrived in the early morning from Jammu we rang a random hotel. It turned out to be Hotel Fabulous Kashmir. We only stayed for one night before moving to a houseboat, however, the family were extremely nice and if it wasn’t for the houseboat, we probably would have stayed. It’s right near Dal Gate and they can help organise day trips and taxis around the city. 

The old houseboat we moved to is behind the busy waterfront and was more like a homestay for budget travellers. The owner’s name is Altaf and his boat is called New Shanhshah Houseboat. If you give him a call he will pick you up from wherever you are in Srinagar in his rickshaw, as the boat is difficult to find. We paid 600 rupees (AUD$12) per room including breakfast and dinner and his wife cooks delicious meals. His number is: +91 97970 55438

Find more houseboat accommodation in Srinagar here.

Street food in Srinagar
Street food in Srinagar

Where to eat in Srinagar

There are a number of cheap dhabas (restaurants serving standard Indian affair), on the main waterfront and around the lake.

The top restaurant in town is considered the Mughal Darbar, which I mentioned above.

For more good food, I can highly recommend Krishna Vaishno Dhaba, where you’ll have to wait for a table and be rushed through your food so the next people can sit. However, it’s cheap and delicious, every local will know where it is, look for the crowd at lunchtime.

Is Srinagar safe?

YES! Srinagar is a relatively safe city for foreigners and tourists to visit. The locals were some of the friendliest I met in India and have a very genuine sense of hospitality towards visitors. I really enjoyed my time in the city, even being a solo female traveller and I would definitely consider returning.

However, it’s worth noting that it’s a highly militarised city and you will see Indian Army checkpoints and soldiers standing on most corners. This is not much to be concerned about, but occasionally protests and clashes do occur. While these are not directed towards foreigners, you should ask local advice about the situation.

Sometimes the Indian government will cut off phone signal in the whole area. This means that your mobile phone won’t work. It happened once during my time there and lasted for 24 hours. You can pick up a local Kashmir SIM in one of the phone offices in Srinagar, as regular Indian SIM cards won’t work at all.

Solo travel in Kashmir

A note on mosque etiquette

Many of the mosques and shrines mentioned above are very holy places. Women must cover their head, as well as, their arms and legs while inside any of the mosques mentioned. I carried a scarf in my bag wherever I went in Srinagar in case I needed it.

The locals are very friendly and you won’t get in trouble, but they will certainly correct you if you’re not wearing the appropriate clothing or your scarf isn’t covering your hair. Often, men and women also have different sections where they are allowed to go in mosques. Please obey any rules, as these places command respect by those who worship there.

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