Darjeeling, the old favourite hill station in India’s Northeast region, is a popular place to escape the maddening chaos of the rest of the country. It’s most well known for two things, namely, tea and Himalayan vistas. However, the small town also has plenty of other attractions to keep you entertained for days. From browsing in the curio shops of the mall to exploring the local Tibetan culture and history and trekking into the nearby mountains, it is certainly one of India’s most underrated tourist destinations.
Although you won’t find a shortage of visitors, it’s location, far north in West Bengal, makes it slightly off the usual well beaten path in India. I’ve easily spent quite a few days there on a couple of visits and it is one of my favourite places to rest after exploring other parts of India. So, if you’re planning on visiting the town, then here are the top things to do in Darjeeling.
Where to stay in Darjeeling
There is no shortage of accommodation options in Darjeeling, from budget friendly to upmarket resorts.
I can highly recommend the place I usually stay, called Golden Orchid – The Lodge. The manager is very nice, the rooms are large and come with a private bathroom and electric blanket (you’ll need it!) and the small restaurant cooks up delicious meals. It’s just off a street near Chowrasta Mall, so it’s a bit of a hike up from the train station but it’s convenient for accessing most sights in Darjeeling.
How to get to Darjeeling
The most famous way of getting to Darjeeling is by its old steam toy train that still winds its way slowly up the hill from Siliguri. It’s quite expensive and takes double the time of the jeeps so it’s becoming less and less popular. It’s also possible to take the toy train for a short ride in Darjeeling, which is what most people now do.
From both NJP Station and Siliguri Junction in Siliguri, shared jeeps and sumos run up to Darjeeling pretty frequently throughout the day from early in the morning. It won’t take long to find them as they have signs on their dashboards and drivers yelling out the destination. The trip takes about four hours, depending on the road conditions and costs 250 rupees (AUD$5). The road is very windy and skinny closer to Darjeeling but they usually stop for a break at a tea shop half way.
In Darjeeling, shared jeeps and sumos leave from two places: down on Hill Cart Road in the lower part of town oand just outside of Rama Hotel down from Chowrasta Mall. The cluster of jeeps around Hill Cart Road tend to go in all directions, including destinations in Sikkim. However, the easiest way to get to NJP Station and Siliguri is to get one from outside Rama Hotel, which is closer to Chowrasta Mall and more convenient.
If you’re heading to or from Nepal, which is not too far away, you can check out my post on crossing the India-Nepal border at Panitanki-Kakarbhitta here.
Best things to do in Darjeeling
No matter what your interests are in exploring the hill station, there’s plenty of things to do in Darjeeling to keep you occupied for days. Here are the best things to do in this beautiful part of West Bengal.
1. Watch sunrise from Tiger Hill
Tiger Hill is a lookout sitting at 2500m just 11 kilometres from Darjeeling town. It’s most famous for its unrivalled sunrise view with an incredible Himalayan vista. From the top of the hill on a clear morning, you can see the snow capped peaks of Kangchenjunga (the third tallest mountain in the world) as well as further afield to Everest and two more of the top highest mountains in the world. In autumn and spring, the small lookout area is crowded with people who begin arriving from 4am to get a good spot. Prepare for freezing conditions most mornings, but there are plenty of local vendors selling hot chai and locally made beanies, scarves and gloves.
Just before winter, October-December is considered the best time to guarantee a clear sky. I’ve been a couple of times during winter in January and was unlucky with too much cloud cover.
It’s best to arrange a private taxi to take you to the hill, but there are also some shared jeeps that congregate just below Chowrasta Mall and Rama Hotel, near the jeep counters. They charge around 200 rupees (AUD$4) per seat, but you’ll likely have to pay more if there aren’t enough people to fill it.
2. Wander through Chowrasta Mall up to Observatory Hill
The streets of Chowrasta Mall have plenty of interesting shops and cafes, many selling Tibetan antiques and various warm weather clothing. Most of the cafes are catering for more upmarket tourists with expensive tea on offer.
The shopping street meets at a main square at the top of the town where horses offer short rides and people congregate in the evenings to drink some chai. There’s a small market just off the square where you can pick up local clothing and shawls and there are also a few people selling char grilled corn and chai from a thermos.
Behind the main square is Observatory Hill where you walk through the prayer flag-covered paths to reach a couple of temples which are free to wander around. On a clear day, you can even see the peak of Kangchenjunga through the trees.
3. Ride in the old toy train
The Darjeeling toy train was built in the 1880s as a narrow gauge railway to connect the small hill station and favourite mountain retreat of the British to major towns. It has since been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status and is one of the major attractions of the town. For a ride in the train you have the option between the original steam engine or the faster diesel engine, with the latter also being much cheaper.
You can either take the train from Siliguri up to Darjeeling, which takes seven hours, and operates once a day.
Or you can opt for a short joy ride that goes from Darjeeling to Ghum and back in two hours. In high season, these joy rides operate throughout the day, and then drop off to only about two per day in low season. The diesel train costs about 800 rupees for the round trip and the steam train costs about 1400 rupees. You can book these tickets at Siliguri and Darjeeling station or online at the official Indian Railway website here.
4. Tour a tea plantation
Darjeeling is most famous for its tea and since the first plantations in 1800s, it has become one of the finest quality in the world. There are an estimated 86 tea gardens in Darjeeling with some of them having been working for well over 150 years. Of course with the rise in tourism, tea plantations have now opened their gates to visitors and offer tours of the gardens as well as the factories so people can understand how tea is produced and sample the different types.
The second oldest tea estate in town and one of the most popular for tours is Happy Valley Tea Estate. It was established in 1854 and is now spread over 440 acres, not far from the town centre. It’s easily accessible and I even walked down to it which took me just half an hour. They offer guided tours every hour or so where employees take you through the factory and explain the process of drying, rolling and packaging tea leaves, as well as the difference between green, black and white tea.
The gardens are also open so you can wander amongst the tea plants and take some nice photos. The tea production is only operating from March to November so outside of this time, you can see the factory but it won’t be working. The ticket price is only 100 rupees (AUD$2) for the standard tour which includes a tasting at the end.
5. Buy handicrafts from the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
A steep walk down from the main town is the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which was set up by Tibetan refugees in 1959 after the uprising in Tibet. It began with just four workers aiming to independently support themselves after fleeing their homeland and has now turned into fully fledged workshops and accommodation for 650 Tibetan refugees and their descendants.
Visitors are welcome to enter the complex for free and wander through the exhibition rooms where a moving collection of photographs document the Tibetans plight across the Himalayas to India. There are also multiple workshops where you can watch the traditional crafts such as weaving, woodwork and painting. Finally, there is an old showroom where you can purchase some of the end products from the workshops and donate to the centre.
6. Learn about Tibetan history at the Himalayan Tibet Museum
If you’re still interested in learning more about the Tibetan people and culture, then I recommend heading to the Himalayan Tibet Museum, run by a not-for-profit and opened in 2015. It is located just down from Chowrasta Mall, near the clock tower and on Gandhi Road.
The exhibition and displays are ornately and colourfully done and explains the history of the Tibetan people and their relationship with the Himalayan landscape. Many Lamas, including the Dalai Lama, donated important artefacts to the museum and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit there. It’s aim is to relay the history of the Tibetan people from their point of view and to provide an insight into the present situation, scattered as a diaspora across the world.
7. Eat momos and thenthuk soup
One of the main reasons people go to India is for the food. However, in Darjeeling, the main cuisine is not thalis and dosa (although you can still find both) but rather traditional Tibetan favourites like momos and thenthuk soup.
There are a number of Tibetan restaurants ranging from small stalls to proper restaurants. Some people claim that Darjeeling has some of the best momos you can find outside of Tibet.
I highly recommend Kunga Restaurant near Keventers, an unassuming small restaurant with about five tables and a tiny kitchen. It’s rated 1st on TripAdviser and is often packed full, so I recommend to go either for an early lunch at 11am when it’s just opened or in between lunch and dinner. Opening hours change often though, so check the door.
8. Trek in Singalila National Park
Of course, when you can see the white capped Himalayan mountains not too far in the distance, it can be tempting to get out there and hike amongst them.
Darjeeling’s most popular trek is the Singalila Ridge trek near the India-Nepal border. The usual trek takes around five days and goes to a maximum height of 3630m at Sandakphu. The views along the way are spectacular and in clear weather you can catch a glimpse of four of the world’s highest mountains, similar to Tiger Hill.
October to November are the ideal times to trek for good weather, as well as April to May when the flowers are blooming. The National Park is usually closed from June to September. It’s recommended to take a local guide with you and there are quite a few agencies in and around Chowrasta Mall who can easily arrange the trek for you.
9. Visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute
Next to the Zoological Park, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is an incredibly fascinating place for those interested in mountaineering and even those who are not. It was opened in 1954 by the first Prime Minster of India and was where Tenzing Norgay spent most of his post-Everest summit time as Director of Field Training. Darjeeling was Norgay’s home from a young age where most mountaineering expeditions into the Himalayas began from.
The museum inside is where you’ll find information on the first ascents of some of the Himalayas highest peaks, including Everest. Some of Norgay’s gear that he wore to the summit were donated by him and his family to the Institute and it’s an interesting look at how much mountaineering has changed in less than a century.
Outside, there is a Tenzing Norgay memorial as he remained involved in the Institute up until he died in 1986.
The Institute still operates and is considered one of the best in the world, offering courses from adventure and basic mountaineering to advanced climbing courses to local and international students.
10. Get your Sikkim travel permit
The Deputy Commissioner’s Office (inside the same complex as the District Magistrate) in Darjeeling is a popular place for tourists to get their permits for visiting Sikkim. An Inner Line Permit is required by foreigners for crossing the border to Gangtok and beyond. The permit can usually be issued on the day as long as the form is filled out, passport and visa copies and passport photos are supplied. I recommend going in the morning when the office opens as the process can take an hour or so. There are Xerox copy shops nearby if you need.
It’s on the way towards the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, north of Chowrasta Mall, so you could combine a visit to both to make the most of your time.
Read next: A Travel Guide to Sikkim in Northeast India