Located above the town of Dharamsala in the Himachal Pradesh region of India, McLeod Ganj is home to the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. When most travelers say Dharamsala, they are probably referring to the tourist section of Upper Dharamsala known as McLeod Ganj.
Set into the hillsides of a beautiful green valley, Mcleod Ganj is one of the most popular destinations in Himachal Pradesh and certainly has a different vibe than the rest of India.
Most tourist buses arrive just below the main square in the north of McLeod Ganj. You'll need to walk 200 meters up a hill to town from the bus station. Two parallel roads, Jogiwara Road and Temple Road, lead south from the small main square. At the end of Temple Road is the Tsuglagkhang Complex -- home of the Dalai Lama and the most popular attraction in town.
Bhagsu Road leads east out of the main square and has numerous mid-range guesthouses and cafes. A small path branches off of Jogiwara Road to the east; the steep set of stairs by Yongling School leads to a lower section of McLeod Ganj where you will find budget guesthouses.
- See how to book budget hotels in India and what to expect.
All of McLeod Ganj can be covered on foot, although there are plenty of taxis and rickshaws in the main square to take you to neighboring villages.
What to Expect
Tiny McLeod Ganj can be walked from end to end in around 15 minutes. As home to the 14th Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community, you'll see plenty of Tibetan refugees and maroon-robed monks chatting in cafes and walking the streets.
Despite the air being cleaner and the atmosphere a little more friendly, don't expect a tranquil mountain town. Horn-blasting traffic continuously clogs the dirty, narrow streets. You'll also encounter plenty of stray dogs, wandering cows, beggars, and a handful of scammers in the streets as well.
From restaurants and temples to workshops and classes, Tibetan culture is apparent everywhere. You'll probably leave McLeod Ganj having learned more about Tibet than India.
Things to Do Around McLeod Ganj
Other than the excellent people watching from the numerous cafes, you'll find plenty of things going on around town. Grab a free copy of Contact magazine -- available in the Tibet Museum -- for events and happenings which usually include talks, workshops, and documentaries about Tibet.
McLeod Ganj is a popular destination for people who want to study Buddhism, holistic therapies, and participate in retreats. The best way to interact with the local Tibetan community is by taking advantage of the numerous volunteer opportunities, even if it's only an afternoon to help Tibetans refugees practice English.
- See a list of 10 things to do in McLeod Ganj.
You won't find any high-rise hotels around Mcleod Ganj, but you will find an abundance of guesthouses in all price ranges. All rooms include a personal hot water heater that must be switched on in advance. Most rooms are not heated, but some places offer personal heaters for an additional charge. Nicer rooms include a balcony with a view. Cheaper options may not include bedsheets or towels!
There are several midrange options along Bhagsu Road just off the main square. For cheaper and long-term stay options, consider walking down the stairs below Yongling School on Jogiwara Road to the numerous budget guesthouses or even staying in the quiet village of Dharamkot, a steep, one-kilometer walk from the main square.
Always ask to see a room first; many places smell moldy because of the persistent dampness. Unless you enjoy falling asleep with blaring horns as a backdrop, stay away from rooms facing the street.
With a steady stream of travelers visiting McLeod Ganj, you'll find a wide range of budget and midrange restaurants around town serving Indian, Tibetan, and Western food. Vegetarian fare is the most dominant, although you'll find a couple of rogue eateries cooking chicken and mutton. Many restaurants have outside areas or rooftops with a view; a majority advertise Wi-Fi which may or may not be working.
McLeod Ganj is a great place to give Tibetan food a try, particularly momo (dumplings), Tingmo (steamed bread), and Thukpa (noodle soup). Excellent herbal teas are available everywhere.
When you grow tired of Indian and Tibetan food:
- Lung Ta: This nonprofit Japanese restaurant has a daily set menu; Tuesday and Friday -- the vegetarian sushi days -- are the most popular. All proceeds support the Gu-Chu-Sum Movement of Tibet, an organization that helps political prisoners from Tibet.
- Seven Hills of Dokkaebi: An authentic Korean restaurant with fireplace, great food, large library, and classy music. The large pots of Korean teas are a great deal.
- McLlo Restaurant: Located predominantly in the main square, this towering restaurant isn't the cheapest but has the thickest menu in town. Uniformed staff deliver mountain trout and international fare that you can't find elsewhere.
Despite a steady stream of travelers walking the streets of McLeod Ganj, don't expect much nightlife. In fact, the town practically shuts down around 10 p.m. You'll find the two best choices on rooftops in the main square. X-Cite, despite being dark and a little rough around the edges, is a large space open late. McLlo Restaurant, one of the most expensive restaurants in town, has a pleasant rooftop bar; drink prices are the same as more seedy spots around town.
While smoking is usually tolerated inside the rooftop bars, you can be fined for smoking on the street.
Weather in McLeod Ganj
Despite being in the foothills of the Himalayas, McLeod Ganj is only at an elevation of 5,741 feet (1,750 meters). Very few people have trouble with the altitude, however, nights are cooler than you would expect. Sunny summer days can be scorching, but temperatures dip in the evening. You'll need warm clothes and a jacket in the spring, fall, and winter months; numerous shops around town sell warm clothing.
- See when to go to India.
Tips and Considerations for McLeod Ganj
- You'll find two Western-networked ATM on Temple Road in the same small room, however, only one may be working at any given time. Another ATM is located upstairs inside of the bus terminal below town.
- Power cuts are a common occurrence; carry a flashlight with you and be careful about charging electronic devices unattended as generator starts can damage them.
- Many cafes and hotels advertise free Wi-Fi, however, speeds can be painfully slow depending on time of day and the weather. Learn about protecting yourself in Wi-Fi cafes.
- You won't find just faked popular-brand clothing for sale in shops. Counterfeited Western-brand cigarettes and refilled water bottles turn up; always check for seals before paying. Learn more about scams in Asia.
- The valley stays green for a reason: it rains a lot around McCleod Ganj! An umbrella and rain gear are excellent investments. Although mornings are usually more clear, keep in mind when planning hikes to neighboring villages that weather changes very quickly in the valley.
- Rubbish and plastic bottles are a real problem in McLeod Ganj. Take advantage of the water-refill stations in restaurants and guesthouses. You can refill bottles at Nick's Italian cafe and the Green cafe on Bhagsu road. Read more about responsible travel.