We went to Leh a few years back and it was, without doubt, one of the highlights of our travels over the years. In fact, the journey alone was epic. If you are craving an adventure, simply hop on the bus from Manali to Leh and your appetite will soon be satiated! You can read all about it our journey to Leh here.
Leh, located high in the Indian Himalayas in Ladakh, has frequently been referred to as Shangri La. Indeed, arriving in the enchanting city of Leh feels akin to stepping back in time. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, gleaming white temples and fluttering prayer flags, it is more Tibetan than Indian in character. Monks hurry through the ancient streets attired in maroon robes and trinket stalls sell silver jewellery from Tibet. Leh is also a base for outdoor enthusiasts and both trekking and white-water river rafting are popular pursuits in the stunning landscapes of Ladakh.
Here, we take a look at of the best things to do in and around the captivating city of Leh:
1) Shanti Stupa
The impressive gleaming white Shanti Stupa sits atop a hill overlooking the city. It looks especially beautiful at night when it is illuminated. The stupa was built by Japanese Buddhists in order to promote world peace through the teachings of Buddha.
A winding road leads to the summit or alternatively you can take the 780 steps to the top. Although it’s a tough climb (there are a few of them in Leh!) it is worthwhile. It’s an ideal place to take in the sunset – the views of the city and Kangri Stok Mountain range are spectacular.
2) Leh Palace
Bearing a resemblance to the Potala Palace in Tibet, the imposing nine-storey 17th century palace was a former royal residence. The royal family fled to Stok Palace when Dongra forces invaded the city.
These days, there isn’t too much to see within the walls of the palace with the exception of a few exhibits and a temple. From the roof top, however, there are panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding mountain ranges.
3) Namgyal Tsemo Monastery
This 15th century gompa stands on a craggy rock behind Leh Palace. If you have the energy following your visit to the palace, keep going up the dusty trail and you will find yourself at the monastery.
The temple has a number of paintings, frescoes and Buddha statues and is home to a gold Maitreya Buddha, which is three storeys high. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze and the views from are breath-taking. It’s a peaceful spot to spend a little time and take in the majestic surroundings.
4) Trekking in the Mountains of Ladakh
There are a wealth of treks suitable for all levels that can be done close to Leh. A wide range of trekking agencies compete for business in the city, but it’s best to do some research online prior to arrival. Treks vary from a reasonably easy couple of days to a challenging three weeks.
As well as experiencing the stunning Ladakhi landscapes, trekkers also gain an insight into local culture and Buddhist traditions. The nineteen-mile Sham Valley Trek is one of the easiest and it’s possible to undertake without porters and guides. The trek takes in apricot orchards and monasteries. Additionally, homestays are plentiful. At the other end of the scale, the Zanskar Chadar Walk is a tough 5-6 day trek along a frozen river. At night, trekkers shelter from the elements in caves.
5) Bon Appetit
It may be a little tricky to find, but this restaurant is definitely worth seeking out. Hidden along narrow lanes south of Changspa Road, Bon Appetit was our favourite restaurant in Leh. The international restaurant a cut above the rest and includes delicious tandoori grills, salads and plenty of veggie options.
The interior is stylish, but the real draw is the terrace, which has lovely views of the Stok Kangri range. In the evening, the sun slowly sinks behind the mountains – an ideal time to enjoy a beer and some of the best cuisine in town at Bon Appetit.
6) Donkey Sanctuary
Many donkeys in Leh are abandoned by their owners when they of no further use to them. Consequently, there are a number of aged and disabled donkeys on the streets of the city. Leh Donkey Sanctuary rescues the donkeys and gives them a safe haven, shelter, food, medical treatment and lots of loving care.
It’s possible to visit Leh Donkey Sanctuary, which is on the outskirts of town. It’s situated on the road leading to the highest motorable pass in the world, Khardungla. Visitors can bring food to give to the donkeys, spend time with them and learn about the sanctuary.
7) Thiksey Monastery
Thiksey monastery, situated on a hilltop, about eleven miles from Leh, is home to 120 monks. It’s an impressive twelve-storey building, reminiscent of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and has an assembly hall and twelve shrines.
The monastery displays a wide range of Buddhist-related items including thangka paintings, stupas, swords and artwork. If you can, it’s worth timing your visit with the morning prayer. The ritual involves much chanting, drumming, the blowing of horns and elaborate headwear. It’s an evocative experience in a magical setting.
8) Old Town
Beneath the palace, the narrow streets and stairways of Leh’s old town are both fascinating and atmospheric. Jama Masjid, the 350 year-old mosque sits at the gateway to the area. Ancient mud brick houses and shrines abound and tiny hole-in-the-walls shops sell everything from trinkets to momos. The aroma of fresh bread emanates from a bakery where the bread is baked in a traditional oven, as it has been for hundreds of years.
9) Stok Palace Heritage Hotel
Since we were in Ladakh, Stok Palace has been transformed into Stok Palace Heritage Hotel. Situated around ten miles from Leh, the palace was once the residence of the royal family of Ladakh. It now functions as both a hotel and temple. Additionally, there is a museum that exhibits items which once belonged to the royal family. These include items of clothing, jewellery, photographs and weaponry.
The rooms have been traditionally restored in Ladakhi style and guests are allowed to observe morning and evening prayers in the temple. A stay at the hotel is certainly a unique experience.
10) White Water River Rafting
Leh is a popular hub for white water river rafting. Furthermore, the fact that Ladakh is a region of spectacular natural beauty makes it an appealing rafting destination. Rafting operates on the Indus and Zanskar Rivers from July to September. The Indus is more suitable for beginners while the Zanskar is best left to the pros and highly experienced. Indus Himalayan Explorers are one of the most reputable companies in town.
11) Central Asian Museum
Leh was at the crossroads of the Silk Road and this new museum has an excellent range of exhibits focusing on both the Silk Road and Ladakh. It’s a great place to gain an insight into the history of Ladakh, Chinese Turkestan and Tibet and has individual rooms dedicated to each of the areas.
The building itself is interesting and is a modern take on a traditional Lhasa mansion. Additionally, the museum is home to a restaurant in the style of a Ladakhi kitchen and a pleasant garden, a perfect place to enjoy a drink and a bite to eat.
12) LaLa’s Art Cafe
This tiny cafe is located in the heart of the old town. Originally, it was the home of a monk who was a caretaker at a nearby temple. The monastery were planning to demolish the building, but it was rescued by the Tibet Heritage Fund who and transformed it into a cafe, but maintained its original style and features.
Near the entrance there is Buddha figure carved out of the rock which dates back to the 8th century. A shrine room inside the building is home to five more ancient stone-carved Buddhas. It’s necessary to climb a small ladder to reach the cafe on the second floor. A second ladder leads to a tiny roof terrace – a perfect place to sit with a coffee and cake and take in the views of the palace and Tsemo Monastery.To reach the cafe.
13) Tibetan Market
Tibetan markets can be found throughout the city and are and ideal place to pick up souvenirs or gifts. Run by Tibetan refugees, they sell a wide range of products from silver jewellery to pashminas and prayer flags.