Visiting Mcleodganj : Travel Guide To The Home Of The Dalai Lama

Created by Colleen Sims * 9 December 2023

beautiful pencil art of a young Buddhist monk, on a wall near our hotel when we were visiting Mcleodganj
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Visiting Mcleodganj Travel Guide

We fell in love with Mcleodganj during our 3 month tour of India.  Nestled amongst the majestic Dhauladhar mountains in the Himalayan foothills, this charming hill station with its unique Tibetan influences offers something for every visitor.

We’ll hold our hands up and admit that the real reason we added Mcleodganj to our itinerary was simply because we’d heard of the Triund Trek. It was only after further investigation that we learned about its famous resident and that it is home to the Dalai Lama. 

Mcleodganj stole our hearts and after several days exploring, we wish we’d stayed longer.  It’s certainly a place that we plan to revisit. It offers a potent blend of Tibetan charm and Himalayan beauty. Whether you’re seeking solace, outdoor adventures, or simply an escape from the hustle and bustle of Indian cities, this glorious little town will capture your heart too.

old books and a prayer wheel stored in a small room in the Dalai Lama Temple complex in Mcleodganj

Planning a Visit to Mcleodganj? 

When I started planning our journey, I was confused by where Mcleodganj was, how to get there and where we should stay.  I was equally confused by choosing either Dharamshala or Mcleodganj and I wasn’t sure what the difference was between the two.

Digging deeper provided answers but if you’re just starting your planning then read on because we’ve used all of our research and personal experiences to create this Mcleodganj travel guide.

Where is Mcleodganj?

Mcleodganj sits in the Kangra district of the Himachal Pradesh region of India. Think lush green valleys, snow-capped peaks, and crisp mountain air, and just 5 kilometres away from the larger Dharamshala.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 2000 metres, it offers stunning mountain views and glorious sunsets.

View of the Himalayan Mountains from one of our tours in the Kangra Valley, when visiting Mcleodganj

History of Mcleodganj

With its more modern sounding name it would be easy to assume that the history of Mcleodganj is tied up with the British Empire but it is actually much older.

There are mentions of the region in ancient Hindu scriptures dating from the 4th century BC and again by Chinese travellers in 7th century. The indigenous people of the Dharamshala area were known as Gaddis, predominantly Hindu and semi-nomadic.

During the time of the Mughal rulers the region changed hands many times but it became part of the British Empire following the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1846 and remained so until India’s independence in 1947.

In more recent years, Mcleodganj became intrinsically linked with Tibet and the Dalai Lama.  In 1959, Mcleodganj became a haven for Tibetan refugees; including the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-exile.  They have since rebuilt their lives and culture here and as a result Mcleodganj offers a unique blend of Tibetan traditions and Indian charm.

one of the quirky shops, called Just in Time Shop, found in the main street of Mcleodganj

Why is Mcleodganj Famous?

Today Mcleodganj is famous for its spiritual ambiance, Tibetan culture and as the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

For us though, it was the mountains that first led us to the town; we knew nothing of its reputation as a spiritual haven.  Having spent several glorious days here, we now understand that Mcloedganj is famous on many levels. 

  • Tibetan Culture with monks and markets and colourful prayer flags the region offers a unique culture in India.
  • Himalayan Beauty hiking the Triund Trek or through rhododendron forests in the surrounding mountains offers breath taking vistas and glorious sunsets.
  • Food and Coffee Lovers Paradise with its unique history reflected in the food and coffee culture. From momos and thukpa and fusion cafes, you can tantalize your taste buds in Mcleodganj.
Enjoying a black coffee in Coffee Talk Cafe in Mcleodganj whilst people watching across the street

Mcleod Ganj, Mcleodganj, or McleodGanj? The Name Conundrum!

Mcleodganj was named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, who was born in India to a Scottish father and who served as a Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab. Ganj is a common Persian word meaning neighbourhood.

When researching information about the town I wasn’t sure if the variations in names meant different locations and different towns.  However, all versions refer to the same place and locals will use the different names interchangeably, reflecting different linguistic influences. 

All three names are acceptable, although we were told that Mcleodganj is the most widely used.

Is it Worth Visiting Mcleodganj?

Absolutely! We totally loved our stay and it’s high on our list for a return visit.  We were taken by surprise at how much we loved this little town.  It has such a relaxed vibe that it almost demands a slower pace.

Mcleodganj offers something for everyone from those seeking spiritual comfort to adventurists seeking outdoor thrills.

We loved the clean air, the café culture, the breathtaking scenery, rich history, creative arts and incredibly friendly locals.  This really is a town that could fit all visitors and its blend of Tibetan and Indian culture creates a unique and unforgettable experience.

I 'heart' Himalayan sign in the tea gardens of Dharamshala.  Perfect for when visiting Mcleodganj

How Many Days Do You Need in Mcleodganj?

It depends on your pace.  We allowed 5 days and could have stayed for several weeks.  I would be quite content to walk the Kora every day, drop in at my favourite coffee shop and sit and read and write or take photographs every day.

However, for most people a 3 day Mcleodganj itinerary allows you time to cover the highlights and really get a feel for the town.  The longer you stay the more you can delve deeper into the local culture and explore more distance or hidden gems.

The Best Time to Visit Mcleodganj

Whilst Mcleodganj maybe considered a year-round destination, an ideal time to visit for sight-seeing and hiking is either spring or autumn when the weather is pleasant and the skies are clear. 

We visited in mid-November and whilst the weather was perfect, we did experience cloud coming in during the afternoons. There was also some air pollution in Dharamshala as a result of the crop burning in the Punjab although nowhere near as bad as in Delhi at that time of year.  We never noticed air-pollution higher up in Mcleodganj.

There are fewer crowds in July and August but it can also be hot and humid and the monsoon has been known to wash away roads so it’s perhaps not the ideal time for visiting.

  • March to Early June – Pleasant weather, ideal for sightseeing and trekking.
  • July to September – Monsoon season, expect heavy rain and limited outdoor activities.
  • Mid October to Mid December – Post-monsoon, with clear skies and vibrant landscapes.
  • Mid-December to February – Winter brings chilly temperatures and the occasional snowfall.
Temperature and Rain weather chart for our Visiting Mcleodganj Travel Guide

How to Get To Mcleodganj

Mcleodganj isn’t directly accessible by air or rail, but don’t worry as there are lots of nearby connections and choices. 

We travelled from Amritsar to Mcleodganj.  Initially we had booked seats on an air conditioned coach but this was cancelled on the morning of our journey.  A hasty change of plan led us to taking a private taxi and it was excellent value for money; costing less that 40€ door to door.  Our bus would have taken us to Dharamshala where we would have needed a taxi or tuk-tuk to reach Mcleodganj.

The options that you choose will depend on budget, starting location and time-frame but your choices are :

Mcleodganj By Air

The nearest airport is Gaggal Airport (also known as Kangra Airport), located less than 20 kilometres from Mcleodganj. Regular flights connect Gaggal Airport to major cities in India; Indigo and Spicejet offer flights; use Skyscanner to check times and availability.

Taxis and buses connect the airport to Dharamshala and Mcleodganj.

Mcleodganj By Road

Mcleodganj is well-connected by road from major cities such as Delhi and Chandigarh; we travelled from Amritsar after visiting the Golden Temple and the Wagah Border Ceremony and after travelled onwards to Shimla (to ride the famous Toy Train).

Buses and private taxis are readily available, offering scenic journeys through the mountains.  Do expect the roads to be bumpy and dusty; many are in a bad state of repair and some are being rebuilt and we were told it could take years.  However, we enjoyed our car journey even though it was not as smooth as you might expect; nonetheless we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Use 12Go to check if buses are available for your journey. 

Himachal Pradesh has a public bus service.  These offer excellent value for money but the journeys can be very long and the timetable is not always convenient, but they offer some stunning mountain views and are a great choice for the budget traveller. 

Look for buses to Dharamshala as most journeys will terminate here; you can then take a tuk-tuk or taxi for the last few kilometres to Mcleodganj. We found that UBER did not work in Mcleodganj.

Top Tip : Ask your hotel either where you are leaving or going to in Mcleodganj.  They will have trusted drivers who’s rate is often much lower than rates advertised on major booking sites.

Mcleodganj By Train

The closest mainline railway station is Pathankot, which is well-connected to various cities in India.  However, the station is a fair distance at almost 90 kilometers from Mcleodganj. 

There are regular buses and taxis that will take you onwards to Dharamshala or Mcleodganj. Again use 12GO to check which trains (and buses) are available.

young cow walking along Temple Road in Mcleodganj; they often cause traffic jams in India

Is it better to Stay in Mcleodganj or Dharamshala?

Deciding between Mcleodganj and Dharamshala was the dilemma we faced.  I am happy that we stayed higher up in Mcleodganj but there are differing reasons for either; ultimately both are close to each other and both offer a unique experience.

Mcleodganj is certainly more touristy, but closer to the Tibetan markets and the Dalai Lama’s residence and the mountains. Dharamshala is slightly quieter and certainly less touristy, with more of an Indian and Tibetan feel; I have to say though that the times we visited Dharamshala it didn’t feel so quiet but certainly more Indian.

Staying in Dharamshala

Pros:

  • Quieter and less crowded than Mcleodganj (sometimes)
  • Lower accommodation costs and more accommodation choice
  • Central location for transportation
  • Mix of more authentic Indian as well as Tibetan culture

Cons:

  • Further from the Tibetan heart of Mcleodganj
  • Fewer Tibetan restaurants and shops
  • Not as walkable as Mcleodganj

Staying in Mcleodganj

Pros:

  • Immersed in Tibetan culture
  • Close to the Dalai Lama’s residence and Temple complex
  • Wide variety of Tibetan restaurants and shops
  • Walkable town centre and very easy to explore on foot
  • More options for trekking and outdoor activities

Cons:

  • More crowded and touristy
  • Higher accommodation and restaurant costs (but not hugely different)
  • Limited access to non-Tibetan attractions
Colourful houses in Dharamshala, seen from the cable car taking us from Mcleodganj during our visit

Where to Stay in Mcleodganj

We opted to stay in Mcleodganj and we have no regrets with that decision.  If we return we would still opt to stay in the mountains rather than Dharamshala.  All that we wanted to see and do was easily accessible and we loved the vibe of Mcleodganj.

Here are our three top choices for accommodation in the town :

Our Budget Pick : Ram Yoga House

We stayed at Ram Yoga House and we were happy with our stay.  It is a little out of the main centre but this made it quieter and the location was never an issue for us.  The rooms were large, we had a small kitchen and balcony. We had great views of the Temple Complex and it’s close to the Kora Walk and the Dalai Lama’s temple.

  • We loved the comfortable bed and breakfast choices
  • Excellent value for money
  • Offers yoga and retreat packages
  • It is a little on the edge of town but it was never an issue and we loved the quiet evenings
we stayed in Ram Yoga House during our days in Mcleodganj. The balcony was the perfect spot for watching the sunrise over the mountains
view from our balcony at Ram Yoga House

Our Comfort Pick : The Hosteller

Another great choice if you wish to be close to the action but not in the thick of it.  The Hosteller is a hostel but it also offers excellent private en-suite rooms. 

As a hostel it’s a great choice for solo visitors or those wishing to meet likeminded travellers, whilst still wanting a little privacy and comfort.

  • Choice of dormitory rooms or superior rooms so suitable for all travellers and budgets
  • Good location just on the edge of the main sights within Mcleodganj
  • 24 hour reception and daily maid service and with a restaurant on-site
  • Might be too much like a hostel for some visitors
Monk walking under a blossom tree near Hosteller Hotel in Mcleodganj

Our Luxury Pick : Hotel Norbu House

If you are looking for a little extra comfort during your stay in Mcleodganj, then you will struggle to beat the service and location of the Hotel Norbu House; and for a price that you’d expect of a mid-range hotel. 

This is a great choice for travellers looking for a special stay and you only need to read the reviews to see why people choose to stay here.

  • Amazing views and almost on the doorstep of the Dalai Lama’s temple
  • Rooms and suites are available
  • Expect all the services of a modern, highly rated hotel in an exceptional location
  • No swimming pool and maybe a little pricey for some travellers
Tibetan handicrafts shop, located not far from the popular hotels in the heart of Mcleodganj

Spiritual, Yoga And Meditation Retreats

There are many choices for people wishing to visit Mcleodganj for spiritual reasons or those simply seeking a quiet retreat.  Some offer day classes which allow you to stay in your own choice of accommodation and others offer residential courses.

Tushita Meditation Centre

Tushita Meditation Centre is situated in the forest above McLeodganj, is dedicated to the study and practice of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Established in 1972 by Lama Thubten Yeshe, Tushita provides a welcoming space for individuals of all backgrounds to explore Buddhist philosophy and meditation.

Thosamling

Thosamling is a global community of Buddhist nuns and lay women, residing and studying in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Nestled in the foothills 16 kilometres from Mcleodganj on the outskirts of Dharamshala, it offers unique study, practice, and retreat opportunities.   Whist primarily a nunnery, its vitality stems from a diverse international community of Dharma practitioners.

Ram Yoga house

We Stayed at Ram Yoga House and as well as offering accommodation this is a flourishing Yoga Retreat.

Ram Bhardwaj, founder of Yoga House, brings a rich background rooted in yoga and Ayurveda. Raised in a family of yoga practitioners and midwives near Dharamshala, Ram has evolved into a world-renowned Yoga and Thai Yoga Massage teacher, having taught in over 20 cities across Asia, England, Europe, and South America.

beautiful metalwork window brightly painted in a temple in the centre of Mcleodganj

Things To Do and Places to visit in Mcleodganj

Mcleodganj is like no place we’ve visited before, offering the chance to explore ancient forts, temples and monasteries as well as trekking in the Dhauladhar mountain range.  For more ideas on how to plan your visit take a look at our 3-day Mcleodganj itinerary but here are a few ideas to get you started :

  • Namgyal Temple Complex – Enjoy the tranquillity of the Dalai Lama’s residence and explore the Tibetan Buddhist culture.
  • Walk the Kora – The spiritual circuit that encompasses the Dalai Lama’s temples and residence.
  • Triund Trek – Embark on a trek with breath taking Himalayan views.
  • Bhagsu Nag Waterfall – A more gentle trek through scenic forests.
  • Dalai Lama’s teachings – It is possible to attend public teachings if the Dalai Lama’s schedule coincides with your visit.
  • The Norbulingka Institute – While away several hours exploring this Institute which promotes the preservation of Tibetan Arts and culture.
Colleen walking the Kora Circuit around the Dalai Lama's Temple Complex in Mcleodganj

Mcleodganj Tour Guides

When we were searching for things to do in Mcleodganj and indeed across the Himachal Pradesh region, we came across a website offering tours with local guides, born and living in the region. 

As we’re always keen to support local initiatives we have since been talking with Himachal Bylocals; they’re a great local tour company and we’re more than happy to help promote their tours and services.

Local guides do enhance your visit by providing historical context and insider knowledge. Whether exploring bustling markets or embarking on a trek, a guide adds depth to your experience.

Take a look at these tours, which we recommend during your stay; for hiking and cultural visits in and around Mcleodganj.

Local Food and Our Favourite Places to Eat in Mcleodganj

Indulge your taste buds in the diverse culinary offerings of Mcleodganj. From traditional Tibetan momos to north Indian earthy currys, the town boasts a variety of gastronomic delights; there is also a healthy vegan, vegetarian and café scene here too.

We really loved Snow Lion Café and Crepe Pancake Hut but to read about all of our favourite eateries don’t miss our separate post for our top 5 Café recommendations.

Crepe Pancake Hut cafe in mcleodganj offers quiche, cookies, crepes and smoothies with gluten free and vegan options

Getting Around Mcleodganj

Walking is the best way to explore the town’s narrow lanes and soak up the atmosphere. Taxis and tuk-tuks are readily available if you wish to venture further afield although UBER didn’t work for us here. Tuk-Tuks are perhaps the better option for getting around Mcleodganj’s narrow streets, which can often be jammed with traffic.

The town is easily navigable on foot, but if you opt for transport then be sure to negotiate your fare beforehand or ask your accommodation to book for you. 

You can also use the Skyway Cable Car to quickly move between Mcleodganj and Dharamshala. It it’s perhaps not the cheapest form of transport but the views are majestic!

Visiting Mcleodganj : Our Travel Guide

We fell in love with Mcleodganj and I hope that shines through in all our posts about this little mountain gem. We would happily revisit and do very little except walk, explore and relax in this special Himalayan treasure.

If you only have a few days for your visit then our Mcleodganj Itinerary for 3 days provides visitors with a taste of all that the town has to offer.

We hope that our Mcleodganj travel guide encourages more visitors to discover this little outpost.

Be prepared to be captivated. Mcleodganj offers cultural richness, spiritual aura, and breath-taking landscapes. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, adventure seeker, or simply looking for a peaceful retreat, this town has something magical to offer.

Plan your trip wisely, immerse yourself in the local experiences, and let Mcleodganj weave its charm on you.

prayer wheels at the Dalai Lama temple in Mcleodganj

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

Whenever you travel overseas it’s imperative to travel with a good travel and medical insurance policy.  None of us expect anything bad to happen, but in the event of an incident, you want to be sure that your insurance will be there for you.

I’ve had the mis-fortune to end up in hospital in Peru, Indonesia, Portugal and Ireland; every time my insurance took care of everything. I would never leave home without full and comprehensive insurance.

Globelink : We have used and recommended Globelink for years and we’ve not heard of any issues. They are a great choice for European and UK Residents.

TrueTraveller : We have this policy now for an extended global trip and we are very happy with the cover, especially considering our ages and pre-existing conditions

Safety Wing : Many of my travelling buddies from the USA have recommended this company to me, although we’ve not used them personally.

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