Have you heard silence? I have. 3500metres above sea level, with my head in the clouds, and mountain ranges staring down at me like meditating monks, I heard it. The closest I’ve ever gotten to truly feeling peaceful is in Leh, India.
I don’t know whether it’s because most of the tourist spots in Leh are monasteries, stupas, and even a gurudwara and ensconced within mighty mountains, offering unending views, the spiritual spots demand a quiet respect; or whether it’s because Leh’s astounding natural beauty just leaves you speechless. It’s likely a combination of both.
But to make the most of the tourist spots in Leh, you have to meander through Lays packet-strewn crowd pullers, weed your way between the heavily Instagramed must-visits, and hit the places that truly capture the essence of Leh town. Since I’ve been to Leh & Ladakh multiple times, I’ve rounded up a list of the popular spots and shared an honest review of all, so you can decide if it’s worth your while before you set out on a long, long day.
Tourist spots in Leh
Hemis Monastery: So you’re not a Buddhist, not even vaguely interested in meditation or spirituality. You’re not even interested in ancient architecture. And you hate climbing stairs. Then why should you head 45 kms outside of Leh, to see this monastery built in 1630? Set at an altitude of 12,000 feet, Hemis Monastery, the biggest in Leh, flanked by colourful buddhist flags, is quite simply beautiful, and a testament to human history and tradition.
Belonging to the Drupka Lineage of Buddhism, some reports even suggest it dates back to the 11t century. Its exhibition hall / museum contains artefacts that are centuries old and take you on an interesting ride through time. The most colourful time to visit is during the Hemis festival, held in July, dedicated to Guru Rinpoche.
Neither I, nor my travel companion are particularly religious, but the monastery has a peaceful, calming air, and I enjoyed sitting there in silence. There’s a cute cafe outside which serves everyone’s favourite Maggi, and cups of warming chai.
There’s a beautiful little walk behind the monastery leading up a spot where the monks meditate, but unfortunately the gates were closed, and we could only do half of it. Timing: 8am-6pm (lunch hours 1-2pm).
Visit meter: 8/10
Thikse Monastery: If you’re keen to visit a monastery in a region so densely populated by them, but don’t want to drive very far, head to Thiksey, about 20kms from Leh town.
Built in 1430 AD, it belongs to the Gelukpa Order of Buddhism. It’s home to a huge statue (nearly 2 floors tall) of Maitreya Buddha in the Lotus position, this hill top monastery offers the most endless views of Indus Valley and nearby monasteries of Matho, Stok and Shey.
I particularly enjoyed sitting in the peaceful sanctum, and the views that wraparound the monastery. The Chamba restaurant is also worth a visit, as described in our Leh city restaurant guide. Click here to read it) Timings: 7am-7pm
Visit meter: 8/10
Shanti Stupa at sunset, sunrise, and starlight: As the name suggests, Shanti stupa aka the peace pagoda is my favourite of all the Buddhist constructions in and around Leh. Set over two levels, it overlooks the city of Leh, offers panoramic views of the city, the village of Changspa, Namgyal Tsemo in the distance and the surrounding mountains. It’s even prettier at night, all lit up.
The Shanti Stupa was built to promote world peace and prosperity and to commemorate 2500 years of Buddhism and is considered a symbol of the ties between the people of Japan and Ladakh. Timings: 5am-9pm
Visit meter: 11/10
Gurudwara Pathar Sahib: There’s a local legend that says back in the 15th century, Guru Nanak was travelling from Srinagar to Punjab. One night, he stopped over here, at Ladakh, which was known to be dominated by a demon. The locals asked him for help from the demon, and the demon threw a boulder at the Guru while he was meditating.
The boulder rolled down towards Guru Nanak and on touching his back, it turned into soft wax which took his back’s shape. The demon kicked the boulder again with his foot, only to find his foot imprinted on the rock. It was at this point, the demon realised Guru Nanak’s spiritual prowess. It’s at this spot on the Leh Kargil road that the Gurduwara Pathar Sahib stands today, 12,000 ft above sea level. The rock is within the Gurudwara, and well looked after by the Indian army.
Whether you’re entranced by this legend, or find peace in Gurudwara’s, I’d recommend a stop here, and to even try the langar.
Opposite the Gurudwara is a long, high, rough-cut stairwell that leads to another pathar, there isn’t much information about it but it has the same Sikh flags and symbols as the Gurudwara, and incredible views (pictured here). If you drive ahead of pathar sahib, you’ll be at Magnetic hill, and eventually the viewpoint for the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. Timings: 4:15am-8:15pm
Visit meter: 10/10
Magnetic Hill: If there’s one place in Leh that has made me go “Why on Earth am I here?” it’s this one. In theory it sounds cool, because when left with the engine off, a car can roll up at a speed of 20km/hr on this hill. Due to this extraordinary phenomenon, it’s been a tourist draw. Villagers believe legends like this road leads to heaven, but the science behind it explains that the layout of the area and surrounding slopes create the optical illusion of a hill. The hill road is actually a downhill road. But I guess it’s all about what you believe.
Even suspending all my disbelief, all I saw when I got there were careless tourists perching themselves in the middle of the road for selfies (yes, like an accident about to happen), and a ‘Magnetic hill cafe’ cashing in on the hype, and not one person to explain the science or logic behind this alleged magnetic hill. All my information was off google, and my disdain in human nature after viewing the selfie takers challenging death for a good photo.
What you can do if you’re on the Magnetic hill road is drive about 10-15 minutes for a view of Confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers ( Guides have started taking tourists down to the confluence, and seating them at a cafe, but I definitely feel this higher view point is the best way to enjoy it).
Visit meter: 2/10
Khardung la: Ah, arguably the most famous mountain road, and the erstwhile, ‘highest motorable pass in the world’.
The gateway to Nubra and Shyok Valleys, Khardung La Pass is positioned on the Ladakh range, which is 40 km from Leh city, at an altitude of 18,379 ft. We rented a bike from Leh city to make this nearly 4okm uphill ride, and my husband who was riding the bike enjoyed the well-maintained roads, not to mention the incredible views of the city you get as you make your way up.
One of the nicest tourist spots in Leh, it’s crucial to either go with a experienced driver because the winding, narrow roads are difficult to manoeuvre especially during peak tourist season. If you’re riding up, make sure your bike is in good condition to traverse the somewhat rocky roads. We planned a special day trip to visit the pass, but most tourists stop over on their way to Nubra Valley (it is en route).
I’ve done it by car twice, and by bike once, and while the latter is 10 times more frightening, it’s also perhaps the best way to enjoy the route. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, right?
Google maps is the way to go with this, and since it’s such a popular route, there are signboards all over. Like everyone else, we stopped over to have chai at the one of the only two shops en route. You need paperwork to make it through the pass, so do your research, and have your hotel/ travel agent arrange this for you before you set out. ( *It is not advisable to stay there beyond 20 mins, as oxygen density is very low)
Visit meter: 7/10 ( if you’re going to ride; drive down there, the points go up)
Pangong Lake: More than 200 kilometres from Leh-Ladakh, set in the lap of the mountains, lies ‘The Lake of changing colours’ because it appears to change colours ranging from blues and greens to even reddish hues. It’s a long long drive away from Leh, across bumpy and rocky roads. It’s advised to stay there at least one night, as a one day journey would be too hectic — both times I visited I stayed in camps, in tents, but if you prefer hotels, you can find some in nearby villages.
Now, the lake is beautiful beyond imagination, but if you’re not a nature lover and hate long drives, or if they make you motion sick, I’d advise you skip the long journey and stick to looking at photos of it online, instead. If you’re a nature lover, then you can make an adventure out of it this, and walk to nearby villages, trek at Merak village, and even bird watch. You’ll likely need a well educated guide for any of the above activities. Or you can sit tight at your stay, and enjoy a bonfire under the star lit sky and home-style food.
Best season to visit: March to September
Visit meter: 7/10
Nubra Valley: Known for its orchards, scenic vistas, Bactrian camels and monasteries, it’s a 160km drive from Leh to Nubra valley.
The winding channels of the Shyok and Nubra Rivers crisscross the wide and flat Nubra valley, and here you’ll find plenty of greenery and camps to stop over in for the night. If you’re activity minded, one of the major tourist attractions (that I’d advise you skip) is rides on the two-humped camels, visiting the Hunder sand dunes and Hunder Monastery. It’s weather tends to be much warmer than Leh, and degrees higher than Pangong Lake, which is higher up.
Visit meter: 7/10