Kanchendzonga, clouds, fragrant cups of tea and sumptuous food. Head to Darjeeling and live in the clouds for a while, literally.
This quaint hill station is located about 2150m above sea level and clouds tend to come down often enveloping you. The British loved the misty, mild-to-chilly climate of Darjeeling. So much so that they annexed it from Nepal and made it into their own special summer retreat to escape the heat of the plains. Among other things, they set up the tea plantations that today are responsible for the world-famous Darjeeling tea.
Here’s a list of things to do in Darjeeling:
1. Take a tea tour
Take a tea estate tour or stay on a plantation. On a tea tour, you will get to see what goes into making that perfect cuppa – you will go tea plucking with workers, get a round of the factory where leaves are processed and indulge in tea tasting.
The delicate flavour of Darjeeling tea is dependent on the climate and environment and the flavour and aroma of tea differs from hillside to hillside. Recommended is a tour of the Makaibari estate. Founded in the late 1850s, its tea fetches some of the highest prices in the world.
2. Visit a monastery
You can also go on a monastery tour. Darjeeling has several beautiful monasteries and temples. The Ghum Monastery (situated 8 km from Darjeeling in the town of Ghum) follows the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. It has a 15ft statue of Maitreya Buddha.
The Bhutia Busty monastery is in Darjeeling town, near Chowrasta. It belongs to the Red Sect of Buddhist Lamas and is credited with the origin of the name of the town, Darjeeling. The monastery used to be known as Dorje Ling and was originally located on Observatory Hill before the Nepalese destroyed it in 1815. It was later rebuilt on the present site. A must-see at the monasteries are the gorgeous wall murals made with colours derived from powdered stones.
3. Take a walk around town
Take some time to go for long walks around town. Get to know Darjeeling up close – take a guided tour with the folks at Darjeeling Heritage Walks. They’ll show you a Darjeeling that very few people get to see. You may find yourself taking part in prayer ceremonies at a Tibetan monastery, sipping hot cups of butter tea, meeting legendary sherpas, sampling the best local foods, visiting lesser-known treasures like Crookety, Russian artist Nicholas Roerich’s house in nearby Kalimpong, or being regaled with real-life stories from Darjeeling about Afghan princes and spies in monks’ clothing that will put a Bond thriller to shame.
4. View mountain peaks
Play a game of hide ‘n seek with the Kanchendzonga, the third-highest peak in the world. It is right there behind the mist, its snow-capped proximity like an invisible presence.
Sometimes it can remain resolutely, tantalisingly hidden. And then, sometimes you get lucky as the clouds lift like a theatre curtain. “Sometimes a tourist has waited 22 days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it,” wrote Mark Twain from Darjeeling in 1896.
Tiger Hill is best known for the view of the dazzling sunrise over Kanchenjunga. On a clear day you can even see Mt Everest from here.
5. Ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Take a ride on the Lilliputian Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), a 60 cm narrow-gauge railway that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999 becoming only the second railway in the world to have this honour. It goes up to a height of 2,286 metres.
Mark Twain described his trip on the railway in 1896 as “the most enjoyable day I have spent on the earth”. Among much-repeated stories about the DHR, one goes like this: A telegram sent from the line to headquarters in Calcutta during Mark Twain’s time allegedly said: “Tiger eating station master on front porch. Telegraph instructions.” Check out the website of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society which has more than 800 members in 24 countries.
6. Go book shopping
Browse and pick up a book on Darjeeling at Oxford Book & Stationery in Chowrasta. This specialises in books on Darjeeling, Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and the Himalayas.
7. Buy tea, tea sets and Himalayan honey
Sit down with your book and a cup of Darjeeling tea and watch the sunset at Nathmulls Lounge in Chowrasta. They are the oldest and the largest tea merchants here specializing in Darjeeling tea and source over 50 varieties of tea both from tea auction as well as directly from tea estates. They also stock an amazing variety of tea pots from miniature enamelled ones to intricately carved silver tea sets.
Pick up some excellent Himalayan Honey at the lovely little shop Life & Leaf on Chowrasta. They work with small farmers and local artisans and sell a variety of products. They stock tea sourced directly from farmers as opposed to the other shops that sell tea by the big companies. The advantage? Part of the profits is channelled back to farmers. They also stock bamboo products, earthenware, woven stoles and embroidered tea cosies and mats.
Hang out at the uber cool Gatty’s Café in the evenings and listen to some of the best live music India has to offer. Darjeeling is known for its music and local talent.
Interesting facts about Darjeeling
- Darjeeling derives its name from Tibetan words ‘dorjé’ (thunderbolt) and ‘ling’ (place), and translates to Land of the Thunderbolt.
- Nestled in the Mahabharat Range (or Lesser Himalayas) at an elevation of 6,710 ft, the town was taken from Nepal by the British in the mid-19th century and, because of its temperate climate, used as a sanatorium to escape the heat of the plains.
- The man credited with building Darjeeling is Arthur Campbell, a surgeon with the East India Company.
- The British gradually set up tea plantations and developed distinctive hybrids of black tea, created new fermenting techniques. Today Darjeeling tea is known as the champagne of teas.
- Writer Mark Twain was 61 years of age when he came here in February, 1896. And became a huge fan. Here’s what he said of the town: “The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once even by a glimpse would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined”.
Related articles and links of interest
The queens of the hills; Guest post about a visit to Darjeeling
Darjeeling destination guide
Darjeeling homestay collection
Find out about the homestay experience and don't forget to check out our ideas on things to do in India or browse our India homestays.