Shimla, Himachal Pradesh

Shimla, the capital of the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, which borders Punjab, is India’s largest and best known hill station. It spans a 12km ridge in the foothills of the Himalayas, with steep, forested slopes falling away below and mountain views above. Thanks to its elevation, at over 2,000m, Shimla has always welcomed visitors escaping the soaring temperatures of the plains below, and today grateful Indian tourists make their way here to enjoy the cool, fresh air.
Before holidaymakers, though, it was the British who beat a retreat from the heat to Shimla – the town was the Raj summer capital. Architectural relics from this period pepper it still, including a handful of Tudorbethan buildings. Most notable is the Viceregal Lodge on Observatory Hill where the partition agreement was drawn up, and the neo-Gothic Christ Church. Built in 1857, it stands out prominently on the ridge and looks like it would be equally at home in the Cotswolds.
Shimla’s a lovely place to stroll around, especially since traffic is banned in the centre of town. Expect some uphill stretches, though – you’re in the Himalayas, after all. The main road is the Mall, which runs east-west for 4km just below the crest of the ridge. Strike off the Mall, heading south, and you’ll find a warren of alleys and stairways in the bazaar – a great place for shopping – which clings to the hillsides stretching down to busy Cart Road. The State Museum, housed in a colonial mansion, is also worth a visit, and has a good collection of contemporary and ancient art. If you fancy exploring beyond the town, you can head out into the surrounding foothills on walks that range from gentle to challenging.

The Toy Train at Shimla

Riding the so-called Toy Train that connects Kalka and Shimla has become something of a must-do on trips to northern India, and for good reason. This slow but incredibly scenic journey, which takes six hours on the way up and around half an hour less on the way down, winds past steep river valleys, pine forests, terraced fields and orchards, along a 96km narrow gauge line with 103 tunnels. The railway was completed in 1897 under the instruction of Lord Curzon. It was built to make the arduous journey up to cool and airy Shimla easier for Raj era Brits, and to connect the summer capital with the rest of the Indian rail system. It’s the steepest railway in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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How to visit Shimla

Organised small group tours are a great way to travel to Shimla and to other interesting cultural and spiritual places in Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand and Punjab. Tours often include Dharamsala and MacLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama in exile; Rishikesh, where the Beatles learned to meditate and now ‘the yoga capital of the world’; and Mandi, a fascinating town with more than 80 temples, shrines and places of pilgrimage. They may also head into Punjab, to marvel at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the dazzling centre of Sikhism in India.
Tours typically run in March, April and May, and then also in late September, October and November. Remember that it can get really cold in Shimla in winter, due to the altitude, so pack layers and a warm coat. Expect around 14°C in March, 18°C in October, but lows of -6°C have been recorded in March and it can easily hit freezing at night in October, so be prepared. The sun can also be strong at higher altitudes, so bring a hat and sunscreen. The rains fall most from June to August and from mid-July to mid-September Shimla can be shrouded in cloud.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pritam Da Biswas] [Shimla Christ Church: Jeevan] [Toy Train: rmac8oppo] [Shimla street scene: marksquared]
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