Surrounded by the snow-capped ridges of the Himalayas and gorgeously blanketed by a patchwork of beautiful rural tea plantations, old-world temples and monasteries, stunning Darjeeling, India, is an internationally renowned tourist destination for good reason. This hilly refuge boasts an incredible variety of outdoor attractions and must-see sights.
To get to the bottom (or top) of the best, though, takes a local with intimate knowledge of the place. Fortunately, the founding staff and I at Tathagata Journeys were born and bred in Darjeeling. Together we have decades of experience arranging meaningful tours and activities for travellers in and around town, from treks and mountain biking to cooking classes and urban walking tours.
Here, therefore, is a list of the Top Five things to do in Darjeeling, courtesy of the travel experts at Tathagata Journeys, your whl.travel local connection.
Trek at Sandakphu
First and foremost, lovers of the outdoors should not miss the many spectacular highlights of trekking at Sandakphu. The Sandakphu trek follows the Singalila Range, which is our kind of route: full of scenic nature and modest village dwellings. The trek to Sandakphu starts from a small village called Manebhanjang, inhabited by Buddhist Sherpas. From there, I like contemplating the entire trek route, imagining the effort of the near-vertical climb at the end toward distant but visible Sandakphu.
It takes me eight or nine days to finish the entire trek route, but the initial panoramic view filled with the colours of magnolias, rhododendrons, primulas and silver fir forest recovering from fire, not to mention the close-ups of the entire Himalayan Belt, stays enduringly in my mind. Four of the world’s five highest peaks – Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Lhotse – are all visible on this trek. No wonder the Sandakphu Trek is called the ‘paradise of trekkers.’
Take the Joy Train Ride
Second on our Top Five list is definitely the Joy Train Ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Also fondly called the ‘Toy Train,’ it is Darjeeling’s pride and joy. It’s mine too! I love that a World Heritage Site belongs to my hometown and I take the ‘joy ride’ as often as I can. The best parts of the trip are the steam engine and the slow speed that gives one ample chance to appreciate nature and enjoy the journey. Of particular fame is the Batasia Loop, where the train completes a steep full circle, but from this point I particularly like the marvellous view of Darjeeling nestled below the majestic Himalayan Range.
Fortunately, travellers like me who get restless on long slow train rides need not skip the full journey from JNP to Darjeeling altogether. Instead, I take the short joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom or vice versa, an enjoyable distance that allows you to appreciate every bit of the journey without growing tired of it.
Sip Some Darjeeling Tea
Darjeeling has a huge and vital tea culture, so drinking tea is definitely on our list. Back when I was still a kid, I remember my mother making Darjeeling tea in huge vessels early in the morning and reserving it in flasks for all-day drinking. I am still in the habit of drinking tea all day long, and, after having tasted so much Darjeeling tea, I don’t think any other tea in the world can match its flavour and the aroma. Just as there is nothing like the champagne of France, so too can nothing compare to Darjeeling tea.
Sipping Darjeeling tea whilst in Darjeeling is therefore an experience in itself. Make sure to ask for ‘Black Darjeeling Tea’. These days, Darjeeling also produces white and green tea, but for me, Darjeeling black tea is the real local tea and not to be missed.
On an especially great morning, consider booking a tour of the beautiful tea gardens. I often go with the intent of capturing some of my favourite photographs: shots of local tea pluckers picking fresh tea leaves in the huge green garden with the mountains in the background. We are very proud to share that Darjeeling produces 10,000 tons of tea yearly and is now protected by Geographical Indication, meaning that only tea that is produced in Darjeeling can be termed Darjeeling Tea.
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI)
If it weren’t for Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), I would probably never have discovered the mountaineer in me. I was inclined to climbing and travelling from a very early age and got my start with an adventure-based outdoor training program taught by HMI. I eventually even managed to scale a few lesser-known peaks. It was all the start of my passion for travel, since I began guiding in the mountains of Nepal and later led cultural tours throughout India.
HMI continues to provide a great deal of information on mountaineering, as well as provide basic and advanced mountaineering, adventure and survival courses. I often take my like-minded friends to the HMI Museum, where I marvel all over again at the mountaineering equipment used by great climbers like Tenzing Sherpa. I become humbled by the magnitude of the mountains and their height.
Breakfast at Keventers
Last but not the least on our Darjeeling highlights list is definitely breakfast at Keventers Restaurant. Like all the locals of Darjeeling who never tire of dining at Keventers, my grandfather, my father and I all love paying a visit. Located on Nehru Road, Keventers is very easy to find and I have met many travellers who make it a point to eat there every time they are in Darjeeling.
My favourite dish is the non-vegetarian delight; it consists of mouth-watering sausages, ham, bacon, eggs and toast. Others relish the restaurant’s juicy hog dogs and tasty hot chocolate. The upstairs area of Keventers has open-air seating, where diners can bask in the warm sun. Enjoying delicious food while watching the mountains is an activity that we absolutely love.