Amritsar is one of the most ancient and fascinating cities in India. Situated in the northern state of Punjab, it sits as a foodie's paradise, a shopper's delight and home to the famous Golden Temple.
India generally is a place where all your senses come alive, but Amritsar illustrates this best. The smells you encounter, familiar and unfamiliar, fuse as you walk through the busy streets. The myriad of smells that wrinkle your nose; fried street food, freshly squeezed fruit juices, garlic, flowers, chai then sewer water. The sound of the honking and the melody of the prayers that fade into the background as the market barterers call to you to buy their cauliflower, spices, and phulkari duppatas. The tickling taste of sweet lassi and sour chats. The touch of silk and leather goods, and the feel of humidity on your skin. The colors you see - rainbows of floating turbans and saris, and the way the sun shines through the smog. Amritsar does not shy away from overwhelming and engulfing all of your senses.
Amritsar plays an important role in the Sikh culture and history, being the holiest city of the religion. Although many see the city as a main focal point of the religion that boasts 27 million followers worldwide, the food scene is renowned as one of the best in India, making Amritsar a city not to be missed on your next trip to the country.
TRAVEL TO AMRITSAR - Although Amristsar has an international airport, when traveling from abroad, you will most likely land in Delhi as there are very few international flights that fly to the city. From Indira Gandhi International Airport, you can take a number of inexpensive (around €35 one way) flights that depart daily, taking an hour in travel time. Alternatively, you can travel by train via the Amritsar Shatabdi Express from Delhi, taking just over six hours. There are various classes you can book, offering you a very comfortable journey with a meal option. I have traveled using both methods and recommend them equally. The train experience (and it is an experience) does take longer but gives you the opportunity to see the fascinating space of Indian train stations.
TRAVEL WITHIN AMRITSAR - Uber and its Indian competitor, Ola, are popular and safe options for travel within Amritsar, in particular from the airport or train station to your accommodation. However, they are not always reliable as the drivers seem to have found ways to game the system to get favorable pickups.
At the airport, beware of drivers that insist Uber won't pick you up, as its a way for them to offer you a trip to your location at a higher cost, of course. Drivers will often message to ask the final destination of your trip - if the distance is too short, they will likely cancel it.
There is, however, an option to book a driver for an hour for a set price of around 300 Indian Rupees (€3.60) within the Uber app - if you select this, you will have fewer cancellations as the drivers are getting a fixed salary for their time. This is a great option for when you are traveling around Amritsar. If you have multiple stops, the driver will wait for you and take you to your next destination. If the hour runs out, you can rebook the driver or opt for another driver. This to be the most reliable way to get an Uber.
In the inner city, close to the Golden Temple, the roads are a lot more narrow and so it is more convenient to travel by auto-rickshaw (three-wheelers). This is a must-do for first-timers as its an experience in itself. Always negotiate the price before you get in, and make sure the price is for the total number of passengers and not per passenger. Also, haggle - always. (30-50% less than what they are asking you). You should be able to travel a 3-4 mile distance for less than 200 rupees (€2.50)
WHERE TO STAY IN AMRITSAR
Amritsar, just like much of India, is very reasonable in terms of pricing, with a 4 star costing around €60 a night. I recommend choosing a hotel based on the location from the Golden Temple as this is where most of the action is happening. Please note that all hotels and restaurants around the Golden Temple are strictly vegetarian.
GANESHA'S PALACE - €€ - a 4-star boutique hotel located in a relaxed residential neighborhood called Rani Ka Bagh, with spa facilities and a rooftop pool. The hotel was a ride away from the central area and did not have much going on in the neighborhood. The hospitality was very attentive and the food served was delicious (although relatively expensive for the city). I would recommend this hotel if you're looking for a quieter place to rest after a long day in Amritsar.
RAMADA AMRITSAR - €€ - situated in the center on a busy street, a short 0.9 km away from the Golden Temple. It is a very good choice for your stay being close to the shopping district and has great food options in the surrounding area.
WHAT TO DO IN AMRITSAR
GOLDEN TEMPLE - Amritsar is a city where Sikhs from all over the world go especially to visit Harmandir Sahib, commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is a symbol of equality - everybody irrespective of caste, color, race or religion is welcome here. There are four gates on each side of the square-plan temple grounds that represent the idea, symbolizing the gates are open to all people from all walks of life. The temple grounds are open 24 hours a day and it's as beautiful during the day as it is at night - coming an hour before sunset will allow you to see it in both settings. There is usually a long line to go inside the actual temple itself. It took two and a half hours to reach the front, in a very crowded line that moved at a steady speed around 4 pm in the day. There is a separate line primarily for people with disabilities and the elderly. The devotion to the religion was so apparent - I witnessed a very sick girl in her early twenties being carried by two male family members to the front. She was lifeless and struggling, but her faith and determination brought out the strength to seek her blessings at the temple. It was inspiring, impelling and made me emotional. I noticed the very elderly barely able to move, the heavily pregnant women who could deliver at any second, and those with babies that might have been born just yesterday, rush to the front, unafraid of the crowd, pursuing their commitment to the faith. You really feel the religious devotion in the air, which is something very beautiful.
For more details on when to visit the Golden Temple, what to wear and its history, you can check out an in depth guide here.
SHOPPING - Amritsar is great for shopping. No trip to Amritsar is complete without picking up a Phulkari Dupatta (handwoven colorful scarf) or the Punjabi Jutti (traditional Punjabi leather shoe with colorful embroidery) in every color imaginable. The markets are also great for people watching. Some of the best markets to shop in are:-
Hall Bazaar - one of the oldest markets in Amritsar and great for clothing, shoes and handicrafts.
Shastri Market - a busy market close to the Golden Temple with fabrics, jewelry and accessories.
Guru Bazaar - the place to come for bangles and jewelry.
Lahori Gate Market - another market where you can find shawls, cotton clothing and shoes.
WAGAH BORDER - A 30km drive west from Amritsar takes you to the Wagah Border - the border between India and Pakistan. There, every evening the two countries at conflict, display a unified military ceremony for 45 mins, practiced since 1959. This happens right before sunset at 4.15 pm in the winter and 5.15 pm in the summer. Soldiers from both sides perform in an elaborate parade; almost like a fast-moving dance-off with the soldiers raising their legs as high as they can. Both country's flags are then lowered and the ceremony comes to an abrupt end.
JALLIANWALA BAGH - is the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that occurred on the day of the festival Vaisakhi, on 13 April 1919. It now is a historic garden and memorial for those who were killed and wounded.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK IN AMRITSAR
Amritsar really is a foodie's paradise, with it being known for its street food and dhaba (roadside) style dining. The city has lent its name to iconic dishes like Amritsari Fish, Amritsari Lassi and Amritsari Kulcha for a reason. Some of the places below will not be found online, but you can ask a local and they will be able to guide you. None of the eateries mentioned require reservations.
GIANI TEA STALL - one must start the day in Amritsar, (or India for that matter) with chai from Giani Tea Stall. This no-frills tea cafe also serves breakfast but the chai is not to be missed. If you have a car, they will bring the chai to your car and you can sip on the sweetness without having to get out. The chai is sweet and milky, and something unforgettable! I had the chai here multiple times in the day because it was so good. A cup of chai will cost you around 25cents.
ASHOK KUMAR KULCHA WALA - A Kulcha is a soft round bread you typically have for breakfast made from flour, milk, and butter and stuffed with different toppings like potato or cauliflower with spices. I tried a number of different kulchas and Ashok Kumar Kulcha Wala was simply the best. This roadside spot is always very busy - grab a table and within seconds someone will be over to take your order. A few minutes later, you will have your kulcha with a chickpea curry on the side. To eat it the proper way, scrunch it up to let the extra butter spread then eat with your hands, dipping it into the chickpea curry.
GIANI PUNJABI LASSI and GIAN DI LASSI - Lassi is a popular yogurt-based drink in India. Giani Punjabi Lassi and Gian Di Lassi are two independent lassi shops that happen to have very similar names and be next to one another on a busy narrow intersection. When you go to Giani Punjabi Lassi, order the 'peddeh wali lassi' which takes ten minutes to prepare and has a pistachio biscuit mixed within it to add sweetness and flavor. Both are great, but my favorite is Gian Di Lassi. The rich and creamy lassi with chunks of malai, which is layers of fat and coagulated proteins that form on the top, taste so good and refreshing on a hot afternoon. I highly recommend the sweet lassi but they also do other flavors like strawberry and chocolate.
KESAR DA DHABA - hands down, one of the best meals I had in all of India, was dinner here. Kesar Da Dhaba is tucked away in the narrow streets of Amritsar's centre, serving traditional desi dhaba style food in a very casual restaurant setting. You do not come here for ambiance, service or anything else for that matter but the food. I ordered the Fry Daal Thali which had a lachha parantha (flat-bread with multiple layers), pakodi raita (yogurt raita with gram flour crisps), pickles and onions with their famous daal makhani which literally translates to buttery lentils, that are slow-cooked for over 12 hours with, of course, lots and lots of butter. I also had their Shahi Paneer (Indian cheese) which was just as good as the lentils. The entire meal with an extra parantha (bread) cost around €5 for 2 people, including a bottle of water and Thumbs Up (Indian cola). Despite being very busy, they do not take reservations - simply show up and you will be seated either in their main restaurant or across the street if you are in a smaller party, often having to share tables with other diners.
GURDAS RAM JALEBI WALA - Jalebi is a dessert eaten in India made from plain flour, deep-fried into squiggly pretzel shapes then soaked in sugar. The best jalebi in Amritsar is from a small stall in the center called Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala. Fried in front of you and served in a small paper bowl, this dessert will satisfy your sweet tooth. Be careful and don't burn your tongue! MALAI TIKKI WALA - When you are peckish but don't want to commit to a full meal, head to Malai Tikki Wala stall and have an aloo tikka slider - spiced potato patty with multiple layers of toppings namely chutney, tomato, chop-suey, coleslaw, and coriander. SUNNY TIKKI WALA - A popular spiced potato patty stall on the corner of an intersection, close to the lassi places. This opens past 4 pm and makes for the perfect roadside snack in between shopping. MAKHAN FISH AND CHICKEN CORNER - Despite most restaurants being vegetarian, this is an old and famous non-veg restaurant that has been around since 1962, popular for its fried fish. CHARMING CHICKEN - Known for their Malai Chicken Tikka, Charming Chicken is a casual restaurant with a variety of chicken dishes at a very affordable price. SUGAR CANE JUICE - when in India generally, try the sugar cane juice from the street vendors - you will see their big machinery and the long sugar canes laying on their carts so it won't be hard to miss. A cup of juice will cost around 60cents.
Amritsar sees most traffic between October - March as it is cooler. Summers can get very hot up to 40C. The city is flat but the roads are rough so comfortable footwear is advised. Amritsar is a holy city so dress appropriately and keep legs and shoulders covered when visiting the Golden Temple. Punjabi or Hindi is the most common language spoken, although English is commonly understood. The currency used is Indian Rupee (INR).