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Perched at an altitude of more than 2,000m in the Himalayan foothills, Shimla comes as a bit of a surprise. Grand Victorian buildings stuck right in the middle of sweeping Indian forests and snow-capped mountains? Oh yes – you’ll see it all here. This hidden gem is where historic British architecture meets one of India’s most beautiful natural settings, creating a refined and fascinating cocktail of cultures. Have fun spotting traditional Indian wooden houses and Himachali street stalls among British-style state buildings and churches.
The contrast is noticeable – while India is a fantastically busy place, Shimla offers a much-needed breather, with stunning natural surroundings that spread as far as the eye can see. With no motorised vehicles allowed in the centre, you can take a walking tour of Shimla and gaze at the views to your heart’s content – without worrying about dodging cars and playing chicken with rickshaws.
The question is not whether to visit Shimla, but at what time of year. It’s glorious in summer – there’s a reason it was the summer capital of British India. The climate is warm, the Annadale racecourse offers cricket, golf and a scenic picnic spot, and the annual summer festival brings the local culture to life.
In the winter, a dusting of snow creates a totally different but equally beautiful scene. And there’s a whole range of things to do: skating on South Asia’s only natural ice rink; skiing at the one of the local resorts; a winter carnival – the choice is yours.
The best way to get your bearings of the city and its truly stunning surroundings is with a tour of Shimla. The grand Vice Regal Lodge, which was the summer residence of the British Viceroy of India, gives a fascinating peek into the area’s past. For a shop, take an amble along Mall Road for a showcase of the best of Shimla’s cosmopolitan shops, bars, restaurants and clubs, as well as the famous Gaiety Theatre. Make sure you stop at the heart of the city, Scandal Point (its name alone should be enough to tempt you) – it’s the perfect spot to have an ice cream and watch the world go by, against the backdrop of forest-covered hills.
Slightly out of the city, the toy train joy ride from Shimla to Kandaghat is a must-do – it’s one of the highest railways in the world, and will give you an incredible view of the city in its jaw-dropping mountainside location.
If you’ve got a bit more time, there’s plenty to do. Stroll around Elysium Hill and drop in at the Lakkar Bazaar to bargain for locally made pine wood, silk and leather handicrafts. And treat yourself to high tea on the outdoor terrace at Oberoi Wildflower Hall. Exquisite food with a view to match.
But nature’s one of the focal points of this region. Make a note on your to-do list to drop out of the city and escape into the stunning countryside. Even though it might seem a bit of a hike, it’s well worth the trek to get to the top of Jakhu Hill, which has a temple perched at an impressive 2,455m. The views are every bit as beautiful as you would expect. But if you really can’t face walking, there’s a cable car to take you up or down in comfort.
And around 30km away is Dhami, a nature-lover’s paradise. Once a princely state, Dhami was also the hunting forest for the Viceroy during the summer months, and it’s still home to a plethora of wildlife. If you stay the night, you’re just as likely to get woken up by a dawn chorus as you are to spot leopards, foxes and hog deer in the forest.
Shimla will be a cultural highlight of your trip, while feeling like a calm retreat from the rest of the bustling cities of India. Take some time out from pavement pounding, breathe in the mountain air, and immerse yourself in the legacy of India’s past.
If the Earth’s the body, then India is the soul - a land of spirituality, contrasts and rich culture.
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