Sikkim’s capital isn’t brimming with attractions, but it does offer excellent Khangchendzonga views and a chilled-out vibe, making it an introduction to the state. It is also the most convenient hub to plan treks and tours to other parts of Sikkim. Linger for a while to soak in local culture and Gangtok’s laid-back style and top it up with day trips to the nearby Rumtek monastery and the high pass of Nathu La.
In this excerpt from Lonely Planet’s India’s Best Escapes East & Northeast India we recommend the top sights and experiences for visitors.
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
This fantastic museum, housed in a traditional Tibetan-style mansion, boasts a jaw-dropping collection of artefacts related to Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan culture. Established in 1958, to promote scholastic and cultural research, its ground-floor hall displays Buddhist manuscripts, icons, thangkas (Tibetan cloth paintings) and Tantric ritual objects, such as a thöpa (bowl made from a human skull) and kangling (human thighbone trumpet). There are plenty of useful explanatory captions.
The Damodar Ropeway is a cable car that shuttles from just below the Namgyal Institute to Secretariat Ridge. It provides a bird’s-eye view of Gangtok, along with stupendous vistas of the surrounding mountain ranges and valleys.
Do-Drul Chorten (pagoda)
Along the same road as the Namgyal Institute is Do-Drul Chorten, a large white Tibetan pagoda surrounded by dormitories for novice monks and glass-walled galleries with countless flaming butter lamps burning within.
With gorgeous views both to the east and west, the Ridge is a shaded promenade cresting Gangtok’s upper reaches. It’s a pleasant place to stroll away your time in manicured parks and gardens. The imposing structure of Chogyal Palace (a former residence of Sikkim’s monarchs, the Chogyals) is closed to visitors, but is a fine sight from a distance nonetheless. The impressive Tsuglhakhang Temple near the palace is often open early in the morning (and during major festivals) to pilgrims and curious tourists.
Flower exhibition centre
During the spring bloom (March and April) it’s worth peeping inside the Flower Exhibition Centre, a modestly sized greenhouse full of exotic orchids, lilies and anthuriums.
From Enchey Gompa, the main road swings northeast around the telecom tower to a collection of prayer flags, where a footpath scrambles up in around 15 minutes to Ganesh Tok viewpoint. Festooned in colourful prayer flags, Ganesh Tok offers superb city views and its mini-cafe serves hot tea and snacks. Also offering impressive panoramas is Hanuman Tok viewpoint, which sits on a hilltop around a 4km drive beyond Ganesh Tok, though there are shortcuts for walkers. Gangtok’s best view of Khangchendzonga can be found from the Tashi viewpoint, 4km northwest of town, beside the main route to Phodong.
On the northern outskirts of Gangtok, this monastery is approached through gently rustling conifers. It’s easily Gangtok’s most attractive gompa, and houses some decent murals and statues of Tantric deities. The monastery founder was apparently famous for his levitation skills. It comes alive for the colourful Detor Chaam masked dances in December/January.
Gangtok Zoo, formally known as the Himalayan Zoological Park is among the better maintained zoos in the country. It occupies an entire hill opposite Ganesh Tok viewpoint. Red pandas, civet cats, Himalayan bears, clouded leopards and snow leopards roam around in extensive forested enclosures. There’s a cafe on the premises.
Rambling Rumtek Monastery, 22km frim Gangtok, is a different world, with maroonrobed lamas bustling around the many religious buildings and schools in the complex. One of Tibetan Buddhism’s most venerable institutions, it is the home-in-exile of Buddhism’s Kagyu (Black Hat) sect. The main building contains a giant throne that awaits the crowning of the sect’s spiritual leader, the (disputed) 17th Karmapa. The Golden Stupa behind the main monastery is a treasure trove of religious paraphernalia.
Changu Lake & Nathu La Pass
A Gangtok trip is incomplete without a day trip to high-altitude Changu Lake (3780m; 39km away) and Nathu La Pass (4130m, 56km from Gangtok). At the lakeside, food stalls sell hot chai, chowmein and momos, while yaks (rides available) amble along the shore. A further 18km of road with scenic views will take you to Nathu La. A traditional corridor through the Himalayas between India and Tibet, the pass was closed in 1962, during the war with China. It was conditionally reopened for regional traders for daytime thoroughfare in 2006. Tourists are allowed to go close to the international border from where Chinese soldiers and tourists can be spotted on the other side of the barbed wire. Nathu La is open for Indian nationals on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. A permit, though a mere formality, is required.