Srinagar is blessed with a river and several lakes cradled by the Zabarwan hills. Even after years of insurgency, army occupation and three seasons of frenetic tourism, the city hasn’t lost its charm. It foregrounds that rather indefinable Central Asian air and resplendent wooden architecture that is a product of the coming together of Islamic art and older Kashmiri influences. To the outsider, already drunk on pherans, yakhnis and shikaras it continues to feel like a medieval city by the Jhelum. During the Mughals, Srinagar was a favoured summer retreat for royals who left behind picturesque gardens. Then came the British, who were not allowed to buy land here. Hence, they made local boats into the now legendary houseboats. The city was the summer capital of the erstwhile Jammu kingdom and continues to be so to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Sankar Sridhar
Lights from houseboats reflected on the surface of the Dal Lake
Lights from houseboats reflected on the surface of the Dal Lake

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Dal Lake

The famous Dal Lake has been a muse to many a poet. The shikaras that float around, the legendary houseboats that have become a defining feature of the lake, the mayriad flora and fauna that beautify the lake, have been eternalised by the numerous post cards and Bollywood films that have been shot here. With a surface area of 21sq km, the Dal Lake, with its boulevard, is the biggest tourist attraction in Srinagar. When here, you can hire shikaras and houseboats for rides.

Shikara rides ₹500 per hour

Nehru Park and Nigeen Lake

This touristy island on the Dal has been converted to a park by the tourism department and hosts a café. Speed boats, water skiing and water surfing are on offer here in summer by private operators. Water sports are also organised at Nigeen Lake, opposite the Nigeen Club.

Zabarwan Park and Balloon Ride

Walking down the boulevard you come across a huge balloon inviting you to the skies. This ‘aeroballoon’ can carry five people at a time and goes up about a height of 100 metres, providing wonderful aerial views of the Dal Lake. You can also go bungee jumping here. The museum next door has old photos of Kashmir, mannequins wearing Kashmiri costumes, musical instruments such as the rabaab and sarangi, traditional cooking utensils and other tools.

Entry ₹10 Timings 9.00am–7.30pm

Courtesy J&K Tourism Department
The Khanqah of Shah Hamdan rises grandly above the old town
The Khanqah of Shah Hamdan rises grandly above the old town

Floating Post Office and Museum

A real charmer, this post-office-cum-philately-museum fits itself into a largish boat and is moored right on the boulevard. You can step into it for free and drink in the lovely magnified representations of Indian stamps through the decades. Pick up picture postcards or saffron from here.

Shankaracharya Hill

Reached via a winding wooded road from the boulevard that yields ever lovelier views of the Dal and the city below, the peak of Shankaracharya Hill is a good 1,000ft above the lake. You need to climb hundreds of steps to reach the temple perched atop the hill. This Shiva temple is associated with Adi Shankaracharya (788–820 CE), who is said to have meditated here. This hill was originally called the Takht-i-Suleiman (Throne of Solomon). Later, when Adi Shankaracharya stayed here during the course of his travels, the hill came to be known after him. The temple is believed to be a 6th-century Jyeshtheshvara temple built by King Gopaditya, though many renovations have been done since. You can also do a scenic 40-min trek up to the Shankaracharya Hill, starting from behind Burn Hall School.

Tip You must leave phones and cameras behind in your vehicle

Jama Masjid

Situated in the heart of the traffic-ridden and chaotic old city, the sudden sight of the Jama Masjid’s gracious expanse, its pale stones and tall spires can take your breath away. Originally built by the infamous Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in 1394, and much enhanced by his son, the popular Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, the Jama Masjid was damaged by fire thrice, each time being rebuilt by the reigning local sovereign.

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Hazratbal mosque, home of the revered Moi-e-Muqaddas
Hazratbal mosque, home of the revered Moi-e-Muqaddas

It was reduced to ashes again in 1620, and rebuilt by Jehangir and Shah Jehan, only to burn again in 1674. They say when the news reached Aurangzeb, he declared that the mosque could always be rebuilt, but displayed a tender concern about the aged chinars in the vicinity. Aurangzeb then built the monument that you see now. The most remarkable feature of the masjid are the 378 pillars of deodar wood that hold up the wooden ceiling, beautiful in their uncarved simplicity. The courtyard is a pleasant space constituted by a fountain, lawns, chinar trees and a backdrop of the Hari Parbat hill.

Location Nowhatta Entry Free

Khanqah of Shah Hamadan

The most beautiful of Srinagar’s old buildings, the Khanqah is located on the right bank of the Jhelum river. The 14th-century Sufi saint Mir Sayyad Ali Hamadani left his native Iran to avoid Timur’s oppressive reign and visited Kashmir thrice.

He was such an energetic proselytiser that many credit him with the spread of Islam in Kashmir. It is said that he converted 37,000 locals within a few days. The Khanqah of Shah Hamadan commemorates his first visit to Srinagar in 1372.

The building you can see here is a melange of wooden carving, colourful green-and-yellow paintings on the walls and a dominant spire on top. Non-Muslims (and women) cannot enter the main hall but can walk up to the door and look in through a window.

Location Fateh Kadal Entry Free

Pathar Masjid and Zaina Kadal

For the best views of old Srinagar, walk over to the new Zaina Kadal bridge at sunset and capture the Jhelum as it winds past the old domes and wooden structures, under the old wooden bridge, and past the Khanqah of Shah Hamadan. Close to the Zaina Kadal is Noor Jehan’s Pathar Masjid. Rare for Srinagar’s monuments, this one was built using limestone. Its patroness then managed to get the mosque bad press by saying that it had hardly cost more than her jewelled shoes. The scandal was so great that the horrified local clergy boycotted it and the mosque has suffered many indignities over the years, the least of which are a few bullet holes from an ‘encounter’. It is nonetheless an impressive building with a pleasing garden.

Shalimar Bagh

Commissioned by Jehangir for Noor Jehan in 1619, Shalimar Bagh is a four-terraced spectacle of chinars and water courses with an exquisite hill as its immediate backdrop. An October visit among the flaming autumnal chinars is perhaps even more attractive than the floral riot in spring. The most interesting element in Shalimar is a baradari, a summer house, with black marble pillars from Pampore and gorgeous painted ceilings. Jehangir had named his garden Farah Baksh (delightful); he loved Kashmir so much that he and Noor Jehan visited Srinagar at least 13 times. Shah Jahan had the garden extended, the Pathan and Sikh rulers of Kashmir used it too, and under Ranjit Singh it hosted European visitors.

Entry Adult ₹20; Child ₹10 Timings April–October: 9.00am–sunset; November–March: 10.00am–sunset

Hazratbal

You can reach Hazratbal by road or, preferably by a long shikara ride. The mosque is located on the far side of the Dal, its white marble reflecting in the waters of the lake. It is the only domed mosque in the Srinagar area. Hazratbal is a very important shrine. It holds a sacred relic – a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s hair, referred to as the Moi-e-Muqqadas. Note that ‘bal’ has nothing to do with ‘baal’ or hair; it’s a common suffix added to place names in Kashmir. The legend goes that the hair was brought to Bijapur in Karnataka by a descendant of the prophet; these descendants, who had fallen on hard times, sold it to a Kashmiri businessman, Nur-ud-Din Eshai; Aurangzeb then seized it but later restored it to Eshai. The Moi-e- Muqqadas reached Kashmir in 1699 and Eshai’s daughter Inayat Begum built the shrine for it.

Tip Try the bazaar around the mosque for Kashmiri street food like puris

Hari Parbat and Rainawari

The hill of Hari Parbat is crowned by the 16th-century fort of the same name. Historians are generally dismissive of this structure as ‘commonplace’, ‘poor’ and ‘mean’. But seen from the intended perspective – that of the cringing subject – it is extremely impressive. The Afghan ruler Shuja Shah Durrani built the fort, which dominates the city from almost any angle. This has not been lost on the Government of India, which preserves the heights of Hari Parbat as a panopticon for the security forces. Local tradition also acknowledges the hill as a site of power for more ancient and occult reasons. It is said that back in the mists of time the entire valley used to be a massive lake, inhabited by the malicious demon Jalod-bhava, until the goddess Sati dropped a pebble on his head. The demon was crushed when the stone expanded into a mountain – Hari Parbat.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Undeniably, the most charming of Srinagar’s staying options are the houseboats. These moored floating beauties have decent ‘deluxe rooms’, pleasantly carved wooden furniture, attached loos, decent breakfast and dinner, and a common balcony. Rates are fixed by the Houseboat Owners’ Association and usually range between ₹2,100–4,800 (room only) and ₹3,400– 7,400, with meals.

Among the top-end houseboats, names that stand out are: WelcomHeritage Gurkha Houseboats (Tel: 0194-2421001, 2425229, Delhi Tel: 011-46035500; Tariff: ₹9,000) that float peacefully on Nigeen Lake; and Butts Clermont Houseboats (Tel: 2415325/ 220, Cell: 09419056761; Tariff: ₹7,400) in Naseem Bagh at the Hazratbal end of the Dal Lake, far from the crowds. For budget options, you can try the pleasant Badyari Palace (Cell: 09018084043; Tariff: ₹3,800–4,800), on the Dal Lake, accessible from Boulevard’s Ghat 9.

The most expensive of Srinagar’s hotels are The Lalit Grand Palace (Tel: 2501001-02; Tariff: ₹20,000–1,75,000) and Vivanta Dal View Srinagar by Taj (Tel: 2461111; Tariff: ₹17,000–1,15,000 ). A cheaper alternative is Hotel Bombay Gujarat (Tel: 2477807, Cell: 097961 51236; Tariff: ₹800) at Lal Chowk.

Most hotels have restaurants attached that offer good Kashmiri food.

FAST FACTS

When to go August–October; December–January for snow

Tourist offices

J&K Tourism, Tourist Reception Centre, Srinagar, Tel: 0194-2502279, 2502284-85, Fax: 2502281, Toll free Cell: 09596098882, Helpline: 09596078884 (24×7), W jktourism.org

JKTDC, TRC, Srinagar, Tel: 2502274, 2502290, 2502270-71, W jktdc.co.in, STD code 0194

Tip Only post-paid mobile connections work in J&K state

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Srinagar’s Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport is connected by direct flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu. Pre-paid taxi to the TRC on Residency Road costs ₹600. JKSRTC also runs shuttle buses between the airport and the TRC (₹70)

Tip On your way out of Srinagar, allow about an hour extra to get to the airport as security checks can keep you waiting in a seriously long queue of cars. You can’t use a smartphone screen and must show a printed ticket to enter the airport. You must identify luggage before boarding. Laptops and cameras are examined separately

Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawi (298km/ 9hrs). The taxi stand outside Jammu’s Tourist Reception Centre (Tel: 0191-2546266) has taxis to Srinagar for approx ₹5,000. Shared taxi is ₹60 per seat. JKSRTC runs several semi-deluxe and luxury buses to Srinagar everyday

Road Srinagar is on NH 1A, connected to Jammu via Udhampur, Patnitop, Banihal, Jawahar Tunnel and Avantipura. The highway is hilly but well-maintained