x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

My Kind of Place: Amritsar, India

A guide to Amritsar, the largest city in the north Indian state of Punjab and a direct Etihad destination.

The Golden Temple, also known as Sri Harmandir Sahib, in Amritsar is said to attract more visitors per day than the Taj Mahal. Getty Images
The Golden Temple, also known as Sri Harmandir Sahib, in Amritsar is said to attract more visitors per day than the Taj Mahal. Getty Images

Why Amritsar?

If India has an Eat Pray Love city, it’s Amritsar.

The biggest reason that tourists head to Amritsar is the spectacular Golden Temple, known locally as the Sri Harmandir Sahib. This early 17th-century temple is the most sacred destination for followers of the Sikh religion. However, it warmly welcomes all faiths and claims to receive more visitors per day than the Taj Mahal.

As a significant stop on the Grand Trunk Road (the arterial highway that has partially existed since the Maurya era in the third century), Amritsar packs in centuries of history. Its narrow lanes bustle with life late into the night, with devotees, travellers, shoppers and eaters. The last are there for the street food, delectable and dripping with butter and spices.

Amritsar is the largest city in Punjab, the north Indian state whose people are known for their generosity of spirit and joie de vivre. Like many Indian cities, historic landmarks rub shoulders with imposing colonial buildings and gleaming shopping malls.

A comfortable bed

Ranjit’s Svaasa is a quirky boutique hotel in the heart of town, with each of its 18 rooms and suites decorated in different colours and themes. Svaasa is a mini-museum of sorts, with an eclectic collection of art and antique furniture. In addition to a full-fledged Ayurveda spa, Svaasa also offers yoga and meditation classes. Double rooms cost from 7,000 Indian rupees (Dh381), including breakfast and taxes.

For a glimpse into traditional Punjabi life, stay at Visarat Haveli, a recently renovated mansion just outside the main city. Local culture is showcased through its lavish thali meals and the performances of bhangra and giddha folk dances, which are arranged by the Punjab tourism department every evening. A stay at Virasat costs a flat rate of 1,000 rupees (Dh54) per person for three meals (subject to a minimum of three guests per group).

Find your feet

Book a guided tour of the city for a good understanding of its chequered history, both ancient and modern. Amritsar Magic offer oodles of experience in such tours across the country, and their Old City Walk and Rickshaw Ride tours open the doors to many of Amritsar’s hidden markets and monuments.

Punjab Tourism also runs two-hour tours through the old city twice a day, covering the architectural and historical highlights.

Meet the locals

The Golden Temple is known for its langar, a community meal offered to all devotees and visitors through the day inside the temple’s kitchen. This entire system – cooking, serving and cleaning – is managed entirely by volunteers, including locals and tourists. On average, 75,000 people eat there every day, earning it the title of the largest free kitchen in the world.

Book a table

The street food in Amritsar is legendary, especially in the cooler months when every corner of every road sprouts a makeshift chaat stall.

For the best street food without the dust of the street, make your way to Bharawan Da Dhaba at Town Hall Chowk, where the welcome board proudly claims that it has been serving the best parathas in town since 1912. Those who aren’t used to the idea of so much ghee and butter in their food may initially recoil from their plates. But one bite of the aloo kulcha (Indian bread stuffed with a piquant mix of potato and onions), which is cooked in the restaurant’s special tandoor clay ovens, is enough to remove reservations. A meal for two costs about 500 rupees (Dh27).

If you prefer a more formal setting, then try The Yellow Chilli, the local outpost of a chain of restaurants (there are also four outlets in the UAE, with three in Dubai and one in Ras Al Khaimah) from one of India’s most popular chefs, Sanjeev Kapoor. The chef personally recommends the Puran Singh da tariwala murgh chicken gravy and the lalla mussa dal dish of velvety lentils. A three-course meal costs about 1,800 rupees (Dh98).

Finally, wash all those spices down with chilled lassi, served in tall steel tumblers, at the Ahuja Lassi stall, near Durgiana Temple.

Shopper’s paradise

The bustling markets of Hall Bazaar are great for a spot of people watching, combined with bargain shopping for silk and cotton dupattas (scarves), wooden handicrafts and hand-woven carpets known as dhurries. Don’t forget to pick up a few pairs of colourful juttis (open-toes slippers and slip-on shoes, embellished with gold and silver thread) at the Raunak Punjabi Jutti store, which is right outside Hall Gate.

What to avoid

The streets of Amritsar are essentially narrow lanes groaning under the onslaught of traffic, especially in the touristy inner areas near the Golden Temple. So it’s best to navigate this crowded area only on foot or cycle rickshaws, which can squeeze their way through the tightest of spaces.

Don’t miss

Every evening, just before sunset, a “theatre of war” takes place at the nearby Wagah border between India and Pakistan. In this dramatic ceremony, the national flags of both countries are lowered and the border is closed for the day. Tourists from both sides throng a stadium created especially for watching this ritual.

Getting there

Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Amritsar from Dh1,754 return, including taxes.