“The air is delicious, most healthy and bracing… If you look up from your garden seat, you see the gables of a cottage… If you lean over your terrace wall, you look down on your neighbour’s chimney pots.” These lines from a letter written by the Governor-General of India in 1885 give you a little perspective on what has made Shimla, inarguably, the most popular hill station in the country for years now. Built by the British over seven hilltops in the southwestern ranges of the Himalayas, Shimla has enthralled travellers with its colonial settings and natural splendour. However, unknown to many, the summer capital of British India also played a pivotal role in shaping the political history of India by being host to the Shimla Accord of 1914 and the Shimla Conference of 1945. Today, it’s a bustling city that has been taken over by concrete and glass. Even in its strive to upgrade itself to modernity, Shimla has managed to retain its heritage and charisma. By Satarupa Paul
Shimla is a joyride for nature lovers and history enthusiasts.
Located in the heart of the city, The Ridge is a large open space that is the hub of all cultural activities in Shimla. It is the city’s most prominent landmark and home to important colonial-era buildings and iconic statues. A stroll along it affords beautiful views of the green slopes of Shimla covered with fir, pine, oak and rhododendron trees, and dotted with red-roofed chalets, timbered cottages, and Gothic government buildings. The Ridge also holds large water tanks underneath it that supply water to the city.
Every lane here leads to enchanting colonial-era buildings and homes, many of which are included in heritage walks conducted by various initiatives, such as ShimlaWalks and Mynatour. Important pitstops include the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and other historical buildings styled in Tudorbethan and Neo-Gothic architectures, such as Gaiety Theatre, General Post Office, Imperial Bank, Railway Board, and Cecil Hotel. A number of charming castles and cottages such as Gorton Castle, Bantony Castle, Rothney Castle, and Kennedy Cottage are other attractions to watch out.
Offbeat On Offer
For travellers always on the lookout for something offbeat, Shimla offers several day-long trips to little hamlets in neighbouring hills that are each a destination by itself. Just 10 km away is the scenic retreat of Kufri that offers all the grand vistas of Shimla, sans the tourist crowd. About 35 km from Kufri is the serene hill station of Chail, a quiet paradise of rolling green meadows amongst giant pine and deodar trees. It houses the world’s highest cricket ground and the enchanting Chail Palace—once the summer capital of the Patiala kings and now a luxurious heritage hotel. Mashobra is another little gem tucked away at 7,700 feet, whereas Narkanda and Naldehra are quaint towns surrounded by lush slopes that are popular for skiing and golfing, respectively.
Built by the British in 1903 to ease access to their summer capital, the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train is now a part of UNESCO World Heritage. It goes through 20 picturesque stations, 103 tunnels, and 969 bridges. Equipped with vistadomes, it provides uninterrupted views of the mountains, hills, forests, and villages, while slowly climbing a height of over 4,500 feet.
Being a hotbed of nature, Shimla harbours several natural treasure troves in its heavily wooded hills. Nestled in a forested setting in Kufri is the Himalayan Nature Park—a zoo and scientific institution engaged in animal welfare and wildlife conservation. It houses a variety of Himalayan fauna such as Barking Deer, Blue Sheep, Brown Bear, Kashmir Stag and others. The Himalayan Bird Park is another peaceful spot that’s home to many native and exotic birds, including the stunning Monal, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh. Developed as a playground for the city, Annandale is a scenic spot surrounded by towering conifers. Picnics, golf, polo and cricket matches are regularly organised here. Located inside the Glen forest, Chadwick Falls trickles down from a height of about 100 metres, and makes for a tranquil picture amidst a dense jungle. Situated in the Kotkhai Valley near Shimla, Kiala Forest makes for a great hike with dense foliage and numerous indigenous creatures for company.
DINE & DRINK
While there are many British-influenced cafes and restaurants, a handful of establishments are reviving interest in local cuisines.
One of the oldest dineouts in Shimla, Baljees & Fascination is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and snack shop rolled into one. Inspired by its European roots, it offers a diverse Italian-Indian menu, with their mutton cutlets, chocolate éclairs, and syrupy gulab jamuns boasting cult followings. Recently revamped, The Devicos is one of the city’s most iconic eateries serving Indian and Chinese by the day to a modern, sleek bar with a premium selection of drinks by night.
Goofa Ashiana Bar and Restaurant is a lovely casual diner with hardwood walls, carpeted floors, a well-stocked bar, and a grand piano for effect. This landmark restaurant, located along the Ridge, is also the place to be if you wish to try out traditional Himachali delicacies, such as dhaam, spicy lotus stems, siddu, mittha, and babru.
Perched at a height of 7,000 feet, The Restaurant at The Oberoi Cecil, Shimla, provides bird’s eye views of the majestic landscape all around. Housed in a grand ballroom with magnificent chandeliers, it is the perfect spot for a romantic date over some delectable dishes. Another such spot is Seventh Heaven at Hotel Combermere, which features an outdoor terrace with a roaring fireplace.
In Shimla, and especially along the Mall Road, there’s no dearth of cosy cafes serving a variety of coffee-laced drinks. Wake and Bake offers a range of crepes, waffles, sandwiches, and Middle-Eastern accompaniments with an impressive list of drinks made from freshly-ground organic coffee. However, for an authentic taste, make your way through the maze of lanes at the Mall to visit the Indian Coffee House. A simple establishment, flocked alike by locals, tourists, and important dignitaries such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it serves a range of savoury delights that go well with the aromatic filter coffee.
Shopping in Shimla is truly therapeutic if you love traditional handicrafts and woodcraft products.
All Things Trendy
Running alongside the Ridge, the long stretch of pedestrian-only road called The Mall is Shimla’s premium shopping destination. With rows of shops and boutiques selling everything from fashionable street wear, premium woollens, hip leather jackets to quirky jewellery, and great bargain buys, the cobbled pathways of The Mall, lined by gas lamp lights and cafes, make for a lovely stroll for shopaholics.
From the quintessential Himachali caps and woven carpets, rugs, blankets, Kinnauri mufflers to locally-dyed and printed fabrics, such as farahada and chhiba that are available in various traditional as well as contemporary motifs. The government-run Himachal Emporium in Shimla offers a range of local products and handicrafts at reasonable prices.
Adjoining The Ridge, the Lakkar Bazaar is a shopper’s delight, with scores of shops lining its maze-like alleys selling a mind-blowing range of items hand-crafted in wood. The shopkeepers here still churn out products made from deodar and walnut wood. Besides decorative items, artefacts, pretty keepsakes and cute toys, this market is also a great place to shop for ornate walking sticks, old jewellery pieces, exquisitely-carved tables and handmade paper products.