Go beyond the usual clichés of the touristy city and add these lesser-known gems to your itinerary
Whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter, there is no time that is wrong for visiting Srinagar. An evergreen destination, you go to Kashmir’s capital for the floral splendour of spring, the cool and crisp summers, the burnished chinars in autumn and snowy scapes in the winter.
Life in Srinagar revolves around the Dal Lake, which is indeed very beautiful – you can’t take your eyes off it no matter how many times you pass it by. But forget that must-do shikara ride on the Dal for a moment, and skip those Mughal gardens. Instead, spend time exploring a different side of the city. About a 20-minute drive from town, through a beautiful, scenic, tree-lined drive you can reach Pari Mahal, or Abode of Angels, built by Dara Shikoh around 1645 AD. A fabulous example of Islamic architecture, this beautiful palace is built like a layered garden over seven levels and offers absolutely stunning views of the Zabarwan Mountains, the Dal Lake and the whole city of Srinagar. Standing at the edge of the top level, you feel like you are at one with nature and at the zenith of the world. There are never more than a handful of locals around here, sometimes playing badminton in the garden or just sitting around and chatting, and if you go on a weekday you can have the whole place to yourself. Spend some time photographing the beautiful surrounding, and taking in the natural splendour. But more than that, spend time with yourself here, in the quiet beauty of this forgotten palace.
When it comes to food, everyone thinks there is nothing but meat and rice in Kashmir but the cuisine here goes way beyond rogan josh, rista and goshtaba – the best known local dishes. You can try these staples at your hotel but for something different, step out and find Hotel Akbar Residency on Durganag Road and order the grilled trout for a meal to remember. Vegetarians needn’t despair, contrary to what people think Kashmiri cuisine has a wide variety of vegetarian dishes the best of which are tamatar chaaman (cottage cheese in a tomato gravy), haaq (a type of sautéed spinach) and nadru yakhni (lotus stem in yogurt-based gravy). Ahdoos on Residency Road is a well-known restaurant in town where you can try these dishes.
The touristy thing to do is to stay on a houseboat and, while that has its own charm, it is not the most comfortable stay option what with the houseboats parked in stagnant water and built in a somewhat cramped way. The Grand Palace is an obvious choice, with its beautiful gardens and lovely old-world rooms, but if that doesn’t fit your budget then a nice option tucked away near Nishat Bagh is Fortune Resort Heevan. A small pretty hotel with a nice big garden restaurant, this hotel is reasonably priced and offers all the comforts of a five star. The best part is the food here; ask for the Kashmiri dish of the day and you will not be disappointed. With windows looking out on to the Zabarwan mountains, the Dal Lake and Nishat Bagh at walking distance and beautiful old-world architecture, this less-known hotel is definitely one of the best stay options in the city.
If you are looking for dry fruit or saffron, stoles and caps, the place to go to is Polo View Road, the shopping street in the centre of town. Avoid the rush and clutter of Residency Road market and shops and enter this quiet, leafy lane where you can find boutique after boutique (and importantly, ATMs, as some shops may not accept cards) offering all things beautiful and bright. Kashmiri handicraft such as papier-mâché trays and curios, walnut wood products, pashmina shawls, and local embroidery is widely available on this road and you can finish all your shopping within a few steps. For saffron and dry fruit, the best store here is ABK, or Amin Bin Khalik, from whom all the locals buy walnuts, apricots and almonds. If you want to buy pashmina shawls, you are probably better off comparing prices between the stores at Polo View and the J&K Government Emporium nearby.
Extend your stay in Kashmir by adding a two-day excursion from Srinagar. You have a lot of options. Three hours away is the beautiful valley of Pahalgam, where you can live by the beautiful River Lidder and enjoy the cool shadow of the Pir Panjal mountain range. You can also opt to go to Sonmarg, about 2.5 hours away by road and stay a few days in the ‘meadow of gold’ so called because of the play of sunlight on its snow-capped peaks. About two hours away is the famous hill station of Gulmarg, where in the winter you can ride the gondola and go skiing or simply enjoy stunning snow views atop the Apharwat Peak.