India and Pakistan both dispute ownership of the Kashmir Valley, and political violence can flare up without warning. Because of ongoing security problems, many foreign governments advise against all travel, or all but essential travel, to areas outside of the cities of Srinagar and Jammu, and your travel insurance may be invalid if you ignore this advice.
Rimmed by layers of alpine peaks, the 140km-long Kashmir Valley opens up as a giant, beautiful bowl of lakes and orchards. Tin-roofed villages guard terraced paddy fields delineated by apple groves and pin-straight poplars. Proudly independent-minded Kashmiris mostly follow a Sufi-based Islamic faith, worshipping in distinctive wooden mosques with central spires, and they are fiercely proud of their homeland. It's a stunningly beautiful place, but one wracked by political violence in recent decades.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Srinagar & the Kashmir Valley.
Over 15km around, Dal Lake is Srinagar's jewel, a vast sheet of water reflecting the carved wooden balconies of the houseboats and the misty peaks of the Pir Panjal mountains. Flotillas of gaily painted shikaras (gondola-like taxi boats) skiff around the lake, transporting goods to market, children to school and travellers to delightful houseboats inspired by originals from the Raj era.
This distinctively spired 1730s Muslim pilgrim hall is Srinagar’s most beautiful mosque. It was constructed without any nails, and both frontage and interiors are covered in exuberantly painted paper mache reliefs and elaborately coloured khatamband (faceted wood panelling). Non-Muslim visitors can peek through the door but may not enter.
Five fingers of glacier descend from a fine array of Alpine peaks in the parallel valley behind Sonamarg. The scene is best appreciated from a small footbridge across a gurgling mountain stream that's around an hour's stroll from the village. The walk passes between ancient conifers and can be delightful if the local kids aren't too aggressively demanding.
On the strategically and spiritually significant Koh-e-Maran hill, north of the city centre, is this powerful qila (fort), which dates to the 6th century. The hill was further fortified by Emperor Akbar in 1590, but most of the upper walls date from the 1808 constructions of Pathan governor Atta Mohammad Khan.
On top of thickly forested Shankaracharya Hill, this small Shiva temple is built from hefty blocks of ancient grey stone. Previously known as Takht-i-Sulaiman (Throne of Solomon), it’s now named for Hindu sage Adi Shankara who visited here in AD 750, but signs date the octagonal structure as 5th century and the site is even older.
Naranag has two enigmatic 8th-century Shiva temple ruins in a beautiful valley setting that gives one the impression of having stumbled across a great secret find. The design suggests that the temples might in fact have Buddhist origins, but the stones have been curiously eroded as though shaped by a flood. Water tanks, conduits and ritual platforms add to the mystery.
The impressive ruins of this 8th-century Sun Temple built by King Lalitaditya sit in peaceful, well-tended gardens on a hill above Mattan. The site feels more complete than those of Awantipora, with a hefty centrepiece in carved limestone and much of a Doric arcade preserved.
Looking like the movie set for an imagined Central Asian castle, this mighty 1672 mosque (built on an earlier 1394 construction) forms a quadrangle around a large garden courtyard with fountain and monumental spired gatehouses marking the four cardinal directions. There’s room for thousands of devotees among the 378 roof-support columns, each fashioned from the trunk of a single deodar tree.
Backing onto Dal Lake north of the Old City, this large, white-domed 20th-century mosque enshrines Kashmir’s holiest Islamic relic, the Moi-e-Muqqadas, believed to be a beard hair of the Prophet Mohammed, hidden behind gold embroidery and displayed only on holy days. The hair’s brief disappearance in December 1963 nearly sparked a civil war. The Lake Dal views from here are fine.