Located in the state of Punjab, 2.5M people live in Amritsar, which makes it a small city by Indian standards.
I absolutely loved it. It feels open and modern, but it’s also muddy with noisy alleyways.
I flew into Amritsar from Jaisalmer, and continued onwards to Delhi.
If you can, Amritsar would be the perfect city to start a tour of India in- it’s smaller than other tourism hot spots and holds a unique place in the country’s history.
It was one of my favourite destinations in India, and somewhere I’d gladly return.
6 Reasons You Should Visit Amritsar On Your Trip To India
TO LEARN ABOUT PARTITION
Amritsar was once a wealthy city, the heart of trade and full of Sikh gurus, poetry, art and music. It was a sophisticated, wealthy and cosmopolitan society.
Back then, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were one country.
Enter the British.
When the British came to rule Amritsar, it was drained of its rich assets. The city crumbled like many others in India.
For over 100 years, the Brits ruled. In that time, they drained over 167M from the country, using it to extend their empire further and forcing Indians to live on only 2.5 cents a day.
Over 8 million people died of famine.
In order to prevent rebellion, the British used their usual tactic of separating religions and ethnic groups and turning them against each other.
They called it divide and rule.
In India, it was the Hindus and Muslims who were turned against each other.
Muslims tended to side with the British for better rights, which meant the Hindus had a harder time fighting.
By the end of British rule, religions wouldn’t even sit together in a train carriage.
Scared of rebellion, the British introduced the Rowlatt Act, allowing any Indian to be imprisoned without a trial.
The Brits banned public meetings and gunned down 2,000 people for meeting in a park in Amritsar.
These, and other injustices led to the start of the Quit India movement.
The movement’s rallying cry:
British India exists no more than British Germany.
India is India and Indians will do and die defending her against you.
The Brits put Ghandi in jail and Winston Churchill’s response to this was, ‘Is he not dead yet?’
In the end, it wasn’t the movement that persuaded the British to leave India.
They left because they spent so much money on WWII, they could no longer afford India. So, they quite literally dropped them.
All of this resulted in Partition, a solution to split up India and Pakistan.
Muslims headed towards Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs headed to India.
The Brits drew up boundaries in less than five weeks, based on old maps and left before they were released to avoid blame.
15M people woke up to find out they were refugees.
Many never found their loved ones again.
It was the biggest migration in human history, fraught with violence.
Trains arrived across the border, just full of dead bodies.
Mass riots and immense uncertainty ravaged India, with the death toll as high as 2M.
As of the 60s, people were still migrating. Tension became rife over territory dispute, which is ongoing to this day with Kashmir.
Some journalists and soldiers who witnessed the Nazi camps reported that Partition brutalities were worse. Britain’s exist after a century of rule was unorganised and rushed.
They left a bloodbath behind.
Relations between India and Pakistan have been hostile ever since. Since Partition, they’ve fought four wars.
I’d strongly encourage visiting the Partition Museum in Amritsar.
It’s $3 USD for foreigners, and the displays are heartbreaking, but excellent in educating.
We certainly didn’t learn about Partition in the history classes I took in the US. And, while I understand it’s a big world and there’s a need to be selective, it’s my opinion many things are glossed over in history books because they paint US allies in a bad light.
VISIT THE GOLDEN TEMPLE
Over 500 years ago, the land Amritsar is built upon was bought for 700 rupees.
Guru Amar Das, the fourth Sikh guru, constructed Amritsar around a man-made pool, which was to become the Golden Temple.
The majestic Golden Temple is the world’s most important pilgrimage sight for Skihs. They believe it to be the home of the spiritual world.
Things to know before you visit:
- Entrance is free
- You need to check your shoes before entering (you’ll receive a token in return to claim them later)
- Dress conservatively, cover your shoulders and knees (men and women)
- Bring a scarf for your hair to avoid paying for one, or renting one everyone else uses (men and women)
- The temple is constantly busy, but less so overnight
- Go during the day to see peak action, and consider popping in at night to gawk at temple reflections
- There are signs telling you not to take photos, but everyone is- right in front of guards, who watch and smile
- There are two holy milk cleansing ceremonies daily. I’ve heard these are uber special to watch, normally one occurs very early morning (4/5 am), and the other is during the day
And, remember, The Golden Temple is an incredibly holy site- keep your distance from people, be quiet and respectful.
Caring for others is a big part of the Sikh religion. Community kitchens are common in their temples. You won’t pay for a meal at any Sikh kitchens, which just goes to show how hospitable they are.
At the Golden Temple, you’ll find the world’s largest community kitchen- it feeds 100,000 people daily.
If you eat here, you’re given a tray and scoops of dahl, curd and chapati.
There’s also a station to pick up wrapped food to gift to homeless or hungry people on the street.
GO ON A STREET EATS TOUR
Amritsar may be famous for the Golden Temple, but food and Amritsar are practically synonyms to each other. Locals affectionately refer to their city as the secret food capital of India.
North Indian cuisine is known to be heavy in tomatoes, dairy (paneer, ghee, butter, milk, yoghurt or cream), grilled meats, wheat-based roti, naan, kulcha and piranha, and occasionally cashew and almond paste.
A fan of Indian food at home, I was excited to taste the rich, flavourful meals I enjoyed in Western countries in the place where they originated.
On any tour, you learn a spectrum of interesting things about a city or country’s history, along with things about the vendor you’re buying from and any specifics related to the food you’re trying.
A friend had done a food tour in Amritsar, and raved about it.
And so, I ended up booking a morning tour with Sajan from Incredible Amritsar Tour and Travels.
Sajan was born and bred in Amritsar and has deep relationships with many of the vendors you visit.
Over the course of three hours, we strolled narrow lanes, eating and exploring our way through the backstreets of Old Amritsar.
Throughout the tour, Sajan regaled me with stories about Amritsar’s history, and added a personal touch to the tales. I’d done a fair amount of research about Amritsar before visiting, but nothing is as good as having a local explain things to you first hand.
We made several stops during our time together to try kulcha, chai, samosas stuffed in pomegranate rolls, traditional lassis, nutri kulcha, paneer bhurji, and jalebi.
It’d be an understatement to say it was a delicious (and informative) way to spend a Saturday morning in Amritsar.
ATTEND THE NIGHTLY INDIA – PAKISTAN BORDER SHOW
When tensions aren’t too high between India and Pakistan, there’s a nightly border closing show at the Wagah Border.
Thousands attend nightly, mostly domestic traveler and locals, decked out in their country pride (hats, flags, face paint- the works). It’s free to attend, and usually happens at 4:15 pm in winter, and 5:15 pm in summer.
The show is a crazy, theatrical display between Indian Border Security and Pakistani Rangers.
Soldiers are specifically anointed and the whole thing is carefully choreographed.
The high kicks alone are reason to visit.
The dances, the cheers, the music- it’s a sight to behold.
The whole point of the ceremony is the moment when both flags are lowered, in sync. When the flags are lowered, the gates officially close until the next day.
I coordinated a taxi to take me there and back via my hostel for about ~$15 USD for 3 hours of time (an hour each way, plus about an hour there).
You can’t bring anything in with you, except passport, money, mobile phone and a DSLR. No headphones, cables or power banks.
Amritsar is an excellent place to shop for punjabi shoes, or intricate scarfs.
Visit the cloth market, or simply wander the streets, perusing stalls. The closer you are to the Golden Temple, the higher prices will likely be, and the less you’ll be able to score a deal. It’s best to tuck into side streets and shop around before you commit.
I took home two scarfs similar to the below yellow one in black and turquoise for my sister and myself.
Even at the side street stall I bought them from, I had to haggle aggressively. They’re used to foreign tourism in Amritsar, and know there’ll always be another visitor after you.
EAT AT ONE OF THE WORLD’S ONLY VEGETARIAN MCDONALD’S
Amritsar is home to one of the world’s only fully vegetarian McDonald’s.
The McAloo Tikki and spicy paneer burgers are ace.
There were a few other special menu items, but the McAloo Tikki and paneer burgers are the stars. When the paneer burger debuted at McDonald’s in India, they couldn’t keep it in stock- it was that popular.
The McDonald’s is located near the Golden Temple, so it’s perfect to pop into after a visit.
On my trip to India, I only had 2.5 days in Amritsar, which felt like nowhere near enough time to really get to know this special, Northern Indian city.
Have you ever been to India? Did you visit Amritsar on your trip?
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