Bhutan is a magical place. It’s rich in history and culture, spiritual and authentic, and tucked away in the Himalayas. It’s an enticingly far cry from all that is too Western and generic in our highly globalised world. Unsurprisingly, many people are nudging the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon higher up on their bucket lists. So what many of us now need is a Bhutan travel guide. We want advice on where to visit, when, and to get there. We’re here to help. In this post we discuss our favourite places in Bhutan, which include towns and villages, temples and fortresses, national parks and animal reserves, museums and archery grounds, and much, much more. We also touch on rules for travellers and the best time to visit Bhutan.
Where should I visit in Bhutan?
If you have limited time or don’t wish to travel too far once you’ve landed in Bhutan, we recommend you prioritise the following three northwestern districts: Paro (home to Bhutan’s international airport), Thimphu and Punakha. You can see them in the map below.
A little note: Most of Bhutan’s 20 districts have the same names as their capitals. We point this out so you don’t get confused in your research.
Paro, Thimphu and Punakha are among the most popular districts with tourists. They don’t, however, only have easy accessibility on their side; the northwest of Bhutan is also full of gorgeous scenery, rich wildlife, fascinating history, wonderful architecture, and more. For this reason, we introduce you to the highlights of these three districts first …
Top 12 places to visit in Bhutan
It’s time to deliver on the promised Bhutan travel guide. So here it is, our pick of the top 12 places to visit in the Land of the Thunder Dragon …
- Tiger’s Nest
- Haa Valley
- Jigme Dorji National Park
- Royal Manas National Park
- Gangteng Valley
- Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
We start with northwest Bhutan …
Paro is a small, valley town in a wide, lush valley. Colourful, low-rise buildings line the banks of Paro Chhu River, many built in traditional Bhutanese style. Rinpung Dzong (Fortress) sits broodingly a little above the town, while rice paddies on either side of the river spread out to the foot of the mountains. From here, alpine trees rise up the slopes towards often-clouded mountain peaks.
Fun fact: Paro was one of very few places in Bhutan that could be considered as a location for the country’s international airport. This is because the landscape of Bhutan is so mountainous that finding a place for an international-length runway is rather difficult! Thimphu, the country’s capital, wasn’t a viable candidate, which is why the small town of Paro has the honour of receiving all international tourists flying into the country.
Some of the must-see places in Paro include:
- The large Buddhist prayer wheel in the central plaza
- Ugyen Perli Palace, the gorgeous, gold-topped building that serves as the royal family’s home when in Paro
- Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang, a temple in the form of a chorten across the bridge from Paro
- Zuri Dzong, built in 1352 and one of Bhutan’s oldest dzongs (monastery–fortresses)
Also known as Paro Dzong, Rinpung Dzong is a seventeenth-century monastery that sits next to Paro Chhu River. It’s a gorgeous showcase of traditional Bhutanese dzong architecture: imposing fortress walls encompass an interior complex of administration offices, monks’ accommodation, a temple and a courtyard. Inside you can see colourful wall paintings of religious scenes, highly decorated arches and intricate wood carvings, and also learn the story of the dzong’s founding.
As Rinpung Dzong was built on a low mountain spur, a small, round watchtower was built higher up the mountain. This now houses the National Museum of Bhutan. The galleries of the museum showcase religious festival masks, delicate thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist religious paintings), statues of rare animals, and a model of Tiger’s Nest, among other things.
How to get there
Paro Airport is an international airport and so is the entry point for anyone flying into Bhutan.
2. Tiger’s Nest
Arguably the main – almost non-negotiable – activity to do in Paro District is hike to Tiger’s Nest. This famously picturesque Buddhist temple complex is perched compellingly on a cliff ledge about 900 m above the Paro Valley floor. It’s properly known as Paro Taktasang, and was built in 1692 in honour of Guru Rinpoche. Rinpoche is the eighth-century Buddhist master credited with introducing Buddhism to what is today Bhutan.
The various buildings that make up the Tiger’s Nest complex are connected via stone steps as well as rickety wooden bridges. Visitors are allowed to explore the complex as well as go inside some of the buildings to see the monastery’s many treasures. These include historically important thangkas (religious paintings on silk) and wall paintings.
How to get there
To reach Tiger’s Nest, we recommend you drive the short distance from Paro to the Tiger’s Nest parking lot. From here, you must hike or take a horse ride along the Taktsang Trail. This is an 8.6 km round trip. You should give yourself around three to five hours to hike up to Tiger’s Nest. The descent obviously goes a lot quicker. It’s an incredibly beautiful trail with the changing scenery keeping you nicely entertained along the way.
Thimphu, the capital and most populous settlement in Thimphu, is a true must see. You get so much bang for your buck, as there are just so many world-class treasures on your doorstep here. We’ll limit ourselves to a brief description of each of the places we advise visiting:
- Buddha Point. Here you can see Buddha Dordenma, a massive and iconic bronze Buddha statue, as well as several other religious statues. They all sit on a platform high above Thimphu, offering tourists a fantastic view of the valley and city.
- Dochula Mountain Pass. Drive up to Docula Mountain Pass (3,150 m) just outside of town to see the beautiful Druk Wangyel Monastery and iconic Dochula Chorten.
- Folk Heritage Home Museum. As the name suggests, this museum offers insights into the traditional Bhutanese way of life. You can time your visit to see a demonstration of traditional rural tasks, skills and customs.
- Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre. Watch women weave beautifully patterned, high-quality, traditional Bhutanese fabrics and clothes on looms. Who knows, a gorgeous silk scarf or a kira (traditional Bhutanese dress) might find its way into your suitcase!
- Centenary Farmers’ Market. If you love to explore the foods of different cultures, head to the weekend Farmers’ Market. A packet of spice or herbs could make the perfect souvenir of your Bhutan trip! You can also head across the river to visit the clothing, textiles and crafts market.
- Changlimithang Archery Ground. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and, boy, are they good at it! Watch local archers hit impossibly far targets, and then give it a try yourself for a moment of humility!
Also known as Thimphu Dzong, this fortress is the administrative hub of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Its name means “fortress of the glorious religion”.
The best time to visit is 100% during Tshechu, the annual religious festival held between the 11th to the 15th day of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar. (This usually falls in late September or early October.) Tashichho Dzong is at the heart of Thimphu Tshechu, and here you’ll see colourful and traditional masked dances, be able to shop local wares at the pop-up market, and much, much more.
How to get there
It takes just 75 minutes to drive from Paro to Thimphu.
Punakha is a gorgeous valley town that was the capital of Bhutan up until 1955. It’s a relatively warm valley with milder winters than Thimphu. Punakha is where the first king of a united Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned in 1907. It should definitely be on your Bhutan travel itinerary, as it has a heady mix of history, culture, natural beauty and exciting outdoor activities to offer.
Punakha Suspension Bridge
The Punakha Suspension Bridge is an iron-chain suspension bridge of about 160 m long that connects the town of Punakha with the rest of the valley. It’s the second-longest suspension bridge in all Bhutan. One of the reasons necessitating the bridge is the occasional flash flood in the valley caused by melt from glacial lakes up river.
Punakha Suspension Bridge is extremely popular with visitors to Punakha. It offers fantastic views of the dzong and the valley. And it can get the adrenaline going when the wind picks up and the bridge starts to sway!
Punakha Dzong is the largest and second oldest dzong in Bhutan. It’s official name is the lengthy Pungthang Dewachen Gi Phodrang, which means ‘Palace of Great Happiness’. It sits at the confluence of Po Chhu and Mo Chhu Rivers. For this reason, you’re able to raft past the dzong and see it from the water, which is popular with Bhutan tourists. The dzong is especially attractive in spring when the purple blooms of the jacaranda trees around it are in flower.
Fertility Temple of Bhutan
The Fertility Temple of Bhutan (more accurately known as Chimi Lhakhang) is a modest, traditional monastery that dates as far back as 1499. It sits a a little ways outside of Punakha, and you can hike there along a beautiful trail. The temple is known worldwide for its success in helping couples to fall pregnant. If you’re looking to conceive, the temple welcomes visitors to partake in its fertility ritual.
How to get there
5. Haa Valley
The Haa Valley in Haa District is a gorgeous region that makes for a perfect day’s outing from Paro. Part of the fun is the drive there, which is a two-hour jaunt meandering up zigzag mountain roads to reach the lookout point at Chele La Pass (3,988 m). The view from here over the lush Haa Valley and towards the snow-capped Himalayan peaks is glorious.
The Haa Valley consists of traditional buildings, terraced fields and thickly forested mountains on either sides of the Haa Chhu River. If you visit in summer, you’ll be treated to the Haa Summer Festival, which includes displays of archery and spear throwing.
Hike to Kila Nunnery
We also recommend making time to visit Kila Nunnery. This ninth-century nunnery – the oldest in Bhutan – is home to around 50 nuns. Similarly to Tiger’s Nest, the temple complex sits precariously on a mountainside ridge, offering dramatic views of the valley below. You can reach Kila Nunnery via a one-hour hike from Chele La Pass. On the hike you’ll walk through forest, encounter prayer flags and chortens (shrines), and get the chance to spot many gorgeous birds including Gould’s sunbird and the Himalayan bluebird.
How to get there
Has Valley is a 65 km drive from the town of Paro. As mentioned above, the drive is part of the appeal of the trip, as the scenery is spectacular.
6. Jigme Dorji National Park
Jigme Dorji National Park covers a whopping 4,316 km² and is Bhutan’s second largest protected area. It extends into five districts and ranges in elevation from 1,400 to 7,000 m above sea level. The park was named after King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who reigned from 1952 to 1972 and helped to modernise and stabilise Bhutan.
World Heritage Site
Bhutan has eight fantastic national parks, all with their own special offerings, so it can be hard to pick which to visit. That said, we feel Jigme Dorji National Park definitely deserves to be near the top of the list. For starters, its immensely rich ecology has earned it a spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The scenery of Jigme Dorji NP is simply sublime, and naturally varies greatly across the park. It’s a fantastic place for day hikes as well as longer treks. You can find towering peaks, glaciers, alpine meadows, conifer forest, scrubland, broadleaved forests and fast-paced rivers. Many of the 300+ plant species are used in traditional medicines. Keep your eyes open for the incomparably delicate and delightful Himalayan blue poppy, as well as edelweiss, orchids and rhododendrons.
The wildlife of the park includes a stellar roundup: Bengal tigers, snow leopards, Himalayan black bears, takins, red pandas, blue sheep, musk deers, marmots and pheasants. This is, in fact, the only place in the world where snow leopards and Bengal tigers have overlapping habitats.
How to get there
We now head to the south of Bhutan …
7. Royal Manas National Park
Speak to any Bhutanese and they’ll tell you that the Royal Manas National Park is a special park. It’s the oldest in the country, a conservation showpiece, and has been dubbed as Bhutan’s Crown Jewel. The park, which covers 1,057 km², is home to roughly 5,000 people, who live in remote, isolated villages.
The park is a true wildlife sanctuary, showcasing numerous animals not found in the north of the country. Some of the precious species you can look for on safari include endangered Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, Asian elephants, Himalayan black bears, gaurs (Indian bisons), greater one-horned rhinos, wild buffalos, golden langurs, pygmy hogs, pangolins, hispid hares (bristly rabbits), and Ganges river dolphins. Need we say more??
How to get there
The quickest way to reach Royal Manas National Park from Paro is to fly to Gelephu Domestic Airport, then drive the remaining 80 km to reach the park. The flight is only 40 minutes. One of the drawbacks, however, is that there aren’t flights there every day. To drive there along the Wangdue–Tsirang Highway takes nearly eight hours, but there are plenty of very worthy destinations along the way, including Thimphu, and the scenery is gorgeous!
And now to central Bhutan …
8. Gangteng Valley
If you visit Bhutan, a great place to include in your itinerary is Ganteng Valley, also known as Gangtey Valley or Phobjikha Valley. A World Heritage Site, Gangteng Valley in Wangdue Phodrang District is a great place for learning about local Bhutanese culture and traditions. There are also numerous traditional Buddhist temples in the valley to visit such as Gela Drechagling Lhakhang and Gangteng Monastery.
Ganteng is also very popular with trekkers as it’s included in the Gangtey trek route. The relatively easy trail winds through beautiful forests of juniper, bamboo, magnolia and rhododendron. It’s also a great birdwatching location. In November of every year, Ganteng Village and Monastery celebrate the Crane Festival in honour of the arrival of endangered black-necked cranes from Tibet, who come south for the winter.
Ganteng Monastery, established in 1613 and is also known as Gantey Gonpa, can be reached by hiking part of the popular Gangtey trek route from the valley floor up to the gonpa. The monastery was renovated in 2008, so the colours, architectural details and statues are now visible in their full glory. Seriously, this is one very attractive monastery you don’t want to miss!
How to get there
The best and most affordable way to reach Gangteng Valley from Paro is to drive there. It’s 204 km away and the drive takes about three hours.
If we were to serve as your Bhutan travel guide, we’d encourage you to pair a visit to Gangteng Valley with one to the mediaeval town of Trongsa. Trongsa, like Gangteng Valley, sits pretty much smack dab in the middle of Bhutan. Moreover, the drive connecting the two is very scenic. You pass through traditional villages, forests and pasturelands, and also cross both Lawa La Pass (3,360 m) and Pele La Pass (3,420 m). These passes offer awesome views of the snow-capped peaks of Jumolhari (7,326 m) and Jitchu Drake (6,662 m), among others.
Chökhor Raptentse Dzong
Chökhor Raptentse Dzong – or simply Trongsa Dzong – is an imposing, sprawling and very striking dzong. It resides on a spur high above the Mangde Chhu River. It was built in 1644 to be the seat of power of the Wangchuck Dynasty. Together with its watchtower higher up on the mountain, the dzong helped the Wangchucks to control the trade route between east and west Bhutan. In 1907, the House of Wangchuck became rulers of all Bhutan.
How to get there
The best way to reach Trongsa from Paro is to drive there along the Bumthang–Ura Highway. The journey takes about six hours. Alternatively, if you’re planning a visit to Jakar as well (which we advocate!), you could fly to Bathpalathang Airport (this takes just 35 minutes) and then drive west to Trongsa. The journey lasts about two hours.
Jakar is the capital of Bumthang District in north-central Bhutan. Bumthang boasts some of the oldest and most spiritually important sites in all Bhutan. This heritage, together with the quiet valleys, rivers, forests, pretty hiking trails, apple orchards and dairy farms, attract many tourists to the district. Three of the main attractions in Jakar that we’d recommend visitors to Bhutan make an effort to see are Jakar Dzong, Mambartsho and the temple of Jambey Lhakhang.
Jakar Dzong, built in 1667, is believed to be the largest dzong in Bhutan, having a circumference of 1.5 km. It sits on a ridge above Jakar town and you walk up a stone-paved path to reach it. Your efforts are rewarded with magnificent views of the valley. The dzong is unusual among Bhutanese dzongs as its central tower doesn’t sit in the middle of the complex, but rather is attached to the outer wall.
Membartsho is an incredibly picturesque holy site that sits on the banks of the Tang Chhu River. It’s believed to be the spot where the treasure hunter Pema Lingpa found some of the hidden teachings of Guru Rinpoche in the fifteenth century. Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) was an eight-century Buddhist master who many in the Himalayas consider a kind of ‘second Buddha’. Membartsho is cared for by the nuns of Pema Tekchok Choling Nunnery. Devotees often leave offerings on the banks and rocks of Tang Chhu. It’s a fantastic site to explore for both its culture and religious significance and its natural beauty.
How to get there
If you’re coming from Paro, you could choose between flying or driving to reach Jakar. There’s the option of hopping on a domestic flight to Bathpalathang Airport in Jakar. This takes 35 minutes. Alternatively, you could drive there along the Bumthang–Ura Highway, but this is a long journey of nearly eight hours so we’d recommend you break it up by visiting other attractions along the way, like Trongsa.
And finally, let’s look at eastern Bhutan …
11. Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary in northeastern Bhutan is a varied and breathtakingly beautiful park of 1,500 km². It ranges in elevation from 1,500 m and 6,400 m and contains floodplains, broadleaved forests, green valleys and deep gorges, scrubland, glacial lakes, alpine meadows and snowy mountain peaks. It’s also home in the lower regions to many communities as well some important cultural and religious sites, including the Rigsum Gompa and Dechen Phrodrang (Palace of Great Bliss). Here, as elsewhere in Bhutan, you can learn the skill of archery, the national sport.
The sanctuary is home to many endangered species, including the red panda. Red pandas are fast and nimble carnivores who live in trees and spend much of the day sleeping. They’re also incredibly attractive animals with their fluffy, multi-coloured coats, short legs, whiskers, and striped tails. Bumdeling Sanctuary also has 150 known butterfly species and is one of the country’s two wintering spots for the endangered black-necked crane.
How to get there
Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary covers much of Trashiyangtse District in northeast Bhutan. The closest airport is Yonphula Airport in Trashigang District, 64 km to the south. The fastest way to reach it is therefore a short domestic flight from Paro Airport to Yonphula Airport, followed by a drive.
Lhuentse, or Lhuntse, in northeastern Bhutan is one of the most ancient, remote and untouched parts of Bhutan. It’s home to many sacred pilgrimage sites. Weaving is a mainstay here and the textiles produced are the best in Bhutan. Much of the district is given over to environmentally protected land. For tourists wanting to leave the beaten track behind and experience ancient culture and isolated villages, this is your destination!
The town of Lhuentse, though the HQ of the district, is more a small, mountain village than a town. Lhuentse Dzong sits on a spur above the village and the river, as is the way in Bhutan. Be sure to take time to walk to the suspension bridge for awesome views up and down the valley.
Take a drive
While in Lhuentse, be sure to take a leisurely drive both north and south out of town along the Monggar-Lhuntse Highway. The road snakes along the side of the Kuru Chhu River for miles, offering amazing views of the river valley and taking you through small, traditional villages and past forests and terraced fields. Just north of Lhuentse town is the incredibly attractive Gangzur Village, which is definitely worth a visit. Keep driving and you’ll reach the unbelievably pretty temple of Dungkar Nagtshang at the road’s end.
How to get there
Lhuentse is a 175 km-long drive from Paro Airport. You’ll want to get your It takes some commitment to get to Lhuentse, as it really is very, very remote. The town is 175 km from Paro Airport. You’ll want to get your Bhutan tour guide to drive you there, or you can catch a bus there from Paro or Thimphu on Monday, Thursday or Friday morning. If you were to fly to Bathpalathang or Yonphula Airport and then drive, you’d still have a pretty long journey ahead of you.
Bhutan tourism – rules for visiting Bhutan
The Bhutanese are a clever bunch. They know that tourist destinations around the world have a habit of becoming overrun and losing the beauty and authenticity that made them famous in the first place. Consequently, the Government has enacted certain measures that will ensure the longevity of the Bhutanese tourism trade. Firstly, it strictly controls the number of tourists allowed into the country. It also mandates that you can only visit Bhutan as part of a registered tour group or with a private tour guide. This is a smart way of ensuring tourism is done responsibly and benefits the locals.
Finally, note that visitors are obliged to pay a daily fee just to be in Bhutan. This fee is $250 for peak seasons (March to May and September to November) and $200 for off-peak seasons. The expensive Bhutan visa is one reason why a Bhutanese travel guide is helpful – you want to keep your travels focused to maximise your time in the country.
Best time to visit Bhutan
You can have a fantastic trip to Bhutan at any time of the year. Arguably, though, the best time to visit Bhutan is in spring or autumn. As Bhutan is in the northern hemisphere, we’re talking late March to early June for spring, and September to November to autumn. Here are a few notes about each season in Bhutan to help explain our reasoning …
Winter (December to February) in northern Bhutan can be very cold – even downright icy. Let’s not forget that Bhutan encompasses part of the eastern Himalayas! There can be heavy snowfall in winter, which can mean certain roads get blocked, certain places and trails are closed, and some activities (like river rafting) are a no-go.
Spring (March to May) is a fantastic time to visit Bhutan. The temperatures are gentler, snow melt gluts the rivers, and the countryside is covered in fresh greenery. Rhododendron, jacaranda, foxgloves, cosmos, Himalayan poppies, lilies and many other beautiful flowers emerge, painting the Bhutanese landscape with vivid colours.
Summer (June to August) isn’t a great time to visit Bhutan as the Indian monsoons bring rain and high humidity to much of the country. And if you’re wanting to hike in Bhutan, summer equals slippery trails.
Autumn (September to November) in Bhutan is a dream. The rains and humidity start to dissipate, and the temperatures are pleasant. It’s a perfect season for outdoor activities and exploration. And while the tshechu (religious festival) of each district vaies year by year, the Black-necked Crane Festival is on 12 November every year. To witness this special occasion and its festivities is a cultural highlight of a visit to Bhutan.
Around 50 species of migratory birds from northern Tibet and Mongolia also come to Bhutan in September and October to roost there for the winter. These birds include the black-necked crane, of course, as well as ducks, waders, birds of prey, thrushes, finches and buntings.
Meet Passang, our local leader in Bhutan
Every Follow Alice trip relies on the services of a welcoming and informed local leader eager to share the gems of his or her country with others. In Bhutan, our fearless leader is Passang Sherpa, as seen below. Passang says he likes being a tour guide as he enjoys meeting new faces and making friends with people from around the world. #travelwithfriends
Who should visit Bhutan?
If you love to explore cultures different from your own, taste new foods, hear new sound, and just basically experience something outside of your own ‘normal’, then you should definitely make the time to explore Bhutan! At Follow Alice we love to bring together adventurous people from around the world who are young at heart and curate an exceptional holiday that will live in your memory for a lifetime. Our trips are great for groups and solo travellers alike. Want to know more, or have a burning question you need answered? Give us a shout and we’ll be happy to talk Bhutan with you!