Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of India Someday and received discounted services for the 2-week trip through Rajasthan, including the best things to do in Jaisalmer, for 4 adults and a baby. India Someday specialises in helping you explore India independently and your way. As always our opinions are honest and our own.
Through the centuries, Jaisalmer thrived as a stop along the Silk Road. The caravanserai brought wealth to the city, which prospered as a trading spot, and the merchants made it the beautiful architectural destination that it still is today with the many things to do in Jaisalmer you’ll find on this list originating in that period.
Did you know that the Silk Road is UNESCO-listed? This network of routes, linking Europe with Asia brought success and wealth to many of the cities along the way, some of which were mere stops in arid desert territories. But when the Silk Road importance declined, so did many of them. Jaisalmer was also impacted.
When the British moved transportation of goods from the desert caravans to the Indian port town of Bombay in the 19th century and the Silk Road lost its importance, the town’s strategic role disappeared and many buildings were abandoned.
Despite the various degrees of decay of some of the original structures, many of Jaisalmer’s buildings still preserve the ridiculously intricate golden sandstone facades and balconies that made it the beautiful town of dreams.
Over the four days I was there, our guide shared his sadness at the city’s heritage disappearing on several occasions. You could feel his sorrow every time he pointed at missing balconies and doors that had been sold for cash by their owners to luxury hotels or wealthy people.
Today, Jailsamer lives almost exclusively off tourism, some craftsmanship as well as the military airbase, a strategic point just 100km from the border with Pakistan. As we landed in Jaisalmer, we could see the many jet fighters parked and heard their training sessions on several occasions.
Its defensive fort architecture is not too far from the Norman constructions across the Mediterranean such as those in Sicily or even Carcassonne in France, another living fort, as Jaisalmer is often referred to.
- Best things to do in Jaisalmer
- Get lost in the magic of Jaisalmer Fort
- Learn about the city’s past at Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum
- Walk through the four gates
- Shop at Dashera Chowk
- Look out for the invitation cards painted on the walls
- Be left speechless at Patwon Ki Haveli
- See notorious Moti Mahal Haveli
- Nathmal Ki Haveli
- Paddle around Gadisar Lake
- Photograph Tilon Ki Pol
- Amar Sagar Lake
- Explore the stunning Jain Temples of Jaisalmer
- Admire Mandir Palace
- Visit the Desert Culture Center and Museum
- Have a hashish lassi at a bhang shop
- Shop for patchwork blankets
- Get lost in the back lanes of the Jaisalmer Fort
- Have lunch with views at Desert Boy’s Dhani
- Enjoy a cozy dinner at Saffron
- Buy traditional Indian sweets at Dhanraj Bhatia Sweets
- Enjoy the views from Cannon Point
- Go on a desert Safari and dinner in under the stars
- Wander photogenic Bada Bagh chhatris
- Walk the empty streets of abandoned Kuldhara village
- Windmill Park
- Where to stay in Jaisalmer
- Other things to consider
- What to pack for Jaisalmer
Best things to do in Jaisalmer
The best things to do in Jaisalmer are inevitably related to the city’s history and heritage although there are also a few adventure and nature-related activities.
On this list I tried to be as exhaustive as possible and you will see that there is enough to keep you busy for two full days. I spent a bit more than three full days and could visit more leisurely, and at the right speed considering we were traveling with a baby and… it rained!
At the end of this list I also included day trips and other places to visit in Jaisalmer that are outside the city, they are also worthwhile.
Get lost in the magic of Jaisalmer Fort
The main entrance gate to Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer’s Fort is the jewel of the crown of this eastern city in India and was listed as a UNESCO site in 2013 along with five other forts in Rajasthan. A visit to the fort is a must and one of the best things to do in Jaisalmer.
Towering 76m high above what today is modern-day Jaisalmer, the fort, also known as Sonar Kila or Golden Fort, because of the golden sandstone used to build it, stands out like an image from a fairytale.
Built in the 12th century, it is one of the oldest in India and also one of its largest. It was named after Rajput King Rawal Jaisal, and it is surrounded by desert and sand dunes.
As a military and protective structure, the Fort is surrounded by triple walls, 82 10m bastions, canons, gates and towers. Most of them are still standing and you can see them from below or from the many viewpoints.
Once a thriving oasis and trading spot along the Silk Road, today 60-70% of Jaisalmer’s income comes from tourism. Apart from its disappearing heritage, sold for profit, the fort also suffers from the impact of a growing population and increasing tourism benefiting from modern plumbing.
When the fort was built, water was precious and every drop was used. Locals used to wash with sand and water was recycled and reused several times. For showering, as well as for drinking, they used milk. The fort could withstand arid conditions and survive with no water, but it could not survive with an abundance of it.
With the proliferation of tourism infrastructure within the fort, water seepage and drainage have been the cause of much deterioration of the fort’s foundations.
The fort is located on a sandy hill, and held together by stone walls, but the excessive water is causing it to sink and has already claimed several structures that have collapsed in recent years. As you walk around the narrow streets, you will see many abandoned sites.
The World Monument Fund and the government of India have conducted studies and done conservation work in the last two decades with the objective of restoring the fort.
The best way to explore it is from outside where you can appreciate the structure, by getting lost in its maze of alleys, or from the few viewpoints I included on this list of things to do in Jaisalmer. As you wander, make sure to look up as this is where its beauty lies.
Because this is a living fort and there are several restaurants and hotels inside, the fort is open all day long. However, some of the attractions mentioned on this list such as the Palace Museums, are only open until 4 or 5pm.
Learn about the city’s past at Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum
The Fort Palace used to be the residence of the King and can be visited with an audio guide, the foremost thing to do in Jaisalmer (and a break from the blazing sun).
The entire fort still belongs to the royal family so it makes for a great thing to do in Jaisalmer if you are interested to get up and close to how royalty lives in 21st century India.
With India’s independence, Rajasthan’s Maharajas decided to join their territories to the newly formed country in exchange for keeping their privileges and properties.
But not for long. In 1971, Indira Gandhi modified the Constitution and dissolved India’s Princely states, taking away the privileges of the royal families and only allowing them each to keep only one property of their choice.
Royal genealogy tree and portraits of Jaisalmer’s kings
As a result, most of the properties were turned into hotels. For example, the City Palace became one of the best luxury hotels in Udaipur, and even in Jailsamer Mandir Palace is one of the city’s best hotels.
Unlike other palaces and royal residences in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort Palace does not have the rich interiors with stained glass and Belgian mirror, instead, it showcases the skill of its artists, known for the delicate stone carvings found across the fort.
The Fort Palace Museum will take you through the royal residences, the King Palace and the Queen Palace, and its many rooms. Look out for the room with all the portraits of Jaisalmer’s royal family and their genealogy tree.
It will also explain the history of the royal family, its many wars and battles and the three main sieges and defeats the fort saw, all of which ended in Jauhar, or the self-immolation of the royal women as was the tradition among the Rajput Kings.
The views from the top of the Fort Museum
The fort was under Mughal control for two centuries until the end of the 18th century. As a result, you will find a unique blend of Islamic and Rajput architectural styles throughout the fort.
Jaisalmer Kings were Moon Kings, as opposed to the Kings of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur who were Sun kings, and there are moon symbols throughout.
The highlight of the tour, for me, was the higher floors, in particular, the rooftop, which has incredible views of the Fort walls below, and some incredibly photogenic balconies.
Look at the facade of the Palace before going in, the balconies have stunning dancing peacocks. By the main palace entrance, there is a white marble coronation throne. In front of the palace is the fort’s main square where festivals used to be held.
Entrance to the museum costs 500 rupees including camera and you should get the audio guide to make the most of it.
Walk through the four gates
Like all other forts in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort can only be accessed via a single path that crosses four main gates. These gates are all uniquely designed and each has been strategically positioned to make it hard for attackers to gain access.
Guests would enter the fort via these gates as guests, attackers would try to climb the walls or bring down the gates. If they tried to climb the walls, they would get attacked with burning oil or rocks.
Starting from the top, you will find Ganesh Pol (dedicated to Lord Ganesh, remover of problems), Akshya Pol, Surya Pol (sun gate) and Hawa Pol (pol means gate), all located after sharp corners, which forced horses or elephants from attacking armies to slow down. From one gate you cannot see the next.
There are spikes on the wooden doors that prevented elephants from charging, and holes from where soldiers could pour hot oil (like in the Arabian forts and palaces of Oman, Jabreen Castle, Nizwa Fort and Bahla Fort). It is worth it to stop at each to take a look.
Many people will take a rickshaw up the path to the fort and cross the gates on it. However, I recommend that you simply walk from the Tourism information spot at its base, which is where your driver will most likely drop you off if you stay outside the fort.
If you stay in the fort, you can always walk down through the gates and then take a rickshaw back up.
Shop at Dashera Chowk
This main square you will find as soon as you pass the last gate into Jaisalmer Fort is the site where the royal women would commit suicide in ancient times in what is known as Jauhar.
Today the square has a more cheery role and is a place to buy souvenirs or get your shoes stitched by entrepreneurial locals.
The square is always available but shops usually set up around 9am and remain open till late.
Look out for the invitation cards painted on the walls
You will notice that the walls of Jailsamer are covered in bright paintings with Lord Ganesh. These were invitations to special occasions such as weddings, you will see the dates for the event written. If it is a wedding, you will be able to read the names of the couple.
In the past, locals didn’t have paper or pen so invitations were painted on their walls. Invitees were then given grains of boiled rice. You will find these invitations everywhere as the tradition has been kept.
As you walk around the fort, look on the walls for Lord Ganesh, indicative of an invitation.
Be left speechless at Patwon Ki Haveli
Jaisalmer is filled with Havelis built by rich merchants. Some of them are truly stunning and have some of the most incredible facades. One of the most impressive havelis is Patwon Ki Haveli, a group of 5 adjacent havelis built for five sons of a merchant in the 1800s.
These havelis were built over 60 years and have a total of 86 rooms. Each haveli is a floor taller than the previous one and all follow traditional haveli architecture, with several floors facing an interior open-air courtyard.
Their facades are all unique and are so beautifully carved that you will be left speechless and also understand why they took so long to be finished.
With the fall of the Silk Road and Jaisalmer’s importance, the merchant lost everything and the havelis were individually sold.
The intricate interiors of Patwon Ki Haveli
The first haveli in the group was bought by the Kothari family in the 1940s who converted it into a museum that you can visit. Inside, the rooms have been refurbished and renovated with bright paint, wall murals, stained glass and mirrors that are not original but a replica.
The haveli is furnished with objects and artifacts from the time, but they may not necessarily belong to this haveli.
Look out for the Belgium glass relief peacock at the entrance reminiscent of the ones found in the City Palace of Udaipur. The haveli is full of small details like hidden safety holes on the wall to hide expensive treasures.
You will walk up through the various floors via the steep staircase. Observe the utensils, clothing and objects on display, from opium boxes to nut cutters, knives, a gramophone, etc.
Some of the walls are covered in stained glass and mirrors, some rooms have incredibly ornate silver furniture pieces. The haveli is much more bejeweled than the fort’s museum often times as richly decorated as Udaipur’s City Palace.
The third haveli can also be visited and has been preserved as is, with the original paintings (what is left of them) and furniture, it is not as impressive as the first one but it is worth a look because it is more authentic.
The fourth haveli is still inhabited and cannot be visited. The ground and first floors have been converted into a souvenir shop. You can enter to have a look while also seeing the haveli from inside. It is not as decorated as the first one but you can take a look for free.
The second and fifth haveli are owned by the Government of Rajasthan but have not been kept in good condition. There are bats and some parts are in ruins. My guide did not recommend we go in (there is an entry fee).
The best way to photograph the havelis is from the two squares between the first and second and between the third and fourth that have been rehabilitated for that purpose by the government. From there you have a bit more perspective as the street is very narrow.
Entrance ticket to each of the havelis is paid separately as each is owned by a different person. The first and third one cost 250 rupees, entrance to the 5th is 200 rupees.
Havelis open from 8:30am to 4:30pm. Avoid weekends when groups of students and locals completely cloak the narrow street and havelis. I recommend you visit the first one and enter the third one for a quick look.
The havelis are located outside the fort about 15min drive on a rickshaw. You should expect to pay 100 to 200 rupees.
See notorious Moti Mahal Haveli
Moti Mahal Haveli (also known as Salim Singh haveli) was built by the grandfather of Salim Singh, Moti Lal, an influential merchant family of the time. Salim Singh was a minister of Jaisalmer and the person who is believed to be responsible for Kuldhara’s abandonment.
Salim Singh was a very powerful person at the time and accumulated a lot of wealth. Eventually, the King realised this and removed him.
Its most striking feature is the top floor balcony that seems to be floating in the air, carried by the wings of the many peacocks carved on it. Note how a part of the top balcony has fallen off.
This haveli was originally taller than the royal palace so the Maharaja removed the top two floors. There were two elephants at the entrance to the haveli but one has disappeared. Elephants are a symbol of power so the entrance to a building with elephants denotes the house of a powerful person like a minister.
Look for it on our map above. This haveli is usually open to the public but there is nothing to see inside. When I visited, after the rainy season, the house was closed because of safety concerns.
Because its state of conservation is precarious you might want to reconsider going in. My guide indicated there was nothing to see and not worth it, the facade is its main point.
Nathmal Ki Haveli
Nathmal Ki Haveli
The third of the notable havelis in Jaisalmer is Nathmal Ki Haveli, another work of art in Jaisalmer.
This haveli used to be the residence of the Prime Minister of Jaisalmer Mohan Nathmaland has been passed down to all the Diwan of Jailsamer and their successors.
Today, it is still owned by them. The haveli is worth a visit because its facade was split into two and its design assigned to two different brother architects who each had freedom to decide how the facade would look.
If you pay attention you will notice that it seems symmetrical but each side is actually different and shows the skill of the artisans.
The cenotaphs on each side are different, as are the designs on the window frames and the bottom balconies. Even the pillars have different designs. The only part that is perfectly symmetrical is the main door.
Look out for the lions carved from yellow sandstone that flank the entrance.
Entrance to this haveli is free as the lower floors have been converted into shops and the haveli is inhabited by the family who runs the shops. You can go in and have a look while you admire the interiors which are less impressive than the intricate facade.
Paddle around Gadisar Lake
Gadisar Lake chhatris and boating
This man-made lake near Jaisalmer is a respite from the dryness of the desert and makes for picturesque photos. There are boats and kayaks you can rent for a stroll, or to get to the two chhatris that are in the lake and where you can often see photo shoots taking place.
There is a small temple devoted to Shiva on the banks of the lake from where you have nice views and ghats, chhatris and street sellers everywhere.
The lake is open all day long but the boat rental ends at around 5pm. This is a common place for wedding photo shoots so you are almost sure to find one.
Photograph Tilon Ki Pol
This gate carved from yellow sandstone leads to Gadisar Lake. It is said that the gate was built by a courtesan called Tilon and in order for it to be allowed and not destroyed by the King (who refused to walk under it every time he wanted to access the lake), she converted it into a small temple by placing an idol of Shiva.
Walk over to it and around the balconies next to it for great lake views. From here is also where you can rent boats to paddle around the lake.
Amar Sagar Lake
Amar Sagar is another man-made lake near Jaisalmer that has become a popular destination for local families to enjoy a picnic when the weather is good.
Much larger than Gadisar, Amar Sagar is more of an entertainment destination with lots to do and an old palace devoted to Amar Singh. There are several pavilions in and around the water you can explore and take picturesque photos of as well as a temple dedicated to lord Shiva.
If you look online, don’t get confused between the two as sometimes the photos look similar and people are tagged the wrong location. These are indeed two different lakes.
You can ask your guide to come here during your private tour of Jaisalmer or get a rickshaw to take you and wait for you.
Explore the stunning Jain Temples of Jaisalmer
Jainism is a religion founded in India with around 4 million followers, a relatively small number when compared to the country’s population but because of their wealth, Jain temples are overly represented in India.
Jains profess no violence to any living creature, as a result, pure Jains are vegan and don’t eat root vegetables like potatoes, tapioca or carrots (when you pull them out of the ground, you kill the entire plant) or fruits with seeds such as tomatoes.
The religion was founded in the 6th century BC and is based on three principles: right knowledge, right conduct and right belief. There are no gods in Jainism, instead, there are 24 Swamis, or Tirthankar (hermits, prophets), which you find inside the temples.
Beautiful carvings in Jaisalmer’s Jain Temples
You will come across many Jain temples in Rajasthan but Jaisalmer has, arguably, some of the most impressive.
There are seven 16th century Jain Temples in Jaisalmer’s Fort you can visit. Like the rest of the fort, they are carved from yellow sandstone with intricate designs and in total there are 6,666 statues of Jain prophets.
All temples are located nearby, almost adjacent. The most notable are Chandraprabhu Temple (devoted to the eighth Tirthankar), where you get your tickets, Parshvnath Temple (devoted to the 23rd Tirthankar) and Sambhavnath Temple (3rd Tirthankar).
Parshvnath Temple has a white idol that looks as if it was made of marble but it is instead made of sandstone covered in a layer of pearl powder. This is the only temple with a painted mandapa ceiling and is located at the back of Chandraprabhu.
Parshvnath Temple in Jaisalmer
Rikhabdev Temple is smaller and right next to Chandraprabhu, it has beautiful nymph carvings and is usually a bit emptier.
Each temple is dedicated to one of the famous Jain hermits. Under the statue of the hermit, by his feet, you will see their symbol. For example, number 23rd has a cobra.
Jaisalmer’s Jain temples are all elevated on a platform a few stairs above the ground and have arched entrances with intricately carved columns. Inside, every wall and column is carved. If you have been to Pattadakal, Halebidu in Karnataka, you will find the level of detail familiar.
They all have two floors and are entirely designed following Indian architectural styles (without any Mughal influence). The side walls are decorated with dozens of small niches with 24 of the Jain Tirthankar (hermits) in varying sizes. Note how they all have been given modern eyes on top of the marble.
The entry ticket to the temples is 200 Rupees which you buy from Chandraprabhu Temple. If you take a photo of the idol, it is expected that you leave a donation in the box that is right in front of it.
You need to take your shoes off and leave any water bottles outside. When you go in the temple you kick all bad habits by not stepping on the door’s frame but directly inside on the small step after the door.
Opening times for non-Jain are limited to the early morning until around noon (times change so best to ask your guide). For the rest of the day the temples are open to devotees only.
Admire Mandir Palace
This stunning 18th century Indo-Saracenic Palace, similar to some of the constructions found in Chennai, is located just outside the fort and now houses a luxury hotel opened by the royal family who still hold residence in the palace.
The current occupant is Raj Kumar Dr. Jitendra Singh and the family who is the direct descendant of the original founder of the palace.
You can visit the palace museum section of the WelcomHeritage Hotel which is open to the public. Here you can see ethnographic exhibits, furniture, artifacts and other objects.
You can visit the Museum and parts of the palace by simply buying a ticket at the entrance.
Visit the Desert Culture Center and Museum
This is a small and private museum that showcases Rajasthani culture and history as well as objects, clothes, artifacts and weaponry. Every night, there are Rajasthani puppet shows. The museum is one of the things to do in Jaisalmer at night when all other places to visit are closed (or when it rains as it happened to me!).
You can buy tickets for the museum and/or the show onsite.
Have a hashish lassi at a bhang shop
Because the Brahmin cast used to consume bhang (edible marijuana) in religious ceremonies, the Indian Government has allowed it to be consumed legally at licensed shops across Rajasthan. You cannot buy the marijuana or sell it, but you can consume it at officially licensed shops.
You will find bhang shops in many cities in the region but there is a particularly convenient one at the foot of the fort, near the tourist information kiosk.
You can take it as a drink, smoke it or eat it in the form of cookies or brownies. As the bhang shop owner told us “when you buy bhang cookies then the desert camel safari feels like a carpet”. Talk about a fantastic thing to do in Jaisalmer!
Makhani lassi has cardamom, sliced nuts like almonds, dried fruits and saffron and it is a really nice one. This is the one I tried, with my mother no less. It is served in traditional clay cups
There is a tiny licensed bhang shop that you can find on Google Maps (marked in mine above) and which is ran by a knowledgeable and keen guy happy to give you all sorts of details. Ask to see the cookies (sold in boxes of ten) in case you want to buy some to take away.
Shop for patchwork blankets
Authentic patchwork blankets or quilts are made of pieces of royal Rajasthani dresses and clothes sewn together to make colorful pieces. They are exquisite and unique, as each piece is made from the dresses available and cannot be replicated.
You may find patchwork blankets for sale across Rajasthan, but they are everywhere in Jaisalmer where they historically come from. Here, you can buy some of the most beautiful, provided they are original.
Beware, many of the patchwork pieces you will find on sale in the streets are actually not original, but mass-produced so make sure to either get your guide to recommend you a real one (even then be careful as guides will also try to take you to the shop that gives them the highest commission) or try the one I visited.
Buying a patchwork quilt was one of the best decisions my mum made and something she loves looking at back home.
Find original pieces at the KB Co-operative store, a simple place where the products made by women across the villages outside of Jaisalmer are sold. You can bargain for a good price. They also sell pashminas and other textiles.
Get lost in the back lanes of the Jaisalmer Fort
Jaisalmer Fort was built like a maze of narrow streets with towering houses that prevented the sunlight from reaching the pedestrians walking, thus keeping them cool. Some of the back alleys are so narrow that not even motorbikes can drive through, a respite from the constant honking.
One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is to simply get lost, and trust me you will, among these alleys, discovering something you never saw before, shopping for affordable items and generally taking it all in.
If you do get lost as expected, use Google Maps. Make sure to download the map for offline use if you don’t have internet access.
Have lunch with views at Desert Boy’s Dhani
As Jaisalmer depends on tourism for its economic success, many of the Fort’s buildings have been converted into hotels and restaurants, some of them with amazing views.
If you are getting tired of all the walking, the honking or the street sellers, one of the best things to do in Jaisalmer to take a break is to sit down for a chai tea or a meal at one of these eateries with views. There are quite a few options but we discovered a pretty good one, courtesy of our guide.
I had lunch at Desert Boy’s Dhani which is located right on the fort wall’s edge and has magnificent views of the bastions. This is a restaurant and hostel which serves food in a sheltered but open-air rooftop terrace.
The food was tasty and relatively affordable, although the service was a bit erratic but well worth the views and location.
Check out the rooms: with low ceiling and traditional Rajasthani furniture and bedding, they are an interesting way to see how locals used to live inside the fort.
No need to make a reservation, just show up. If you are visiting between March and October, you might not be able to enjoy the outdoor terrace as the weather will be too hot.
Enjoy a cozy dinner at Saffron
If you are looking for a great way to end your day of exploration in the city, a dinner under the stars and with fort views cannot be beat.
I always love nighttime in Rajasthan, especially in the smaller cities. The skies tend to be clear, the temperatures bearable, even chilly in the winter months, and the light pollution lower than in most Western cities so you can even spot some stars. Plus the views of the lit fort are magical.
Saffron is a widely recommended option. The rooftop bar of Nachana Haveli Hotel has panoramic views of the fort and serves good food at reasonable prices. You can even have a beer or order Italian food for a change.
Usually, no bookings are required but if you’d like a seat outside, you might want to ask your hotel to phone up just to be sure.
Buy traditional Indian sweets at Dhanraj Bhatia Sweets
Indians love very sweet sweets, and in Rajasthan you will find they are even more widespread than in other parts of India. No list of things to do in Jaisalmer would be complete without talking about eating or buying sweets.
One of the best places to buy them is Dhanraj Bhatia Sweets, an unassuming little corner shop selling traditional sweets.
They are made fresh every day and will not last long because they contain fresh milk, but will bring sweetness to your day. Get a whole box if you are leaving India soon (they will only last 3 days) or just a couple for just a few rupees.
Try the diamond shaped kaju katli delicately covered with a thin layer of silver and made with cashews, milk and ghee.
The little shop is found on Google Maps and you may walk past it if you get dropped off by your driver at the main tourist point and then walk up towards the fort. Look at my map to locate it. The shop is open until late and it has no website as it is literally a corner store.
Enjoy the views from Cannon Point
Jaisalmer’s Fort was built by expert warriors with several defensive structures and mechanisms and it was guarded by bastions and canons some of which can still be found today.
There is a particularly interesting one that also offers panoramic views of the city below and provides a good perspective on the surrounding sprawling streets below the fort.
Cannon Point is on Google Maps, however, beware that the few steps and slope that takes you to the cannon is very steep and can be slippery.
Go on a desert Safari and dinner in under the stars
The city is surrounded by sand dunes and is considered the gateway to the Thar Desert so it is typical for most visitors to end up enjoying the sand dunes one way or another as it is.
The Thar Desert is located on the border between India and Pakistan and it naturally separates the two although about 20% of the desert falls within Pakistan’s borders. The desert starts near Jodhpur and covers the Rajasthani cities of Bikaner, Pushkar and Jaisalmer which are fully in the desert.
The Thar Desert is not a huge desert by global standards but it is the most densely populated with over half of the population of Rajasthan living in it and employed in animal herding and agriculture.
Some parts of the desert are not your typical Arabian sand dunes found in Dubai or Saudi Arabia, but more of an arid region similar to what you may find in Djibouti, Somaliland, or the Bardenas Reales area in Spain.
In fact, when I visited, at the end of the rainy season and during an unusually rainy period, the desert was covered in greenery. It also helps that sections of the Thar Desert have benefitted from the Indira Gandhi canal which is the longest in the world and has managed to convert some arid desert sections into arable land.
The protection of the desert and the limited impact of agriculture has left some of the animal species living in the area untouched and saved from extinction. They have adapted from their counterparts living in easier areas and have thrived, despite the threat from human density being there.
On a regular safari you will most likely see a few Indian gazelle running among the desert bushes. Vultures and eagles are also common, along with a long list of birds.
One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is to join a desert safari. A typical tour starts with a 4×4 pick up from your accommodation in Jaisalmer and stops at two sites on the way, the abandoned Kuldhara Village and the cenotaph memorials at Bada Bagh.
Most tours will take you to Sam’s Sands or to Khuri, I went to Khuri. When you get to the desert you have the option of riding a camel on the sand dunes to a sunset spot.
You can continue the safari by having a basic dinner on the sand dunes cooked by your camel herders or returning to a permanent desert camp for a buffet dinner and folkloric performance.
I found the folkloric dancing, singing and playing of local instruments quite mesmerizing and the troupe was fascinating and were incredibly skilled, it was much better than I expected and I found it very enjoyable.
We did not ride the camels because we are against any activities where animal welfare cannot be guaranteed (also camels are not made to carry heavy weights on their backs and ferrying tourists is not good for them), so instead drove on an open-air 4×4 to the sand dunes.
Unless you are driving, have a car that can drive in the sand dunes and know where to go, you will need to book a tour to explore the desert.
No matter where you walk in town you will see the signs for desert tours everywhere. While it may seem like they all offer the same, there are variations on where you go, what you get and what you do which justify the price.
I recommend you pair the desert safari with a city tour so you get the best of Jaisalmer in one day and can then return the next day to explore the parts that you liked the most.
This private tour of Jaisalmer includes a desert safari at the end of the day and is a very complete day tour taking in all the main sights in this list of things to do in Jaisalmer as well as the desert.
If you want to experience the desert for longer and have always dreamed of spending the night under the stars, this tour allows you to sleep in a permanent tented camp for one night.
If you already explored all of Jaisalmer and want to add this half day tour separately, you can also book this tour that includes the desert and folkloric performance with dinner.
Wander photogenic Bada Bagh chhatris
Bada Bagh is a group of royal chhatris, or cenotaphs, located outside Jaisalmer and which honor the Maharajas. The practice of building cenotaphs for royal family members is a common one in Rajasthan and you will find them in several cities such as Udaipur or Jodhpur.
The first cenotaph at Bada Bagh was erected in 1743 in honor of Jai Singh II by his son. Jai Singh II had built a dam in the area turning it into a green oasis and his son wanted to remember him by building a garden and a cenotaph.
The area is rather arid and while you can still see some trees, don’t expect a garden. Instead, you will find many more cenotaphs as subsequent Maharajas continued the tradition until the 20th-century cenotaph for Jawahar Singh.
The cenotaphs at Bada Bagh
This last cenotaph was never finished as it was built by his son on the year he ascended to the throne and died and this was believed to be bad luck. India achieved independence shortly after and the practice ended.
Each of the cenotaphs is dedicated to a different person and has a different design and size. Walk up the stairs and admire the area. There is only one sign outside the entrance to Bada Bagh and not much more information after that.
Bada Bagh is not only important from a heritage and historical point of view but also a favorite place to visit in Jaisalmer for photography buffs as the cenotaphs are incredibly photogenic, especially at sunset.
Many desert tours will stop at Bada Bagh which you will need a short time to explore. If you stop here on your way to the desert, you will most likely do so a couple of hours before sunset, which is the perfect time to see them.
As the warm hues of sunlight reflect on the golden sandstone of the cenotaphs, they appear even more regal. The sun indeed sets right in front of the cenotaphs.
However, if you want to spend more time there to take uber photogenic shots, you can also get here by hiring a taxi with Ola or a rickshaw from Jaisalmer and come a couple of hours before sunset.
Bada Bagh is about 20 minutes from the city. There is an entry fee you will have to pay at the gated entrance. Guides are usually available for hire there, negotiate a fair price considering there is not that much to be said (should be around half an hour tour).
This is a relatively quiet tourist attraction in Jaisalmer and even if there is a tourist group when you arrive, you just need to wait for a few minutes to have it all again to yourself as the average visitor spends little time there.
Bear in mind that these are holy structures so you should take your shoes off when you step inside the cenotaphs.
Walk the empty streets of abandoned Kuldhara village
Kuldhara village is another typical stop on your desert safari. One of 84 abandoned villages in Jaisalmer, Kuldhara remains untouched since it was abandoned.
Legend has it that this Paliwal Brahmin village was one of 84 built by migrants from Pali in the 13th century and that they all had to be abandoned overnight in the 19th century because of excessive and unreasonable tax demands from a minister of Jailsalmer called Salim Singh. Other tales talk about earthquakes and drought.
Locals believe the village to be haunted and anybody who repopulated it saw ghosts and other paranormal activity, so it was left abandoned.
You can walk around the abandoned houses and streets and see what it looked like. Not many buildings are still standing but you can still see a small temple. The elements have not been kind to the village so the majority of the buildings are in ruins.
Kuldhara is 18km from Jaisalmer, so a rickshaw is not an option. I would try to get the driver to stop on your way to the desert as this is not worth a trip on its own.
If you fly into Jaisalmer you are likely to see lots of wind towers through the window. The area receives strong winds from the desert, especially in the months leading up to the Monsoon season, and these winds are harvested for electricity.
The parks are owned by Suzlon Energy and span a large area. If you venture outside of Jaisalmer you will start to see them everywhere standing tall like the 21st century version of Don Quixote’s fears.
While this is not a tourist attraction per se, it is one of the most interesting things to do in Jaisalmer.
Just ask your driver to take you somewhere close on your way to the desert or Bada Bagh or get a window seat on the plane from Jaipur.
Where to stay in Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer depends on tourism income and the fort area has been converted into a major tourist destination with lots of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. However, there is not a single five star hotel in the entire city and the best hotels are found outside.
Because the city is relatively small, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, all the places to see in Jaisalmer on this list are a mere few minutes rickshaw ride away from all hotels.
Below are the best hotels in Jaisalmer.
- WelcomHeritage – Housed inside the Mandir Palace, this is the best choice of hotel to stay in the city. The palace is stunning and the hotel is within a short distance of the fort. Here you can live like royalty and even meet them. Compare rates across all booking sites on HotelsCombined | Check rates on Booking.com | Check rates on Agoda
- Suryagarh – This is one of the few five star hotels around Jaisalmer. Although it is not located in the city, Suryagarh makes the most of its privileged desert location to take you on a One Thousand and One Nights fairytale in a newly built desert fort with infinity pools and jacuzzi bathtubs all with dune views. Compare rates across all booking sites on HotelsCombined | Check rates on Booking.com | Check rates on Agoda
- The Marriott Resort and Spa – Strange for a chain like Marriott to have a resort here but they do. The hotel is inspired by the Indo-saracenic architecture of Jaisalmer and features all the modern comforts expected from a Marriott. It is located outside the fort and has views of it. Compare rates across all booking sites on HotelsCombined | Check rates on Booking.com | Check rates on Agoda
- Sujan The Serai Camp – Another hotel on the sand dunes and in the form of a camp is The Serai. Part of Relais & Chateaux and belonging to the luxury hotel chain Sujan, with outposts in Jaipur, The Serai is the most expensive hotel in Jaisalmer and provides luxury tented rooms in the Thar Desert. For a romantic escape, look no further. Compare rates across all booking sites on HotelsCombined | Check rates on Booking.com | Check rates on Agoda
- The Gulaal Hotel – I stayed at this newly built boutique hotel outside the fort area that has been designed to look like an ancient haveli. The service was excellent, the staff was very attentive (even with a baby) and the owner very helpful. The rooms were spacious, comfortable and new and the rooftop bar and restaurant had fabulous fort views. The food was extraordinary, always made from scratch (which is unusual in India where curries are always prepared in advance) and without any chilli for my family. Overall, this was a great value for money option. Compare rates across all booking sites on HotelsCombined | Check rates on Booking.com | Check rates on Agoda
Other things to consider
Jaisalmer is a traditional Rajasthani city and the same travel tips that apply to other cities will be useful there. As most visitors come to Jaisalmer after visiting Jaipur or Jodhpur, they are already familiar with how things work here.
Below I am highlighting some of the things to consider to make the most of your visit to the best places in Jaisalmer.
When to visit Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer’s weather is extreme and temperatures can vary a lot in a single day as expected from a desert location. In the summer months, temperatures surpass the 40 degree Celsius and in winter, night temperatures can drop to 10.
The best time to visit Jaisalmer is in the winter months of November to February when it is not too hot during the day and the days are clear without clouds, rain or dust. After February it can get very hot and the winds start to pick up, carrying sand to your eyes and nose.
In the summer months, Jaisalmer sees very high temperatures and rain, paired with sand storms, a very bad combination.
How to get to Jaisalmer
Unlike the other cities in Rajasthan like Udaipur, Jodhpur or Jaipur, Jaisalmer is relatively far. The best way to get to Jaisalmer is either by plane, from Jaipur, Delhi or Mumbai (there are even seasonal flights from Agra) or by car from Jodhpur (around 5h drive).
Flights from Jaipur are extremely cheap, we paid less than $50 each with Spicejet, but I would not recommend driving as that is over 10 hours. You cannot fly from Jodhpur or Udaipur as there are no direct flights.
How long to stay in Jaisalmer
In order to cover all the things to do in Jaisalmer on this list you should allow for at least two days. I spent four because I was traveling with my sister’s baby and we were taking it easy. We also spent quite a lot of time shopping.
If time is not an issue, I recommend to spend three days so you don’t rush and can enjoy some beautiful dinners under the stars or with views of the fort.
Cows in Jaisalmer
Cows are everywhere in Jaisalmer
Cows are sacred and revered across India and cannot be harmed. They are found everywhere across the country and their number is growing so sightings are a common thing in the streets of India where they roam freely and are being fed by the locals.
You will see lots of cows in the streets of Jaisalmer, many more than in any other city in Rajasthan, a region that is populated by cattle herders and has even a Cow Minister.
There are so many that cow traffic jams are common, cows come out of nowhere and there is cow poo everywhere, so you need to be extra careful when walking around.
I would strongly suggest you wear closed shoes for this reason. And beware that a cow can decide to evacuate their bowels anywhere at anytime so try not to walk behind them too close.
Honking and general levels of noise
Like in other Indian cities, constant honking in the streets is common in Jaisalmer, despite the government’s ban on night honking and loud music that came into effect in 2005, the proven negative effects of its high noise levels and the population’s many petitions to stop it.
However, because the streets in Jaisalmer are very narrow, sometimes not even motorbikes can pass which provides a bit of silent respite.
If, like me, you are not used to the constant honking, it can really get to you. If sleeping in the fort area, consider bringing earplugs to get better sleep. Even outside the fort, the call to prayer of mosques can be heard clearly and may wake you up before sunrise.
What to pack for Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer is a desert city and, as such, requires proper packing. Although you will find most of the below for sale across the touristy areas of every Indian city (this goes to show how important these items are) it pays to bring the brand that works for you.
Here are a few of the things you should bring to Jaisalmer.
- Sunglasses, you will not go very far without them. Remember that the sun is very strong in India in general but here even more because the rays reflect on the sand. Also, the wind can pick up a lot of dust which will end up in your eyes. Bring a pair of trusty and safe sunglasses. I always use Oakley (I have for decades, literally since I was 16) and they are a lifesaver. They are not stylish or fancy, but they are incredibly useful to protect from the sun and from the sand. I have used this exact polarised model for years.
- A hat to protect from the sun. Except for the narrow streets in the fort which are shaded by the tall buildings, you will be under the sun everywhere you go so a hat is essential.
- Mosquito repellent, even at the fancy hotels, mosquitoes will find their way in. I always use either the brand Off! or Repel. They just work and are sold in small bottles that you can easily carry around.
- Sunscreen, like sunglasses and hats, sunscreen is a critical items when traveling anywhere that is hot and sunny. In Jaisalmer more than anywhere, you need to protect your face and arms from the sun with adequate sunscreen, and reapply. I always use Biore because it is dry, non-oily and I can even apply make-up on top of it. It comes in handy small bottles that can easily slip in my handbag and go through passport controls.
- As mentioned before, I would recommend wearing closed shoes in Jaisalmer (everywhere in India really, but here more than ever), to protect them from the sun, the mosquitoes, the dust, the dirt and the cow poo that covers the streets. I always wear flats like these ones because I find trainers too clunky.
- Ear plugs, many high-end hotels will give them to you, placing them on the bedside table, but it is a good idea to bring your own. Simple ones usually do, or you can get a more high-tech version.