Bhutan is the original land of smiles (sorry Thailand!). With a national manifesto that’s based on cumulative, community happiness and cohesion, the country has only recently stepped out of the shadows. And while it can still be difficult to get visas and permits to travel here, the treasures that await really do make the admin worth all the bother.
In the east, soaring villages hide between the clouds and the mighty peaks of the Himalaya. In the west, towns dress the valley bottoms with whitewashed dzongs (traditional Bhutanese fortress-monasteries). Meanwhile, totemic Buddhist relics and revered sites of ancient gurus can be found in the hills, high-perched monasteries cascade from the summits, and there are trekking trails so wonderful you’ll hardly believe they’re real. So, no matter if you’re a culture vulture, a history lover, or just a budding adventurer pining for one of the world’s less trodden corners, you can rest assured that beautiful Bhutan has you covered!
Lets explore the best places to visit in Bhutan:
Cut straight into the vertical rises of the Bhutanese mountains just north out of the charming town of Paro, the breathtaking rooms of the Taktsang monastery are perhaps the most-photographed and legendary in the entire Himalayas.
First constructed in the late 17th century, the site marks the fabled spot where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three whole years.
Today, the revered Guru is hailed as Bhutan’s patron, and the figure who brought Buddhism to the nation.
Visitors come and explore this fascinating story between the precariously-perched cloisters and golden-topped prayer rooms of Taktsang: the awesome so-called Tiger’s Nest of the Paro Valley.
Paro sits nestled in the heart of a wide valley at the western end of the Bhutanese Himalaya.
A handsome place whose paved roads and neatly-painted, half-timbered cottages belie its modern construction (Paro was largely rebuilt in the 1980s, with all the work adhering to the traditional architecture of the region), it’s home to the whitewashed rises of the great Rinpung Dzong.
Part monastery, part fortress, this great citadel of timber-topped walls is one of the finest examples of military-religious architecture in the country.
Above it is where travelers will find the National Museum of Bhutan, hidden in an old watchtower on a hill.
When it comes to Bhutan’s whitewashed dzong complexes, there are few that can live up to the sheer size and breathtaking beauty of the Trongsa Dzong.
Yep, this colossal medley of half-timbered halls and high-perched prayer rooms makes its home on a craggy outcrop above the Mangde River.
It was once the ancestral seat of the Wangchuck dynasty, who are now the royal family of Bhutan.
And while the mechanics of state have largely moved to Thimphu, this great palace still holds great political and religious importance, and displays a mosaic of gorgeous 15th and 16th-century architecture typical of the region.
Straddling the meanders of the Raidak River in its own little crack in the middle of the western Bhutanese Himalaya, Timphu is a curios place.
With its ancient temples and monastery complexes it oozes with age-old Buddhist charm, while the recent arrival of motorized traffic and modern business gives it the energy and flair of a new capital.
Landmarks abound too, from the 15th-century Changangkha Lhakhang to the grand bronze effigy of Sakyamuni Buddha with its views over the mountains.
Also, don’t miss the colossal Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which is now the home of Bhutan’s government.
Small and sleepy Jakar sits in the midst of the impossibly-beautiful Choekor Valley – an area hailed as Little Switzerland for its sweeping vistas of fir forests and alpine hills.
A religious center, and the gateway to the eastern beauties of the Bumthang District, it’s peppered with gorgeous whitewashed monasteries.
Atop the town, the great Jakar Dzong keeps watch, representing one of the largest fortified monasteries in the country, while sites like the Kurje Lhakhang below tell stories of the 8th-century Indian master Guru Rinpoche, who helped bring Buddhism to this far-flung corner of the mountains all those centuries ago.
Encompassed by sweeping valleys of rice paddy and agricultural terraces, the onetime capital of Punakha is around three hours by car from Thimphu.
Every traveler who makes it here, deep in the heart of the Himalayan range, will instantly be drawn to the huge complex of the Palace of Great Happiness.
This is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Bhutan, and the winter residence of their national Buddhist order.
Surrounding this are clutches of traditional farmer hamlets, like the enchanting adobe town of Ritsha, which ooze rustic character and come dotted with earthy teahouses touting curries.
The great Gangteng Monastery emerges from the cascading fir and spruce forests of the Wangdue Phodrang District in central Bhutan.
It’s unquestionably one of the most revered religious sites here, known for its veneration of the terchen king Pema Lingpa – one of the country’s great spiritual patrons.
Located on a high bluff of stone that pokes up above the town of the same name (Gangteng Village) the great monastery is a real wonder to behold.
Check out the carved timber frontispieces and the glowering garuda gargoyles, all before hitting the famous trekking trails of the greater Phubjika Valley – the stomping ground of the rare black crane.
The oriental end of the high-perched Lateral Road that runs right through the heart of Bhutan, Trashigang can be found sat up on the peaks above the meanders of the Drangme Chhu River.
Perhaps the most important town in the eastern districts of the country, it’s topped by its very own breathtaking dzong: a medley of gilded roofs and whitewashed walls that sits high above the forest canopies and over the alpine valley bottoms below.
In the center itself, visitors will discover an earthy folk bazaar, where all the stalls and sellers crowd around an elaborate public prayer wheel.
Known to locals by its official name – the Chokhor Valley – the word Bumthang (which actually refers to the whole of central Bhutan) has become the de facto moniker of this stretch of mountains in the northern reaches of the country.
Home to a series of truly impressive monasteries, it’s actually one of the top destinations to come and witness traditional dzong architecture.
You can start with a trip to the mighty walls of Jakar Dzong, before casing out the nearby monastery of Tamshing Goemba.
Then, there are more mysterious religious sites in Shinyer Village, not to mention the traditional arts and crafts center of Chhumey – the place to buy Himalayan wool!
Sat right on the edge of the mountains, where the great phalanx of Himalayan peaks begins to rise against the Indian border, thriving little Phuentsholing is one of the most up-and-coming cities in Bhutan.
Made rich thanks to its ease-of-access and close connections to the town of Jaigaon in West Bengal, it’s a center for trade and selling.
Markets pepper its middle, while there’s a distinctly built-up character to the looks of the place – you’re not likely to see so many concrete structures and paved roads anywhere else in the country! Phuentsholing is also a great place to see the Indian border gate, and the relaxed patrols that are common there.
Another breathtaking mountain town shrouded by the chiseled peaks of the Himalaya, another mighty dzong fortress from the 17th century.
Yep, Wangduephodrang has its own monastery-citadel complex, which can be found glowering down on the small town from its misty shelf in the middle of the peaks.
Unfortunately, the whole structure suffered immensely after a destructive fire in 2012. Reconstruction projects on the site are still underway, although it remains a great stopover on the Lateral Road between the Phobjikha Valley and Bumthang.
One of the favored stepping stones in the east on the way to the provincial hub of Trashigang, Mongar occupies its own hilltop on the plateau of the Bhutanese Himalaya.
Visitors enjoy eye-wateringly wonderful views from the get-go, with sweeping valleys and wide mountain massifs dressed in fir unfolding on all sides.
Add to that Mongar’s reputation as an educational center, and its lively daily marketplace, which bursts with woven goods and organic lemon oils, and it’s easy to see why so many folks opt to linger a while.
Lhuntse (or Lhuntshi as it’s also known) is another jewel of eastern Bhutan.
Hidden in a steep-sided valley of verdant green woods and mist-clad summits, its setting is pure drama.
And then there’s the pint-sized dzong at its center, which rises on an escarpment of wooded rock like some mighty palace out of Game of Thrones.
However, that half-timbered citadel is just a part of the attraction, because Lhuntse is also known for its accomplished local wool products, and as a fine jumping off point for the trekking trails that weave through the mountains to the villages of Gangzur and Khoma – both pictures of rustic Bhutanese life.
14. Kilung Lhakhang
Tiny little Kilung Lhakhang is just a speck on the map.
Sat nestled between the verdant Himalaya close to aforementioned Lhuntse, it’s an off-the-beaten-track place to say the least.
However, there’s a deep and fascinating history to learn about here, with a revered chain mall relic that is said to have performed miracles.
The very location is also worth seeing, with the town spilling over the ridges in a medley of old Tshanglas homes and tin-roofed concrete builds.
In all, it’s a fascinating picture of backcountry Bhutan!
Tang is the hardest-to-get-to section of the aforementioned Bumthang Valley; a place of beautiful greenery and fir-peppered hillsides, where a smattering of awesome Buddhist relics continues to magnetize monks and intrepid travelers alike.
The Mebar Tsho (or the so-called Burning Lake) is one of the great treats here, being a location associated with the miracles of Pema Lingpa back in the 14th century.
The museum at Ogyen Choling is also worth a visit, where there are collections of local crafts and preserved living quarters of age-old Buddhist monks to help unravel the deep connections between this nation and its religious faith.