The enchanting desert city of Jaisalmer is easily one of Rajasthan’s most unforgettable destinations, and many would consider their time in India incomplete with it. Nestled on the edge of the vast Thar Desert, resplendent with golden-hued homes, intricate havelis and a towering fortress, Jaisalmer is well worth the journey to this remote corner of Rajasthan.
Today a remote outpost in the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer dates back to 1156 AD, when Maharawal Jaisal founded it. Like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, Jaisalmer too has a glorious past: in medieval times, this desert city was a flourishing trade centre, strategically located on the busy caravan trade route to Central Asia. Jaisalmer made its fortune not only through the hefty taxes it imposed on passing caravans but also by looting their goods such as expensive gems, silks and even opium. The rise of Mumbai as a major trading port in the 19th century began to eclipse Jaisalmer, as did the partition at independence, slowing the city down to the sleepy pace it exudes today. Here we share our top things to do and see in Jaisalmer, where to stay, and how to get there:
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #1: Jaisalmer Fort
Rising like a fabulous mirage out of the sands of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer Fort is a dazzling 12th-century citadel, and undoubtedly the most charming feature of this enchanting town in Rajasthan. Studded with 99 bastions and often compared to an over-sized sandcastle, the fort has been inhabited with shops, homes and markets for centuries and is practically a town in its own right.
It was built by the founder of Jaisalmer, Maharawal Jaisal, back in 1165AD, and was later added to by his successors. In the past, the entire population of Jaisalmer lived within the fort walls, and even today, thousands of people still do. Compared to the forts you’ll experience in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, that’s what makes Jaisalmer so intriguing: it’s India’s last living fort. Within its walls, you’ll find a web of tiny lanes, dotted with a cluster of temples, royal palaces, restaurants, shops and charming havelis. This place has an easy-going, time-stood-still kind of vibe.
The highlight of the fort is, for many, the hustle and bustle of daily life within its walls. You could happily spend half a day strolling through the labyrinthine-like lanes, taking in the sounds, colours and sights of Jaisalmer, getting lost in the maze of streets. The former royal palace, built in 1500, now houses the Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum. Entering the museum through the Satiyon ka Pagthiya (Steps of the Satis), you can see the spot where royal ladies committed Sati (self-immolation) when their husbands were slain.
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #2: Havelis
Second to the fort, Jaisalmer’s havelis (intricately-carved townhouses) are one of its most magnificent charms. They date back to the 19th century when wealthy local merchants and ministers constructed them. There are many havelis in the narrow lanes, though the finest are the havelis of Salim Singh, Nathmalji and Patwon, whose golden façades are so intricately carved they could be lace.
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #3: Jain temples
Within the fort are seven beautifully embellished Jain temples, dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries. The temples are adorned with thousands of carved deities and dancing figures depicting mythological scenes.
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #4: Gadisagar Lake
This reservoir dates back to the early-14th century and was once Jaisalmer’s only source of water. The lake is framed by ghats (steps) and temples, and a beautiful gateway built by a royal courtesan, Telia. The gateway has a unique story behind it which we shan’t spoil for you now – our experienced guide will tell you all about it during your visit!
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #5: Sam Sand Dunes
A trip to Jaisalmer is not complete without a visit to the dunes. Unless you’re staying in the desert (for example at The Serai, or Samsara), we recommend ending your day in Jaisalmer by heading out to the dunes for a sunset camel ride. Alternatively, one can appreciate the beautiful landscapes on foot or by Jeep. Although the dunes have become somewhat commercial of late, with hawkers dotting the sands, their wind-carved ripples still create fantastic mirages, and it’s a magical place to be.
Things to see in Jaisalmer, #6: Kuldhara (an abandoned village)
A spooky, abandoned village on the outskirts of Jaisalmer, Kuldhara was abandoned by its inhabitants about 200 years ago. They left because of extortionate taxes and looting, and an indecent marriage proposal to the daughter of one family. With no response to their complaints, the entire community packed up and left. Even today, nobody knows where they went afterwards.
Where to stay in Jaisalmer, #1: Killa Bhawan
Killa Bhawan, a simple yet stylish haveli in Jaisalmer, offers guests the atmospheric experience of staying within the fort walls. Nestled high within the watchtowers, Killa Bhawan delivers stunning views of the fort and surrounding town. All rooms are traditionally furnished, decorated in bright, gem-like Rajasthani colours and adorned with locally-sourced trinkets. A highlight is the numerous roof terrace’s offering sensational views. Killa Bhawan is bed and breakfast; they don’t serve lunch or dinner, but there are many exciting restaurants to explore just a short tuk-tuk ride away so you’re never stuck for choices. This is not a luxury hotel, though the charm of staying within the fort is unforgettable for many of our guests. We find a night here pairs well with a night in the desert after, possibly at The Serai, or Samsara (two hours’ drive from Jaisalmer, en-route to Jodhpur). Rooms at Killa Bhawan start from approximately (US)$125 per double, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.
Where to stay in Jaisalmer, #2: Suryagarh
Suryagarh is a stunning luxury hotel on the quieter outskirts of Jaisalmer, about twenty minutes from town. It boasts sweeping, uninterrupted views across arid open country, as well as all the facilities one expects from a 4-5*; such as stylish and comfortable rooms, a vast indoor pool and well-equipped gym, and numerous dining options. We love the Jaisalmer Suite, but for the utmost in luxury desert living opt for the Jaisalmer Haveli; it boasts a private pool, separate havelis for living, dining and sleeping, and a courtyard. Rooms at Suryagarh start from approximately (US)$185 per double, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.
Where to stay in Jaisalmer, #3: The Serai
The Serai – a luxury camp about forty minutes away from Jaisalmer – is an oasis in the desert, offering an authentic and supremely comfortable experience. Sprawling over a vast hundred acres of unspoiled golden sands, this Relais & Châteaux property offers twenty-one luxurious canvas tents, each with the facilities one expects at a hotel rather than a tent; including a private veranda, living area, spacious air-conditioned bedroom and stunning en-suite bathroom. Traditional and locally-sourced materials, such as Jaisalmer stone flooring and hand-crafted dhurries (rugs), combined with contemporary luxuries like as silent air-conditioning and iPod docks; The Serai blends seamlessly into its surroundings while ensuring a comfortable stay. Best of all, some tents come with a private Jacuzzi – perfect for a cooling dip after a magical sundowners experience on the dunes. Tents at The Serai start from approximately (US)$620 per double, inclusive of breakfast and taxes. You can read about our recent stay there by clicking here.
How does a stop in Jaisalmer best fit within my Rajasthan tour?
Jaisalmer is connected to Jaipur, Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad by direct flight (1.5 hours). If you prefer to travel by road, Jaisalmer is within comfortable driving distance of Jodhpur (5 hours), Nagaur (5 hours) and Bikaner (6 hours). An overnight train is available from Jaisalmer back to Delhi, though please be aware the facilities onboard are inadequate, and the experience can be uncomfortable (click here to read our guide about train travel in India). Almost all of our guests who’ve travelled by overnight train tell us they wish they’d flown in hindsight.
Jaisalmer is just one of many fascinating places you can explore on a private tour with Indian Excursions. As specialists in luxury, tailor-made experiences in Rajasthan, we’re the ideal match to assist with your arrangements. If you’d like to get started, please get in touch to share your ideas with us so far. Or you might like to browse our Dreamy Deserts of Rajasthan sample tour for inspiration.0