Bhutan is probably the most pristine country I ever visited. The secluded Buddhist kingdom in the Himalaya mountains sees very little tourists and tours are very expensive. Despite the outstanding beauty of the country with a population of only 800,000 people, there is not a lot of information out there. This is why I put together this list of the best places to visit in Bhutan.
I spend 2 weeks in the country in October 2019, and from reading older guides I can tell that the country changed a lot in recent years. Monasteries and Dzongs have been renovated, and modern technology (like smartphones and TV) are widely in use now. This is exactly what prompted me to compile a current list of the top tourist attractions in Bhutan.
You will end up booking a tour anyway. You cannot visit Bhutan independently. But YOU need to decide when to visit Bhutan and how long you want to stay. And of course, you can customize your tour with your guide. There are many beautiful places in Bhutan a lot of tours skip because there is not enough time or interest.
Even getting to Bhutan isn’t all that easy (read my guide if you are still trying to figure out the best route). On top of that, tourists have to spend at least 250 USD per day and person in Bhutan. Since that is quite a big financial commitment, I want to fill in as many blanks spots as I can.
So, let’s start, shall we?
PS: I booked my tour with Aman Bhutan. You can read my review of the five Amankora lodges here.
Here are my favorite places to visit in Bhutan:
1. Tiger’s Nest / Taktsang Monastery, Paro
The Tiger’s Nest far above Paro is probably Bhutan’s most iconic landmark. A lot of tourists visit the country just to see the Taktsang Palphug Monastery (the actual name of the place). And mark my words – it is even more beautiful in person, so I cannot even fault them.
Sadly, a fire ravaged most of the 17th-century structure, which was rebuilt only in 2005. What you also have to know: It takes about 2 hours to hike up to the Tiger’s nest – one way! It’s quite strenuous in fact, though there are horses for rent (but ridding uphill is not so easy either). Even with horses, you have to walk the last stretch (30 minutes).
If you want to take beautiful pictures, then the early afternoon is the best time to do the hike, as the sun actually rises right behind the monastery (it will also be the hottest time for the climb, though!). I wrote a full Tiger’s Nest travel guide here with more useful information.
Important note: Taking pictures is strictly forbidden inside and you have to leave all cameras and bags outside. There is a little hut with lockers.
2. Dodey Drak Buddhist Institute, Thimphu
Funnily enough, I haven’t seen the amazing Dodey Drak Buddhist Institute featured in a lot of travel guides. Probably because you also have to hike some 2 hours from Thimphu to get there. But there is no denying the place is utterly beautiful and was actually one of my favorite places to visit in Bhutan.
3. Namgyal Chorten, Punakha
The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten is a fairly recent addition to Bhutan’s cultural riches. It was only finished in 2004 by the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. The temple was built with the intention to bring peace to the world and Bhutan in particular.
I want to be honest: The temple itself is only mildly interesting for non-Bhutanese Buddhist. BUT the 30 minutes hike and the views from the top of the temple are the most beautiful in all of Bhutan. Punakha valley is simply beyond stunning in this part. Looks like paradise or Shangrila, really.
4. Tamshing Goemba, Bumthang
Tamshing Goemba is quite the hidden jewel in Bumthang. The little monastery was built in 1501 is one of the oldest in Bhutan and home to ancient murals. It’s actually on the tentative list for a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I really recommend visiting.
5. Temple of the excellent horse
Tachogang Lhakhang, or the Temple of the Excellent Horse, is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan (probably constructed in 1420) and famous for an ancient iron bridge across the river below it. It is a private temple, but for a little fee, monks will willingly let you inside.
6. Kurje Lhakhang, Bumthang
The Kurjey Lhakhang is the final resting place of the last three Kings of Bhutan. The are many legends around the foundation of this particular place. But to cut it short, Guru Rinpoche, the second Buddha, was said to have meditated in a cave at the back of the temple and left a print of his body there.
The complex consists of three temples. The two on the left are later additions. The cave can be found in the one on the far right.
7. Phobjkha Valley
Have you heard of the endangered black-necked cranes? Well, from November until early February you have the unique chance to observe these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. Even without them, the Phobjkha valley will be incredibly beautiful! There are ancient rhododendron forests close by and you will probably see yaks grazing on the mountain meadows.
8. Dochula Pass
Dochula Pass is another tourist’s favorite. From here, you can see the Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan on a clear day. At an elevation of 3,100 m (10,171ft), you will find a beautiful maze of 108 stupas you have to see on your tour through Bhutan! I also have to mention that when I was there, it was cloudy and we could not see a thing.
9. Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong is said to be the most beautiful of these fortresses in Bhutan. And I totally agree. The setting is just so picture-perfect as it was built at the very spot where two rivers meet.
It is also the busiest Dzong, and even the shortest Bhutan tours will stop here. Then again, Dzongs are no mere tourist attractions but functional administrative buildings were locals have to go as well – much like our town halls.
10. Chele La Pass
Chele La Pass is the highest pass (accessible by car) and definitely one of the best places to visit in Bhutan. Mind you, with a height of 3,988 meters/ 13,000 ft above sea level, even walking starts to get strenuous. But you will be rewarded with an ocean of prayer flags like no other.
Tip: Definitely take a minute and walk a bit uphill so you can tell everyone you have been above 4,000 meters ;-)
11. Buddha Dordenma Statue, Thimphu
Rising high above the valley of Thimphu, you cannot help but notice a gigantic Buddha statue. It’s altogether 52 meters / 169 feet high. Construction of the complex started in 2006 and you will find a magnificent golden hall inside.
12. Rinpung Dzong, Paro
If there was an award for the most imposing dzong, then Rinpung Dzong in Paro would get it. The building is massive and quite beautiful inside. There’s a road leading directly to the entrance, just in case you don’t want to walk all the way up the hill. Take the best picture from the other side of the river, though.
13. Dzongdrakha Monastery, Paro
Dzongdrakha Monastery is another of these sites I haven’t seen on many lists of the best places to visit in Bhutan. Which is strange, because it’s utterly divine with those beautiful rice-terraces below. Much like the Tiger’s Nest, the ancient monastery is hugging a cliff as well.
14. Chimi Lhakhang Temple, Punakha
The Chimi Lhakhang appears almost in every tourist guide. It is THE fertility temple in Bhutan and you will see penis murals and sculptures wherever you look. I found it to be only mildly interesting, to tell you the truth. Why did it still make it on the list? Right in front of the temple, you will find a couple of shops that sell the best souvenirs I found in Bhutan. Mark my words, way better than anything you’d find in Thimphu or Paro.
15. Drukgyel Dzong, Paro
Drukgyel Dzong is the second such fortress in Paro valley – and maybe the most charming of the lot. It’s actually one of the oldest in Bhutan and has been restored only recently. As of 2019, you couldn’t yet go inside – but the whole setting is quite picture-perfect to make a little detour worthwhile (it’s like 20 minutes away from the Tiger’s Nest).
16. Thimphu Chorten
The memorial stupa in Thimphu is one of the most popular Buddhist sites in Bhutan. It was built to honor the third King (Druk) Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. No matter the time of the day you come here, you’ll always see locals walking clockwise around the landmark praying.
17. Gangtey Monastery
Gangtey Monastery is quite a special place and a must-see if you are in Phobjkha valley. The ancient monastery is famous for its black-necked crane festival in September. I went there and donated a dinner for the 50 resident monks and it was quite a unique experience!
18. Trongsa Dzong
The Dzong in the tiny town of Trongsa is said to be the longest in Bhutan. It’s also the one with the most dramatic setting. Getting there is sadly not that easy and the road quite dangerous (not for the faint-hearted).
But you will need to pass it on your way to Bumthang anyway, so you might as well marvel at the many colorful courtyards and ancient monastic buildings inside.
19. National Museum of Bhutan, Paro
Bhutan is a country for outdoor lovers, but there is one notable museum you might want to consider to visit: The National Museum of Bhutan. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t recommend going inside (I found it to be quite unremarkable).
I just loved the view from the ancient watchtower. Inside, you will basically get the chance to see some pictures and taxidermy of animals and a section with dancing masks. It’s no grand affair, all in all. But those views…
Note: Taking pictures is not allowed within the National Museum and you need to leave your bags in the lockers outside.
20. Bumthang Dzong
Bumthang Dzong was probably my favorite Dzong and that’s why I’d like to conclude this list with it. It’s certainly not the largest, nor the oldest, nor the most prominent of them all. The whole setting just spoke most to me – maybe because it was always partially clouded and that looked like the perfect advertisement for the Thunder Dragon Kingdom.
I also was lucky to observe the final preparations for the upcoming Jakar Tshechu Festival. I got to see the performances without the crowd – quite the treat, eh? But if you are visiting Bhutan between October 23rd and 27th, make sure to drop by. It’s worth it.
[Bonus] Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu
Okay, one bonus item on this list of places to visit in Bhutan for you: The Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. This is the place where the annual Thimphu Tshechu festival is held – the biggest and most spectacular of the lot. It is quite the show – otherwise, it is one of the newer and least interesting dzongs in Bhutan – though also one of the biggest.
Other places to visit in Bhutan
Trekking is another popular thing to do in Bhutan. Amazing places like Jomolhari or the Jigme Dori National Park come to mind. I did not feature these places in this guide, because of the high altitudes. You see, Bhutan’s mountains are covered in dense foilage up until about 4,000 meters of altitude. Only beyond will you be able to enjoy a nice view (and not just endless green above you).
Trekking at such high altitudes is no joke, however. Altitude sickness will be a serious problem for some people and you really need a lot of alpine experience. Things can get quite dangerous very quickly. If you are an avid hiker, then, by all means, you will have the time of your life as these mountains are as pristine as they ever get!
Down in the south, you will find the Manas National park, which is quite amazing, but equally hard to incorporate into your standard Bhutan itinerary. And of course, there is the beautiful far East of Bhutan and places like the Ha valley. They all deserve a mention, but with a price tag of 250 USD per day, most people will probably try to stick to the highlights.
Also, Bhutan’s tourist infrastructure is not the best outside the bigger cities, so this is always something to consider. Only homestays will be available there (though the minimum price tag stays the same). But if you got both the money and the time, you will be rewarded with authentic experiences to last a lifetime!