Nestled deep in the heart of the Thar desert in Rajasthan lies Jaisalmer, an ancient city as beautiful as a mirage. This Golden City oozes old-world charm with its towering Jaisalmer fort, exquisitely carved havelis, intricately designed temples, colorful bazaars, and sweeping dunes. As a visitor, you feel transported back in time as you stroll through the atmospheric lanes and admire the golden-hued architecture. Jaisalmer offers the perfect mix of heritage, culture, adventure and natural beauty. Here is my experience unlocking the magic of this desert gem on a recent trip.
Reaching Jaisalmer – Gateway to the Thar Desert
Jaisalmer is located in the westernmost part of Rajasthan, around 575 km from Jaipur and 300 km from Jodhpur. The nearest airport is in Jodhpur, from where you can take a taxi or bus to reach Jaisalmer in about 5-6 hours. Alternatively, you can take an overnight train from Delhi or other cities till Jaisalmer junction. We flew into Jodhpur from Mumbai and drove down to Jaisalmer, taking in the changing landscapes along the way.
The arid terrain starts becoming apparent as you get closer to the desert city. We stopped on the way to admire windmills rising from the otherwise barren countryside, hinting at the frontier ahead. As we entered Jaisalmer, the magical Jaisalmer Fort came into view, standing tall beyond the city like a yellow sandstone sentinel. The excitement was palpable!
Step Back in Time at the Jaisalmer Fort
The Jaisalmer Fort instantly makes it clear that you’re somewhere special. This imposing structure is believed to be one of the very few living forts, housing over a fourth of Jaisalmer’s population within its walls in a self-sufficient township of sorts. As you enter the fort complex through the First Gate, you feel dwarfed by the massive golden-hued bastions rising several storeys high. The fort is a lesson in Rajput architecture with its ornately carved Jain temples, arches, and detailed stonework.
Inside, you find yourself lost in a maze of narrow cobblestone lanes dotted with havelis, shops, eateries and local homes painted in signature yellow. My favorite experience was just wandering around soaking in the sights, smells and hustle-bustle of life inside the fort. Do make your way to the highest point for panoramic views of the city from the cannon post. As the sun sets, the fort comes alive with lights and music – the perfect place to dine at one of the many open-air restaurants. Sitting under strings of fairy lights while folk musicians serenade you with haunting melodies is an unforgettable experience.
Shop Till You Drop at Jaisalmer’s Colorful Bazaars
The bazaars near the fort entrance give you a feel of the old trade routes and are shopper’s paradise. I could have spent hours browsing through rows of vibrant textiles, handmade jootis, antique silver jewellery, stonework and other crafts. Remember to bargain, it’s part of the fun! Some of my favorite shopping memories are sipping cups of masala chai while negotiating with friendly, witty shopkeepers.
I picked up exquisite bandhej sarees in bright Rajasthani colors, a silver nose ring, and delicious local sweets packed in paper cones called “kulhad”. If you’re looking for suavenirs, the iconic Jaisalmer camel leather lamps and sculpture figurines make great takeaways. And be sure to pop into the tiny curio shops selling quirky antique cameras, watches, binoculars among other bric-a-brac. Keep an eye out for shops selling the vibrant long skirt called the lehariya. I wore them throughout my trip!
Marvel at Jain Temples With Intricate Stonework
While Jaisalmer Fort is Islamic in its character, the Jain community has made significant contributions to its architecture and culture. Do visit the cluster of beautifully carved Jain temples located within the fort walls, dating between 12th-16th centuries. I was amazed by the detailed stone carvings and the iconic sculptures of the Tirthankars at Chandraprabhu, Rikhabdev and Gyan Bhandar temples. The golden idol of Parasnath at the Shantinath temple is particularly captivating.
Most temples allow visitors inside to see the interiors, floral motifs and intricate geometrical patterns. However, do maintain the sanctity by speaking softly and wearing modest clothing. The temples are open from early morning till noon, so plan your visit accordingly. Observing the daily rituals and people offering prayers here gives you a glimpse into Jaisalmer’s strong religious heritage.
Marvel at Jaisalmer’s Magnificent Havelis
The havelis of Jaisalmer are a testament to the city’s wealthy past as an important trading centre along caravan routes. These grand mansions were built by wealthy traders in the 19th century as homes as well as status symbols. The sheer size and opulence of the havelis stand as reminders of the prosperity of their owners. I was awestruck by the facade of the Patwon-Ki-Haveli, the most iconic haveli in Jaisalmer with extensive mirror and painting work across two floors and over 60 balconies!
Salim Singh Ki Haveli is also impressive in its scale and external carving. Do go inside the havelis to truly appreciate the craftsmanship in the intricate carvings, wall paintings and giant gateways. Most havelis have been restored into museums or hotels now. I strongly recommend taking a guided audio tour to understand the stories behind the havelis and architectural details as you walk through these grand structures.
Enjoy Thrilling Camel Safaris in the Desert Dunes
No trip to Jaisalmer is complete without heading out into the desert wilderness. One of my favorite experiences was the evening camel safari to the sweeping dunes of Sam and Khuri, about 45 minutes from Jaisalmer. There are many options for half-day or multi-day safaris to choose from. We booked with a local travel agency, which arranged for an experienced guide.
The camel ride itself was great fun – our guides regaled us with folk songs as we bounced our way towards the dunes. Watching the sun sink over the sands while sipping cutting chai was simply magical. We had dinner at a basic but comfortable camp, entertained by local musicians under the starry desert sky. If you have time, do spend a night or two camping in the dunes to fully soak in the beauty of the desert wilderness. The camel rides during sunrise are wonderful too.
Unwind by Gadisar Lake in the Heart of the City
After all that sightseeing, I enjoyed heading to the artificial Gadisar Lake within the city center for relaxing evening strolls. This historic lake was Jaisalmer’s main water source for centuries, named after Rawal Gadsi Singh who commissioned it. The beautiful surroundings with ghats, temples and shrines made it perfect for photography. Pedal boating on the lake was also good fun!
The area around Gadisar is lined with many budget hotels as well as eateries serving snacks and desert specialties like daal baati churma. Local artists sell their work under the trees by the lake. I picked up delightful patchwork quilts and leatherbound journals handmade using Kitab scrap recycling techniques, and relished a fragrant cup of masala chai by the lakeside before heading back.
Immerse Yourself in History at Exquisite Heritage Hotels
For the ultimate experience, Jaisalmer’s many heritage haveli hotels allow you to stay in restored historic mansions with all modern comforts. I chose the Hotel Tokyo Palace, a stunning haveli converted into a hotel located conveniently near the fort. The elaborate carvings, jharokha balconies and luxurious interiors provided a truly royal experience while retaining the old-world charm. The warm hospitality and homestyle Rajasthani meals were the icing on the cake!
If you’re looking for something more rustic, there are many budget guesthouses with rooftop cafes that allow fort views for a fraction of the cost. I suggest choosing a place either inside the fort or adjacent to it for convenience. Check online reviews and photos before booking. There are options to suit all budgets.
Come, Experience Jaisalmer’s Magic!
As I boarded my train at Jaisalmer station with bags full of memories, snapshots and souvenirs, I promised to come back someday to discover more of the city’s magic at a leisurely pace. From ancient monuments, colorful bazaars and the magnificent fort to sweeping desert vistas – Jaisalmer offers an unforgettable trip back in time. Its multi-faceted character has an allure that will keep drawing you back. If your wanderlust takes you to this corner of Rajasthan, slow down and immerse yourself fully to unlock the true essence of Jaisalmer. The golden city happily awaits to cast its desert spell on you!
I hope you enjoyed my impressions and experiences on truly an incredible trip. Let me know in the comments below if this has inspired you to visit Jaisalmer. I’d be happy to offer more tips if you are planning a Jaisalmer vacation. Share this post with family and friends. Tag and follow me on Instagram at @BackpackDiaries for more India travel inspiration. Until next time, happy voyaging!