Though still largely traditional in many ways, Bhutan's fascinating capital is going through something of a transformation. It remains the only world capital without a single traffic light, yet Thimphu is in many ways rapidly modernising, with several 5-star hotels and increasing numbers of restaurants and nightlife venues.
The holy grail of Bhutan's attractions is the 'Tiger's Nest' monastery, carved scenically into the side of a steep cliff, elevated at nearly 900 metres above the Paro valley. Those who endure the somewhat challenging climb will find their reward in the form magnificent vistas and access to the complex' temples, statues, and sacred artefacts.
Every major community in Bhutan has its own dzong, a centre for religious, civic and administrative life, but none is quite as magnificent as Thimphu's Tashichho Dzong. Though this iteration was built in the 18th century, there has been a dzong at this site since 1216, making it one of the most important religious and political places in the country.
One of the country's most recognisable religious landmarks, Memorial Chorten's golden spires and bells attracts Thimphu devouts and fascinated visitors alike. This Buddhist shrine and stupa (a mound or structure used as a place of meditation) was built in 1974 to honor Bhutan's third king, or Druk.
On a hill just to the south of Thimphu, on the site of the ruins of the Kuensel Phodrang palace, stands the majestic Great Buddha Dordenma statue, one of the largest Buddha statues in the world (52 metres tall). Gape in awe at both the shine of the bronze statue gilded in gold and the magnificent views of the surrounding areas from the hilltop. The walk up and down the hill takes about 1.5 hours.
Punakha Dzong is the second largest and second oldest dzong in the whole of Bhutan, and until 1955 it served as the country's seat of government. Located at the confluence of the Mo and Pho rivers, it is also the country's greatest fortress, built to defend against Tibetan invasions.
Adventure-seekers will find no more rewarding excursion than the Snowman Trek, an intensive 24-day hike that crosses 11 high-altitude peaks, remote villages and some of the world's greatest views. It is considered to be one of the most difficult treks on the planet and should only be attempted by experienced trekkers.
Another test of physical endurance, a cycling trip from Paro to Bumthang is a 4-day, 350 kilometre adventure that gives participants a chance to experience the spellbinding Bhutanese countryside, passing peaks of 3,500 metres above sea level. Again, this is a challenging endeavor and should only be attempted by experienced riders.
The Chokhor Valley, in Bhutan's central Bumthang district, boasts countless small temples and shrines dotting its hillsides. Impossibly pleasant and peaceful pathways guide visitors from one cluster to the next, showcasing the area's natural beauty. The hike is much milder than other more extreme treks, but can be a bit challenging nonetheless.
Archery is Bhutan's national sport and most beloved traditional passtime. Festivals and tournaments can be found all around the country on most weekends, showcasing the great skill of the participants and the cheerful and easygoing nature of the Bhutanese people. Attending one of these festivals is often one of the most remarkable and enjoyable activities for visitors to Bhutan.
The Swiss Farm Panda Beer Garden serves its very own beer (Red Panda), the only beer brand produced in Bhutan. Take the short tour of the microbrewery and (visitors get the chance to sample the beer and cider), and follow-up with a meal at this pleasant restaurant serving Western cuisine (set lunches and dinners, and cheese made on site).
Do like the locals do and head to the ever-buzzing Wangchen Momo Corner, one of the city's most popular budget restaurants that serves ubiquitous Bhutanese "momo" (dumplings, originally from Tibet) and a few varieties of noodles. Service is fast and efficient.
If your palate begs a break from spicy Bhutanese, the comfort of familiarity at Cloud 9 Burger might just be what the doctor ordered. Burger buns are baked fresh, and burgers come with beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian patties. Do not skip on the decadent milkshakes.
Thin-crusted pizza might be the restaurant's primary draw (locally preferred thick crust on request), but its menu extends far beyond, to include somewhat unexpected Indian thali and the less unanticipated salads, pasta, and dessert. Mind that the menu is exclusively vegetarian. Make use of the green outdoor patio if weather permits.
Tou Zaiga is where aspiring chefs of Bondey Institute of Hotel Tourism polish their culinary skill, serving some of the finest cuisine in all of Bhutan to a select few lucky ones in the process. Call or request that your guide makes arrangements for a three-course dinner tailored to your tastes.
Elegant and stylish Karma's Coffee, located in central Thimphu, offers all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, pasta, soup and a daily meal, as well as new specials every day. They are also in love with coffee at Karma's, and each cup is expertly prepared and always fresh.
Central Cafe is located in an understated space, but their products are of the highest quality. You can stop by for a quick but nutritious snack or coffee anytime, but the cafe's biggest draw are the outstandingly designed and decorated cakes which can be specially ordered.
The delightful Paro cafe serves quality vegetarian meals, and is one of Paro's best locations for a decent cup of coffee. The dessert selection is pleasantly extensive, and there is a surprisingly wide variety of teas. Request cow milk to be replaced by a soy substitute if you prefer.
This budget hotel's rooftop contains one of the areas most scenic open-air establishments (bar come evening and restaurant through the day), known for its views just as much as the rather high quality cooking. The hotel itself offers modest rooms with basic amenities.
Within arm's reach from Thimphu's Weekend Market is the market dedicated to Bhutanese arts and crafts (some items are produced across the border, in Nepal). Expect to find anything from pieces made of indigenous yak to woven items, woodwork, ornaments, and more.
The National Handicrafts Emporium is an arts and handicraft store run by the government, which means fixed pricing (payment cards are also accepted, alongside cash). The assortment of goods ranges from rugs to woven items, traditional clothing, bags, and other pieces.
This Jakar location is Bhutan's main outlet for the products of Swiss Farm, an operation once started by a Swiss expatriate and now led by his son. Swiss Farm brews Bhutan's only local beer - Red Panda - and produces cheese, honey, and drinks like brandy and cider.
Bhutan follows a "High Value, Low Impact" tourism policy in order to preserve the country's natural and cultural uniqueness. As such, a Minimum Daily Package is required for all visitors to Bhutan: $200 per person per night during January, February, June, July, August, and December. $250 per person per night, during March, April, May, September, October, and November. Discounts available for children and students. This sum includes all accommodation, meals, transportation, camping and trekking equipment, as well as a certified guide for your entire stay. All visitors to Bhutan (besides Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) must organise their trip through a certified tour operator, which handles all arrangements for visiting groups. More information under Passport/Visa.
Citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives do not need a visa to visit Bhutan. All other citizens will need a permit to enter the country, only obtainable through certified tour operators in Bhutan and their international partners. These take care of all visa arrangements and organize all of your trip’s details, including accommodation, transportation and providing a personal guide for your group. Upon entering the country, visitors receive either an Entry Permit (valid only for Thimphu and Paro) or a Restricted-Area Permit (valid for the whole country). Those wishing to visit Buddhist temples will also need a Temple Permit from the Ministry of Culture. All permits should be handled by your tour operator. Note that some unregistered tour operators have popped up, so be sure to visit the website below to make sure you choose a certified operator.
The most popular times to visit Bhutan are Spring and Autumn, when the weather is best. Springtime visitors will get to enjoy blooming nature and milder temperatures, while the Thimphu Festival takes place towards the end of September or beginning of August. Because of these advantages, the Minimum Daily Package fee is slightly higher during these months ($250 per person per night, instead of $200).
There are no trains in Bhutan, so transport within the country is limited to road and air travel. There are taxis in Phuentsholing, Paro, Jakar and Thimphu (long distance services are also available), but again, most travellers will a private vehicle provided to take care of all transport needs.