Bhutan Cities to Visit: all Bhutan cities and what you should never miss out
Lying in the eastern Himalayas, landlocked by Tibet to the north and the Indian States of West Bengal and Assam to the south, Sikkim to the west, and Arunachal Pradesh to the east, Bhutan was once the most isolated country in the world. Even today, this unique kingdom is not as open for visitors and the rest of the world. The small kingdom is divided into three main geographical regions, each with its own unique climate.
Top Bhutan Cities to Visit for Travelers
Paro - Beautiful valley, home to some of the oldest Bhutan temples and monasteries, major airhub
Lying in its own beautiful valley, Paro is home to some of Bhutan’s oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries, and is the main hub for travel into and around the kingdom. The seat of Paro District, the city hosts the kingdom’s only international airport, and is the second largest city in Bhutan. At an altitude of 2,195 meters, on average, this stunning city has a population of only around 11,500 people, yet is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, thanks mainly to the wealth of temples and monasteries that can be visited in the valley.
The most popular site in the district is the Taktsang monastery, also known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Said to be the place where Padmasambhava landed on his journey to spread Buddhism to the kingdom, the temple lies around 900 meters up the cliff face, overlooking the Paro Valley around 10 kilometers to the north of the city. While it is a hard climb up to the monastery, the trek is worth it for the stunning views out over the valley and the amazing caves in which Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for more than three years.
Taktsang monastery is the most popular site in Paro.
Rinpung Dzong, an ancient monastic fortress that overlooks the valley, has a long and varied history, and stood as an effective defense against the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan in the 17th century. The first monastery on the site was small, commissioned by Padmasambhava in the early years of the tenth century. The monastery is unusual in that it was the first building made from stones instead of clay. Above the dzong, on the hilloverlooking the monastery, stands the ancient watchtower known as Ta Dzong, which has stood watch over the valley for centuries, and is now the National Museum.
Thimphu - capital of Bhutan, center of government, religion and commerce
The modern capital of Bhutan, Thimphu is the largest city in the kingdom and is located in the central western part of Bhutan. Thimphu replaced the former ancient capital of Punakha in 1955, and lies on the western bank of the Wang Chhu, also known as the Raidāk River. The fourth highest capital city in the world at an altitude of 2,248-2,648 meters, the capital is unusual for being a capital city without its own airport, relying on Paro International Airport, around 54 kilometers away.
Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan.
As the political and economic center of the kingdom, Thimphu has a population of around 114,500 people packed into an area that only covers around 26 square kilometers. The city does not host a vibrant nightlife, although this is growing quickly, and is the cultural center of Bhutan, with most of the country’s artisans residing in the Thimphu Valley.
One of the most notable of all the tourist sites in Thimphu is the unique Motithang Takin Nature Preserve, the wildlife area dedicated to the care and breeding of the takin, the country’s national animal. Once kept in a small zoo, after the king declared it improper for a Buddhist nation to imprison animals, the takins were released into the wild, but refused to leave the area around the city that had been their home for decades. The nature preserve was set up to keep the takins safe from wandering around the city streets in search of food.
Punakha - former capital of Bhutan
The administrative center of the Punakha District, Punakha City was once the capital of Bhutan, until it was moved to Thimphu in 1955. At an elevation of only 1,200 meters, the area is warm in winter and hot in summer, making it one of the most popular destinations in Bhutan for international trekkers. Two major rivers flow through the district, the Pho Chhu and the Mo Chhu, and the valleys they flow along are the main areas for rice growing in the kingdom, and it is famous for growing the unique red rice that Bhutan is famous for.
The Punakha Dzong, also known as the Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness), is the main center of attractions in Punakha City, and was said to have been completed within just two years in 1637. The country’s most beautiful dzong, it is the winter residence of the Je Khenpo and the Central Monastic Body, which forms part of the Council of Bhutan, along with the civil government and the king.
Punakha Dzong is the main center of attractions in Punakha City.
Wangdue Phodrang - beautiful place in central Bhutan
The capital town of the Wangdue Phodrang district in central Bhutan, Wangdue Phodrang takes its name from the dzong that was built in the district in 1638, which was given by the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche, Ngawang Namgyal, and named after a boy that he found playing by the river. The name mean’s “Wangdi’s Palace”, the name of the boy, and the dzong was built to prevent incursions from India to the south.
With an altitude of around 1,270 meters, the entire area hosts a population of only 9,000 people, and is one of the popular destinations for trekkers in Bhutan. Most of the district is under environmental protection, falling within the bounds of three of the kingdom’s national parks. The most notable area is the Phobjikha Valley, which is one of the winter nesting grounds for the rare Black-necked Cranes that roost there during their annual migrations. It is also the home of the Gangtey Monastery, one of the most important monasteries of the Nyingmapa School of Buddhism.
Phobjikha Valley is the most notable area in Wangdue Phodrang.
Trongsa - central hub of Bhutan with spectacular landscape and dzongs
Known as the “Vanguard of the Warriors”, Trongsa Dzongkhag is located in central Bhutan and was once a crucial location for controlling the ancient kingdom because of its uniquely strategic location. The Dzong lies on a steep ridge with stunning views of the deep valleys that surround it, an impressive sight visible from anywhere in the town. The town and Dzong were the traditional seat of power in the district for the Wangchuck family, before they were proclaimed the Royal Family of Bhutan in 1907, and the dzong controlled the trade between east and west in Bhutan for centuries.
Trongsa Ta Dzong is one of the best places to visit to learn about the history of Bhutan.
The ancient watchtower of Trongsa Ta Dzong has long been converted into a museum dedicated to the Wangchuck Dynasty, and is one of the best places to visit to learn about the history of Bhutan. Trongsa is also the location of one of the most unique stupas in the kingdom, the Chengdebji Chorten, fashioned in the style of the famous Swayambhunath Stupa, in Nepal, complete with the eyes of Buddha on all four sides. Built in the 18th century, the stupa was erected to cover the remains of an evil spirit, which manifested as a giant serpent, which had been subdued on this very spot.
Bumthang - home to great Buddhist guru Pema Lingpa
The most historic of all the kingdom’s dzongkhags (districts), Bumthang has more temples and ancient sites than any other district in Bhutan. Located over the area of four mountain valleys in north central Bhutan – Ura Valley, Chumey Valley, Tang Valley, and Choekhor Valley – the entire dzongkhag is referred to as the Bumthang Valley. Directly translated, Bumthang means “beautiful field”, which is reputed to have arisen after the construction of the Jambay Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, to pin the remains of the ogress of Lhasa to the earth forever.
The entire dzongkhag is referred to as the Bumthang Valley, it includes Ura Valley, Chumey Valley, Tang Valley, and Choekhor Valley.
A region whose altitude ranges from 2,600 meters to around 4,500 meters, Bumthang is the religious heartland of Bhutan, and stories are still told of the Buddhist master, Padmasambhava, and his “tertons” who are reputed to have returned the life force to the local king, Sindhu Raja, who restored the ancient temple of Jambay Lhakhang. The valley is also the birthplace of Pema Lingpa, the Bhutanese saint held in reverence in Bhutan, second only to Padmasambhava.
Phuentsholing - a booming small border city close to India
A booing border town in southern Bhutan, Phuentsholing is the main overland entry point from the Indian State of West Bengal. Lying opposite the Indian town of Jaigaon, this small but prestigious town is the administrative seat of the Chukha Dzongkhag, and has a thriving local economy from the cross-border trade with West Bengal. Despite being a relatively small town, it has a permanent population of around 28,000 people, many of whom run or work in businesses related to Indian and international tourism.
The famous Bhutan Gate border.
Despite it being the financial, industrial, and trading capital of Bhutan, many of the tourists that cross the border soon move on, after they have photographed the famously ornate Bhutan Gate border crossing. However, they miss two stunning Lhakhang’s that are worth visiting. The ZangtoPelri Lhakhang houses an exact likeness of the Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), in eight different manifestations, while the KarbandiGoemba, the winter residence of the Royal Grandmother, contains vast impressive statues of Padmasambhava, Gautama Buddha, and Shabdrung Ngawang.
With so many cities to visit in Bhutan, one tour may not be enough to see them all. Most Bhutan tours tend to center around just one or two cities, usually Thimphu, Paro, and Punakha, while other stunning locations in this unique kingdom are left out. While those are the major cities in the kingdom, travel to some of the more outlying towns and valleys can bring one a much better experience of Bhutan’s landscapes and scenery, as well as giving you a better understanding of their unique Buddhist culture. Here we also have prepared the ultimate Bhutan travel map for you to work a wonderful trip to Bhutan.