With the cycle of life and death played out in all its raw truth in front of your eyes, Varanasi never fails to shock, confuse and utterly enchant the senses.
According to Hindu legend, this is the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, and that’s all part of the journey to one of the world’s oldest and holiest places.
At the heart of Varanasi is the sacred Ganges River, where pilgrims come to wash their sins away, and loved ones are cremated in the hope of liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
This all happens in public and offers a startling reality check that soon transforms into a kind of dumbstruck awe, especially for first-time visitors.
You don’t really visit Varanasi for a holiday. It’s more like total immersion in the chaos of hidden laneways, spiritual practices and ancient wonders. Around every corner, something new and fascinating grabs your attention, from ash-covered holy men to random stray cows and colourful lines of pilgrims outside majestic temples.
For many people, India’s holiest city offers a transformative travel experience like no other.
Top things to do in Varanasi.
When you visit Varanasi, you can literally sit on the ghats – vast stretches of steps leading down to the river – and do nothing but observe and soak up the atmosphere.
Watch as people sink into the green-tinted water for a brush with the divine, among lines of rowboats on the backdrop of ancient, pastel-hued palaces. Every moment is a photo moment here.
The Ghats and a Gange’s boat ride.
A Gange’s boat ride tops the list of things to do in Varanasi, and it’s worth going twice to see sunset and sunrise. In the morning, you’ll experience the prayers and songs of ritual bathing up-close, along with the ghats coming alive with the colourful chaos of vendors setting up shop, cricket games and locals doing their daily washing.
Within the soft, golden glow of sunset, release a lotus flower candle on the river and make a wish, before watching the bewitching spectacle of the famous Aarti ceremony from the water. Lamps, fragrant smoke and mesmerising chanting, surrounds the practice of offering fire to Lord Shiva and the Ganges.
This spiritual gathering sees thousands of pilgrims every night cramming in on the banks and in boats, and it’s likely you’ll be one of very few tourists. It’s a unique, authentic experience that’s impossible to forget.
A Gange’s boat ride is also one of the best ways to see the cremation ghats, where dead bodies are openly burned on funeral pyres. Manikarnika is the main one and fires continually burn with a stream of dead bodies wrapped in cloth.
Though it sounds grisly and it’s certainly eye-opening, the overall feeling is of peace as people gather to farewell their loved ones. Arrange a private boat trip through an official Varanasi travel guide or book a cruise.
Along with viewing the ghats from the water, don’t miss out on exploring them on foot. Dashashwamedh is where the action’s at, with a marketplace, endless streams of pilgrims, holy men offering blessings and captivated tourists. Admire the one-time fort that is now the BrijRama Palace Hotel at Darbhanga Ghat and see the partially submerged temple at the peaceful Scindia Ghat.
If you love temple-hopping, there are thousands of them to explore. Among the most famous is the architectural marvel of Vishwanath Temple, dating back to the 18th century with a dazzling golden dome. It’s one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the important centres of Shiva worship, and thousands of devotees flock there each day.
Annapurna Temple is believed to have been built in the 1700s and features two idols of the Goddess Parvati, the provider of food and nourishment. Hundreds of monkeys live in Sankat Mochan temple, where devotees feed them in the sacred space of Lord Hanuman. A replica of Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, the Nepali Temple features ornate wooden pagodas, and it’s dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Shopping and dining in Varanasi.
Shopping is another top pursuit, especially if you’re looking for silk items, musical instruments, brassware and jewellery. Don’t be scared to get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways and you’ll be rewarded by endless surprises. Discover the narrow lanes of Thatheri Bazaar near the Sankat Mochan temple for quirky finds. New Agrawal Toys Emporium at Assi Ghat is a treasure chest of toys, jewellery and clothes. Sri Guru Perfumes is where you’ll find good-quality incense and oils.
In terms of food, let your nose lead you to a delicious array of restaurants and street stalls. Vishwanath Gali is a fantastic shopping street, and it’s also dotted with stalls for local snacks and sweets. Try deep-fried kachoris at Kachori Gali and sip chai tea from little clay pots in cafes. Get spicy puri sabzi around the busy Godowlia Chowk area and wash it down with the milk-based Thandai.
Blue Lassi is a tiny shop with a huge reputation. Hundreds of photos on the wall boast its long history as possibly the most popular spot to enjoy the yoghurt-based drink in a city that’s full of spots to try them. Choose a handmade treat with an incredible range of flavours like apple, pomegranate and banana topped with chocolate, coffee, coconut, and so much more.
When you need a break from Indian food, head to Assi Ghat for international restaurants. As this is a holy city, you won’t find any alcohol around the ghats or temples, and the only bars are usually located in mid-range and luxury hotels.
Best time to visit Varanasi.
It’s best to visit Varanasi from about October to March when the weather isn’t scorching hot. If you go from July to September, be prepared for possible monsoonal rain.
How to get to Varanasi.
Located in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi has its own airport, and there are daily, direct flights from major Indian cities including Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. You can also jump on a train from Delhi or Kolkata, for a trip of about 10 hours. Varanasi’s main train station is called Varanasi Junction. Varanasi’s international airport also called Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport, has flights to all decent size cities in India and international flights to cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kathmandu.
Getting around Varanasi.
Your own two feet are the best forms of transport to immerse yourself in the best of the old part of Varanasi. In fact, many of the narrow streets are only accessible on foot. Hire a rickshaw to get around further afield, and taxis are available from the airport and the train stations.
Where to stay in Varanasi.
It’s best to stay close to the ghats for easy exploration, and this is also where most of the budget accommodation is located. Choose a guest house or hostel around Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat to be right in the heart of it all. Check out goStops Hostel, Ganpati Guesthouse and International Travellers’ Hostel.
Money and costs.
It’s easy to stick to a budget in Varanasi with the Indian Rupee or to splurge on accommodation and food in luxury hotels if that’s your choice. 2000 Indian Rupee is about 25 Euro, and this is more than enough for a day. A dorm bed can cost between ₹400 and ₹600, and you can get a fantastic local meal for about ₹100. Remember that bargaining is a way of life here, so practice your haggling skills with a sense of humour.
Varanasi travel tips.
There’s no doubt that travel to Varanasi can be a challenge, especially if you haven’t been to India before. If you feel overwhelmed, hire a local guide to show you around first. Beware of scams and don’t accept any offers from touts out on the streets. There’s plenty of pollution and rubbish, so don’t go with the expectation of cleanliness in that way. Be prepared for crowds and chaos, and you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
Lastly, though everyone’s doing it, think twice before taking a dip in the Ganges due to the pollution. It may be the overriding sacred act, but just being in this incredible holy city is enough to transform anyone towards a whole new view of the world.
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