Varanasi Travel Guide
Why you need to visit Varanasi
India has attracted spiritual seekers since time immemorial and one of the holiest places in all of India, and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the whole world, is the ancient city of Varanasi situated on the banks of the holy Ganges river.
I’ve been to Varanasi many times now and it’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting places to visit in all of India. In this Varanasi travel guide I’ll share all my tips along with the best things to do and the best places to stay and eat.
Pin Me 🙂
There are so many spiritual places in India and Varanasi, also known as Kashi (city of life) and Benaras, is the most important. Varanasi is a holy city for Hindus and pilgrims who come to dip in the holy Ganges river as they believe that it will wash away a lifetime of sins. If you want to understand more about India’s rich culture, spirituality and religion then Varanasi is an essential stop on any Indian adventure.
Visiting Varanasi is quite an experience as Hindus believe that dying here releases you from the cycle of death and rebirth and being cremated along the holy river Ganges is very auspicious for Hindus and a unique and unforgettable sight for tourists. See here to learn more about why Varanasi is so holy.
Varanasi can be an assault on the senses but it’s an unmissable Indian experience and one of the most fascinating places I’ve seen. Allow at least 3 or 4 days in Varanasi to soak it all up.
Keep on reading my Varanasi travel guide for the best things to do, places to stay and eat and more tips for visiting Varanasi.
Top Things to Do in Varanasi
There are many things to do in Varanasi but the best way to understand this city is simply to walk along the ghats and also take time to explore the atmospheric, chaotic, winding lanes of the old city to soak up this unique city. You’ll see wandering cows, tiny shops, colourful bazaars, local life, smoking sadhus (holy men) and maybe even a funeral procession in the narrow streets.
There are also several important Hindu temples, the most famous is the Vishvanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, but non Hindus and foreigners are not always allowed in, but this can change, you’ll have to see what the situation is when you are there.
Stroll along the Ghats – Most of the spiritual activities in Varanasi revolve around the Ghats, which are the riverfront steps along the River Ganges. Pilgrims from all over India come to the Ghats as they believe that taking a dip in the holy river will cleanse their sins away. It’s best at sunrise but holy rituals are performed throughout the day on the ghats, in the river and in the many temples and small shrines along the ghats. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat and is a busy and colourful place full of activity. Assi Ghat and Kedar Ghat are also interesting, you can walk from Dashashwamedh to Assi Ghat to see the best of the ghats.
Witness a cremation – One of the most intriguing aspects of Varanasi is witnessing the funeral rituals performed on the Ghats. Hindus believe that by dying in Varanasi one can achieve moksha – liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The Hindu traditions see cremations and funeral pyres burning almost 24/7 at Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Witnessing a burning body can be a strange, emotional and difficult sight but the more you understand about the Hindu culture the easier it is and I found it a less traumatic experience than I thought it would be. Remember to be respectful while observing the funerals and do not take photos. Watch a video, see photos and learn more about Varanasi’s burbing ghats is this National Geographic article.
Take a sunrise boat ride along the holy Ganges river – Taking a boat ride along the holy river Ganges at sunrise when the whole place is bathed in a magical dewy glow and you can see all the rituals of life , and death, played out along the river bank, is one of the things to do in Varanasi that you simply can’t miss. In fact, it’s one of the most fascinating experiences you can have in all of India.
It’s easy to arrange a boat ride, just walk along the ghats and you’ll be offered boat rides many times, just be sure to haggle and agree of the price before setting off, 150 – 200 rupees is a good price.
While on the boat you can observe all the life, colour and activity along the ghats as people perform morning rituals as the sun comes up over the city. You’ll witness pujas (prayers) taking place at the many shrines and temples along the river, cremations, pilgrims taking a dip and local people washing and doing laundry, saffron clad holy sadhus talking, smoking, meditating or doing yoga as well as buffaloes being washed and children playing cricket and flying kites. Read more about my experience at sunrise on the holy Ganges
Evening Ganga Aarti – Every evening just after sunset a huge crowd of hundreds of pilgrims (and some tourists) gathers at Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch a pooja (prayer) where Hindu priests lead a ceremony of fire, chanting and music praising the river Ganges and Lord Shiva.
Sunrise Aarti – There is also a smaller aarti held at sunrise at Assi Ghat – perfect timing to watch the ceremony before boarding a boat.
Ramnagar Fort and Museum – On the other side of the river you can visit the crumbling but still impressive 17th century Ramnagar fort and palace. It was the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Banaras (old name for Varanasi) and is now a eccentric museum. In the museum you can learn about the history of the area and take a look at the slightly oddly out-of-place collection of vintage American Cars, medieval costumes and vintage weapons. The fort is also a great place to watch the sun set over the city and the banks of the Ganges.
Benaras University – Varanasi is well known for having excellent educational establishments. Benaras University was established back in 1916 and the spacious campus is a leafy and pleasant place to explore and you can visit the Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum which has a good collection of paintings, ancient manuscripts and interesting exhibitions about local history. At Benaras University you can also visit the New Vishwanath Temple which is open to all religions.
Take a day trip to Sarnath – An easy day trip from Varanasi is Sarnath, famous as the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon after finding enlightenment in Bodhgaya, It’s one of the 4 important sites on the Buddhist circuit (along with Lumbini in Nepal, Bodhgaya and Kushinagar)
There’s several ruins, stupas, temples and monasteries to explore and it makes a pleasant escape from the chaos of Varanasi. Check out the ruins of Dhamekh stupa and monastery on the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon, the large Chaukhandi Stupa from the 5th century where Buddha met his first disciples and is now topped by a large Mughal tower, and the more modern Mulgandha Kuti Vihar where the Buddha’s first sermon is chanted daily at sunset. There’s also an air conditioned Archaeological Museum with some interesting historic artifacts.
Tours of Varanasi
Varanasi is best explored by simply walking around but to avoid hassle and really get to know more about the rich, unique and fascinating history of one of the world’s oldest cities there a several tours you can take. Varanasi Walks offers 6 interesting and immersive themed cultural walking tours that explore Varanasi beyond the most popular ghats and temples and gives you an eye-opening insight into the holy city. They also offer guided boat tours along the River Ganges.
Groovy Tours do some interesting tours that feature more offbeat experiences like watching wrestlers train, visiting bull shops, meeting a facebook baba, visiting an ashram where you go to die, a road side dental clinic and even an aghori (flesh eating) babas ashram! I know it sounds weird, check out their Unique Varanasi tour for a really different Varanasi experience!
Where to Stay in Varanasi
No Varanasi Travel Guide would be complete without tips for where to stay and eat. Most budget accommodation in Varanasi is located close to the ghats, popular areas to stay in Varanasi are centered around Dhasaswamedh Ghat (the main and very busy ghat) Guesthouses and restaurants are found along the Ganges river and down the surrounding narrow lanes. The area around Assi Ghat (about 30 mins walk South from Dhasaswamedh) is a little quieter and also has good accommodation and eating options close to the river.
The winding streets around the ghats can be quite disorientating and are often too small for vehicles but if you book a reputable hotel in advance they may be able to send someone to help you find the way.
Save: The Best Guesthouses and Hostels in Varanasi
Stops Hostel – Popular hostel with dorms, private rooms and tents and sociable communal areas great for meeting other travellers. They also organise tours. Stops is a safe, sociable budget option located just 1km from the Assi Ghat.
Puja Guesthouse – Basic but clean budget accommodation hidden up an alley near Lalita Ghat with 38 private rooms. There is also a tour desk and great 180 degree views over the river from the rooftop restaurant.
Ganpati Guesthouse – A popular, slightly more expensive, guesthouse option with large colourful and comfortable rooms in a great location right on the river near Meer Ghat. Rooms have AC and some have balconies overlooking the river. There’s also a decent rooftop restaurant.
Lotus Paying Guesthouse – A clean, comfortable and good value for money budget guesthouse in a relaxed area with super helpful staff just 400 meters from Dasashwamedh Ghat.
Hotel Alka – Another good river side guesthouse close to Ganpati Guesthouse at Meer Ghat. Spacious and clean rooms are located around a nice green courtyard and the river. Standard rooms are basic but cheap and there are also more expensive but more lavishly decorated rooms with all mod cons and river views.
Aashray Homestay – A peaceful boutique homestay in a quieter residential area only 5 mins away from the busy ghats area. Rooms are immaculatley presented with all modern amenities but the highlight is the hospitality, conversation and excellent home cooking from the wonderful hosts, Mr & Mrs Kapur will welcome you into their home and teach you about local culture while providing excellent home cooked food.
Splurge: The Best Hotels in Varanasi
Palace on Ganges – A heritage hotel where each room is individually themed based on a region of India. Rooms are colourful and feature antique furniture. There is also a good spa and massage centre.
Hotel Ganges View – A gorgeous colonial style heritage hotel right near the river at Assi Ghat. Rooms are spacious and full of character with quirky antiques. There are also cosy communal areas to relax in including a first floor garden terrace and restaurant.
BrijRama Palace Heritage Hotel – This imposing fort like building overlooking the Ganges was built in the 18th century and is believed to be one of the oldest buildings in Varanasi. It has been recently renovated and is now an amazing heritage hotel with sumptuous rooms complete with four poster beds and loads of gorgeous character details. There are two restaurants, Darbangha serves excellent Indian food and worth a visit even if you are not staying here. There are amazing views from the rooftop and the hotel is situated just a few minutes walk from Dasashwamedh Ghat.
Where to Eat and Drink in Varanasi
Varanasi is not a destination for fine dining or hard partying but there are some decent places to get cheap local food, Varanasi is well known for its street food and chaat vendors, and simple restaurants around the ghats.
Due to the religious significance of the city most restaurants, especially those close to the Ganges serve only vegetarian food and no alcohol. Restaurants further away from the ghats may sell non veg food and if you want a drink head to one of the posher hotels away from the ghats.
Kashi Chat Center – Popular street food and tasty chaat near to the intersection on Dashashwamedh Road. Madhur Milan Cafe, also on Dashashwamedh Road is another good place for South Indian food, good value thalis, snacks and samosas popular with locals and tourists.
Keshari Restaurant – Great spot for top quality veg cuisine and curries from all over India
Aum café – Cute place located close to Assi Ghat. A healthy Ayurvedic family run vegetarian cafe with a great selection of herbal teas, coffees and juices and cute little gift shop. Massages and body piercing are also available.
Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe – Great place for a break from Indian food. The cafe has a great view of the river from the shady terrace and serves thin and crispy pizzas and an amazing apple pie.
Puja Guesthouse – One of the best rooftop restaurants with 180 degree views over the river, good food, a relaxed atmosphere and live music at night.
Shiva Cafe – A popular place with travellers missing Western food. The extensive menu serves decent value Indian, Nepalese, Thai and Western food.
Brown Bread Bakery – The large menu includes over 30 types of bread, cookies and cakes as well as good sandwiches, pastas and pizza. , pizzas. There’s a great European breakfast buffet from 7am to noon and live classical music performances every night at 7.30pm. Part of the profits go to support a local school and women’s empowerment project and uses organic produce wherever possible. You can upstairs on the rooftop or in the AC downstairs. They also have another restaurant called Vegan and Raw.
Darbangha – for a luxurious dining experience head to this fabulous Indian restaurants in the BrijRama Palace Heritage Hotel. The menu includes gourmet street food, delicious curries and a good selection of continental and Thai options. For non guests there’s a minimum charge of ₹1000 per person but this is one of the very best dining experiences in Varanasi and a good excuse to check out this stunning heritage hotel.
How to get to Varanasi
Varanasi is well connected with the rest of North India. There is a modern airport in Varanasi with frequent flights to Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Khajuraho. Check Skyscanner to find the cheapest deals.
Overnight trains run from Delhi to Varanasi Junction and take 12 + hours. You can also take the train to Mughal Sarai Junction 10 kilometers from Varanasi.
To get to the Main Ghat, where most of the guest houses and hotels are located, you can take an auto rickshaw for about 150 Rupees or try a cycle rickshaw for about 50 Rupees. Apart from walking, cycle rickshaws are the best way to get around the crowded areas of the old city but make sure to haggle hard and agree on a price before taking off.
Top Tips and Things you should know before visiting Varanasi
Varanasi is a fascinating place but, in particular the areas around the main ghats, can be a little overwhelming, especially if you are new to India. I usually recommend to visit places like Varanasi towards the end of a trip around India if possible.
The ghats are also fraught with persistent hassle, touts and scams. Be wary of touts hassling you to pay for wood towards the cremations or for a better view, to see their shops, cheap rickshaw rides that turn into pressured shopping sprees, beggars and fake holy men. Touts will also follow you telling you information about the ghats like a guide, even if you didn’t ask, and then be very rude expecting payment so you really need to be direct and firmly state you are not interested.
The Ganges river and small winding streets are easy to get lost in and can also be quite dirty with cow poo, trash, spits of pann (chewing tobacco) and open sewers. I really wouldn’t recommend you take a dip in the water here – if you want to dip in the Ganges places like Rishikesh and Haridwar are cleaner and better places to do it.
However, the last time I visited Varanasi the river, ghats and streets were noticeable cleaner than a few years before so things are improving. I’m just warning you what to expect but don’t let the scams and dirt put you off from visiting this fascinating and unique place.
See the erotic sculptures on the temples at Khajuraho
Find peace under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha gained enlightenment
Visit India’s capital Delhi.
Do you have any more tips to add to this Varanasi travel guide? Leave them in the comments below