One of the seven holy cities in India, Varanasi is often overlooked by those planning a trip to this part of the world. Although there aren’t many things to do in Varanasi, a trip to the Indian most popular pilgrimage place should be on everyone’s list traveling to India.
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Things to Know Before Visiting Varanasi
Best time to visit Varanasi
The city of Varanasi lies 80 meters above sea level, meaning you will encounter a humid and dry temperature here.
Showers and downpours are common from June to August, and the temperatures can get high to 45 degrees. Exploring Varanasi can be challenging during those months, but, on the other hand, you’ll get better hotel and tours deals as the city receives fewer tourists. The ritual festivities are also more common during these months.
During the winter months, the temperature variates between 5 and 15 degrees C, and although the days might be pleasant, the nights can get very cold.
The best time to visit Varanasi is during the spring and fall months when the wheater is getting nicer, with less rain and humidity. The Ganga festival takes place also in November, so you’ll meet many tourists coming to this festival from different parts of the world.
Why should I visit Varanasi?
Pilgrims from different parts of the world come with the hope that the city offers liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Moshka is a solid Hindu culture in Varanasi, and being burned at one of the Ghats in Varanasi, it’s a privilege! The evening Aarti ceremonies are a grand spectacle that fascinated everyone attending the show.
Ever since we told our friends that we included Varanasi on our India itinerary, they warned us we wouldn’t like it. Because it will be dirty, noisy, crowded, dirty once again, and the Hindu beliefs will shock us. But, to our surprise, it was the place we loved the most, and we intend to return here someday!
How to get to Varanasi
Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport is the nearest airport to Varanasi, only 25 kilometers away. The only mention is that the airport is a domestic one—no need to worry, though. Varanasi is well connected to the most important cities in India. Buses, cars, and cabs will take you to the town on arrival. We arranged the transfer with our accommodation, so a car was waiting for us in front of the terminal.
Varanasi is well linked by rails to the most important cities in India. Mughal Sarai Train Station is only 10 kilometers from Varanasi. So hop on a cab to reach any destination in Varanasi.
The Best Things To Do In Varanasi for First-Timers
Book a hotel on the banks of the Ganges River
People from all over the world come to Varanasi to find serenity. And the best place to find it is on the Ganges River. No tuk-tuks or autos are allowed, so the lack of horns is a big blessing here!
The Ganges River banks between Assi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat are promenades, with giant steps going into the Holly River. Here, you will find tranquillity and serenity in Varanasi and some lovely views over the Ganges River.
Depending on your budget and standards, there is everything for everyone. Booked in advance, you can find some good deals.
Go on a boat ride on the Ganges River
Going on a boat ride on the holy Ganges river is probably one of the best things to do in Varanasi. The boat ride takes you through different Ghats and other exciting places along the Gange banks, so make sure not to miss this one from your itinerary.
If you crave a boat ride, you will meet many boatmen near Dashashwamedh Ghat, and you’ll have the chance to negotiate for one.
If you don’t want to take a boat ride at all, or you want to do this later, tell the boatmen who will eventually approach you that you’ve already done it. But in case you wish to do it, negotiate a fair price with them. And always ask how long the tour takes, how far it will take you, and most importantly if it will be a motorboat or a paddle one.
We went for a one-hour motorboat return trip, from south to north, from Assi Ghat until Manikarnika Ghat, and we’ve paid 800rupee per boat. If we could negotiate better? Maybe but for us, it was a fair price.
Keep in mind; it is a developing country, so 800 rupees can be a lot of money for those people.
Try the Thali dish
Trying the Thali Dish is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. What is Thali? The famous meal is a tray of rice, chapati or naan, prickles, and six little dishes with different flavors: spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, and salty.
Every hotel in Varanasi has a restaurant where the food is simply delicious, so finding a proper place for lunch or dinner should not be a problem.
Walking along the Gange promenade, you’ll encounter many hotels, one of them being the famous Birjama Palace. Head to the roof terrace, indulge in local cuisine, and try the Thali Dish!
Explore the Ghats
The Ghats are cremation, bathing, and praying places for Hindus. Varanasi has more than 88 Ghats along the Ganges River, with steps leading to the water. A walk along the Ghats is a fascinating experience and one of the best things to do in Varanasi.
Start your day with a coffee at one of the cafes near Assi Ghat, and enjoy the morning aartis. This area is so quiet, with fewer tourists or locals.
The boatmen are hard to find, so that you won’t feel harassed here. If someone approaches you and you don’t want to go on a boat ride, say no in a genuine way, and they will leave you alone.
Next, head north, and notice the Ghats along the promenade. Take your time, take plenty of photos and be in the moment. Finally, in no more than one hour, you will reach Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most critical place on the boardwalk. Associated with two Hindu mythologies, many choose to start the walk here, but I would recommend starting your walk further south to understand this place better.
It comes to life every evening when the Aarti Ceremony takes place.
The walk from Assi Ghat to Dashashwamedh Ghat takes more than an hour, depending on how often you stop. The walk is pleasant but be aware of locals who will give you a “free guided tour” of the area but ask for donations.
Go on a sunset boat tour
Although the Ganges is spectacular during the day, it turns into a mystical place at sunset. The best time to enjoy the boat ride is the golden hour. The ride will get you to the aarti ceremony also, so for sure, a sunset boat tour is one of the best things to do in Varanasi.
Visit the burning Ghats
Manikarnika Ghat seen from a boat ride on the Gange river – the least intrusive way to witness the burning ceremony.
As I mentioned earlier, Moshka is a solid Hindu culture in Varanasi, and being burned at one of the Ghats in Varanasi it’s a privilege! There are two places where the deaths are burned in Varanasi.
Coming from Assi Ghat, you’ll bump into the first, the smaller Harishchandra Ghat. One-third of the total number of cremations is held here. Locals won’t harass you here, so you can take your time to see and understand the rituals better. We even saw tourists taking photos, and nobody seemed to be bothered. But, of course, it is up to you if you choose to. We didn’t do it as a sign of respect.
An essential burning place in Varanasi is Manikarnika Ghat. Hindus believe that being burned at Manikarnika privileges freedom from the cycle of births. Therefore, two-thirds of the total number of cremations are held here. The funeral fuel at this Manikarnika Ghat burns 24/7, and around 100 cremations occur every day.
We were intrigued by the number of funeral processions and the eternal flames with ongoing cremations. The process is attractive as the families wait for their turn for hours. As a tourist, make sure to act with respect all the time. The best viewing and least intrusive is from the boat trip, though.
Taste street food
Food in India is a gastronomical experience. So, no matter where you decide to taste the food, you’ll be mouth-watering for sure. You can easily find roof terraces with views over the city or the Ganges River, where you can taste Indian food or try some local street food as an alternative to the high prices.
Take a holy bath in the Ganges River
Did you know that almost 600 million people rely on the Ganges River to provide daily drinking and bathing water? It is believed that the Ganges river is sacred, hence the Holy river’s name.
Pilgrims worldwide come to take a plunge in the water to absolve their vices and gain liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Even if this is not your choice, it is one of the best things to do in Varanasi for many. You’ll notice them all the time, chanting prayers and venturing into the water.
Witness the Aarti Ceremony
On our first night in Varanasi, we witnessed the Aarti Ceremony from the water perspective
On the second night, we joined the crowds gathered on the steps leading to the Ganges River to witness the Aarti Ceremony
Aarti Ceremony is a Hindu religious worship performance involving offerings made to the gods, and witnessing this ritual is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. This spiritual gathering takes place every night at 6 pm at the main Ghat and lasts for about 40 minutes, so you should come early and decide where to sit and enjoy the holly ritual.
You’ll be amazed by this incredible show: flowers, chants, incense, and a 4.5kg brass lamp used during the spiritual greeting.
Many sit on the steps while others hop on the boats to see the ceremony from the water. Eighter way is an authentic performance, and it is worth seeing at least once during your visit.
We witnessed the Aarti ceremony both ways since we spent three nights in Varanasi. The first evening we headed to the waterfront and hopped on a boat to see the ceremony from the water. Hundreds of people overfilling on top of the ships witnessed this magical show. Since we wanted to glimpse it one more time, we headed to the Dashashwamedh Ghat the following evening and sat on the steps.
Shopping in Varanasi
Varanasi is famous for its jewels, scarves, carpets, and silk saris. Bringing home some souvenirs from your trip is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. The main shopping areas are Godowilia and Chowk, but while strolling the streets of the old city, you will bump into many shopping carts. Choosing the best souvenir is an arduous task, though.
Stroll the old streets of Varanasi
Strolling around the city’s labyrinthine streets is one of the best things in Varanasi. So you’ll have the best chance to understand the place, the people living here and their beliefs in general. There is so much going on here, so keep your eyes and senses open all the time. Take lots of photos and feel the city’s craziness! Don’t worry about getting lost since sooner or later; you will end up at the Ganges river shoreline.
Observe the locals
Starting from Assi Ghat, walk north, along the river, to Dashashwamedh Ghat. Take your time to discover the beauty of this area.
Observe the locals washing their loads of clothes and setting up their food stalls or shop carts.
Spot the cows bathing in the Ganges river and marvel at the Hindu holy men sitting on stairs and meditating.
Taking photos of sadhu men (those dressed in orange) will cost you a few bucks. Just be aware of that!
If you see someone painting, you can address him and buy his work. Observing the locals was one of the best things to do in Varanasi since everything seems so natural here.