For people who got bored of mundane and travel cliches, the city of Varanasi will top the list of places to visit when in India. The city sprawls along the banks of the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.
The city is both holy and ancient, it is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi is unique because it is chaotic and intense, entertaining, and quirky. No other city will form an opinion divide like Varanasi, where you can feel amused, overwhelmed, and meditative all at once.
Your reasons to travel to Varanasi (also called Benares and Banaras) can be exploratory, architectural, historical, spiritual, or just casual wanderlust. Whatever is the purpose of your travelling, here are the 10 must things to see and do in the city, and which will give you an essence of why Varanasi is more distinctive than any other Indian city.
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain.
1. Find yourself in the maze of lanes
Across the city, parallel to the river Ganges runs a narrow labyrinth of alleys where two people cannot walk abreast. They will easily qualify for the unruliest place you will ever visit, and it is very difficult to not get lost even with the help of Google Maps in the jagged serpentine of streets.
Be it filmmakers, poets, authors, philosophers and photographers, all have sought inspiration here. The raw-looking buildings with exposed brick walls and mellow timbers add a period charm to the streets. At every bend lies an old mansion, a mosque in ruins, a forgotten temple, or a traditional school.
The streetscape sums up the crumbling heritage of Varanasi. Be prepared for an umpteen encounter of a half-naked sadhu, high on weed Babas, characters dressed as Gods from Hindu mythology, a funeral or a marriage procession, and animals like cows, bulls, dogs, and monkeys while elbowing your way out. See a cool video from this location.
2. Bedazzled with Ganga Aarti
Every evening as the sun sets, the crowd start to pour in at the Dashashwamedh Ghat for the Ganga Aarti. The ritual begins with tiered diyas lit in a row and chanting of orange-clad priests. With the jingling bells, the aarti unfolds with a mix of music, colour, and fire. Soon after, the priests move the lamps in synchronization with each other and the music.
The Ganga aarti is one of the most visually appealing religious spectacles. It is glorious even if you are not watching it for religious purposes and should be on the list of things to do for every traveller visiting Varanasi. The place tends to get crowded with locals, devotees, and foreigners. It is advisable to reach the venue and grab a spot well before the onset of the event.
You can witness a different kind of aarti ceremony that takes place every morning before sunrise at the Assi Ghat. Post the 45-minute aarti ritual students from the local music schools and classical Indian singers perform on the riverfront. The session is followed by Vedic chants and yoga. This unique amalgamation of culture and music makes you feel refreshed and rejuvenated. It is the best way to begin your mornings in the city.
3. Do some temple hopping
There are almost 2,000-odd temples that are bestrewn all over Varanasi. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most prominent of all. The temple has had a tumultuous history of being plundered and rebuilt several times. Today it stands strong as one of the most revered and spiritual locations of the Hindu religion. Few other noteworthy temples are Annapurna, Sankat Mochan, Bharat Mata and Tulsi Manas temple. Try exploring as many as possible, for each has a different vibe.
4. Saunter along the Ghats
Each step that leads to the river bears several legends and anecdotes attached to it. These steps are called ghats and are the business hub of the city. The roughly 4 km stretch of the walk has over 80 ghats, each having its purpose of washing, bathing, boating, praying, and dying.
The Assi, Dashashwamedh and Tulsi ghat are few famous ones but no other Ghat is as intriguing as the Manikarnika ghat. At this ghat rows of dead bodies wait for their turn to dissolve in the holiest river and attain salvation. Huge pyres are lit from a 3500-year-old flame that is constantly ablaze here. Amidst the stench of dead mixed with the sandalwood, the ritual of farewelling a human body can stun even the most broad-minded traveller.
5. Row your boat gently down the stream
Varanasi is synonymous with the river Ganga and the boats rowing on its waters. In a 4-hour long ride that starts at Dashashwamedh ghat, you will cross the ghats lined up in crescent shape. As the boat sails past the city, sit back and admire the architecture of the temples that rise in several colours.
It is fun to watch the change of scene from one pier to the other as you cross several ghats. Alternatively, you can opt for a shorter course that starts from the same ghat and takes you to the sandbank on the other side in 20 minutes. This is a good place to get away from the hustle of the city and enjoy its panoramic view.
The best time to take the river cruise is an hour before sunset. As the sun begins to set you can admire the old ridges and havelis light up with an orange glow. After the setting of the sun finish your day by witnessing the Ganga aarti from the boat.
6. Visit Asia’s biggest university campus
Varanasi is coined as the city of scholars. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the city is home to Asia’s biggest university. Founded more than a century ago the Banaras Hindu University is Known as the “Oxford of the east”. The sprawling university campus, in contrast to the rest of the city, has wide avenues lined by trees and ample open space. There are many attractions inside the premises such as the botanical garden, rose garden, Bharat Kala Bhavan and New Vishwanath Temple. The university also hosts weekly events that are often free to the public, such as art galleries, exhibitions, and theatre performances.
7. Shop for souvenirs and handicrafts
In Varanasi, you can find a treasure trove of things to buy. Handwoven fabric and handicrafts items made here are famous all over the country. Godowlia market is your best bet to shop for local souvenirs and minakari jewellery.
The Thateri bazaar is most popular for copper handicrafts and antiques with stonework. There are plenty of shops selling silk clothing in this market.
The Kashi Vishwanath Lane that leads to the Vishwanath temple have numerous stalls along the street selling bangles, stoles, and worship items in colourful displays. The street is lined with local artists who craft toys made of delicate wooden pieces that are something that you must take home from the city.
Haggling is both expected and recommended while shopping in any of these markets.
8. Indulge in a guilty gastronomical pleasure
Varanasi is the ubiquitous capital of the cow-belt of India. A variety of dairy products dominate the food scene of Varanasi. Start your mornings with a glass of lassi, whipped and sweetened yoghurt with a thick layer of cream on the top served in an earthen glass.
Thandai is another milk-based drink to try when in Varanasi. It consists of dried nuts, black pepper and saffron. At some places Thandai is served with balls of cannabis (Bhang) that renders slight intoxication to the drink. Bear in mind that Cannabis is illegal to smoke in Varanasi.
Many Indian cities have their unique variety of tea and Varanasi is no different! An exquisite tea called the Tandoori tea is served as a must-try item at the Kashi Cafe on the Assi Ghat.
The city also has some best Chats. Chats are fried savouries with an eclectic mix of ingredients like boiled vegetables, mashed potatoes, spices, green chillies, topped with sweet and sour chutney accompanied by yoghurt and coriander Papri chaat, Patta chaat and Tikki are a few of the chaat varieties. The variety of food you can try in Varanasi is as sinful as delightful!
9. Explore the Ramnagar Fort
The 18th-century Ramnagar Fort is situated near the Tulsi Ghat. Its balconies, cupolas and courtyards are inspired by Mughal architecture. There are temples and museums inside the fort that is open to the public. The museum houses royal armoury including swords, cannons, and old guns. A rare astronomical clock is also a part of the museum display. During October and November, the palace enlivens with a stage play called the Ram Leela portraying the life and actions of Lord Rama.
10. A walk through the sands of time at Sarnath
To find some solace from the crowd and chaos, drive down to the Buddhist temple of Saranath which is about 10 kms away from the city of Varanasi. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and is known as the place where Lord Gautama Buddha gave his very first sermon. Built 2000 years ago the city of Sarnath then had high walls and towers. Nowadays, it is just a meandering pathway of lone remains of columns and stone mounds. There are still many attractions worth seeing here, such as the Dhamek Stupa and the Ashok pillar with the Lion capital, which has become the Indian national emblem.
Varanasi can be an assault on the senses. On the banks of this ancient city, you will see both life and death come together. You must give yourself enough time and keep an open mind to let Varanasi grow onto you in the form of a myriad of emotions. The impact it leaves on each of us can be different but the one common thing this city does to all travellers undeniably is to change their perspective for a lifetime.
Best time to visit Varanasi: October to March
How to reach Varanasi: The city is well connected from all the major cities of India by trains and road. The nearest airport is around 26kms from the city centre.