Varanasi is everything that people love about India combined with everything that people hate. It’s a must see destination in my humble opinion. Varanasi combines winding alleyways with life on the river; rural with city; smog with cleansing properties; beggars with tourists and life with death.
Getting there: An Auto-rickshaw is approx. 250INR from the airport while a taxi is approx. 700INR. I suggest a taxi as its a long way and quite cold at night. We booked through our hostel at a higher rate of 900INR as we were arriving at night and as you get close to the ghats the streets are narrow and maze-like – your taxi can’t enter. Our prepaid ride meant someone from our hostel met us where the taxi stopped and led the way to the hostel.
Accommodation: Our hostel in Varanasi was Bhadra Kali Guest House: it was really close to the ghats which was a huge bonus and the staff were very helpful. They booked a boat ride for us at 5am the next morning at a fair rate and helped us out when we couldn’t figure out the hot water (having hot water isn’t really a sure thing either!). If staying near the ghats one thing to be aware of is the houses are all really close together so its very noisy. Next door to our hostel there was a family screaming and crying all night as somebody in the family had just died.
Food: There were some great food places in Varanasi – the trouble is discerning which ones are good and which are the fake copies of the good restaurants. Also, if your hoping to get a beer you are out of luck. No alcohol is permitted near the holy river Ganges. Some highlights in Varanasi were:
- Keshari Restaurant is a great option for lunch or dinner. They do great Thali and other cheap indian dishes and it’s a popular spot with locals so a great place for people watching. Find it 20m down a side street off Dashawamedh road. There is a bad copy with Keshari in the name around the corner from here.
- Brown Bread Bakery is a tourist hotspot on the first alleyway back from the ghats. It does organic food and has a great rooftop terrace.
- Open Hand Cafe is a long way from most of the action but a great rest stop after a long walk from one end of the ghats to the other. They have ACTUAL coffee (a rarity here in India) and its really good.
Top Tip: Go on the dawn boat tour – even though its at 5am! Tours run at dawn or dusk but activity is much more frantic at dawn. You feel more of the energy of Varanasi. If you have time then do both but I do suggest being on land for the 7pm river worship ceremony at least once (you can’t see it very well from the boat and part of your tour is spent stopped here).
You will need to wake up at 5 am on both your mornings here – its absolutely necessary and you can always have a nap later in the afternoon or go to bed at 8pm (like we did!). There is no beer to drink anyway!
On the first day I suggest taking a boat tour along the ganges (your accommodation can arrange this for you or you can haggle with the boats down the river – anything less than 1000 INR is a good price for a few hours).
Extra Info: We got ripped off while on this trip (the only time in India!) because some boat floated up beside us and gave us offerings – they kept handing them over until we said no thank you and then tried to charge us a huge price for them. We made 3 blessings with the offerings and they were beautiful but i wish we had haggled the price first! We forgot to be suspicious because we were in the middle of the river.
The rest of your day can be spent eating and wandering the alleyways around the Ghats – there are surprises around each corner. At 7pm there is a River worship ceremony at Dashwamedh Ghat – find a great spot to watch the beautiful show.
Spend your second morning (you can sleep in a little later!) walking the Ghats from one end to the other. Make sure you get to the following ghats:
- Munshi and Darbhanga Ghats – these are the most photogenic
- Dashwamedh Ghat – lively and colourful
- Manikarnika Ghat – the main burning ghat (please be careful not to take photographs here. Photos are fine from the boat but if you try to take pictures from land you will get scammed).
- Scindhia Ghat – peaceful: there is a partially submerged temple here.
You will likely end at Assi Ghat which is very close to Open Hand Cafe – time for a well deserved coffee.
I would spend the afternoon shopping. Varanasi has some great shops hidden among its alleyways and an entire main street of sari stores – I purchased my sari in Varanasi and it was a crazy experience!
If you need a break from the shops a good stop is Vishwanath temple – foreigners need to enter at Gate 2. Be aware this temple can be very busy – when we were there the alleyways surrounding it were full of people it was difficult even to figure out where to go.