Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, located in the northern India state of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is a precarious balance of the worst and best aspects of India. It’s relentless, overwhelming and intrusive, whilst simultaneously pulsing with colour, music and dance.
Pilgrims flock by the hundreds to cremate loved ones, worship, progress their path to enlightenment or bathe in the water of the Ganges. The holy water of the Ganges is believed by Hindus to wash away your sins (don’t be put of by the colour!), while dying here helps to break the life and death cycle and bring you one step closer to enlightenment.
Immerse yourself into the beating epicenter of Hinduism, it could end up being a place that will last in your heart and memories forever. To help you, here is your very own, Varanasi Travel Guide.
Most travellers visiting Varanasi will arrive by overnight train often from Agra, Khajuraho or Dehli. Varanasi Junction, sometimes known as Cantonment is the main station. Do check online re trains from Agra since there is no daily service; they only run a couple of times a week. To book train tickets the best way is via IRCTC, all tickets go on sale 60 days in advance and are sold very quickly. We would recommend booking in advance to avoid any disappointment. If travelling overnight we would recommend being in 2AC or 3AC. 2AC is the second best class and is 4 bunk beds in a section with individual curtains and then 2 bunk beds in the hallway.
For more information about how to tackle the overwhelming train service in India, read Go Travel and Talk's India overview.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Take earplugs, an eye mask and a jumper ~ the air conditioning can be bone chilling! Take care of your luggage and ensure any valuables remain on you whilst you are asleep. It’s always advisable to set an alarm for when you think you’re going to arrive (although be prepared for some Indian delays) since there are no announcements. Take advantage of any of the snack sellers on the platform, some areas are renowned for its delicacies.
Buses arrive opposite Varanasi Junction Train Station. Ordinary buses have no air conditioning, seat allocation and they can often be uncomfortable and overcrowded, however they will stop wherever you would like to go. There is no need to pre-book your tickets for ordinary buses, just turn up at the bus station and look for the sign on the bus. Some AC buses can be booked in advance at dedicated windows at Varanasi Junction Train Station.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Ensure you have everything you hold dear on you rather than in the hold and do not put anything above your head!
24km North of the heart of Varanasi is the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport. The main carriers are Jet Airways, IndiGo and SpiceJet. Varanasi can be reached by the air from Dehli, Kolkata, Khajuraho, Agra and Mumbai.
The best way to explore the old cities chaotic lanes is on foot. It’s a rabbit warren, narrow and crowded with bodies (dead as well as alive), get lost and explore, you’ll always find yourself back at the River Ganges at some point to re-orientate yourself. You can also walk the length of the river (as long as the water level is low enough) stopping at some of the 80 fascinating Ghats that give you a very public insight into the spirituality Hinduism.
A trip to Varanasi is incomplete without a boat ride along the Holy Ganges at either dawn or dusk. The ghats are a riot of activity from daily routine to the public rituals of the Aarti. The way the light hits the river is magical.
Bikes are available near Assi Ghat if you want to cycle the entire length of the river yet find all the touts too overbearing to deal with on foot.
You can pick up a rickshaw from outside Varanasi Junction Train Station to just outside the old city. You will not be able to continue you journey into the old city itself, so you will always have a short walk.
The Roobaroo Walks tour invites you to discover areas of the city you would have been hard pressed to stumble across on your own, from the local flower market to hidden temples. You must book in advance and most are combination tours with highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides.
The tour I did, explored one part of the city during the day and then an evening boat trip to see the Ganga Aarti ceremony and cremations from the Ghat. This provided a completely different perspective watching the ceremony from the water and provided insight into a place that can seem overwhelming at times.
The cost is set depending on what you wish to see - eating and photography course are also on offer.
As previously mentioned, it is worth rising with the sun a couple of mornings whilst in Varanasi to experience the bustling daily life unfold from the river and from the Ghats themselves. Floating on the serene waters is a wonderful way to observe children’s cricket matches, group yoga sessions and the intimacies of daily bathing. All hostels can organise an hours trip down the river! I went from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat which cost around INR 450 (€6 / $6) per person.
Floating down the Ganges at dusk is also recommended; the cremation ghats are memorising from the water, and watching the Gangi Aarti Cermony by candle light is unforgettable. Many light a lotus candle and let it float down the river, whilst this is undeniably photogenic, it just adds more waste to an already polluted river, please avoid.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Organise in advance otherwise you will be bombarded with touts competing with elevated prices as you miss the sunrise!
There are 88 ghats (riverfront steps) along the western banks of the Ganges that are unapologetically indiscreet yet fascinatingly special. Most of the ghats are used for bathing and holding ceremonies, but there are two that are use exclusively as cremation sites, known as ‘burning ghats’.
Manikarnika is a popular burning ghat, it’s not uncommon to find a procession leading to the ghat from the narrow backstreets. The bodies are swathed in colourful wrappers and fresh flowers. Some find this uncomfortable, but I found it a fascinating way to celebrate death, something that western shy away from talking about. Going on one of Roobaroos walking doors helped me to understand the reasons behind the ritual and appreciate the auspiciousness of being cremated by the Ganges.
Note: do not take photos of the burning ghats locals find this offensive.
The Gangi Aarti Ceremony with puja, fire and dance is a ceremony hat takes place at 7pm every night 365 days year...so there is really no excuse to miss it!
Whilst great from the water, watching it from the Dashashwamedh Ghat is not to be missed. The crowd throbs with excitable energy that even the biggest sceptic would find hard not to get swept up in. Despite swarming with touts it’s a fantastic place to people watch, talk to locals and soak up the unique atmosphere.
If you have some time earlier in the day visit the Silk weavers of Varanasi - Dotted around, you can go to the silk weavers workshops and see their intricate work which is really interesting. However do be aware of any touts trying to take you to any, this unfortunately in usually a scam.
There are a dizzying amount of places to stay in Varanasi from luxury waterfront hotels to tiny budget guesthouses in the old city. The Old City is right in the heart of all the action, bustling, vibrant and crazy and te Ahssi Ghat area offers light relief, more relaxed but still atmospheric.
We stayed at the Shiva guesthouse in one of the bright and cute colourful rooms with views to the Ganges. Hidden in one of the backstreets, this is in a great location perfect for the Aarti Ceremony. The hostel organised us affordable sunrise and sunset boat trips. This place is basic but clean and very affordable.
The Shiva guesthouse has many accommodation options including: double, single and triple rooms as well as the dormitory room. The guesthouse is equipped with Wi-Fi and has a lovely roof top restaurant which serves different cuisines and and a panoramic view of the old city and the river. Expect to pay around €3 (€4) per night for a bed in a mixed dormitory.
The Shiva Ganges View is also in the Old City. Whilst I did not stay here, a good friend stayed here and highly recommended it. It’s in a great location, with really sweet rooms. It has an amazing terrace to kick back and relax in with a sun downer beer whilst watching children flying their kites by the river. They can organise tours for you and offer beautiful home cooked food as well as yoga, meditation and Reiki. Expect to pay around €37 ($45) per night for a standard double room.
HosteLaVie is located in Assai Ghat. I didn’t stay here but we heard great things from travellers who loved the vibe and sense of community. HostelLaVie is a super chilled hostel with an excellent rooftop offering great views of the Ganges and making it a great place to socialise.
They proudly serve the best coffee in town and there is a buffet style continental breakfast available everyday for less than $1. They have games on every floor of the hostel, 2 common areas, 2 dinning areas and 2 hangout spots. Hostelavie offers great dormitories with elegant interiors, each bed has a reading light and a charging point,. They also have private rooms with pretty snazzy bathroom facilities. Expect to pay €5 ($6) for a bed in a 4 bed mixed dormitory with AC. There are cheap room options.
Varanasi has so much to offer in terms of food choices it caters for most.
- There are hundreds of street vendors in Varanasi’s labyrinth of backstreets. Start the day at Kachori sabji for a breakfast choti kachori (made of lentils and stuffed with spicy potatoes) and end with a desert of Malaiyoo from Makham Malaiyoo (made from milk, saffron and cardamons topped with pistachios). Make sure you dodge the heat by having a creamy curd lassi from Blue Lassi, highly recommended is the apple and banana! They are served in clay pots which is great for reducing the rubbish problem in the city.
- The most traditional dish of Benarasi for breakfast is the Kachori, which is a puri stuffed with a variety of fillings these are often served with a gravy of aloo rassa.
- Chaat is popular (savory snack) in particular aloo tikki- potato served with chickpea and topped with chutneys, Kashi Chaat Bhandaar is a great place to try this.
- Keshari Restaurant is a great place to try local vegetarian delicacies, packed with local families and slightly less than friendly waiters this place is kind to your stomach and your wallet.
If you’ve hit a curry wall- it happens to the best of us (!) then there are some great options available.
- Aum Café is a great spot in the Assi Ghat area for breakfast/ lunch with organic cereals, pancakes and a guide into how to look after your body by the hippy owner.
- The Brown bread bakery and organic shop is also great for breakfast offering organic bread, cakes and preserves as well as over 40 types of cheese! Part of the profits goes to the charity Learn for Life.
- For any pizza lovers there is a humble simple place, Pizzeria Vaatika Café in the more chilled out area of Assi Ghat, with a terrace overlooking the River Ganges.
One of the toughest things about India is the harsh living conditions that the majority of people live in. Many cities are crowded, polluted and dirty. Rubbish is a huge problem particularly in Varanasi, polluting water sources and spreading disease. As part of Varanasi’s clean up, some locals organise rubbish walks to spruce up areas of the city rather than just the tourist ghats. Varanasi has been under a lot of recent attention due to the clean up promises made by the president Narendra Modi. Check online for the latest news or check with you hostel.
Learn for Life is a small charity for disadvantaged woman and children run by two foreigners. Their main project is a school for 140 children, that is located in an impoverish neighbourhood. Among many things they provide free schooling, clothing and food to varying demographics of the neighbourhood. They also provide a group for woman to help them source fairly paid work to support themselves and their family. The charity is contactable via the Brown Bread Bakery website or the infocentre in the bakery. The Brown Bread Bakery also sells produce made by woman supported by the charity such as delicious organic jams.
Saraswati Education Centre is as small charity working with disadvantaged children living in Varanasi’s slums. Run by a lovely man called Somit, these children get the help they need to attend school in Varanasi. Somit not only teaches them how to read and write be he provides a safe place to feel loved and enjoy being children. Volunteers can stay in the adjoining accommodation, Somit hostel.
To contact the charity email firstname.lastname@example.org.