Asia India Photography Travel Tips Varanasi

Varanasi – What to Expect in India’s Spiritual City

Varanasi What to expect in India's spirit ual city - thetraveloguer

India’s Varanasi was one of my favourite places that I’ve visited on my travels.

Varanasi was my introduction to India, and although people say it isn’t a good idea to go there first, I’m so glad that Varanasi was the first place I experienced in India.

However, people often say that arriving in Varanasi can be a little overwhelming. You will be greeted by chaos, colour and the feeling of stepping back in time. Varanasi is a wonderful place to visit and I recommend anyone who visits India to experience Varanasi if you can. If you are planning a trip to Varanasi, here is what to expect.

Varanasi – What to expect

Varanasi - What to expect - A guide to Varanasi - The Traveloguer Travel Blog

An Introduction to Varanasi

Varanasi is India‘s oldest city, located along the banks of the famous River Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in North East India.

Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and is dripping in history and spirituality. It is one of the seven Hindu and Janist holy cities, or Sapta Puri, in India. Buddhism is said to have been founded in Varanasi as well.

Varanasi is a spiritual city, where Hindus go to pray, wash away their sins and honour their dead on the banks of the Ganges. Dying in Varanasi is seen as auspicious, as it ends the cycle of rebirth.

A trip to the Ganges will reveal countless sights that will remain with you long after you leave.

Varanasi - Ghats The Traveloguer travel blog

The Ganges are not only a place of worship, they provide the backdrop to millions of locals’ everyday life. The Ganges is a bath, dishwasher, swimming pool and  a vessel for commerce for the people who live there.

The Ghats are the big steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges.

 

When to Visit Varanasi

Varanasi - What to expect in India's spiritual city - thetraveloguer

The best time to visit Varanasi is from November to March.

We went there in May, and it was insanely hot. Temperatures were in the 40’s (Celsius). June to September is monsoon season, when the weather is still hot and humid. October to March is cold, when temperatures can be as low as 5 degrees. This time of year would be the most comfortable time to visit Varanasi. Summer starts in April, and may be a good time to visit if you want it to be hot, but not unbearable.

 

What to Expect in Varanasi?

Varanasi - What to Expect - The Traveloguer Travel Blog

Varanasi is a special place. It is also crowded and dusty. All around you, life is taking place. You will see wonderful sites in Varanasi. From young boys having a water fight in the Ganges, to women sitting preparing food in doorways along the winding alleys, or galis, to bodies being cremated and holy men smoking pipes.

Away from the ghats, the streets are busy with people going about their day, and small shops display their wares piled precariously all around their stores.

The streets and ghats are often busy and hectic. You will see lots of great sights that you won’t forget.

Cremation is a big part of Varanasi, so you will see bodies being burned. You can’t take pictures of this, out of respect for the dead. Some bodies are placed in the Ganges without cremation, so there is a chance a corpse will float by your boat. Try to embrace these customs, because they are something to be experienced. It’s really interesting to see how a different culture deals with death.

Varanasi - What to expect - Lots of colour! A guide to Varanasi - The Traveloguer Travel Blog

Varanasi is a town experienced in tourism. You should watch out for friendly guys offering to show you around or charge you money to watch a burning ceremony. You don’t have to pay for anything like that. Holy men may perform a blessing on you and then try to charge you for it. People may ask for a donation to buy wood for a burning ceremony. Try not to get frustrated by this. Just keep your wits about you and don’t follow people blindly.

We got talking to a really nice guy who was interested in our lives and proud of his town. He showed us a temple around the corner from where we stood. Then he really, really wanted to show us his uncle’s silk shop. We knew we were being scammed, (although scammed is a bit of a strong word, more like hustled/ given a sales pitch!) but he was so friendly and nice that we said okay, we would have a look but not buy.

Man in Varanasi Varanasi - What to expect - A guide to Varanasi - The Traveloguer Travel Blog

Of course, once in the shop we had to repeatedly explain why we couldn’t pay €80 for a duvet cover, but those situations aren’t so bad so long as you know what’s going on, and that you won’t be swayed. There are lots of scams like this in India and other touristy places. But really, these kinds of acts are no worse than a PR rep outside a club in Ibiza! And I’ve been one of them, so I can’t really complain!

There are so many cows wandering around Varanasi. It can be a little intimidating to try squeeze past a huge bull in the narrow alleys, but they usually won’t pay you much attention.

 

Get to Varanasi

Varanasi - What to expect - How to Get to Varanasi = Local Bus from Gorakphur to Varanasi

We arrived in Varanasi all the way from the Nepalese border. We left Sunuali early in the morning, and got the local bus to Gorakphur and then (after many, many hours), we finally arrived in Varanasi at about 1 am.

We had taken note of areas where there was meant to be budget accommodation, so we told our auto driver to bring us somewhere around there, I think it was Assi Ghat we mentioned.

We left Varanasi by sleeper train to Agra. A highly recommended experience. Varanasi Junction is the name of the train station and it’s a short rickshaw ride from the old city.

Lots of people fly to Varanasi from Delhi, or get the overnight train.

 

Where to Stay in Varanasi

Elvis Guesthouse

 

Varanasi is filled with guesthouses and accommodation. After arriving in Varanasi late at night, we jumped in a rickshaw and asked to be brought to cheap accommodation near Assi Ghat. After trying one place that was full, the driver brought us to Elvis Guesthouse, B3/61, Shivala, 221005 Varanasi, India.

It was ideal in terms of location, and our budget.

For 800 rp per night between us, we had a large room with really good air-con! Varanasi in May is unbelievably hot. Really. It was so hot that going for a walk to the ghats was really tough going. They have rooms without air-con and with a shared bathroom too, so it’s ideal if you’re on a budget.

Assi Ghat and the old town offer lots of budget accommodation.

 

Eating in Varanasi

Pizza in Varanasi, thetraveloguer.com

Varanasi was somewhere that I didn’t get to experience as much new food as I would have liked. I was sick when we arrived there, and was then struck down with a bad case of Delhi belly, so my appetite wasn’t what it normally would be. I didn’t even feel like taking photos of my food like I normally would, hence, the pizza above is pretty much all my food photography for Varanasi!

Elvis Guesthouse had a big and varied menu, featuring everything from Israeili to European food. The Indian selection was really good.

For breakfast we enjoyed the Elvis Guesthouse breakfasts of toast and jam, omelette and pancakes.

For dinner there was butter chicken, chicken masala and dahl makhani.

Our liquid diet in Varanasi consisted of glass bottles of Coke, (so, so, so refreshing in the incredible heat!), delicious coffee (even when it’s boiling outside, I need my coffee fix!) and shakes.

We had delicious pizza at Vaatika Cafe on Assi Ghat. The pizza served there was so, so good and almost authentic Italian!

I would advise you to sample the sweets sold in the local shops, as well as street food stalls. The fried snacks are usually fairly risk-free.

 

What to do in Varanasi

Varanasi - Ganges boat

  • Visit the Ghats

The ghats are the stone steps leading to the banks of the Ganges.

The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the the main ghat, and it’s where the nightly Agni Pooja ceremony takes place.

The Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats are where Hindus cremate their dead.

  • Take a boat ride along the Ganges

Sunrise and sunset are the best times to experience this. We only got to do the sunset boat ride, but the sunrise one is meant to be great as well.

  • Enjoy the colours

Varanasi, and India in general is bursting with colour. I don’t know what it is, but the colours really pop over here.

Varanasi - Rugs

  • Experience the nightly Agni Pooja ceremony

Performed by Brahmin priests, this popular ceremony involves candles, incense and ringing bells. We only saw it from our boat, but it would be cool to see it from dry land as well. Watching it from a boat is a really nice experience, as all the boats gather together, gently bumping off each other as children jump from boat to boat and everyone is quietly waiting in the dark.

  • See silk being spun

Varanasi is filled with factories and workshops where silk is spun and beautiful scarves, bedspreads and rugs are made. Be prepared to politely refuse the long and friendly sales pitch that will follow. We bought three beautiful scarves as gifts, so at least we didn’t leave empty handed.

Varanasi - Silk Weaving - thetraveloguer travel blog

  • Witness a cremation ceremony

(But don’t take a photograph!)

  • Wander through the alleys close to the ghats

We stayed close to the Assi Ghat, and wandering though the streets, giving burly bulls the right of way and stopping to chat to locals is one of my favourite memories of my time in India. The alleys seem really confusing, but will eventually lead you to the ghats or the larger streets, where you can find your way back to your guest house.

  • Sample Bhang Lassi

Bhang Lassi, Varanasi

Bhang lassi is a concoction made of yoghurt, cannabis and spices. It tastes like a very earthy smoothie. Strengths vary greatly. We had ones that weren’t very strong, but heard stories of people getting in a bit of a bad way after drinking one.

Bhang lassis aren’t just a way to get a legal high, they are an important part of Hindu culture. During some festivals, many Hindus drink bhang lassis.

  • Talk to the locals

The best thing to do in Varanasi is simply walk around, take it all in, and chat with the locals.

 

Varanasi, what to expect in India's spiritual city - The Traveloguer Travel Blog

Pin for Later! 

 

I will write more about Varanasi soon, but hopefully this little guide will get you started on your trip to India’s most special city. I hope you enjoy your time in Varanasi as much as I did!

You Might Also Like

31 Comments

  • Reply
    sabrina
    December 16, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    I’m a bit afraid of travelling India: it fashinates and attracts me so much but somothing of Indian areas makes me a bit afraid. Well… you’ve increased my will to go there actually. In which periodo would you suggest me to go? Are locals always willing to talk? Do they like being photographed? (sorry for alla these questions :-P)

    • Reply
      Christine Maguire
      December 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Sabrina, please don’t apologise, I’m happy to try answer questions!

      I’m not sure what time would be best to go, as different areas in India have different climates and busy seasons. No matter when you go to India, there will be something for you. From my experience, I visited Varanasi in April/May and it was so hot! I visited Goa in May/June, right before the monsoon. It was so quiet, which I liked. If you visit in December/January it will be crazy busy.

      In my experience, Indians are really nice and willing to talk to you. A lot of the time they start converstations with you. Some of the women I spoke to were quite shy,but they often were the ones who said something to me first. When it comes to taking photographs,it is always good to ask first, and then show your subject the image afterwards. In Varanasi, a group of girls surrounded me and my boyfriend and wanted us to take pictures of them. We then let them use the camera to have a go, it was great, but difficult to eventually leave, as they wanted to keep posing all day!
      India is really fascinating and if you feel attracted to go, then you will more than likely really like it. If you are careful about staying safe, and maybe travel with someone, you should feel comfortable in India. I hope this helps!

  • Reply
    Marge Gavan
    December 18, 2015 at 6:13 am

    I’m still not sure if I should go to India because I have female friends who have experienced first hand how to be harassed by Indian men. But a part of me wants to me to go and Varanasi is one of the places I want to visit. I just like how raw it is and how it best represents the culture and the religion of the people.

    • Reply
      Christine Maguire
      December 18, 2015 at 3:06 pm

      I understand, the attention can be pretty uncomfortable. If it helps, I found Varanasi wasn’t as bad as Goa or Jaipur. And I still think Rome is the worst place I have been for men harrassing girls! Yes, Varanasi is a great representation of India’s rich culture. 🙂

  • Reply
    hannah
    December 20, 2015 at 3:01 am

    it sounds magical! India is on my list! I really enjoyed this post, thank you!

  • Reply
    sarah
    December 20, 2015 at 2:21 pm

    Varanasi was the first place I visited outside of my ‘comfort zone’ (i.e. not a ‘first world’ destination) and I have very happy memories (and not so happy ones too, but hey it was a culture shock). This was many years ago (1995 I think) now and I’d love to go back. You got some great photos.
    I remember the constant ‘friendly local’ who then insisted on taking you to their shop, although this happens in a lot of places.
    Very interesting read.
    sarah recently posted…La BocaMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine Maguire
      February 1, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks Sarah, I can’t wait to go back either , I love it!

  • Reply
    Goblinette
    December 20, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    I love Indian food and the colours. Chicken masala sounds yummy. Dead bodies floating pass the boat sound a bit less inviting. Something you can’t see on other destinations. .
    Goblinette recently posted…Sleeping on a clean surface is niceMy Profile

  • Reply
    Travelling Chingrita
    December 20, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Omgsh… This sounds like such an incredible place to visit. It’s amazing to how spiritual the city is, but I would be spooked to see a corpse head down stream. There is something about India that’s so spiritually soothing. The food looks yummy but good on you for trying the shake!
    Travelling Chingrita recently posted…Toronto Through Crystal’s EyesMy Profile

  • Reply
    Alexandrea
    December 21, 2015 at 2:17 am

    We also went to Varanasi but we didn’t get to stay for too long. It seemed like a very interesting city.
    Alexandrea recently posted…Female Packing List for a Weekend at the Gold CoastMy Profile

  • Reply
    A Trip to Mystical Varanasi
    December 24, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    […] Read the full article here: Varanasi – What to Expect in India’s Spiritual City […]

  • Reply
    Anemary
    March 2, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Very beautyfull places ! Pictures are great and article is very easy to read . India will be first in my wish list!

  • Reply
    Anand
    April 3, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Thank you very much for posting this. I am from Varanasi and it is such a good feeling that someone from the other end of the world think this good about our city. I know bad people are everywhere and specially in Varanasi some of them try to do business in bad way with foreigners but I really feel proud that tourists come here and enjoy the culture. You are always welcome here, please don’t be afraid you will always get good people just stay away from scammers.
    I wish I could be you and travel the world…

  • Reply
    Miranda Risser
    July 5, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    How interesting! I would love to visit here someday. I thought it was interesting how you mentioned that people find it to be an auspicious sign to die in this city. As a holy city, I would have expected for people to find peace in having Varanasi as their resting place! Would love to visit some day and learn more about the spirituality of Varanasi!

  • Reply
    Wanderlust fix: Magical Morocco - The Traveloguer Travel Blog
    July 14, 2016 at 10:24 am

    […] ruse for a wanderlust fix wanderlust. You only turn 30 once, right? Of course, my first choice was India. In fact, the only thing that got me on the plane home from Mumbai in the first place was the […]

  • Reply
    Jiya Sabarwal
    November 30, 2016 at 5:47 am

    Varanasi very nice and holy place of India. Me and my friend stayed here at WelcomHeritage Jhukaso Ganges. This hotel is located near the ghats and we enjoyed the evening Aarti at Ganga ghat. To know more you can visit here at- http://www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-facilities/sirsi-haveli-jaipur
    WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges

  • Reply
    Pari Chauhan
    December 12, 2016 at 8:26 am

    Varanasi is the most beautiful place and it is one of the sacred place in India. You can have beautiful evening Aarti views at the Ganga Ghat. I stayed at WelomHeritage Jhukaso Ganges hotel during my trip to Varanasi. Very nice hotel you can know more here-http://www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-facilities/jukaso-ganges-varanasi

    • Reply
      siya sharma
      December 28, 2016 at 8:07 am

      Varanasi is the most beautiful place and it is one of the sacred place in India. You can see beautiful evening Aarti views at the Ganga Ghat. I stayed at WelomHeritage Jukaso Ganges hotel during my trip to Varanasi. Very nice hotel you can know more here-http://www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-facilities/jukaso-ganges-varanasi

  • Reply
    Telma I Blank Canvas Voyage
    January 27, 2017 at 5:56 am

    Christine,

    You are absolutely right, India has something special, it’s hard to see it at first, I must be honest. We have arrived just over one month, and having visited and written about Varanasi myself, I am so happy that Varanasi was not our first stop! I would have hated India forever! Its’ not an easy place, but if you look beyond the dirt, the con man, and the poverty, it is really a fascinating place to be. 🙂
    Telma I Blank Canvas Voyage recently posted…The Spiritual Capital of India – VaranasiMy Profile

    • Reply
      Christine Maguire
      February 8, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      Hey Telma, yeah Varanasi is a risky first stop for an India first-timer, but so fascinating! Where was your favourite place?

      • Reply
        Telma | Blank Canvas Voyage
        April 14, 2017 at 2:18 pm

        Christine, although there is a love-hate relationship with India, overall we stayed for nearly 3 months, we really enjoyed our time in Delhi, travelling in Rajasthan, specially our Camel Safari, and Goa. India is so beautiful and has so much potential, but it’s not easy. Definitely for people looking for a relaxing holiday.
        🙂
        Telma | Blank Canvas Voyage recently posted…The Ultimate Travel Guide to FijiMy Profile

  • Reply
    Yogesh
    February 1, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Recently i have also explored Varanasi and its indeed a city of culture & pilgrimage.
    You can visit my youtube video on this link and experience this amazing train journey to Varanasi.

  • Reply
    An Indian story from the Varanasi Ghats and the Elvis Guesthouse
    March 27, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    […] Neither of us looking in any way presentable, he grunted with the suggestion that I should follow him into the shadowy hall, after the auto rickshaw driver who looked like Snoop Dogg explained we had just arrived in Varanasi. […]

  • Reply
    Mahesh Verma
    March 28, 2017 at 8:42 am

    Varanasi is a good place for visiting and seeing ghats. If you are searching for a hotel here then go for a hotel WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges. This hotel is very nice in service. To know more see here at- http://www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-services/jukaso-ganges-varanasi#details

  • Reply
    Raj Chaubey
    April 26, 2017 at 5:46 am

    This site is so nice, fabulous and I like so much. Jano Banaras, this website present information, articles, photos, videos and important contact numbers of every place of Varanasi or Banaras. https://janobanaras.com/

  • Reply
    Chardham Yatra Tours
    June 24, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    The Varanasi ghats are famous all over the world for the utter culture and devotion they invoke.

  • Reply
    Kriysti Rose
    July 12, 2017 at 10:27 am

    Very interesting post. Ganga Aarti of Varanasi is famous across the world. It is the good place to visit and seeing the ghats and temples.

  • Reply
    lisa
    August 14, 2017 at 9:47 am

    I loved Varanasi it was a very spiritual place for me. The locals were amazing to talk to and get to know, we also visited the Buddhist Temple which was amazing!

  • Leave a Reply

    CommentLuv badge

    %d bloggers like this: