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
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.
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
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 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 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.
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
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
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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
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!