The great Hindu city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras or Benares) is one of the best cities to visit in India. It stretches along the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by long flights of stone ghats where thousands of pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous – the City of Light, founded by Shiva – Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC in one continuous tradition, in part by remaining outside the mainstream of political activity and historical development of the Subcontinent.
Exploring Varanasi, the City of Light
Located next to a ford on an ancient trade route, Varanasi is among the holiest of all tirthas – “crossing places”, that allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth.
It has attracted pilgrims, seekers, sannyasins and students of the Vedas throughout its history, including sages such as Buddha, Mahavira (founder of the Jain faith) and the great Hindu reformer Shankara.
Anyone who dies in Varanasi attains instant moksha, or enlightenment. Widows and the elderly come here to live out their final days, finding shelter in temples, assisted by alms from the faithful. Western visitors since the Middle Ages have marvelled at the strangeness of this most alien of Indian cities: the tight mesh of alleys, the religious accoutrements, the host of deities – and the proximity of death.
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Best things to do in Varanasi
From the ghats to the monkey temple and wandering the old city, these are the best things to do in Varanasi.
#1 Visit the ghats
The great riverbanks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined by stone steps – the ghats – which stretch along the whole waterfront, changing dramatically in appearance with the seasonal fluctuations of the river level.
Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city.
For the visitor, joining devotees in the teeming temple precincts of the south, on the ghats at Varanasi, at the Sufi shrines of Ajmer and Delhi, before the naked Jain colossi of Sravanabelagola, or at any one of the innumerable religious festivals that punctuate the astrological calendar is to experience India at its most intense.
The easiest way to see the ghats is to follow a south–north sequence either by boat or on foot.
#2 Take a boat on the Ganges at dawn
Take a boat on the Ganges before dawn to watch the sunrise over India’s most ancient and sacred city.
All along the ghats, and especially at the main ones such as Dashaswamedh, the prices of boat (bajra) rental are highly inflated, with local boatmen under pressure from touts to fleece tourists and pilgrims.
Renting a boat to catch the dawn in particular can be a bit of a free-for-all, and haggling is essential. There used to be an official rate, which everyone ignored, but it’s now down to your bargaining skills.
You’ll get a far better rate if you walk up to Mir Ghat near the Alka hotel, where punters are thinner on the ground. Some small hotels and hostels offer special deals to their guests.
#3 Explore the Old City
At the heart of Varanasi, between Dashaswamedh Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north, lies the maze of ramshackle alleys that comprise the Old City, or Vishwanatha Khanda.
The whole area buzzes with the activity of pilgrims, pandas and stalls selling offerings to the faithful, and there are lingams and shrines tucked into every corner. If you get lost just head for the river.
The Golden Temple and around Accessed from Vishwanatha Mandir Lane to the north of Vishwanatha Gali, but closed to non-Hindus, the Vishwanatha Mandir temple complex, also called Visheshwara (the “Lord of All”), is popularly known as the Golden Temple, due to the gold plating on its massive spire. Because it is largely hidden behind walls, non-Hindus have to make do with glimpses of it from adjacent buildings.
#4 Head to Durga Temple (but watch the monkeys)
The nineteenth-century Durga Temple – stained red with ochre, and popularly known as the Monkey Temple, thanks to its aggressive and irritable monkeys – stands in a walled enclosure 4 km south of Godaulia.
It is devoted to Durga, the terrifying aspect of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, and the embodiment of Shakti (divine female energy), and was built in a typical north Indian style, with an ornate shikhara in five segments, symbolising the elements.
The best views are from across Durga kund, the adjoining tank. A forked stake in the courtyard is used during some festivals to behead sacrificial goats. Non-Hindus are admitted to the courtyard, but not the inner sanctum.
#5 Wander around the Tulsi Manas Temple
The Tulsi Manas Temple is open to all. Built in 1964 of white-streaked marble, its walls are inscribed with verses by Goswami Tulsidas, the poet and author of the Ramcharitmanas, the Hindi equivalent of the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana.
#6 See some art at Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum
On the campus of the BHU, the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum has a fabulous collection of miniature paintings, sculpture, contemporary art and bronzes. A gallery dedicated to the city of Varanasi, with a stunning nineteenth-century map, has a display of the recent Raj Ghat excavations and old etchings of the city.
Along with Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and Mughal glass, further galleries are devoted to foreign artists who found inspiration in India, such as Nicholas Roerich and Alice Boner; the Bengali renaissance painter Jamini Roy, so influenced by folk art, is also well represented.
#7 Go over the river to Ramnagar Fort
South of the ghats, on the opposite side of the river, the residence of the maharaja of Varanasi, Ramnagar Fort looks down upon the Ganges.
The best views of the fortifications – especially impressive in late afternoon – are to be had from the bridge to the fort, which is reached by a road heading south from the BHU area.
The fort can also be reached by chartering a boat from Dashaswamedh Ghat. Inside, the fort bears testimony to the wealth of the maharaja and his continuing influence.
A dusty and poorly kept museum provides glimpses of a decadent past: horse-drawn carriages, old motor cars, palanquins, ornate gilded and silver howdahs (elephant seats), hookahs, costumes and old silk in a sorry state are all part of the collection, along with an armoury, some minute ivory carvings, an astronomical clock and hunting trophies.
Best areas to stay in Varanasi
Most of Varanasi’s better and more expensive hotels lie on its peripheries, though to experience the full ambience of the city, stay close to the ghats and the lanes of the Old City, where top-floor rooms, with views and more light, are generally the best.
If you want to stay with a local family, ask UP Tourism’s station office about their paying guest house scheme. Here are the best areas to stay in Varanasi.
Assi Ghat has a cluster of charming guesthouses and midrange hotels, including a number of luxury hotels right on the Ganges.
Many of the city’s cheap stays are hidden among the slim backstreets off the ghats. Dashashwamedh has the whole hog of choice: midrange hotels, boutique boltholes, and some bigger, well-appointed accommodations. There is a clutch of places to stay between Meer and Scindhia Ghat.
Quiter than the areas in the north, Shivala has fewer hotels but more breathing room. What it does have are good quality guesthouses and a handful of heritage stays.
Outside the city
There are a handful of bigger, better stays outside of the city like the Radisson, which is the city’s best-value luxury hotel but is around 5.5km away from the river.
Browse the best hotels in Varanasi.
Best restaurants and bars
Varanasi offers a diverse culinary scene with a plethora of options to tantalize your taste buds. From savouring local street food delights along the bustling ghats to indulging in traditional vegetarian thalis at renowned restaurants, the city provides a culinary journey that immerses you in its rich flavours and cultural heritage.
Located along the banks of the sacred Ganges River, Dashashwamedh Road pulsates with life and is home to some of the city's most popular dining establishments. As you explore this bustling thoroughfare, prepare to be seduced by the aroma of freshly baked bread, sizzling street food, and the wafting scent of aromatic spices.
Embrace the tranquil charm of Assi Ghat, where the spiritual and gastronomic realms converge. Nestled at the confluence of the Ganges River and the Assi River, this area offers a serene respite from the city's bustling streets. Here, you'll discover hidden gems that cater to a discerning palate.
How to get around
Navigating through the bustling city of Varanasi, known for its labyrinthine alleys, requires a combination of traditional and modern modes of transportation. From wandering the lanes on foot to gliding along the sacred Ganges River in a boat, here’s how to get around.
Cycle rickshaws are the easiest way to get around Varanasi, and often defy death and traffic jams by cycling up the wrong side of the road; a ride from Godaulia to Cantonment railway station costs around ₹60.
By auto rickshaws
Auto rickshaws should be faster, but due to the volume of traffic they rarely are for short rides across town. Godaulia to the railway station should cost ₹90.
UP Tours at the Tourist Bungalow in Parade Kothi can arrange car rental with driver within a 200km radius of Varanasi. Includes parking fees and can be handy for exploring the wider area.
What is the best time to visit Varanasi?
The best time to visit Varanasi is the cool, dry season from November to March. With temperatures ranging from 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F), this period allows for comfortable daytime activities and cooler evenings. You can also witness the grandeur of Diwali and Dev Deepawali festivals during this time, as the city comes alive with illuminated ghats and enchanting ceremonies.
Spring (March to April) paints Varanasi in vibrant hues with blossoming flowers and warmer temperatures ranging from 30°C to 35°C (86°F to 95°F). It's the perfect season to immerse yourself in the joyous celebration of Holi, where the streets become a colourful spectacle as people indulge in playful powder-paint fights.
The monsoons bring heavy rainfall and humidity from June to September. Be prepared for intermittent showers as temperatures range from 25°C to 30°C (77°F to 86°F), showcasing nature's ethereal beauty.
Find out more about the best time to visit India.
How many days do you need in Varanasi?
You'll need a minimum of two to three days to visit Varanasi. This is enough time to dedicate a day to exploring the iconic ghats that line the sacred Ganges River and witness the captivating Ganga Aarti ceremony, a spiritual ritual held every evening, where devotees gather to offer prayers and witness the mesmerizing display of lights and incense.
The following morning, before dawn, take a boat ride along the river and see the sunrise over the city. Then spend the rest of the day delving into the intricate lanes of the Old City, visiting markets and temples, including Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva.
If time permits, consider extending your stay to explore more offbeat aspects of Varanasi, such as attending a yoga or meditation session in one of the city's renowned ashrams, or taking a day trip to nearby sites like the monkey temple.
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How to get here
As the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is easy to reach by air, train and road. Here's the best ways to get to Varanasi.
Babatpur airport is 22 km northwest of the city. From Cantonment station, a prepaid taxi costs more than a prepaid auto. Uber and Ola may save you some rupees. Allow at least 90 min from the Old City.
Varanasi Cantonment (officially, Varanasi Junction) is the most conveniently located station, with prepaid auto and taxi booths, and a foreign tourists’ reservations office.
There are retiring rooms at Mughal Sarai station and local buses or shared tempos to Varanasi (in Varanasi, pick them up at Roadways Bus Stand, or directly across GT Rd). Trains from the north and east may stop at Varanasi City station before they reach Cantonment, but transport into town from there is sparser.
Most buses terminate a couple of hundred metres east of the railway station along the main Grand Trunk Rd and at the Roadways Bus Stand.
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