Banaras Tourism – a complete travel guide to Varanasi, including how to reach, the best time to visit, top places to visit, shop and eat, and accommodation in Varanasi, India.
After several years of planning and cancelling, I landed in Varanasi thanks to an impulsive decision. I was randomly scrolling when Varanasi popped up on my mobile phone, and the next thing I knew, I had booked my air tickets. Everything within 10 minutes. I arrived with high hopes, but Varanasi didn’t disappoint.
I’ve to admit that Varanasi is one of the most overwhelming cities in India and probably in the whole world. Everything could give me a panic attack – too noisy, too smoky, too congested, and too crowded. Yet, there is an order in the chaos. A city that has to be seen to be believed. But let me share what I experienced. Here’s a Varanasi travel guide that will answer all your questions about visiting the holy city.
Famous by monikers such as Banaras and Kashi, Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. It is believed to date back to the 12th century BC. A sacred place for Hindus to die – it is believed that if you die in Banaras, you are liberated from the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation. My local friend and a fellow photographer, Aryan Thakur, told me that funeral pyres have burnt here nonstop for thousands of years. Irrespective of the fact whether ghats flood or an emergency arises. But death and cremation are not the only reasons millions of pilgrims come here every year. Some visit to wash away their sins in the holy waters of the Ganga and to worship the river itself. And, some people (like me) come here to capture the mystical beauty of the city and gorge on its delicious food. It’s a marvellous city where both life and death are celebrated in Kashi.
Must-do activities and places to visit in Varanasi
Witness the entire life-death cycle on Ghats
Ghats are the riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganga. The soul of Varanasi lives on its ghats, which are buzzing with life 24/7. People taking early morning holy baths to wash away their sins, priests performing rituals, cremations happening round the clock and people practising meditation and yoga. While all this is happening, Banarasiyas are doing their daily chores – laundry, fixing boats and boys jumping into the river. It is incredible to see so many different worlds and activities co-exist in one place.
Out of 88 ghats, most are used for bathing and puja ceremonies; only two ghats – Manikarnika and Harishchandra – are used exclusively as cremation sites. Although the city is more than 900 years old, most Varanasi ghats were rebuilt in the 18th century under the Maratha patronage. All the 88 ghats are worth visiting, but if you are hard-pressed for time, I’d highly recommend you visit Dashashwamedh Ghat for its evening Ganga Aarti, Assi Ghat for morning Ganga Aarti, Manikarnika and Harishchandra for pyre burning, and Darbhanga Ghat for Instagram worthy pictures.
TSW Tip: the morning time is a better time to witness the complete Ghat action than during the day. Walk from Assi Ghat to Raj ghat or vice versa.
Enjoy a boat ride on the Ganges.
Skip anything but a sunrise boat ride in Varanasi. River Ganges is the core of Varanasi, and this is where life and death unite. And the beauty of Varanasi is best observed from a boat when the sun rises above the vast horizon, painting the sky in dazzling shades of amber and red at the crack of dawn. The river and the ghats glow in the golden light at sunrise and sunset. Not only do you get the best views of Varanasi from the River Ganges, but you also get to see the centuries-old Hindu way of life still being practised along the banks of the Ganges.
TSW Tip: If you want stunning Instagram pictures with dozens of birds flying in the background, don’t forget to buy the bird food before hiring a boat. The boatman selling bird food on boats charge double the regular price.
Invoke the spiritual side at Varanasi Temples
With approximately 3,000 temples and shrines dotting the city’s landscape, Varanasi is often touted as the City of Temples. The most famous temples are Kashi Vishwanath, Bharat Mata Mandir, Sankat Mochan Mandir, Kaal Bhairav Mandir, Durga Mandir, Mrityunjay Mahadev Mandir, Annapurna Devi Mandir, and Tulsi Manas Temple. If Varanasi is the Spiritual Capital of India, then Kashi Vishwanath Temple is its most precious jewel. And, now it has become more popular after the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Situated on the western banks of the River Ganga, it is one of the twelve holiest jyotirlingas or sacred centers of Shiva worship spread across India.
TSW Tip: photography (even on mobile) is banned in most big temples. So, leave your gadgets behind.
Satiate your tastebuds with authentic Banarasi street food and drinks
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Banaras so badly is its food. Like the city itself, the food reflects its people and visitors. Marwari traders and people from nearby states added their regional touch to the local cuisine. The vegetarian delicacies are primarily prepared in desi ghee, and most Varanasi sweets have a milk and ghee base. The must-try food items in Varanasi are – tamatar chaat, Allu-Tikki, Dahi-chutney waale Gol Gappe, Chena Dahi vada, kachori sabzi, malaiyyo (served only for two months in winters), thandai and lassi, banarasi paan, baati chokha, Choora Matar (Benarasi twist to the Poha), chai-bun, banarasi marwadi thali, and the list continues.
Many people ask whether non-veg or alcohol is allowed in Varanasi. Well, the sale and consumption of liquor and non-vegetarian food are banned within a 250-metre radius of all temples and heritage sites in Varanasi. Therefore most Old City restaurants and hotels situated on Ghats are vegetarian and alcohol-free. However, Cantonment and other areas are less constrained.
TSW Tip: best places for Banarasi street food are Kaashi Chaat Bhandar, Vishwanath Chaat Bhandar, Ram Bhandaar (Kachori Sabzi), and Blue Lassi.
Shopping in Varanasi
While I am not big into shopping, I also bought a Banarasi skirt and dupatta (stole). The best shopping areas are the Thatheri Bazaar (for brass), or Jnana Vapi and the Vishwanatha Gali in Godaulia with its Temple Bazaar (for Banarasi silk brocade sari and jewellery). If you are looking for souvenirs to bring home, check out Crystal and Stone Shivalinga, Gulabi Minakari, colourful glass beads, rudraksha mala, wooden toys, and flutes, among other items.
TSW Tip: Be prepared to bargain at least 50% of the quoted amount.
Get spiritual in Sarnath
Contrary to the din of the Banaras city, Sarnath seems like a different world with its peaceful vibes. Located 13-km from Varanasi, it takes around 45 minutes to 1 hour to get here. Sarnath is one of the four most important pilgrimage destinations for Buddhism globally. It’s relatively small, but it has a special meaning for Buddhists worldwide because it’s the place where Buddhism was born. The must-visit places in Sarnath are –
- Chaukhandi Stupa – built-in 1589 AD this stupa is where Buddha met with his five disciples.
- Buddha statue – right next to the Chaukhandi Stupa is the world’s tallest Buddha statue – 24.3m.
- Dhamek Stupa – where Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths
- Dharmarajika Stupa – Ashoka built this stupa in the 3rd century BC. Only the foundations of the stupa and monasteries are visible today.
- Jain temple and the majestic Bodhi Tree
- Chinese Temple
- Sarnath Archaeological Museum.
TSW Tip: Do check out the temples and museum closing hours and days before visiting. Temples have different opening and closing times. Also, the museum is closed on Friday.
Hear the Musical sounds of Banaras
The spiritual capital of India, Varanasi, is also the “Music City.” In 2015, the city of Varanasi was chosen as the “City of Music by UNESCO. Music, indeed, is an integral part of the city. Therefore your trip would be incomplete without experiencing the musical notes of Banaras. The city is renowned for its music – both vocal and instrumental. The city has a music heritage tracing back to the Puranic literature, attributing the development of music to Shiva. But it was during the times of various Kashi Naresh (Kings of Kashi) who patronized music and helped in the growth of Banaras Gharanas. The Gharana system started shaping up 600-700 years ago in the city. The musicians who began the Banaras Gharanas came from places such as Lucknow, Azamgarh, Bhagalpur, and Samastipur. These Gharanas have given notable musicians, such as iconic sitar player Ravi Shankar, the Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan, Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Rajan-Sajan Mishra and singer Girija Devi among many more. Music is like air in Banaras. From dawn to dusk, sitars are being tuned, sarods rehearsed, tablas mastered, and the nuances of various ragas discussed minutely and passionately. Classical music echoes everywhere in Varanasi. It is in the temples, weekly performances in the restaurants and hotels, live music played on the ghats and rooftops, large scale annual music concerts, music shops, and boats. Don’t forget to hear the melodious voice of the Bhoomi boatman.
TSW Tip: If you have time, enrol yourself at a music school or just catch a live performance at your hotel. Suryauday Haveli has daily two hours long classical music performance from 7-9 pm by legendary musicians.
Spend some time in Banaras Hindu University (BHU)
Why should I visit a university in a historic city? That was precisely my expression when Aryan Yadav recommended visiting it. The reasons he gave were enough to plan a trip – incredible architecture, beautiful setting, lush greenery, and mouth-watering street food. Established in 1919, the university has given many renowned scientists, scholars and artists to the nation. Even its campus has historical and cultural significance. Inside the BHU complex, you can visit the new Viswanath temple and archaeological museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan. The university is open for Tourists between 10 am and 6 pm throughout the year. And, while you are exploring the area, don’t forget to try the street food in Lanka. Lanka is the “mall road” equivalent, situated in front of the BHU (Banaras Hindu University) gate. You would find all sorts of eateries and roadside stalls serving lip-smacking street food such as kachori, chaat, samosa, pao bhaji, burger, noodles, pizza, dosa, pakodas and everything else.
TSW Tip: Do try Chachi ki Kachori and jalebi at Lanka. A small hole in wall kind of shop became famous because of an old lady fondly called “Chachi” (aunty) by students. Although she is no more now, her sons still serve crispy kachori and piping hot jalebis.
Here’s a vlog of my experience in Varanasi:
Practical Travel Tips for Varanasi Trip
- How to reach Varanasi – Varanasi is well connected to the rest of India by train, bus and plane. You can either fly into Varanasi Airport from any big Indian city such as Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore etc. or take a train or bus. Varanasi railway junction and Kashi Railway station are the two major railheads serving the city. 12 trains run daily between New Delhi to Varanasi and 12560 SHIV GANGA EXP is the fastest train from New Delhi to Varanasi. Moreover, you can hail a bus ride with the Uttar Pradesh state roadways buses to Varanasi from Lucknow, Patna, Gorakhpur, and Ranchi.
- When is the best time to visit Varanasi – From October to March when it’s not too hot to explore the city.
- How many days are enough for Varanasi – It depends on the time you have in hand and your interests. To experience at least 70% of what I mentioned above, you need 5-6 days. But you can also plan a trip to Varanasi for two days, three days, a week, or even months or years.
- Things to do in Varanasi at night – start by attending the evening aarti ceremony at the Ganges followed by trying local street food and pan, shop at Vishwanath Gali and Chowk, and wrap up the day by enjoying a delicious Banarasi meal while listening to live classical music.
- Where to stay in Varanasi – accommodation in Varanasi is not an issue. You’ll find countless options to suit every pocket, from five-star hotels to budget guesthouses. If you are going to Varanasi, make sure to stay on the banks of the River Ganges because that’s where the action happens. I stayed at Amritara Hotels and Resorts Group run Suryauday Haveli, a 14-room only quaint boutique heritage property sitting atop the Shivala Ghat. Built by the Royal family of Nepal some 175 years ago, it is one of Varanasi’s best hotels. The staff is really warm and helpful, and are always there to guide you whether it comes to sightseeing or something else. The hotel is close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and other major attractions of Varanasi.
Hope through this travel guide on Banaras I’ve been able to answer all your queries about the best things to do in Varanasi in 3 or more days. Please let me know in the comment box below how you find the article or anything you want to know more about.
Har Har Mahadev! Har Har Gange!
- Varanasi – how to survive and thrive in the spiritual capital of India
- The trimmed down version of the story was published in Malindo mag June 2019 issue.
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