Gokarna is a small and remote holy town with four of India's most secluded beaches nestled nearby. It draws both pious pilgrims and hedonistic holidaymakers with equal enthusiasm. Travel to Gokarna to get a feel for what Goa was like in its heyday, although time is limited as developers are already seeing the potential of this area and commercialization is setting in. The secret is already out among tourists -- both foreign and domestic -- too. This Gokarna guide will help you plan your trip.
According to Hindu mythology, Gokarna's existence can be traced all the way back to the ancient epic The Ramayana, which tells the story of Lord Ram's life and rescue of his wife Sita from demon king Ravan. It's said that Lord Ganesh fooled Ravan into relinquishing the Atma Linga (the Soul of Lord Shiva that bestows immortality and invincibility) in Gokarna, while was he taking it to his kingdom in Sri Lanka. The Atma Linga is believed to be installed in the town's Mahabaleshwar temple. There's also a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh.
Gokarna is located on the coast of Karnataka, an hour south of the Goa border. It's about 450 kilometers (280 miles) from Bangalore, the state capital.
How to Get There
The nearest airport is Dabolim, in Goa. From there it's a four hour drive south to Gorkana. Alternatively, trains on the Konkan railway stop at Gokarna Road station, 15 minutes from town. There are railway stations at Kumta and Ankola, both about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Gokarna, as well. Gokarna is also connected by bus from major cities such as Madgaon in Goa, and Mangalore and Bangalore in Karnataka.
When to Go
Gokarna experiences the southwest monsoon from June to August, following which the weather becomes dry and sunny. The best time to visit Gokarna is from October until March, when the weather is warm and pleasant with temperatures averaging 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). April and May are hot summer months, and the temperature easily reaches 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) then. It becomes very humid too.
If you're interested in seeing a festival, aim to be there for Mahashivratri (the "Great Night of Lord Shiva") in February or early March. It's celebrated for nine days at Mahabaleshwar temple and concludes with a chariot procession carrying an idol of Lord Shiva through the streets. People throw bananas at the chariot for good luck.
Mahabaleshwar temple also holds rituals for Tripurakhya Deepotsava on Kartik Purnima (the auspicious full moon in November) and is beautifully illuminated with oil lamps.
What to Do There
Gokarna's main attraction is its beaches, where people come to chill and soak up the sun for months at a time. Travelers usually bypass the town's main beach (which is popular with pilgrims) and head a short distance south to Kudle and Om beaches.
Om is the most happening beach, as it can be conveniently reached by car or auto rickshaw. However, this means it draws plenty of domestic tourists and day trippers, especially on weekends. Unfortunately, the men don't always behave themselves. Those who want to escape the crowds prefer Kudle beach. Its secluded position down a hill between two cliffs means that it's less accessible.
Kudle has an international vibe during peak season. A hippie flea market often takes place in the evenings on the beach, followed by drumming and live music around a bonfire. That's about the extent of Gokarna's nightlife, as strict policing keeps it in check (two foreigners were arrested for allegedly organizing a rave party in February 2019). During the day, people do yoga and play games such as cricket, or hang out in a shack with a cold beer. Alcohol is officially banned due to the town's religious significance but you won't have a problem getting a cold beer on the beach.
There are two more smaller beaches -- Half Moon and Paradise -- further south of Om beach. Each requires a scenic 30 minute hike, or a short boat ride, to reach. Paradise Beach isn't much more than a tiny protected cove. It doesn't have amenities and the beach shacks are frequently torn down by the forest department, so people bring tents and camp.
It's possible to hike all the way along the cliff from Kudle beach to Paradise beach. Do wear proper footwear though because the terrain is rocky and steep in parts. Care should be taken when walking between the beaches at night in the dark, and it's best not to go alone.
Om beach has water sports. You can also go surfing and take lessons at Gokarna's main beach. Or, if you fancy, ride a camel along the sand. Read more about the top places to surf and get lessons in India. Strong currents make swimming dangerous in some areas, so do be careful.
It's worthwhile venturing into characterful Gokarna town. It's easy to explore this sleepy town on foot and fun to spot the colorful murals decorating the buildings that line its streets. Wandering around the lake and past innumerable small temples is also enjoyable. Do note that non-Hindus aren't allowed to enter the inner sanctum of Mahabaleshwar temple (the town's main temple), although they can go inside the temple complex. The chariots used in the Mahashivratri festival procession are parked nearby on the street next to the Ganesh temple. If you want to shop, you'll find the usual assortment of tourist stuff being sold in town, ranging from incense to hippie clothes.
Where to Eat and Drink
Namaste Cafe on Om beach is Gokarna's most iconic shack and it stays open during the monsoon season. However, people complain that standards have dropped in recent years. Expect a long wait to get a table and slow service during peak season.
On Kudle beach, the White Elephant and Little Paradise Inn are recommended.
Where to Stay
Gokarna town has plenty of hotels but they are characterless places. Instead, opt for a homestay such as Hari Priya Residency.
Vedic Village is an outstanding homestay in a newly constructed house with sea views, situated five minutes walk from town. Nimmu House is a popular budget option, with a wide variety of rooms in two wings, close to the town's beach.
Alternatively, find yourself a hut on the beach. Decent ones are no longer super cheap, as many places have upgraded to concrete structures with attached bathrooms. Prices skyrocket from December to February, when demand is high, Yet, it's much less costly than Goa! Om and Kudle beaches both have some permanent accommodations. If you want to book in advance, try pocket-friendly Paradise Holiday Cottages or Kudle Ocean Front Resort on Kudle Beach. Namaste Sanjeevini sprawls just above Kudle beach.
Nirvana Guest House is the best place to stay on Om beach. Namaste Cafe and nearby Shantidham Cafe also offer cottages that are popular. Beach accommodation can be difficult to come by in the peak months of December and January though. Many people are just happy with a hammock! If that idea doesn't appeal to you, make sure you turn up before noon to grab a room as people are checking out.
There are a few luxury resorts on the hillside, such as Om Beach Resort, SwaSwara, Kudle Beach View Resort & Spa, and Kahani Paradise villa for those who prefer their comforts. Om Beach Resort has a traditional Ayurvedic center, while SwaSwara focuses on yoga and meditation.
For something different, check out Namaste Yoga Farm in the hills above Kudle beach. You can stay in a tree house there!
Alternatively, backpackers will be pleased to know that a few hostels have opened up at Gokarna. Zostel hostel was the first one there, in early 2016. It sits on a hilltop halfway between Gokarna town and Kudle beach, and the beach view is rather spectacular. It's an arty place with dorms, private wooden cottages, a common room, and a yummy restaurant. HosteLaVie occupies an enticing spot behind Kudle beach, while Trippr hostel is bang on a private beach.
What to Do Nearby
If you're up for an adventure and are feeling energetic, it's possible to hike south from Gokarna to Kumta in two days. This is known as the Golden Trail and it passes through many virgin beaches.
History lovers will be interested in visiting 16th century Mirjan Fort, about 30 minutes south of Gokarna alongside the Aghanashini River. "Pepper Queen" Chennabharadevi is thought to have constructed it and controlled the spice trade through it. There are wells, secret doors, interlinked tunnels, and a watch tower.
About 45 minutes inland from Mirjan, the towering black crystalline limestone rock formations in the Western Ghat mountains near Yana village are an offbeat attraction. A short forest trek is required to reach them.