Essential Guide to Visiting Varanasi in India

This Ancient Holy City is not for the Faint of Heart!

Varanasi, India.
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Varanasi is another sacred city in India with a very old history. Known as the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, it's believed that anyone who dies in Varanasi will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. Even a wash in the Ganges River is said to cleanse away all sins.

The fascinating thing about this mystical city is that its rituals are revealed openly to along the many riverside ghats, which are used for everything from bathing to burning the bodies of the dead.

Yoga, blessings, massages, shaves, and games of cricket are among the other activities you'll find performed by the river's edge.

Plan your trip to Varanasi with this essential travel guide.

Getting There

Varanasi has an airport and is connected by direct flight from major cities in India including Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, and Khajuraho.

Many people choose to travel to Varanasi by train. It takes a minimum of eight hours from Kolkata, 10 to 12 hours from Delhi, and around 30 hours from Mumbai. Most trains conveniently run overnight. The main railway station in Varanasi is called Varanasi Junction or Varanasi Cantt (the code is BSB). However, there are two other railway stations in the vicinity of the city --  Manduadih (MUV) and Mughal Sarai Junction (MGS). This is important to note if all trains to Varanasi Junction are booked up. Manduadih is withing the city, while Mughal Sarai Junction is about 20 kilometers away.

Mughal Sarai is a large station that receives a lot of trains, so you may be able to get one with availability.

Bus services to Varanasi tend to be very slow and uncomfortable, and are generally avoidable unless you're on a super strict budget.

When to Visit

October to March are the best months to visit Varanasi.

This is when the weather is at its coolest. Winters are refreshing and pleasant. The temperature gets uncomfortably hot from April onward, easily reaching 35 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). This is followed by monsoon rain from July to September.

What to See and Do

People visit Varanasi for a brush with the divine. One of the best things to do is to simply soak up the atmosphere and observe what's going on. The most interesting part of the city is its ghats (steps leading down to the river). Take a walk beside the river and watch life flow by. Here are some important ghats in Varanasi.

A quintessential Varanasi experiences is a boat trip along the river at sunrise or dusk. It's worth going twice, at both times, because the atmosphere is different and you'll see different things. The spectacular Ganga Aarti (prayer ceremony) takes place every evening at Dasaswamedh Ghat. You can either be part of the audience or watch it from the river.

A look at the cremation ghats, where dead bodies are openly burned on funeral pyres, is fascinating. It's best that you don't try and go there yourself, due to the prevalence of scams and touts (see below). Instead, take this Learning and Burning walking tour offered by Heritage Walk Varanasi or Death and Rebirth in Banaras walking tour offered by Varanasi Walks.

The magnificent Vishwanath Temple, built in 1776, is an important Hindu holy place of worship in Varanasi.

Varanasi is also well-known for its classical dance and music, and yoga.

Varanasi Tours

Want to see immerse yourself in Varanasi or see it without the hassle? Experience Varanasi, Varanasi Magic, Varanasi Walks, and Vedic Walks conduct informative experiential and offbeat tours around the city.

Manjeet is an outstanding personal guide who provides customized heritage walks of Varanasi.

Various inexpensive Varanasi walking tours are offered by GoStops Hostel.

If you take a walking tour, you'll be able to explore the bazaars and unusual attractions, such as the flower market and Ayurvedic herb market. You can also visit artisans, a community of boatmen, and Juna Akhara where sadhus live.

Festivals and Events

The biggest festival of the year in Varanasi is Dev Deepavali (or Dev Diwali).

Not to be confused with Diwali, this festival happens 15 days later, on Kartik Purnima (in October or November). The gods are believed to come to earth to bathe in the Ganges River on this day, and the ghats are decorated with rows and rows of lamps. Their glow creates an evocative spectacle. A five-day Ganga Mahotsav festival is also held in Varanasi at the same time. The focus is on live classical music and dance.

The world's oldest Ramlila performance, which narrates the life story of Lord Ram, takes place at Ramnagar near Varanasi for a month in the lead-up to Dussehra.

Other important occasions in Varanasi include Maha Shivratri and Buddha Purnima (Buddha's birthday). The five-day Dhrupad Mela music festival happens at Tulsi Ghat, usually in March after Maha Shivratri. It's organized by the Sankat Mochan Foundation.

Where to Stay

Ideally, stay in a hotel that faces the Ganges River so you can watch all the goings-on along the ghats. Here's the pick of riverside hotels in Varanasi for all budgets.

Where to Eat

Those who want a break from Indian food will find it at Assi Ghat. Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe and Aum Cafe are very popular. The Open Hand Cafe and Shop serves great coffee and yummy light meals, and retails their quality ethically-made products.

Head to the Dosa Cafe or Niyati Cafe, in the lane behind Man Mandir Ghat, for simple yet tasty Indian fare.

Travel Tips

Although the government has noticeably cleaned up Varanasi in recent years, it's still very polluted and dirty. Most tourists find it to be an intense city that confronting and off-putting, yet intriguing. This is a place that will really overwhelm your senses, and not always in a good way. So, do be ready for it! It's not wise to take a dip in the Ganges River due to the pollution. If you go on a boat ride, avoid getting wet.

Varanasi is an excellent place to shop for silk (including saris). However, be sure to check the quality as many items are actually made of fake silk or silk blend. Musical instruments are also a good buy in Varanasi.

When taking photos, do be discrete and considerate of people who are performing rituals. Especially avoid photographing the cremation ghats.

If you're not familiar with Varanasi and think you might be overwhelmed, or you want to gain deeper insight into the city, taking a tour is highly recommended.

Dangers and Annoyances

Varanasi is a challenging destination for inexperienced travelers. There are many scams to watch out for. The most common one involves touts who will take you to see Manikarnika Ghat (the main cremation ghat) and ask you to donate wood for the funeral pyre -- you'll be paying at least 10 times more than what the wood's worth. If you offer a small amount, it will be declined. Either say you don't have any money or don't feel comfortable giving so much.

In addition, be careful if you go out at night, as it can be dangerous in poor lighting.

Side Trips

A side trip to Sarnath, around 20 minutes from Varanasi, is worthwhile. This is where the Buddha gave his first discourse. In contrast to the craziness of Varanasi, it's a peaceful place where you can wander around the grassy gardens and ruins of Buddhist stupas.