Located along the banks of the sacred Ganges River, the northern Indian city of Varanasi is one of the country’s most important and interesting cities. Drawing flocks of Hindu travelers from near and far as an important religious site and travelers from around the world looking to learn first-hand about these traditions, it’s a beloved destination offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In this ultimate travel guide to Varanasi, India, you’ll find everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable visit to this enchanting and mystifying destination. Check out all the best things to do in Varanasi, where to stay, the best places to eat, and simple travel tips to make for a smooth journey.
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Varanasi, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is one of India’s oldest and holiest cities. This ancient city on the banks of the Ganges river has been a spiritual center for Hindus for countless generations. Devotees come here to bathe in its sacred waters and perform rituals for their departed ancestors.
Despite being a bustling and crowded city, the array of interesting temples, unique events, great food, and beautiful accommodations make it a highlight for travelers exploring India. It’s a beautiful backdrop for cultural experiences you won’t have anywhere else. Looking for a particularly interesting time to visit Varanasi? Come during diwali in late October or November to celebrate the particularly impressive festival of lights!
Though not a part of India’s Golden Triangle – a typical traveler route including Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra – Varanasi is relatively close to these northern India highlights and a popular addition to this famous travel itinerary. Just over an hour’s flight from Delhi, or accessible from Agra and Jaipur by overnight train, it’s no wonder Varanasi is a favorite destination for foreign and national travelers alike.
What is Varanasi India Known For?
Varanasi, India is known for its spiritual atmosphere and important places of worship, including the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple. More than perhaps anywhere else in India, visitors will get to see some of the most important rituals and traditions of the Hindu religion.
From sunrise boat rides along its ghats (steps) to exploring its winding alleyways filled with colorful markets, Varanasi offers visitors an unforgettable experience steeped in culture and religious tradition. Visit and explore this historical city and its unique culture; Varanasi will not disappoint!
Why is Varanasi Called the City of Death?
With its enviable spot along the holy Ganges River, Varanasi is considered the holiest city in the Hindu religion. Scriptures say that dying in Varanasi and being cremated along the banks of the river means that a soul is able to break the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation and finally attain salvation. Elderly and sick believers often travel to Varanasi to die here.
Along the ghats – steps – leading from the center of Varanasi to the Ganges, you’ll see family members spreading the ashes of the deceased and believers bathing in the river, which is believed to have waters that will wash away sins. It’s a reverent and somber atmosphere that visitors should approach with the utmost respect.
Things To Do in Varanasi
Take a Sunrise Boat Ride Along the Ghats
One of the best things you can do in Varanasi is to take a sunrise boat ride along its ghats. Varanasi’s famous ghats – a series of steps leading down to the river – are found along the length of the river, though the most famous one in Varanasi is Dashashwamedh Ghat.
This ghat has been around since ancient times and offers breathtaking sunrise views over the Ganges river. You can hire a boat, whether on a private tour or a small group excursion, and watch as devotees perform holy rituals on the banks of the river – praying, washing, meditating, and chanting mantras. You will also see temples, shrines, and other religious structures along the way.
Don’t be surprised to see cremation rituals taking place on the ghats – this is a symbolic gesture for Hindus and an essential part of their spiritual practice. Do your bit to respect the locals and avoid taking photos of this sensitive activity.
Explore the Winding Alleyways of Varanasi
The winding alleyways of Varanasi are a must-see for visitors. These narrow streets are full of vibrant colors, sounds, and smells – from street vendors selling everything from food to jewelry to souvenirs. You’ll find a variety of shops here that sell handmade goods like carpets and silks.
Explore the markets and stalls along these alleyways, especially in the area near the ghats along the riverbanks – where you’ll find the best deals and souvenirs. The people here are friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask them questions or practice your bargaining skills.
Apart from shops, you’ll also find plenty of food stalls here. Try the local delicacies – from samosas and chaat to lassis and pani puri. While you’re here, you may see a procession marching to the river for a funeral; keep your distance and show respect.
Experience the Evening Aarti
Every evening, witness a magnificent event that is the Ganga Aarti. The Ceremony of Light is dedicated to Goddess Ganga and Lord Shiva. Devotees light oil lamps, and Hindu priests wave them before the deities while chanting sacred prayers.
The ceremony is held around sunset, starts at 6:45 pm, and lasts 90 minutes. If you want a good spot to watch the ceremony, ensure you arrive at least an hour before it starts. Find a spot on the stairs or a boat to watch the festivities.
If you’d like to enjoy the experience with a guide, even better. Small group or private experiences with guides help put the ceremony into context, and often start or end with a local walking tour or food tour.
Watching the Aarti from a boat in the middle of the river is another incredible option as the river comes alive with hundreds of lamps illuminating its surface. The accompanying songs, drums, and bells also highlight the event.
Take a Guided Tour of Varanasi
For an insightful and comprehensive exploration of Varanasi, take a guided walking tour. Professional guides can help you explore the history and culture of the city in depth through visits to local temples and cultural sites.
You can also opt for a walking tour to get up close and personal with the locals as you explore historic buildings, markets, and alleyways. Opt for an evening tour, as most of Varanasi’s awesomeness comes alive after sunset.
As much as the locals are friendly and welcoming, there are a few precautions to take when exploring the city. Dress modestly, and don’t take photos of religious activities or ceremonies without permission. Also, keep a close eye on your belongings – though streets are mostly quite safe, pickpocketing can occur in more crowded areas.
Visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most celebrated shrine in Varanasi. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and has been mentioned in Hindu texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Last year, the temple received 7.35 crore (73.5 million devotees).
The temple complex, built by the Maratha monarch, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, covers six acres of land and features a multitude of shrines, gilded domes, and spires. It is open daily from 4:00 am to 11:00 pm, but be prepared to wait in line as it gets very crowded.
During your visit, you can also explore other temples in the complex, like Annapurna Devi Temple, Kal Bhairav Temple, and Shri Dhandapani Temple.
Cameras, cellphones, and other electronic items are strictly prohibited inside the temple, and you’ll need to leave your footwear at the entrance. Don’t wear a belt with a metal buckle, and keep cigarettes away. Police officers and security personnel at various checkpoints will check before granting you entry.
Learn About Indian Art and Culture at the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum
Located inside the Banaras Hindu University, the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum is a great place to learn about India’s art and culture. It houses an impressive collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, terracotta figures, Mughal miniatures, and ancient manuscripts.
The museum also features statues of gods and goddesses from various religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It has an expansive art gallery that houses paintings of renowned Indian artists like Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy, among others.
After seeing the massive collection here (containing over 104,000 objects), Mahatma Gandhi inscribed “संग्रह बहुत अच्छा है” (“the collection is very good”). If he says so, it must be true! So, try to visit the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum in Varanasi.
The museum is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm every day except Sundays and public holidays. The entry charge for Indians is 20 INR, but foreigners have to pay more, 250 INR. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum, but you can buy images from the in-house photographer.
Go on a Shopping Spree at Thatheri Bazaar or Godowlia Market
Varanasi is a great place to shop for souvenirs, handmade jewelry, and traditional clothes. Thatheri Bazaar and Godowlia Market are two popular shopping destinations in the city. Stop by these bustling markets to buy sarees, salwar kameez, and traditional jewelry.
Thatheri Bazaar has been around for a long time and offers an eclectic mix of everyday items, antiques, brass items, and fabrics. It’s also a great place to pick up sarees and salwar kameez (traditional Indian garments).
Godowlia Market is one of the oldest local bazaars in the city, and local vendors here sell groceries, shoes, shawls, beads, jewelry, and many handcrafted items. The market is mainly known for its silk embroidery, so if you’re looking for gorgeous outfits and accessories, this is your spot!
Before starting your shopping spree, remember that bargaining is an essential part of the shopping culture in India. Don’t be shy to haggle and get the best deal possible. It’s an experience in itself!
Attend Cultural Events Like Sankat Mochan Music Festival
When in Varanasi, take full advantage of the local cultural events. The Sankat Mochan Music Festival is one of the most popular ones that takes place annually at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Renowned musicians and performers from India come together to perform some of their best works.
The five to six-day festival celebrates Hindu mythology through music concerts, dance performances, and cultural activities. During the festival, thousands of devotees and music lovers flock to the temple to pay tribute to Lord Hanuman.
The entire town gets decked out in festive colors and comes alive with traditional music, devotional songs, and the aroma of incense sticks. This is a perfect opportunity to learn more about the local culture and traditions.
The festival begins at 6:30 pm and continues till sunrise the following day. Entry to the temple during the festival is free, so financial constraints should not stop you from having a great time.
Wander Through Ramnagar Fort and Museum
Located on the eastern bank of the Ganges and opposite Tulsi Ghat, Ramnagar Fort and Museum is another must-visit destination in Varanasi. Built by Raja Balwant Singh in 1750, it’s one of the oldest forts in the city. During Dussehra, a Hindu festival, decorations, and lights transform the fort into a grand palace.
The fort complex houses a magnificent palace that showcases some of India’s finest architecture. Its walls are adorned with intricate carvings and paintings, while its courtyards feature lush gardens. The museum inside the complex is another highlight of this place. It displays an extensive collection of weapons, royal costumes, old Maharaja cars, jewel-encrusted knives, and other artifacts from the past.
The fort is open to tourists daily from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, and there’s an entry fee, so have enough cash on you when visiting.
Where to Stay in Varanasi
Accommodation options in Varanasi range from luxurious five-star hotels to budget hostels and homestays. Depending on your budget and preferences, you can choose a hotel in the city center or near popular attractions like the ghats.
These are some of the best picks in the city, located within a short walking distance of the ghats and other major attractions you’ll want to see in Varanasi.
Wander Station Varanasi
You will find only rave reviews about Wander Station Varanasi, one of the city’s most popular hostels. With its close proximity to some of the city’s best attractions, and tons of room options, from roomy dorms to comfortable private rooms, it’s easy to see why. The hotel offers rooms with free WiFi, air conditioning, housekeeping, dry cleaning services, and the best of all: balconies with views of the Ganges.
There’s an onsite library, café, and a terrace where you can relax and enjoy the views. Boat rides and bonfires can be arranged upon request.
Rose Heritage Home
How would you like to stay at a hotel over 100 years old? Rose Heritage Home is a beautiful heritage hotel located near the ghats. It has rooms with air conditioning, free WiFi, and access to a garden with a terrace, plus all the charm you’d expect from a historic haveli property.
Make sure to ask for a room a balcony with views of the river Ganges when you book your stay. Prepare to enjoy Indian, Japanese, and Chinese cuisines at the onsite restaurants.
BrijRama Palace Varanasi
BrijRama Palace Varanasi is an ideal place for luxury seekers, and is among the best hotels in Varanasi. This historic property is one of the oldest structures in Varanasi, and the ornate architecture reflects its centuries of history. Expect premium royal treatment in stylish and comfortable rooms that come with all modern amenities.
Their facilities include Kashi Wellness Spa, exquisite dining options, a fitness center, free WiFi, and everything you might expect from a luxury stay. BrijRama Palace Varanasi also offers yoga classes to help you unwind and relax during your stay, as well as an array of activities to make the most of your trip to Varanasi.
Getting to Varanasi
While Varanasi might be a bit more off the beaten path than other northern India destinations like Jaipur and Agra, you’ll have your pick of transportation options that makes getting to and from Varanasi a breeze.
The closest airport is Varanasi Airport, which receives domestic and international flights. When you arrive at the airport, you can take a taxi or tuk-tuk to reach your destination in the main city. Some hotels offer their guests free pick-up/drop-off services, so check with them before arrival. The journey should take at most 2 hours, depending on traffic.
Varanasi has multiple railway stations, including the Kashi Junction, Mughal Sarai Junction, and Manduadih Station. You can get a train from most parts of India, including Agra, Delhi, and Mumbai. Arriving by train is a cost-effective way to get to Varanasi, and it’s an experience in itself. You can see stunning countryside views as you pass through villages and cities.
If you’re driving, Varanasi is connected to other cities (including Kanpur and Alipur) in Uttar Pradesh via a network of highways. You can also hire a private taxi to take you to Varanasi – definitely the best option for foreign travelers not used to India’s frenetic driving.
Visit Varanasi and Discover its Many Wonders
Varanasi is a city filled with culture and religious significance, and you will not be disappointed when you visit. Take in the sights and sounds of this holy city, visit the ghats, take boat rides on the Ganges, wear colorful sarees, sample some of the delicious street food unique to Varanasi, and enjoy the hospitality that greets you everywhere.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.