Varanasi, India Travel Guide: Top Things to Do and See in India
Whichever direction you look, Varanasi turns out to be the city of contrasts. Walking by its streets you will feel the timeless atmosphere of this antique place. Benares is the city which accommodates myriads of pilgrims, wanderers, sadhu, globe-trotters, nomads… and mysteries. Come and experience it on your own skin!
WHAT TO DO: HIGHLIGHTS
Vishwanath temple - This is one of the 12 jothir lingams in India. The temple opens at 2.30am in the morning and closes at 10pm at night. Special pujas (prayers) are performed in the morning, evening and at night. Devotees are also allowed to perform milk Abishekam (Holy Bath). Remember that mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside. It is useful to know that the nearby shops have lockers rented out for some 100/- to 150/-rs. So in case your hotels don't have a security locker you can use this option.
Ramnagar fort – is an interesting view of a remote past. The fort is a dusty museum that demonstrates cultural heritage left former rulers of this region. It is a little bit gloomy, but however worth the entrance fee (200 INR) and 2- hours visit.
Manikarnika ghat (burning ghat) - this is one of the most important ghats of Benares. Ghat is a series of steps that leads down to a holy river. Manikamika ghat is known as the burning ghat of Varanasi. Locals believe that one attains moksha if after the death his body is burned and ashes are immersed in Ganga river. Therefore, thousands of rituals are performed here on a daily basis
Ganga Aarti at evening time - Aarti is a religious ritual, an important part of the worship. During aatri, the light from fuses that are soaked in purified butter, is offered to various deities. You might not be familiar with Hindu religious rituals, but you might be interested in seing how the ritual is performed. The evening time is the best part of the day to do so for Aarti has to do with the intensity of light.
Take a boat ride at Ganga River –in case you are skilled at bargaining, the boat ride might cost you up to 500 Rs, but keep in mind that the prices can differ considerably. You can even try to paddle by yourself, if a boatman lets you do so! The experience is incredible. I´m talking not only about views that you will see, but also about the experience of flow that the river gives you.
WHAT TO DO: WITH A LITTLE MORE TIME
Dasaswamedh ghat - is one of the most famous ghats in Benares. It is always crowded with pilgrims. If you are here, don't miss evening Ganga Aarti. Try to grab the best view seat for yourself by reaching a littlebit earlier to have a close look of Aarti. You can also take a boating ride from this ghat and spend a couple of hours just chilling and enjoy the beauty of all the Universe´s Creation!
Banaras Hindu University - This is one of the famous universities of India. The campus of the university is enormous and you can see very old and big tress everywhere. There are several departments and hostels for different branches of the studies. It can be interesting to meet local students if you want to know more about the actuality of Indian realities.
Sarnath Museum - This is a must see place in Saranath, just 11kms from Varanasi. The fees are really low in comparison to the beautiful collection they have. Archaeology amateurs will definitely like the place. In Sarnath there is a great exposition of antique cultural artifacts such as sculptures, antique tools, utensils, scriptures and etc. In spite of the fact that the collection is small, but it is really well-maintained and organized. They have some digital boards and lots of Information stands. There you can also see the Ashoka Pillar with four large lions back to back at its top. It dates back to 250 BCE. Ashoka Pillar is one of India's national emblems.
Sarnath Temple – Sarnath is a small town just situated just 11 kms from Benares. There are excavations of different antique monasteries. The place is also famous for the Dhamek stupa. It is believed that there Lord Buddha did a stopover after he left Gaya for his first sermon to his 5 disciplines. Just by the side of Dhamek stupa, there is an important temple for Jains. In general, the complex is quite extensive so you might need at least half of the day to see it all. The complex is an open-air museum, so you should keep it in mind if you decided to visit India during monsoons season.
Varanasi is really peculiar place, so some of the markets do not have names. If you want to go shopping, it is better to ask local people what is the best place to buy particular goods. Each shop/market is good for one thing. Here is the list of shops that might help you in the first days: Lanka, Godowlia, Chawk, Khojwa
Here are some markets/bazaars that can provide a better choice:
Market around the Sarnath Temple
Markets around Assi Ghat
Varanasi Saree Shop for souveniers - they have a big variety of traditional clothes, not only saree for women but also some kurtas for men. The textiles are very colorful and of a high -quality.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Open hand – This is a nice cozy place just around the corner of Assi Ghat. The staff is attentive and the menu is extensive. The portions at Open hand are very generous. I´d recommend to try the chicken mayo pancake and a strawberry shake.
Roma's cafe - offers an eclectic and wide choice of Indian, Chinese, Mexican and Continental cuisines. For most of the dishes, both non-vegetarian and vegetarian options are available. The owner of the place is a doctor, so they care lots about hygiene. The food is reasonably priced and the staff is very courteous and helpful.
Dosa café - is focused mostly at dosas, so it is difficult to find something else. Nonetheless, I can swear that these dosas are the best dosas I have ever in Varanasi. There are lots of options for filling and sauces and the place is super clean!
Blue Lassi Shop – I´d say that it is the perfect place for a good snack! Blue Lassi Shop offers many choices, but some of them are available only during certain seasons. I absolutely recommend to try mango lassi!
Deena Chat Bhandar – I think that this place should be considered a must visit in case you enjoy chaat and and want to experience spicy flavors of Benares. I´d recommend to try the tamatar chaat, gol gappas, Pani Puri, Tamatar chaat, tikki chole and chidwa matar. It is a good place to come with friends. You can order all of these things and share. In such a way, you will try everything.
Baati Chokha Restaurant - this is a perfect place to visit in case you want to experience authentic local delicacies such as sattu and baati. In Baati Chokha thali is served in traditional style. But after a main course don´t forget about the dessert. It is delicious too!
Kerala Cafe - is a nice place to try South Indian Food. The ambience is relaxing and the food quality is good. In general, it is also a good place for having coffee or snacks. I particularly liked uttapams and dosas! I also saw many local people there so I consider this to be a sign of a high quality.
Aum Café – I´d say that this is one of the cleanest cafes in Varanasi. In Aum café there is a big offer of fresh fruits and salads. When it comes to drinks, they can offer a variety of fresh lassis and special herbal teas.
Keep in mind that you should be aware of your own safety 24/7. At the same time do not be suspicious about everything, this might provoke an impression of a lost giri.
The city is very colorful and ancient, so you can do whatever you like. Apart from going after historical sights, try to understand the actuality of contemporary Varanasi. This is a place, where flow countless travelers from all over the world. It is nice to share experiences with like-minded people. What is more, the local people are very hospitable and helpful. Generally speaking, Varanasi is a ood place to meet all kinds of new people.
You cannot leave Varanasi without trying local food. One of the most distinguished specialties are the famous Banarasi Paan and lassi.
When you buy food on the streets, try to buy it in the places where you see locals
Beware of the fact that sometimes local people, especially sadhu do not like when somebody takes a picture of them. In Hindu tradition sadhu are called ascetic monks or holy people who renounced the worldly life. They spend a big deal of their time on the street. Fake sadhu would probably ask you for a fee if you take a picture of them. Real sadhu took a vow of silence so they cannot speak and would probably try to show you with body language or signs that pictures are not allowed. Respect their decision or take pictures when they are not aware of your presence!
Be careful when you take a walk near ghats. Monkeys are one of the local residents who will not stand on ceremony with you. They are extremely skilled at stealing things. Keep an eye at your personal belongings.