Gokarna, is a very touristic small town centered around temples with pilgrims coming throughout the year and tourists -indians, russians and europeans - coming from december to february for the beaches. The name Gokarna, means cow's ear (go=cow karna=ear) in Sanskrit and is based on Hindu mythology. The town is popular among Hindu pilgrims as Gokarna has one of the few Shiva's holy temples with what is claimed to be original image of the god (a lingam). It is also the home of several religious celebrations, and some of them denote a good sense of dramaturgy. The most famous is the colorful "Shiva Ratri" festival at the end of february. If you are averse to massive crowd, unfamiliar with local culture, it is advisable to keep away during that time. For a few years now, a new God has also being honored : the God of Business. Gokarna is a very business oriented town !
Originally pioneering European tourists visited the place for its warm winter climate and the not-so-crowded atmospheric beaches. The golden age is over ! An increasing number of foreigners have visited the area over the last 10 years and more recently, the boom of the domestic tourism and the buses with russians on a package tour have really changed the face of Gokarna. Noise and traffic-jams have become common. Large groups of indian tourists are coming daily from Bangalore or Hubli: the groups coming from the small cities on main beach, the groups of backpackers on kudlee and the jeeps of drinkers on om beach. Moreover, foreign tourists have to face an increasing police harassment, because smoking ganja, that was relatively tolerated in the past, has become a easy way for them to make money - see the chapter WARNING. Unexpected visits in the beach shops or the rooms even at night, fines of 20 thousands of Rps or more extorted and detestable atmosphere have pushed a lot of people (smokers or not) to leave for greener pastures. Last but not least : with the growing success of the city among indian tourists, the already not-so-welcoming and peacocky people of Gokarna has also started to look down to foreigners. So far, the money of the foreign tourists is still paying for the gasoline of their brand new motorbikes and their large flat-screen TVs. The four decent beaches south of the town are the not-so-clean Kudlee Beach, about a 20 minute walk from town, followed by the beautiful and very clean Om Beach, Half Moon Beach and the secluded Paradise Beach. Gokarna beach itself is a junkyard.
Gokarna beach is several kilometers long and is situated at the edge of the town. This beach looks more pathetic every year. It is quite popular with pilgrims and indian groups but less with foreign tourists. Just the wind and the waves are cleaning this place. When the season is starting, the young workers of the beach-shops are collecting a few plastic bags, but only in front of their business. Nobody's cleaning outside these areas, except sometimes, an heroic foreign tourist (if you do so, be sure, locals will laugh at you... ). After Shivaratri - the biggest festival and picnic in town - it becomes a seven-kilometers-long garbage dumb.
Swimming may also be a challenge, since the water has an almost permanent dead fish smell. On the top of it all, the brown foamy stagnant liquid of "Gokarna river" is from time to time released into the sea. No wise person would enter the water on that day!
Walk a couple of kilometres north from town along the beach, and things are much nicer and more pristine. The part of the beach closer to the Gangavalli River is actually quite stunning and not crowded at all.
South of Gokarna beach, and accessible by a short downhill walk from auto drop off points at the northern and southern ends of this beach. The northern drop off point is closer to Gokarna town, but the southern drop off point is suitable if you are planning to stay at a place in the southern stretch of Kudle beach. This beautiful site has suffered from the local building ambitions : coconut trees have been cut and the beautiful rice paddies have totally disappeared. On both sides, the hills have been destroyed to build terraces for some rival resort projects. The long sandy beach has ample (too many ?)accommodations ranging from more expensive attached rooms with balcony to overpriced small huts attached to the many restaurants. During the rainy season (including August 2013) this beach is quite dirty and options for food are also very limited.
Om Beach is further along the coast from Kudle, and named for its shape as it is split by a rocky island. It is the most popular tourist beach in Gokarna, the only clean one and may be visited all around the year. It can be reached by auto, the nearer half is dominated by the Namaste Cafe and an expensive hotel development. The second half of the beach is packed with restaurants offering cheap accomodation in the form of bamboo or concrete beach huts. Internet and travel booking are available on the beach, but there are no ATM facilities. In the rainy season there are very limited options for boarding and lodging. This beach is reasonably clean all year round.
Half Moon Beach
Half Moon beach is smaller and less developed than Om Beach, and is reached by walking over the headland from Om. Facilities are limited, there are a couple of small restaurants and a limited number of huts.
Paradise beach is the furthest from Gokarna town, but does not offer any facilities. The lodges and restaurants have been demolished by land owners (actually the forest department) and the police visit this beach at times to evict any residents and extort large bribes from anyone seen smoking charas. There are absolutely no facilities available here anymore except a man selling melted chocolate bars.
Gokarna is accessible by rail from Karwar, Ankola, Kumta, Mangalore and Madgaon (also called Margao). Kumta (35 km) and Ankola (20 km) are the nearest major railway stations, from where public or private transportation is available during day time. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation  operates buses (Red colored KSRTC buses) from nearby towns like Karwar, Ankola and Kumta to Gokarna.
The Konkan Railway  passes through nearby. Only some trains like "Matsyagandha Express" (Mangalore to Mumbai via Madgaon) stops here. This train station is appropriately called as "Gokarna Road". The train station is actually about 8 kilometers away from Gokarna. Taxi fare is about Rs 250 whereas Rickshaws should be in the range of Rs 120-200 (unless you arrive at nighttime during the monsoon). If you want to save some money, just take a right at the road right in front of the train station and walk to the nearby main road. There's a bus stop where you can catch a bus that will take you into Gokarna for Rs 10.
From Bangalore, depending on the day of travel, there are anywhere from 1-4 buses operating. It is a 12 hour overnight journey from Bangalore to Gokarna. the experience taking the overnight sleeper was described as "being driven in a bouncy castle driven by the wicked witch of the west" - beware. There are direct train services between Bangalore and Gokarna Road. There is a day train and a night train that stop at Gokarna. Private buses also operate to/from Hampi/Hospet. You can book online ticket to gokarna from any one of the operator's websites(RedBus, Travelyarri,[Abhibus],[TicketGoose] etc.). National highway 17 is about 9 km from the town. The Bangalore - Goa highway passes through Ankola which is 20 km from the town. Coming down to Kumta is good option because one can easily catch buses to different places (especially Mangalore) as it is well connected.
At the left end of the Gokarna beach, a narrow path goes up a hill, where you cross a (Rama) temple en-route. This temple also has a natural water spring which according to the locals never stops running. The water is quite drinkable. After climbing up some stairs, you will find flat ground and some breath-taking views of Gokarna beach as you turn-around to see the distance you covered. As you move along, about 10 minutes walk from this place, the flat ground leads to a narrow lane, which goes down to Kudle beach, the second of Gokarna's beaches. This beach looks very unkempt, desolate and dirty in off-seasons. You will hardly find a soul here then. But come season time between November - February, this beach will be dotted with hippies. Very few Indians are sighted on this beach, and mostly day trippers. Sunset-Cafe , on Kudle beach, is heaven if you are lazy and like to dig yourself into a rice pudding (and dozing off in between).
At the extreme end of the Kudle beach, a small meandering path leads up the hill and we came onto a well-laid pitched road. The shortest way from here to Om beach is to walk straight up the small hill along the well used path. If the path is not clearly visible, look for the white arrows marked on the rocks that point the way from Kudle beach towards Om beach. A 7-10 minute walk will take you to the top of some cemented steps. These will take you straight down to Om beach, which will take 5-7 minutes. If you don't feel like taking this meandering path that goes up the hill, from the same starting point near Kudle beach, you can take the pitched road going down the hill towards the left. This will take you around 20-30 minutes to reach Om beach and is a much longer path, but easier to walk. After the initial 10 minutes of walk this pitched road meets the main paved road leading to Om beach.
It is possible to get to Om beach by taxi or rickshaw (Rs.100-150 after a bit of bargaining - and the price is not unreasonable, the road winds around the hills and is much longer than coastal walking trail, This is also a nice 2-3 Km walk). There is a branch of the same road, that ends on a hill between Om and Kudle, but from there you still have to walk 5-6 minutes down to the Kudle beach. So this option is worth checking only if you have a lot of heavy bags and you are heading to the south end of Kudle beach. Rickshaw drivers parked near Om beach often can offer transportation to Kudle (quoting that it is far away) - but this is a scam, he'll just take you to the parking area above Kudle mentioned above, and you can easily walk there in 10 minutes across the hill (just look for the white arrows on the stones showing the right way). These drivers also tend to quote higher prices to go to town - bargain, and if this does not work - walk along the road, you'll certainly encounter some rickshaw who'll be happy to get you to town for the proper fare.
To get to the beaches beyond Om (Half moon and Paradise) generally you have to walk from Om. This is not advisable during the monsoon as the walk is quite treacherous. In high season, however, during daytime there are boats cruising between the beaches and picking up the passengers. Usual price for a "shared" boat ride is Rs.100 (Rs.150 for a more remote ride, say from Kudle to Paradise), but you have to wait until there will be several people going roughly in the same direction. You can also "charter" boat (this can cost you say Rs.400 for a return trip to Paradise beach with one-hour stop there), or can be asked if you want to pay more (200 or 250) if there are not enough passengers but you do not want to wait.
OM beach is so named, because the shape is like that of the Hindu religious symbol "OM". OM beach is about a kilometre from the main Gokarna town and fully approachable by road, unlike Kudle. In fact out of the 5 beaches, only Gokarna and OM beach are approachable by road. This usually means there are more Indian folks on the beach. For the other 3 beaches including Kudle, hiking or taking a boat ride are the two ways.
At the end of the OM beach, there is a path going up the hill. Here one has to get around a hillock(about 20-minutes walk) to reach Half-Moon beach. take this trail, and when you reach a fork in the trail, take a right for the coast route, and left for the forest route. They will both take you to the same place. Half-moon beach is so named because the shape resembles that of a half-moon. During season, the path is pretty well laid out. But at start of season, look out for thorns in the bushes. They hurt!!! In between one can take a diversion and take some rest below a palm tree on the edge of a cliff, from where one can try to catch a glimpse of the horizon. There will be many zig-zags , but make sure that one gets around the hill rather than unnecessarily climb up the hill. Once one gets down to Half-moon beach, he or she can see the pure beauty of this beach. During season , a couple of shacks operate on this beach. This is no electric power on this beach. Hence its totally cut off from civilization. But during off-season, you might be the sole inhabitant of this beach without any shacks operational. The rooms on this beach are pretty basic. They set you back by around 250 INR per night in peak season time.
At the end of the half-moon beach, a small trail leads to Paradise beach, also known as Full-moon beach. Its around 20 minutes walk from Half-moon beach. The thing to remember here is after crossing the first set of rocks, one should not try to climb the hill. Rather try getting around the hill. Its a much easier climb. The steep climb up the hill will take you to the next village, Bellekan. This is the last of the Gokarna beaches. Pretty much isolated from the crowd, Paradise, the name suits this beach well. Its an absolute paradise! Its a very rocky beach, with sand in between. Waves are very strong, and it is quite dangerous to go out very far into the sea. Evergreen cafe is the first shack on this beach, It has a few basic huts. Rooms on this beach are basically huts on the hillock. Cafe Paradise had fantastic food as well.
Half-moon and Paradise beaches can be approached by walk or boat. Boat charges from Om beach to Paradise is around 100 INR and from Gokarna Beach to Paradise beach is around 150-175 INR. There are buses from Bellekan village to Gokarna.
There are regular buses from Gokarna to Belakan, a village that is around a kilometer from Paradise beach. The walk is through a bit of hilly terrain. The bus trip itself is quite picturesque and for a good part of the journey runs parallel to the river Aghanashini that finally meets the sea at Belakan. A boat ride (available in season) across the Aghanashini river leads to butterfly beach (which can alternatively be approached via road from Kumta).
Don't fall for the dolphin sight seeing gimmick from the speed boat vendor. All you get is a 10 min. ride and a distant glimpse of something in the water that might be a dolphin.
The small shops in the town sell religious items, psychedelic T-shirts and clothes for cheap. Trance music CDs and if you spin fire, (cotton) pois are available as well.
Malas (prayer beads), incense, cheap jewelry and religious paraphernalia are sold in dozens of stalls along the main road and gathered around temple entrances.
There is a wine shop selling all sort of liquor right outside the bus stand in the main town. This dark and grubby dive - you cannot call it a bar !- is permanently full of drunk local human detritus. Have a small walk up to the bar of Gokarn international (on the way to post office), which has a much better atmosphere and a friendlier staff. Actually wherever you go, beer and whisky are outrageously overcharged under the pretext you are in a holy town !
It is next to impossible to find some accommodation during the peak season. So, book in advance. (This might be outdated, since there are MANY guesthouses in Kudle Beach these days.)
At the beaches
To find a house in the surroundings of Gokarna is definitely more authentic and friendly !
Gokarna is a pilgrimage town : so try to remain quiet and respectful of local traditions, ask permission (and remove your footwear) before entering a temple, as anywhere else in the country. Some people are not so receptive to the high religiosity of the place : the main temple has already been robbed recently despite the cameras and the police booth inside ! Actually, outside of the main street (ratha bidi or car street) and the water tank area (kothitheerta), very few people are vegeterian and absolutely nobody among the farmers. These are even eating turtles and their eggs, when they come to lay on the beach. So, feel free to eat what you want !
Gokarna used to be a haven of peace for smokers but the tide has really turned. Even a cigarette can cost you a 200 rps in Car street. Anyone carrying charas should be particularly careful. A famous local one-eyed dealer has recently been found hanging from a tree and nothing is proving, he did that by himself! If you see Sadhus sitting in a haze of ganja smoke, don't assume that it's ok for you to do it too. Locals will report you to the police if they see you doing it. Extortion by corrupt police officers is rampant, with searches on people entering or leaving Gokarna, between the beaches and even in the lodges. Large amounts of money (up to 20000 Rps ) have been paid under the threat of a trip to the police station. The season 2013/14 has seen all the foreigners on arrival having to open their luggages in a special police check-point at the entrance of the town, even those coming with the matsyaghandha express in the middle of the night. Extortion of money under any pretext has really become the favorite sport of the cops in Gokarna : on Valentine-Day, the police attacked foreigners partying on the beach. Several young tourists were so shocked, that they called their embassy to report the assault. Everybody heard about it on the social networks. ( see http://www.bangaloremirror.com/bangalore/cover-story/200-foreigners-accuse-Gokarna-cops-of-brutal-assault-at-V-Day-party/articleshow/30633255.cms). If you are interested in attending a police show, there is a regular one every new year's day : drunk policemen are racketing the local shops to get some bier and then, once they are overdrunk, they start making the life impossible to every group of tourists trying peacefully to party on the beach around a fire. In conservative India today, celebrating anything has definitely become a challenge !
There are several other temples near Gokarna. Murudeshwara temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is 45 mins to 1 hour drive from Gokarna. If you want to visit a more welcoming religious town, Udupi and its incredibly pristine atmosphere is just about four hours from Gokarna by train.