Gokarna, meaning cow's ear in Sanskrit as the ear shape. One of the Hindu epics states that "aatmalimga" of the God Shiva is in the shape of a cow's ear in the Mahabaleshwar temple & the town gains its name as Gokarna. It is a conservative Hindu pilgrimage town, home to several temples and festivals. The town itself is full of locals and pilgrims, and doesn't have much in the way of facilities for tourists, other than a handful of guesthouses and local restaurants.
The town is mostly centred around the KSRTC bus stand. About a kilometer from the bus-stand , the Gokarna beach starts , forming the coast of the town. As you trudge along the narrow lanes of the town towards the beach (the lane is named 'Samudra Marg'), you will come across houses of priests where some religious talk will be going on or people invoking the Holy Lord with chants.
Most foreign tourists come to stay on one of the 4 beaches just south of town. Kudlee Beach is the first, about a 20 minute walk, followed by Om Beach, Half Moon Beach and the secluded Paradise Beach - the beaches get more remote and less populated as you head south.
The most popular time to visit Gokarna is during the 4-day Shiva Ratri festival, when 2 giant chariots are pulled down the main street and up to 20,000 pilgrims descend on the town.
Gokarna is connected by rail from Karwar, Ankola, Hubli, Mangalore, Kumta and Margao. The Konkan Railway  passes through Gokarna - Kumta (35 km) and Ankola (20 km) are the nearest major railway stations. However, some like Matsyagandha express(Mangalore-Mumbai via Madgaon) do stopover at Gokarna. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation  operates buses from these places to Gokarna. Gokarna's train station is actually about 8 kilometers away from the town, taxis usually ask for around Rs 250 whereas Rickshaws should be in the Rs 120-200 range (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. Once you hit the 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. Till now there is no direct rail transport from Bangalore to Gokarna. Private buses also operate to/from Hampi/Hospet. You can book online ticket to gokarna from http://www.redbus.in or any one of the operator's websites. 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.
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 7-8 minutes down to the Kudle beach. So this option is worth checking only if you have a lot of heavy bags, or share rickshaw with someone who goes roughly in the same direction (say, to the Om beach). Otherwise, it will take about the same time (and will save you some money) just to walk from the town to Kudle. 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.
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. For the non-adventurous folks, a walk down this road will lead to the main road, which is about 500metres from OM beach. For the more adventurous, instead of taking the pitched road, you can go straight and walk across the small trees for around 15 minutes and directly get down at the starting point of the OM beach. simply follow the white arrows outlined on the rocks, or look for the well used rocks. For avid trekkers, take a route which goes in the opposite direction of the pitched road, make your way through the thorny bushes and go down onto the rocks on the shore. This is the rocky part of the OM beach. From here , it takes around 10 minutes, crossing the rocks and landing up directly on the OM beach.
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 fully approached only 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.
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.
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
Gokarna is a pilgrimage town first and foremost, so it's best to keep this in mind - remain quiet and respectful of local traditions, ask permission (and remove your footwear) before entering any of the temples, and if you must consume alcohol here, do it on the premises of your guesthouse (if you're staying at one of the beaches), not in town.
Anyone carrying charas should be particularly careful. It is common to see Sadhus sitting a haze of ganja smoke, but don't assume that it's ok for you to do it to. Locals will report you to the police if they see you doing it or smell it about you and the police will treat you politely but firmly and won't accept baksheesh particularly during Shiva Ratri. Expect a term in jail with absolutely no sympathy from the consular office. Having said that, there seems to be an "agreement" with the police and the restaurants not to hassle the locals. Use caution at all times, of course.
There are several other temples near Gokarna. Murudeshwara temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is 45 mins to 1 hour drive from Gokarna.