Pilgrims bathing at Kedar Ghat at sunrise
Varanasi , once known as Benares or Banaras, is a historical city in northern India.
The city is sacred to Hindus and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In many ways Varanasi epitomizes the very best and worst aspects of India, and it can be a little overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganges at sunrise set against the back drop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world. Definitely a must see on any trip to north India.
When to visit: Between October and March
Summer - Cotton
Winter - Wollens
Trains are the easiest and most likely way that you'll reach Varanasi. It's well connected to many cities including Delhi, Agra, Lucknow and Kolkata.
Most trains arrive at Varanasi Junction station, but there are a few other stations in and around the city so be sure to check which your train arrives to. Shatabdi/Rajdhani trains leave from Mughal Serai station, about 15 km east of the city.
There are daily buses to the Nepali border and other points around northern India. Local buses leave from the main bus station near the train station, almost every hour in the morning and one in the evening, to Gorakhpur (5-6 hrs, Rs 120), from where buses leave to the Nepali border at Sonauli (~3 hrs, Rs 56).
Varanasi Airport (IATA: VNS) is about 25km from the city center. Indian Airlines, Air Sahara, Jet Airways, Kingfisher and Spice Jet all have daily flights to Delhi and there are daily flights to Mumbai on Air Sahara and Indian Airlines.
Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, it can take an hour or more depending on traffic. A taxi should run around Rs 200-250 or about Rs 125 in an auto-rickshaw, but most drivers will want to charge double since they will likely be coming back empty. If it suits your schedule there is a daily bus at 10:00am that leaves from Hotel India and costs Rs 50.
Many of the sights are in the tiny narrow winding alleys of the waterfront. Rickshaws are only useful for longer trips across town or to the train stations. A cycle-rickshaw from the Junction train station to Dasaswamedh Ghat (or Godaulia if the road is closed) should cost Rs 20. From Godaulia to Assi Ghat is Rs 10. Taxis exist but traffic makes them impractical. There is a pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand at the Varanasi Junction (Cantt) train station.
By foot is the only way to see the waterfront and the ghats but be ready to be hot, sweaty, and lost - locals are usually happy to point you in the right direction. The names of ghats and signs pointing to restaurants and hotels are often painted on the walls in Roman letters.
New Vishvanath Temple at BHU
Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations as such: instead, the experience is in watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city.
- New Vishwanath Temple - also known as the Golden Temple, security is tight making entrance difficult and sometimes completely off limits to foreigners.
- Alamagir Mosque - overlooking Panchganga Ghat, it's a great place for a bird's eye view of the area.
- Banaras Hindu University - a very green and peaceful campus
While the use of ghats for cremation is well known, they are also used to give last rites to those who do not need cleansing by fire to purify their soul, including young children and pregnant women. Instead, their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones and deposited into the Ganges. However, it is fairly common for the ropes to give way, resulting in putrefying corpses washing up on the east shore across from the city. Steer clear if squemish.
A ghat is a series of steps leading down to the river, used by bathers and pilgrims, and riverside Varanasi consists of a long sequence of ghats. It's generally possible to walk directly between them, though near Manikarnika Ghat you'll have to navigate your way up and around through the alleyways. The best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river.
Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where bodies are cremated (in full view) before their ashes are placed in the Ganges.
Some of the main ghats, from north to south:
- Panchganga Ghat - the meeting of the five rivers
- Manikarnika Ghat - the main cremation ghat; a must-see, but remain quiet and never take photographs
- Dasaswamedh Ghat - the main ghat and site of the large evening aarti; only reachable by foot at some times of day, about a 5 minute walk south from Godaulia
- Rana Ghat
- Kedar Ghat - brightly painted in stripes and busy with bathers, very photogenic
- Harishchandra Ghat - cremation place.
- Hanuman Ghat
- Shivala Ghat
- Tulsi Ghat - site of the large water purification plant
- Assi Ghat - a popular place to stay with many hotels, restaurants and internet cafes
Sunrise boat rides on the Ganges
- Boat rides are very popular, especially at sunrise and sunset. The most popular sunset ride is to start at Dasaswamedh Ghat and head up to Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremations in progress, and then return to Dasaswamedh and watch the evening aarti from the boat. Sunrise is another magical time for a ride, when the ghats are filled with Hindus bathing and starting their day - one of the most famous sights in India. You can bargain the price down to around Rs 30/person per hour (even for just 1 person in the boat), but expect to be quoted much higher. Note: 'market' boats will float up to you selling overpriced trinkets which can be bought much cheaper on land. Any offers of flowers for puja will definitely not be free; Rs 5 per flower/candle bowl is the going rate, though you might be asked for as much as Rs 100 each.
- Get lost in the alleyways - the sounds, sight and smells are just unbelievable!
- Diwali is a great time to be in Varanasi, with special preparations going on in many temples. The once-in-a-year decorations and aarti at the ghats are spectacular.
- Varanasi is a good place to learn a classical instrument such as the tabla or sitar - many teachers can be found throughout the city, but quality varies considerably so ask around and check out a few.
- Yoga is also popular, and the same rules apply.
- Benares Hindu University  offers a wide range of classes on topics related to classical Indian studies in English.
There is very little opportunity for work in Varanasi, unless you have a specific skill in demand.
- Varanasi is famous for its fine silk - it's on offer everywhere, but shop around and bargain hard!
- Mehrotra Silk Factory, (near Brahma Ghat, follow the multiple yellow signs) has set, reasonable prices and a good selection. A little out of the way, but worth the trip.
There are numerous food outlets and a very dynamic range in quality. The restaurants closer to the ghats cater more to foreign tourists, with variable success. To get really authentic Banarasi Khana you're going to have to get to the main market area. Benares Dum Aloo is a local specialty, and the city is also known for its desserts.
- Shiva Cafe and German Bakery, D 26/4 Narad Ghat, (near Himalaya Lodge). In the main little alleyway that runs parallel to the river between Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat, this is place is deservedly popular. The food takes time, but that's because it's prepared fresh, and you'll be happy you waited when the food arrives.
- Mona Lisa Cafe, (just south and opposite Shiva Cafe). Another good and popular cheapie, with a good range of things on offer, notably a thali for Rs 20, and some Japanese and Korean dishes thrown in for good measure.
A C Shahi Resturant & Kesari Resturant near Dasashwmedh ghat in Godaulia, and Shahi Resturant near Rathyatra crossing serve vrery good veg. north / south indian dishes on very reasonablle rates. Resturant in Diamond Hotel and Jaika resturant near Vijaya Talkies Crossing in Bhelupur provides very good north indian dishes.
- Open Hand Cafe, Assi Ghat, (around the corner from Hotel Haifa), +91 542 2369 751, . Only a small selection of food that it does well, which is a refreshing change from most tourist magnets. Quiche and bread roll sandwiches are filling, and cheesecake, chocolate cake or an enormous fruit salad are all fairly insane. Also good filter coffees and rooibos tea, and a shop selling fixed-price merchandise. Highly recommended for a break from the city.
- Bread of Life Bakery, Shivala Road, (a few hundred metres north of Assi Ghat), +91 542 227 5012. Good baked goods, but also a full restaurant with excellent breakfasts including "American" pancakes and fresh squeezed OJ. Very popular.
- Zaika restaurant - in Shivala, opposite Hotel Broadway. Good Indian / Chinese dishes; try the sweet-corn-pakoras.
Possibly owing to a high influx of tourists from Israel, a number
of middle eastern restaurants have opened
in Varanasi, which serve very similar food, and
cater to a predominantly tourist clientele. All
of these run a little over Rs 100 for a thali+drink meal:
- Haifa Cafe: Assi Ghat, (in Hotel Haifa). Most popular for its Middle-Eastern cuisine such as the thali (delicious!), but has a wide range of Indian and continental dishes and is also popular at breakfast. The Jordanian brothers aren't here anymore. Its now just a regular hotel.
- Hayat's: near Assi (new location), managed by authentic middle-easterners (from Jordan). Try the labanha (dry yoghurt), or the baba ghanoush (eggplant) with pita. The Nanas (mint-lemon drink) are the best in town. The feta is a tad high in salt, but at least they have it. The restaurant has a tent-like lounge atmosphere that gives it a cult presence.
- Phulwari / Sami Cafe: near the Vishwanath Temple crossing, you sit beside a religiously near-defunct but architecturally gorgeous Mahadev temple, and sip on iced teas and nanas.
Though the Shiva temple is beautiful and worth the visit, the Jordanian brothers no longer run this once-cool hippie hangout.
- Tahsin's Mediterranean: located at Sarnath, in The Golden Buddha hotel, is runed by the same Jordanian brothers of Hayat's. Big garden and outdoor wood-operated oven for pizzas and pastas.
- Varuna and Chowk, Taj Ganges Hotel, Nadesar Palace Grounds. Tel+91 542 250-300 - Two restaurants respectively offering Indian and Western cuisine.
Alcohol is available at a few restaurants around town but is frowned upon by many who would rather not see it in their holy town.
Bhang (a potent powdered form of marijuana often mixed into "special" lassis) is also popular, especially on holidays, as this is a large center of Shiva worship.
The most interesting area to stay is around the ghats. This is where most foreigners hang out - and with good reason. In addition to the ghats and river, Varanasi's most famous temples and main market are all located in this area. A second choice is Sarnath, about 8km from Varanasi.
- Shanti Guesthouse. There are several hotels near the ghats that have taken the name "Shanti" after the originals good reputation. The "original" is a clean but very basic building with several floors of windowless rooms (cooler and safer than ones with exterior windows). The rooftop cafe offers money changing, internet access, and a view of the Burning Ghats.
- The Yogi Lodge, 239 2588. This is a quaint kindly managed hotel with dorms and private rooms near Dasaswamedh Ghat. Telephone: . There are many Yogi Lodges, so the management suggests that you call them when you arrive at the train station and they will send somebody down to collect you or you can arrange to meet at St. Thomas church.
- Sahi Riverview Guest House. This place is very clean, quiet, and recommended. Newly opened, the guest house has the most fascinating Ganges views and the exotic sunrise from its balconies, rooms and terrace. Location is right on Assi Ghat, next to Harmony Book Shop. All rooms have 24 hrs hot water with attached bathrooms.
- Vishnu Rest House, Pandey Ghat, 450 206. A very clean and friendly guest house over looking the river, some rooms with views.
- Hotel River View, Brahma Ghat (a couple ghats north of Panchganga Ghat). This hotel is good for those looking to be a little removed from the action in a quieter area. Rooms have river views, and decent Indian food is served in the small restaurant. The friendly owner Mahesh makes good company. To get here, walk north from Dasaswamedh Ghat for about 15 minutes, and follow the numerous blue and white painted signs that begin to appear. Rooms Rs 100-250.
- Hotel Malti, Vidyapeeth Road, ☎ (542)356844 351395.
- Hotel Taj Ganges, Nadesar Palace Grounds, +91 542 250 3001, , [email protected]. A five-star hotel owned by the Taj Group, it's the nicest in the city. Rooms from $100 (or even less off-season, inquire about discounts).
BSNL, Reliance, and Airtel are the most popular cell phone services in the region. If you bring your GSM cellphone from home, you can get a cheap connection and cash card from Airtel or Hutch from anywhere in India and call within India and abroad.
Internet is widely available, especially in the lanes between Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat. Price is usually Rs 20-30/hour. Several branches of Iway BROADBAND (rs.14-20)are sprinkled around town as well.
Calling abroad is cheap from Iway branches.
There is, rather understandably, some resentment at tourists traipsing up to the cremation ghats for raucous sightseeing at the funeral ceremonies of loved ones. Behave respectfully and do not take photographs of cremations, even from the river.
At Kasi Visvanath Temple you will be literally stripped and even your personal belongings like cell, pen are told to be deposited and when you come back to retrive this your pens are stolen and cell phones are used for making calls.
Violent crime is rare, but do be careful in the lanes after dark. Carry a torch; power outages are extremely common, and the alleys are hard enough to navigate in daylight let alone in pitch dark, with broken paving stones and cows common.
Women need to dress conservatively, and to be careful. Even taking precautions expect to have the odd local young man try to quickly grope you, and run away. Respond agressively and loudly to try to discourage this behavior as much as possible.
Rickshaw/taxi scams are a norm in Varanasi, and the driver will inevitably tell you that the hotel that you wish to go to has burned down, is flooded or closed. Don't believe him. Drivers receive commission from hotels for bringing in new guests, and this is one way to trick newcomers to going to these places. Don't get annoyed, but see the exchange as playful banter and part of 'the Varanasi experience'. However, if the driver continuously refuses to follow your instructions, threaten to get out of the rickshaw. If after all this you still end up to a different place, just refuse to pay until you arrive at your hotel. The same procedure will need to be followed when sight seeing, as drivers will inevitably try to take you to handicraft stores from which they receive commission.
- Sarnath - site of the Buddha's first sermon
- Ramnagar Fort - historical royal residence and museum across the Ganges
- Chunar Fort - ruins of battlements and ancient settlement 15 miles from Varanasi.
- Agra - is the next point on the tourist triangle. Buses and trains, including overnight trains, leave several times a day.
- Nepal - buses travel to the Nepali border where you can transfer to Kathmandu and Chitwan buses. Most buses go via Lucknow and can take 8-12 hours. Airplanes go to Nepal via Varanasi every day.