From its over-the-top festivals celebrating Hindu gods and deities to its religious ceremonial ghats to its incredible food, there is nothing subtle about Varanasi. The city is sure to engulf and overwhelm you with its sights and sounds. Visit during the festival of Durga Puja to see the city truly go wild.
The ghats are temples that are home to many ashrams and holy saints, sadhus performing rituals and families consulting priests to lay their loved ones to rest. Architecturally speaking, they are a sight worth beholding.
No visit to Varanasi is complete without a spot of bhang (spiked milk), some famous paan, traditional thalis and spicy and sweet Benarasi Dum Aloo, which is a potato dish.
It's easy to disconnect and get lost in the infinitely winding streets and alleyways of the city. You'll find out how the city is truly interconnected and discover some hidden gems for food and clothing.
The famed Ganges runs through India, but its most interesting point is certainly in Varanasi. As your boatman sails forward, you'll have the unique vantage of witnessing religious rituals from the waters.
Varanasi is where the physical meets the spiritual, where human life meets its esoteric end in death. Take a guided spiritual tour around the mysteries of the city.
The "ghats" are easily Varanasi's premier attraction, and Manikarnika is probably the most famous of them all. For those who don't know, ghats are stairways leading down to the holy River Ganges, and are sites for Hindu rituals, including funerals. Manikarnika is special because it's the central location for Hindu cremations in Varanasi, and also because of the Charanpaduka - a stone said to feature the footprints of the god Vishnu. Spectators are permitted, but photography isn't, so be aware of that when you take your place in the galleries.
Along with the ghats, Varanasi is also dotted with sublime Hindu temples. After all, Varnasi (or Kashi as Hindus call it) is known as the "giver of salvation", and is one of Hinduism's holiest cities. Kashi Vishwanath is the city's premier temple. Set back around a mile and half from the Ganges, it was built in 1776 by the ruler of Indore, but took on its current glorious appearance when 800 kilograms of gold was added to its dome in the mid 19th century. The interior can sometimes be tricky to access, yet it's worth the effort to see the stunning decorations, but expect plenty of company from pilgrims.
Another ghat that has to be visited is Dasawamedh. In this case, the attraction is spectacular. Every evening Hindu holy men take part in the Aarti ceremony of purification. With throngs of worshippers (and tourists) looking on, the river becomes a staggering light show, with candles and smoke, and the passionate chants of spectators combining to create a magical effect. It's a 45-minute long ceremony, and probably best seen from boats in mid-river.
In a sense it feels strange to move from Varanasi's hotbed of Hindu fervor to Sarnath, which is a completely different experience. Located a few miles northeast of Varanasi itself, Sarnath is centered around Buddhism. Stories say that it's where Buddha first began to preach after attaining enlightenment, so it's a big deal. The spot where it all began is marked by the imposing Dhamekh Stupa, while the Chaukhandi Stupa remembers where his first group of followers got together. Don't miss the Sarnath Archaeological Museum either, which houses the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka.
Across the river from most of the ghats, Ramnagar is another change of scene from temples and ceremonies. Built using local sandstone in classic Mughal style in the 1750s, this fortress remains a residence of local notables (even if their royal title has been abolished). The fortress itself makes for some attractive photos, and you can also venture inside to see the on-site museum. What you find may surprise you, with exhibits like astrological clocks, lavish gem-embedded furniture, and vintage American automobiles.
The best time to visit is the winter, as temperatures are cooler at just 41°F. From June to September is the monsoon season, while summer temperatures are hot and sticky at around 115°F.
Travelers will arrive at Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport, 15.5 miles from the city center. Upon arrival, grab a taxi for ₹750 or a rickshaw for ₹500.
There are many services like Rajdhani Express or Vibhuti Express from Delhi or Kolkata. Fares start at ₹425 for basic class.
Routes vary based on where you're coming from. Use the NH9 and NH19 if you're traveling from Delhi.
Use Yatra.com to book bus tickets from cities like Delhi to Varanasi online, which arrive at the main bus station that's east of the Varanasi Junction train station. Fares start at ₹900.
As always, the Taj chain provides luxury accommodations in Varanasi at The Gateway. Economical but comfy stays are best found at Diamond Hotel. Budget travelers will enjoy Stops Hostel.
Central Market DLW - This neighborhood is the hub of Varanasi's commerce and entertainment, with lots of shopping outlets, banks and even the DLW Cinema Hall.
Hyderabad Colony - This neighborhood is the central location for the city's university Banaras Hindu University. It has many small eateries and shops along its streets.
Ghats of Varanasi - The Ghats of Varanasi are a collection of temples or "ghats" that make up the banks of the Ganges River. Many holy ashrams and sadhus live along these spots.
Buses would be impractical in such a tight-knit city, so travelers rely on cycle-rickshaw or auto-rickshaw transport for between ₹50 and ₹200.
It can be hard getting around in the sheer crowds of people but fares for taxis start at ₹50 with a rate of ₹19/mile thereafter.
Car rentals start at a day rate of ₹1,200 for 8 hours.
Local arts, crafts and textiles like handwoven "Benarasi" saris are what Varanasi is famous for. Pick up goodies across the city at spots like Wow India on Assi Ghat Road or Mehrotra Silk Factory on Lal Ghat.
A quart of milk costs ₹45 and a dozen eggs will run you around ₹62.
Varanasi is home to many 'Benarasi' or local delicacies that you won't find elsewhere. Don't miss refreshing lassi or 'Chaat', which are spicy and sweet snacks, or a thali from Mona Lisa Cafe for just ₹20.