Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities in the world. There is so much history, religion, and devotion throughout the streets, temples, ghats and so many things to do in Varanasi. I spent 10 days in Varanasi, immersing myself in the raw devotion of the people and places. These are the 13 things to do in Varanasi things I recommend most while exploring the city.
13 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN VARANASI
#1 Sunrise boat ride
The Holiest river in the world, the Ganges, is a spectacle during the day but a quiet, mystical place at sunrise. Soft pastel colors paint the sky as a few boats glide up and down the river. The cruise will float you past all of the different ghats, passing multiple temples along the way. Even at sunrise, there is much action on the banks of the Ganges, which makes it one of my favorite things to do in Varanasi. Locals are taking their morning baths, washing loads of clothes and setting up stalls and shops for a day of trading. I just arrived at 5 a.m and hired a boatman within seconds. I paid 250 rupees for 2 hours although you can get a 1 hr journey for a 100 rupees so it’s up to you how hard you barter. However, that is the rough price as far as I heard.
#2 Visit the Burning Ghat
While all of the ghats are incredibly interesting, the burning ghat is a unique place. It is here that people come to stay in the hospice when they are dying. The cremations of bodies, funerals and other ceremonies happen on the banks of the Ganges at this ghat. As a tourist, you are allowed to pass through the ghat, observe and even take a few photos. It is important to remember that people are here to farewell their loved ones so make sure you act with respect both with and without your camera. Beware of the ‘volunteers’ who will give you a ‘free’ guided tour before trying to force you to make a donation.
#3 Head to Blue Lassi
Blue Lassi is a hole-in-the-wall cafe, which celebrated its 75th birthday in 2015. It still is and always had been a family venture and the hundreds of photos on the wall are a testament to that. A lassi is a yogurt drink but they are a little bit fancier at Blue Lassi than your average cup on the street. Handmade by a man sitting on the small porch that overlooks the lane, the lassi’s come in a range of flavors. You can pick a base of peach, mango, banana, pomegranate or several other flavors before picking your toppings. It’s pretty much the cold rock of Varanasi! My personal recommendations or chocolate/banana/coconut or the coffee. Try and stop at just one! I ended up visiting back several times and it fast became my favorite thing to do in Varanasi.
#4 Take a holy bath in The Ganges
Arguably the holiest river in the world also happens to be one of the dirtiest. The locals of Varanasi are adept to the conditions of the river but many foreigners get sick from the tap water in India let alone the Ganges. During my sunrise boat trip, a dead cow floated past us. However, if you are brave and want the ultimate souvenir from Varanasi, a blessing from the holiest river in the world, you may just need to hop in. I decided to venture out into the water up to my waste. I didn’t get sick. Win.
#5 Play cricket at the ghats
I’m not great at cricket but any Australian has played enough games in their backyard to know how to hold the bat. So when I saw cricket games each night along the ghats it was only a matter of time before I got involved. We picked teams and had a full-blown match. If you hit the ball into the river with no bounce you are out. Surprisingly I did okay although the river claimed my scalp a few times. I helped us hit the winning runs in the third game! We won the test match with 2 wins. Don’t be afraid to ask to play but make sure you can at least hit the ball they take it kind of serious in many of the games.
#6 Get on board the Mango Smoothie Train
All over Asia I can’t get enough mango smoothies and they are usually very cheap. I’m not a foodie as you will know if you follow this blog but there is one area in which I have expertise and that is smoothies. It’s been interesting to compared them throughout Asia. Varanasi and northern India prefer to serve their smoothies in tiny plastic cups straight from blenders on the side of the road, adding a few dried pieces of papaya to the top. The cup really is tiny but they only cost 20 rupees or 30 cents. So if you buy four like me, you can count it as one very large smoothie for $1.20. It’s real mango they literally just use the mango, which is what you want!
#7 Experience the Aarti Ceremony
This is a must do! The Aarti ceremony happens every night at the main ghat along the banks of The Ganges River. It’s a Hindu religious worship ritual involving offerings made to the deities. I thought this might be a small performance to entertain the tourists. It is the complete opposite. I was one of the few tourists amongst the crowd of several thousand people. This is a spiritual gathering and offering not a spectacle or performance to collect tourist dollars. It truly is an authentic performance and the size of the crowd is what made it so raw for me. Hundreds if not thousands of people crammed the ghat, overflowing on top of boats to witness the daily offering. It’s one of the most unique things to do in Varanasi
#8 Try the local street food
Try some of the local street food in Varanasi. I ate a ton of food carts but two places stuck out to me that you might actually be able to find! First, of course was Blue Lassi which can be found in google maps. As can Deena Chat Bhandar. Near my first hostel called ‘Zostel‘, was a small shop someone recommended to me. It was so busy when I went in I had to share a corner of a table with three Indian women who looked less than impressed that I had crashed their dinner party. I just told the server to get me whatever you think. Always a huge mistake in India, especially if you don’t like spicy food. He brought back a little pastry cup full of colors and I have no idea. It turned out to be one of the best things I ate in Varanasi. Many of you better versed with food than me will know it is Chaat. I forgot to take a photo in my rush to vacate the table but I found this on flickr to give you an idea of what you should look out for in Varanasi.
#9 Visit one of the 2000 temples in Varanasi
Explore some of the temples of Varanasi.. there are over 2000 of them spread throughout the city. Some of the most popular temples to visit are:
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
It really depends what you are looking for. There are buddhist and hindu temples and muslim mosques throughout the city. If you prefer you can always see several of the temples from a boat but I suggest heading inside some of the temples. For a full guide and a convenient map about all of the temples you might want to visit I found this resource helpful: Varanasi Temple Guide
#10 Walk along the ghats
No matter where you stay it isn’t far to get to the ghats and once you are there, there is plenty to look at. You will likely lose track of time as your senses are overwhelmed. There is so much raw action going on down at the ghats along The Ganges River. Herds of Buffalo are being washed by children in the river, groups of teenage boys are flexing in the river, intense cricket matches are getting loud, people are having their hair cut, boatmen try to coax people on board for a tour, massage and beard trims are left right and center and people are in prayer. If you are into photography you will have a great time snapping some shots along the ghats but be aware taking photos of saadhu men (dressed in orange usually) will cost you a few coins. I rarely pay for photos so I passed on taking photos of these men who spend all day posing for tourists. This is definitely one of the most interesting things to do in Varanasi
#11 Get around by rickshaw
Whether it is auto or a man-powered bicycle, hold on for the ride of your life. I love when I get a savage driver and he just knows nothing of the brake pedal. I usually avoid any trouble on my travels but I was in three crashes in Varanasi. These guys go hard! The horns create a beautiful symphony that I never want to hear again! (Photo was taken in Jaipur.. same same)
#12 Find a random rooftop cafe
One of my favorite parts about Varanasi is how all the signs are hand painted onto the walls. I would sometimes follow the signs for what seemed like an hour before finally arriving to a cafe. If you aren’t in a rush pick a random sign and see what rooftop near the ghats you end up on. Grab a drink and watch life below.
#13 Chai Tea
There’s nothing more Indian than sitting on a crate with the local lads sipping on a clay cup of freshly brewed chai tea as a cow stops traffic on the road. I started many mornings exactly like this. One of the vendors told me a story about the clay cups after I curiously asked him why they use clay, wouldn’t plastic be cheaper. Sure, I thought clay seemed better for the environment maybe but in a street full of trash, I wasn’t convinced it was a green strategy. In fact, it was something much more important. The lassi and chai vendors use clay pots because the poorest people make the clay pots and it gives them a job. So once you finish your lassi or chai smash your clay pot on the ground and keep the cycle going. No seriously… smash it!