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 13 unique things to do in Varanasi things I recommend most while exploring the city.
13 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN VARANASI
In this blog post, I’ll share with you some of the top things to do in Varanasi. You can organize most of these activities by yourself or you can pre-book some of the tours online in advance such as the Guided City Tour or the Aarti Ceremony & Boat Tour.
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.
A sunrise boat ride on the Ganges in Varanasi is an experience that encapsulates the spiritual heart of India. As dawn breaks, the city begins to stir, and the Ganges, revered as a goddess in Hinduism, comes alive with activity. Pilgrims perform their morning ablutions in the river, devotees offer prayers, and the air resonates with the sound of temple bells. As your boat gently glides along the sacred river, you can witness these age-old rituals and ceremonies taking place along the Ghats, or riverfront steps. The early morning light bathes the city in a warm, golden hue, illuminating the ornate architecture of the riverside temples and buildings. The ethereal experience of the sunrise boat ride offers an intimate glimpse into the spiritual and cultural fabric of Varanasi, making it a quintessential part of any visit to this ancient city.
Visit the Burning Ghat
Visiting the burning ghat, specifically Manikarnika Ghat, in Varanasi is a deeply profound and humbling experience. Considered one of the holiest sites along the Ganges, Manikarnika Ghat is the primary cremation ground in the city, where Hindus perform last rites, believing that dying and being cremated here liberates the soul from the cycle of death and rebirth. It’s a place of stark contrasts; while it confronts the reality of mortality, it also carries a sense of peace and acceptance that is palpable in the air. The best way to visit Manikarnika Ghat is on this Guided City Tour.
The sights and sounds here are intense and can evoke a variety of emotions, from solemnity to curiosity. Visitors should approach the place with utmost respect, understanding that for many people, this is a sacred and deeply personal place. Taking photographs is strictly prohibited. The burning ghat operates round-the-clock and witnessing the rituals here provides a powerful insight into Hindu cultural and spiritual practices.
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. Blue Lassi is one of many possible stops along this popular Varanasi Food Tour.
It’s pretty much the cold rock of Varanasi! My personal recommendations are 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.
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.
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.
Experience the Aarti Ceremony
Experiencing the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi is a deeply moving and unforgettable experience. This spiritual ritual takes place every evening at the Dashashwamedh Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River, and attracts both locals and tourists. As the sun sets, a group of young priests clad in traditional attire begin the synchronized ritual. They light large brass lamps and move them in perfect harmony to the rhythmic chants of prayers and the beat of the temple bells. The most popular way to experience this amazing event is on the top-rated Aarti Ceremony & Boat Tour.
The Aarti ceremony is a way of paying tribute to the river Ganges, believed to be a living deity, and the air fills with an intoxicating mix of incense, flower scents, and the smoke from the lamps. The entire ceremony unfolds against the backdrop of the ancient city and the sacred river, creating a mesmerizing spectacle of devotion and spirituality. Witnessing this age-old tradition is a highlight of any trip to Varanasi, offering a glimpse into the heart of India’s spiritual culture.
Try the local street food
Sampling the local street food and visiting restaurants in Varanasi is an adventure for the taste buds and a quintessential part of the city’s experience. The narrow, winding streets of Varanasi are dotted with food stalls and small eateries serving a variety of delectable treats. Start your culinary journey with the famous breakfast dish, Kachori Sabzi, or try the Banarasi Chooda, a flattened rice dish. Don’t miss out on tasting the local sweets such as Jalebi and Rabri, which are renowned for their richness. In the evening, the aroma of freshly fried Samosas and the spicy Aloo Tikki fills the air. Chaat stalls serving Paani Puri, Aloo Chaat, and Dahi Bhalla are a common sight. Join this popular Varanasi Food Tour to be guided to some of the best food spots in Varanasi.
Apart from the street food, Varanasi is also home to numerous restaurants that offer a range of cuisines. Many of these establishments serve Thali, a platter of various Indian dishes, which gives visitors a chance to taste a variety of local flavors in one meal. Remember to follow common precautions when eating street food, ensuring the food is freshly cooked and the vendors maintain good hygiene. This culinary exploration is a treat for food lovers and a great way to understand the city’s culture and traditions.
Visit the significant temples of Varanasi
Visiting the significant temples in Varanasi offers an intimate encounter with the city’s deep spiritual roots and the rich tapestry of its cultural heritage. The city is home to countless temples, each with its unique history and architectural grandeur. Start your temple tour with the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the most important Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. Despite the crowded lanes leading to it, the temple offers a serene and divine atmosphere. The best way to visit the temples of Varanasi is on this Guided City Tour.
Another noteworthy temple is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman, which is visited by thousands of devotees daily. Don’t miss out on the Durga Temple, also known as the Monkey Temple, famous for its striking red color and a large number of monkeys that reside here. Lastly, the New Vishwanath Temple located within the premises of Banaras Hindu University is a modern architectural marvel that deserves a visit. With its towering structure and intricate carvings, it replicates the original Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Each temple visit provides insights into Hindu mythology, the city’s spiritual significance, and the bustling life that revolves around these places of worship.
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.
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!
Enjoy the rooftop cafe‘s
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.
Things to know about Varanasi
- Spiritual Significance: Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is considered extremely sacred in Hinduism. It is believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva and is one of the seven holy cities in India.
- Ghats and the Ganges: Varanasi is situated on the banks of the river Ganges, and the city’s numerous ghats, or riverfront steps, are integral to its identity. Each ghat has its own significance and story, with some used for bathing and some for cremation rituals.
- Temples: The city is home to an estimated 23,000 temples, including the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the twelve Jyotirlingas and a major pilgrimage site.
- Aarti Ceremony: The evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is a must-experience event. It’s a grand ritual that involves chanting, incense, fire, and a lot of devotion.
- Cuisine: Varanasi is also famous for its unique cuisine. Street food is a significant part of the city’s culinary culture, with delicacies like paan, chaat, lassi, and a variety of sweets.
- Silk Weaving: The city is renowned for its silk weaving, particularly for the production of Banarasi sarees. The intricate designs and quality of these sarees make them a sought-after item across India.
- Death and Moksha: Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi liberates the soul from the cycle of birth and death. As such, there are specific ghats, like Manikarnika Ghat, designated for cremation ceremonies.
- Cultural Centre: Varanasi is a cultural and educational hub, home to the Banaras Hindu University, one of the largest residential universities in Asia. The city is also known for its music, literature, and arts.
- Respect Local Customs: While visiting, it’s crucial to respect local customs, particularly when visiting religious sites. Dress modestly, refrain from taking photographs where it’s not allowed, and follow the instructions of temple authorities.
- Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit Varanasi is during the cooler months from October to March. The city also hosts numerous festivals throughout the year, with Dev Deepawali and Shivaratri being particularly significant and celebrated with great fervor.
Best time to visit Varanasi
The best time to visit Varanasi is during the cooler months, typically from October to March. During these months, the temperature is comfortable for sightseeing, making it an ideal time to explore the city, its temples, and the numerous ghats along the Ganges River.
In terms of festivals, Varanasi is vibrant throughout the year with numerous religious events and ceremonies. However, two festivals stand out:
- Dev Deepawali: Celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Kartik (usually in November), Dev Deepawali is a grand festival where all the ghats are lit up with oil lamps, and the sight is truly spectacular.
- Maha Shivaratri: Usually falling in February or March, Maha Shivaratri is a major festival in Varanasi, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple hosts elaborate celebrations, and the whole city gets involved in the festivities.
Remember, the city can get quite crowded during these major festivals, so if you plan to visit during these times, book your accommodations well in advance. Also, while the city has its charm during these peak seasons, visiting during the off-season can offer a different, quieter experience.
I hope you enjoyed this guide to the unique things to do in Varanasi and have a great journey.