Explore narrow winding passages, encounter Babas and bump into cows. Delve into your spirituality whilst learning about the Hindu religion and local culture. Watch the colorful city pass you by upon the Ganges for you are in Varanasi. Since one does not simply visit Varanasi – you experience it – this is an account of how to best experience one day in India’s spiritual capital.
Guest post by Hitched Hikers
Blog: Hitched Hikers
What’s the best time to visit Varanasi?
If you are lucky enough to visit Varanasi during the Diwali festival, you will not be disappointed. It usually falls around the end of October or beginning of November. This also marks the beginning of the high season and is closely followed by another impressive festival ten days later. During this time Varanasi is intensely busy, but this is avoidable by visiting in early to mid-September as the monsoon season passes.
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What’s good to know about Varanasi?
Varanasi is the home of Hinduism and regarded as the spiritual capital of India. It is located in Uttar Pradesh in the North of India, easily accessible by overnight train from Delhi or Rishikesh. The spiritual nature of the city stems from the Ganges, which flows through the city and attracts both tourists and pilgrims. Hindus from all over the world flock to Varanasi to visit the Golden Temple during their lives and to end the cycle of reincarnation after passing.
One Day in Varanasi Itinerary
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do during your one day in Varanasi.
Varanasi is a hub of North Indian cuisine with exotic treats on every turn. Some travelers shy away from street food in India, but the delicacies on offer must not be missed. As long as the food is hot and vegetarian, which most of the food here is, it is usually fine.
Start the day with a parantha, a fried chapatti stuffed with a choice of paneer cheese, mixed veg or potato – it is delicious, keeps you full all day and costs around 50Rs. If you fancy a snack, Vada Pav is a spicy Indian potato burger sometimes served with chili and chutney and makes for a tasty treat. This can be washed down with an Indian Lassi. The best around can be found at the Blue Lassi Shop located near the burning Ghat. In the evening, make sure you try Puri, which is a tasty Indian bread filled with air to make it extra light and usually served with spiced cauliflower (gobi) or potato (aloo).
Although all of these savory dishes are delicious, it is the sweets of Varanasi which really get the taste buds going. Gulab Jamun are sticky, doughy balls covered in sugar syrup. They can be found amongst other mouth-watering deserts in sweet shops almost everywhere. If you want a break from Indian food, head to the German Brown Bread Bakery which serves freshly baked cakes and bread daily as well as an impressive assortment of cheese.
Sunrise Boat Ride
A visit to Varanasi is not complete without watching the sunrise from a boat on the River Ganges. Head out at 5am and walk to the Assighat while the city is sleeping. Everything will be closed baring one or two chai stalls. Varanasi seems a very different place at 5am, and one is really able to feel the spiritual essence of the city as you wander the empty streets. Arrive at the Assighat no later than 5.30am and haggle with a few of the boat operators. Be sure not to pay more than 100Rs per person.
There is an early morning ritual that takes place every morning with local children chanting and monks performing with fire. This is a blessing to the Mother Ganges as she breathes life into India. Head out on the boat and watch the magnificent sunrise over the Ganges. As you pass each Ghat, take in the culture and watch different rituals of holy baths as well as people carrying out their daily routines.
Take part in a free Yoga class
Once you return to the Assighat, a large crowd of seated people will have formed, all of them facing a stage. This is a daily yoga class which is free for everyone in an effort to encourage yoga in the community. Watch or take part, you will be welcomed. The highlight is the laughing exercise in which everyone holds their hands over their heads and laughs. The laughter is indeed infectious.
Explore the bazaars
Walk from the Assi Ghat towards the Burning Ghat through the narrow streets filled with interesting sights on every turn. The streets are lined with shops offering wonders from clothing to instruments, a fine opportunity to interact with locals and practice your haggling skills. The streets are also littered with cows, dogs and goats, which certainly makes exploring much more interesting.
You will find brightly dressed Yogis and Babas sitting around, and they can offer insight into the spiritual side of Varanasi although they may ask for money in exchange for imparting their knowledge. Street vendors and performers complete the experience which will leave you feeling enchanted. Don’t forget to stop from time to time just to soak up the environment, you are sure to see things unaccounted for in this article.
The Burning Ghat
After working your way through the narrow passages and many ghats, you will eventually reach the Burning Ghat. The Burning Ghat is the focal point of Varanasi and the reason behind its spirituality. It is the point to which all Hindus return in order to end the cycle of reincarnation after passing. It is believed in the Hindu faith that one will be in a continuous cycle of reincarnation until the body is laid to rest in the Ganges. The burning ghat is a literal name as it is where the cremation of the followers of the Hindu religion takes place. Obviously not a particularly pleasant experience but a mind broadening one.
Local people will act as guides for tourists in exchange for a small amount of rupees, and it is well worth doing this as it is important to learn about the process rather than just looking at burning bodies. However, do beware of scams. There are two stages to the Burning Ghat, the internal fire and the cremation. The internal fire is on the lower floor, it has been burning for centuries and is where the oldest son of the deceased will come to light a torch. Once this happens, the family will light the fire on the above floor in order to cremate their relative. The remains will be scattered in the Ganges, and it is believed the soul will be returned to Brahma. You cannot visit Varanasi without witnessing this ritual as unpleasant as it may sound.
The Golden Temple (Vishwanath Temple)
The Golden Temple is just a short walk from the Burning Ghat, not to be confused with the Sikh Temple in Amritsar – the Golden Temple of Varanasi is the Hindu equivalent of Mecca. There are entry gates all around, often with huge queues of Hindus making their pilgrimage, but do not join these queues. There is a separate queue for tourists near the Burning Ghat, just ask any of the guards and they will direct you. Make sure you bring your passport and put your belongings in one of the lockers as entry will be declined otherwise. Once you enter the initial gate, you may be asked if you follow the Hindu faith, if so just say yes to appease them. Once inside the second gate, photography is not allowed and you must remove your shoes. The temple is very busy, but the beauty of the golden spires shines from above. Most of the Hindus bring an offering of food, and this has attracted monkeys to the temple. Watching them bothering people passes the time whilst queuing. Overall, it is an essential Varanasi experience although it includes some tiresome queuing in the heat.
Kites on the Ganges
Following the busy temple and harrowing experience of the Burning Ghat, it may be time for something a little more cheerful. At around 4 or 5pm, many of the locals fly paper kites over the Ganges from their rooftop terraces or balconies. It is a beautiful sight and a great opportunity for a photo. The best way to experience this is from a rooftop café as the sun sets over the city.
Every evening there is a ceremony performed by monks over the Ganges. It is the biggest tourist draw of Varanasi. During this time hundreds of tourists and pilgrims will place flowers and candles in the river and pray for their loved ones. During busy times this is a truly remarkable sight and one to remember for a lifetime. If you are lucky enough to be in Varanasi around Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, it is guaranteed to be absolutely magical as the river becomes alight with candles.
Take an evening stroll across the Ghats
The evening ceremony, although beautiful and spiritual, can be very crowded. especially if you’re watching from the main Ghat. End the evening with a relaxing stroll across the Ghats taking in the different evening rituals and reflecting on a magical day in Varanasi.
Where to stay in Varanasi?
It is recommended to book somewhere a short ride away from the Ghats to get some peace and quiet at the end of a busy day. The area surrounding the University provides a peaceful haven where you can also pay a visit to the university in which they have a scale replica of the Golden Temple among other interesting exhibits.
The Gateway Hotel Ganges
The Gateway Hotel Ganges is a peaceful and luxury getaway spread over 40 acres of tropical gardens. This 5 star hotel features an outdoor pool and a spa. The rooms are full of beautiful and have a luxury aura around them, but remain modern all the time. All enjoy views of the garden, pool or city.
Ramada Plaza JHV
Ramada Plaza JHV is the most centrally located 5 star resort, spread over 13 acres and offering a peaceful haven away from the chaotic city streets. The hotel features a spa, gym and a tennis court. Its spacious rooms offer a modern décor and the ultimate comfort.
Located a short walk from Harishchandra Ghat, HosteLaVie has a number of amenities, including a garden and a terrace. Popular sights around the property include Assi Ghat and Kedar Ghat. HosteLaVie is a great pick for the young travelers and backpackers.
Extra tips for visiting Varanasi
– Be prepared for chaos as Varanasi is a bustling, crowded city with incessant honking from vehicles and pushy crowds.
– Although this is a one day itinerary, don’t feel as though you have to rush, take a step back from time to time in order to rest your mind and take in the environment.
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