A complete Varanasi travel guide for the first-timer

That one Indian town that every globe traveller has heard of is Varanasi. With the sunrise behind the holy Ganga river at the ghats and Lord Shiva’s spiritualness, the town can allure avid travellers with the great food and shaded alleys. Here is your complete guide to Varanasi – one of the world’s oldest living cities.

We are qualified to guide you because I have been there thrice and will go again.

Index

Note: In no manner do we encourage the consumption of illegal drugs. It is dangerous to Physical and Mental health. At the same time, I can’t hide what I saw in Shiv Ji ki Nagari- So Gaanja and Bhaang of Varanasi is our observation, not recommendation.

Why does Varanasi have three names?

Sunrise at Ganga river

Kashi, Varanasi, and Banaras are the names of India’s spiritual capital. As one of the oldest living cities of one of the oldest civilisations, “Kashi” is the term that has been mentioned in all Vedic scriptures. “Kashya” means Lights in Sanskrit, so Kashi is the city of lights. The city does real justice to it – a City of lights and life.

The tiny town continued flourishing from Vedic times. It spread wide and long along and away from the river Ganga. The two tributary rivers of India’s lifeline river Ganga are Varuna and Assi. The land between these two rivers became Varanasi.

Though there is no clear reason why Varanasi became Banaras, historians have multiple explanations. It is named after king Banara. Others believe that Varanasi gained popularity as Banaras during British time. Many Bengalis moved to the city then. They pronounce “V” as “B”, So Banaras is the twisted version of Varanasi.

Why visit Banaras?

Alamgir mosque in the background
To Eat, Pray, and love, you must go to Varanasi.

As per Hindu mythology, the burnt dead in Varanasi attain Moksha, so many travellers say that people come here to die- I say the opposite. You should go to Varanasi to learn the art of Living. On the first day, you may get overwhelmed with the buzz of this town. But the second day, you are so used to it that you become a bee in the buzz. The maze of old city alleys lined with century-old Havelis and their colourful doors add vibrance to the shaded walkways.

Three locals on a scooter, laughing, sharing conversations vrooming beside you in that alley adds life to it. The giant pretty cows and bulls ambling remind you that the fastest way to get there is to take it slowly. The Malai and Makhan wala in that tiny shop invites you with “Har Har Mahadev”, and that milk product soothes your hungry stomach. Varanasi food is perhaps the best in India!

Varanasi food

Varanasi street food is heavenly.

You spot small temples every 20m at least. The Kashi locals must have mastered the art of Grafitti. The religious temple and graffitis are a unique combo to see. When you stand there wondering what is most beautiful, a local observes you are lost and asks if you need any help in navigation.

When you exit the narrow alley after passing by countless bangles, flowers and samosa shops, you are in for a soul healing view of glowing Ganga in the morning. As time goes by, Hindus come there for their rituals. Some weeping for the lost ones, others content for their unsuffered departed ones do the Pooja.

Shivas on the Ganges ghats

Boys wearing Shiva costumes, real Sadhus and fake Babas, tea sellers make the place liveliest once the sun is up. Then you see people taking puffs in those temple niches, and you smell Gaanja- Ghats are the place of life, holiness and intoxication.

The burning Ghat Manikarnika takes you to another world – A world full of wooden pyres beside a beautiful tilting temple and elegantly flowing river. The workers there handle the pyre as easily as I flip my Dosa while cooking – This part of the world is raw, where you see workers collecting ashes and washing them in a steel wok to find remains of gold/silver from the burning dead body.

Ganga Aaarti at Varanasi

By the evening, Ganga aarti proves why Kashi is a city of lights with enchanting Pooja rituals involving lots of flowers, incense, smoke, and fire. The positive vibration around and in the renovated Vishwanath temple is high and can make anyone spiritual. There are many places to see and experiences to be enjoyed in this spiritual yet hippie town. Read our post “Best things to do in Varanasi” to know more.

How many days to spend in Varanasi

Varanasi Ghats with Sadhus sitting

I stayed in Kashi for two days during my first two trips, and I realised it wasn’t enough. So the last time, we stayed for six days, and we felt content. If you want to experience Kashi, you must stay for a minimum of 3 days. 6 to 8 days is a great time to go for day trips and rejoice in the vividity of Varanasi. Some travellers settle in Kashi for months because the Varanasi vibe is an addiction.

How to reach Kashi?

Varanasi airport

Varanasi airport is efficient and good enough for a town of its kind, with cafes and over expensive shops.

By Air- Being one of the most visited places by foreigners and the holiest place for domestic Hindu travellers, Varanasi’s International airport caters decently to foreign destinations and excellently to the domestic cities. 

By Train- India’s soul connector railways work perfectly for those who want to save money and have the luxury of spending time. The train station is located outside the city. So use an auto-rickshaw or Ola cabs to get to the city.

By Bus – This should be your last choice unless you are within a 400km radius of Varanasi. I recommend bus travel to Varanasi from the cities like Lucknow, Agra and Khajuraho.

Where to stay in Varanasi?

Varanasi ghats during festivals

Most of those buildings in the background are guesthouses – At Dashaashwameda ghat.

The Ghats are located on the West bank of the Ganga. The eastern bank looks like a widespread beach. The kind of stay options varies drastically with the region. Choosing the right neighbourhood depends on your purpose- 

For religious purposes, the domestic tourists choose the cantonment area away from ghats. These areas are away from ghats where cars can reach your door, suitable for elderly and group travellers.

That riverfront place is where you should stay if you want to rejoice in every moment of beautiful Ganga and vibrant Varanasi. But mind that you have to walk a lot if you choose accommodation on the ghats.

The oldest part of Varanasi

The northern ghat part is the oldest part of the city that houses the Vishwanath temple, authentic Kashifood, and Burning ghat (Manikarnika Ghat). This part offers more homestays and guesthouses. Domestic and foreign travellers who want convenience and experiences can choose this area.

Southern Ghat isn’t new, but not as old as the northern one. This Ghat is filled with hostels; Cafes made to suit foreign tourists. You name a continental cuisine- Korean Kimchi to Israeli Sakashukha, you get it here.

Blue painted walls of Varanasi streets

The morning walks and the priests

After staying in all three areas, I loved the Northern Ghat guesthouses. Locals run them with an astonishing view of the Ganga. The narrow alleys are lined with 200yr old houses and quirky graffiti. Food joints selling Kachori, Kullad tea, Chuda muttar and Jalebis are nearby. I stayed in the following places, and I recommend it.

If you are willing to shed some money to experience the royalty, Brijrama Palace must be on your priority list. You don’t know how often I looked at our bank balance and dreamt of staying here before booking other hotels.

How to commute in Varanasi

Banaras Hindu University old hostel building near Sankat MOchana Hanuman temple.

The best way to explore the city is by walking. As a tourist, hiring a bike should be removed from your choice.

There is a saying –

If you can drive a motorbike in the narrow alleys near ghats of Kashi and still be alive, RTO comes to you personally to hand over your driving licence”

But seeing Kashi people doing it like a boss is equal to witnessing a magic trick by David Copperfield. If walking isn’t your thing, the cycle rickshaws and public rickshaws are your money saviours. Remember that, during peak seasons, police restrict vehicular entries at many places. So if you are in Old Banaras, you have to park your car away from the ghats and have to either walk or take cycle rickshaws.

These rickshaws don’t take you until the ghats as the narrow alleys. Bargain for the better price and make sure he takes you to the last possible point. For day trips, outside Banaras guesthouses can arrange for taxis with drivers. Plus, Ola works perfectly for the new part of Banaras.

Things to know before you go to Varanasi

Varanasi streets are pet friendly

Varanasi is pet friendly!

  • The best time to visit Varanasi depends on where you are from.
    •  I went to Varanasi in June – It was Extremely hot, but extended daylights are great for late evening strolls. Plus, the clear sky in the mornings shows you the fantastic sunrise.
    • October is good because of good weather, but this is the high tourist season.
    • November is ideal for the Diwali festival, with amazing weather and fewer tourists.

Best time to visit Varanasi

  • December to February is the coldest month, perfect for travellers from temperate regions. Travellers from tropical regions may find it colder, and it is impossible to take a dip at Ganga. But the crowd is less, hence accommodation is cheaper(except on January 1st and 14th). Most days are foggy, and a few days are sunny with a cold breeze.
Varanasu streets in night

Varanasi alleys are safe at night unless you are stoned

  • Download Offline maps in advance if you plan to wander in the alleys. Many ghats and side alleys have a poor network. Varanasi is cleaner than before. You find no dead bodies let to float on the Ganga. But there is still a long way to get the “Clean City” label.
  • The town lacked infrastructure and public hygiene in the 1990s. Things have gotten way better now, and travelling in Varanasi isn’t rocket science anymore.
  • Varanasi street food is amazing. Go beyond “made to suit foreigners cafes”, take local’s help or take a guided food tour to indulge in the local delicacies.
  • If you stay in a guesthouse and stick to street food, explore the city by walking with a few rickshaws and boat rides, it costs you 2500/day/person.
Burning ghats of Varanasi

Observe and decide where you want to take a dip in cleaner water

  • Domestic and foreign travellers love to visit Varanasi for different reasons. Be prepared to embrace the charming crowd.
  • As an Indian, the buzz of Kashi was intimidating for the first few hours. Once we got used to it, we became one among the buzz, and the city felt magical. You see the intimidating factor as the most interesting part once you get used to it. So as a foreign traveller, I recommend you not keep Varanasi as your first destination in India. Get used to Indian buzz in another slower city, and then head to Varanasi.
  • If you hear bells jingling and people chanting “Raam Naam Satya Hai”, give way- It is four people carrying a dead body to Manikarnika or Harischandra Ghat. And don’t click pictures.
  • Wear removable shoes and forget your flip-flops.
Snake charmer in Varanasi with black snake

There are snake charmers in Varanasi!

  • Wearing denim with sleeved tops is fine for women. It is rare to see local men in shorts. So pants with tunics and T-shirts aren’t frowned upon in Varanasi. The girls wear skin-tight denim even in harsh summer here!
  • The main Vishwanath temple and Hanuman temple don’t allow mobile phones. As Vishwanath temple is accessed by narrow alleys, leaving the phone in the car isn’t a choice. You can opt for shops with lockers for phones and footwear near the gates.
  • Beware of the usual scams -Overpriced rickshaws, fake silk, fake fortune tellers, pickpocketers, rickshaw drivers saying, “The hotel room you have booked doesn’t exist anymore; I will show you a better one.”
  • And watch out for monkeys snatching your belongings, including sunglasses!

The Bhaang and Gaanja.

Bhaang in Varanasi

At Pataka Ji’s Thandai shop

My first two visits were essentially for religious purposes with my parents. The third time when I went with Ashrith for six days, we wandered in the side streets, ate the lumpsum amount of Kachoris / Tamatar chat/bread toast, constantly refuelling with Chai, sat and watched people at the ghats. We had heard of the Bhaang and Gaanja in Varanasi, but its omnipresence at ghats shocked us.

On the first evening, we watched Ganga Arti and indulged in divinity. We saw a Baba with ashes on their body holding a chillum on the way back. We pulled down the mask and could smell cannabis. Because it is nine at night, it may be the time for all these; we thought and left.

Saadhu with ashes on his body

This Baaba near Harishchandra Ghat was so stoned that he needed help to get up. Still, he continued smoking.

We came out at six on that foggy morning the next day, hoping to see the sunrise. Many devotees gathered at Dashasshwameda Ghat to do Pinda Pradanam, and chai sellers ran their business. As we walked towards the south, at Darbhanga Ghat, we stopped to sit and watch the happenings for a while. As Ashrith set the camera for a timelapse video, I sat next to a bird food seller watching the Ganga glowing with sunrise, boats rowing slowly and cracked a conversation in Hindi with him.

The gentleman was smiling yet shy for a conversation.

The chatting went around the usual whereabouts, and he said he had lived in Assi Ghat since birth. His family has been settled in Varanasi for 70 years. He explained how Covid has affected them all and said they wouldn’t wear masks because nothing can happen to them. After all, they are blessed by Shiv Ji.

Foggy mornings at Varanasi ghats

Another man approached the bird food seller and asked for something I didn’t understand. The food seller got offended and said, “I don’t sell such things” They spoke so fast that I couldn’t understand anything. After 3 minutes, the second man sat in the seller’s place, and the real seller went away. Now I began talking to the new man who was from Mathura.

A few minutes later, the man was back and handed over some packets to the Mathura guy after taking 20Rs from him.

Mine and the seller’s conversation turned towards those mewing seagulls and pigeons. When I heard the birds were from Russia, my mind froze, wondering how far these Siberian seagulls have travelled to be here at the Ganga during winter. While I sat wondering, the Mathura guy was sitting in a niche inside a bastion shoutingly inviting the bird food seller. He ran to the niche, and the smell of weed raised in the air next few seconds.

Thinking of Siberian seagulls, my frozen mind got further frozen, knowing how openly they are using weed in a chillum! While Ashirth stood smirking looking at me, the shopkeeper was back- in perfect condition and didn’t seem high even after smoking it for 5 minutes.

Varanasi travel guide

The man in the red sweater next to me is the one who puffed Gaanja at 7 in the morning.

I couldn’t control my curiosity – I asked him directly, “Bhaiya, why did you go there, and what did you smoke” He smirked at me and continued calling buyers. I asked him again, laughingly stating I am a regular tourist. He smiled again and replied

Him- That was Gaanja. Do you also smoke?

– No, I don’t smoke gaanja. But why did you do it in the morning? You said you hadn’t had breakfast, won’t you fall sick.
Him – Arrey, I am used to it. I belong to Shiva’s town; nothing happens to me.

I – Won’t the police catch you? Where did you get it from? Where does cannabis come from to Kashi?
Him- Bhaang is legal here, but cannabis comes from the forests of Uttarakhand. Police know. But if we do it too much, they will catch the sellers. I bought it from a paan shop. Have you tasted Banaras Paan? It is heavenly.
– Yes, I tasted it last time; I loved paan. Does all paan shops sell Gaanja?
Him – nope. A few sell to those whom they know. Why are you asking? Don’t try all this. It isn’t good for youngsters like you.

I– If I want to try, how much does it cost?
Him– There are varieties and qualities. 10Rs packet to 500Rs. If you want to take one puff, I can ask my friend to give you and your husband only one puff. But don’t buy it.
I– No. I know I will fall sick as I am not used to it. If you don’t want us to have it, why do you have it?
Him –  This is Shiv Ji’s happy place. This is my heaven. It makes me lighter and feels happy in heaven. Shiv Ji does it all the time in the Himalayas, so do we. He has blessed us with Ganga, this beautiful town and Gaanja.

Saying this, he packed his items and said he was leaving because there were no tourists. The truth is he was getting high and wanted to lay back. We observed keenly for the next few days – there were many Gaanja smokers around us. Many times these Baabas handed over a chillum and weed for those who paid them some money.

Vaaranasi saadhus smoking weed in a chillum

This is just one scene. We saw hundreds of people with chillum and met lots of locals at the Thandai shop having bhaang and tourists at Blue Lassi for bhang lassi.

Humans are selective listeners/learners and followers. I don’t know if Shiv Ji smokes weed in the Himalayas. If we smoke weed because Shiv Ji does it, why not drink poison as he did during Samudra Manthana? Why not sit and meditate as he does?

What are your thoughts on selective human listening? Let me know in the comment section below.

Clourful lDoors of Varanasi

The doors of Varanasi – You can open them either with real spirituality and Happiness or Gaanja!

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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