Varanasi, said to be the oldest constantly inhabited City in the world.
Mark Twain said in 1896 ‘Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.’ And I read that the Lonely Planet once said ‘Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelenting chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on Earth.’
Yep, this is pretty much Varanasi in 2 famous quotes!
Want to SEE Varanasi? Have a watch of my YouTube video here!
Varanasi was high on my list to visit in India and to be honest when I really think about it, whenever I had thought of India in the past, Varanasi is what I had thought of – a sunrise boat ride along the Ganges River, watching the Ceremonies, seeing a place like no other in the world.
I was due to have 3 days in Varanasi but after forgetting that the Taj Mahal is closed on Friday’s which is the day I had planned to see it, I had to change trains and ended up with 3 nights and just over 2 days (tip- when you go to Agra double check that you don’t plan to see the Taj Mahal on Friday!).
I really liked Varanasi, despite all of the negative stuff I had heard about it being busy, dirty, smelling and crazy, but 2 days was actually enough because it is indeed very dusty and a bit dirty and although a third day would have been nice, my lungs felt like 2 days in Varanasi was enough, especially after being in Agra for a few days before!
2 days in Varanasi is perfect and I would really recommend this to you, not only because of the dust and smog but because there aren’t actually that many things to do in Varanasi, it’s a City that you visit to walk around and observe what’s going on rather than jumping from activity to activity!
So here is how I recommend you spend your 2 days in Varanasi!
Accommodation in Varanasi
As with any Indian City there is plenty of accommodation. I was recommended Moustache Hostel because of it’s location, I stayed there and was really pleased with it. It’s by Assi Ghat which is one of the Ghats furthest away from the ‘centre’ of Varanasi which is further North up the River, so although it is a bit of a walk into the ‘centre’, it’s a lovely walk along all of the ghats, the roads are wide rather than back alley ways in the centre, there are so many cafes and restaurants, some of which are pretty cool and funky selling good coffee and foods with wifi and the air felt a lot fresher!
Alternatively you can stay closer to the centre, for example I had lunch at Brown Bread Bakery twice which has a guest house but it’s located in the middle of a weave of small alleyways full of beeping mopeds, dusty buildings, cows and cow pat! I wouldn’t have liked waking up to this.
The choice is yours and there are plenty of hotels in Varanasi, hostels and guesthouses but I would suggest staying further down the river close to or in Assi Ghat and if you’re looking for the best hostel in Varanasi, I’d say Moustache Hostel has to be up there with the best!
Search for accommodation in Varanasi on Booking.com here. I used Booking.com all the time as I love their flexible booking options!
Day 1 in Varanasi
Starting your day with a sunrise boat trip along the River Ganges is by far the best way to start your trip to Varanasi. Head down to the river before sunrise and take up one of the men on their offer for a boat trip.
You should be able to barter them down from their initial price and be sure to check out their boat before getting on to ensure it looks ok. Don’t expect these guys to be a ‘guide’, however if you do want a guided tour so you can understand what is happening on the shore, have a look into these Varanasi Boat Tours.
I had the most amazing sunrise sky at the start of the boar trip- pinks and purples which turned blue as the sun started to rise out of the haze (and smog). On the shores you’ll see locals bathing in the river and doing their laundry. You’ll see early morning Indian tourists going for a ritual dip- believed by Hindu’s that the River Ganges aka Mother Ganga with release them from their past sins.
You may see parts of the Morning Aarti ceremonies depending on where on the river you start, and you should definitely make sure you go up to Manikarnika Ghat aka the Burning Ghat. In the morning, just after sunrise there will not be any bodies burning yet, instead the men will be getting the area ready for the day and sorting the logs. It’s incredible to see the boats full of logs in front of the ghat which will be used to cover dead bodies later that day.
Seen as you cannot take photos or videos at the burning ghat during the day (which is understandable), going past by boat in the morning is the best change to take any photos of the area.
I was actually really surprised by the amount of cool cafes there are in Varanasi, they are definitely set up for backpackers and travellers here, which I guess makes sense as Varanasi has been on the traveller radar since the hippies arrived in the 1960’s and hasn’t gone off it since.
If you are staying near Assi Ghat I’d recommend Ashish Cafe, Open Hand Cafe, The Mark’s Cafe for coffee and breakfast. If you are not staying in this area Brown Bread Bakery is a good place to get some breakfast and relax.
I had a little nap until lunch time and then headed back out along the ghats for a relaxed walk. They will be much busier now and the laundry you saw being done that morning will now be hung up, laid out and drying in the sun.
I’m sure you’ll be offered a boat ride a few more times but I actually found the locals in Varanasi to be very nice and not particularly pushy after I said no thank you to the many offers and I really liked that.
Later in the day head into the centre of Varanasi, aka the back streets of Varanasi. Here you will see what Mark Twain meant when he said just how old Varanasi is, and looks!
When I visited the lanes were no busier than usual Indian Cities and although I didn’t particularly like them, they were fine. I can understand though that if Varanasi is one of the first places you visit in India, perhaps after Delhi and Agra, that these streets could be quite intense.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is right in the middle of the small streets however as a tourist to Varanasi do not expect to be able to go inside as the queues are huge. Indian tourists must wait hours to enter in the cramped, small streets to go inside. So if you come upon people queuing in the street, this is where they are heading!
The streets are also lined with shops but Varanasi is definitely not the best place to shop in India! If you plan to go shopping, wait until you go elsewhere or make sure you shop before you get there. I didn’t see any particularly nice shops with good clothes and accessories and with the streets being so dusty and dark it doesn’t make it a pleasant place to browse!
Whilst exploring the back streets be sure to head to 2 places – one, back to the Burning Ghats and two, to Blue Lassi Shop!
I understand that the Burning Ghats may not be for everyone but they are a must see in Varanasi! This is what Varanasi is based around, it’s the city where life meets death and death is celebrated.
It is a big and important thing for Hindu’s to be burnt in Varanasi. It is believed that after their bodies are soaked in the River Ganges and they are cremated there that they will go to heaven instead of being reincarnated.
It’s a strange feeling down at the burning ghat, firstly you can approach it by the river and walk right onto the ghat, or down from the back streets. Walking along the ghat will take you right into the centre.
There are about 10 fires going with big piles of wood, bodies are brought down on bamboo stretchers, dunked in the river before being laid out on top of the wood. More wood is put on top as well as a smothering of Ghee to help the wood burn. The wood is set on fire and so is the body and it’s possible to wait and see a whole body disappear.
When at the burning ghats remember that you cannot take any photos. Keep your phone in your bag or pocket and if you carry a camera around your neck like I do, it’s just easier to put it in your bag even if it is off as it will save the many comments from Indian men trying to tell you what to do.
The very bottom area by the river is for the family but you can stand by the railing or on the steps. It’s a very strange atmosphere as it seems that a lot of locals go there to socialise and you will definitely be the minority being a tourist but you are definitely allowed down there so don’t let that put you off.
After this you may need more of a light-hearted activity so I recommend going to The Blue Lassi, now be sure to go to the real one which is close to the burning ghat and is a blue cafe as there is a fake one apparently. Here you can pretty much get any flavour of Lassi you want and there is a huge menu to choose from. I got the banana and chocolate which was good but nothing to majorly write home about however I think one of the fruit ones might have been better and it’s a cool place to sit anyway.. and watch the bodies go past!
Come evening time head to Dasawamedh Ghat for the Evening Aarti, this happens just after sunset when it’s dark but to get a good seat I’d recommend getting there early. You can’t miss it as there are huge lit up umbrellas above where the priests will do their ceremony.
This is pretty much how to spend a good day in Varanasi!
Day 2 in Varanasi
It’s likely your second day in Varanasi will not vary too much from the above. If you can get up early again then head back out to the ghats for sunrise. At Assi Ghat they hold the Morning Aarti which is pretty much the same as the Evening Aarti but good to see. Afterwards there is morning yoga for the locals. I feel like tourists could join in but be warned it’s real Indian yoga and there isn’t much English spoken, but you can get a chai and sit and watch the locals anyway.
During the day there isn’t much else to do in Varanasi I found except from exploring the ghats, streets and cafes once again.
However if you are keen to get out of Varanasi, one of the best places to visit near Varanasi is Sarnath. This is popular because it’s where Buddha first taught a sermon and first taught the Dharma.
It’s possible to organise a tour to Sarnath or get a taxi. I met a girl who got an Ola there which was around 600Rs each way. She said it was really beautiful and the gardens are so relaxing- a good way to escape the dusty air and noise of the City! Although note that Sarnath is only 10km away from Varanasi but the traffic will more than likely be heavy so it could take an hour each way.
Evening time is a good time to get back out on the river. The sun sets behind the city so you will not see the sun actually setting but instead the sky turning castle colours above the city and the rituals starting along the ghats.
Alternatively a popular thing to do in Varanasi is to watch some wrestling which is popular in this area so look out for that. If wrestling is something you are particularly interested in you can also do a day tour to discover the local art of Kushti Wrestling.
How to get to and from Varanasi.
Train and Air are the most popular ways to get to Varanasi and leave Varanasi.
Varanasi has 2 train stations – Varanasi Junction and Varanasi Cantt.
I got an overnight train from Agra to Varanasi leaving Agra Fort at 8:30pm (well actually 9:30 as it was delayed), and getting it at 14:30 (should have been 10:30am). It makes sense to visit Agra and Varanasi together and this train link works well during the day and overnight.
Rishikesh and Varanasi are also 2 destinations that are popular to see after one another. It’s possible to go from Rishikesh to Varanasi by getting to Haridwar station outside of Rishikesh and then getting an overnight train to Varanasi.
Delhi to Varanasi is also popular and there is an overnight train from Varanasi to Delhi and back.
Varanasi has a Domestic Airport. I flew to Goa from there. It’s an hour from the City and a taxi cost me 800Rs. It’s actually a really good airport with free wifi, a few little shops and plenty of places to get a drink and some food.
Internal flights in India can be really cheap and must faster than travelling by train / bus, have a look at internal flights for India here on Skyscanner to find the best prices!
I hope this Varanasi Travel Guide helps you plan your trip there and gives you an idea of things to do in Varanasi in 2 days or if you spend 3 days in Varanasi.
Like I said, it’s a city for exploring, discovering and learning rather than a city full of activities.
People say you either love Varanasi or hate it, I loved it. I hope you do too!
Want to SEE Varanasi? Have a watch of my YouTube video here!
For more of my posts on India and Travelling see:
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