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How to Spend One Day in Varanasi


This is a travel guide on how to spend one day in Varanasi, a city in India also known as Banaras or Kashi. Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state in the North of the country, towards the border with Nepal.



CONTENTS




 


About Varanasi


Varanasi is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism - sitting on the banks of the River Ganga and famous for its 88 Ghats (groups of stepped hills) leading down to the river's edge. It is on these Ghats that millions of people come every year to pray, bathe in the water, attend to their dead, and to die.



Families taking a dip in The Ganges
Families taking a dip in The Ganges

Many Hindu people believe that after death, if their bodies are cremated on the Ghats of the river Ganges in Varanasi, and their ashes are scattered into the water, then they will break the karmic cycle of Samsara. This means that they will achieve liberation, known as Moksha, and their soul will go to heaven.


Varanasi is the only place in the world where funeral pyres burn twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.


Before I ventured here I only had two reference points with what to expect. One was a conversation with a well-travelled old-timer I met in South Africa named Roy, who said that out of all the places in the world he had been, Varanasi made the longest-lasting impression on him. Never before had he felt such richness of humanity.


The other was a National Geographic article I had read, where the journalist wrote that the ash coated his skin, and when the bodies burned the fat hissed.


Needless to say, I was repulsed yet intrigued.



Some street art and a cute white goat in Varanasi!
Some street art and a cute goat!

 


How to Spend One Day in Varanasi


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How to Get to Varanasi



FLY/TRAIN


As Varanasi is a site of pilgrimage, there are train and bus options from most places in India. If there is a choice, I normally opt for trains over buses as there are no car horns and bumpy roads, and you can walk around, buy snacks, and use the loo (at your own peril).


If you would like to travel by bus, the only online booking platform where you can pay with an international card is 12go Asia.


There is an option to fly from New Delhi if you have less time.


If you choose to take a sleeper train to Varanasi, like I did, then 3A is the 'third best' class. There is air-conditioning, and three tiers of fold-out beds, each with a blanket and small pillow.


The less expensive the ticket, the livelier the carriage! If the option is available to you BUY THE TICKETS FROM THE STATION. You'll save money and hassle.


For a step-by-step guide on Indian train classes and how to buy a train ticket in India, check out my article: Train Travel in India for Tourists.


Snacks and water are offered throughout the journey but I would recommend stocking up anyway, not forgetting tissues and anti-bacterial gel. On our train, a policeman patrolled the carriages every couple of hours. He was very insistent that we hold onto our valuables tightly as apparently, THIEVES ARE EVERYWHERE.


He was really passionate about this, and even though my handbag was by my head he insisted I grip onto it with both hands whenever he saw me. So as per his advice, keep a firm grip on your valuables, even when you're sleeping!



 


*Train Station Scam alert!*


When arriving at the station for your train, you may be approached and told your train is cancelled and to buy a new ticket. This is a very common scam - it's best to just politely and firmly "I don't need your help thank you". If you have any confusion about your ticket head to the enquiries office, all major stations have them.


 

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE for India I suggest browsing Travel Supermarket and choosing a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.


 


Getting Around in Varanasi


Uber is available in Varanasi if you're sick of being ganged up on by rickshaw drivers. We are after all big, fat foreign cows for milking, and the effort of trying to get a fair price for everything can get a bit tiring.


Since Covid, no rickshaws are allowed to access the narrow, winding lanes close to the Ghats. This means you'll have to walk the last 15 minutes or so to your guesthouse or take a cycle-rickshaw.


Quite often the men operating these look too old to be working at all, you may feel bad having them cart you around (like we did), but perhaps paying them well is better than not using their services at all? It's not an easy situation to navigate.



A traditional Chai stall in Varanasi
A traditional Chai stall

 

Not sure what to pack for your trip to India? Check out the I Dream of Mangoes article:



 


When to Visit Varanasi


The best time to visit Varanasi is November - February


We went in the first week of October. It was a balmy 30 degrees and there was a little rain.


As the monsoon season was just tailing off, the water level of the Ganges was much higher than in summer by several meters! This meant that the footpath linking the 88 Ghats was underwater - so it was not very easy to move from ghat to ghat whilst exploring the city.


This was made more complicated by the fact that Google Maps does not account for the flooded walkways and kept misdirecting us. We were told that by November/December the water level would go back down.



 


Where to Stay in Varanasi


We spent our one day and night in Varanasi at a cute little homestay that I found on Booking.com. It was called Shiva Lodge, run by a mother and daughter named Rani and Pinky. We were really lucky with this accommodation, although it was quite tricky to find (as was everything in the maze of alleys).


The house was really charming, with nice rooftop views to be shared with the troop of macaques causing mischief! (Just holding a stick in your hand is enough to keep the monkeys at bay). We paid 900rs per night.



I Dream of Mangoes drinking coffee on a rooftop in varanasi
Taking a coffee on our rooftop

 

HOW TO SPEND ONE DAY IN VARANASI

There are plenty of things to do in Varanasi, so you'll need to start your day early...



4am: Wake up


I have never seen any city so alive at this time!


There are plenty of tea stands already on the go, with bells ringing and bodies being carried on stretchers towards the ghats to be cremated. The streets get progressively more manic as the day goes on, so this is the perfect time to stroll the narrow laneways without feeling like a sweaty sardine.



5:30am: Arti at Assi Ghat


'Arti' is a Hindu ritual and fire ceremony that happens at Assi Ghat every morning and evening. I would recommend the morning option, as the temperature is much cooler and it is generally less crowded. If you're lucky you'll catch a stunning sunrise.


It's free to watch, and quite beautiful, even though the meaning was lost on me. When we were there there was some live music afterwards, it was lovely to sit on the ghats with a cup of Chai, listening to the band and watching people splashing about in the Ganges (if you have faith, it doesn't matter if the water is dirty...)


Arti at Assi Ghat at sunrise
Sunrise Arti at Assi Ghat


7:30am: Breakfast


Breakfast! And it must be CHOLE BHATURA.


This is a chickpea curry that is mopped up with hot puffy bread, and it's divine! This dish is available all over, we wandered into a small restaurant at random and it cost us about 60rs each.


Another famous breakfast dish in Vanarasi is PURI SABZI JALEBI, which is a smaller version of the puffed oily bread, vegetable curry, and a kind of crispy fried doughnut thing.


After breakfast, we went back to Shiva Lodge to shower, rest, and snooze.



The one and only chole bhatura!
The one and only chole bhatura!


2pm: Street Food Tour


I booked a street food tour through AirBnB called 'A Taste of Banaras'.


This was one of my favourite things to do during my one day in Varanasi, and afterwards, I wished I had done a few more food tours in different cities! We were taken to the best street food stands in Varanasi, guided by our local host; Avinash.


In total, we tried about 13 different dishes, savoury and sweet, and it was such a relief to let Avinash do all of the navigating and ordering. We followed him around the city like two little hungry puppies for the best part of the afternoon, obediently eating what was handed to us.


The price was 1200rs per person, which included all food, bottled water, and transport, which if you ask me is an absolute bargain!



Street Food in Varanasi
Street Food in Varanasi


Bonus Stop: MANIKARNIKA GHAT


Avinash also took us to Manikarnika Ghat, which is one of two places where the funeral pyres burn.


The aromas of the Varanasi streets are, let's say, potent, as it is, add into the mix a dense layer of smoke and ash from the burning bodies; my eyes stung like hell.


I felt like I couldn't breathe. I have never seen a dead body before, but there is not much time to contemplate life and death when you're choking and half-blind.


I didn't want to be disrespectful by grimacing and spluttering while people were watching their loved ones burn, so after a couple of minutes I scurried back up the ghat. As I did so I passed another solemn group carrying a stretcher with a body wrapped in white cloth, chanting and ringing bells. It goes on.



Sunset (5:30ish): Boat Tour


The best way to fully see the ghats is by boat. When on land trying to navigate the maze of tangled streets it's hard to get a sense of it all. From the water, the views are spectacular, especially with the cool evening breeze and the sun going down.


We took a public boat from Assi Ghat, which cost 100rs per person.


There is an option to take a small private boat from all of the Ghats, don't worry there is no need to look, you'll get propositioned for a boat ride at least 50 times in one day. This will cost about 1000-2000rs depending on your bargaining skills.


Varanasi Streets
It is easy to get lost in Varanasi's winding lanes!


8pm: Home Time


The streets are so busy in the evenings and the motorbike horns may have just about driven you insane by this point. By evening I was desperate to shower away the day. If you're not done (or full) there are plenty of temples to visit and other street foods to try.


*I saw a lot of Indian women with cotton wool in their ears. I may have gotten this completely wrong but it seemed to me that is their method of negating the deafening motorbike horns.. it could be worth a try!*


 


Leaving Varanasi


The following morning we departed Varanasi by plane, flying to Bangalore to begin our journey into South India. I searched for the flights on Skyscanner - and then booked with the airline Indigo. Don't forget to book directly with the airline! The price for this flight was £90 per person, one way, including 15kg checked baggage.


 


THE BUSINESS OF DEATH


Here are a few nuggets of information to give you some more context when spending a day in the city.


  • The begging is quite relentless near the ghats of Varanasi, you may get approached every five minutes or so for money or 'alms'. This is mostly by Sadhus - who line the streets down to the ghats in saffron robes with their hands outstretched.


  • After being at Manikarnika Ghat for just two minutes, I felt a lot of empathy for the people who work the funeral pyres. They are known as Doms, and they historically belong to the lowest rank of Dalits, previously known as untouchables.


  • The type of wood used for the funeral pyres depends on the wealth of the family of the deceased. Rich people may be burnt with sandalwood, while the poor take what they can get. Sometimes this is not enough wood to complete the cremation and the bodies are 'thrown in half done.'



 


So this is how to spend one day in Varanasi! The information I have shared here is only what I saw and heard in my very short time in the city. I'm sure there is a lot more to learn and discover.


I for one found Varanasi a fascinating but exhausting place and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. When writing this I decided I did not want to gloss over the gritty parts, this is not Disneyland... it's humanity in your face!



 


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If you're thinking of planning a trip to India check out my blog post on everything you need to know before you go.


Happy Travels

xx



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I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. That being said, I only link to products I use and love.

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