Varanasi may be steeped in religion, but there is so much more that meets the eye. When you leave the ghats behind and traverse through the narrow by-lanes of the compact city, you delve deeper into a new world and find there numerous things to do in Varanasi. The world where time stands stills. Where life slows down and offers you the chance to experience each nuance.
Most visitors agree Varanasi is magical. However, it isn’t for the faint-hearted. Intimate rituals of life and death take place in public. The sights and sounds of the ghat will invigorate you. Walking the alleyways or watching the sunrise from a boat can be unforgettable experiences.
Offbeat and Touristy Things to do in Varanasi
In order to truly appreciate a place, you need to understand its culture, its intricacies, and its soul. To get a true feel of Varanasi, here are some of the things you should indulge in:
1. Take A Boat Ride
You reach the holy city, take a boat ride. There’s nothing more rejuvenating at the crack of dawn. You will have to negotiate the price a little bit because boats are in high demand, and quite a few tourists spoil the rates for the others.
Start upriver; this means you walk upstream as far as the University complex and negotiate a boat ride from there. If you happen to spot a dead body floating by, do not be alarmed. This is one of the regular sites in the city, and one of the best things to do in Varanasi.
2. A Stroll to Remember – Malviya Bridge
After you’ve admired the Varanasi skyline from a boat, get near to where all the action is. Take a stroll along the Ganges downstream all the way to Malviya Bridge.
The double-decker bridge has a rail track running through it on the lower deck, and a road on the upper deck. You will get a glimpse of the people living underneath the bridge and its corners. Malviya Bridge is the “end” of the inner holy area of Varanasi.
This means if one dies in this inner circle, eternity is only a stone throw away. This is probably one of the reasons why a number of “homeless” people call this bridge their home.
3. A Ghat Affair- Dashashwamedh
All roads lead to the ghats in this holy city. The banks of the Ganges River are peppered with ghats where people walk, congregate, and worship. Each ghat has a name painted on the side of a wall somewhere along the steps. This is your landmark, and among the best things to do in Varanasi.
The Main Ghat (Dashashwamedh Ghat) is a favourite among tourists. But, the most interesting and picturesque ghat in Varanasi is the Kedar Ghat, about a 15-minute stroll from the Main Ghat. Asi Ghat is around 30 – 45 minutes away from the Main Ghat by foot, and it’s a little lesser developed and quite laid back.
Every Ghat has a unique purpose. Some ghats are “reserved” for washing clothes. Assi Ghat is a prominent bathing Ghat, while others are dedicated to worshipping, and some for cremation, like the Manikarnika Ghat, downstream from Dasaswameth (main) Ghat. Taking a bath near Tulsi Ghat is believed to get rid of leprosy. There isn’t only much to see, but a lot to learn about each ghat you visit along the sacred Ganges.
4. View from the Top
The city is dotted with hotels with their own rooftop terraces – either with a restaurant, or a private balcony adjoining the room. A lunch at one of these places is a must, especially of the view they offer of Varanasi from above.
You can work your way towards the Alka Hotel, Ganpati Guest House and Temple Hotel, especially for stunning views of the (burning) ghats. Again, you will probably catch sight of a floating body in the river, which is about as normal as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
5. Explore The Winding Alleys
Varanasi is riddled with alleyways, called galis, and most often they are confusing. Don’t let that get to you because getting lost here is part of the experience. Walk around and you’ll see a number of treasures hidden among these paths, including guest houses, street stalls, tiny shrines, brightly painted homes, vivid graffiti, and all sorts of stores. You’ll also most probably meet a few cows as you try to find your way through after all this is the holiest city in India.
Keep in mind that if you’re walking down lanes heading to the Manikarnika Ghat, you might run into a few funerary processions making their way down to the cremation grounds.
6. Get a Haircut!
Most hairdressers you pass along the streets are barbers for men only. Lady hairdressers are usually hidden behind curtains or closed doors. If you’re looking for things to do in Varanasi, a snip and cut could be it. A local barber will also extend the offer of a wash and blow dry. Getting a haircut is quite relaxing after a hectic day of touring Varanasi.
7. As Night Falls…
Visit the Main Ghat to witness a puja ceremony. The rituals begin around 6 pm and attract a large crowd of tourists every evening. Most people usually stand at the ghat steps, but others hop into boats to see the ceremony from the water.
The rituals include the burning incense, fire, motions, bell ringing, and loud music in the background. It definitely is intoxicating, but calming at the same time. A night puja experience is among the top things to do in Varanasi.
8. Attend The Night Aarti
Ever wondered how Varanasi got the name the ‘City of Lights’? Attend the Night Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghats and you’ll see exactly why. This ceremony is one you need to see to believe! It can be a little intense with the atmosphere is filled with chanting, the sounds of cymbals, prayers, the sound of drums, and incense. Every little ritual performed here is sure to fill you with a sense of wonder as priests lift up bright brass lamps, each one weighing about 4.5 kgs.
The aarti normally begins at 6:45 p.m. and go on for about 45 minutes. The ghats are crowded with tourists and pilgrims at this time, so you can watch the ceremony from a boat if you wish to escape the crowds.
9. Meet An Aghori
One of the strangest kinds of people you might encounter is an Aghori. The Aghori are sadhus devoted to Shaivism and engage in post-mortem rituals at cremation sites. Of course, meeting an Aghori is not an activity we would suggest for the faint of heart. Their rituals might be alarming to a few individuals, but if you are eager to meet one, you can visit the Aghor Ashram at Baba Kenaram Marg. It’s also best to get the consultation of a local guide before you go out venturing for them.
10. Take A Bath In The River Ganges
As many of you already know, the River Ganges is the holiest river in India and taking a dip in its sacred waters are said to cleanse devotees of their sins. Varanasi has over 84 ghats and every morning, you will see pilgrims and sadhus take a dip in the holy river. If you’re feeling up to it, you to can take a walk down to one of the ghats for a cleansing bath.
11. Go Temple Hopping
Varanasi has a mind-bogglingly large number of temples scattered around the city— 23,000 is a rough approximation. There are temples as large and as loud as life on the ghats and smaller ones hidden away among the many winding paths of the city. Given that there are so many and the city is so sacred, one of the best things to do is to visit as many of these temples as you can. A few of the most spectacular ones to meet are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Kathwala Temple, Tulsi Manas Temple, Durga Temple, and Bharat Mata Temple.
12. Watch the Sunset At The Ganges
There’s nothing more spectacular than watching the sun sink into the mighty River Ganges at dusk. We suggest you get on a boat to witness this spectacle, as the ghats can get crowded. It really is an experience to cherish witnessing the ghats being bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. After the sun has set, you can make your way to Dashashwamedh Ghats for the spectacular Night Aarti.
13. Visit The Weaver’s Village
Apart from its spiritual fame, Varanasi is also known for its beautiful Benares Silk and the weavers of these masterpieces are internationally renowned for their work. If you’re looking to learn how these beautiful clothes are made, visit the Sarai Mohana Village that is home to these weavers. Here you can meet a few of the weavers and learn what they do to make Banarasi Sarees so fine.
The weavers here work very hard to make sure that every piece made is unique. Many of the sarees are worked for a period of around 15 days to a month. Some more complex pieces take about 6 months to complete.
14. Learn Varanasi’s History at Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum
Located quite close to the Vishwanath Temple is the Benaras Hindu University that is home to the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum. This museum is renowned for its archives and houses incredible archaeological treasures, including sculptures, woollen textiles, coins, pottery, literature, and clothing. Its Indian paintings exhibit is one of the most spectacular with many pieces from the 11th Century to the 20th Century on display. There are also a number of intricate miniature models to see here.
15. Shop For Banarasi Silk Saris
No trip to Varanasi is complete without a trip to the city’s vibrant markets to pick up Banarasi Sarees. These silk masterpieces are a coveted piece of clothing, especially among brides. Head to markets like Vishwanath Lane, Godowlia Bazaar, Thatheri Bazaar, and New Market to pick up some of these pretty pieces. A decent Banarasi Saree is priced at around Rs. 500 onwards. There are some spectacular pieces that are easily sold for lakhs of rupees.
You can also pick up jewellery, small wooden toys, carpets, idols of Hindu deities, bangles, and shawls from these lively markets.
16. Relish Street Food
The street food in Varanasi is beautifully influenced by the culture and traditions of its people. You will find delicious food from Marwari stalls, standing right beside stalls from Bihar, Gujarat, and West Bengal. A few of the best snacks to try in Varanasi are the hot and crispy samosas and kachoris, Chena Dahi Vada, Choora Matar, Laaiya Chana, Baati Chokha, and Tamatar Chaat.
A few of the best places to pick up these delicacies are Baati Chowka, Vishwanath Gali, Deena Chaat Bhandar, Kachori Gali, and Deepak Tambul Bhandar. Also, make sure you try out Varanasi’s famous paan and lassi.
17. Watch A Ramleela Performance
18. Have A Pastry At Brown Bread Bakery
19. Feed Monkeys At The Durga Temple
20. Explore The Ramnagar Fort
21. Take A Tour Of Sarnath
22. Start Your Day Off With Yoga
23. Get Your Fortune Told
24. Take A Course On Carnatic Music
25. Visit The Cremation Ghats
26. Have A Bhang Lassi
27. Get A Drink At Princep Bar
28. Take A Rural Tour Of Varanasi
29. Celebrate Maha Shivratri
30. Take A Safari In The Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary
While Varanasi might not offer nightclubs and fancy diners, it offers an experience to tap into the human soul. Sometimes, it is important to find yourself in the midst of the madness. That’s where you find Varanasi.