Exploring the Crazy City of Varanasi
You’re obviously visiting Varanasi to experience the infamous burning Ghats, however there’s so much more for you to explore in this crazy city! We didn’t do much research on Varanasi apart from reading about the Ghats, and exploring the town can be pretty overwhelming if you don’t know where you’re going. We took a day tour with our hostel, however these aren’t always on offer. Private tours can turn out to be pretty pricey too, so this post will plan out a jam-packed day exploring Varanasi, including some popular Indian snacks to fuel your day!
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Walking Tour of the Ganges
First stop on our tour was to see the Ganges for the first time. We were very apprehensive, but the day walking tour was nowhere near as shocking as we thought it would be! We didn’t visit the cremation ghats, and instead walked along the Ganges learning about the history and other ghats. This really helped to ease us into this culturally shocking city. We were taken along the waterfront where our guide explained what each section of the Ganges represents/ is used for. Some sections are for washing/ bathing, some for public ceremonies and others for cremations.
Exploring the Crazy Streets
We headed through the traffic filled streets to the bustling market alleys. They’re filled with stacks upon stacks of bangles and necklaces, trinkets and spices. We stopped at a spice stand to sample all the savoury and sweet spices the keeper had to offer.
These streets are also the location of the most famous temple in Varanasi the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Hindus queue (the only orderly queue we saw in India) for miles to enter the holiest of Shiva Temples. It’s one of the many methods believed to lead one on a path to Moksha (liberation). We decided to view from the outside as the end of the queue was about an hours wait. Hindus from all over the world try to visit the temple at least once in their lifetime. We didn’t want to join the queue and slow things for a devout Hindu. This is a once in a lifetime visit for many people and it isn’t our religion.
A short walk out of the market you’ll find the chaotic flower market. STAND YOUR GROUND! We visited on the morning of Dep Diwali so it was even more chaotic! Packed with last minute shoppers getting final decorations for the evenings celebrations.
TIP: Pushing and shoving is inevitable here! As you head into the main square there’s some stairs to the left. Head up to the roof to watch the chaos and aggressive haggling from above and out of the way!
Sample Some Amazing Snacks
We then took a trip to Kashi Chat Bhandar for some tasty treats. Chat is kind of like Indian tapas, you order several small bowls and share as a group. Each dish costs Rs.25-35 (30-40p).
Night Tour of the Ghats
We headed back to the hostel for some chai & rest before heading out for a night tour of the Ghats. Another guy from the hostel took us down to the boats. As we were with a local it was a reasonable price for a tour on the water. If you’re looking to just hop in a boat then prepare for some bartering! You should be paying about Rs.200 for a 90-120 minute tour.
We visited the smaller burning Ghat first, the Harish Chandra Ghat, and then floated down to the main cremations site, the Manikarnika Ghat. It was strange pulling right up to the cremation site to watch the evening cremations but this is apparently ‘normal’, although it felt far from it! Some larger tour boats pulled up with some older tourists on who were trying to take close up photographs which is SUPER disrespectful, and they were swiftly told to stop. You can take discrete pictures from a far where you can’t see the cremations, or the families properly. Check out our guide on some dos, donts and general things to prepare yourself for.
We then pulled up to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main Ghat of Varanasi. The mesmerising Ganga Aarti that takes place is something you cannot miss! It is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. The Aarti is carried out by facing the river & circulating lit lamps and is performed by Pandits (Hindu priests) to songs of praise. Watching on the river was a great experience, and much quieter than the crowds on the bank. That said, you have to view it both ways! TONS of boats will pull up, and the likelihood of being in the front is quite slim, you need to see it close up as well to truly feel this magical experience!
You can set offerings adrift on the sacred waters of the Ganges. These small votives comprised of cups made of leaves, marigold flower petals and a lit candle are placed by many at sundown. Children climb the boats selling candles, and while its advised not to buy things from these kids as you don’t know where the money is going, our guide purchased a few for us (obviously may not make it right, but if a local is doing it, it’s a bit more reassuring that it’s ok…). Placing our candles to float away on the ganges was quite emotional, and also very beautiful. We truly felt a part of this ceremony, and it’s something you shouldn’t miss on your trip! Ceremonies are held between 5am & 6:50am and 5:30pm & 7pm.
Dep Diwali Celebrations
We then headed back to the hostel for a party as we were lucky enough to be visiting on Diwali! The hostel put on a fantastic celebration on the roof. We lit candles, set off fireworks, flew lanterns, played music and ate amazing Indian sweets! The view from the roof was INSANE, with the sky full of lanterns and fireworks. Dep Diwali is the smaller celebration (27th October), although still a fantastic vibe. Dev Diwali, around the 12th November, is the biggest celebration in Varanasi. If you can organise your trip to be there for Dev Diwali you’ll experience something even more spectacular! Dep Diwali celebrations are everywhere in India and probably even bigger in the likes of Delhi/ Mumbai!
We hope this helps you plan your day if you aren’t taking an organised tour, and gives you an insight on what you can expect from this amazing city! This is a trip of a lifetime, and an experience you’ll probably never have again. Make the most of it! There’s only so much preparation you can do for a place like this and we hope this helps calm some apprehensions, or inspires you to take a trip. Check out our post on Preparing for Varanasi for some more on what you can expect!