In India whenever anyone mentions traveling to Varanasi, it is considered they are going for the religious purpose. Varanasi is one of the holiest and oldest cities in the world. Ghats on Ganga river are the lifeline of Varanasi and most of the activities revolves around them. Ganga river and Kashi Vishwanath temple are two major reasons for Indians to travel to Varanasi. Whereas foreign tourists travel to Varanasi for spiritual reasons and mystic involved around it.
I remember when I was young, we thought that only older people visit Varanasi. It is not a popular destination among children of any age in India, they don’t like the idea of spending holidays in Varanasi. For them, places like Goa, Jaisalmer, Kerala backwaters and hill towns of India are good holiday destinations.
It was the same for me when I was a kid but after growing up and understanding life my point of view changed. Moreover, now I am attracted to places with history and stories. I love to visit the places for their unique character. That’s why I visited Varanasi twice in the last 5 years.
During my Varanasi trips, I was happy and surprised to notice that many foreign travelers visiting India make it a point to spend a few days in Varanasi. The narrow alleyways of the old Varanasi and crowded roads were slightly overwhelming for me even though I have visited old Delhi several times. I can imagine how overwhelming it can be for western travelers.
Varanasi is a city, which is well known for it’s “Ganga Jamuna Thajeeb”, which means a place where Hindus and Muslims live like brothers. I have personally experienced this feeling of brotherhood and respect towards other’s religions.
Traveling to Varanasi is an experience in itself. We need to know a few things in advance to make our Varanasi trip memorable and pleasant. These tips are quite useful for people like me, who are coming from big cities of India and most importantly for foreign travelers.
Safety & Travel tips for Varanasi before you visit the religious capital of India
How to Travel to Varanasi
Travel by Train – Varanasi is very well connected by Indian railways from all major and most of the cities in India. There are two railway stations in Varanasi .i.e. Varanasi Junction railway station (Station code: BSB) and Manduadih Railway Station (Station code: MUV). Mughal Sarai (Station code: MGS) another railway station close to Varanasi. Mugalsarai railway station to Varanasi is 19 Km. The new name of Mugalsarai is Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction.
Read more about Train travel in India and safety tips
Travel by Air – Varanasi airport is 26 Km from the city. There are several flights to Varanasi from all major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Agra, Jaipur, and few other Indian cities. There are direct flights for Varanasi airport from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Kathmandu, and Sharjah.
Travel by Bus – Varanasi is well connected with regular and sleeper buses with cities like Delhi, Kolkata, and all other cities in Uttar Pradesh. These buses have bunk beds to sleep. Bus travel is tiring even in sleeper buses. These buses are a decent solution in case you don’t get train tickets. To book bus tickets check on Redbus, Make My Trip and Goibino’s website.
Read more about Planning a trip to India and how to travel in India
Come with an open mind
Yes, this is one of the most important things to make your experience good or bad. Before traveling to Varanasi you may read about touts, scams, crowded roads or messy traffic, narrow alleys, dirt on side of roads or garbage at every other corner but seeing these in real is a totally different experience. Expect the unexpected in Varanasi, keep your mind open and adjust according to the situation. Remember that Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, which survived the test of time.
It should not be your first destination in India
If you are a foreign traveler and visiting India for the first time please don’t make Varanasi your first destination in India. Visit places like Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Agra, Hampi, Kerala, Goa and Delhi before you travel to Varanasi. These cities will give you the feel of India and help you acclimatize with Indian culture.
This is another important thing to avoid unnecessary attention. Varanasi is one of the holiest city for most Indians. Many senior citizens and people from small towns & vilages visit it for the religious purpose. It is better to dress conservatively. It is advisable to show respect and wear clothes which will cover the calf and shoulders.
Though there are no guidelines for what to wear when visiting temples as it is in Bangkok or Cambodia. Also, keep a stole handy in case you need to cover up while visiting a place.
Also read What to wear in India
It is safe for solo travelers
It is ok to travel solo to Varanasi, I am saying this based on my personal experience. When I visited the first time, I traveled solo from Delhi to Varanasi by train. During my stay and traveling in Varanasi, I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
I took some basic precautions and that’s what I advise every solo female traveler. Do not go with strangers to see an ashram or visit an ascetic or any such place. Don’t go alone in unknown areas after dark, walking on busy roads is ok if you know your way back to the hotel or hostel.
Varanasi’s alleyways are small and more are like a labyrinth. Don’t try to negotiate your way through these after dark.
Take a tour guide
If you are not sure about visiting some places on your own then take a guide. It is better to take the guide from your hostel or hotel and negotiate the price beforehand. If you are staying with a hostel then check with them if they run guided tours. Most hostels have guided tours at a nominal price. I stayed in Stop hostel and took a couple of tours with them to familiarize myself with Varanasi.
Ask before taking a picture and be culturally sensitive
The ghats of Ganga in Varanasi are one of the best places for some vibrant photography. You will come across people performing various rituals on the ghats, ask them before taking pictures. People come to Varanasi for different reasons, some people come to celebrate and some in the hour of mourning. Some people get their kids head shaved for the first time on ghats of Ganga. Ask them before taking pictures of kids.
Don’t interrupt anyone when they are performing Pooja or ritual, ask them when they stop in between.
Take a walk on Ghats on Ganga
There are 88 ghats on the bank of Ganga river in Varanasi. These ghats are connected with each other. You can take a walk from one ghat to another and see things closely.
When you don’t want to walk then take a boat tour in Ganga. There are shared boats, which cost 30-40 INR for a trip parallel to the ghats. Watching from distance is also interesting and gives a different perspective.
Read more about Ghats of Varanasi and their stories
Take a boat ride in Ganga
Taking boat rides in Ganga was one of my most favored things in Varanasi. My advice is to definitely take sunrise boat ride and an evening boat ride to see the aarti at Dashamedh ghat from shore.
I also took a boat ride during the day just to see the activities on Ghat from a different angle.
Don’t take a dip in Ganga
I enjoyed my dips in the Ganga river at Rishikesh and Haridwar. It felt so good and refreshing. But I didn’t have the courage to take a dip in Ganga at Varanasi after seeing the pollution in water. I saw several people taking a dip in Ganga but I honestly advise against it. If you don’t have strong religious reasons to do so, don’t take a dip in Ganga river at Varanasi.
Eat food with caution
Food is an important part of Varanasi’s culture. Don’t try too many street food dishes in one go. Take it easy and go to the places where you see crowds. If you are eating street food and sensitive to chilly then mention “No Spice & Chilly” when ordering food.
Eat cooked and hot food, instead of raw or cold items. Freshly fried items may be unhealthy due to high oil content but an otherwise safe bet.
Also read about Complete guide for vegetarian food of North India
Be careful with Bhang
You will come across many “Bhang Lassi” shops in Varanasi. Bhang is a form of eatable Cannabis and it is legal. Bhang has no side effects like alcohol but it has a different long-lasting effect on the body.
Some people act very weirdly after taking bhang. Many people do repetitive actions and some people forget things.
If you are trying Bhang for the first time then be careful and don’t try it alone, make sure you are in safe company. Try the minimum amount of it and see how it impacts your body. Bhang affects very differently to different people.
Walk, Walk and Walk
I personally think that most of the places in Varanasi can be visited by walking. Be prepared to walk and wear comfortable shoes.
Take a cab if you are going some distance
The app-based taxi service “Ola” is now available in Varanasi. They may take few extra minutes to arrive but they are the best bet to travel around in Varanasi’s humid weather.
Read more about A day trip to Sarnath from Varanasi
Bargain with Cycle rickshaw
Some of the cycle rickshaws charge double or triple when they see a tourist. I personally faced this when traveled to a Ghat from my hostel. The cycle rickshaw guy charged me 40 INR for short trip. Next day when I went with my boat guide he took only 20 INR for the same place for 2 people. Check the distance and ask your hotel or hostel for approximate cost. It helps you to calculate the cost.
Watch for bull and bull shit
Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva and Bull is his favorite animal. You will come across bulls and cows on the streets. You may see some cow dung on road or alleyways. Be careful and watch your steps while walking.
Don’t try to punch or disturb a cow or bull, it may land you in trouble.
Keep your belongings safely
In general, it is safe in Varanasi but if you are going to crowded places then keep your bag in front. Pickpockets are in every part of the world.
Festivals to celebrate in Varanasi
There is some festival best celebrated in Varanasi and some festivals you should avoid celebrating there. If you are planning to visit Varanasi in the month of November then must attend the Dev Diwali festival. It falls on the full moon night of Karthik month of Hindu calendar.
In case you are planning to celebrate Holi in Varanasi then look for other destinations for it. I had come across some unpleasant stories from female travelers. They have described the incidents of teasing. These women suggested that don’t visit Varanasi for Holi celebration.
Read more about Know all about Holi – Where to celebrate and safety tips
Visiting Manikarnika Ghat
This ghat is also known as “Burning Ghat”. According to Hindu mythology if a person’s last rites are performed on Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi then he/she will attain “Moksha”. It means that the person will be free from the cycle of birth and death.
It is one of the most popular ghats among tourists visiting from different parts of India and from outside India. There is so much mystery and curiosity around Manikarnika Ghat.
You can go on Manikarnika ghat and see the rituals closely but in this case, don’t click pictures of people or dead bodies. People who come here are in mourning and clicking pictures like this is an invasion in their private moments.
If you don’t want to go on Ghat than you can see the rituals from the boat. Most of the boats stop near Manikarnika Ghat. If you are with a guide then he will tell you the story behind the ghat. From distance, you can take pictures.
Take bath after Ghat trip
After visiting Manikarnika ghat wash yourself properly and wash the clothes you wore during your visit. There is another cremation ghat named “Harishchandra ghat”, some people perform last rites here. There is an electrical crematorium on this Ghat. So also wash after visiting this ghat.
Infect it is advisable to wash properly after visiting ghats.
Beware of Duplicate cafes
Before traveling to a new city most of us check for popular restaurants and cafes. There are some popular places in Varanasi, which are good and recommended. But most of these reviews don’t mention that there are more than one restaurants or cafes with the same name.
For example, I read many good reviews of Brown Bread Bakery and I wanted to have a meal there. When I went there, I found 3 bakeries in half a km radius with the same name. Thankfully my hostel had a counter of Brown bread bakery so I knew which one is original.
So, check and research carefully if you wanted to visit a particular eating joint.
Not the city for the party
Varanasi is not a city for party and nightlife. Don’t look for party places or pubs in the city, there are practically none. If someone says he can take you to one then you might be getting scammed. Varanasi is a place for many other interesting experiences and if you want to party then head to Goa.
Don’t get scammed
The thugs of Varanasi (Banarasi Thugs) hold a reputation across India. There are some common scams which you should look out.
** If you are traveling by air and take a prepaid taxi from the airport then handover the voucher to the driver after reaching your hotel/hostel.
* Don’t trust the driver if he says that your hotel is shut due to some accident or any other reason.
* The regular boat rides cost around 50 INR maximum. But if you do it with your hotel or hostel and they are providing a guide with a boat ride then it may cost you more. Which can be 100 to 150 INR. In this case, the guide is supposed to take you from your hotel and drop back. If you want to do it on your own then negotiate. A shared boat ride won’t cost more than 30 to 40 INR.
* When you visit Manikarnika or other cremation ghats, touts may contact you and request you to pay for the wood for cremation of poor people. Don’t trust them because it is one of the most common scams in Varanasi.
Varanasi is the city of mystics and enlightenment. It is one of its own kind with some incredible experience but you need to know some of the above things to make your experience pleasant. These tips are based on my personal experience and also with the help of people who traveled to Varanasi.