Varanasi was previously known as Banaras and Kashi, locals still call it Banaras. Varanasi is famous for its Ghats on Ganga river, temples, silk Sarees, and its food. Banaras is one of the oldest holiest cities in the world. The legends of Varanasi goes back to around 10,000 years, Kashi is mentioned in old scriptures like the Purana and the Vedas. It is a city of legends and myths, which may sound obscure to some and is impossible to prove. There are several points of interest in Varanasi sightseeing for a first-timer. The photos of Varanasi and it’s ghats also increase the mystic around it.
There are several things to see in Varanasi for anyone traveling for the first time. After seeing places, it’s more about the experience and feel of Varanasi.
Must visit tourist places in Varanasi for sightseeing
Take a walk on Ghats of Ganga
This is definitely the first thing I suggest anyone should do if traveling for first-time to Varanasi. On the ghats of the Ganga river, you will see the essence of Varanasi. There is something happening on ghats, where ever or whichever ghat you go to. All 88 Ghats in Varanasi are of different in design but they are connected with each other. You can start from Assi Ghat and walk till Raj Ghat.
Take a walk on ghats and you will know which one is your favorite ghat. Then sit and spend some time on that ghat to see activities. There is no dull moment when you are on ghats.
Read more about Ghats of Varanasi
Sunrise Aarti on Assi Ghat
It is a really early morning event, which starts around 05.00 AM every morning. This routine of aarti with the chanting of shaloks, recitals of Raags, religious songs in chorus and instrumental renditions of Raags is known as “Subah-e-Banaras”. This function ends before the sunrise and afterward, people do yoga on Ghat.
Take a sunrise boat ride
After attending the sunrise aarti at Assi Ghat, go for a sunrise boat ride in Ganga. It is cool in the morning and during my trip, I saw the sun rising from across the Ghats on Ganga river. As sunrises, you will see several boats come into the river but still, it is not crowded like the late afternoon boat ride. It was a surreal experience to go for the morning boat ride and see the Ghats of Ganga in Varanasi come alive.
Evening Ganga Aarti on Dasaswamedh Ghat
This is one of the most popular things to do in Varanasi. Every guide book and blog advise attending the evening aarti when in Varanasi. This 45-minute ritual starts after sunset. In summers it starts at 07.00 PM and in winters aarti time is 06.00 PM.
You can see the evening Ganga aarti from the ghat as well as from the boat in Ganga river. It is fantastic to see the rituals from both places and both places give a different experience.
The “Pujaris” stand in a row on the designated place and offer prayers to Ganga in different ways. There is a fixed format of rituals performed with the chanting of mantra and music.
Also read about Two cities on banks of Ganga – Haridwar and Rishikesh
Visit BHU (Banaras Hindu University)
This one of the oldest universities in India and it was established in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malviya. The buildings inside the BHU campus are unique with beautiful architecture. There is a museum called the Bharat Kala Bhavan inside the campus.
The Vishwanath temple/Birla Mandir inside the campus is beautiful. The evening aarti done here is interesting to watch. This may not be in Varanasi sightseeing recommendations but it’s a good place to visit.
Visit Ramnagar Fort
This fort was built in 1750 by then Kashi King Balwant Singh. The fort was made in Mughal style architecture with off-white color sandstone. The fort is made on elevated land that’s why it is safe from the flood water of the Ganga river in monsoons.
There are a temple, museum, and residence of King inside the fort complex. Ramnagar fort has many carved balconies, open courtyards, and pavilions. It is a small fort in comparison to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer forts.
There is a covered passage, which opens in the open courtyard facing the Ganga river behind the fort. I visited Ramnagar fort during my visit on Dev Diwali. From this open courtyard, I saw the people praying and taking a dip in the river. The sea of multicolor cloths was a spectacular sight.
Ramnagar Fort is 14 Km from Varanasi city across the Ganga river’s ghats. It can be reached by road through the Pontoon bridge. This bridge closes in monsoon when water level increases then you have to go through other permanent bridges and the travel time increases.
I went by boat because the Pontoon bridge was crowded due to the festival rush. It took me 40 minutes as I went by hand rowed boat, it was a fun trip by small boat.
Visit markets in Varanasi
There are some interesting markets in Varanasi for a traveler from a big city. Chowk & Vishwanath Gali and the Gadolia market are two important markets in Varanasi for shopping. Here you will get beautiful Banarasi sarees and other ethnic items like Bengals etc.
But if you are interested to see the unique character of Varanasi then Pan (Betel leaf) market, Flower market, and Bartan (Utensils) markets are the places to visit. Morning is the best time to visit Pan market and Flower market.
In Pan market, you will see baskets full of Betel leaves, heaps of Betel nuts and other items used for famous “Banarasi Paan”. In the flower market, they sell flowers, as well as leaves (Bel leaf used for offering to Lord Shiva), are sold in big quantities.
Bartan market has its own unique character and I saw lots of utensils of various sizes on display.
Visit these markets to see and experience the real Varanasi.
Pray at temples
Varanasi is also known as the city of temples. There are approximately 1000 big and small temples in Varanasi. Many of these temples allow foreigner also unlike other temples in India.
The most important temple of Varanasi is Kashi Vishwanath temple, which is one of 12 Jyotirling dedicated to Lord Shiva. Other important temples are Kaal Bairav Mandir, Sankat Mochan Hanuman Mandir, Mrityunjay Mahadev Mandir of Lord Shiva, Tilbhandeshwar Mahadev, Nepali Mandir/Kathwala Mandir which is replica of Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu, Durgakund Mandir and Vishwanath Mandir/Birla temple.
Also read about another jyoterling of Lord Shiva – Somnath Temple
See cremation on Manikarnika Ghat
The mystic of famous Manikarnika ghat or Burning ghat attracts many tourists. There are several stories associated with its name and origin. It’s considered that burning a dead body on this ghat liberate the soul from the circle of life and death.
You can visit Manikarnika ghat from the market side through alleyways. On the ghat, you will see tons and tons of wood piles. On an average 100 bodies are cremated on Manikarnika ghat every day. People come here from outside Varanasi also. The caste system is followed for allotting the area for cremation.
If you don’t want to go up close to the dead bodies or the ashes flying on Ghat disturb you or smell makes you nervous then watch the ritual from the boat. Usually, the boat trip stops near Manikarnika ghat for some time but if you want to see then check with boatman before taking the boat ride.
Visit a Silk Saree weaving unit
The Banarasi sarees are considered a must in Indian weddings. These are in every bride’s wish list, they want at least one Benarasi Saree. A silk saree can take a couple of weeks to 4 months for making. The manufacturing time depends upon the design of Saree. The time period and intricate work increased the cost of saree.
In the last few years, the number of skilled workers decreased due to the increasing cost and low-profit margins.
Now the government has taken some steps and this is helping the weavers. You should visit a weaving unit and see the artists at work. It is a wonderful experience to see them putting the thread skilfully in warp & weft while creating beautiful motifs.
If possible buy a saree or fabric from weavers.
Take a day trip to Sarnath
Varanasi to Sarnath is 14 Km and is a perfect place for a day trip. Sarnath is one of the holiest cities in Buddhism. It is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples under a tree. Sarnath is very peaceful and very different from the chaos of Varanasi.
The most important places to visit in Sarnath are Boddhi tree, Stupa, Ashok Chakkar, Japnese temple, Tibetan temple, Thai temple and statue of Buddha. There is a museum also in Sarnath, where they kept the import relics found in this area.
Best time to visit Varanasi
Winter months from November to March is the best time to visit Varanasi.
April to June gets very hot and the temperature goes to 44-45 degrees Celsius. July to September are monsoon months and during the rainy season, it becomes difficult to walk in the narrow alleyways. Sometimes due to heavy rain Ganga river overflows and it can be an issue.
How to travel in Varanasi
You can best explore Varanasi on foot and on crowded roads it’s much faster than any vehicle.
Cycle rickshaws are the most easily available mode of transport for short distance travel. Auto rickshaws are good for medium distance travel. Negotiate and fix the price in advance before taking a ride.
Ola cab service is also available in Varanasi.
What to eat in Varanasi and Places to eat in Varanasi
The street food of Varanasi is very popular among Indian travelers but it is not for people who are picky or have a weak stomach. There are so many unnamed shops and stalls in Varanasi for food. Here is my list of places to eat and things to eat in Varanasi.
* Ram Bhandar is a sweet shop located in Kachori Gali at Chowk. They are very popular for the breakfast of Kachori with Aloo ki sabzi and Jalebi.
* Dina Chaat Bhandar on Rampura Luxa road and Kashi Chat Bhandar on Godowlia Road are two most popular shops to eat local chat dishes of Varanasi. Tamatar Chaat, Panipuri, Aloo Tikki, Gol Gappe, Gulab Jamun, Palak Chaat, Samosa Chat and kulfi are some of the most popular items in their menu. My personal favorite is Tamatar ki Chaat.
* Brown Bread Bakery on Dashwamedh ghat is one of the most popular cafes for continental and Italian cuisine. They have a wide variety of bread and cheese. It remains open from 07.00 AM till 10.00 PM. They also have Indian food items on the menu. My personal favorite is pizza and pies.
* Vaatika Café on Assi ghat road is another place for pizza, pies, and breakfast. They remain open from morning till night.
* Kerala Cafe in Bhelupur was my favorite for south Indian food. They have many other north Indian food items on the menu. My favorites were their different Dosas.
* Baati Chokha Restaurant at Teliyabag is the best place to try Litti Chowka in Varanasi. Though on the roadside you will see many stalls for Litti Chowka.
* Blue Lassi in Kachaudi for different varieties of fruit lassi.
It is a common perception that non-vegetarian food is not available in Varanasi but surprisingly there are some very interesting places.
The most popular is Kalika Dhaba in Sigra. There are several food stalls in Dalmandi near Nayi Sadak and most of them open in the evening.
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Where to stay in Varanasi
Varanasi caters to people of all budgets. Here are some of my recommendations.
* The most preferred five-star hotel is Taj Ganges in Cantonment area. It is more than 4 Km from Dashwameadh ghat. Infect most of the luxury properties and five-star hotels in the cantonment area.
* If you are looking for the luxury experience and still want to near Ghats then stay in Brijrama Palace near Dashwamedh ghat. It is converted into a hotel from an old palace and is on the banks on the Ganga river.
* If you are on a medium budget then stay in Ganpati Guest House on Meer Ghat. Another advantage is that it is very close to the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Suryauday Haveli – An Amritara Resort is on Shivala Ghat. It is located in the middle of city but little away from Ghat.
* If you are on a budget then Go Stop in Bhelupur is a good choice, I had a very good experience with them. It is not on ghat but nearest ghat is 1 km.
Another option is Zostal near Kashi Vishwanath temple. It is 1.4 km from Kashi Vishwanath temple and 1.5 Km from Dashwamedh ghat.
These two are nice hostel options. Both also have private rooms and a good place for people who need privacy but also want hostel experience. Both conduct many walking tours of the city.
These are some of my favorite places of Varanasi sightseeing, eating and staying in city.