With our roots stretching over 5 generations in Varanasi, you know you’re in good hands when it comes to recommendations about the city. This is our offbeat Varanasi Travel Guide.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on one thing – you’re gonna want to plan at least 3 nights in Varanasi. In all likelihood you’re gonna love the place. However, in case your honeymoon with the city is over within a night, you can always take a retreat into Sarnath or travel impromptu to Bodh Gaya. More on that later.
Offbeat Guide to Visiting Varanasi
Here is our handpicked guide to Varanasi:
1. River Ganga
Undoubtedly, River Ganga is the number one thing to do in Varanasi. Without the river, this city would lose its eminence. Ganga unfortunately is a very polluted river today, but being by and on it still would enthrall you. In the crazy and hectic city that Varanasi is, a stroll by the river or a boat ride on it would offer you calmness that touches souls. Not to mention the numerous encounters that you will have while walking along the ghats… something unique to this city.
- Did we mention boat ride? Well, yes. The two best times of the day to do a boat ride are Sunrise and Sunset. If possible, you should do both. There would be a different overall feel to a boat ride in different times of the day. Our favourite is actually a tie between Sunrise and Sunset. Don’t forget to ask your boatman to take you to the other side of the river so you can have an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the whole ancient city. Don’t do this at Sunrise though or you’re going to miss out on it.
- Evening Ganga Aarti – Yes, while you are at the river, make sure to witness this daily event. If you are not at the river, make sure to be there on at least one of the evenings. The main Aarti event takes place on Dr. Rajendra Prasad Ghat, just north of Dashashwamedh Ghat (or the main ghat) everyday. A smaller version of the Aarti takes place on Assi Ghat.
2. The Old City – Kashi
Much of Varanasi today is all new development. The ancient city of Kashi – reason why Varanasi is famous – is all situated near the river. An interesting fact that most people do not know is that Kashi, or Varanasi, is all based on the west side of the river. East of the river is all empty land. So far it is at least (rumor is around that they want to build a luxury resort on the other side…bleh!). Our advice to people normally is – “Go lose yourself in the old city. Saunter through the narrow alleys. Just wander around.” For most people this is the favourite part of being in Varanasi. You will experience what you have never experienced before.
3. Buddhist Pilgrimage Site – Sarnath
Okay this one is a must see place in Varanasi that many people do not even know about when they plan their visit. It unfortunately stays out of most itineraries. Sarnath is a Buddhist pilgrimage spot about 15 km north of Varanasi. This is where Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples. Beside innumerable Buddhist temples and monuments, there is an archaeological site of ancient India’s biggest empire ever – The Mauryan Empire – and a museum for the ones interested. The national emblem of India has been derived from the Lion Capital of Ashoka preserved in this surprisingly well maintained museum.
They say that there have been three great warriors in this world – Alexander the Great, Akbar the Great and Ashoka the Great. Ashoka Maurya that is.
Trivia: Have a look at one of Indian currency bills. See the Asiatic lions? That’s the Emblem of India.
4. The Ancient and Contemporary Hindu Temples
There are quite a few temples in Varanasi…like thousands of them – big and small. At International Travellers’ Hostel “Which one would be a nice temple to visit?” is one of the most common questions. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple (famously: Golden Temple) is certainly the most meaningful temple for Hindus. It’s devoted to Shiv, had made its way in most of the guidebooks, but is not our top recommendation.
We have something else in mind for you. Check out: Kaal Bhairav Temple and Mrityunjay Mahadev Temple. Mahadev being another term for Shiv, this temple is also devoted to him. Kaal Bhairav, on the other hand, is believed to be a creation of Shiv. Apart from Shiv-dedicated temples, one of our favourites is the Sankat Mochan Temple that is dedicated to the monkey god – Hanuman. Another nice temple nearby is Durga Temple (commonly known as the Monkey Temple) devoted to goddess Durga.
If you must see something unique, then Bharat Mata Temple is the place to go. This is a temple dedicated to ‘Mother India’. Here you will witness the technological marvel of Indians who built a hand-carved to-scale map of India on marble bricks laid together.
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5. Ramnagar Fort & Lassi
Situated on the east bank of river Ganga, a boat ride away to the South-East from Assi Ghat, lies the Ramnagar Fort. Belonging to the now-abandoned royal title of Maharaja of Varanasi, the fort was built in 1750. This sandstone structure depicts Mughal style architecture, although at present in deplorable shape. A visit is still recommended to check out its unusual and rare collection of vintage cars, medieval costumes, gold & silver brocaded palanquins, armoury with swords & guns, and silk costumes from the finest weavers of Varanasi to name a few of its attractions.
And when you’re done with the fort, times call for enjoying what is the best authentic Lassi in town – just next door to the fort. Believe it or not, contrasting the typical touristic behaviour, locals from Varanasi are known to cross the river over to Ramnagar merely to have a sip at this popular lassi joint.
6. Lal Khan’s Tomb
Hindi/Urdu: Lal Khan ka Rauza. Built in 1773, ruins of the tomb of Lal Khan houses 11 graves of a single family. A little out of the main tourist areas, this is a good spot to catch a breath and enjoy the beautiful ancient Mughal architecture.
7. India’s Best Street Food
Varanasi is a street food haven. However, hygiene is often a factor to be considerate about when trying street food in Varanasi (or anywhere in India for that matter). It is nevertheless generally safe to eat in the streets here. What you should really be careful about is drinking water – it is the number one reason behind sickness while traveling through India. Water in Varanasi is especially bad, requiring extra care to be taken on your part. There are a couple of street foods that we want to put special emphasis on here – Gol Gappa and Aaloo Tikki. Why? Because these are inventions of Varanasi! What better place to try a food item than in the place of its origin? Our favourite spot is called Dina Chaat Bhandaar. It is situated on Luxa Road. Second to it is just around the corner from International Travellers’ Hostel. Never noticed the name of this one to be honest! It is a family-run business that has been catering to our family since generations ago.
8. Pizzeria, Vaatika Café
Testified by a multitude of people that we know: Pizzeria, Vaatika Café at Assi Ghat – great pizzas, amazing apple pie! This is a great spot to have thin crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. Guess what else? Their apple pie (yummmmm!) is probably the best apple pie in India. Pizzeria, Vaatika Café is a terrace restaurant overlooking Assi Ghat offering a splendid view of the river – a definite delight to behold as your taste buds indulge in great tasting food.
9. Flavours Café
Need a good & relaxing westernized away-from-the-India-chaos coffee break? Look no further. Flavours Café is the way to go. Owned and run by a South African couple of Indian origin, Flavours Café has been testified by Colombian friends to have amazing coffee. We would surely second that opinion. There is also a range of delicious bakery products to enjoy. Muffins…anyone? This is our favourite spot in the city that we go to when we want to chill out in a friendly environment!
10. Mangi Ferra – the Bar!
Care to chill your tired butts off in an unexpected environment for India’s holiest city? Situated in Hotel Surya is Mangi Ferra – a completely westernized lounge with a bar serving a wide range of alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) beverages; and Indian, western and middle eastern foods. They usually play nice western music to create that chill ambience. There is also a projector installed for sports buffs. But of course our keen interest being the chilled beer (bottle only though) that they serve.
11. Banaras Hindu University (BHU)
From what we’ve have heard, BHU is Asia’s largest University. Recently designated as an IIT certified uni, BHU is virtually worshipped in Varanasi. If you have the time, it is worth checking out its huge, green and peaceful campus. The uni also has a nice park to relax. If lucky, you might as well encounter peacocks – India’s national bird!
12. The In-house Bistro at ITH (Promo)
International Travellers’ Hostel’s in-house bistro offers a delicious vegetarian & vegan menu. Ranging from freshly brewed traditional Indian Masala Chai to authentically percolated Italian Coffee; from Dal-Bhaat (Lentil Curry-Rice) to thin crust Pizza – our menu has been thoughtfully curated to gratify your taste buds!
We offer plenty of cozy indoor & outdoor seating, including a beautiful green garden and a terrace.
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