It’s your rite of passage to the quintessential India travel scene! But more than that, it is one of the oldest living cities in the world, which shocks, soothes and shakes the innermost recesses of one’s heart. This must be said right at the onset- you will either abhor or absolutely love Varanasi. That, out of the way, visit Varanasi for its mythological lineage, delicious street food, traditional music, hand woven silk and a strong spiritual connect. The city defines the whimsical religious landscape of the country with its designated status of being the ultimate destination for Hindu’s ‘crossing over’ (more than 300 cremations take place everyday on its stepped banks).
Each traveller can speak of unique experiences here. What we’ve put together is a short practical guide to stay, eat and see. But what’s really going to happen beyond this is in your own hands – with the friends that you make with boatmen, post card sellers, at the local tea stall and in the narrow by lanes that criss cross behind the Ganga River flowing.
We have not chosen the backpacking hangouts for this write up. The streets are dotted with plenty of those with basic facilities.
- Ganpati Guest House (www.ganpatiguesthouse.com)
Our top pick and undoubtedly the most atmospheric guesthouse overlooking the Ganges, Ganpati Guest House hits it just right with comfort and quirkiness in equal measure. Add to that an array of options for room types, and you have an eclectic mix of travellers on the roof top restaurant.
- Suryauday Haveli (www.suryaudayhaveli.com);
This 18th century haveli converted into a luxury boutique hotel makes a wonderful backdrop to the lazy buffaloes wallowing at the banks of Shivala Ghat or kids taking chances to dive into the water from a high spot. The fourteen rooms around a central courtyard are themed around Indian motifs. The hotel is a vast contrast to the bustling streets outside, Suryauday Haveli is for those who want indulgence along with a local experience.
- Jukaso Ganges (www.welcomeheritagehotels.com)
Another luxury stay option along the ghats is Jukaso Ganges, which is styled like an old Haveli. The rooms, though snug, overlook the river and are equipped with all modern facilities. The hotel lies just ahead of Manikarnika Ghat (the main burning ghat) and is in walking distance to all the important temples along the ghats.
- Hotel Ganges View (www.hotelgangesview.co.in)
One of the most tasteful places to stay for travellers in Varanasi, Hotel Ganges View lies at the edge of Assi Ghat and is known for its luxurious rooms, concerts and workshops on music, art and culture for travellers to enjoy.
- Palace On Ganges (www.palaceonganges.com)
The boutique hotel transports you into the various cultural destinations of India with aesthetics borrowed from Kerala, Rajputana, Orissa and others. The characterful rooms are the largest draw of the hotel along with the more peaceful location on Assi Ghat.
- Temple Trail: The temple trail in Varanasi does not alone amount to a spiritual experience, but an orientation to the Hindu culture. To be able to visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple once in a lifetime is one of the most pertinent pilgrimages for a Hindu. Also visit the monkey infested Sankat Mochan temple, the wooden Nepali Mandir, Gauri Kedareshwar Mandir on the Kedar Ghat, the red walled Durga temple and the unique Kal Bhairav temple where liquor and chocolates are common offerings.
- Evening Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat: The grandest spectacle at the stepped banks of the river is the evening Ganga Aarti held every 6.15-7.15pm at five ghats. Of these, the Dashashwamedh Ghat Aarti is the most famous one. Artistic motions with large fire lit lamps, bells and conchs keep everyone mesmerized, as boats loaded with travellers converge towards the venue.
- Astronomical Observatory: Lost amongst the madness of the ghats, this is a great place to get acquainted with Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s genius in constructing advanced equipment like the Samrat Yantra, Laghu Samrat Yantra, Dakshinobhiti Yantra, Chakra Yatra, Digansa Yantra and Narivalaya Dakshin and Uttar Gola – all instruments that deciphered relative positions of earth to the heavenly bodies.
- Ramnagar: Red towering walls of the Ramnagar fort can be seen from across Assi Ghat. Across the river lies the Mughal styled fort, built by Raja Balwant Singh in 1750. Visit the in-house museum inside. The small city of Ramnagar is famous for its authentic festival of Ramlila, where young actors play out the story of Ramayana for a month.
- Chunar Fort: The white Chunar Fort lies 37km from Varanasi and overlooks the river Ganga. It was established in 56BC with change of hands between Afghan and Mughal rulers, finally ending up with the British until 1947. Infact the first Governor General of India, Warren Hastings took refuge here when a rebellion broke out in 1781.
- Sarnath: The satellite town of Sarnath is yet another highlight that attracts people from all around the world. This is where Gautum Buddha first gave his sermons on Dharma. The main deer park complex and a number of other Buddhist temples are spread across a small radius, which can be covered in a half a day. The Mulgandha Kuti Vihar temple, the Archaeological Museum, the Dhamek Stupa, which stands as the emblem of Sarnath, the Chaukhandi Stupa and ruins of monasteries are the main sites here.
- Ghat Hopping: More than any of the ‘must see’ things, walk along the ghats to take in the historic architecture, life around the ghats, to see the old wrestling rinks called Akhadas and get acquainted with the cremation ghats from a distance. This experience is one that is private and special.
Eat: Paan (betel leaf), thandai (milk based drink), lassi (drink at Blue Lassi) and tea are going to be common company to your visit. Below are some of the other favourites near the ghats.
- Shree Café, Dashashvamedh Ghat
The cosy café dishes out delicious Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese and Continental vegetarian fare. It also doubles up as a photography gallery, with Santosh Ji’s, the owner’s, interest in photography. Try the lemon nana drink and the special thaali, though no matter what you order, you can never go wrong.
- Keshari Ruchikar Byanjan, Godowliya
Visit the first floor Keshari restaurant near Gowdowliya, enroute Dashashvamedh ghat for rich and delicious veg fare. The restaurant isn’t too atmospheric but the food is great.
- Phulwari, Near Bright Studio, Godowliya
Monkeys, eye-catching graffiti and an ancient kaali temple in the complex keep you company till your meal arrives. The pizzas and muesli are especially delicious.
- Pizzeria Vaatika Café, Assi Ghat
The bets continental fare in the backdrop of the Assi Ghat’s Aarti promises an atmospheric dining experience. Vaatika café is bustling with tourists in the evenings, so arrive early to grab a seat closest to the river.
- Kachauri Gali
The Vishwanath Gali doubles up as the Kachauri Gali as soon as you have passed the Vishwanath temple on your left. Oil caked blackened cauldrons, bubbling with hot oil dish out the famous fried snack, kachauris. Arrive as early as 8am to beat the rush and dig into a plate of hot fried ones with tangy imli chutney.