10 Activities in Varanasi, India

Varanasi is a city that escapes description. The wild untethered energy surging through the streets puts Varanasi at the top of my list for exotic city tours. There is a near endless labyrinth of narrow alleyways that make for surprises around every turn. The city itself is a photographers dream come true, and I personally couldn’t walk slow enough. However, after spending one week in Varanasi, I came to eat, drink, and photograph my fill of this holy city on the Ganges.

Much of the experience in Varanasi was self-guided. You too can arrive here and let your curiosity guide you like I did. You’ll discover more than you could ever imagine. Below I’ve included a few of my favorite highlights from my self-guided tour of Varanasi.   

So, what do you want to do when you come?

There are temples, and there are temples. You’ll run into more temples crossing the street, than you’ll ever be able to read about- so for that reason I’m leaving out all the temples. If you want temples, Varanasi has them.

Here’s my condensed list of Varanasi activities:

1. Walk the ghats.


The first recommendation is the most obvious, but don’t overlook it. The mornings start early and watching the sunrise as the city wakes up is worth the trip all by itself. Sadu and Brahman are almost always making early morning prayers. You can receive a blessing from them and a tali for a donation. Yoga and handstands aren’t uncommon either.

The holy waters of the Ganges are known far and wide, and despite some pretty unclean practices, the river is always filled with devoted pilgrims.

In the same waters where deceased bodies float near the shore, men will wade in mud up to their knees and wash clothes. Others who travel to Varanasi seeking the healing powers of the river, jump in joyously and spend the day swimming with their friends.

The sights are endless, and they change constantly. Which is why I’ve included walking the ghats on this list.


2. Hire a boat.


Boats run all day, and most are powered only by paddle- no matter the number of passengers. Boat-men will offer you a ride across the river for around 300 rupee. We even performed our own burial ceremony with the ashes of our friend.

Whatever your fancy, the experience of being quietly paddled out on the Ganges in the early-morning light makes for a special experience.

Depending on the time of year you visit, you might see the small desert across the river. (I came in May when temperatures were in the 40’s most days.) If the river isn’t flooded, there are people across the river that offer camel and horse rides for a fee. Only a couple hours after sunrise, the temperature rose beyond my tolerance, so I opted to skip the sun soaked camel ride… but it did look like fun.

The sights are endless, and they change constantly. Which is why I’ve included walking the ghats on this list.


3. Watch a cremation.


When you are cremated here on the banks of the Ganges it is said that you are blessed with having lived your last life. Cremations are not for the faint of heart however. The billowing smoke and visual sites can be overwhelming for some.

What I learned about the cremations:

  • First, photographing the actual cremation is strictly forbidden and culturally very insensitive. Foreigners are not allowed to photograph, even if locals are. I found carrying my DSLR and long 35mm lens drew a lot of attention. I had to assure the local attendants that I would keep my lens cap on, and remain respectful of the ceremonies.
  • It takes about 500lbs to burn one body, and it takes about 3 hours for a complete cremation.
  • Wood is very expensive, and only wealthy people can afford a wood cremation.
  • Others opt for a less expensive gas option.
  • Not all people are cremated.
  • Sadu’s , Pregnant women, children under 13, people bitten by snakes, and leapers all are disqualified from cremations. They are bound with ropes and sunk into the waters whole.

But not all of the bodies stay submerged. Some rise to the surface and float onto the shores.


4. Discover new architecture.


The ghats are built along the river, and over the centuries have been reinforced with resilient stone. Many of the exciting elements of architecture come in the shape of old forts that have since been retired from service. They overlook the terraces below and create an impressive towering spectacle.

Some hotels and and other businesses along the river have re-purposed the old buildings and given them new life. The most beautiful, or at least ornate building we found resembled a small palace with intricate accents worked into the facade. All of these buildings can be found by walking up and down the river.

The hours will melt away as you gaze overhead at the variety of buildings that dot the Ganga. My favorite buildings were found in the alley-ways however. There was something mysterious about the buildings there. I wonder what secrets the ancient buildings house just behind their weathered doors.


5. Shop for scarves.


If you need a break from the scenery at the river, or if the heat is raising above 40, you can escape back into the alleys for a tour of the many shops selling famous Varanasi silk. Make sure to get your merchant to perform a burn test with a lighter before you make an purchase. Real silk will not melt the way synthetic fibers melt. Silk burns clean.

If you’re lucky during your walks through town, you might even discover certain silks being produced right in front of you. Luck and a bit of courage brought us into the workshop of one man who comes from a lineage of silk weavers.


6. Try a lassi.

By now you’ll be hungry, and if you’re as brave as me you’ll be wanting to try some street food. If this is your first trip to India, start easy and move up as your stomach adjusts. I recommend staying away from street meat. See Delhi Belly

Pomegranate, raisins, banana, and a few other secret ingredients.

The major food attraction in Varanasi are the lassis. One part milk, one part curd (think real authentic yogurt), and one part fresh fruit. Lassis are a delicious treat that also help you digest some of the more creative foods you might be trying along the way.

Banana, chocolate, raisins, and mango.

Blue Lassi is the most famous place in town, and is a bit north- closer to Guleria Kothi. They are well known, and also offer the famous Bhang Lassi. Yes that’s a lassi with marijuana in it. They come in three strengths, and are quite delicious.

My favorite place however was BALU Lassi. The owner was so much fun to sit at talk with and I could tell that he needed our business much more than the over-crowded Blue Lassi shop.


7. Enjoy the local sport.


After a refreshing meal it’s time to get back on the town. If you’re a bit lucky, and good with people you might get invited to play cricket with the locals. Cricket is the national sport of India, and it shows here.

It seemed like everywhere I looked cricket was being played. No matter the space. I was invited to play, and embarrassingly I was taught a few lessons by a skilled bowler.

Moving on through this oddly-alternative list of Varanasi activities is one of my favorite things to do while travelling.


8. Get a shave.


There is nothing quite like siting in a rusty chair- sometimes in the open air on the side of the street- and having your face shaved baby-smooth. A shave can cost anywhere from 50 rupee on up. Most of the local spots are fair and we weren’t forced to pay a higher tourist price. But then again, we were a little lucky.


9. Have your ears cleaned.


It sounds a bit off putting, and had I been braver I would have tried it. But after a shave, what better way to polish up on hygiene than an earwax extraction. Maybe if you have time you can give it a try and let me know what its like. This man and others like him, comb the streets looking for people to clean. In all fairness he seemed like the kind of guy I’d trust putting things in my ears… maybe.


10. Watch the night ceremony.


Finally at the end of the day, you absolutely must experience the night ceremonies at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The devotees gather after sundown around 6:30-7:00pm for an evening of singing and praying. You’ll be amazed as the fire and puja create quite a visual spectacle. Although the schedule is set, the official start of the ceremony is pretty flexible. You’ll have plenty of time to find a good seat if you stroll in a little late.


Conclusion

If you enjoy walking through miles of mysterious alleyways, would love people watching on a giant riverside terrace, and like the idea of eating delicious Indian street food- then put Varanasi on the top of your bucket list. The potential for discovery is endless in this ancient city. And despite being a few degrees shy of considered clean, I’d go back for more in a heartbeat.


Northern Vietnam, December 2018

I am traveling the world, sharing the moments I find the most incredible. I hope you enjoy the stories and photos that I publish. If you have a question or want more specific advice on an area of interest, reach out and we can talk.

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