Exploring Varanasi Ghats and Beyond
How to approach sightseeing in Varanasi
Unquestionably, Varanasi is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Indeed, Varanasi Sightseeing was one of the highlights of our trip to India. Yes, Varanasi, also called Benares or Banaras, is chaotic, noisy, crowded, sometimes dirty, always surprising and yet totally and absolutely fascinating. You’ll find Varanasi a great city to wander and get lost in. And believe me, you will get lost. Don’t start your Varanasi sightseeing without some kind of plan though. As you’ll discover, it’s a complicated place and you don’t want to miss anything.
In this article, I’m going to tell you about some of the things we did while we were sightseeing in Varanasi and give you some tips on how to get the best out of your stay here. I’m generally not a fan of organised tours but I do like to book a small group or private tour here and there when I think they’ll really add value to our trip. We took a few small group tours in Varanasi and it was certainly the right decision. Otherwise, we’d never have seen some of the things we did. Moreover, I think we’d still be wandering lost in some of the winding streets in the centre of town!
Hotel with a River View of the Ganges
The first thing I did when we decided to visit Varanasi was to search for Varanasi hotels on the Ganges River. It was really important to me that we got a hotel with a river view in Varanasi because the Ganges is such an important part of what makes the city what it is. The Ganges river has a significant spiritual connection with Hinduism and it’s what has made Varanasi so central to their religion.
Hotel Temple on the Ganges
I actually found it quite hard to settle on a hotel in Varanasi. Since I narrowed it down to those close to the river I found that all of them had mixed reviews. So it was very difficult to choose one to suit us. We’re quite flexible on what kind of accommodation we stay in but I do like it to be clean. In the end, we chose the Hotel Temple on the Ganges which is next to Assi Ghat.
We arrived by taxi from the railway station and were dropped on the road outside the hotel area. Despite this, the hotel actually has quite a large parking area. It would be handy if you were driving although the traffic in Varanasi is crazy and very busy so I wouldn’t advise driving around the city at all. The Hotel Temple on the Ganges is a small family run business. As you can see above, it isn’t particularly imposing from the outside. However, it is a nice clean property and the staff do their best to be helpful.
A View of the Ganges
We booked a room with balcony access. That turned out to be two chairs on the passageway used to get to the upstairs rooms. However, it did have a view of the Ganges and to be fair, that walkway wasn’t busy. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of inside the room but it was a spacious room, clean and tidy. The bathroom was clean but rather basic and no toiletries supplied. I really hate that. Ok, I get it in hostels and self-catering accommodation but hotels, of all classes, should at least supply shampoo. In fact, I think they did supply soap but definitely no shampoo. Fortunately, there was little shop opposite and we got some there so no harm done. It just annoys me a little. However, I’m not going to hold it against them too much.
Eat on the roof with a view of the Ganges
As shown above, except for the river, the area around the hotel isn’t the most scenic. However, as you can see in the photo above, you do get a wide view of the River Ganges and that’s the important thing really. They also have a rooftop restaurant which has really fabulous views across the river. We also really enjoyed the food up there. You do have to remember to tell them you’re going up as they don’t seem to check for new customers on the roof but if they know you’re there then they’re very helpful. Equally important, the menu is extensive and the food is excellent. We kept going back to eat there as it was so good. Not to mention that it was extremely cheap.
Above, you can see the hotel lit up a night. It’s just another little touch which they do to make the place more appealing. Indeed, I think you’ll agree that it looks better at night. I’d recommend it though. We paid under £70 a night for our room and it was one of their more expensive rooms so you could get a basic room for less. Moreover, breakfast is included and it’s an a la carte breakfast from the menu. Just order whatever you want. I thought that was a very nice touch and again, excellent and freshly cooked food.
Varanasi Food Tour
We started our adventure in Varanasi with a food tour. I booked this through Roobaroo Walks. You’ll hear a lot of me gushing about how marvellous Roobaroo Walks are in this article. They deserve it. Roobaroo sent me a text in advance of our food tour with instructions on where to meet our guide, Mudita. They even sent a photo so we’d recognise her.
Cows in the road
We set off in good time to meet Mudita outside Saint Thomas Church at Girijaghar Crossing which is in the centre of Varanasi. However, just getting to the meeting point was a bit of a drama as the traffic was completely gridlocked so our tuk-tuk couldn’t get through. Basically, Varanasi is chaotic and jammed with people. It’s very noisy. Added to that there was a festival going on nearby so that was attracting even more people. It turned out that it was cows in the road that were causing the problem and eventually we got past them.
We made it just in time though and Mudita spotted us before we saw here. I suppose two lost looking English people do stand out in a crowd.
As we walked around Varanasi we were literally weaving in and out of the traffic. Mudita joked that Varanasi is the only place were pedestrians get stuck in traffic jams too! At first, it was quite scary but you soon get used to it. It’s chaos but somehow it works.
On the Varanasi Food Tour, we went to loads of little food stalls and cafes. Certainly not places we’d go in on our own. We wouldn’t know which ones were best as you can’t tell by looking at them and there are no menus. However, Mudita knew exactly where to go. She’s from Varanasi and she was the perfect guide. The food was very good and very plentiful. Lots of spices obviously but also lots of sweet stuff. As you can see in the photo above there were lots of different sweets to choose from.
Often, Mudita would take us down one of the small alleys and we’d sit down inside a small alcove. Each one had something different and tasty to try. In one, we had chai and toast. Here, they put the butter on the inside. It was delicious. We had two different kinds, one butter, one flavoured with spices. No plastic cups here, we drank our chai in clay cups which you throw into the recycling bin when you’re finished.
In the photo above you can see me sampling some Nimish. It’s a yoghurt-based drink but this was so thick they gave you a spoon to eat it with.
During the food tour, we stopped at the famous Prahlad Prasad Chourasiya Paan shop. Now this place is quite famous with celebrities and politicians and they have photos on the wall to prove it. It’s a family business which has been passed down through the generations.
We watched as the popular after-dinner treat was made in front of us. The paan consists of a betel leaf which apparently has psychoactive effects and is banned in the UK. As far as I could tell, this is filled with nuts, sugary balls, spices, desiccated coconut, red Katha paste and lime. Finally, it is covered in thin silver foil.
I found it very hard to chew and it had a strange aroma which I think was the leaf. Anyway, best not to get a taste for it as it’s really not very good for you despite its popularity.
Doing the Varanasi food tour was a wonderful way to experience different foods within the city. It’s also a great way to meet local people and find out about their culture. Mudita didn’t take us to tourist hangouts, she took us to places where locals were eating. You just need to take an open mind and go hungry because we ate far too much food!
Ganga Aarti Ceremony
After our food tour, we had an early start the next morning for the Aarti ceremony. The Ganga Aarti ceremonies are a Hindu spiritual ritual that is carried out facing the River Ganges. The ceremony involves fire, usually from some kind of lamp. An offering is made to the Goddess Ganga. In Varanasi, you can see two forms of the Aarti ceremony. One takes place at sunrise and one at sunset. Ideally, you should try to see both.
The sunrise Aarti ceremony takes place early in the morning, around 5 am at Assi Ghat. Since it’s such an early start, our hotel was an ideal choice for enjoying the ceremony. Fortunately for us, we only had a 2-minute walk to Assis Ghat as my alarm didn’t go off. We woke up at 5 am and scrambled into some clothes. Then we rushed down to the meeting place.
Roobaroo Walks: Small Group Tours
We arranged a small group tour through Roobaroo Walks. As well as the ceremony, this included a boat trip on the River Ganges, a walking tour and breakfast. We did a number of walking tours with Roobaroo during our stay in Varanasi and I cannot recommend them highly enough. For our tour this morning we were joined by our guide, Saurabh and a lovely couple from Chennai.
Saurabh very kindly sent me this photo of us enjoying the tour. He was a fabulous guide. Roobaroo calls them storytellers and that’s exactly what he was. He is an Indian radio personality and does the tours because he enjoys them so much. His enthusiasm was infectious and I can honestly say we wouldn’t have enjoyed Varanasi half as much without him.
Boat trip on the River Ganges
After the ceremony, we all boarded a small boat and set off on our boat trip along the Ganges. Although it was still dark when we arrived at Assi Ghat for the Aarti ceremony, the sun was starting to rise now so it was the perfect time for the boat ride. Before we boarded the boat, Saurabh bought us all hot chai to warm us up. One tip if you’re doing this trip, wrap up warm. It was really cold. I had to run back to the hotel for more jumpers as I was shivering.
The boat ride is mostly very calming except when a nearby boat started feeding the birds. They really love it and swarmed the bost for a few moments, eager to get the food.
You get a fabulous view of the Varanasi Ghats from the river and it’s a lot less crowded on the water.
After our boat trip, we climbed up one of the ghats and spent some time walking around with the group. Firstly, Saurabh took us to a training gym for traditional wrestlers. They’re very skilled and take it quite seriously.
A step well is a well where the water is low down and you climb down lots of steps on the side to reach it. This one is a small step well not far from the River Ganges. Traditionally, newly married couples come here to bathe in the water to bless their marriage. There were even small changing rooms on the side.
At the top of the stepwell is a temple. We were all blessed by the priest who pressed a tilaka onto our foreheads. This is like a fragrant paste made of flower petals. It is said to welcome guests although in this case, it was in reward for a donation. Saurabh was quite cross with Paul because he gave the man 100 rupees, the smallest note he had. 100 rupees is equivalent to approximately £1. He said 50 rupees was more than enough! The priest looked happy though.
Traditional Weaving in Varanasi
We also got to see traditional weavers making the famous Banaras Saris. Weaving is done by machine now and so saris can be produced more cheaply. However, the hand-woven saris are still in demand and so many weavers still use traditional methods. This is a highly skilled job and it takes years of practice to be able to do this properly.
At the end of the tour, we enjoyed a traditional Indian breakfast before heading back to the hotel for a rest. Later we had a second breakfast since it was included. The hotel makes exceptionally good banana pancakes! We spent some time exploring the area around Assi Ghat. I’m told that Varanasi has been cleaned up a lot recently but it’s still very dirty. That’s partly because there are so many cows. They’re everywhere!
Apparently, the local government have installed lots of free public toilets to stop people just using the streets. This is a good thing and I’m glad I didn’t visit before this was happening. Unfortunately, the cows are less discerning! So another tip for visiting Varanasi, watch where you’re walking.
Evening Varanasi Sightseeing
After a fairly relaxing day to get over our early start we set out to meet Saurabh again. This time we were walking in the North part of Varanasi near where we did the food tour on our first night. This walk is focused on understanding Hinduism and key elements of Hindu philosophy.
Our first stop was a Hindu temple which was tucked away behind a small restaurant. This beautifully ornate temple is a popular spot for photos. While we were there several groups of young people arrived to take photos there. Saurabh was quick to tell them off if they walked on the temple with their shoes on. Whenever you enter the temple area you should remove your shoes even if it’s outside. Luckily for me, my sandals were quick to get on and off as we visited quite a few different temples while we were in India.
Although this wasn’t a food tour we still managed a few treats. We made a stop at Blue Lassi which is a famous lassi cafe. It was packed when we tried to stop there during the food tour but today we managed to get seats and looked at the extensive menu. Inside we chatted with some other English tourists who recommended anything with Mango. The yoghurt-based lassi is something you get everywhere in India but these were particularly delicious.
As we walked around Varanasi we saw a lot of doors leading into private houses. I had no idea how lovely and peaceful these houses were inside. Here, in the photo below, you can see the courtyard in the centre of the house. In the rooms surrounding the courtyard different generations of the family all live together. The central seating area is the perfect place for everyone to get together.
Sightseeing in Varanasi always leads back to the River Ganges
Whenever you go sightseeing in Varanasi the river Ganges is never far away. Later, after exploring the narrow lanes of Northern Varanasi we headed back down to the river. Once again, we boarded a boat and floated along the river.
Varanasi Ghats Cremation
From the river, you get an excellent view of the cremations taking place on the ghats. This seems a very public spectacle for such a personal event but we were assured that locals choose to use the public ghats rather than more private ones. It is part of the openness of Hindu beliefs but they are also drawn by the desire to cremate their loved ones close to the sacred Ganges river.
We got some amazing views of the sun setting as we floated along the river. Varanasi looks quite different at night.
Evening Aarti Ceremony
Later, we finished our evening with a visit to the evening Aarti ceremony. This is much longer and more involved than the sunrise version. It was also much busier. You do get the feeling that this one is more geared to tourists than any religious offering for the locals but it’s still a fabulous experience.
We had an amazing time in Varanasi. I definitely recommend getting a guide when you’re sightseeing in Varanasi. We also spent time just wandering around the ghats and exploring the city by ourselves. It’s quite safe to do so. However, there’s so much to Varanasi that you’ll miss without anyone to point things out and tell you the history.
Use Tuk-Tuks for sightseeing in Varanasi
Another useful tip is to use tuk-tuks to get around. They can nip through the traffic more easily than taxis and another bonus, they’re cheaper. We found it easy to negotiate a rate before hopping into the tuk-tuk. If the driver didn’t speak English then usually someone else would appear to help him out. Outside our hotel was a tuk-tuk station where a group of drivers waited to pick up people from Assi Ghat. This made it especially easy for us to negotiate a good deal although their rates are so cheap anyway it didn’t take a lot of negotiating.
Go sightseeing in Varanasi with an open mind and you’ll love it
Varanasi is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s crazy busy and in fact, just plain crazy! Visit with an open mind though and it’ll suck you into its craziness and you’ll fall in love with it. There’s just something about it. However, you feel about it when you leave you’ll have had a unique experience that you can’t get anywhere else.