We’ve written many general articles about the holy city Varanasi and the life along the Ganges river. But people keep asking us what our personal Varanasi highlights are … therefore, we’d now like to share our 7 must do’s when visiting this great city (we left out typical sights like the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple because we like going off the beaten path):
1. A Boat Ride along the Ganges.
A boat ride along the Ganges river is one of the absolute musts when visiting Varanasi. You have to negotiate the price a little bit because boats are in high demand and many tourists spoil the rates. Start upriver; this means you walk upstream as far as the University complex and negociate a boat ride from there. Don’t mind any dead body floating by … this is nothing special in Varanasi, since lots of Hindus come here for their last days to die along the holy Ganges river.
2. The area around Malviya Bridge.
Now you’ve already seen the Varanasi skyline from a boat view, but to be near the action, a stroll along the Ganges downstream all the way to Malviya Bridge is a great experience.
The bridge is a double decker bridge, that carries rail track on lower deck and road on the upper deck. It’s interesting to watch all the different vehicles & trains cross and see the people living underneath the bridge and its corners, where they are protected from sun and rain. Malviya Bridge is the “end” of the inner holy area of Varanasi. This means if one dies in this inner circle, he will reach eternity immediately and this is also the reason why lots of “homeless” people call this bridge their home.
Walk across it and start strolling back in the direction of the city. It’s an impressive sight to see trains cross and hear the honking of the cars as you stand on the riverbank. Eventually a boatman will come along and row you back…
3. A stroll along the Ghats.
Every Ghat has its own meaning and use. Some Ghats are “reserved” for washing clothes and doing laundry. For example Assi Ghat is a prominent bathing Ghat, while others are dedicated to worshiping, and some are for cremation like Manikarnika Ghat, downstream from the Dasaswameth (main) Ghat. Bathing near Tulsi Ghat is believed to get rid of leprosy. So as you can see, there’s not only lots to see, but also lots to learn about each Ghat along the Ganges river.
4. Seeing Varanasi from above.
There are many hotels with roof terraces – either with a restaurant, or a private balcony adjoining the room. We suggest to have lunch at one of these places to see Varanasi from above. Good places are: Alka Hotel, Ganpati guesthouse and Temple Hotel – especially for views of the (burning) ghats. Alka hotel and Ganpati gusthouse are good options for your entire stay in Varanasi.
Again, you’ll most probably see the occasional body floating by, which is about as normal as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
5. Exploring the side streets.
The old town is dotted with small alleys, so just leave the main road, turn left or right and you will come to see some unusual places. Don’t worry about getting lost, because sooner or later you’ll end up either in front of the river or on a main street. A compass is a good choice not to lose direction.
Out intention was to find the place where the bodies arrive in the city. We asked our way through some stores, until one guy finally told us that we should stroll around the area near town hall. We sat down in a hardware store at the corner and the owner was very keen to explain all the things surrounding a body’s arrival…
6. Experiencing Varanasi during a festival.
Hundreds, or better thousands of people all dressed in orange hurdled in every little street corner during festivals in Varanasi. The police forces are relentless, worshippers have to line up and obey all the rules that are enforced on such festival occasions. Police will not hesitate to use their bamboo sticks to keep things in order. It’s a security measurement to keep such big hordes under control. Try to get somewhere upfloor that you can watch the crowds from above.
7. Getting a new haircut at a local hairdresser.
If you’re travelling through India, you’ll notice that the hairdressers you’ll pass along the streets are barbers for men only. Lady hairdressers are mostly hidden behind closed doors or curtains. If you insist enough though, even a local barber will give you a nice wash and blow dry … and if you’re really lucky (and you’re up for it) even a haircut. Don’t worry, hair grows again… after all, no risk, no fun. Plus it’s quite relaxing when you’re out all day in a crowded city like Varanasi.