These 20 Varanasi travel tips come from basically making so many mistakes here. It’s such a complex city that I have four posts about it. I actually could write even more.
If you missed the last ones, I recently shared an intro to my Varanasi trip about where to stay, how to get there, and how terrible it went for me at first. I also told you what to expect at the Ghats, which can be an overwhelming place. Now here are 20 random but important travel tips for Varanasi to read before you head to the holy city!
20 Varanasi Travel Tips
1. The most important tip is to make sure you go here while in India!
Varanasi MUST be on your list because it is all the chaos and love of India all in one place. IT IS THE CULTURE CAPITAL OF INDIA. It’s the most shocking place on earth that tourists can go. Bold statement, but probably true. Every two seconds, your eye will catch something new and exciting.
2. Having said you must come here, don’t come to Varanasi first.
It will scare you. You’ll be so overwhelmed that I can’t imagine you’d want to leave your hotel room. You need to ease into India a month or so then make your journey here, plus, this way you will appreciate it more. These travel tips for Varanasi aren’t to scare you away! Anything negative I say is just the truth and to warn you, but it’s still a magical interesting place that I would 100% go back to.
3. Getting there:
It’s cheapest to fly into Delhi and take a train to Varanasi. You will have a stopover in Allahabad most likely. From the station get a rick to take you to Old city. You’ll have to walk through once you get to the entrance. If you haven’t ridden a bike-rickshaw, now is your chance! For cheap flights in India, you must read this which has my secret tactic to traveling here so so inexpensively. You can also check my tips for traveling by train in India here.
4. Don’t come here to party
In my intro to Varanasi, I say where I slept. Other than that, I don’t have tips on where to eat or party. It’s not a city for that. Eat street food and drink lassis. It’s probably not the best place to even try to find a party. Save that for another city in India.
You can show up and find a place, but if you book ahead someone can meet you at the entrance to Old City and help guide you through (which I highly recommend). I showed up alone in the middle of the night and had to find a place. Not ideal. Look for places that say “near the main ghat”.
5. You don’t have to “make a trip” to the Ghats.
The old town is built on them. Part of your daily walk will involve seeing the cremations on the Ganga. That’s the great thing about much of India; you can just go about your day and the normal sights are the things you’ll remember years later. Be aware of what to expect on the Ghats.
6. You cannot take photos of the cremations.
It’s a special and holy time for the families. Yes, you’ll see their own family members taking selfies with the deceased, but you should keep your phone/camera stashed away. You can take photos of the Ghats of long as there is no cremation happening.
7. The Vishwanath Temple is the most famous.
And while I was there was not open to foreigners. I’m told this can change daily.
8. You’ll see lots of Sadhus smoking something along the Ghats.
You can take their photo but ask first, and sometimes they will ask for a fee. Please be careful doing drugs anywhere in India.
9. Touts here are the most persistent I’ve encountered in India.
Don’t give in to them just asking for “wood” money. If they start to follow you or tell you a fact about the Ghats, they will expect payment unless you tell them you don’t need their services. You have to be very direct to make them leave you alone. If you allow one to follow you, he will make a scene wanting money when you’re ready to leave. They will probably curse you with bad karma.
10. Apparently, you should be careful telling a woman she looks nice.
(She had just been married and in India, that means henna everywhere, bangles galore, and so much head jewelry!). He husband claimed her like a piece of meat and said, “Mine” as he pushed me to the side. As if I’m trying to steal your bride, dude.
11. There is more cow poo in the alleys of Varanasi than in all of the state of Goa.
They are a very religious city, respect their cows immensely, and allow them everywhere. There seems to be 10x more cows here, hence 10x more cow shit. Basically, you’re going to step in it at some point. It’s okay, but being head-butted by a cow was not.
12. The alleys are small and plentiful.
You’ll probably get lost but eventually they lead to the main road and you can start all over again. Make sure to have a business card from your guesthouse so you can ask people which way to go when it’s time to get home.
13. SO. MUCH. PAAN.
Paan is betel leaf and all the dudes are chewing it. They spit it all over the place and roll it at lots of booths all over the city. It’s popular all over India, but I’ve never seen so much of it as I have here. It’s basically old school chewing tobacco.
paan source photo
14. If you hear bells jingling and yelling coming from behind, get out of the way.
It’s probably a body coming through. Family carry them on stretchers above their heads down the main street in Varanasi. Although normal, it may shock you at first.
15. You have to negotiate a LOT for the boat rides on the Ganga.
Don’t feel bad about it. It may be a holy place, but business is business, and if there’s anything I learned in my time here it’s that Indians won’t cheat or steal from you, unless of course it’s just business. If someone puts paint on you, just walk away- you don’t have to pay them.
16. Watch the little boys get their first hair cuts along the river!
I know there’s a reason for it, but it’s totally escaping me right now. Hopefully one of my Indian readers will remind me in the comments why so many boys were getting cuts. Some type of sacrifice?
17. Cover up more than normal (even for India)
I’ve explained previously the Do’s and Don’ts for how to dress in India, but seeing as though here you are borderline also at a funeral, you should cover up even more than usual. Ashes will fall on you, so the less skin the better just for cleanliness as well. I’d also wear closed toe shoes if I went again.
18. Do NOT get in the water
While some Ghats are for cremations, some for washing bodies and clothes, some are for curing leprosy. Needless to say: do NOT get in the water. Even the Indian government is outspoken about the changes needed in Varanasi and the diseases in the water. They urge Indian nationals to stop getting in.
19. Try going for a festival
I actually got to visit during the Dee Deepavali, which was in November and always on a full moon. It coincides with a Jain festival and there are lights everywhere which were great to see from a boat on the river. Try to go during Maha Shvratri festival for Lord Shiva. It’s apparently the 14th night of the new moon (sorry guys, that is all I can find online!) My friends assure me this is a BIG deal.
20. Take a really good shower after you leave.
The ashes are in the air and you may not see them right away, but after some time they build up on your clothes and skin. You can see the Sadhus covered in ashes (on purpose I believe) along the riverbanks.
Essential Travel Tips for your India Trip
I’ve been living and traveling in India for the past 5+ years and have over 400 articles on my blog but I’ll just share a few things here to get you started in case this is the first post you’ve found.
- If you want a day tour in Varanasi, I would take this insight tour if I went back. I regret not having a guide teach more all about the ceremonies I was seeing. For more options, you can look on at the Varanasi tours on this page and see which one you like best. A sunrise one would be awesome.
- You DO need a visa for India: My favorite site is iVisa as the Indian government site is a pain for visas.
- You DO need health insurance: World Nomads is all I’ve used. Here is a post on what exactly it covers and doesn’t.
- Want more tips for traveling India or better yet to have me plan your trip? Buy my India Guide ebook and even if you ONLY read that, you’ll be 1000% prepared for your trip. It’s 6 years of India travel experience all wrapped up in an organized easy to read manner.
- Hostels are becoming popular in India, here is a hostel guide to India here.
- Group tour more your thing? The best rates are with G Adventures.
- Step by step planning your trip to India from scratch
- 100 tips for India travel
- How to spend less than $20/day in India
- The best India itinerary for 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months
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With these posts about Varanasi, you’ve definitely piqued my interest. It sounds like a fascinating and immensely memorable cultural experience. I love seeing your photos too!
Thanks Justine! I’m glad it’s getting people interested.
Nice tips! I agree, Varanasi is probably the best example of Indian culture and traditions. I’m glad that you enjoyed your time there, Rachel. I went there only as a kid.
Thanks Renuka! It was a strange but awesome place.
The head shaving ritual is called ‘Mundan Sanskar’ one of the 16 rituals that evety Hindu must go through in his life! http://www.iloveindia.com/indian-traditions/mundan.html
ahh thank you chandan!
Loved reading your tips on Varanasi. Hoping to get there next year. Love India. We recently posted ‘Russia without a Visa’ at http://www.teachorbeach.com
Hope you make it this way!
Still wondering if we should visit Varanasi, everyone says we should, but it looks very much like most indian pilgrimage sites and not very clean either.
Oh it’s not clean lol, worse than agra x10. but SO SO worth going!! you must!
Great post, Rachel! I love hearing about India and especially about Varanasi. It all sounds so fascinating!
Thanks Laura! I’m starting a new series on my blog, by the way. Shoot me an email if you’d like to be a part of it!
I was in Varanasi couple of years ago. I had heard a lot of stories that all the harassing and touts are really bad there – but in the end, I didn’t think so at all. Or maybe I just had adjusted to India already (had been travelling there around month and a half before going to Varanasi) and didn’t pay that much attention on people trying to sell something/tell about burning ghats etc.
Varanasi is definitely a place in India not to miss. It is so colorful, spiritual though sometimes a little upsetting as you can’t really miss seeing all the bodies being burned if you spend a lot of time in the ghats. But I think if you have prepared yourself well enough before going there you’ll be OK.
Very good post on Varanasi and how to prepare before going there!
Thanks Anne! For me, it’s hard because as I adjust as a “local” in Goa the last couple years, it makes it harder when I go abroad and am treated like a backpack again. That’s why I’m trying to learn the language so I can really feel like I belong a little better. The touts for me though were quite annoying.
Good tips as always. I deff would take a much needed shower after a trip down there. And am deathly afraid of accidentally falling into the water
Oh yeah, I wouldn’t want to fall out of a boat into that!
Such a useful set of tips! Coincidently, I just went there to take my Grandma on a Pilgrimage. While it was all holiness for her, it was all chaos for a non-religious like me. I loved the ghats, but could not dare stepping into the river. I fell in love with the lighting and colour in the markets as well as the beautiful Aarti. I could not find the courage to go to the Cremation Ghats though, however much I wanted to after reading your post about them.
I had the chance for some good inspiration for writing and some amateur photography too!
I found the place absolutely confusing but a chaotic experience is what makes a good trip for me. :D
Thanks for your tips as always!
How nice of you to take your grandma. Maybe next time you’ll want to see the Ghats, but not a big deal if you don’t. It’s a personal decision.
Loving your series on Varanasi! Sounds like a crazy, amazing place to visit. Can’t wait to get there one day, will definitely be reading these posts again before I do!
Thanks! I’m glad you found them helpful!
Uh oh… I just made it our first stop after flying in to Delhi (already bought a DEL-VNS plane ticket). And it’ll be my first time in India! That just made me more anxious lol. ‘Guess I’m up for an intense start then. :)
Hahah, well you will be in for an interesting first day! You’ll love it. Another girl commented she went there first and it was so so cool.
Wow, there is so much I didn’t know about Varanasi, thanks for your tips. The more I read on your blog about India and how crazy and unique it is, the more I want to go!!!
Thanks Franca, I hope you make it over this way. Let me know if you do!
Interesting to read your perspective of Varanasi. I studied in Varanasi (4 years) in the local university (BHU) which is one of the oldest in India. I recall going on a boat ride once, and after seeing dead bodies float around, decided never again. So even for an Indian, Varanasi can shock your senses. Although in some temples they post signs of not allowing non-Hindus, I believe temples like the one inside the university has no such prohibitions (and it’s a pretty nice looking temple). The rickshaw drivers are very painful even for locals. I recall that once I used to get out of the local train station, I used to walk past most of the auto drivers in the line, until I reached a decent distance away from the aggressive ones. Varanasi never captured my imagination like its does with some people. Although now, having lived decades away from India, I can understand the intrigue a place like that can bring to folks not used to it :). Good luck on your travels. I hope India treats you well.
I’m sure Varanasi is shocking to Indians as well! Such an interesting place.
I have read a good number of posts in this site now and must say – great writing! And motivated enough now to begin my own journey.
For Shivaratri date, check this link in January – http://www.nseindia.com/global/content/market_timings_holidays/market_timings_holidays.htm
Thanks I’m glad you’re ready for your journey!
I have spent like every free minute in between sorting prawns today (I work on a fishing boat) trawling through your blog. It is legit like the best pick me up after being out at sea for 3 months to read your tips and advice and tales! Seriously, love it girl! Usually I fail to make it to the end of anything I read but I haven’t got bored once with any of your material. These tips on Varanasi are so fresh, funny and unique :))
wow thanks!! that is serious the biggest compliment I’ve gotten I think (that you didn’t get bored once) thanks :)
I really love reading all your blogs and as much jealousy as it causes (my health will never let me travel to places like India, even Las Vegas landed me in hospital for a week!) I still love reading. Feels kinda like I can ‘experience’ some of it through you! Before I got sick I always wanted to travel always nd India was top of my list. Keep up the great work and maybe one day I’ll be able to follow your advice if I find I can travel! :)
I’m glad you experience travel through hippie in heels :) Sorry to hear your health isn’t top notch, hope you feel better.
This honestly helped me prepare mentally for Varanasi, which was my boyfriend’s and my first stop on our 3 week India itinerary. And even so, I was still in utter chock after strolling through the narrow streets trying to find our friggin hotel. Plus vicious monkeys hissing at you if you ever just try and have a quick look.
We’ve agreed that Varanasi was one of the most interesting places we’ve ever been and we probably wont go back, but it was cool to see it.
I love the pictures by the way. :)
Thanks Maja, I’m so happy you guys had fun
I must say, I really like your blog. I have read it a couple of times for different places and they look quite informational. Thank you.
Woah that husband is crazy. If I were with a family or friend especially if it’s a male…they’ll surely be over protective and punch that dude. That can’t happen in my country. His attitude won’t be tolrated here. Anyway I’m just wondering if you could normally take photos of indians without offending them. Do you usually ask for their permission or you just take photos? Have you been yelled at or made someone mad for taking photos of them? Sorry I don’t have a website. :(
I always ask permission before taking a photo and usually they are okay with it. Sometimes, they ask for money after and I will give them 5 Rs. but that’s really rare. Sometimes they do say no.
PS: I took the link out you asked & deleted your other comment, so no worries :)
Hey rachel. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful content on varanasi. These tips are really helpful. Though I am an Indian but never been to varanasi before .
This weekend gonna be my first trip to varanasi .
Thank you .
I hope you have a great trip!
Hi Rachel, I enjoyed your post very honest! I have visited here on my first trip to Inida Loved it but i agree certain things were a bit shocking you have to have a open mind.
Thanks for sharing Liza – it’s a place I’ll remember forever.
Hi Rachel, I was born n brought up in Varanasi. Lived and studied there, most part of my life so far. I lived in Banaras Hindu University Campus and even I am not aware of few parts of the city. I am glad you liked the place and remember it forever, despite all the shortcomings. Nostalgic after reading this article today! Thanks! Har Har Mahadev!
Hi! Awesome post.Great content.Its true that Varanasi is the most popular by god.Awesome spiritual place for travel.Well done.
Thanks for sharing such a beautiful blog.:)
hi Rachel, I’m preparing for a trip to India (I’m from Belgium) in July for a month. Your blog is most interesting, I just love it and am going to share it on Facebook. I like the way you write and I admire the courage you had to arrive in Varanasi after dark and all by yourself! also liked your close encounter with that bull! holy shit! lol – I booked a flight to Delhi about 2 weeks ago (was gonna go on my own but then a friend has just decided to come with me, I managed to put her on the same flight) – I must admit I feel very relieved now that I know I won’t be alone). Are you still in India right now? Thanks again profusely
So happy that you are going! Having a friend makes it 20x easier just to have that peace of mind that you are not alone, so that’s a really good thing. I have a FB group if you want to join so you can chat to other people backpacking in India (it’s on the “travel resources” page of my blog) and watch for the bulls in Varanasi haha as I know dozons of travelers who had similar encounters!
Thanks for the article. I was looking for Varanasi for a family trip and then I found your page. Its really well written. Being as a fresh Travel Blogger, for me, it was also a kind of learning about blogging. In future if you need any help or Info about india, just drop me a message. I will coem back to you in my earliest possible time. Thanks and keep rocking!
I’m an oxymoron: a germophobic Indian. I currently live in Calcutta which isn’t the cleanest place in the world but it’s got nothing on Varanasi, or Benares which is the preferred term used by locals. As Hindu I’m deeply fascinated by sacred Ganges river and the important traditions of Kumbh and Varanasi.
But I just can’t stand filth and live in very sterilized surroundings. I have lived in Europe (7 different countries) where the cleanliness standards were more to my liking. Unfortunately Western society is driven by consumerism, hedonism and anarchy. The absence of a spiritual core can make life purposeless and empty. Atheism and a growing disbelief in God is not something I want to be surrounded with.
I have also been around Fundamentalist American Christians. It’s very difficult to get along with their sheer hypocrisy. Jesus said something about a wealthy man’s chances of going to Kingdom of Heaven being as slim as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. But wealth creation remains the only obsession of US Christians.
I know I shouldn’t generalize but my point is, Hinduism has greatest flexibility and most meaningful answers for all our spiritualconcerns and dilemmas as humans. That there is more to life than making money.
This is what explains the lure of places like Benares for one and all. Unfortunately, I can’t go there till they decide to finally clean up the river. I don’t belong either in India or the West.
Do you have a suggestion for a hotel in Varanasi? I would prefer some place clean and with a private room and bath. The Jagat Niwas hotel you recommended in Udaipur was great.
Varanasi is the calmest and interesting place in India. I would love to go back there again and again. Thanks for your awesome travel guide and photos are really beautiful.
Lovely article. Just one correction though, diwali is never on a full moon. It’s always on new moon.
Hey Rachel, nice post. It’s a perfect guide for a foreigner visiting the city. I’d like to add something regarding the haircut. It’s a custom in Hindu Religion where after the death of a family member, the male members of the family shave their head and beard.
Also new born babies are given their 1st haircut at a holy spot within 1 year and in somecases during the 5th year. For the 1st haircut, its called “mundan sanskar”.