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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