Continuously inhabited for nearly five thousand years, Varanasi is one of the saptapuris or seven holy cities believed to grant moksha or salvation. Located between the rivers Varuna and Asi that drain into the Ganga, Varanasi is sacred to Lord Shiva and Parvati. It is also called Kashi or the City of Light after the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. Its sacred bathing and burning ghats, its gallis, its mystics and mendicants, cultural and culinary traditions make the city a fascinating microcosm of India.
Best time to visit: November to February is the best time to explore Varanasi.
How to reach
By Air: Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport is the nearest airport, located 18km north-west from the city. IndiGo operates more than 50 weekly flights between Varanasi and other key locations.
By Train: The Varanasi railway station connects the city to major cities of India via various rail.
By Bus: Varanasi is well-connected to the neighbouring states and all prime cities of Uttar Pradesh by state-run buses and private buses.
Getting around: Cabs or taxis are convenient transportation modes to travel around the city. While the streets of the town, can be best visited on foot and boats are the perfect means to explore ghats.
Legendary sweetshop serving Varanasi’s famous lal peda, besides gulab jamun, jalebi, motichur laddoo and spicy deep-fried snacks. Don’t be alarmed by the police presence – they are on duty to protect the Kashi Vishwanath shrine!
Feast on a wide variety of snacks – tomato chaat, papdi chaat, dahi papdi chaat, palak papdi chaat, as well as gulab jamun and kulfi.
Great local joint for kachoris (thick puri stuffed with spiced lentil), served with aloo rassa (think potato gravy) and hot jalebis to round it off
The best place to try the local Varanasi snack safed makhhan toast – thick, local bread toasted over live coal and slathered with a generous helping of creamy butter, chased with local kulhad tea.
Popular eatery serving UP-Bihari cuisine – litti (baked roundels stuffed with sattu paneer), served with aloo-baingan chokha (potato-eggplant mash) and chutney. It’s worth the wait and don’t go without tasting the kulfi and kheer.
Nepali-run eatery that serves excellent Tibetan and Nepali fare, besides buffalo steak, grilled chicken, salads, pancakes and apple pie.
Plush restaurant inside Ramada Plaza JHV with terrific ambience, excellent Indian food and live music like tabla recitals.
Varanasi’s strategic location on the Gangetic plain and historical trade routes made it an important market since Mauryan times. Historically, shawls from the north, diamonds and gold from the Deccan, muslin and silk from the east, armaments from Lucknow, food grains from across India and perfumes, horses and elephants, were traded here. Even today, the city is a great place to buy brass and copperware, gold jewellery, shawls, saris, stone inlay work and musical instruments. Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia, Dashswamedh gali and Golghar being the main shopping precincts. No visit to the city is complete without picking up a Banarasi sari or local specialities like Banaras ka lal peda, Banarasi pan (betel leaf), Banarasi aloo papad and the beautiful hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur and Bhadohi. Numerous shops on Chowkhamba lane sell papads, pickles and gajak (a dry sweet made of sesame seeds). The floating markets with intrepid boatmen cum salespeople offering you holy water, religious accoutrements or knickknacks are another charming feature.
The closest Varanasi comes to a party is the annual Ram Leela in October when theatre performers and musicians stage a theatrical reenactment of Lord Rama’s life. Held across a month with marathon music sessions on blaring loudspeakers, it’s usually an all-night affair. For a more traditional party, head to Club Agni at Hotel Siddharth. Most bars and lounges are in the upmarket hotels – Patiala Peg in Hotel Meraden Grand (it also has The Heaven Lounge Bar), Princep Bar at Getaway Hotel Ganges Varanasi and Mangi Ferra at Hotel Surya are all options. The last on that list does great hookahs and pizza.
Jukaso Ganges, Guleria Ghat A 200-year-old riverfront Yadava haveli painstakingly restored by WelcomHeritage into a boutique luxury hotel. Built out of Chunar sandstone, most of the 15 rooms open to a view of the Ganga with a riverside café and an open-to-sky terrace restaurant. The 800-year-old Vishnu idol in the meditation room is stunning.
Suryauday Haveli, Shivala Ghat Locally called Nepali Kothi, it was built by the Nepal kings in the early 20th century as a retreat for the aged. Serves food prepared by a maharaj, so you know its wholesome. An added bonus? Yoga classes get organised on the terrace.
The Clarks Varanasi, The Mall: One of the oldest and most well-known hotels in Varanasi, Clarks offers 104 well-furnished rooms with an outdoor pool in a serene garden.
A Palace on River, Rashmi Guest House, Manmandir Ghat A budget riverside hotel, that is adjacent to Man Singh’s Observatory. It offers 16 air-conditioned rooms (some with river view) and the rooftop Dolphin Restaurant.
Sarnath: Just 13km from town at Sarnath, Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, marked by the Dhamekh Stupa. It’s a great option to enlighten yourself with Buddhism away from the city of spirituality.
Varanasi is a photographer’s delight. Stroll around the ghats at dawn to watch pilgrims and pundits performing rituals, barbers and washermen at work, wrestlers and pehelwans working out. Take a sunrise or sunset tour of the ghats with Varanasi’s storytelling boatmen and don’t miss the daily Ganga Arti at 7 pm – go early to grab a vantage point and witness the ceremonial offering of incense and lamps to the river.
Boatmen often offer guided tours and rattle off stories behind the ghats and monuments, besides listing the movies shot here – Arjun Pandit, Yamla Pagla Deewana, Laga Chunari Mein Daag (all filmed at Man Mandir Ghat) and the boat used in Ram Teri Ganga Maili.