Adventure Travel

Varanasi Guide: Things to Do & Travel Tips

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Varanasi was described to me as, “somewhere between the beginning of civilization and the 70s.” This Varanasi Guide will be helpful to any traveler who thinks they have the stomach to come here.

The Vibes

There are so many cars with stop-go-honk insanity coming at you from all directions. Putting your hand out the window, you could literally touch other cars and all of the wild cows that roam the highways.

Once you get off the main highway that gets into town, to get anywhere in Varanasi, you have to walk toward the Ganges River (where most all of the accommodations are). No cars can fit through these streets.

Varanasi Guide

When you first get to them, you notice the narrow cobblestone and the side-by-side concrete walls that are all touching and mushed together. The sticks, stones, tarps, and other rubbish that glues all the buildings.

Cooking food in Varanasi - Varanasi Guide

Doors of all shapes and sizes, some that look like little triangles, others that look the size of a doggie door. Most everything looks as if it’s going to fall apart at any moment, or that it’s only half-finished or half-torn apart.

These structures really look as if they were all put together thousands of years ago. You have to be extra careful walking though.

Varanasi Guide & Things to Do

Spend too much time looking up above at the wild monkeys running crossing the beams, and you’re bound to step in some “holy shit” — cows’ poop that sits in the street because it’s actually considered “holy”, according to the mainly-Hindu local believers.

Varanasi Guide & Things to Do

People and animals are abundant. Kind of feels like there are mini-stampedes happening in all directions. When trying to move forward, be prepared for someone asking for something or shouting something at you.

Some people will actually grab your hand to stop you, in hopes you will purchase something from them. And in some cases, people will run up to you and mark your forehead.

Varanasi Guide & Things to Do

How to deal? Politely say no once, give a quick shake of the head, and start proceeding. Expect to be followed for a minute or two. Say “no” again, and then you might have to ignore them until they leave.

Mass Cremation Ghats

It’s also inevitable for you to see some ten dudes in orange bum-rush dead bodies to the Ganges River through the town. Why?

In Hindu religion, the Ganges River is a very spiritual river. Many people pilgrim from all over India to bathe in the river, bathe their dead family members in the river, and cremate them in the mass-cremation “ghats”.

Men bathing at Ganges River

The ghats are staircases that lead down to the river, where they hold these daily cremations. There are a handful of cremation ghats throughout Varanasi.

In Hindu religion, basically, they believe that if they bathe their dead relatives here, with their ashes and bones placed in the river, then they have a more direct pathway into heaven. Pregnant women and children who have deceased don’t get cremated, but instead have a rock tied to them to sink in the Ganges River. Which is why you always hear stories from tourists who say they’ve seen dead bodies floating down the river.

Not surprisingly, The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

The Ganges River and its spiritual meaning is only one of the reasons Varanasi is considered such a holy place. Some of the gods in Hindu, like Lord Shiva, are believed to have lived in Varanasi thousands of years ago. More reasons on Varanasi’s holiness can be found here.

Scams

There are lots of scams that take place in Varanasi, even stemming from places you’d think would be trustworthy. We were scammed almost immediately after we got off the plane.

At the airport, we went to an official taxi booth to purchase a prepaid taxi to take us to our hotel. As our taxi was approaching Varanasi, a 45-minute drive from the airport, the driver had a friend come in the taxi, and we were told he would guide us to our hotel.

Sidenote: You really do need a guide because, again, there are no roads that cars fit through that can lead to your hotel, and the walking paths are like a giant maze with no street signs.

So our “guide” took us to our hotel, Ganpati Guesthouse. For the first tip in this Varanasi Guide: You have to be careful when being guided to your hotel. Some guides will take you to other hotels when you first get out of your taxi and tell you the one you booked is closed or burned down. Then, you have to follow them to a different hotel, one that they’ll make a commission on.

When we got to our hotel, our guide said he’d meet us back in a few hours to show us around. We said okay, tried tipping him, which he didn’t take, then met him the next day.

We were expecting to pay him to show us around, but he said he just wanted us to come to his shop after our trip. Which would be fine. We wouldn’t mind buying something from his family shop in exchange for him showing us around.

So a few hours later, we met up with him and he took us straight to the biggest cremation site in Varanasi (we didn’t ask for this). He said he’d wait outside this ghat and that a holy man care giver would show us around.

At this point, we became suspicious, but sometimes you just lean into things, even if you know you’re being scammed to see where it leads.

This “holy man” actually gave us a really up close and personal tour of the cremation site. After looking up some of the information he explained to us, he did give us a lot of real info about the history and what it all meant. There were a few things he was lying about though …

After the 20-minute tour, the holy man basically demanded that we donate money for firewood. He said the people who come to burn their dead relatives don’t have money to pay for firewood, so it’s all paid for through donations.

Knowing something was up, we gave him $20 to get out of there. Then he got upset that it wasn’t $100! By the way, $20 is a lot of money in India.

At this point, it got awkward.

After getting back to the hotel, and digging up some research, we found out the taxi driver, guide, and holy man were all probably in on it together and split the $20.

The next day, when our guide came to meet us, I gave him a piece of my mind. I didn’t know Colton was recording when I confronted the guy, but it’s pretty funny listening to it after-the-fact.

If you go to Varanasi and want to check out the cremation ghat, know that families buy their own wood for super cheap, and the only people taking donations are the scammers.

This was also confirmed by the Ganpati Guesthouse staff. Also, if anyone asks for donations to tend to the old and sick in a “hospice”, well, there’s no hospice either.

Here are a number of more scams to watch for.

Best Place to Stay

Ganpati Guesthouse. This was our oasis. Clean, beautiful, spacious, and affordable. It’s in the perfect location in Varanasi as well. Close to everything. The rooftop restaurant is amazing! We paid $18 a night.

Keys of the Ganpati Guesthouse

Things to Do & Foods to Try

1. Go on a walking tour. But ONLY with a guide your hotel recommends! Your guide will also make sure business owners don’t badger you while touristing the city. He will walk you past the burning cremation ghats, famous and very old Hindu temples, show you Hindu signs to look out for all throughout Varanasi, take you to some shops (only if you want to!), and take you through some pretty biblical-time looking streets.

Needless to say, Varanasi is one of the most photogenic places in the world.

2. Take a boatride on the Ganges River to an early morning Hindu ceremony (around 4 a.m.) or an evening ceremony (around 5:30 p.m.).

Varanasi India

3. Sip delicious chai tea and eat tika marsala (or any marsala)! We loved the food so much at Ganpati Guesthouse, we ate there for every single one of our meals.

I know, I know, where’s the adventure?! Well, the streetfood is cooked next to piles of trash, cow shit, human shit, piss. You’re not appetized walking around Varanasi. So, while we were a little bummed not to expand try more places, we didn’t want to get sick because we are on a long trip.

You don’t have to stay at Ganpati Guesthouse to eat at their restaurant either. The food is delicious and affordable — we’re talking $2 a meal. Beautiful views of Varanasi included.

Drinking Chair Tea in India

Things Not to Do

Everyone will tell you to go to the Golden Temple. I say DON’T GO TO THE GOLDEN TEMPLE. Unless you are a devout Hindu person. Many travelers will disagree.

 It’s a zoo with what seems like thousands of people trying to get in to this very congested, small place.

If you’re walking around Varanasi, and see a crowded entrance with a metal detector, that’s the entrance to the Golden Temple.

You have to take your shoes off, and walk on a soaking wet floor upon getting in. If you actually want to see the Golden Temple, prepare to try to squeeze in a swarm of people looking down it without any organization. Think: The hardest time you’ve ever had ordering a beer at a bar, multiplied by a million.

So for me, a short deer-eyed tourist, having a view down the actual Golden Temple obviously didn’t happen. I’d have better luck trying to order that beer…

The Golden Temple, doesn’t really appear to be a “temple”. It basically looks like a well. And if you look down into the well, which is probably about ten feet in diameter, you see a gold figure way down at the bottom.

In all seriousness, the statue is a shape of a penis (Lord Shiva’s) going into a vagina (Lord Vishnu’s), a sacred symbol in Hindu religion. The shape is more abstract, I wouldn’t actually know that this is what it was a shape of if I didn’t take the walking tour.

If you reeeeeeeeally do want to see this, as a tip, know that as a foreigner, you can skip the line to get in the grounds after you get your passport checked in the designated spot (which looks like a giant hole in the wall), about 20 feet down from the metal detector.

Once in though, you can’t skip the “line” to see down the the Golden Temple.

Varanasi Travel Tips

1. If you want to take photos of the (fake) holy men, just pay them. It’s all part of the experience. Give them like 50 rupees.

Fake holy man in Varanasi India

2. Don’t stay too long. Usually, I’m a huge advocate for slow travel — staying places 2+ weeks. But 3 days will really do it, my friends.

3. Bring TP in your pockets everywhere. I mean everywhere.

4. Bring earplugs for sleeping. I swear to god, you hear people hacking up I-don’t-know-what at all hours.

5. It’s best to be back at your hotel before dark. It gets super creepy at night.

6. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or clothes. This is definitely a place you want to blend in as best you can. Ladies, you may want to consider wearing a headscarf if you are not fond of extra attention.

7. If you are going all the way to Varanasi, there’s no “skipping the burning ghats.” Visit the ghats in a respectful way. No photos, and stay off to the side of the ghats. Don’t go trudging through them.

8. Don’t take young kids to Varanasi. Saw some “hardcore travelers” doing this, and I just felt so bad for those kids.

Should You Go to Varanasi?

Varanasi is not for everybody, and hopefully this Varansi Guide is helpful for you to decide. Varansi is for the traveler who has a seriously open mind in regards to how others live, for the traveler who can say “no” (without being aggressive) every minute to a different person trying to stop them in the street, and for the traveler who is looking for something totally out of this world and seeking a total mind fuck.

If that’s not the traveler you are, and still decide to visit Varanasi … well … that’s the traveler you will become!

Kaitlyn Schlicht in Varanasi

PHOTOS: @THECOLT

Always in search of worldly knowledge and broader understandings, Kaitlyn has been freelancing while traveling since 2015. She's passionate about digital content, being environmentally friendly, and surfing. 16+ countries and counting.