When planning our trip to India, the city of Varanasi was a must-see in our itinerary. It is the holiest city of India and a popular pilgrimage stop. People from all over India come to this city to pray, bath, and sometimes die near the holy Ganges. It is a city of extremes. Colorful saris versus the dark water of the Ganges, flowers versus rotting stench and whispering prayers versus loud honking. It is not a destination that everyone can handle, but I was up for the challenge. Unfortunately, our visit to Varanasi was cut short. We only spent 24 hours in the city. In this blog post, I’m sharing Varanasi things to do in less than 24 hours.
Read next: Beyond the Taj Mahal: things to do in Agra
Traveling by train to Varanasi: lessons learned
We traveled from Agra to Varanasi by train and this turned out to be a good lesson of what the train system in India is like. Lesson 1: the train system is outdated. Since the independence of India (in 1947) it hasn’t be modernized. This meant old train tracks. Lesson 2: the trains move along super slow and stop without a reason. This all resulted in the longest travel day ever.
12 hours delay
On the night we had to leave Agra, our homestay told us that the train to Varanasi was notorious for its delay. And shortly after that, we got our first update: a two-hour delay. Not too bad we thought. And then a second update came: a five-hour delay. Ai, that was quite a long time. Not long after that, a third update informed us about a seven-hour delay. How long is this going to be?! We decided to go to the train station, so that we were close in case the train arrived. Eventually, we left Agra at 3 am in the morning instead of 7 pm: an eight-hour delay. The train itself stopped a lot and the delay got even worse: 12 hours! Instead of arriving in Varanasi at 10 am we arrived at 10 pm in the evening.
24 hours in Varanasi: things to do
We had booked flights to Mumbai, so we could not simply extend our stay in Varanasi. 24 hours was literally all we had, and so we made the best of it.
Early morning: boat ride over the holy Ganges river
The first morning in Varanasi started out early. We wanted to take a boat ride over the Ganges river and see the city awaken. So we entered the streets while it was still dark and walked along the river banks with a local guide. It was a foggy and cold morning, but it was already busy. People were praying, setting flowers, and taking off their clothes to bathe in the Mother Ganges. The water is considered to cleanse the soul and sins. We stepped aboard a wooden boat and navigated along the ghats (banks) that filled up with more pilgrims going down into the river for a ritual bath.
Slowly, we approached the infamous cremation ghats where the deceased are publicly cremated. One body after the other was carried inside the ghats and burned on the wooden piles. The remains go into the river. Our guide told us that people need to be cremated within 24 hours, so the bodies are often rushed through the streets to make it. But not everyone is cremated. The saddhus, pregnant women, and young children are considered pure and go directly into the river without cremations. During our boat ride, we not only saw human bodies presented to the Ganges, but we also came across a floating deceased cow. The rotting smell was almost unbearable.
Seeing the most beautiful ghats
Ghats are the steps that descend into the Ganges river. There are more than 100 ghats in Varanasi, the most well-known are located between Assi ghat and Raj Ghat. Assi Ghat is an important pilgrimage stop for worshippers of Lord Shiva. There is a big stone pillar under a tree where people stand still and pray. Not far from Assi Ghat there is the Janki Ghat. Personally, I liked this ghat the best. It has lovely colorful steps, it is in good condition and it’s not that crowded. Other beautiful ghats are the Jain Ghat with the huge Swastika painting (swastika is a symbol in Jainism and Buddhism of good fortune), Chet Singh Ghat with the beautiful 18th-century temple, and the Kedar Ghat with the colorful Hindu temple in the back.
Creative Varanasi: street art in the holy city
The spiritual city of Varanasi has more to offer than just the Ganges river, pilgrims, and ghats. I also found street art in this city. I did not expect this in the holiest city of India at all, but still, it was there. Of course, street art in Varanasi often had a spiritual dimension. Hindu gods, old sagas or holy rituals, painted in bright blue, orange, or red colors. Along the Ganges riverfront, you can already see some street art at the ghats and water towers. I also saw street art ‘in the making’ around Nagwa Road, near Assi Ghat. I loved watching the process.
Evening tip: visit the Aarti ceremony
Every evening (at 6 pm in the winter and 7 pm in summer) the Aarti ceremonies take place at the Ghats. This is a holy ceremony where priests thank the god Ganga for bringing life. The ceremony takes place with music, singing, and burning scents. There are actually a couple of ceremonies taking place along the Ganges, but the biggest is at Dashashwamedh ghat. Some people choose to watch the ceremony from a boat, but I liked it more from the banks so I could watch up close. I could sit with the locals and see the dedication on their faces. Unfortunately, I also saw some tourists going out of their way to snap the perfect photo. Be an ethical and responsible tourist, please!
More things to do in Varanasi + what to know before going
Despite the fact that my visit to Varanasi was way too short, I still liked what I saw. I would love to have a do-over to explore more of the city. Preferably with a bit more sun, join a yoga class at the river banks and drink a fruity lassi at the Blue Lassi Shop. Here’s a list of more interesting things to do in Varanasi, plus a few things to know before visiting.
- Visit Open Hand. A café annex gift shops. Before going in, take off your shoes and put them outside the door. No one is watching the shoes, but when I left my shoes were still there. So it will be fine. They have a lovely small balcony where you can watch the streets with good coffee.
- Vegetarian alcohol-free city: Varanasi is a holy city which means alcohol and meat are limited. A lot of restaurants are vegetarian (perfect for me!) and alcohol-free. Still in the mood for a beer? Some restaurants offer a closed-off room where you can drink your beer. So it is possible, but you have to do it out of public sight.
- Drugs in the holy city? Weird but true: when I walked in the streets behind Assi ghat I smelled weed. It is used for a popular local drink: Bhang Lassi, a green weed milkshake. Bhang is a product of the leaves of the cannabis plant. According to legend, Lord Shiva brought bhang to the people. The sale of bhang is regulated by the Indian government and some shops in Varanasi sell bhang. Personally, I don’t do drugs, but this is something you will definitely notice in the streets of Varanasi.
And there you have it: a list of things to do in Varanasi. Would you add Varanasi to your India itinerary?