Hemmed to the side of the sacred Ganga, Varanasi is one of the top tourist destinations in India. The holiest of holy cities, it is also believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited ones. Known by many names like Kashi, Avimukta and Benaras, Varanasi has been, since ancient times, a seat of learning and spirituality. Pilgrims come here to wash away their sins in the Ganga, to be blessed at its many temples and to die here because that ensures you’re going straight to heaven! But there are many other things to do in Varanasi for visitors who are stupefied by its charm whether it’s their first visit or the umpteenth. Here’s our list of the top ten definitive things to do in Varanasi:
Things to do in Varanasi:
1. Seek blessings at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Mentioned in the Puranas, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, home a revered Jyotirlinga and believed to be the temple where praying would allow one to attain moksha, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the holiest places in the country. Visiting it to seek the Lord’s blessings is one of the top things to do in Varanasi.
- Location: Lahori Tola, Varanasi
- Timings: 4.00 am – 8.30 pm
- Fee: From ₹180 – ₹300 for various aartis or queueless darshan
2. Take an early morning boat ride on the Ganga
The Ganga River or the Ganges, is one of the most revered rivers in the country and is in its most beautiful and serene form when passing through Varanasi. Waking up at the crack of dawn to take a boat ride across this ocean-like water body is definitely one of the unmissable things to do in Varanasi. Enjoy scenes of life unfolding on the river’s banks, the sonorous sounds of chants and bells emerging from the temples and the quiet, tranquil waters and don’t forget to snap an insta-worthy pic with the cityscape in the background.
- Where: From Dashwamedha Ghat
- Timings: 1 hour boat ride starts from 5.30 am
- Charges: Between ₹50 – ₹100
3. Explore the city’s temples
Varanasi is literally India’s spiritual capital, punctuated with temples, each one with an interesting history and architecture and visiting them is one of the top things to do in Varanasi. Visit the Durga Kund Temple to see a fine example of the Nagara style of architecture, the Kaal Bhairav Mandir to seek the city’s presiding deity’s permission to stay here (that’s how the legend goes!), Maa Annapurna Mandir, the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Mandir and the Vishalakshi Temple, a shaktipeeth, dedicated to goddess Sati.
4. Be mesmerized by the evening aarti at Dashwamedha Ghat
Varanasi is a study in contrasts and nowhere is it more visible than in the pageant-like atmosphere of the daily evening prayers or aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat compared with the sombreness of the burning pyres on Manikarnika Ghat. But attending the aarti is one of the must-experience things to do in Varanasi because you get to see the grandeur of the event attended by hundreds of people, feel the strong positive vibes and accumulate a memorable experience.
- Timings: Starts at 6.00 pm in winter and 7.00 pm in summer
5. Explore the iconic Banaras Hindu University (BHU)
Varanasi has been known as one of the most important centres of learning in India since ancient times and the Banaras Hindu University continues that tradition today. Established in 1916, BHU is an iconic institution. Visiting it to admire its hallowed interiors, architecture and its peaceful atmosphere is a popular thing to do in Varanasi. Also include in your visit, a trip to the Bharat Kala Bhavan, an inspiring museum with a wide collection of ancient manuscripts, sculptures and miniature paintings among other displays.
- Location: Ajagara, Varanasi
- Timings: 10.00 am – 6.00 pm (Mon-Fri)
- Fee: Free
6. Take a dip in the Ganga
Legend says that a dip in the Ganga will absolve you of all your sins and thousands of pilgrims come here every year to do just that. And so should you, because this is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. Whether or not your sins are washed, you’d have gained a phenomenal experience of bathing in one of the most talked-about rivers in the world!
7. Be surprised at the Jantar Mantar
Didn’t know there was a Jantar Mantar at Varanasi? Well, there is and visiting it to be surprised at the accuracy of its instruments is one of the best off-beat things to do in Varanasi. The observatory built by Maharaj Jai Singh II in the mid-1800s includes many instruments like the Samrat Yantra, Digamsa Yantra, Chakra Yantra, Nadivalaya, and Daksinottara Bhitti Yantra. They measure local time, altitude and the movement of celestial bodies.
- Location: Near Dasashwamedha Ghat, Varanasi
- Timings: 6.00 am – 5.00 pm
- Fee: Free
8. Explore Varanasi’s many ghats
Exploring the many ghats that dot the Ganga’s shores is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. If you expected all of them to be much the same, you’d be surprised as each one has a different history and legend attached to it that makes it unique and interesting. Visit as many as you can but we’d recommend – Assi Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Dashwamedha Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat.
9. Visit the imposing Ramnagar Fort
Constructed by the then King of Banaras, Raja Balwant Singh, in 1750 this impressive Chunar sandstone fortification was home to the royal family. Overlooking the Ganga, the fort is a good example of Mughal architecture with decorated pavilions, courtyards and balconies. A most rewarding thing to do in Varanasi, your fort visit must also include a trip to the Dakshin Mukhi temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman and an interesting museum that houses rare antiques and artefacts. Also, if you can coincide your trip with Dusshehra, you’re in for a treat with the special Ramlila organized at the fort. Read alos about trip to Varanasi
- Location: Mirzapur – Varanasi Road, Purana, Ramnagar, Varanasi
- Timings: 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
- Fee: ₹15 per adult, ₹10 per child
10. Take a trip to Sarnath
Taking a trip to Sarnath where the Buddha is believed to have first taught ‘dharma’ and set the ‘wheels of dharma’ in motion, is a popular thing to do in Varanasi. Situated about 10 Km from Varanasi, Sarnath is an extremely important pilgrimage point for Buddhists and is surrounded by a breath taking collection of stupas and temples.
- Distance from Varanasi: 10.2 Km
- Timings: 9.00 am – 5.00 pm
- Fee: ₹5 per person (Indians), ₹100 per person (foreigners)
11. Sample Varanasi’s awesome street food
If Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ were a city, it’d have to be Varanasi, because that’s all what the city is about! You’d pray at Varanasi’s many temples, of course but true love will come in the form of its street-eats – absolutely our most favoured thing to do in Varanasi! Try Kachori subzi at Kachori Bazaar or Thatheri Gali, Choora matar at Gopal Mandir Gali, Meethe Golgappe at Gol Ganj, Tamatar Chaat at Dashwamedh Road and Nimish (also known as makkhan maliyyo) at Kachori Gali. You must also sample Pehelwan ki Lassi at Lanka Crossing and the famed Banarasi Paan. And end it with bhaang (yup, that’s cannabis!) at one of the government authorized shops in the city!
12. Witness the wonder of brocade weaving
It has been mentioned in the Rig Veda as Hiranya Vastra or the golden cloth, it was once woven exclusively with cotton yarn and real gold and silver threads and it is still one of the most prized possessions in a woman’s wardrobe…that’s Banarasi silk for you and watching it being woven on a traditional wood loom will be one of the things to do in Varanasi.
- Where: Various locations – Madanpura, Jatipura, Mubarakpur
- Timings and cost: Will be supplied by your local resource
13. Shop in the city’s bustling markets
The labyrinthine network of ancient roads spread all around the city are also home to many a bazaar and exploring one (or more) of these is one of the most awesome things to do in Varanasi. Shop for Banarasi sarees and brocade textile yardage, carpets (from the nearby city of Bhadoi), stone inlay worked home accents, idols, books on Hindu Philosophy and spiritualism, glass beads and bangles and rudraksh necklaces. Get them all at the city’s main shopping areas like Thatheri Bazaar, Vishwanath Lane, Godowlia and Chowk.
Varanasi is a curious study in contrasts where the past and the present, the beautiful and the hideous, all live yoked to each other in this urban intrigue. One visit would simply not do it justice and you’ll discover something new on every trip. If our list of definitive Varanasi experiences has missed something out, give us a shout out in comments below!