Believed to be the oldest city in the world founded almost 5000 years ago by Shiva, the god of death in Hinduism, Varanasi is an exhilarating and unforgettable experience in India. From the moment you set foot in the city filled with color, food and the people, your senses will be overwhelmed in the most pleasant way. Known as the holiest city in Hindu mythology it is thronged by sadhus in orange langots and others that have come to wash their sins away in the holy River Ganga. Here is a 2 day itinerary that includes the best places to visit in Varanasi.
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Varanasi is just a two hour plane ride from India’s capital, Delhi. It’s located in the states of Uttar Pradesh and easily accessible by car, train or plane. Well-known as a tourist destination for the eccentric experiences you will not find anywhere in the world, Varanasi, also known as Banaras, is not for the faint of heart. The best time to travel here is between the months of November and March when the temperature is between 10 and 20 degrees celsius. The weather during the winters is dry with plenty of sunlight to warm you up.
Places to Stay in Varanasi
When visiting places that are heavy on your senses I always try to find a bit of quiet at my place of stay. Since I can guarantee Varanasi is going to be the most overwhelming experience you will probably ever have, the following hotels are a good choice to relax at the end of the day.
Brij Rama Palace Heritage Hotel
Brij Rama Palace Heritage Hotel – One of the largest and oldest buildings in the modern city of Varanasi, this 18th century palace overlooking the Ganga has been converted into a luxury hotel. The rooms are furnished with four poster beds draped in Benarasi silks and 200 year old paintings. The central patio stages dance performances every evening. The famous Darbhanga restaurant overlooking the Ganga serves a gastronomic experience in the guise of the Benarasi thali with nine different dishes.
Nadesar Palace – This hotel which has served royalty since 1835 is situated between a quiet mango orchid. The palace provides a quiet comfort and plenty of space to relax amongst the marigold trees. A butler is always on hand should you desire anything during your stay. The Jiva Spa at the hotel boasts ancient Indian techniques of healing that use Ayurvedic techniques to draw stress and toxins out of your body and leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed. The hotel which only has 10 rooms provides an intimate experience that is tailored to your every need.
Having been born and brought up in India I would caution against any homestays or smaller hotels. These are typically not upto standard and very disappointing. The well established chains always live up to expectations. It’s much easier to relax when you know your butler is figuring out the boat ride for tomorrow instead of haggling with the manager about a broken AC.
How To Spend 2 Days in Varanasi
Varanasi is filled with amazing experiences and you couldn’t finish seeing the city in weeks. But if you have a weekend, that is enough to give you a taste of why so many people from across the globe are drawn to this place. Here’s a way to structure your weekend or two-day trip and all the places to see in Varanasi over 48 hours.
Start Your Varanasi Sightseeing at Sarnath Deer Park
One of the four holy places in Buddhism. This is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment at Bodhgaya. It is said that this is where Buddha met his first five disciples. Sarnath is about 10 kilometers from the middle of Varanasi and a quick car ride away. It is easy to spend the morning here walking around the park and exploring the museum. Some important points to visit here are the Dhamekh Stupa and monastery ruins, the archaeological museum, Mulgandha Kuti VIhar and Chaukhandi Stupa.
The emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC erected multiple stupas and monasteries and established a tradition of Buddhism here. The engraved pillar found on the Indian currency was also erected by Ashoka as a symbol of respect. The pillar now resides in the museum on the property. Sarnath served as a city of worship and learning until the Mughal invasion when it was levelled to the ground. It was rediscovered and restored in the 19th century and has since served as a museum and deer park. Buddhist disciples from all over the world come here to see the magnificent and large stupas carved out of stone and gaze upon the ruins of the ancient city.
You will probably get back from Sarnath in the middle of the afternoon and I recommend spending the afternoon at one of the local restaurants and taking a couple hours nap before heading out at 5 pm to eat some chaat.
Stop For Lunch and Go Chaat Tasting
The most famous circle in Varanasi and the most delicious food I have ever eaten in my life is at the Kashi Chaat Center or the Deena Chaat Bhandar on Dashashwamedh Road. This is right down from the Kashi Vishwanath temple which we are going to walk to next. I grew up in India and can confidently say I have tasted some of the best Indian food out there.
Nothing comes close to the food here. Be prepared because the population of Varanasi knows this too. The shop is a hole in the wall and you shout your order at the shopkeeper. Since most people can’t get enough, you can keep repeating orders, trying new things and the guy standing next to the shopkeepers keeps a tally of your bill which you pay in the end. I am pretty sure I ended up eating 6 or 7 plates of chaats and still went back there the next day.
Stop For Lunch and Go Chaat Tasting
Next comes a delightful wonder in the middle of the city in the form of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Walk up the street for 10 minutes and you will reach the entrance. This temple is known as the golden temple of Varanasi and dedicated to Lord Shiva, the god of destruction. The domes and towers are covered with 800 kilograms of gold that glitter in the setting sun. The road leading up to the temple entrance is filled with vendors selling offerings for the deity. It is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the holiest sites to worship Lord Shiva.
Being one of the holiest sites for Hindus, the temple will be full of people gathering for the aarti at 7 pm. All of the bells in the temple will begin to ring simultaneously while the priests chant the mantras. I recommend getting here a little earlier to explore the temple leisurely before the aarti begins. There are multiple smaller shrines dedicated to the gods situated in the compound. Each of them have been lovingly bathed, colored and dressed by the priests and adored by the people.
After the sweat, grim, walking and the insane energy of this city you will most definitely be exhausted so head in for a relaxing night.
Invade Historic Ramnagar Fort
Make your way to Ramnagar fort after breakfast next morning. The fort was built on the eastern ghat of Ganga opposite to Tulsi Ghat by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh. The palace is overrun with weeds and looks broken down but the intricately carved balconies, open courtyards and the Mughal inspired architecture is amazing.It’s truly one of the most interesting places to visit in Varanasi.
The museum, expansive palace grounds and the temple portray the history of this ancient city. The mighty fortifications have an amazing view of the Ganga. The museum exhibition which hosts a range of classic cars, carriages and weapons seems to be haphazardly organized with no regard for style but the charm of these artifacts remains intact.
Spend the Afternoon Wandering and Shopping
For the afternoon, make your way to the local market to pick up some goodies or look at the famous Benarasi silk. Vishwanath Lane, Thateri Bazaar, Chowk and Godowilia all lie in the same area with small winding lanes selling wares.
The charm in this market is in not knowing what lies around the next corner. Start walking in any direction and make your own way as you soak in the culture, food and energy of the city. If you are looking for a specific item, it is easy to ask any shopkeeper where you might find some. Take your time roaming around this ancient market, it’s one of the best places to visit in Varanasi.
Experience Sunset on the Ganges and The Aarti
Your final evening in the city is a treat of its own sort. Make your way to any of the ghats. The most famous would be the Manikarnika ghat where the dead are burned and then their ashes are released in the Ganga. There you may encounter members of the Aghora sect of Hinduism as well as other pilgrims.
It is believed that if you die in Varanasi you gain freedom from the cycle of life and death. As out of place as it may sound to those not accustomed to the culture, the scene is very calm and serene.
Take a boat ride from the ghat to view the sunset from the river and then prepare for an aarti like you have never seen before. Hundreds of priests with stacks of burning diyas will chant mantras in Sanskrit while a hundred other rings bells from all across the city. The sound booms across the Ganga for miles.
The entire river is filled with hundreds of boats topped by people who want to view the aarti. More than a thousand people turn up here every evening to witness this grand aarti next to the Ganga. This is not something you will ever forget in your life. The energy from this aarti will leave you feeling energised and in awe.
Other Places to Eat in Varanasi
Address: CK 12/1 Kunj Gali, Kachaudi Gali, Near Rajbandhu, Govindpura, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001, India
This hole in the wall shop has been around for decades and I still hear accolades from people that have lived in this city for years. They serve the creamiest and most delicious flavored lassis in earthen pots.
Lassi is made from churning milk to the point that it froths and becomes creamy. It is a cool drink that can be flavored sweet or salty. The flavors at Blue Lassi are huge and you will find anything from mango to almond to any mixture you can think off. This should not be missed in Varanasi.
Address: Aanand Mandir Cinema Hall, Raja Bazar Rd, Andhrapull, Teliyabag, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221002, India
This restaurant on the Puran Das Road serves the staple food of the people here, baati chokha. The dough from flour is made into a little ball and fried in oil in clay ovens for 10 minutes until golden brown. These are served with the traditional curries. As soon as you walk in you will smell the butter cooking on the clay and the smell of the spice being used in the curries. You can either sit down cross legged on the carpets for a traditional experience or choose a table. Ask the waiter for what they recommend and enjoy the delicious food while soaking in the atmosphere of the city.
Address: Brijrama Palace Hotel, Munshi/Darbhanga Ghat
One of the well known restaurants in town, this is a classy option if you want to get out of the streets and have a proper sit down dinner. The restaurant has been lauded for its eclectic take on Indian street food as well as having international options if you are craving something from back home. This is an opulent restaurant situated on the roof of the Brij Rama Palace overlooking the Ganges. Make a point to at least have one of your meals here.
Why You Should Go to Varanasi
Varanasi is a gem and a melting pot of colors, food and religion. It has the luck of accumulating 5000 years of culture and traditions that can rarely be found anywhere else. From the thundering Ganga aarti to chaat that melts in your mouth and a temple dripping with gold, nothing comes close to beating the experience that is Varanasi.
If I had to recommend anyone a single city in all of India that captures the soul of the country, then Varanasi would be my best bet. If you take a trip to India then be sure to add this amazing city to your list!
Kanupriyaa is a software engineer born in India that now lives in LA. Her blog Sunset Jeans is a document of all the adventures that took place in between while she traveled the world solo. Follow her on Instagram