Believed to be the oldest continuously habituated place in the world, Varanasi or Benares is also one of the most religious sites in India. The city is lined with innumerable temples and shrines, and is regarded in Hinduism as the ideal place to do the final rites for a departed soul to attain moksha. Though the Ganga aarti in the evening by the ghat, a dip in the Ganga and blessings at Kashi Vishwanath temple tops the priority list of things to do, there is more to Varanasi than just these. Varanasi is best explored on foot. A stroll through its ghats, roads and alleyways will give you a glimpse of life in the city.
Explore the ghats
With more than 80 ghats, all lined together one after the other, it is a delight to walk along them with flowing Ganga on one side and numerous dilapidated buildings and temples on the other. Amble along the ghats, past the meditating sadhus, quirky foreigners, photographers, shrines, temples, priests, pilgrims and the tea sellers. Take breaks, sit by the ghats, have a tea and gaze at the gorgeous Ganga flowing. Many ghats have temples, while some have beautiful structures and few have old buildings. The popular ghats are Assi, Dashashwamedh, Panchganga, Kedar and Manikarnika. The walk is time consuming and the ideal time would be early morning.
Take a morning boat ride on the Ganga
Take a boat ride before sunrise and see Varanasi awaken to another beautiful day. The mist engulfed ghats and temples are a delight to watch in the morning. Feed the cawing gulls and see the ghats from a different angle and perspective. There are numerous boats available at every ghat. An ideal ride would be from Assi ghat to Manikaranika ghat and return.
Stroll through the alleyways
The alleys are an integral part of Varanasi. A large part of the city's life meanders through these. Lined with shops, hawkers, houses with beautiful and colourful doors, wall art, cafes and much more, a stroll through these lanes can tell you many stories as you soak in the experience. The alleys also offer some lovely frames for the photographer in you.
Visit temples for blessings
Known for its countless number of temples and shrines, Varanasi is absolutely a temple city. Kashi Vishwanath is the most prominent one and is one of the 12 jyotirlingas in the country. Located adjoining Gyanvapi mosque, both these co-exist peacefully despite the troubled past. It gets quite crowded and is well recommended to head there early in the day. The other popular temples are Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, Kalabhairav temple, Mrityunjay Mahadev temple, Durga temple and Parshvanath Jain temple.
Enjoy the Ganga Aarti
No visit to Varanasi is complete without viewing the Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat. As the sun sets, this ghat turns into a stage of reverberating sound of cymbals, fragrances of camphor and incense, myriad colours of flowers and beautiful lights. Ganga aarti is a daily ritual in the evening where the priests make offerings in the form of fire (lamps) and flowers to river Ganga. Though a crowded affair, it is definitely a sight to behold. Get into one of the boats to have a panoramic view of the ritual.
Walk through BHU
Founded by Madan Mohan Malaviya in the early 20th century, Benares Hindu University is home to many colleges and is the largest residential university in Asia. Spread over 1300 acres, it is a delight to walk through its numerous cross lanes which are laden with greenery and trees.
Cross the Ganga and explore Ramnagar fort
While most of the action and life is along one bank of Ganga, on the other side lies the beautiful Ramnagar fort. Built in 18th century by the king of Benares, it has huge courtyards and is highly influenced by Mughal architecture. The museum here has a nice collection of vintage cars, writings, artillery and other artifacts.
Relish the street food
There is no dearth of tea stalls and chaats (savoury snacks) in Varanasi. The street food here is an absolute delight for the taste buds. Hot pipping tea in disposable earthen cups by the ghats early in the morning is the ideal companion to stare in oblivion at the Ganga. There are also numerous sweet shops which sell a variety of mouth watering sweets such as crispy hot jalebis, laddoos and lassis. Do not miss out on chewing a paan (betel leaf with areca nut and slaked lime) while in Benares.
Shop at Godowliya and the lanes near Kashi Vishwanath
Renowned for its silk, Benarasi silk sarees here are of the finest quality and there are numerous options (both sarees and shops) to choose from near Godowliya. Varanasi is also known for its musical instruments such as sitar, tabala etc. which are handmade. If you love scouting for souvenirs, then the lane that leads to Kashi Vishwanath temple is the recommended place. The shops sell a plethora of curios and artifacts. Make sure you sharpen your bargaining skills before heading there.
Read more about the ghats, Ganga and alleys of Varanasi here.