The city is one of the oldest living cities in the world(!). Varanasi is believed to be 4000+ years old, and still functioning much in the way it would have, with everyday life centred around the river.
I’m not going to lie; arriving by plane from the comparatively mellow vibes of South Indian Kochi, it was an instant shock to all of the senses even driving by taxi from the airport… There are cows walking EVERYWHERE. There are piles of rubbish everywhere. There are people EVERYWHERE. But even more so, there is a buzz of activity that just feels different to the South of the country – and it feels exciting.
The good news? If you have two days to explore this Sacred City, it is possible to see the best of Varanasi and to really get a feel for it.
It’s easy to get around Varanasi – the ancient city was designed to be walked on foot (and for donkeys and cows to make their way around too) and accessed by the focal centre of it’s holiness; the River Ganges. And, contrary to usual destination lists crammed with activities and ‘sights’ to see, Varanasi is more about walking around and taking it all in… There is a LOT to take in!
In two days you can:
- Discover the ‘ghats’
- Take a walking tour through the alleyways
- Experience sunrise or sunset on the ghats
- Take a boat ride on the River Ganges
- Find the best chai at one of Varanasi’s many cool cafes
Thats kind of it! But don’t underestimate the size of the list and length of time allocated to wandering the back streets and ghats of Varanasi. Trust me, we had imagined it might be challenging keeping ourselves ‘entertained’ with such a short list of must-do’s but we stayed an extra day and night and quite literally found ourselves happily lost in amongst the vibrance of Varanasi.
WHAT, is a ghat?!
A ghat is a term used in the Indian subcontinent to describe a series of steps leading down to a body of water, such as a bathing or cremation place along the banks of a river. Along the River Ganges in Varanasi there are 88 ghats – kind of like 88 different neighbourhoods all lining the sacred river.
Every day the ghats are used by people bathing in the river, washing clothes and laundry, collecting holy water for temples, and using boats to make their way up and down the edge of the Old City.
And there are also two ‘Burning Ghats’; areas of the riverfront steps that are designated for spiritual public cremations of Hindu. The bodies are cremated and the ashes held for nine days until they are released into the River Ganga as the ultimate sacrifice, cleansing them of sin and freeing them from the cycle of rebirth.
It’s a powerful place to experience.
Take up a walking tour
I definitely recommend getting a good guide for Varanasi. We really enjoyed our time with Ravi, and learnt/saw/tasted so much more of the holy city than we would ever have found on our own! I admit I was skeptical; you will be offered so many tours at a “very good price” that you will be lost for choice of guide, but even more so I wondered how the kids would actually handle a walking tour, and would it be suitable for them?
I needn’t have worried! It was the best thing we did. Our guesthouse was located at one end of the ghats, which turned out to be a perfect starting point. We spent the morning exploring all of the back alley ways and learning about life in such a Sacred City, then walked all the way right along the riverfront and ghats. We would never have understood half as much as we did without talking with someone. There is a lot to take in visually (and do be prepared to explain the Burning Ghats to the kids (and your inner-self!) before you turn the corner and there they suddenly are!) as it is, that hearing the stories to match the sights, sounds and smells made it all come together for us.
Experience sunrise and sunset on the ghats
Sunrise in Varanasi is somewhat the best of both worlds – it’s a peaceful time, before the full-on buzz that is Varanasi in all her glory, but it also denotes a different kind of busy, as locals go about their own daily routines and rituals along the river edge. The Sacred City is holy for Hindus and pilgrims who come to Ganges river to dip in it with the belief that this act will wash away a lifetime of sins. But on an average morning its a frenzy with local devotees going about more peaceful rituals amidst the routines of others. As far as people watching goes; this has got to be one of the most eye-opening and interesting places to be, and I am thankful to Gavin who on the first morning got up at sunrise to explore himself and was so inspired he got us all up the next day so as not to miss out!
Come the evening, at sunset you have a choice of best places to be – out on a boat floating gently down the river; eating an early dinner atop one of the rooftop restaurants, or just strolling the ghats in the formidable golden light. We managed to squeeze in all three of those sunset highlights, and were close enough after dark to watch the Evening Aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat from nearby our hotel.
Don’t miss these special times of day, even if you do have a short stay in Varanasi.
Take a boat ride on the River Ganges
Taking a boat ride down the River Ganges was one of those moments in travel that leaves you a bit lost for words. I don’t think we had quite realised the significance of the city of Varanasi before arriving; nor understood that the history can be traced back 4000 years…
It’s easy to get a boat ride – just head down to the ghats and you will be asked by every boat man you pass. It’s beautiful at sunrise, and peaceful. But if you aren’t up for the early start or, if you are already out on a walking tour and have a great tour guide; you can ask them to come with you by boat as well. There is so much going on that it is a lot to take in, and it certainly gives a different perspective from the water. The river flows a lot faster than we realised, and we literally just floated down the river from one end of the city to the other. You can hear all the different groups of conversations and happenings along the stairs of each ghat!
Find the best chai in Varanasi
We took this ‘sight’ of Varanasi as a bit of a personal challenge, and in all spent hours of each day wandering the alley ways in search of chai. I love hearing the call of Chai Wallah’s selling tea from tiny stalls and nooks underneath houses that looked surely too small to be a cafe!
Varanasi became a popular destination for travellers and hippies in the 1960’s and I don’t think much has changed as far as the pull for hipster travellers (as opposed to tourists). Perhaps credit to them is due for the slow pace of cafe culture, where on wandering the alleys you will see the same travellers sitting for hours drinking chai… and then again the next day. Well, we almost became those travellers – except our travelling companions don’t sit for quite as long. We drank a lot of chai and found our favourites amongst the many at Ashish Cafe, where we could sit outside on the top steps of Ganga Mahal Ghat and watch the world go by…
Where we stayed
Assi Ghat: Hotel Temple on Ganges
Location-wise, this was a great choice for our stay. Assi Ghat is the southernmost ghat along the River Ganges, and is the best place to stay if you want to be close to the morning and evening aartis. The hotel itself is basic, but felt safe and easy for us with the kids. If you are looking for luxury then there are other options, but I chose this based on a similar recommendation from another family – it was easy to get to with a pick-up service from the airport; close to the ghats; and has a rooftop restaurant that made evenings easy.
And there you have it! Varanasi is most definitely do-able with kids; enjoyable, and one heck of a learning experience for all. If you only have two days, don’t panic – just book it. And if you felt worried before about taking the kids, I hope to have convinced you otherwise. The memories you will take away from Varanasi are from a city like no other.
Plus, navigating the narrow alleyways of Varanasi with the excited eyes of a four year old certainly makes for a totally different perspective on all aspects of life!