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River Ganges, Varanasi, India

A Varanasi boat ride is the best way to experience Varanasi. If there’s one thing you have to do in the holiest city in India, it’s this.

Early in the morning, before the first rays of sunlight have painted the sky, the boatmen of Varanasi walk to their rowboats at the banks of River Ganges. In short time, the ghats will be crowded by locals and pilgrims performing their morning prayer (puja), brushing their teeth and bathing in the holy Hindu river.

The boatmen are waiting patiently when the first tourists appear at the ghat steps behind them. “Is it 500 rupees for a boat ride?”, the first costumer asks, but the boatman shakes his head and looks the other way: “1,000 rupees”, he replies. The costumer pffs and walks to the next boatman where the exact same argument repeats until the tour is settled on 700 rupees. A tour that should have costed him 120 rupees ($2) or less.

It’s impossible to visit Varanasi without someone trying to overcharge you. But still… doing a Varanasi boat ride, especially in the morning, is worth the hassle. Here’s why:

Read next: A quick guide to Varanasi

Highlights of a Varanasi boat ride

You can skip anything else – just don’t skip a sunrise boat ride in Varanasi.

First of all, you get the best views of Varanasi from the River Ganges. And second of all, you can observe here the Hindu way of life along the banks of the Ganges (Ghats) River.

Some of the highlights:

  • Assi ghat (a peaceful ghat with great cafes)
  • Jain ghat (the only ghat belonging to the Jain cult in Varanasi)
  • Man Mandir (beautiful ornate window carvings)
  • Manikarnika ghat (the main burning ghat)
  • Dasaswamedh ghat (where you’ll find the evening aarti)
  • Scindia ghat (it has a partially sunken Shiva temple)

Varanasi, India

Important tips for the boat ride

When: You can do a boat ride from very early morning until Ganga Aarti that takes place by sunset. The boat rides cost more at sunrise and sunset. The best time to do a boat ride is in the morning. It’s just more beautiful and serene, and you’ll get to experience the Hindu way of life up close. It’s very special.

Where: There are more than 100 ghats in Varanasi, and you can find a boat man for hire in almost all of them. The smaller ghats have less boats than the popular ones such as Assi ghat, Manikarnika ghat, Raj ghat. Scindia ghat or Dasaswamedh ghat.

What: You can hire a motor boat or a traditional rowing boat, which is controlled by a boatman. They carry up to six people. Never enter a rowing boat with more than 6 people! It’s not safe.

How long: A trip typically stretches for 90 to 120 minutes

Varanasi, India

Boat ride for sunrise in Varanasi

The rowing boat tour at dawn is one of the must-do’s in Varanasi, as it gives you the best view of the town, a look into local life and front row to the stunning sunrise that bathes the sky and river in dazzling nuances of yellow. River Ganges is the heart of Varanasi, and this is where life and death converge.

Before take-off, we bought two floating candles (Rs 10 each) to lit and let float in the water along with hundred others. When the sun began to rise, the scenery was just amazing. While the boatman slowly rowed us from Assi ghat to Harishchandra ghat, we passed women who washed clothes by hitting it against a flat rock repeatedly. They dried the clothing in the sun by folding it out on the ground.

The further we got, the more people were at the banks of the river, washing up, praying or playing badminton. We got to witness morning rituals ‘the Indian way’ which was truly interesting. When we reached Manikarnika ghat at the end, the boatman tied the boat to a motorboat that towed us back. It was still in a slow tempo so we got to enjoy the scenery and watch the people.

Read next: How to make a day trip to Sarnath from Varanasi

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Boat ride for sunset in Varanasi

Later that day, we booked a boat tour in the evening to see the Ganga Aarti Varanasi, which is an evening ritual with fire and music. It costs the same as the morning tour, and I would definitely recommend you to do them both. If you only have time for one of them, opt for the morning tour.

On the evening boat tour, you’ll get to watch the many night colours of the city. It truly is magnificent, but the squeamish must be prepared to see cremations at Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat.

Read next: Lotus Lounge: The Best Restaurant in Varanasi

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Price for a Varanasi boat ride

You can get the trip for $2 per hour, but you’ll have to bargain for it. We booked it through our hotel, and they arranged for everything. FYI: The boatman expects a tip upon return.

  • Rowing boat (max 6 pers): 200 INR
  • Motor boat (more than 6 pers): 1500 INR per trip

What to bring and wear

  • A warm sweater or zip cardigan – Mornings are chilly in Varanasi, so bring a jacket or sweater to stay warm.
  • Pants – Both because it’s chilly, but also because of the mosquitos.
  • Mosquito repellent – These insects are most active at dusk and dawn, so come prepared.
  • Camera
  • Water

Varanasi, India

Are you planning a Varanasi boat ride? Ask me anything in the comments!

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A morning boat ride on River Ganges, Varanasi, India