How to spend fantastic 2 days in Varanasi (Banares) India

Varanasi

Varanasi (Banares), India is the city of the dead. This is where millions of pilgrims come to pray, meditate, bathe in the River Ganges, and cremate their dead by the banks. Not many places have fascinated and moved me to such an extent. It’s packed with extremes and intensity like I’ve never seen before.

I visited Varanasi before and after joining the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, so the city was brimming with pilgrims and sadhus.

Are you planning a trip to India’s holiest city? In this 2 days in Varanasi itinerary I’ll share everything I know to help you explore Varanasi.

Let’s begin.

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Is 2 days in Varanasi enough?

Varanasi is an ancient city steeped in culture and historic sights. It can be overwhelming to try and cram two days of exploring into the bustling area, but it IS possible!

This Varanasi itinerary contains the major sights, attractions and things to do in Varanasi in 2 days. While you can always spend more time in a place, two days are enough to explore the highlights.

First impressions of Varanasi, India’s holiest city

Arriving in Varanasi was a bit of a shock to say the least. Apart from the fact that we got scammed within the first hour of arrival, we were met by extremities that made deep impressions, fascinated us or were simply unpleasant.

In the hordes of people, there were holy men devoted to their religion, street children, mutants, prostitutes, the cows and public urinators, just to name a few. 

One of the things I first noticed was people peeing in public. For instance, I was taking the below photo of the cow when a guy entered the frame and relieved himself. Public urination is not at all uncommon in India. I saw many men and a few women urinating in the streets during my time in Uttar Pradesh.

We all have our triggers, I guess. But Varanasi is one of those places that will give you a culture shock. That’s for sure.

Varanasi, India

Typical Varanasi Scams

Before we get on to your 2 days in Varanasi itinerary, I want to give you a warning.

You need to be aware of common scams, so you won’t be tricked like I was. These are some the most typical scams in Varanasi:

  • Fake or overpriced goods, services, and tour: Be aware of people offering goods or services at prices that seem too good to be true.
  • Credit card skimming: Pay with cash whenever possible and protect your personal details when using a card.
  • Currency exchange scams: Take care when exchanging currency, as some money exchangers may try to give you counterfeit bills.
  • Taxi overcharging: Always agree on a fare before setting off and consider using prepaid taxis from your hotel instead.

Read next: 10 common travel scams and how to avoid them

Day 1 in Varanasi

Your first day in Varanasi is all about the ghats. Begin your day at sunrise with a boat ride along the River Ganges. You’ll be walking a lot, so wear comfortable shoes.

Boat ride on River Ganges

Varanasi is a very intense place with lots of things to see and do. One of my favourite experiences was the boat ride on River Ganges.

You can take the trip in the morning, experience the most amazing sunrise (it’s breathtaking!), and see locals do their morning rituals (bathing, shaving, brushing their teeth and performing puja.

It’s only $2 for an hour.

Read next: Why you should take a boat ride on River Ganges

Varanasi, India

Varanasi, India

Morning arti ceremonies

From the boat and from shore, you can witness the beauty of sunrise morning aarti ceremonies at several ghats. These processions and morning rituals involve chanting, puja offerings, and small boats carrying colourful flickering lamps.

Two of the most popular sites for this ritual are Dashashwamedh Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat, which draw thousands of devotees from near and far every day.

Varanasi, India

Take a walk in the Ghat area

Once you’ve seen Varanasi from the lakeside, it’s time to explore it from the ground.

Varanasi has almost 100 ghats, which are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. A walk along Varanasi’s ghats is a fascinating experience, although you should be prepared for filth and to be hassled by vendors. It takes about 50 minutes to walk from one end to the other.

As you walk along the ghats, you’re bound to see sadhus, snake charmers, spices, temples and lots and lots of shops. It’s free, and I promise: You won’t be bored. 

Some interesting ghats include:

  • Assi Ghat: A bit more quiet and not as chaotic.
  • Dashashwamedh Ghat: The top attraction and where the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the famous Ganga aarti are located.
  • Manikarnika Ghat: Also known as the burning ghat where you’ll come face to face with death
Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

Explore the labyrinth alleys in Banares

When you’ve walked by the river for a while, head into the maze of labyrinthine alleys where you’ll discover bustling bazaars, cows and centuries-old temples.

As you wander the narrow lanes and paths, you never know what you’ll find around the next corner

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

Burning ghats

Varanasi is the holiest city in India, and it is believed that if a person’s ashes are scattered here, their soul will achieve nirvana (release from the cycle of rebirth).

At Manikarnika Ghat, which is the largest cremation site in Varanasi, you’ll see piles of wood stacked for burning. Up to 300 bodies are cremated at the sacred site every day.

The atmosphere among the male family members is not sad. I saw mourners laugh, chat and play cards as the funeral preparations were carried out. Women are not allowed at the site for fear they will cry.

Varanasi is a place that embraces death and puts it right in your face. I understand that this is not for everyone. 

But the circle of life and celebration of death is the essence of Varanasi. You shouldn't avoid seeing it even if it makes you uncomfortable. It's only when we move beyond our comfort zone, that we will truly understand another culture and gain perspective, and that's the greatest gift of traveling. 

What made the greatest impact about the cremation rituals is the way Hindus handle and view death. It has become a business. You see dead people getting cremated in public and their ashes being tossed in the river.

And just five meters from there, children are swimming, having fun, while moms are brushing their teeth and washing clothes with the exact same water. No one seems to mind. Death is an everyday thing.

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India
Body burners

The sadhus

Another fascinating thing about Varanasi are the sadhus. They’re the holy men and children of India, and normally they reside in caves, in the mountains or the woods. But because of the Kumbh Mela festival, thousands were gathered in Varanasi to take a dip in the holy river.

Some of the sadhus practice extreme asceticism by always being naked, others eat human flesh as part of a holy ritual. They’re usually very open and eager to talk, so have a chat with them if you like. Just be cautious and use common sense.

There have been reports of rape, drugging and assaults, especially during the festivals. We visited several naga sadhus and had chai with the ones who seemed nice. Use your intuition to judge if they are friendly or have an ulterior motive.

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

Ramnagar fort

The last stop of the day is Ramnagar fort. This 18th century fort is located 3.8 km from Assi ghat, across the river, so you might want to take a tuktuk or boat there.

The fort was constructed by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh and is a prominent example of Mughal architecture with its two entrances, a series of courtyards and gardens, and a number of buildings including temples and pavilions.

You’ll also find the Saraswati Bhawan museum inside, which houses various artefacts including old coins, medieval costumes, paintings and sculptures.

Day 2 in Varanasi

Your last day in Varanasi is all about spirituality. Start your day with a yoga class, a healthy breakfast, and then head to Sarnath, just 8 kilometres from Varanasi.

Sarnath is an important place in Buddhist history as it was here that Buddha gave his first sermon after attainment enlightenment.

Join a morning yoga class

Yoga is a great way to begin the day, and what better place to take a class than in India, the birthplace of yoga? You can join a yoga class at the Yoga Training Centre near the Meer ghat. Find it below on the map.

The Yoga Training Centre offers daily yoga classes at 8am and 4pm. Integrated yoga classes are available at 8am & 4pm, and Ashtanga classes begin from 5. 45 pm every afternoon.

Visit Sarnath

Once your yoga class is over, find a tuktuk that can drive you to Sarnath.

Sarnath is where Buddha supposedly held his first sermon after getting enlightened. It’s only 10 km from Varanasi, and you can visit on a day trip for only $4 (including tuktuk and entrance fee).  

Sarnath is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, so you’ll see many other people there. The city is home to ancient monuments, including a stupa, temples and monasteries.

It’s definitely worth going, I really enjoyed our trip there.

Sarnath, India

Evening boat ride

When you get back to Varanasi, find an evening boat ride.

At the end of the Varanasi boat tour, you’ll be dropped off at Dasaswamedh Ghat where you can experience the Ganga Aarti (evening ritual with fire and music).

Join a Ganga Aarti

The Ganga Aarti is an evening ceremony that takes place at Dashashwamedh ghat every evening at 6.45.

Ganga Aarti is an ancient Hindu ritual of reverence and worship to the sacred River Ganges. The ritual consists of a prayer, performed by priests and accompanied by chants and music.

The main components of the prayer include offering flowers, oil lamps, incense, and camphor. At the end of the service, offerings are made into the river.

Make sure to get there early so you can get a front seat. You can also watch the Ganga Aarti from the boat, but I don’t recommend that because you’ll be too far away to really witness it.

Read next: What to expect from a Ganga Aarti

Where to stay in Varanasi

Shiva Ganges View Guest House – Situated in the best rated area in Varanasi, this family run hotel has an excellent location (Kedar Ghat). There’s a 24-hour front desk and balcony. Click here to see the latest prices. 

Where to eat in Varanasi

I’ve listed a few of the best restaurants below, including the Lotus Lounge, although I’m not sure it’s still in business.

Lotus Lounge

Ask me anything about spending 2 days in Varanasi! I’ll do my best to answer.

More posts from India you might like

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Varanasi, India is also known as the city of the dead. This is where millions of pilgrims come to pray, meditate, bathe in the River Ganges, and cremate their dead by the banks. Arriving in Varanasi can be a bit of a shock so better come prepared. Here are the top things to do in Varanasi, India.

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61 Comments

  1. Amazing blog.Everything I was curious to know about Varanasi in a gist . However , would like to know. Im planning a solo trip there. Are the hostel safe. you mentioned Ashi Ghat would be safe for solo travel and how about generally moving around Varanasi

    1. Hi Sally, I wouldn’t recommend staying at the The Ganesha Hotel as a solo traveler. Honestly, I found some of the men working there too pushy and clingy, and the room was dirty. Better find a hotel that is a bit more expensive and be safe!! Like so many other places, Varanasi is generally safe, but you should avoid going out in the alleys at night.

      It’s a religious and traditional city with many pilgrims so bring (or buy) a scarf to cover your shoulders. That way you avoid unwanted attention.

      Have fun in Varanasi and don’t miss the morning boat ride at Ganges. It’s breathtaking!!

      1. You must know everything about the city then. I actually didn’t know that Varanasi also goes under the name Kashi. Thanks for enlightening me 🙂

  2. This is all so very helpful. Did you book your travel/lodging around India in advance? And what about the sunrise boat tour? How did you book that?

    1. Thanks, Ang! I booked accommodation along the way, not in advance, and I joined the sunrise boat tour on the morning of the trip. I just went to the ghat and asked the first boatman I saw 🙂

  3. Hi Miriam,

    My wife, son (3 years) and I are making our first trip to Varanasi. We will be there for 4 days.
    Any tips for us – things to do? Most people recommend the boat ride..
    How far is Sarnath by road?

    1. Hi Abhimanyu, thanks for dropping by! I highly recommend the morning boat ride, the Ganga Aarti and walking along the ghats, especially in the morning. Sarnath is only 10 km from Varanasi and you can take a tuk tuk there.

      Have a great trip!

  4. I Liked the way you represented your trip, but when and how recently was it done… though i was looking out for more information on the Manikarnika ghat.

    If you could share more of this information for me to explore before i travel! 🙂

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Rahul 🙂
      I visited India in March 2013 so you’re right to notice that some of the prices may have changed. The hotel links are up-to-date, though.

      Was there something in particular you wanted to know about Manikarnika ghat?

  5. I visited Varanasi two days ago.Being a strict Vegan I was horrified to see thousands of Male calves and Mother cows (whose milk production has stopped) being abandoned on the streets of Varanasi.The male calves are separated from their mothers within a few days of birth and let loose on the streets so that we humans can drink milk.It was a very sad sight.
    Ganga was clean and I could take bath .Visited all religious places but the sight of the poor cows buffaloes and male calves keep haunting me.

    1. I know how you feel. I saw 1 year-old children sitting alone on the streets without their parents and it was heartbreaking. Varanasi is a very intense place and you feel life and death much stronger there than anywhere else in the world. It’s only natural to be affected by it.

  6. Hi Miriam, I’m so glad I found your page on Pinterest . What is your opinion about traveling alone as a female to Varanasi. I’m going to India in November 2016 for about 29 days. I’m heading to Mumbai to do a 10 day meditation then travel to Ahmenbad then to Delhi and Varanasi. I have friends in Mumbai and Ahmenbad but Delhi I don’t so I will be traveling alone. I’m a it bit scared to go to Varanasi with all theses sadhus around. But I want to go so badly.

    1. Hi Kelly, welcome to my blog! 🙂

      The sadhus won’t harm you and most of them are peaceful and very chatty! As a girl traveling alone, I wouldn’t visit them in their tents though and I wouldn’t go out at night after dark. I love India, but its view and treatment of women is disturbing and should be taken seriously as a female traveler. I don’t want to discourage you from visiting, because the country is amazing and solo travel is so rewarding, but you should be extra careful there, especially in Delhi. Cover your shoulders, dress in loose clothes and don’t wander alone in alleyways.

      Varanasi is a very intense place. But if you keep your wits about you and stay at a nice hotel, you should be fine. It’s worth the trip for sure!

      If you find the time, let me know how it goes. I would love to hear about your meditation retreat and how you liked India!

  7. I love Varanasi and their and culture. It is the place to see the real culture of , tradition and customs of India. I Stay at WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges hotel during my visits to Varanasi. Nice place and hotel and i love to come here again.

  8. Varanasi is a beautiful place and i stayed at WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges situated at Manikarnika Ghat. This hotel provides very nice service. i enjoyed the evening Aarti at Manikarnika Ghat.

  9. Hi Miriam!

    Having just visited and written about Varanasi, I definitely see you! There was this love-hate feeling when we were in Varanasi and after leaving. There are so many things happening at once, that is hard to take all in.
    So glad that Varanasi was not our first stop in India! After all India is not for everyone, but is definitely an experience.

    We didn’t get to see the Cannibals! hahaha You have really great pictures….we tried but people were on our faces constantly shouting either “no pictures” or “give me money!” hahahah

    Was this your first time in India?

    1. Hi Telma,
      Thanks for your comment. And yeah, Varanasi should not be the someone’s first stop in India, but it’s absolutely worth a visit! I’ve never been to a more fascinating and intense place.

  10. Hello, thank you so much for sharing your trip to Varanasi. I’m going there next month and am just boggled by the hotel choices and have been warned repeatedly to be prepared for the sensory overload. Your post was super helpful. Thanks!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that, Farida. Varanasi is super intense, but it’s also the best thing about it! It’s by far the most fascinating city in India.

  11. Hello,
    Wonderful clicks..!!! Varanasi is a great city..!! I would suggest you to visit South India once. There are some amazing places here, especially the Western ghats. Thanks !

  12. Hi Miriam,

    Your blog has incredible photos which is what drew me to it from pinterest. However after reading the content and some of the things you have done I am disappointed in your lack of awareness for ethical travel. I recently travelled to India with a local guide. We were told explicitly not to take photos of the burning bodies, it’s disrespectful. I had hoped you would have the common sense not to do this yourself but yes you have. You wouldn’t go to somebodies funeral in your home country and take photos so don’t do it overseas just because it looks good for photos. Secondly, the elephant in your post from Jaipur is again not taken care of well. In India elephants don’t roam free in cities therefore finding one in the hub of Jaipur means it was stored in some inhumane conditions. I really hope you will be more mindful of ethical travel practises in future.

    1. Hi Toni,

      I’m sorry you feel that way. I do consider myself an ethical traveler and I don’t think the text nor the photos in this post are disrespectful. All the best to you.

  13. Actually you share the right information, I agree with your information. I like your blog and i get valuable information on this blog. There are so many developers working on this part but this is one of the best innovative post ever. Thanks for such post.

  14. Hey, thanks for your nice information. I’m drawn to Kashi but I’m not sure how I’ll do with if I see cows, calves or children roaming alone; especially if not well cared for. It seems to be one of the last most free cities in the world, so I guess there will be the good with the bad like anywhere else. I wish to do a meditative visit with respect. Thanks for the information as it prepares me a little.

    1. Hi Elaine,
      India – and Varanasi is particular – is rough, raw and real, and you have to be ready for it. It was difficult for me as well, but like you said: you have to take the good with the bad. Prepare yourself, because you will see children and animals roaming alone. But you will also see countless temples, breathtaking sunrises and spirituality and devotion like you’ve never seen it before. It’s worth the visit, if you ask me.

  15. Miriam

    Did you visit the university, BHU? It is one of the largest residential universities in the Asia. I was a student for 7 years and later pursued doctorate in Copenhagan spent 5 golden years. Married a nice vegetarian girl from Denmark who teaches at a high school in Charlotte where we live . I teach in the North Carolina State University in the US.

    Email me

  16. Varanasi is the calmest and interesting place in India.

    I would love to go back there again and again.

    Thanks for your awesome travel guide and photos are really beautiful.

  17. Wonderful blog on Varanasi. This blog has an amazing information about the destination places of Varanasi. It’s very religious & spiritual city beautiful visiting spot and captures very impressive photos.

  18. Varanasi is one of the most religious and peaceful places in India. It’s really must visit place, there are lot of factors which set your minds to visit this place once in life. I’ve visited this place many times and every time I got an amazing positive energy.

  19. Vanarasi is an old city known as a religious place.Once every one should visit there you will learn many things about life.

  20. Great read I must say. You have beautifully portrayed your thoughts and ideas through this article. Great insight on the topic and value addition. Keep posting more articles like this!

  21. I visited Varanasi 2 months ago. It is unquestionably a lovely and fun-filled place for everyone whether it is a couple or a family. The evening Ganga Aarti was a beauty to behold! Thanks to the blogger for sharing such useful information. Also, the pics were amazing!

  22. Very informative content.
    Varanasi has all the flavors of old times and new age.
    You can find ancient way of people worshipping and traditional way of dealing things specially around ganga.
    And new age things like
    Cruze on river, new NAMO ghat, new convection center Rudrach etc.
    Varanasi is a magical feeling which one can only feel when he or she is in varanasi.
    Thanks for posting very detailed information on Varanasi.

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