The 18th century Ramnagar Fort
There’s a poetic beauty to crumbling, chaotic Varanasi. One of the world’s oldest cities and India’s spiritual capital, it lies in holy eccentricity on the gushing waters of the Ganges. The maze-like streets are home to over 2,000 temples and its many ghat (giant steps leading down to the river) play host to public cremations, leprosy-curing baths and daily laundry sessions. Frequented by pilgrims, miracle-seekers and tourists alike, Varanasi embodies everything unforgettable about India.
Dawn on the Ganges
Walk through Old Town to the tune of squabbling monkeys and barking dogs, listening to locals answer questions in rhyme and boatmen singing the smooth melody of gharana. You’ll see goats wearing sweaters, sacred cows strolling the streets, and 10-year-olds diving in the river for the highest bet. Every night, the puja prayer ceremony fills the air with chanting and incense, and come dawn, a boat ride down the Ganges brings a much-needed breath of peace. Down the jumble of lanes you’ll find silk shops, tucked-away shrines and stalls selling vegetarian street food. This is undiluted India, a place to soak up rich culture, a place to live – and a place to die. Over 80 people are cremated here each day seeking moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. So when you hear the bells and jingling of a funeral procession, head down to the Ganges and watch the celebration of life’s end.
Pilgrims at the Dashashwamedh Ghat
When to go?
Plan your visit between October and March, when the weather’s cool and festivals start up. Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is usually celebrated in October, while November’s Ganga Festival brings revellers to the banks of the Ganges. Be sure to avoid the summer months, when temperatures simmer to 40° C and the rain falls almost daily.
Where to stay?
Brijrama Palace – Varanasi, India
Brijrama Palace is a 204-year-old sandstone mansion situated directly on the Ganges. This luxury hotel is right in the midst of Varanasi, but with sunset views from the terraces, yoga sessions at dawn, and live sitar and flute music, it’ll feel like a peaceful bubble. Extra touches like robes and slippers and a nightly turn-down service with scented oils make this property special.
Granny’s Inn – Varanasi, India
Granny’s Inn is sure to put you at ease, with homely décor and welcoming staff. The manager offers local tips, and the complimentary breakfast is freshly cooked by the chef and his family. There are just five rooms, so expect a relaxed atmosphere where you can catch up with fellow travellers, or just take a breather after a day of exploring.
Nadesar Palace – Nadesar Palace Grounds, India
This colonial palace sits in mango orchards and jasmine fields, 6 km from Varanasi. There are lush gardens ideal for a horse and carriage ride, palace butlers to help you plan activities, and an outdoor pool and spa for relaxing. The romantic rooms feature antique artwork, bath tubs, and four-poster beds.