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One of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India—a place where history, tradition, philosophy, and legend come together to create one of the most colorful and captivating cities on Earth. Hindu pilgrims flock to Varanasi to wade in the sacred waters of the River Ganges, which is believed to have the powerful to wash away a bather’s sins. The city is considered to be an especially auspicious place to die, and rituals of life and death take place daily on the giant riverfront steps known as ghats. Along the winding, chaotic streets, find markets selling beautiful silks and culinary creations such as paan. The holy streets are also home to roughly 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, a site dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines of India.
River Ganges — The heart of the city sits along the crescent-shaped bank of the Ganges, which is lined with a continuous stretch of 84 ghats. To truly experience Varanasi is to watch the traditions of life and death that take in and along the water. Pilgrims come here to bathe at all times of the day, especially in the early morning as the sun rises over the city. Burial rituals occur in plain sight, and are often not for the faint of heart. You may see bodies wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones, and eased into the river, or corpses being burned on the stairs before their ashes are washed away. You can go for a walk along the riverfront to see all of the ghats or charter a boat to see them from the water. On the other side of the stairs, palaces built by Hindu kings have been turned into hotels. One of the most popular spots is around the Assi and Tulsi ghats, where you’ll find a large selection of restaurants and cafes serving cuisine ranging from authentic Indian to pizza and pasta.
Old City — Stretching west from the Ganges, especially near Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi’s frenetic old city is a pedestrianized maze of alleys marked by open-air markets, candlelit deities, hidden shrines, and a wandering cow or 2. Stroll the streets to see some of the city’s most spectacular and colorful temples such as Kashi Vishwanath, a holy site known for its sacred well and gold-plated spire. After a day of wandering the streets, head back to Dashashwamedh Ghat to attend a mesmerizing puja ceremony. Grab a seat on the steps and watch as the event unfolds with prayers, chants, incense, candles, bells, drums, and cymbals.
Banaras Hindu University — On the southern end of Varanasi, Banaras Hindu University is a sprawling green campus and Asia’s largest residential university. Head here to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and visit the botanical and ayurvedic gardens, the Bharat Kala Bhavan art and archeology museum, and the pink-and-white New Vishwanath Temple.
For incredible views of the city, board a boat for a sunrise ride down the Ganges. Discover the magic of Varanasi as you cruise the ethereal river, watching as the sun slowly rises and burns away the haze of mist that hangs over the water. With the sky blazing with shades of red, purple, and orange, sail by the famous ghats to see locals and pilgrims beginning their day with a dip in the river. Listen as your captain shares enlightening insight into the bathing, burial, and cremation rituals that occur every day of the year.
In the afternoon, see the city from a new perspective at Alamgir Mosque overlooking Panchganga Ghat. From the tranquil hilltop location, gaze out upon the spires and domes of the temples throughout the city and the River Ganges below you. Once you’ve basked in the view, take time to admire the structure of the mosque itself, which has high domes and minarets that blend Hindu and Islamic architectural styles.
Delve into centuries of history and tradition on a half-day tour of Varanasi. With your own private guide, venture into the maze of the old city, watch the pilgrims flock to the riverfront ghats, and admire buildings that shine with the colors of red, yellow, and orange. Journey across the spiritual highlights of the ancient place, stopping to see the towering minarets of the Gyanvapi Mosque, the marble idol of Bharat Mata, and the mischievous population of monkeys that live at the Durga Temple.
In the evening, join a small group for a tour that starts before the sun goes down. Experience the wealth of culture that surrounds you as you shop for ceremonial prayer items at the Dal Mandi market and peruse the fine-quality fabrics at one the city’s largest silk markets. Once the sun has set, head to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the captivating puja prayer ceremony, where the Hindu faithful light incense, chant mantras, and release flowers and floating lamps into the Ganges. At the end of the ceremony, your guide leads you to a rooftop restaurant for a delightful dinner overlooking the river.
Once you’ve explored Varanasi, hop into a rickshaw for a 6-mile (10-km) ride through the hot and busy streets to the fresh and quiet atmosphere of Sarnath. This peaceful village is home to sacred Buddhist monuments including the impressive Dhamek Stupa, which stands at 128 feet (39 m). Here, at the Chaukhandi Stupa, you can see the spot where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples in the 6th century BC. Pay a visit to see the archaeological wonders at the Sarnath Museum or the birds, deer, and crocodiles at the Sarnath Zoo before heading back to Varanasi.