Back in 2013, I backpacked solo in India for 3 weeks. I started in Kolkata, then moved to Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, and New Delhi.
I admit that India overwhelmed me as a solo traveler. I experienced Eve teasing while traveling solo in Varanasi, which contributed to my lack of love for that city. I’m glad, therefore, that Claudia Tavani of My Adventures Across the World offered to write a guest post about this holy city.
I landed in Varanasi after 24 hours of traveling. I had a pounding headache and was truly exhausted. I managed to get a taxi that would take me to town, and the minute the car pulled out from the airport, the dust, the dirt, the crowds and the noise of traffic were so overwhelming that I resolved to buy a ticket to fly back home the minute I reached my hotel.
But then, as soon as I walked in the Old City, something switched. There were no cars in those narrow alleys; the level of noise was actually bearable, and the overall vibe much more welcoming.
Eventually, and despite all my worries and fears for being there alone, I truly enjoyed traveling solo in Varanasi, which I find to be one of the best places to visit in India: I met a lot of other solo travelers I could spend my time with, and I would love to go again.
Here are my 10 tips to enjoy Varanasi as a solo traveler.
1. Dress modestly.
This is the most obvious recommendation for any woman (or man) traveling in India. Yet, it is worth repeating because for whatever reason, travelers sometimes forget that they should do their best to behave according to the local customs. Nobody in India goes around wearing shorts and tank tops, so I figured that it would be best to cover up, despite the sometimes unbearable heat.
I mostly wore elephant pants or ankle length skirts, T-shirts, and long-sleeved cotton shirts, and I always carried around a scarf that I could throw around my shoulders if necessary. I saw lots of travelers walking around in flip flops, but with so much garbage around, I was happy to be wearing sneakers.
2. Stay in the Old City.
There are a million places to stay in Varanasi, but I would not consider anywhere outside the Old City.
This is the only part of town where cars are not allowed in, which means it is significantly quieter and the quality of sleep will be much better. It is is also right by the Ganges, so the views and the atmosphere are beautiful.
3. Book a budget guest house…
India is a fairly cheap place to begin with, so one may want to splurge and get a bit of an upgrade. Yet, I always prefer the atmosphere of budget-friendly places.
It is not so much for the money I am saving, but because they are the kind of places where I get to meet other like-minded travelers. This is especially helpful if I am traveling alone. I did the same in Varanasi, and ended up hardly spending any time by myself.
4. …and always close the door or the window.
Monkeys roam the streets and the roofs of Varanasi. They look cute, and I have a slight obsession for them. However, they are really naughty, they organize themselves in gangs (yes, I did say that!), and get inside rooms and houses and steal stuff.
If you care for your belongings, make sure to close the door or the window to your room before you leave, or you may have an unpleasant surprise when coming back!
5. Pick where to eat wisely.
Despite being so touristy, there aren’t that many good eating options in Varanasi. I usually had my breakfast at the French Bakers, where I could enjoy some fresh pain au chocolate and some freshly brewed coffee (which I learned is a real treat in India, where coffee generally means instant coffee). I enjoyed the atmosphere, and met a lovely solo traveler from Estonia with whom I explored the city.
I had the rest of my meals at either Spicy Bites or Bona. They have a few decent options which include international food, the service is good, and the atmosphere friendly. Bona also has good Wifi. Don’t forget that there is virtually no alcohol in Varanasi.
6. Drink a proper (bang) lassi.
I am lactose intolerant, unfortunately, which means I can’t enjoy any dairy products. But those lassi — a yogurt drink with fruit and other toppings — did look refreshing and delicious.
One of the unmissable things to do, though, is trying the bang lassi, where bang, an extract of weed, is actually added to the yogurt drink. It is sold in a very few places — little more than a hole in the wall. Watch out because they actually are strong!
7. Enjoy the Ganga Aarti.
Seeing the Ganga Aarti is one of the unmissable things to do in Varanasi. During this ceremony, fire is offered to the Mother Ganges in a beautiful, rhythmic ceremony.
National and international tourists both enjoy this activity, and it does get a bit crowded, but it really is worth it. It takes place every day right after sunset.
8. Take a sunrise boat tour.
The atmosphere in Varanasi is amazing at sunrise. Little by little, the city wakes up, people gather along the Ganges to wash themselves there, to assist the cremation ceremonies, and to do their daily chores.
The best way to enjoy all of this is by taking a boat tour along the Ganges, which slowly goes along the ghats showing all the best sights.
9. Walk along the ghats.
There are 88 ghats in Varanasi, and walking along them is a great way to explore the city. From the busiest ghats of the Old City, to the quieter Assi Ghat where locals enjoy gathering, there’s something different going on at each of them.
10. Don’t take pictures of cremation ceremonies.
This really should be self explanatory, yet I have seen many tourists totally disrespecting the local culture and taking pictures of the cremation ceremonies. You would never think of taking pictures at a funeral back home, so why would you do it in Varanasi?
Text by Claudia Tavani, photos by Aleah Taboclaon.
Have you been to Varanasi? What did you like the most about it?
About the Author
Claudia Tavani, the blogger behind My Adventures Across the World, is a former human rights lawyer, who ditched her academic career to follow a life of travels. On her ramblings around the world, she’s hiked active volcanoes, rafted down mighty rivers, slept in the jungle, and explored the hidden corners of far away cities. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.