Planning a trip to the spiritual city of Varanasi? Here are all the places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days…
Today I’m walking you through all the places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days.
Two days is not a lot of time to spend in Varanasi. The holy city on the banks of the historical Ganges River is one of the most breathtaking places I visited on my trip to India. And because of that, you really want to make sure you see and do everything. So how do you choose which places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days?
You pack your schedule tight! I’ll be outlining how you can really squeeze the juice out of your trip to Varanasi. That includes: the best time to take a boat trip along the Ganges, why you need to make time to walk along the ghats, and how to schedule in enough time to visit Blue Lassi at least twice. Don’t know what Blue Lassi is? Keep reading, and you soon will do. Oh, and just in case that’s not enough I’ll also cover where you can get the best coffee in Varanasi. All the important stuff!
These are my absolute must-see places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days. But first up, let’s get the introductions out the way…
A quick intro to Varanasi
I need to give you a brief introduction to Varanasi first. The city of Varanasi in India is what you might call a pretty big deal. Located on the banks of the River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh in India, it’s a holy city that carries huge significance in Hinduism.
It’s probably most well-known for the funeral rites which take places on the ghats, which involves dipping the bodies in the river before cremating them. The water in the river is believed to be sacred and many pilgrims travel to the city to set the souls of their dead free, or to wash away their sins in water themselves. It’s only when you’re here in Varanasi that you can see how much of a central part it plays. All you have to do is look around at the hundreds of colourful boats bobbing on the shore, the ceremonies being performed on the edge of the river each night, and the clusters of people bathing in the holy water all the way up the ghats. The Ganges is the stage for all these events and it’s only when you’re here that you appreciate that in full.
However, this isn’t the only thing this spiritual city is famous for. There are temples, street art, amazing brunch spots, and lots more. There are so many places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days you’ll struggle to cram them all in!
Want to read more about my trip to India? Check out these posts:
- Things to do in Delhi in 48 hours
- Tips for visiting the Taj Mahal: your complete guide
- My Varanasi restaurant guide
Places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days
Watch the cremations at Manikarnika Ghat
This famous burning ghat is the reason so many people travel to Varanasi.
Manikarnika Ghat is believed to be the holiest of all the ghats on the Ganges. It’s here that you’ll see the cremations that Varanasi is famous for taking place.
It’s a pretty surreal sight. When you first arrive on the ghats you can see the smoke in the air at a distance, but you can’t really see what’s going on. It’s only when you get closer that it becomes apparent, with the orange glimmer of the ever-burning fires and the scent of burning camphor. Piles of wood are piled on the burning ghat, which are further surrounded by groups of people quietly watching the ceremonies. The dead bodies are covered in brightly colour cloth and are carried to the ghat on bamboo stretchers, often being transported through the narrow streets of the old city to the sound of chanting. They’re dipped in the water then set alight, before the ashes are scattered in the River Ganges.
So what is the story behind the Manikarnika Ghat? Why do families travel here to cremate their dead? This particular ghat is famous in Hinduism due to the belief that the goddess Sati dropped her earring here. Manikarna actually means ‘earring’ in Sanskrit. However, it all goes back to the belief that being cremated here will liberate people from the cycle of death and rebirth, and ultimately set their souls free. It’s believed that the departed souls cremated here can attain ‘moksha’, and enter nirvana.
Evening boat ride in Varanasi
After a busy day of walking through the narrow streets and experiencing the craziness of the traffic in Varanasi (more on that later) the thought of an evening boat ride along the Ganges sounded heavenly. And boy did it deliver. The cool of the evening was much welcomed. It just felt incredibly peaceful and calming to bob along the river and admire the city.
I also loved seeing Varanasi all lit up in the evening. Different buildings along the river light up in different shades of purple, pink, red and blue as darkness begins to fall. That simply make the views even more beguiling. Out on the boats, we also lit candles – known as diyas – and let them float away on the river as part of an offering to the gods.
It’s pretty special when you look out onto the blackness of the river and see all these flames twinkling away like a giant sprinkle of glitter. What could be more magical than that?
Watch the Ganga Aarti Ceremony
What could be more magical indeed? Well, I should mention that there’s a pretty spectacular evening ceremony that takes place every evening at the Dasawamedha Ghat at dusk. It’s both intriguing and enchanting. So what exactly is going on during the Ganga Aarti ceremony? Well, it’s all about the ritual of offering prayer to the Ganges river. There’s chanting, fire, choreographed dancing, and the thick smell of incense in the air.
We watched the ceremony from the comfort of our boat, which was a pretty neat experience. All the boats pack in together near the edge of the river to get a closer view, so you go from being alone in the river to being surrounded by crowds. The fact that local kids skip over the boats selling crisps and snacks was another surreal part of it! It almost felt like being at an open-air cinema, except we were on a boat in the middle of the Ganges.
I would also love to see the ceremony from the ghat itself. However, with all the crowds packed tight I’m not sure if you’d actually get a better look. We may have got the best view from the river!
Watch the Subah-e-Banaras ceremony
Definitely don’t sleep through your alarm when you’re in Varanasi. Why? Well you’ll miss this incredible dawn ceremony that takes places every morning on the edges of the river.
The Subah-e-Banarasceremony in Varanasi takes place on the Assi ghat at sun rise. While it’s not as famous as the evening ceremony, I found it really mesmerising. The ceremony starts with chanting followed by the seven priests taking to the platform and more chanting, fire, smoke, and dancing.
Head down before dawn (everything kicks off at 6am sharp) and find a seat on one of the steps to watch. If you’re a real early bird you can go down even earlier to take part in the morning yoga, but I skipped that part for an extra half hour in bed. Once the ceremony is finished you can then hop on a boat to take in the sunrise from the river Ganges – amazing!
Morning boat ride in Varanasi
Watching the sun rise over the Ganges was one of the most magical experiences I had in Varanasi. The morning light is effortless; all soft pastel blue, peaches and pinks. It simply looks incredible next to the dark silhouettes of the boats bobbing on the river.
So you might be thinking… erm, didn’t she just spend the last few paragraphs talking about the night time boat ride in Varanasi? Do I need to do another one? Well, my advice is not to limit yourself to one boat ride. Trust me, do one in the AM too, because they’re a completely different vibe. I actually think I enjoyed this one more than the evening trip because it was the exact opposite. While the evening boat ride in Varanasi is all about the crowds, the banging of drums, and the performative nature of the evening rituals, in the morning it’s just calm. It’s just you, the water, and the incredible surroundings.
And while everything grew gradually darker and less visible over the course of the night time boat ride, the morning boat ride in Varanasi was of course the opposite. It lit up, and I loved being able to see everything that we couldn’t see the night before. Being able to take in the scale – as well as the intricacies – of the banks of the Ganges was worth seeing alone.
Take a bike ride in Varanasi
I remember when I first saw this on our itinerary for our group travel tour and for some reason I thought we were going to be doing the bike riding! I must have thought I was in the Netherlands or something. Luckily, we did not have to do the cycling, which I was most grateful for – the traffic is pretty wild and navigating the roads of Varanasi on wheels didn’t sound like fun to me! If it does sound like fun to you, however, then here’s a company where you can book a bike ride.
For me, the bike ride at Varanasi was a great way to take in all the sights and sounds of the city without having to be focused on keeping yourself with the group or out of the way of oncoming traffic. In short, it meant we could just be. We could sit back and enjoy all the sights, sounds and smells that Varanasi had to offer, and that was really nice. I’m not going to lie, it was also really lovely just to sit down for a moment after all the walking!
Walk along the ghats in Varanasi
We walked back along the ghats after having brunch at Brown Bread Café in Varanasi, which was awesome. Pancakes, fresh OJ, and view is pretty much all I could ever want from breakfast; and you can read my review here. But I digress, what I really want to talk about here is the ghats. Walking along the ghats is a completely different experience to wandering through the narrow streets in Varanasi, or going along by the road where the blast of horns from all the tuk tuks rings in your ear with every step.
The overarching memory I have is the sense of calm. Stillness. Space. Having been crammed in so many tiny spaces over the past few days, the ghats felt expansive. There are so many charming sights to observe and take in as you wander along; the pastel-painted steps leading down to the river, cute little goats chilling out in the afternoon sun, and the clusters of boats bobbing along on the water, just waiting to be filled up with tourists when the sun begins to dip. Yes, it does get crowded in places, particularly where they perform the funeral rites, but for the most part you can simply soak up the wide-open space.
As you walk along the ghats you might also see some of the Hindu holy men – known as Sadhus – who paint their entire bodies in ash. I was intrigued by these men. They’re reported to have relinquished all their worldly possessions, but our tour guide Sana informed us that most of the Sadhus in Varanasi are fake. They’re simply impersonating Sadhus in order to extract money from tourists in exchange for photographs – the real Sadhus can be found in the mountains.
Monkey Temple Varanasi
The Monkey Temple – or Durga Temple – in Varanasi is recognisable by its bright red paintwork and beautiful spire-clad tower. I saw it on Tripadvisor or a blog when I was researching Varanasi and instantly wanted to go. It’s not every day you see a temple in such a rich shade of red. With the added possibility of seeing some impish monkeys scampering around, I was 100% in. Luckily, it’s not too far to walk to get there.
The Durga Temple was built in the 18th centuries and is one of the most famous Hindu temples in the city. It’s dedicated to the Goddess Durga, who is the principal Hindu goddess of war, strength and protection. It’s also said that the idol of the goddess inside the temple wasn’t created by human hands, and instead simply appeared of its own accord. Intriguing!
With all of this in mind I was pretty hyped to see the Monkey Temple. However, I’m not sure it lived up to the expectations. It’s pretty small and a bit on the scruffy side. It’s also pretty difficult to get a real sense of the temple, with only Hindus being allowed inside. And then there was the water feature – Durga Kund – next to the temple. I’d read it would be a ‘charming’ place to capture some photographs. It was OK, but it was surrounded by a criss-cross wire fence which meant that taking snaps was pretty difficult. Added to that we didn’t even see any monkeys while we were there meant that it was pretty disappointing.
I’m not saying not to go to the Monkey Temple in Varanasi. If you’re anything like me you’ll want to see it for yourself and see how you get on. If you’re looking for places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days I’d include it on your list. However, keep it short and sweet rather than something you build a whole day around.
27, Durgakund Rd, Durgakund, Anandbagh
Bhelupur, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005, India
Admire the street art in Varanasi
One other thing I enjoyed about walking along the ghats in Varanasi was being able to soak up the unexpected street art. Two of the most striking examples were the portraits of Lord Shiva and Brahma, which can be found on two giant tanks in Dashashvmedh Ghat, another one of the holiest ghats in the city. The tanks have been painted bright cobalt blue and are absolutely mesmerising.
According to Hindu beliefs, Lord Brahma created this particular ghat to welcome Lord Shiva to the ancient city of Kashi, which is now known as Varanasi. The artwork marks this event. The work was created by the Artist Nilesh as part the Varanasi Arts Project, which seems like a super cool creative project. You can hear more about it in this video on YouTube.
Get lost in the alleyways of Varanasi’s old town
One of the things I loved about Varanasi was wandering the streets of the old town. The narrow alleyways are vibrant with city life. Everywhere you turn there’s something new to look at; from the hole-in-the-wall shops and cafes, to the intricate architectural details, to the array of rainbow coloured silks on the shop fronts blowing lightly in the breeze.
You may have to dodge out of the way of the many motorbikes that snake their way through, or even dead bodies being carried on stretchers. I’m not even joking. And then there are the sleeping stray dogs sprawled out in the middle of the pavement that I felt so sorry for. I loved the beautiful jewel colours that popped up in unexpected places, from turquoise-hued window shutters to the canary yellow fabrics strewn over our heads as we squeezed down another narrow alleyway.
It’s definitely an experience, and it’s also pretty easy to get lost. We took a wrong turn a couple of times and ended up in some back alleys that didn’t seem to go anywhere. However, it’s a lot of fun just to wander around and see where you end up.
Enjoy a lazy breakfast in OpenHand Café
The sign on the door says ‘good coffee here’ and I couldn’t agree more.
We ate at OpenHand Café in Varanasi a few times – the first time after we’d all got off the overnight train and were all exhausted and starving. Luckily it was just along the road from our hotel and, man, was it needed. The coffee was strong and came in cups the size of bowls that were exactly what the doctor ordered. I don’t even drink coffee very often, but I was in no doubt that morning that an industrial-sized Americano was essential! Looking for places to visit in Varanasi in 2 days? This one is a no brainer.
OpenHand Café also have a great menu with lots of tempting breakfast choices. After much deliberation I went for a western-style fry-up on the menu which was incredibly tasty!
The overall vibe is chill and bohemian. You leave your shoes at the door and it feels like you leave all your worries or stresses at the door, too. It’s just calm. No one here is in a hurry. It’s just a great place to enjoy a lazy couple of hours with great food and company. Definitely don’t come here if you’re in a rush, as it seems to exist in its own ecosystem.
If you need a bit of space away from the noise and the frenetic pace of the streets outside, OpenHand Café is the perfect place. There are hand-made prints and items of clothing hung on the wall or stuffed into treasure chests around the café. There’s also a small open-air balcony to sit out on if you want to enjoy the sunshine. Gosh, just writing all this now really makes me want to go back!
Eat lassi at Blue Lassi
I’ve written about Blue Lassi in more depth over on this post on the best restaurants in Varanasi, so I won’t spend too long talking about it here. However, I couldn’t write a blog post on the best things to do in Varanasi without including Blue Lassi. It’s an absolute must-see and one of the things you have to do in Varanasi.
After all that build up, when do you come across the tiny hole-in-the-wall café you might be a little surprised. It’s tiny! However, you’ll also quickly notice that it’s packed out with tourists and getting a seat is not exactly easy! That’s because everyone knows how good it is. Blue Lassi is a family-run company and has been going for decades. It’s not got the honour of being one of Lonely Planet’s top picks for Varanasi for no reason, right?
So what exactly is it about Blue Lassi that makes it so special? Well, first up, I should probably explain what lassi is, and that’s a thick, creamy yogurt drink. What makes it extra good at Blue Lassi is that it comes in a variety of flavours and served with a variety of toppings. They pretty much have every combination you could ever want. There’s pomegranate, chocolate, banana, coconut… once you have one you’ll want to try them all. At the very least I would schedule this into both days of your 48-hour trip. It’s worth it!