Planning a Trip
The India Tourism Office is located at 15B The Mall, Cantonment (tel. 0542/250-1784; email@example.com; Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 9am-2pm). A satellite information counter is open during flight arrivals. The U. P. Tourist Office is on Parade Kothi (tel. 0542/220-6638; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm); a satellite counter is at the railway station (tel. 0542/234-6370; daily 9am-7pm).
By Road -- Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, driving to Varanasi means spending too much time on a bumpy road with no interesting stops.
By Air -- The airport is 23km (14 miles) from the Cantonment (Cantt.) area, where the large chain hotels are located, and 30km (19 miles) from the riverfront. The flight from Delhi lasts 75 minutes. Best to fly in with Jet Airways (reservations tel. 0542/250-6444 or -6555, airport 0542/262-2795 through -2797), or -- for the best deal -- with SpiceJet (www.spicejet.com), which offers flights from Delhi for just over Rs 2,000 ($49/£25). Indian Airlines (reservations tel. 0542/250-2527 or -2529, airport 0542/262-2090) flies in from Delhi, Mumbai, Katmandu, and Khajuraho. Air Sahara (central tel. 0542/250-7871 through -7873, airport 0542/262-2547) connects the city with Delhi, Kolkata, and Bangalore. A taxi should run you Rs 380 ($9.30/£4.70) to the Cantonment, and Rs 500 ($12/£6.20) to Assi Ghat; use the prepaid service and try to inspect the vehicle before jumping in. Ignore all attempts by drivers to get you to stay at hotels they recommend (or "own").
By Train -- Varanasi is conveniently reached by overnight train from Delhi; the Swatantrata Express and Shiv Ganga Express take 12 to 13 hours. It is also connected with a host of other cities and towns. For inquiries, call tel. 1331; for Varanasi Cantonment reservations, call tel. 0542/250-4131 or -4031. Prepaid taxis are available from the station. Be sure to disembark at Varanasi Cantonment station.
By Auto-Rickshaw & Cycle-Rickshaw -- The narrow lanes and extremely crowded streets of the Old City and the lanes in and around Godaulia (also Gowdalia) are penetrable only by two-wheelers and extremely determined cycle-rickshaws. These are also useful -- if sometimes bone-jarring -- ways of getting from your hotel to the area near the ghats and other attractions. Once at (or near) the ghats, set off on foot. Note that most cycle-rickshaws don't have functioning brakes; their technique of stopping is to merely roll into the cycle-rickshaw in front; hold on and try not to be alarmed, although you must know that they're very uncomfortable, and tend to have you constantly sliding forward.
Bear in mind that Varanasi is a city of transport tricksters, and you have little chance of escaping at least one rickshaw-related con job. Ask your hotel what the current going rate is for any trip in either an auto- or cycle-rickshaw, and bargain for the correct fare. Be further warned that rickshaw-wallas will readily agree to take you somewhere without having the faintest idea where it is. Once you've been onboard for several minutes, you will suddenly be asked where you want to go and, more likely than not, you will end up at a shop where the driver expects to make a commission off your purchase. To avoid falling into this annoying and time-wasting trap, ensure that the driver can repeat the name of your destination (or the nearest prominent landmark), in recognizable English. In addition, avoid the shopping scam by using a bit of trickery yourself. To begin with, never use the word "shopping" with a rickshaw-walla. If you're heading to the shopping area in Godaulia, ask to be taken to Dasashwamedh Ghat, as if you plan to go there for a stroll. When you're almost there, you'll pass the Old City shopping area and Godaulia; stop your rickshaw and get off before you reach the ghats, or get to the ghats and take the 5-minute walk back into the market. To hire a car and driver to tour the surrounds, expect to pay at least Rs 650 ($16/£8) for a half-day or Rs 1,200 ($29/£15) for a full day.
We recommend that you explore the area with a personal guide, if only to know which temples you can enter or which street food to sample, and to avoid getting lost or conned. One of Varanasi's best guides is Ajit Kumar Yadav (tel. 0542/258-1052 or 94-1522-5994; firstname.lastname@example.org; book him in advance), an official, government-approved guide; he's often engaged for group tours during peak season. Ajit is perfect for those looking for an understanding of the city that goes beyond its history, covering religious rituals and mythological stories as well. His knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism (for Sarnath) is unmatched; most important, he never asks if you want to shop, unless you express a keen interest. Dhananjay (Deejay) Singh is another government-approved guide who has a wealth of knowledge and is an absolutely charming host; contact him at tel. 983905-8228. Alternatively, you can arrange both guide and car through your hotel, or contact the India Tourism Office to arrange for an approved guide and vehicle (tel. 0542/250-1784). To hire a boat (with oarsman), head for Dasashwamedh; the price should be around Rs 100 ($2.45/£1.25) per hour.
Varanasi is in many ways like a huge trippy trance party that started centuries ago and has kept on going, its revelers refusing to discard their costumes and come down to earth. So there's no real reason to time your visit with a festival -- on the contrary, any increase in numbers is worth avoiding. That said, the huge Dev Deepavali (Diwali) festival is by all accounts a spectacle, held during the full moon in October/November. Almost every ghat and building is covered by glowing earthen lamps, and the river is aglitter with floating candles (but with about 100,000 pilgrims about, you may never even get to the river). Other auspicious occasions are Mahashivratri (Jan/Feb), Holi (Mar/Apr), Ganga Dashehra (May/June), and Sri Krishna Janmashtami (Sept/Nov).