I only spent 2 days in Varanasi on my first trip to the holy city, but it was enough to fall in love with the place. Even if you only have a short time in which to visit, I can guarantee you’ll love it too.
Varanasi really is a microcosm of India. It has all the energy, colour, and chaos that the country is known for but in a city less than one-tenth the size of Delhi or Mumbai. And because Varanasi has so much significance in the Hindu religion, it’s an intensely spiritual place, far more than the country’s megacities.
Things to Do in 2 Days in Varanasi Itinerary
Day 1 in Varanasi
The best way to get to know Varanasi is to get stuck in and get your feet dirty. Once you’ve arrived and had a chance to drop any bags, jump in a rickshaw and head for the old city.
Explore the old city
Varanasi’s old city isn’t a walled-off area like Jaipur has but it’s generally known as the area between Bansphatak road and the Ganges River.
This maze of alleyways is extremely easy to get lost in and that’s kind of the point. You’ll need to dodge a lot of cow poop, cows, scooters and carts. But along the way you’ll find tons of tiny (and not so tiny) temples of all shapes and kinds. Some are hundreds of years old and falling down while some are new and renovated.
If you’re unsure about braving the alleyways yourself or wanting to learn from a guide there are some great guided walking tours that can be booked through Klook for less than $20.
Temples and processions
Varanasi is known as the city of a thousand temples and many of Hinduism’s millions of gods are worshipped in some form here.
You’ll also come across many funeral processions going past on their way to the crematoriums on the riverbanks with family and friends carrying bodies on stretchers covered with layers of flower garlands and sparkling, bejewelled fabrics. This can be kind of confronting but it’s part of what makes Varanasi unique, death and life coexist in very close proximity here.
When you need a break from the busy alleyways, pop into some of the silk shops in the old city which are cloister around Bansphatak Road.
Varanasi is known for producing the highest quality silk goods in India and you can find some great bargains here as well as higher-priced, incredibly ornate items that are more like art than clothing.
Sunset boat ride and prayer ceremony
Wrap up your day with a sunset boat ride on the river Ganges. Known as Mother Ganges and considered a holy river in Hinduism, the river is the heart of Varanasi (although the city is only really built on one side) and boat rides are an absolute must do for your 2 days in Varanasi.
Sunset is probably the calmest time for boat trips and means you can catch the evening prayer ceremonies at Dashashwamedh ghat which are truly beautiful. You can buy small floating candle bowls if you want to make your own offerings.
There are many captains lining the river banks who are happy to take visitors for a short or long trip.
Day 2 in Varanasi
While it might seem like overkill, I would highly recommend going out for another boat ride at sunrise.
The sight of the sunirse over the river is spectacular and this is when many of the locals come down to the river to bathe and complete their private worship.
You can also watch the morning aarti ceremony at Assi Ghat (shown below) which is incredible. The priests make a series of offerings to the river involving lots of candles and incense and backed by a choir of young women.
After the boat ride, stop into Blue Lassi for a liquid breakfast. Blue Lassi is possibly the most famous café in Varanasi and offers lassi (yoghurt-based) drinks in every conceivable flavour out of handmade terracotta pots.
For your final afternoon it’s time to head across the river to Ramnagar Fort on the opposite side of the Ganges.
The fort was bult by a local maharaja in the 18th century, but it was done in the style of the Mughals from two centuries earlier so the fort combines Hindu and Islamic architecture in similar styles to Mughal building throughout India.
Not all of the fort is open to the public as it is still inhabited by the current king of Varanasi and his family but visitors can see the sections that have been converted to a museum which includes artefacts from across Asia and Africa including an impressive astronomical clock.
The entry fee is 150rs for foreigners and you can pay round 500rs for a boat ride across.
Add-on activity: Sarnath
If you have an extra half-day or want to pack an extra attraction into your two days in Varanasi then consider a trip out to Sarnath.
Where Varanasi is significant to Hindus, Sarnath, only a 30-45 minute rickshaw ride away, is a holy place for Buddhists.
It is believed that Sarnath is where the Buddha gave his first sermon and temples stood here for hundreds of years although they are now largely ruins.
The easiest way to get there is to book a day trip, I found the best options on Klook.
However, you can negotiate a rickshaw for the return trip (price depending on your negotiating skills). I would recommend then hiring a local guide to explain the stories behind each spot.
How to get to Varanasi
The train is the primary form of transport around India and is very budget-friendly. However, if you’re short on time there is always the option to fly. I have done both, arriving by train from Orccha and departing by air to Delhi, and both were very smooth trips.
Getting to Varanasi by Train
There are multiple stations in Varanasi with the main one being Banaras/Varanasi Junction from which you can catch trains all over India.
Getting to Varanasi by Plane
Lal Bahadur Shastri airport is on the outskirts of Varanasi, a 30-60 minute drive from the central city depending on traffic.
Flights are available to most main cities in India including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai as well as to Kathmandu in Nepal.
Where to stay in Varanasi
Luxury – Taj Ganges
A five-star hotel with all the amenities you would expect and a great place to kick back away from the bustle of the old city.
Mid-range – Shiva Ganges Guest House
On the nicer end of Indian mid-range hotels, this place has an unbeatable location just a few hundred metres from the ghats.
While you could easily spend much longer than two days in this city, immersing yourself in Varanasi, a weekend or, ideally two nights, is plenty of time to catch the main attractions and leave you wanting more.