Useful Tips

Most of the tourist activities in Varanasi is based along the riverbank. Most tourists experience this by taking the boat rides, which are available at sunrise and sunset. All the boats are long rowboats, with the rower at one end, and the tourists on a backless hard wooden bench at the other end. It's ok for 20 minutes, but the rides are 70-90 minutes. It can be freezing in January, at either 6 am or at 7:30 pm, there's no sun, and it's cold.

Pricing is cheap - 100 to 150 rupees per person, but there are things you can do to make the ride more comfortable:

1. Plastic armchairs - When booking your boat ride, insist on one armchair per passenger. If they want your business, they will make it happen.

2. Warm clothes/blanket - You can always take them off as it gets hot.

3. One big thermos of masala chai (or coffee) per person (also supplied by your hotel) and some snacks...if it's cold. During summers, you can substitute the hot drinks with cold drinks.

4. A guide to explain things - This is especially true for the sunset "cruise" which features a close-up visit to a ceremony/show - invented 15 years ago to entertain tourists.

According to Hindu mythology, the city was founded thousands of years ago by Lord Shiva, one of the main Hindu Gods. As a result, the city is perhaps the most important pilgrimage site in India, and regularly draws visitors from all over the world. While there are Temples and other tourist sites elsewhere in the city, I would recommend spending a significant amount of time at the Ghats, which are the small bodies of water belonging to the Ganges. India has countless gorgeous Temples and local museums, but it's the Ganges that will make this city an unforgettable part of your travels.

Opt for a paddleboat ride at sunrise. Many hostels and hotels offer this service to guests for free, but you also won't have any trouble finding a boat once you reach the main Ghats. In the wee hours of the morning, Varanasi will already be very much alive and vibrant. Locals can be found washing their clothes, drinking the water, bathing or giving their cows a chance to cool off.

A few incredibly adventurous travellers might join them, but note that doing so would be rather risky. The Ganges is a site where birth and death are intertwined: families bathe their children there, but also part with their dead by sending them out in the water. Many traveller's immune systems may not have the strength to hold up to such close contact with the waters.

Sunset is particularly a significant time to spend by the Ganges because at this time, you can observe the largest puja (prayer offering). These ceremonies mainly takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat, flowers with candles are released into the waters while priests chant and lead the prayer.

Many of the Ghats by the Ganges serve very particular purposes and it is important to know which ones you should be prepared to visit in advance. Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghats, are known as the burning Ghats. The latter is the most auspicious place in all of India for one to be cremated. The ceremonies are very public and it is important to be respectful of the process, or avoid it if you think you will be uncomfortable.

It is also important for travellers to be weary of the usual cheats in the area. At the main Ghats, foreigners are often preyed upon. The most common cheat is for someone who claims to work at the burning Ghat to approach you and take you to a "hospice" or tell you about how poor families need financial help to bury their dead. Such individuals may tell you how expensive cremation materials are, or how some elderly people who have travelled to Varanasi hoping to die in a holy place cannot afford food. Do not fall for such scams, and if you wish to make a contribution, look into legitimate local charities.

Varanasi is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place. If you wish to learn about fascinating Indian traditions and be exposed to one of the most incredible aspects of Indian religion and history, do not miss it.

As India's holiest city, Varanasi attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. Not all of these holy men and women are genuine however, and a small minority make a living out of scamming tourists. Although most of these scams are harmless, visitors should avoid participating in any religious ceremonies on the religious banks unless they are prepared to pay a 'donation'.

Cycle and taxi rickshaw drivers are also renowned for overcharging naive tourists and for stopping off en route at places where they can get commission such as handicraft shops and hotels. As there are so many rickshaws around, it is advisable to spend some time bartering for a good price for your journey instead of stepping in the first vehicle you come across. Knowing your route is also helpful; don't rely on your driver to be able to read a map.

Petty crime is present, particularly in Temples and on public transport. For the most part nothing more than a pair of flip-flops will go missing, but losing your wallet or passport can have the potential to spoil your holiday, making it essential for you to keep a close eye on valuables or keep them locked in a hotel safe.

Visitors should get accustomed to greeting others with the Namaste, which consists of joining your hands together at the chest level. It is polite to greet elders first and to say goodbye to each person in your group individually when leaving. It is also becoming more common to be greeted with a handshake in India.

Holy men along the Ganges may offer to put a tilak on your forehead as a sign of a blessing, greeting or auspiciousness. New friends or hotel staff may also offer a tilak to guests as a welcome or farewell. White jasmine and orange marigold flower garlands are also commonly given to visitors as a welcome.

Tipping is not obligatory in India but is much appreciated, especially by those who work in poorly paid sectors such as rickshaw drivers, porters and waiters. Ten per cent is the norm in upmarket restaurants, but other services typically receive just a few rupees extra.

If you are dining with Indians, you should arrive on time and dress modestly. If you are offered tea or coffee, it is polite to decline initially and to only accept a cup upon repeat offers. Many Hindus and Sikhs are vegetarian and it is polite to refrain from eating beef when dining with them. Likewise, do not order pork or drink alcohol if dining with Muslims. If you are unsure of the religion of those in your party, it is best to order a vegetarian, fish or chicken dish.

While western style restaurants offer diners knives and forks, many restaurants in Varanasi do not provide customers with cutlery. If you plan on joining the locals and eating with your hands, make sure you wash them before and after the meal and use your right hand for handling food. Leave a small amount of food on your plate to politely indicate you are full.

If you have enjoyed your meal, it is common to leave a small tip, while a 10 per cent tip is recommended in a high-end restaurant. Some restaurants include a service charge in the bill and it is worth checking this before you order.