Varanasi was the first reason I wanted to go to India, many years ago. I’d seen National Geographic photos of people bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi (the locals pronounce it “Varanass”) and it was so… exotic. Now having studied anthropology, human geography and other reflexive social sciences, the word exotic makes me cringe a little. But Varanasi is still what those photos promised: intense, holy, colourful and different. It’s a location where you’ll have to hone your haggling skills, but a dawn boat ride on the Ganges is unforgettable. The streets of Varanasi are also vibrant – cows, donkey carts, women in burqas (how the hell they manage in that heat, I have no idea) – and sometimes a bit gritty.
Tips: learn the prices of everything you want in advance to give you ground to stand on when haggling. You’ll need to be down by the boats by 6am or so if you want to go on a dawn boat ride – they leave early and it takes time to barter the price. You’ll get a much better deal if you have a group of 4 or so rather than if you go it alone. There will almost certainly be other travellers around so don’t be afraid to team up.
Pros: One of the most famous places in India, and deservedly so. The streets around the Ganges are filled with treasure trove shops selling jewellery, beads, decorations, hand-made paper and other souvenirs.
Cons: A bit difficult to navigate and sometimes overpriced (but still cheap by ‘Western’ standards), you may feel the conservative cultural atmosphere a bit stifling.