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There's a special kind of magic in Varanasi. This spiritual destination in India is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. Life here happens on the 'Ghats' – stone steps that lead into the river. As a visitor you can throw yourself into the colourful chaos or choose to watch from the calm of a river boat. Either way, spend any time along the Ganges (or Ganga, as it's known to locals) and you'll witness holy cremations happening alongside communal laundry sessions, pilgrims bathing and cattle cooling off.
Hostels in Varanasi offer an immersive experience into the local culture. Take part in cooking classes or music lessons in one hostel, or volunteer with NGOs in another. Most Varanasi hostels have communal kitchens to show off your newly gained skills, or you can stay in a vegetarian hostel to taste meat-free Hindu cuisine. Sleep in dorms (many have female-only options) if you're keen to meet other travellers. For a chilled evening with new friends, there's a Varanasi hostel in a 200 year-old mansion complete with an in-house cinema.
Most visitors to Varanasi flock to the Ghats along the Ganges. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the most famous, and the area around it attracts both pilgrims and travellers alike. Here you'll find vendors selling chaat (fried dough with yogurt and chutney) and the odd Sadhu, or Holy Man, on a smoke break. A 30-minute walk south will bring you to Assi Ghat. This area of the city is quieter but still has lots to offer, including colourful markets full of handmade trinkets.
A popular way to experience Dashashwamedh Ghat is by boat. Come at dawn to see the famous pilgrimage site come alive with early-morning ceremonies. To better understand Hinduism, stop by Kashi Vishvanath Temple. The meditative calm of Sarnath, where Buddha delivered his first teachings, can be a soothing escape from the city's rush. Don't forget to sample some of Varanasi's sweets, like honey-soaked pastries, rose-stuffed desserts and saffron milk (kesar dooth). For a local favourite, try tart mango lassi topped with pistachio crumble in a red-earth bowl.
Rickshaws are the best way to get around Varanasi, although they can't access Dashashwamedh Ghat between 9am and 9pm. During these hours, rickshaws line up at Godaulia Crossing. Varanasi Junction is the main train station, with daily services to Delhi, Kolkata and Agra Fort. Varanasi's Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport also runs internal flights to some Indian cities. To reach the old city from the airport, look for the prepaid taxis and auto rickshaws waiting outside.