Photograph by ZUMA Press/Alamy
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The Ganga aarti, a Hindu ritual, has become a fine-tuned art at the ghats of the Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Photograph by ZUMA Press/Alamy

A Guide to the Holy City of Varanasi, India

The rich history of India's Hindu and Buddhist communities adds an extra dimension to a visit to Varanasi, where ancient sites and thriving cultures continue to draw modern-day visitors.

For Hindus, Varanasi, India, is the holiest of the seven sacred cities. And Buddhism was founded at nearby Sarnath around 528 B.C., when Buddha gave his first sermon, "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma” (also called “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”).

Varanasi’s ghats, stone embankments along the sacred Ganges River where locals and pilgrims perform ritual ablutions, are draws for both the faithful and tourists. In the evenings, visitors often hire boats to watch priests at Dashashwamedh Ghat perform the aarti, a Hindu worship ritual, while devotees help put thousands of candles or floating lamps on the river in dedication to Lord Shiva.

When to Go: The weather in October through March is pleasant. Dussehra, the Hindu holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil, is celebrated in September or October; Bharat Milap and Diwali, the famed festival of lights, are celebrated in October or November; and the Ganga Festival, celebrated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, takes place in November.

Where to Stay: Bhadra Kali Guest House is near the Dashashwamedh Ghat. There’s a panoramic view of the city and the river from the rooftop, where monkeys are also known to hang out, looking to be fed.

Cultural Tip: Don’t take photos of funeral ceremonies at the cremation ghats, even from the river. No bags, phones, or pens are allowed in the Vishwanath Temple—deposit those in nearby lockers—and be forewarned: Security is tight at the temple. Accounts vary as to whether or not foreigners are allowed in.

What to Read Before You Go: Check out Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi by Piers Moore Ede, who describes Varanasi in colorful and poetic language—“a city of armchair philosophers and tea-stand saints”—and spends time with different groups of residents to show as many sides of the city as possible. The Bhagavad Gita, the text that is a cornerstone of Hinduism and considered a masterpiece of Sanskrit poetry, is less than 200 pages and a surprisingly easy holiday read.