Photograph by Ben Pipe, Premium/Alamy Stock Photo

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The sun sets over Man Mandir Ghat on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Photograph by Ben Pipe, Premium/Alamy Stock Photo

A Local’s Guide to Varanasi

What’s almost better than being able to travel to every city in the world? Hearing about them from the people who know and love them best. Check out these tips for seeing Varanasi through a local's eyes.

PIERS MOORE-EDE is the author of Honey and Dust, All Kinds of Magic, and most recently, Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi. He moved to Sussex, England, but returns to Varanasi as often as possible.

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is for an excellent chai in one of the galis, or alleys, beside the Ganges river. Good chai should be made with fresh buffalo milk and served in a clay cup.

January is the best time to visit my city because it's cool yet still sunny—a brief period of respite before the heat begins again.

You can see my city best from a boat out on the Ganges. Be sure to insist on the best price, because the boatmen are some of the most skilled hagglers in the city.

Locals know to skip the soulless five-star hotels in town and check out a riverfront guesthouse instead.

Any of the narrow alleys around Manikarnika Ghat would be a good place to buy authentic, local souvenirs.

In the past, notable people like maestro and sitar-player Ravi Shankar, and classical music artist Bismillah Khan have called my city home.

My city’s best museum is Bharat Kala Bhavan because it contains fantastic Buddhist and Hindu sculptures and archaeological relics.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s to take it slowly. Varanasi is one of the most hectic cities in the world, so aim to do little and let the place work its magic on you.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is anywhere along the ghats or adrift on a boat.

My city really knows how to celebrate festivals with reputedly one for every day of the year.

You can tell if someone is from my city because they exhibit masti—the Indian word for joie de vivre, which is said to be the defining characteristic of Benares (Varanasi).

For a fancy night out, I listen to classic music at one of the city's many music ashrams.

Just outside my city, you can visit Sarnath, an important Buddhist pilgrimage centre where Buddha preached the first sermon in the deer park.

My city is known for being a city where people come to die but it’s really incredibly energetic and alive.

The best outdoor markets in my city are at Thatheri Bazar, Godowlia, or Dashashwamedh Gali.

Kachori Gali is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and Aum Café is the spot for late-night eats.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Benares edition of the Times of India. Better yet, ask a local.

To escape the crowds, I head down to the Krishnamurti Study Centre and Retreat at Rajghat, which has beautiful grounds and a fine spiritual library.

The dish that represents my city best is bhang (an edible form of cannabis that's important for Shaivites, legal, and culturally acceptable in Varanasi), and Thandai, made of almond milk and spices, is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at any government bhang shop and Badal Thandai Ghar at Godowlia Chowk, respectively.

The five-day long Dhrupad Mela is the best time to see live music, but if you visit at any other time, try the International Music Centre Ashram.

The devotional Ramlila plays, reenacting the life of Rama over 30 nights each year, could only happen in my city. Versions of them occur elsewhere in India, but no where matches Varanasi's pure form and cultural treasure.

In the spring you should witness Holi, the festival of color.

In the summer you should try to take in Ganga Dussehra, when thousands take a dip in the river to purify their sins and remedy their physical ails.

In the fall you should visit for Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated in Varanasi like nowhere else in india. Festivities include decorating houses and public spaces with thousands of lights, candles, and colorful designs.

In the winter you should try to coincide your visit with Makar Sankranti, usually in early January, when thousands of colorful paper kites are flown from the flat rooftops of the city. This is one of the most poetic sights on Earth.

The best book about my city is difficult to pin down. Most of them until now have been academic, though Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics is a wonderful novel set in the area. For book lovers, I would recommend the Harmony Bookshop at Assi Ghat. Rakesh, the owner, is a font of literary knowledge and maker of a good chai.