Many places to visit in Jaisalmer are so beautiful that it would be a shame to miss them.
There are many incredible places to visit in India, and Jaisalmer is definitely one of them. With its roughly 90000 inhabitants, and much smaller compared to Indian megalopolis, there are many fabulous places to visit in Jaisalmer, which is one of the best cities in India.
To discover more about India, head over to my post “The 17 Best Places To Visit In India.” You can also read my post on the best cities in India.
The array of things to do in Jaisalmer is incredible, which is why it remains a favorite of travelers, who often prefer it to the million times more chaotic Delhi, and even to the holiest city in India, Varanasi (by the way, you can read more about Varanasi here). It was certainly my case.
I fell in love with Jaisalmer sheer beauty – so much so that I was hardly bothered by the chaos of tourists and locals, and by the noise of Diwali, one of the most important festivals in India that was happening right when I visited.
This small city can be visited in a mere two days, but I recommend to spend longer to take in all that it has to offer. In this post, I highlight all the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer and I provided a few tips on how to make the most of the city.
If you are looking for guided tours of Jaisalmer, these are two of the best ones:
Right outside the Fort, one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer
15 Incredible Places To Visit In Jaisalmer
One of the unmissable places to visit in Jaisalmer is its gorgeous fort, which together with other hill forts of Rajastan is UNESCO protected. Located on top of a hill, Jaisalmer Fort is an incredible sight from a distance. What makes it special compared to other forts in Rajasthan is that people still live there – there’s a community of around 3000 people living within the walls.
Jaisalmer Fort is a beautiful combination of narrow, winding lanes, and a series of temples and houses, as well as handicraft shops, guesthouses and restaurants. It was founded in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisal and then reinforced by other rulers, and the place of many battles. You can enter through the eastern gate, near Gopa Chowk, and walk around the other four massive gates until you reach Dashera Chowk, the gate that opens to the square that used to be the fort center.
The number of hotels and restaurants in the fort is seriously affecting the survival of what is one of the most unique places to visit in Jaisalmer. Rumor has it that due to the unrestricted water use the fort is collapsing onto itself.
TIP: Make sure to follow the advice of the city council and avoid staying in one of the boutique hotels in Jaisalmer Fort. For as nice as they are, they have a strong impact on what is one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer. Instead, opt to stay in other areas in the city.
Jaisalmer Fort Palace
Jaisalmer Fort Palace is one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer. This gorgeous seven-storey palace is where the former rulers of the city used to live. It is partially built on top of the fourth fort gate, known as Hawa Pol.
The palace is a series of small rooms and visiting is one of the nicest things to do in Jaisalmer to get an idea of how much buildings, especially important ones, were designed to spy on the outside world. At the palace, the doorways are very low. This doesn’t reflect the actual stature of the rulers, but was done with the idea of forcing anybody who walked in to bend in front of them and keep a humble attitude.
TIP: Most of the palace is now open to the public. To make the most of it, take a guided tour (it lasts around 90 minutes). This also goes to the beautiful Rang Mahal, the mirrored and painted room of 18th century ruler Mulraj II.
The Jain Temples
The whole fort of Jaisalmer is scattered with beautiful Jain temples that date back to the 15th and 16th century. These are among the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer.
Jain temples are characterized by incredibly intricate carvings and decorations. The ones in Jaisalmer are so beautiful that they rival those of the marble Jain temples of Ranakpur. Among the temples that can be visited there is Chandraprabhu – here’s where you’ll find the ticket stand as well. To its right, there is Rikhabdev temple, which has beautiful sculputres along the walls. Other temples are Parasnath, Shitalnath, Sambhavant, Shantinath and Kunthunath, which feature some incredibly sensual carvings.
TIP: Make sure to check the opening times of the temples before going, because they can be erratic, and note that the temples are always open for worshippers. Make sure to dress appropriately if you plan to visit, as it is forbidden to take things such as food, drinks, cigarettes and any leather item inside the temples.
Among the places to visit in Jaisalmer there is Laxminarayan, which is a Hindu temple. It’s definitely simpler than the Jain ones, but it has a beautifully decorated dome.
Read my post about the top temples in India here.
One of the top places to visit in Jaisalmer is the Palace
Jaisalmer is packed with havelis, which are scattered throughout the city, both inside the fort and outside. These are some of the most interesting places to visit in Jaisalmer. Havelis are beautifully carved sandstone doorways, jali screens, balconies and turrets. There are some that date back to the 18th century, built by notable city merchants.
Among the nicest havelis in Jaisalmer there are Patwa-ki-Haveli, which was built between 1800 and 1860 by 5 rich Jain brothers and is divided into 5 sections; and the Nathmak-ki-Haveli, which used to be the prime minister’s house and is still partly inhabited.
Desert Cultural Center and Museum
One of the most interesting places to visit in Jaisalmer is the Desert Cultural Center and Museum, which helps get a better understanding of Rajasthani culture with exhibits on music, textiles and religion among others.
TIP: Note that the ticket also includes admission to the Jaisalmer Folklore Museum.
Jaisalmer War Museum
One of the most interesting places to visit in Jaisalmer is the War Museum. It opened in 2015 and it is a great place to learn more about the history of Indian military. There is a strong focus on the war with Pakistan of 1965 and the Battle of Longewala which took place in 1971. The exhibit includes military equipment, and even the aircraft used during the Battle of Longewala. Admission to this interesting museum, which is located by the Military Station, is free.
Thar Heritage Museum
Visiting the Thar Heritage Museum is what to do in Jaisalmer to get a proper introduction about this incredible desert. This is a small, privately owned museum with a very good exhibit that includes things such as turbans, musical instruments, fossils, and even kitchen equipment.
TIP: If the museum appears rather uninteresting initially, rest assured that it quickly turns into one of the most interesting places to visit in Jaisalmer thanks to the guide, local historian LN Khatri. If you happen to get to the museum and find it closed, try to look for Mr Khatri in the nearby shop, Desert Handicrafts Emporium.
The Thar Desert is one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer
The Thar Desert
Among the best places to visit in Jaisalmer there’s the Thar Desert – though please note this is at a 20 minutes drive the city. This sand dunes desert is the perfect place to get away from the city, and here you can go on walks along the sand dunes, admire an incredible sunset and have dinner in one of the camps listening to traditional music and admiring an incredibly starry sky, and even go on a camel safari.
TIP: If you want to do a camel safari, make sure it is run in an ethical way with animals that are treated fairly and that all garbage is taken back to the city and not abandoned in the desert.
Speaking of sunset, you want to get the nicest sunset in Jaisalmer city, head to Vyas Chhatry, which is on the nothern edge of Jaisalmer and is dedicated to Vyasa, author of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata. It used to be a cremation ground for Brahmins and there are various empty tombs. It’s one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer for sunset views.
Not in Jasailmer proper, Khaba Place is a nice place to go to. It’s a fort in an abandoned Paliwal village that used to be inhabited by Brahmins and that is located at around 40 minutes drive from Jaisalmer. The fort still has the ruins of the homes of the families that used to live there more than 200 years ago. What makes it one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer is the fact that hardly any people go. The peacocks living around the fort add a fun touch to it.
The alleys are the cutest places to visit in Jaisalmer
The tiny alleys
This isn’t exactly a specific place, but walking along the tiny alleys is one of the nicest things to do in Jaisalmer. The maze of narrow streets gives plenty of opportunities to observe the local life and to bump into some of the most charming sights in town.
One of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer is the market, where there is a great selection of souvenirs as well as foods. Other than that, Jaisalmer has a bunch of beautiful shops scattered around town which are perfect if you like shopping and want to buy more unique pieces such as beautifully embroidered spreads and bed covers; oil lamps; antiques; as well as clothing of various styles like saris and cotton shirts.
TIP: Whether you buy in shops or at the market, make sure to haggle a bit before agreeing to buy anything.
Gadisar Lake is one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer. It’s an artificial lake originally built as a water reservoir around 1400. The best time to visit is the morning, when locals go to pray in one of the temples around the lake and then feed the fish in the lake.
TIP: Going to the lake, the view of Jaisalmer Fort is fantastic!
Bhang (marijuana), a drug that in Hindu mythology had a special role, is sold openly in Jaisalmer. Lassi Shop, in Amar Sagar Pol and right next to Trotters Travel agency is one of the most popular places to visit in Jaisalmer to get a bhang lassi, a shake notoriously made with yogurt and bhang. Other things to eat are the bhang cookies, chocolates and other sweets.
TIP: Don’t over do it with the lassi. It may taste delicious, it may not feel strong, but it certainly is!
The market is one of the nicest places to visit in Jaisalmer
Other Things To Do In Jaisalmer
Eat great food
One of the perks of traveling to India is the delicious food. Jaisalmer has many good restaurants serving local and international cuisine, so one of the things to do in Jaisalmer is eating! Local food is generally cheaper and a typical meal consists of boiled jasmine rice, bread (pita or chapati, but there also are other kinds of bread), dhal, which is a sort of lentils soup, or chickpeas, and then many vegetable dishes such as potatoes and spinach, or potatoes and cauliflower.
Drink masala chai
Masala chai is a traditional Indian drink of sweet black tea, milk and spices. Jaisalmer is packed with some lovely cafés, some of them offering stunning views of the fort. Drinking masala chai right outside the fort is definitely what to do in Jaisalmer to recharge and at the same time getting a splendid view of the city.
Where to stay in Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer has many good accommodation options. Though the city fort has some supposedly beautiful boutique hotels, make sure to pick one outside and do your share to preserve this beautiful part of the city.
Here’s a selection of good places to stay in Jaisalmer:
Have you ever been to Jaisalmer? What are the places to visit in Jaisalmer that you liked the most?
Pin It For Later!
There are many incredible cities in India. The country is so big that it’s impossible to get to know it all – unless spending months of constantly traveling there, or going multiple times (each to a different area). A selection of the best cities in India will inevitably reflect personal taste and experiences – so forgive me if I am not mentioning your favorite place and rest assured that I will make sure to visit again soon, to explore more.
Visiting The Best Cities In India – My Impressions
To be honest, most Indian cities can feel overwhelming. This may well have to do with my background: I grew up in Cagliari, the small capital of Sardinia (Italy). Traffic is hardly an issue here, and the island isn’t crowded at all. Imagine then how I felt when I woke up in one of the most crowded countries in the world!
The minute I got out of the airport in Varanasi (which, by the way, is one of my favorite places to visit in India, not to mention one of the best cities to visit in India) I was shocked with the traffic, the dust and the never ending honking of cars, to the point that I told myself that the minute I’d arrive at my hotel, I’d get myself another plane ticket to fly home as soon as possible.
The funny bit is that it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t really bothered by the traffic and the chaos. I just didn’t like the pollution, which made my throat sting. But other than that, I slept like a baby despite the chaos of Diwali – the Indian equivalent of New Year’s celebrations, which however goes on for a week or so, with fireworks and crackers being popped 24/7 even in the smallest alleys!
I ended up truly enjoying navigating the tiny alleys of Indian cities, getting lost in the many markets, browsing around the shops for textiles or looking at the colorful fruit stalls, admiring all the vibrant colors of the saris and appreciating the grace with which women wear them. I was thrilled any time I ended up in a corner that seemed more hidden, where I could observe a bit more of the local life, get in touch with the people and the traditions.
Of all the cities in India that I traveled to, I fell in love with 7. I got to really appreciate their unique atmosphere, the fantastic attractions, the colors, the light (there is a special light in Indian cities, one I can hardly explain with words!), the welcoming, chatty people. These cities had that special factor that attracted me to them.
One thing for sure, I look forward to visiting India again, and get to know even more cities. Meantime, here is a selection of what I think are the 7 best cities in India.
Here is a post I wrote on the best places to visit in India.
Delhi is one of the best cities in India
The 7 Best Cities In India
Talking about the best cities in India, Delhi does deserve a mention. For as chaotic and polluted as it is, this is a quintessentially Indian city that it would be a pity to miss – even if only for a couple of days.
Delhi is one of the most interesting cities of India, not to mention one of the quirkiest cities a traveler could hope for; a fantastic mix of history, traditions and modernity; of peace within chaos. It is the kind of city where next to a beautifully restored and kept historical landmark, there is a market with all its mayhem, vivacity and colors. It’s the kind of place where luxury cars drive past old tuc tucs and rickshaws; where women wearing designer clothes parade around with their glamorous dogs next to beggars and strays.
In Delhi, young people meet in the trendy bars, pubs, clubs and posh restaurants of Connaught Place. They drink coffee as easily as they go for a spiced chai. They enjoy Mexican food as well as the most traditional of dahl.
The modern metro of Delhi is a perfect representation of the multiple layers and souls of what really is one of the best Indian cities. Here, women wearing colorful saris stand next to those wearing the latest fashion – and all of them are happily holding a smartphone.
Delhi is a city of contrasts, one you are bound to enjoy.
TIP: Delhi is chaotic and it can be hard to navigate, as many cities in India. To make the most of Delhi, make sure not to miss the Red Fort, a massive fort in the heart of the city; Jama Masjid, a fantastic mosque that can host up to 25000 people; Hymaynun’s Tomb, a beautiful mausoleum. Delhi is also home to some of the top temples in India. These few attractions are enough to keep you entertained for a couple of days, especially if you add a trip to one of the many markets.
Jaipur is one of the most interesting cities in India
I expected Delhi to be the most chaotic of the cities in India, but when I arrived in Jaipur, one of the nicest cities in Rajasthan, I realized that there is no way one can escape chaos in India. Yet, I loved it. An evening stroll looking for some street food means having to cross the busiest streets, where cars, tuc tucs, bikes, rickshaws, buses, trucks, pedestrians and cows all try to get through. The best part of it is that there is a nicely functioning, very modern metro that locals haven’t seemed to notice, for it was so empty!
TIP: make sure to explore the local market, even at night. You may not find anything interesting to buy, but it’s so full of life and colors that it’s a lot of fun. Among the must sees in Jaipur there is the gorgeous Amber Fort. It’s actually a bit off the city, but it’s worth every effort to get there.
RESPONSIBLE TIP: elephant rides are still offered to get from the bottom of the hill to the fort. Opt to either walk or take a jeep ride instead, and avoid getting involved in the exploitation and torture of these beautiful animals.
Read more about the use of animals in tourist attractions in this post.
One of the best cities in India is definitely Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, not so much for the city in and of itself (which is interesting, by the way) but because it offers access to one of the most beautiful sites in the country (well, actually, in the world!). The Taj Mahal is within very easy reach from the center of Agra.
TIP: there is hardly anything you can do to avoid the crowds of visitors at the Taj Mahal. It’s such a famous site that there will be people at any time, any day. Having said this, I’d say that it’s probably better to go either in the very early morning, or right before sunset. There will be lots of people, though less than in the middle of the day, and the light will be stunning. Also consider getting tickets in advance to avoid the line!
Known as the blue city, Jaipur, in Rajasthan, has to be mentioned among the best cities in India. What makes it worth visiting is the beautiful Mehrangarh Fort. This can be seen from a distance, rising on a lonely hill. The view of the city from the fort is magnificent. The blue houses of the Brahmins can be seen in the distance, and the city is so beautiful and colorful.
TIP: make sure to make your way out of the Fort right before sunset, to get the best view of the city. The light is simply stunning.
Hidden corners like this make Udaipur one of the best cities in India
Udaipur, in Rajasthan, is one of the best cities in India thanks to its range of attractions. A boat ride around Lake Pichola affords incredible views of the City Palace. This is one of the best places to visit in the city. Yet, it’s the lovely atmosphere that makes Udaipur particularly pleasant.
While most tourists head to the Palace, a visit to the local market proves to be an incredibly private experience, and a show of what the real India looks like: goats, dogs and cows roaming the streets; a barber giving an impromptu hair cut to a child; fruit vendors showing their best merchandise; and virtually no tourists around.
TIP: Udaipur is a favorite tourist destination for people traveling from Gujarat, who crowd it during any Indian celebrations. In other words, try to avoid visiting during festivals such as Holi or Diwali, unless you don’t mind literally being squashed by the crowds. If you can’t avoid visiting at the same time, just don’t go to the Palace in the afternoon, but make it your first stop in the early morning.
Jaisalmer is one of the best Indian cities
Jaisalmer is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited in India. Located in Rajasthan, I enjoyed my time there so much that I have to mention it among the 7 best cities in India. I spent only a few days there, but I would have liked to stay longer.
Much smaller than other cities in India, Jaisalmer is packed with beautiful sights and is full of life, and to top this off it is close to the Thar desert, thought to be one of the most beautiful Indian getaways and where it is possible to go on safaris on the dunes.
What makes it one of the best cities to visit in India is the gorgeous fort, which in this case isn’t just a palace but rather a citadel, where around 3000 people still live, and which is packed with temples, shops, restaurants and boutique hotels. It’s a wonderful place to explore and to go shopping.
RESPONSIBLE TIP: Please follow the advice of the local authorities and pick a hotel which is outside the fort, and this is actually collapsing onto itself due to water getting onto the fundaments.
For a more detailed post on Jaisalmer, read “15 Beautiful Places To Visit In Jaisalmer.”
It’s hard to describe Varanasi, one of the most important cities in Uttar Pradesh and in India altogether. It’s such a unique city, so interesting yet so infuriating; so rich yet so poor. Varanasi is peace and chaos at the same time; it is silence and quiet as well as noise. It’s where everything seems to begin and then to end. What is not hard to establish, is that this is one of the best cities in India, one that ought to be explored.
Varanasi is a holy city for the Hindus. The Old City is a series of tiny, very narrow alleys where no cars can circulate, making it oh so quiet compared to what lies outside. The Gange that flows right by is the site of sacred rituals: it’s where cremations take place; where people bathe to wash away their sins. It’s also where the Ganga Aarti, the ceremony during which fire is given to Mother Ganges, takes place every day.
Varanasi is the quintessential Indian city, one that fascinates travelers, and as such one of the best Indian cities.
TIP: enjoy a sunrise boat ride to admire all the funeral ceremonies, but do so from a respectful distance and remember that taking photos of funerals is not allowed. Make sure to walk along the river to see all the different Ghats: each one of them has a different feel, and offers a different scene.
Have you ever been to India? What do you think are the best cities in India?
Pin It For Later!
“So, what’s your favorite city in India?” enquired my friend Diana, once I was finally back from my trip.
“Varanasi,” I replied, without the shadow of a doubt in my voice.
Who would have known that I would have enjoyed India so much (I can put it right there, in the list of my favorite countries), and that I would have fallen in love with Varanasi? Sure enough, I didn’t.
A typical alley in the Old City of Varanasi: small shops, someone pushing a bike, dogs and garbage. And a fabulous light.
A slap in the face
I landed in Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world, after 24 hours of traveling and with a pounding headache. No, I wasn’t coming from the other side of the world. I was actually arriving from the beautiful hill station of Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. My trip involved a bumpy bus ride to Bhopal airport that lasted almost 8 hours; a 90 minutes flight to Mumbai; a taxi transfer to the other terminal of Mumbai airport; a 7 hours layover in the freezing terminal without access to a lounge to rest my sore body (because the lounge at the cheap airlines terminal is only for VIPs, apparently); and a further flight to Varanasi.
As soon as the taxi pulled out of the airport, I realized I was in India. Yes, I had been there for over a week already. But Madhya Pradesh is hardly the kind of India one would think of – or at least, hardly similar to what I thought of whenever I tried to picture India. It was quiet; there wasn’t any of the big crowds or insane traffic that India is famous for; there wasn’t even that much dust.
Find out more about Madhya Pradesh on my post “Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh.”
Varanasi was a slap in the face. It was everything I had feared. It was that very India whose thought would make me wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night during the weeks before traveling, thinking “why am I doing this to myself, why am I forcing myself to go to India?” I was horrified by the traffic, the noise, the dust, the cows that chewed the plastic bags and then sat in the middle of the street, seemingly oblivious to the chaos, the dogs, the bikes, the tuc tucs, and the derelict buildings all around on the way from the airport. I was not even sure that I would be safe there as a solo female traveler. So horrified indeed, that I resolved to buy a plane ticket to go home as soon as I got to my guest house in the Old City, provided I’d actually make it there without getting lost in the mayhem.
Orderly chaotic, that’s what I enjoyed about Varanasi
You have to get lost to find yourself
Indeed, taxis cannot enter the Old City of Varanasi. I had read this somewhere, but I was still hoping the taxi driver would get me to my guest house, somehow. I was India after all: there’s no such thing as respecting the rules there, and who cares if cars are not allowed in the Old City? The point though is that cars don’t go there because they don’t want to – oh trust me, they would want to, because if there’s something Indians seem to enjoy, that’s being stuck in traffic even when walking seems like the more sensible option. They really, truly can’t – because the streets of the Old City are so narrow that only pedestrians (which includes buffalos, cows, dogs and monkeys), bikes and the occasional scooter can actually go through.
Sure, I didn’t want to break any rule – even if I was in the country were rules are broken on a regular basis. But imagine my despair when the taxi driver pulled off and said he was going to stop right there, adding that he could not take me any further, and off I should go to find my place. Head pounding, exhausted for the long trip and the heat, I threw my backpack on my shoulders (and I thankfully had packed light this time, despite being an unsuccessful backpacker) and took out my iPhone – thankfully my friend Pranav, whom I had met in Madhya Pradesh, was kind enough to lend me one of his SIM cards and I could use Google Maps to guide me to my guest house.
Monkeys are everywhere in Varanasi
I started walking, and after a few minutes I had to take a turn into a narrow alley. It looked like I was finally leaving the traffic behind, and I had entered the Old City. There were no cars, no honking. It was blissful.
I must have looked lost, and I surely was disheveled after 24 hours with no sleep, no real food and a headache that wouldn’t go away. So lost that a guy from what looked like a small café waved at me.
“Hello, come join us for coffee,” he told me in his strong French accent. He was the owner of the French Bakers, a recently opened lovely place that made the most comforting pain au raisins I could have hoped for, and where I ended up having breakfast every day during my time in Varanasi.
“I’d love to, but I really want to find my guest house, I am too exhausted,” I replied, and asked him if he knew where it was.
He didn’t, actually. But then the Marigold P. Guest House turned out to be just around the corner, tucked away in an even smaller alley. I walked up a few steps, knocked on the door, and was welcomed by Sonu, the young owner. He was all smiles and apologies because the driver he had hired to come pick me up at the airport did not show up. After handing me a bottle of much needed cold water and registering me, he showed me around his property. A few simple, spotless and comfortable rooms; a rooftop terrace with an incredible view of the city and of the river Ganges.
Walking along the Ganges, from ghat to ghat, is one of the nicest things to do in Varanasi
“You can join me here at sunrise, every day, when I practice yoga,” Sonu said eagerly.
“We’ll see…” I surrendered, knowing that there’s no way I can wake up before dawn to exercise.
He then prompted me to make sure to close the door to the terrace every time I went up, as monkeys were known for getting inside and steal stuff. Putting aside the thought of losing my stuff to a monkey, I could not hide my amusement: how cool can a city were monkeys are a threat to property be to a westerner like me?
Boats move slowly along the Ganges right before sunrise in Varanasi
Varanasi and the circle of life
Sonu’s sweet manners made me feel welcome. It was as if, despite everything, I had arrived home. Varanasi was turning out to be not nearly half has bad as I thought it would be: I was hopeful.
Moments later, I was finally in my room, I took a much needed hot shower, downed the rest of the bottle of water and crashed on my bed. A few hours later, I woke up: the headache had finally gone and decided it was finally time to go explore Varanasi and see what it was all about and why everyone, including Derek of the incredible Wandering Earl blog (who I actually had the pleasure to meet in person right in Varanasi), kept saying it’s their favorite city in India.
So I walked out the door, took a right turn into the main alley, and walked straight for a minute until I found myself into mayhem once again. But this time it was different: I happened to be looking at a ceremony. There were a lot of people sitting (and standing) to admire the show; there was what appeared to be ritual music, and a ritual kind of dance, with the performers handling fire.
Fire, the Ganges, and colorful people make the Ganga Aarti an unmissable experience in Varanasi
Just by chance, I had ended up at the Ganga Aarti, a ceremony held at Dashashwamedh Ghat during which fire is donated to Mother Ganges. It was beautiful: the show, the people around, the colorful saris, the cheering, the music and the atmosphere. I loved it. So much so that in my time in Varanasi I ended up seeing it every day, each day from a different perspective: from a terrace, from a boat on the Ganges, from the stairs of the ghat (by the way, a ghat is a set of steps leading down to a body of water, usually a holy river: there’s 84 ghats in Varanasi).
As the ceremony ended, I joined the stream of people that were leaving the Ghat. I went through the market, then back into the narrow alleys of the Old City. It was time to eat dinner at one of the small restaurants – I became a regular customer of Spicy Bites and of Bona’s Cafe, which serve decent food at reasonable prices (but no alcohol: Varanasi is mostly dry: it is hard to find alcohol served anywhere, especially in the Old City) and attract a young crowd of backpackers, all eager to share their experiences.
Still quite tired from all the traveling of the previous day, I called it a day right after dinner and went to bed. Besides, I had booked a Varanasi sunrise boat tour with City Discovery, and my alarm was set at 4:00 am. Indeed, although I am more of a spontaneous traveler, I do enjoy guided tours and I knew that this time around I wouldn’t have that much time in the city, and I didn’t want to waste any time in scouting for a good guide: I wanted to make sure that my guide was a certified one, that he spoke good English, and that I wouldn’t have to haggle for the price.
Read more about why I like guided tours on my post “Ten reasons to take a guided tour at least once in life.”
No words can describe the beauty of the sunrise on the Ganges
Where it all begins, and where it all ends
At 4:30 am sharp my guide was waiting outside Marigold P Guest House. It was still pitch dark outside, but as we made our way to a ghat to board a boat that would take us along the river Ganges, the sun was starting to rise. I can hardly find words to describe the amazing view of the sunrise on the river Ganges. Spectacular doesn’t begin to explain how beautiful it was.
Boats moved slowly along the Ganges. And just by chance I saw my friend Lakshmi (or rather, she photobombed my picture!), whom I had met the year before on a trip to Indonesia.
Lakshmi and I agreed to meet later to have tea and a chat, but as the boats went each their own way, I couldn’t help ask myself: “what are the odds of meeting someone randomly in a city that sees thousands of tourists every day, and even more so during the peak season?” It looks like anything can happen in Varanasi.
As we went along the river during my early morning boat tour of Varanasi, my guide told me about the importance of the Ganges – one of the greatest rivers on earth – to the Hindus. Many people bathe there throughout the day, to wash away their sins. Some slowly walk inside, some dive head first, some pour water on their head. This is the most auspicious place to hold funerals, too. It’s in holy Varanasi that the Hindus hope to break the samsara cycle, the cycle of reincarnation, to finally achieve moksa, liberation.
Even buffalos bathe in the Ganges
I could see several fires as the boat moved along the river: bodies were being cremated, the smoke adding up to the unique smell of Varanasi – one made of spices; of the fried jalebi sweets, pakoras and samosas; of cheese being made in random shops in hidden alleys; mixed with the acre stench of garbage rotting, garbage being burned, cows excrements and exhaust. It didn’t bother me. I learned to associate it with a city I loved.
Cremation ceremonies in Varanasi are held throughout the day and night. Taking pictures of the funeral pyres is prohibited, and I would have thought that even if it wasn’t, nobody would dare take such morbid pictures and lack any respect for the dead, their families, and the whole culture. I soon learned that is not the case, and saw one too many a tourist pushing their way through to get the ultimate shot.
Jumping in the holy river
As the sun made its stubborn appearance for the day, the boat approached a ghat and we disembarked. We started walking along the river. People kept bathing there. I could even see some men using the miswak, a toothbrush made of salvadora persica. The business day had started: barbers started shaving their customers; others did laundry for guest houses and hotels right on the river and hung it to dry on the ghats; cows and dogs kept on chewing on garbage bags, undisturbed.
Sadhus can be seen at almost every street corner in Varanasi
Sadhus (Hindu monks that live an ascetic life dedicated to prayer and to the achievement of liberation) walked around, in their saffron-colored clothes, posing for pictures in exchange of a small fee.
Our last stop was at the temples, although I could just about peep in from the outside, and only after having secured all my belongings in a locker and having gone through a security check. Tourists are indeed not allowed to enter the holiest temples in Varanasi.
After saying goodbye to my guide, I made my way to the French Bakers, for a much needed cup of coffee and a freshly baked pain au raisin. There, I befriended Kusti, a sweet Estonian beach volleyball player. We’d meet at the bakery every day for breakfast then spend the rest of the day wandering the galis, the narrow streets of Varanasi, or hopping from ghat to ghat, and enjoying a cold lassi (a delicious Indian yogurt drink).
Enjoying a cup of delicious ginger tea with old and new friends I met in Varanasi
Each ghat appeared different from the other. Some looked almost abandoned. Others, full of life: artists painting on one side; somebody making tea; children jumping in the river, putting up a show for us; dogs laying on their backs to cool down; and buffalos fully immersed before walking back up the ghat.
The Assi Ghat appeared like a wholly different place: lovely and quiet, here teenagers sat on the stairs to have a chat; kids played around in their bikes and life went on, undisturbed by the passage of a few tourists.
The Assi Ghat has a whole different feel
On my last day in Varanasi, I took a boat to the other side of the river. It didn’t even feel like Varanasi at all – though I could clearly see the city as the sun set behind it. There, horses carried tourists around as if in the desert. A small group cooked under a tent. And a way too large group of kids played an improvised game of football.
Every now and then one would approach me.
“Where are you from?” he’d asked, not even bothered to hide his curiosity.
Then, the rest would wave at me to join in the fun. Who cared if football teams are supposed to be of 11 players, after all?
A football game on the banks of the river Ganges
That football game summed up what Varanasi is: an incredible, eclectic mix, where everything and everyone meets, where everybody is welcome and at home, where everything begins and then ends.
Little by little, Varanasi crawled through my veins, reached my heart and set up shop there. Each and every city I visited in India was special in its own way, but none of them gave me that sense of peace, of achievement, of being welcome and feeling like I was home that Varanasi transmitted.
Yes, Varanasi remains my favorite city in India and one of the best places to visit there, and I can’t wait to go back.
Have you been to Varanasi? What was your experience there?
To read more about India, check my post “A selection of the best places to visit in India.”
When I told my family and friends I would be visiting Madhya Pradesh, in India, they looked buffled. They didn’t even know where Madhya Pradesh is. Best yet, a friend of mine who’s spent 3 years in India on and off, suggested there really isn’t anything interesting to see in Madhya Pradesh and asked why would I even bother going when there are so many more interesting places to see in India.
Read more about the best places to visit in India.
That was enough to actually convince me I’d want to visit Madhya Pradesh. I liked the idea of exploring a lesser visited part of the country and to start my exploration of India from there. I applied for a my India visa before going, and I was set.
The interesting Bhopal is Madhya Pradesh largest city – photo courtesy of Patrick M. Loeff (flickr)
So I landed in Bhopal, the capital – all in all a small city in Indian terms, with “only” around 2 million inhabitants, yet historically known for the gas incident (the Bhopal disaster) which in 1984 caused the death of thousands of people when gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant.
Bhopal was the starting point of my exploration, which made me discover an incredible State and its beautiful, genuine and welcoming people.
My advice to anybody visiting the country is to make sure to include Madhya Pradesh in their Indian itinerary, for at least five reasons.
To me, any place where there’s monkeys is worth visiting. And there’s many in Madhya Pradesh!
Five reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh is the land of tigers
There are many national parks in Madhya Pradesh, and in each of them it is possible to admire the local wildlife. Among the animals to be sighted there is the spotted dear, the sloth bear, various species of monkeys, buffalos, various species of birds and snakes, and even leopards and tigers. A safari in the Satpura Tiger Reserve, located at about 4 hours drive from Bhopal and part of the Satpura National Park, is a great way of trying to see these mighty felines.
I wasn’t so lucky to see one, but Satpura Tiger Reserve is one of the best places to spot tigers.
There’s more than 40 tigers living in the reserve, but they are not easily sighted. The best months to see them are around the monsoon time, when they do spend more time hanging around by the water. In any case, even the attempt to spot tigers (and seeing all the other animals that live in the reserve) make the effort of going there worth it even during the dry season.
In Madhya Pradesh, nature is at its best
Madhya Pradesh is the second largest State in India, and there are incredible natural attractions. The Pachmari reserve is included among the UNESCO biosphere reserves for its flora and fauna. Here the weather is much more pleasant than in other parts of India – it is one of the few hill stations of the country. At night, temperature drops and it is nice to wear a jacket and sleep with a blanket, something which doesn’t go without saying in the South of the country.
Nature is gorgeous in Madhya Pradesh – there was nobody around at this viewpoint!
Close to Pachmari there are the Rajat Prapat waterfalls, among the highest ones in India. And the view of the surrounding mountains from Dhoopgarh is simply stunning. The highest peak here is the Hathi Shikhar, which is well above 1300 meters.
And what about the sunrise at Madhai? Seeing the sun rising above the forest here, while on a boat going to the Satpura Tiger Reserve, is an unforgettable experience. The sun rises slowly, and its paints the sky of colors which are gradually brighter, almost as trying to welcome visitors who are about to embark on a safari.
The people of Madhya Pradesh are welcoming
People in Madhya Pradesh are incredibly warm and friendly. From the ones working in the tourism industry to anybody I met in the street, to the ones who helped me through the incredible ordeal I went through in order to get a SIM card in India, I found everyone to be kind and curious towards the few travelers who visit their State, of which they are very proud. They think tourists are sacred, and they always help those in need.
Friendly faces at the market in Bhopal – photo courtesy of Ales Drainville (flickr)
It’s not invaded by tourists (yet)
I am hardly obsessed with off the beaten path places. After all, an unsuccessful backpacker like I am usually ends up there! Madhya Pradesh is a perfect place to visit for those who like to get a bit off the beaten path. It is as far as it gets from the traffic and pollution of Delhi and from the crowds of tourists of Varanasi. It is the best place to get to know the Indian culture and spirit more in depth, and to get closer to the locals and get that feeling of being one of the few privileged persons to experience something special.
Find out why I am an unsuccessful backpacker.
There’s still a few tourists in Madhya Pradesh – I was one of them
It’s a great introduction to India
Whether one likes to admit it or not, India is a difficult country to travel to – what with the infrastructure which are still lacking compared to those of Europe (although this is changing very fast thanks to the government efforts) which are often combined with very ling distances; or because of the crowds and the enormous cultural differences compared to the rest of the world. Madhya Pradesh is a gentle introduction to India: there’s less people, less traffic, less noise. It gives the chance of getting used to the country, to get to know the way of life in a more gradual manner.
A gorgeous sunrise on the boat on the way to Saptura Tiger Reserve
These are only five of the many reasons to visit Madhya Pradesh. I know I will want to visit it again, to explore more of this amazing State, starting from Khajuraho, a magnificent complex of Hindu temples which is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, to the Buddhist Sanchi with its many stupas, to Madhu to explore the Jahaz Mahal and to Orccha, a historic town along the banks of the river Betwa.
Besides, I would want to have a second try at spotting the tigers!
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of Madhya Pradesh as part of the #heartofindia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
Pin It For Later
After toying with the thought of going for a long time, and never feeling quite ready for it, I have finally made up my mind: I am going to India next week! I am incredibly excited at the idea, and a bit nervous as I feel I will have a bit of a cultural shock. India was not in my travel plans for 2016, but I was given a chance to go and I couldn’t pass out on this one.
One of the thing that scares me the most about it is that India is the country with the highest population density. I was already shocked to see the amount of people in Indonesia, the first country I visited in Asia, so I can only imagine how it will be like in India!
Find out more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”
Yet, I know that there are so many places to visit in India, and that it is full of marvelous temples that deserve a visit, dedicated to each of the different faiths that make up Indian religious beliefs. But since it would take a lifetime to tour every one of the thousands of temples dotted around this vast country, here are a selection of the ones that I will try to visit.
The Sanchi Supa – photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (flickr)
Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh
This Buddhist temple can be found in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The Great Stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) is the oldest stone structure in India. Madhya Pradesh is the first state I will be visiting, so this will be my introduction into Indian temples.
Adi Kumbeswarar, Tamil Nadu
Whereas Tungnath appears quite modest from the outside, Adi Kumbeswarar is an extraordinary construction covered with colourful sculptures of the deities. Another Shiva temple, it consists of four gateway towers and is in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. I am very curious to check this out.
The intricate carvings of the Dilwara Jain temples – photo courtesy of Rakhee (flickr)
Dilwara Temples, Rajasthan
The Dilwara temples are sacred to Jain worshippers, and comprise five temples. Each one is full of stunning carvings, with one (Vimal Vasahi) carved out of marble). Dilwara is in the north-western state of Rajasthan. I will be touring Rajasthan, so I won’t miss out on this one. And having a Rajasthan guide will surely help out.
The Badami Cave Temples – photo courtesy of Harsha Vardhan Durugadda (flickr)
Badami Cave Temples, Karnataka
Religious buildings often pop up in the most inventive locations, and the Badami Cave Temples are (not surprisingly, given the name) carved into sandstone hills. Located in the south-western state of Karnataka, the caves present some of the earliest known instances of Hindu temples.
The Vittala Temple – photo courtesy of Mahesh Telkar (flickr)
Vittala Temple, Hampi, Karnataka
Also in Karnataka lies the temple of Vittala. It is famed for its ‘musical pillars’, each of which makes a different musical note when tapped. The area once held a horse market, and this history is represented in the temple’s sculptures.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple – photo courtesy of Ryan (flickr)
Ramanathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu
Another stunning temple in Tamil Nadu, Ramanathaswamy is one of the main holy sites for Hindus. It is associated with Lord Rama and his wife Sita, who built temples here in order to atone for Rama killing the demon Ravana, a fellow Brahmin.
Tugnath Temple, Uttarakhand
I had never heard of the Hindu epic the Ramayana until I went to Bali last year, and saw a representation of it in a Kecak show. It was fantastic.
Check out why I think watching the Ramayana is one of the main attractions in Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”
Anyways… Tungnath is the highest Shiva temple in the world, and according to the poem it is where Lord Rama meditated. Unlike many others, the temple is tiny and therefore limits the number of visitors allowed in at any one time. But its unusual location (12,000 feet above sea level) makes it worth seeing. Tungnath is also in Tamil Nadu.
The Golden Temple – photo courtesy of bookchen (flickr)
Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), Punjab
In the north of India lies the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs. The temple projects out onto the river, making it an impressive site even without the golden colouring that gives it its name. This gold plating was added in the 19th century, but the temple dates back to the 16th century.
The Akshardham, New Delhi – photo courtesy of Gaurav Trivedi (flickr)
Akshardham Temple, New Delhi
Unlike many other Indian temples, Akshardham is a very recent addition to India’s rich heritage of religious buildings. Built of pink sandstone, it was opened in 2005 and is dedicated to the Swaminarayan sect. Akshardham offers light shows and many educational exhibitions on the Swaminarayan beliefs. It may be a good place to visit for families traveling to Delhi with kids.
Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
Located just out of Tawang City is the largest monastery in India and the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world. To me that is enough to visit, and while there I may as well go backpacking in Arunachal Pradesh.
Sure enough, I can’t wait to explore India!