Two of the most iconic cities in Northern India, Rishikesh and Varanasi. If you have the time in your itinerary, I say visit both. We did and I don't regret it.
We ended up leaving Varanasi 9 days into our planned 18 day visit and headed to Rishikesh. We only planned to be in Rishikesh for a week, but it easily turned into 2 weeks because we liked it so much.
During our time there I could not stop comparing the two incredible, yet incredibly different cities. Travelers faux pas to compare destinations, I know, but I really don't care. Here are some of my thoughts as I put Rishikesh and Varanasi head-to-head in a variety of categories.
This is an interesting one for me because I am a yoga teacher in California and am not necessarily in India seeking out yoga the way some people are. But because yoga is so in-your-face in Rishikesh I am absolutely loving trying out as many classes as I can.
There are hundreds to choose from, with set classes happening all day all over town! It's incredibly easy to drop-in to classes whenever you like. I took a liking to 2 particular studios out of the 8 that I visited and did multiple classes at both.
Yoga Vini is right next to the Lahksman Jhula bridge. The owner, Mitra, pays close attention to alignment and has great energy. It was a mere 200 rupees (about $3USD) for a 2 hour hatha class. Get there early though, as the morning classes will fill and you will be turned away (I learned that one the hard way).
The other studio I liked a lot was Om Shanti Om with the exuberant teacher Dinesh. Nick and I loved him, his creative sequencing, and the great liberty he took with the English language. A 90 minute vinyasa flow class is 300 rupees here (about $4.50USD) and he offers a multi-class punch card that brings the price even lower.
In Varanasi I found yoga to be much less accessible. Sure there were signs for yoga, but I found several locked doors and no posted classes. Several places wanted me to set up a time for private lessons the day before. Umm, no. That just simply wouldn't work for me. I ended up finding one place with a reliable schedule, but unfortunately that one class was enough for me.
Varanasi is the music capital of India, so it's almost not fair to compare these two cities. The best musicians are in Varanasi. The best instrument makers are there as well, who ship all over India and the world. There are music teachers in every alley, and live concerts at restaurants every night all over town. You cannot beat Varanasi for music.
We dove right in and took sitar and tabla lessons from Ravi and Hardick at Baba Music School at Meer Ghat for 300 rupees an hour. This was a little more than the going rate around town, but we didn't mind paying for the convenience of having our lessons right next door to our hotel, Hotel Alka.
READ MORE: How Much Does it Cost to Travel In India?
Ravi deals in instrument sales as well and was a little pushy to get us to purchase something. We left Varanasi without buying anything, but ended up calling him a few weeks later to find a sitar for us and ship it to California.
He followed through finding a beautiful instrument, albeit a bit slow (India time!) Unfortunately the sitar arrived with minor damage that needs to be repaired before it's playable.
In Rishikesh we found a music teacher, one of the only music teachers in town, Narayan at Narayan Music and Yoga School. With him we studied sitar, and began learning harmonium as well after realizing tabla is just too difficult.
He had a reasonable rate of 250 rupees for a shared 1-hour lesson. We ended up purchasing a harmonium from Narayan who shipped it for us back to California. I continue to play it on a regular basis!
Both towns are a mix of religious cultures, but clearly dominated by Hinduism. There are Hindu temples everywhere, and it seems more a part of daily life in Varanasi. The city dances to a spiritual beat.
Both cities hug the banks of the holy Ganges river, but Varanasi is considered holy itself due to the idea that as a Hindu, to die there means you are liberated from Moksha, the cycle of death and rebirth.
To be cremated at the holy Manikarnika Ghat (burning ghat) is a Hindu tradition and very auspicious indeed. They burn bodies 24/7 there (sometimes up to 300 a day!), using a flame that has been lit for almost 3000 years.
It's a tie!
I found that the prices of lodging, food, and shopping is quite comparable between Varanasi and Rishikesh. A delicious thali (very popular platter of food with a selection of various Indian dishes) can easily be found for anywhere between 50-200 rupees ($.76 - $3.00)
Basic rooms can be found from 250 rupees, while more luxury rooms go for a few hundred dollars. Clothing and jewelry are the same. On this particular trip, Nick and I didn't go for cheapest-of-the-cheap for anything, but we are still on a tight budget and staying well below it in both cities. Sometimes spending half of less of our daily $50 budget.
Depends what you are looking for.
Rishikesh has a cooler, damper climate during their peak season of December through March, while Varanasi is cool in the mornings and evenings, warming up to sometimes hot afternoons.
I found it more difficult to dress appropriately in Varanasi because of the dramatic temperature swings. In Rishikesh I knew it would be cold, so I bundled up. I never felt "too cold" in Rishikesh though, even while white water rafting on the Ganges!
Being hassled by shop owners, rickshaw drivers, beggars, and scam artists is something you must expect on a trip to India. But some cities are worse than others.
Varanasi has a reputation for unbearable annoyances, which is why Rishikesh won this comparison. But in our experience, coming from Delhi, we were actually relieved to find that perhaps the worse of it was behind us.
READ MORE: Discovering Rishikesh India
Yes, we were hassled daily by boat drivers, shop owners, and women asking for milk for their babies, but it was much more aggressive in Delhi, and therefore didn't feel that bad to us.
When we got to Rishikesh we noticed the hassle was pretty much non-existent. I immediately became aware of the lack of people following us down the street, the lack of friendly conversation that inevitably led to, "Come to my shop..." Even the beggars sitting on the side of the road are more polite in Rishikesh. Being a tourist in Rishikesh is a lot easier than anywhere else I've been to in India.
One of the things that wore on me about Varanasi was stepping in cow shit in all the narrow alley ways. It happened daily. Some days it got on my feet, or my legs, even my arm (don't ask!). There are just so many cows and people and trash, that it's difficult for them to keep it clean.
Every morning local shop keepers hose down and clean their portion of the alleys and scoot the poop and trash away, but it has to accumulate somewhere. Usually that means there's excessive shit in the river, or in an otherwise empty corner, or under my feet.
Rishikesh has cows too, but not as many. The streets are far less crowded and far more clean. I feel like the people in Rishikesh might take more pride in the cleanliness of the land, and it shows.
To add to the overall feeling of cleanliness in Rishikesh, the air is cooler, crisper, and much less polluted than it is in Varanasi. It was a welcome break for my lungs after a month in smoggy Delhi, Agra, Bihar, and Varanasi.
Have you been to either of these cities? What do you think about these comparisons? Let us know in the comments below. =)