Once called Beneras & before that Kashi, Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world that has been a Hindu center of spiritual learning and an auspicious place to die and be cremated for over a millennium. Varanasi sprawls along the Ganges River and is filled with hundreds of Ghats & temples visited by thousands of pilgrims, sadhu's, and travelers on a daily basis. There are several activities and courses travelers & pilgrims can take part in including yoga & medication, language courses, cooking classes, boat trips, & music courses. We met many people who were spending weeks and months in Varanasi learning to play the Sitar & Tabla or taking Hindi language courses or studying religion, yoga, and Hindu philosophy. Varanasi is a city of over 1 million people and looks like many large and crowded Indian cities away from the Ganges. Most traveler oriented lodging and facilities are along the Ghats in the Old City with maze like alleyways clogged with cows, incense, and tiny stalls. Additional facilities are located south of the Old City near Assi Ghat, or in higher priced accommodation close to the train station or near Sarnath. A bout of food poisoning kept us from thoroughly exploring Varanasi however we recommend the following activities:
Boat Trips: A boat ride at dawn or at sunset is a peaceful and melodic experience. Sunrise is preferred time to beat the heat and the enormous crowds. Some boat excursions can take you across the river to the sandy banks. Most boat trips can be organized by your hotel or you can walk down to the various ghats in the early morning and negotiate a price. Typically for a 1 hour boat ride for about 6 people will cost around 100-200 Rs per hour per person, however it sometimes can run a bit more or less depending on your situation. Typically boat rides start around Dasaswamedh Ghat and go north or southward. We organized our boat trip through Bread of Life Bakery and it was quite nice. Just remember to tip your boatman.
Walking the Ghats: You can walk up & down the dozens of Ghats along the Ganges taking in the sights and sounds, however you will be approached by touts attempting to peddle various merchandise or scams. Be wary of touts offering drugs as tourists have been known to either be then arrested by police shortly after the buy then pay a ridiculous bribe. Our favorite Ghats are Kedar ghat, Chet Singh Ghat, & Manmandir Ghat next to The Palace on the River Rashmi Guest House.
Wandering the Old City: Wandering the maze of back alleys in the old city, especially in the early morning hours is makes you feel like you have stepped back in time to Medieval India. The scents and sounds, early morning delicacies being prepared, and history is an memorable experience. Be careful if wandering the old city at night, as in addition to getting easily lost and turned around, muggings do occur later in the evening and many guest houses shut their doors around midnight.
Day trip to Sarnath: Taking a short excursion to Sarnath, about 10 km away from Varanasi to the ancient Buddhist center of learning is a peaceful and serene experience compared with the chaotic pace of Varanasi. Sarnath is the location of where the Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment and several Sanga's were established here including several stupas and monasteries built by Ashoka around 2300 years ago (http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhistworld/sarnath.htm). Unfortunately many of these Buddhist monuments and centers for learning were destroyed through the ravages of time and Muslim invaders several centuries ago. However Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, & Thai monasteries still ring the old grounds and a stupa marking the place where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon is located near the deer park.