The quintessential Varanasi experience is a boat ride along the Ganges. The most popular place to hire a boat is at Dashashvamedh Ghat—essentially in the middle of Varanasi, and convenient if you're staying near the water—or at Assi Ghat, the southernmost end of the ghats. It's a good idea to arrange your boat trip the afternoon before, then get up and meet your boatmen early the next morning so that you can be out on the water as the sun comes up. Rates are negotiable,
but it should cost about Rs. 100 per person, or Rs. 500 for a private boat. If you are traveling to Varanasi between July and September, check with the Ministry of Tourism Office first, as boat rides are sometimes prohibited during monsoons for safety reasons. Probably the most popular routes are any that take you past Manikarnika, the main burning ghat, though the people and their rituals might be more sightworthy than the ghats themselves.
These are some of the landmarks that you'll see along the way.
Panchganga Ghat. Down below Aurangzeb's Mosque, this is an important bathing point. It's the mythical meeting place of the five sacred rivers, and images of the river goddesses are displayed here.
Aurangzeb's Mosque. The Alamgir Mosque, known as Aurangzeb's Mosque, was built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb over the remains of the Hindu temple that had previously stood here—when he conquered Banaras, he had ordered the destruction of all temples. The mosque's dramatic vantage point overlooking the Ganges gives it a prominent place on the skyline. The mosque is closed to non-Muslims.
Manikarnika Ghat. This is Varanasi's main burning ghat. At the top of Manikarnika's steps is a small, deep pool, or kund, said to have been dug by Vishnu at the dawn of creation and thus to be the first tirtha—literally, "ford," and figuratively a place of sacred bathing. Shiva is said to have lost a jeweled earring (manikarnika) as he trembled in awe before this place, one of the holiest sites in Varanasi.
Kashi Vishvanath Temple (Golden Temple). This temple, with its gold-plated spire, is easy to spot on the skyline. It's the most sacred shrine in Varanasi.
Chausath Yogini Temple. Just north of Dashashvamedh Ghat, Chausath Yogini is at the top of a particularly steep set of steps by the ghat of the same name. Originally devoted to a Tantric cult that is also associated with an important ruined temple at Khajuraho, it's now dedicated to Kali (the goddess most popular with Bengalis), known here simply as "Ma"—Mother. The worshippers are mainly white-sari-clad widows from Varanasi's Bengali quarter; in the early morning you'll see them coming for the darshan (vision) of Kali after bathing in the Ganges.
Dashashvamedh Ghat. This is one of the busiest ghats, and a good starting place for a boat ride. Every evening at sunset the Ganga Arti prayer ceremony is performed here, with the steps filling with priests and people praying.
Dhobi Ghat. At this ghat south of Dashashvamedh, dhobis (washer men and women) do early morning laundry by beating it against stones in the river.
Durga Temple (aka Monkey Temple). Inland and a short walk from Assi Ghat, it's recognizable by its multitiered spire.
On the eastern side of the river you can see the Ramnagar Fort and Palace.
Assi Ghat. The southernmost ghat, marking the place where the Assi River and the Ganges meet, has a pipal tree with a lingam.