In 1897, writer Mark Twain called Varanasi, "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." Twain’s words described this city more than a century ago, but you still won’t find the India of high-tech call centers and cosmopolitan culture here today. Instead, this spiritual capital of Hinduism (which dates back to the 11th century)—a grand dame among the ancient cities in the world—is hyper focused on the act, and art, of passing on. Here, you’re literally—and very publically—surrounded by the intimate rituals of death, where sights manage to be both heart-achingly beautiful and somewhat apocalyptic.
From its perch on the western bank of the Ganges, Varanasi’s riverfront ghats (stairs that lead directly to the water) offer pilgrims direct access to the river’s cleansing powers. The city’s colorful facades feature countless temples, many of which are dedicated to the Hindu god, Lord Shiva. Perhaps because it’s one of the few places that will force you, willingly or not, to contemplate life, you should definitely visit Varanasi while you’re still very much alive.