There are a few destinations in India that have quite a niche audience. Rishikesh is one of such examples. Known as yoga capital of the world, this city can leave some mixed impressions if you don’t set your expectations right.
A few years back I got utterly surprised, why is it so popular among travelers? If you are not into yoga, spiritual teaching and smoking – many things in the city can seem odd to say least.
Since I knew little about Rishikesh when I visited it for the first time, I formed certain stereotypes and preconceptions about the city. It was all due to the circumstances. Yet, I’ve visited this city again and again during a few years and my opinion somehow drastically changed.
In this post, I’d like to share my view on things to do in Rishikesh and whether you should visit this destination or not.
Things to do in Rishikesh
Rishikesh mainly attracts people of three profiles: backpackers who are really on a budget and looking to base themselves at the foothills of Himalayas; spiritual people looking to learn meditation, yoga for personal purposes or maybe even get a yoga teacher training and adventure seekers. Ohh, and Beatles fans (about it a bit later).
Unlike Delhi, where you can find numerous popular and offbeat sites to fill up a few weeks program easily, Rishikesh is about the atmosphere. It is not that much about places as experiences. So here are a few interesting experiences which can help you explore in this city.
Take a walk between two famous bridges
The famous (“touristy”) part of Rishikesh lies between two bridges – Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula. In fact, it’s a bit far from the main city center, yet this is the part where many visitors stay.
Here you will find many famous Ashrams, shops selling various accessories for yoga, singing bowls, souvenirs, clothes and what not. There are also a variety of cafes and street artists there.
No famous world-known sites as such, yet if you enter some specialized shops, they do sell interesting stuff. It’s mainly marketing, but a good one. For instance, custom perfume mixed for your personality?
Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula is the area where you can meet interesting people as well. For example, I’ve met a person who used to make a fortune on selling paintings in Rishikesh (at least that’s what localites tell). His works were unusual since he drew at the fabric materials with charcoal (that’s a real fact). Just take a walk through the area and you can find some genuine creatives, not only merchants reselling stuff.
Visit temples in Rishikesh
Rishikesh is home to famous temples: Parmarth Niketan, Swami Dayananda Ashram, Anand Prakash Ashram, and many others. Some of them run their yoga and spiritual courses.
If you are interested to get an insight into Indian temples and religions, I think cities like Varanasi and Rishikesh are the right place. During my visit to Parmarth Niketan, people were very inclusive and keen to answer my questions. I’ve also heard a similar feedback from a few foreigners who had experience staying in an Ashram in Rishikesh.
Talking about temples, you might have heard about Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh. Bask in 1968 the Beatles stayed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh to study Transcendental Meditation. It was one of the most productive activity periods of the band, which resulted in 18 songs recorded for “The White Album” as well as many other songs used for individual projects.
The Beatles is a truly legendary band with millions of fans and followers, hence the abandoned temple has attracted numerous visitors every year. As a result, it was renamed to Beatles Ashram and opened to the public in 2015. I had in mind to visit it too, but an Indian ticket costs 150 INR, a foreigner ticket costs 600 INR. Secondly, it was strange to me that a private entity was selling the tickets.
Maybe if I was an Indian, I would think differently, but there is a whole chunk of interesting and/or socially useful things I can do in 600 INR. From the other side, the temple has numerous graffiti art dedicated to the band and their music. Overall, it’s more of a “fan place” rather than a stage in the life of the band. Now since you know a big picture, you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth visiting or not.
Interested in spiritual places? Check out Bylakuppe – Tibetan Settlement in South India.
Attend Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh
Ganga Aarti is one of the most beautiful ceremonies in India and I don’t recommend to miss it if you are in one of the cities where it’s organized.
Though there are numerous small Aarti ceremonies happening every sunrise and sunset, the biggest one is at Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh, every evening at 5-6 pm depending on the season. Note, you need to come at least 1 hour before to reserve a good spot.
If you are looking to see a smaller function from a different angle, do visit Parmarth Niketan. In this Ashram, Aarti ceremony is held by the students and sets more of a family atmosphere.
Read also: What you need to know about Ganga Aarti in India?
Learn yoga in Rishikesh
Since Rishikesh is known as the capital of yoga, you can literally find a yoga course on every street. There is also an International Yoga festival held in March every year. In 2019, it is from 1st to 7th March in Parmarth Niketan Ashram.
I recommend starting with a definition of your goals. If you want to do yoga for yourself, there are daily classes in some ashrams as well as independent courses. For instance, the hostel where I’ve stayed had a free yoga class twice daily for a month.
Side note: it’s common to see travelers in Rishikesh with yoga mats. If you are looking to buy one, I recommend big cities (e.g. Delhi, Mumbai) or online platforms for varieties.
If you are looking for yoga teaching certification, you need to look into requirements, costs, and timings. There is a common misconception that you can take a fast certification course and travel around while doing it.
Most of the yoga students I met were enrolled in a 200 hours course (~1 month). Yes, it’s more than a full-time commitment! The length varies from 4 weeks up to 3 months. The price range can be between 200 USD up to 1500 USD depending on conditions and what the price includes.
Note, these are general numbers which I heard from several travelers who joined the yoga course. You have to investigate this topic more in details.
Spend time with nature
There are a few awesome natural sites in and around Rishikesh. There is a real sandy beach where you can come to swim during warm months. The river is clean in Rishikesh and it’s refreshing and auspicious to take a dip there. Note, during monsoon months the current is too strong and even scary. So, river rafting, swimming, and other water activities are banned during this time.
If you are looking for small hikes for a couple of hours, there are a few waterfalls. There is also Rajaji National Park, where you can see elephants and tigers (if you are lucky) and numerous birds.
Join an unusual course
There are so many interesting courses you can join in Rishikesh: massage, aromatherapy, breathing course, nutrition, Ayurveda – you name it. For some of them, you can get even certified.
After staying a couple of weeks in Rishikesh, I started treating alternative courses differently. The problem with the traditional system of education is stereotyping. I was raised in a society where people get a diploma for a future job. Thus many people choose to be a doctor, banker or an engineer.
Most of us don’t meet people outside of our circle of activity. Not that you need to reprofile yourself in a masseuse or a nutritionist, but it sounds so interesting (at least for me) and useful to know how to plan meals correctly. Also, you can learn about the healing properties of different herbs. My skepticism melted after meeting a few students of these courses.
On the other hand, beware of people who “teach you to be rich by taking money”. You will meet quite a few self-proclaimed yogis teaching people about the meaning of life for the sake of humanity, big global family and so on. There are many genuine courses, but with the increasing number of visitors, scam schemes also develop, unfortunately.
River rafting in Rishikesh
Rishikesh nowadays is a hub of adventurous activities: river rafting, paragliding, zip lining, trekking – you name it. Most of them are solo traveler friendly. Meaning, if you come alone, you can get a team on the spot if required. There are also plenty of tour companies that sell adventurous activities as part of the tour.
I recommend October and April as best months for river rafting. The weather is quite pleasant this time, the currents are not that strong as during monsoons. During my experience, the instructor allowed people who can swim to jump from the boat when we were not in the current zone. It was quite fun!
What not to do in Rishikesh?
Rishikesh is one of the Holy cities in India. There are numerous famous temples, big spiritual functions and it is at the banks of holy river Ganges.
In this context, I can’t understand backpackers boasting how they brought some bottles of alcohol into the city with them. Side note: it’s close to impossible to find alcohol or non-vegetarian food in holy cities of India.
I would discourage everyone from breaking this rule. If you would like to party, why not to choose Goa, Mumbai or similar destinations which are known as a party hub? Every destination has its own goal in the end.
Other things to know about Rishikesh
- Best time to visit Rishikesh is March, April, September, and October. It’s hot and humid in summers and cold in winters. There is a benefit of visiting in the monsoon – the nature is lush green, it doesn’t rain constantly. But it’s still humid and river activities will be closed.
- Rishikesh is that cheap India everyone writes about (in terms of food & accommodation). If you are a backpacker, there are numerous cool hostels. I stayed almost 2 weeks and recommend “Into the Unknown” if you are on a budget. The staff is helpful, plus they organize cool getaways in Rishikesh and around.
- Auto rickshaws do charge a fortune. But you can ALWAYS get a shared auto to key places of interest. E.g. if you get outside of the auto parking near Ram Jhula bridge, there is a small stop for shared autos, where your prices will be 10x times cheaper.
- There are monkeys and langurs. Plenty of them, but I found them friendly, unlike other parts of India.
- Dress modestly. Despite Rishikesh is a very touristy place, relevant outfits show respect to local culture.
- Rishikesh is very well connected to big cities in Uttrakhand and North India. You can find regular public transport to Dehradoon, Delhi, Haridwar, and other destinations.
Hope this post will give you a bit different view of the city beyond the standard checklist. What about you? Have you visited Rishikesh? What was your first impression?