Rishikesh is a little yogi paradise about 5 hours north of New Delhi at the base of the Himalayas. It’s my personal favorite city in India (not that I’ve seen too many), and also the yoga capital of the world. Yoga was invented here. The entire city, located inside of a national park, is centered on the ice blue Ganga, and has almost a mountain-safari vibe to it with massive white old-school jeeps full of people going trekking or wherever rolling through the streets. I wish I had gotten a picture of one because they’re really quite a sight, and they barely fit through the little India roads.
To be fair Rishikesh is much more westernized than any other city I visited in India. It’s chock full of trendy health-food stores, juice bars, and vegan bakeries. Many other backpackers I met had been there for months. The consensus amongst Indians and westerners alike(that I spoke to) said Rishikesh is their favorite place in India.
Rishikesh is a nice place to just park it and chill. Many foreigners spend a lot of time here for yoga teacher training, or to cleanse themselves and get lost in yoga at an ashram for a few weeks. The Beatles actually came here and wrote their white album at the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh, which is now abandoned.
Bonus – in May, when hot season in full swing, Rishikesh is just a little bit cooler than the rest of the country. Plus, it offers the options of jumping in the ice cold Ganga or frolicking in waterfalls. Apparently, hot season is when backpackers stick to the northern parts of India and stay cool up in the Himalayas. They visit the Dalai Llama in Dharamshala, chill in Manali, and party in Kasol. But I didn’t get that memo before the trip and was already dead set on seeing Rajasthan and Varanasi. Next time.
Things to Do in Rishikesh
Free yoga, hot yoga, Vinyasa yoga, hardcore yoga; there’s every different kind of yoga you could think of here. And it’s WAY cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen in Asia. Most hostels offer free yoga, which was prime as hell for myself as I was poor by the end of my trip. Free sunrise yoga? Count me in.
I saw a tonnnnn of cheap silver jewelry in Rishikesh. I’m talking 6 bucks for silver earrings. Although I have no idea how to tell if jewelry is real or fake, and it is still India, so I would read up on how to tell if silver is legit before buying any.
They also have super cool antiques, for example vintage compasses left from when the British occupied the area. They have a ton of cool wrought iron silver. A bunch of the stores carry these really pretty locks made in the shape of fish or decorated with Shiva or Ganesha.
Rishikesh is also known for rafting on the Ganga. Although I would be careful, there are a ton of riptide pockets in that part of the river and it actually can be pretty dangerous. I met someone whose uncle died on the river. It’s super cheap though, around 9 bucks a person.
4) Swim in the Ganga
Submerging in the Ganga cleanses your karma! I did this at the convincing of some British dude who was half crazy. Of course only AFTER I got in did he say that he may have a parasite that possibly came from the river. Girls, I’d recommend just getting in fully clothed (I did) if you’re as creeped out by gawking Indian men as I am. Crazy British dude said he had been in the river with some girl in a bikini & a guy rafting by literally fell out of his boat from staring.
5) Do ayurvedic-ish
Ayurvedic medicine originated in India. It’s supposed to help with your circulation and general health. You can get super cheap ayurvedic massages in Rishikesh, and many of the western/veggie/vegan restaurants even have an ayurvedic menu. Don’t ask me how that works. I wonder how long the ayurvedic food trend is going to take to hit the US.
6) Visit waterfalls
There are a ton of pretty waterfalls in Rishikesh! My friends & I hiked to Garud Chatti, the easiest one to access by foot from the Laxman Jhula area. You can also hire a jeep to take you if you’re not ballin’ on a budget.
Downside to waterfalls in Rishikesh – you can swim in them if you want, but it’s the same deal as swimming in the Ganga. There are usually a bunch of Indian men, and they all stare at you. For that reason my friend & I didn’t get in, but of course some pain-in-the-ass still spent about 15 minutes trying to convince us. I also saw a bunch of Indian women at the waterfall, but of course none were swimming.
7) See the evening aarti or pooja ceremonies on the Ganga
Same as Varanasi, every evening there are ceremonies along the Ganga honoring the river, called aarti. There are also usually groups of yogis doing a pooja ceremony where a bunch of westerners play dress up in sarees and release a little boat with a candle and an orange pooja flower into the river.
8) Chill with the babas
Again, just like Varanasi, there are a ton of babas in Rishikesh. Babas are hindu holy men. As someone who likes to take pictures, the babas in Rishikesh are WAY more chill than the ones in Varanasi. As in they don’t all ask for money if you want a picture.
Fun fact –
I was informed that a ton of the babas in Rishikesh are fake babas. Fugitives who have committed really severe crimes (think rape, murder) apparently dress up like holy men and grow beards to hide from the police. This is especially prominent in Rishikesh because everyone in Rishikesh can get fed for free at one ashram or another. Even the stray dogs in Rishikesh are well fed.
9) See sunrise over the Himalayas at Kunjapuri Devi temple
You have to jeep up through the mountains to get to this temple viewpoint and also leave at an ungodly hour, but it’s worth it.
10) Treat yoself with western food and cute cafes
There are a million vegan-friendly and vegetarian friendly restaurants in Rishikesh, serving everything from yogi food to vegan baked goods.
11) Visit Maharishi Mahesh yogi ashram, the abandoned ashram where the Beatles recorded their White album
The Beatles infamously spent some time at an ashram in Rishikesh with the Maharishi Mahesh, studying transcendental meditation and recording music. The ashram is abandoned, however for a small 600-rupee fee you can visit and see some of the graffiti that’s been painted on the ashram over the years.
PS I’m being sarcastic about the damn fee because paying $9US to see something that’s completely abandoned and not kept up at all is absurd and irritating. And is also classic India.
Warning – it’s also huge, and while there are many well-known murals throughout the ruins that artists were commissioned to paint, there is no map as to where they are. So if you want to find them expect to spend a bit of time there, it’s quite a large complex.
Double warning – the ashram is also smack-dab in the middle of an active tiger reserve. And it’s India, so none of the tigers are tagged or tracked. Enter at your own risk.
Although it is quite rare to see a tiger, maulings do happen in and around Rishikesh from time to time. The last one I heard of was in February.
WTF India moment
– on my last day in Rishikesh, some poor Indian woman washed up near the shore after she had drowned. It had been a day or two that she had been in the water, so it wasn’t exactly a very nice sight to see. And of course, it’s India, so whoever found her left her uncovered and tied to a rock until the police arrived. Which took 5 hours.
So there you have it. Rishikesh really has it all – good western food, a shrine to the Beatles, fugitives on the run, waterfalls, and tigers.