Kathmandu is an incredibly diverse historic city with breathtaking Newari architecture, centuries old Hindu and Buddhist religious sites along with dedicated tourist-friendly accommodations and restaurants. Stepping into Kathmandu is like stepping into another world that everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime.
Kathmandu is a city where ancient traditions rub shoulders with the latest technology. The grandeur of the past enchants the visitor whose gaze may linger on an exquisitely carved wooden window frame, an 18th century bronze sculpture or a spiritually uplifting stupa. Kathmandu, the largest city of Nepal, is the political as well as cultural capital of the country.
Like any big city, Kathmandu has seen rapid expansion in the last decade, but despite the hustle and bustle so typical of metropolitan cities, its people remain refreshingly friendly. The city is a warden of its ancestral value “Atithi Devo Bhava” meaning "Guest is equivalent to God".
Retaining its ancient traditions, Kathmandu is blessed by Living Goddess Kumari and is enriched by endless ceremonial processions and events that take to the streets every now and then with throngs of devotees seeking joy in spiritual celebrations. These religious festivals are steeped in legends and are quite a spectacle with chariot processions and masked dancers often possessed by the spirits of deities.
Kathmandu is a result of diverse culture and lifestyle, a long history of faith and beliefs, and of arts and architecture. Therefore, more than just a city, Kathmandu is a living museum, it is an opportunity to travel back in time and to relive in the history.
Things to do in Kathmandu
Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, is a vibrant, noisy city. Packed full of history, palaces and temples, it is also within touching distance of Nepal's premier attraction, the Himalaya. Kathmandu is home to gems such as Durbar Square (with temples dating back to the 12th century),Boudhanath Stupa (a world heritage site), the Pashupatinath Temple (the country's most important Hindu temple, on the banks of the Bagmati river), and the Royal Palace (the site of the infamous 2001 massacre of the Royal Family by the then Crown Prince, and now converted into the Narayanhiti Palace Museum).
Kathmandu is also the gateway to the rest of Nepal—in particular the tranquil Bhaktapur, the temple-tastic Patan, the Chitwan National Park, and, of course, the Himalaya (half of the world's 8000-metre peaks are found in Nepal).
The mountains hold a magnetic attraction for many who visit Nepal. The trek to Everest base camp, a two-week trip starting with a nerve-racking flight to Lukla airport, is the most popular mountain activity, whilst the stunningly beautiful Annapurna base camp can be achieved by a 7-10 day trek from Pokhara.
Kathmandu, and most of Nepal, are now recovering from the April 2015 earthquake that claimed over 9000 lives. For example, the first ascents of Everest since the earthquake struck took place on 11 May 2016.
1. Boudhanath Stupa
The Boudhanath stupa is one of the holiest and most recognisable sites in Kathmandu. Assigned UNESCO world heritage status in 1979, Boudhanath (aka the Boudha, Chorten Chempo and Khasa Caityais) has a diameter of 120 metres, making it the largest temple in Nepal. The stupa is built on an octagonal base, is surrounded by prayer wheels, and has colourful prayer flags draped from its 36-metre central spire. Boudhanath is rich in symbolism: it has five statues of Dhyani Buddhas, representing the five elements (earth, fire, water, air and ether); nine levels, representing Mount Meru (the mythical peak at the centre of the Buddhist cosmos); and 13 rings from its base to its apex (representing the steps to enlightenment or Nirvana). Boudhanath is the religious centre of Nepal's Tibetan/Buddhist community, and is surrounded by around 50 monasteries and shops settling Tibetan artefacts. About 15% of the population are Buddhists.
Look out for Tibetan monks, with shaven heads and maroon robes, and pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and buying yak butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Be careful to observe Tibetan custom by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. There has been a stupa on this site since Tibetan king Songsten Gampo converted to Buddhism in around 600 AD. when? Late afternoon is the best time to visit, after tour groups have departed. The Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations are held here in February or March. £$€¥ Rs 250 (foreigners); Rs 50 (SAARC). (Sept 2015)
2. Everest Region
The 1,500 mile long Himalaya range contains every one of the world's fourteen 8000 metre peaks. Nepal is home to eight of those 8000'ers: Everest (8848 m), Kanchenjunga (8586 m), Lhotse (8516 metres), Makalu (8485 m), Cho Oyu (8,201 m), Dhaulagiri I (8,167 m), Manaslu (8163 m) and Annapurna I (8109 m). The rest are found in Pakistan, China and India. The Everest region is accessed by a nerve-racking 30 minute flight in a tiny plane to Lukla airport (at 2,860 metres). From there, walkers and climbers trek for two days to the main town in the Everest region, Namche Bazaar (3,440 metres, offering accommodation, good food, internet cafes, and equipment shops).
Everest base camp is about another week away, bearing in mind that ascent must be taken slowly because of the altitude. It is reached after overnight stops at small settlements called Tengboche (3870m), Pheriche (4240m), Duglha (4620m), Lobuche (4930m) and Gorak Shep (5160m). From base camp, trekkers can summit the 5545 metre Kala Patthar, which offers great views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (7,816 m). Trekkers may also be lucky enough to observe Everest climbers, acclimatising themselves for the trip to the top of the world via the deadly Khumbu icefalls (5,486 m), four further high camps, the South Col (7,906 m) and the Hillary Step (a 12-metre rock wall at 8,760 m). Everest has recently reopened to climbers and trekkers following the April 2015 earthquake, which claimed the lives of 19 people attempting to reach the summit. For more information, see our Climbing Mount Everest page.
3. Annapurna Region
The Annapurna region is accessed from tranquil Pokhara, and is famous for the Annapurna range and the sacred Fish Tail mountain. The 10-day Annapurna Sanctuary trek is the region's most popular activity. The sanctuary is an oval shaped glacial plateau reached via a narrow pass between the peaks of Hiunchuli (6,441 m) and Machapuchare (6,993 m, aka 'Fish Tail', regarded as sacred and therefore unclimbed). Annapurna base camp (4130 metres) is the highest point, providing stunning 360 degrees views of the Annapurna range, the glaciers running from it, and the near-vertical south face of Annapurna I (8091 metres).
The alernative Annapurnra Circuit trek, taking 12-19 days with a maximum elevation of 5416 metres at the Thorung La pass, circumnavegates the Annapurna range. The scenery includes close-up views of Manaslu, Langtang Himal, Annapurna I, II, III and IV and Gangapurna. For those who don't have the energy, why not visit the Rum Doodle bar in the Thamel region of Kathmandu. This is where successful Everest expeditions are celebrated (with the conquering mountaineers—including Sir Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner—leaving their autographs on the bar's walls).
when? The best time to trek are September to November and March to April. £$€¥ Guides can be hired for as little as $20 per day. Tea house accommodation is relatively cheap (although prices increase as you ascend). Flights to Lukla from Kathmandu cost about $110 each way.
4. Durbar Square
Even though the Nepali royal family moved from the Hanuman Dhoka palace about a century ago, Durbar (Palace) Square remains the tourist heart of Kathmandu. Most visitors are surprised by the sheer number of temples surrounding the square, and the two adjoining squares, some dating back to the 12th century.
The jewels in the crown are the Hanuman Dhoka itself (the complex of royal palaces), the magnificent Taleju Temple (built in 1564 by Mahendra Malla, standing on a 12-stage plinth, and reaching 35 metres in height), and the Kumari Bahal (an intricately carved three-storey structure built in 1757 in which the 'living godess', a young girl selected from the Kathmandu valley, still lives). Other must-sees are the Kasthamandap (aka the 'Pavillion of wood', the building after which Kathmandu was named and which, legend has it, was constructed using a single sal tree) and the Maju Deval (a triple-roofed Shiva temple dating from 1690, built by the mother of Bhaktapur's king Bhupatindra Malla)
where? Durbar Square is found to the west of Kathmandu's recreation ground and the south-west of the Royal Palace. when? All year round. £$€¥ Foreigners: Rs300; SAARC: Rs100.
5. A day trip to Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur, a small town about 10 kilometres from Kathmandu, is famous for its many varied temples. The most impressive is the five-storey Nyatapola Temple on Taumadhi Tole (pictured), the tallest temple in Nepal built in 1702 during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla. Bhaktapur, which became an independent city-state under King Ananda Malla in the 12th century, also has its own Durbar Square (replete with a number of temples, including one featuring erotic cows, camels and elephants!).
The northern section of the square is home to the Royal Palace, with visitors able to access the Golden Gate, intricately carved and set into a bright red gatehouse, and the National Art Gallery, with an extensive collection of Tantric cloth paintings. But the town also has a timeless air, with visitors able to see grain laid out to dry in the sun, potters at work in Potters' square, locals weaving baskets, drying laundry or collecting water, and children playing.
Keep an eye out for exquisite architecture as you wander the streets: many buildings feature intricately carved woodwork (such asthe famous Peacock window, on an alley leading south-east from the Tachupal Tole). No cars are allowed inside the Bhaktapur town centre and, as a result, it is quiet by comparison to the country's capital. As a result, many travellers prefer to stay in Bhaktapur and take day trips to Kathmandu.
£$€¥ There is a hefty $15 entrance fee for tourists to enter Bhaktapur (you need to bring a copy of your passport and some passport photographs for the pass). Accommodation is available at reasonable rates (circa $15 per day).
6. The Pashupatinath Temple
Built in 1696 on the orders of King Bhupendra Malla, Pashupatinath is Nepal's most important Hindu temple. Constructed in the pagoda style of architecture, Pashupatinath stands on the banks of the Bagmati river, has a distinctive gilded rooftop, intricately carved rafters (featuring members of Shiva's family) and four silver-plated main doors surrounded by statues of deities. Pashupatinath reaches a maximum height of 24 metres, and is presided over by piests called Bhattas and achief priest called Mool Bhatt or Raval. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple, though a glimpse of Shiva's bull, Nandi, can be caught from outside the western entrance. There is nonetheless much to see. The temple's exterior and its surrounding buildings are worth a look. Sadhus (Hindu holy men) watch the world go by. Traders hawkmarigolds, incense and conch shells. And the riverbanks of the Bagmati river are a popular place for cremations. Whilst the 'ghats' in front of the temple were reserved for the cremation of royalty, four other ghats to the south of the nearby bridges are in regular use. There is often a cremation in progress, with a shrouded body lifted on top of a log fire with surprisingly little ceremony. Cremations are followed by ritual bathing in the river.
£$€¥ Adults and children over 10 years old: Rs500. Younger children go free.
7. Narayanhiti Palace Museum
The Narayanhiti Palace Museum (aka Narayanhiti Durbar) served as the primary residence of Nepal's monarchy for over a century until 2008. It was here that, in June 2001, King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya and six other royals were shot dead by Crown Prince Dipendra before Dipendra turned his weapon on himself; the apparent motive was revenge, after the King and Queen refused to approve the Prince's marriage intentions. Birenda's replacement, King Gyanendra, was deeply unpopular, and Nepalis voted to abolish the monarchy in 2008. The new parliament promptly gave Gyanendra 15 days to vacate the Palace. The opening of the Palace Museum by Nepal's prime minister in February 2009 was a highly symbolic event.
The Palace comprises 52 rooms (19 are open to the public) and occupies 74 acres. It was designed by American architect Benjamin Pol in the style of a contemporary pagoda. The Museum showcases the belongings of former royalty, such as pictures of Queen Elizabeth II taken when the Windsors were on friendly terms with the Shah dynasty. Visitors comment on the Palace's chintzy decor, including extensive gold-plating, numerous chandeliers and a large tiger-skin rug. The Museum's extensive grounds are open to visitors; look out for fruit bats and 20 foot-tall bamboo.
One morbid feature is of note: the Museum's buildings and grounds identify the places in which members of the royal family perished during the 2001 massacre (including the place on a small footbridge where Dipendra shot himself). One of the most interesting things to do in Kathmandu.
where? To the north of Durbar Marg and the east of Greater Thamel. when? 11 am to 4 pm. Closed Tues, Weds and public holidays. £$€¥ Students: 20 Rs, Nepali Citizens: 100 Rs, China and SAARC residents: 250 Rs, Visitors from other countries: 500 Rs.
8. Chitwan National Park
Established in 1973, the Chitwan National Park is a 932 square kilometre nature reserve of jungle, forest and marshland awarded world heritage status in 1984. The Park replaced a hunting reserve used by the rich and famous; King George Vand his son, the future Edward VIII, bagged 18 rhinos during a 1911 shooting trip. Chitwan—meaning 'heart of the jungle'—offers visitors an excellent chance of spottingone-horned rhinos, deer, monkeys, wild boars, hyenas, gharial crocodiles and over 450 species of bird (including parakeets, kingfishers, orioles and drongos). The Park is also home to (more elusive) leopards, wild elephants, sloth bears and majesticroyal Bengal tigers. Despite setbacks during the Maoist insurgency, animal numbers are improving: a 2011 census counted 501 rhinos and 125 adult tigers. We suggest that visitors should spend two days in the park, so as to allow plenty of time for foot and elephant treks. One of Nepal's premier attractions.
where? The Chitwan National Park is to the south west of Kathmandu, and is usually accessed by a six hour bus ride. when? The best time to visit Chitwan is between October and February (so that monsoon season and very high temperatures can be avoided). The best time to see animals is between January and March, when the phanta grass is slashed by locals, substantially improving visibility. £$€¥ There is something for every budget, ranging from the $300 a night Tiger Tops Lodge to small lodges on the edge of the park (where rooms can be obtained for as little as $2). There is also a park fee of 500 rupees a day.
9. A day trip to Patan
Patan is situated to the south of Kathmandu, and only separated from the capital by the Bagmati river. It is the second largest town in the Kathmandu valley. Patan has an ancient history, with the corners of the town being marked by stupas erected in around 250 BC. Research by Lonely Plant suggests that Patan has a greater concentration of temples per square metre than either Kathmandu or Bhaktapur! Patan's most interesting attractions include the Golden Temple (together with a number of tortoises found in its courtyard), the five-storey Kumbeshwar Temple (dating from 1392), and the Red Machhendranath Temple (dating from the 17th century, and containing carvings of a number of weird and wonderful animals).
The Patan Museum is housed in a carefully restored Malla royal palace on Patan Darbar and exhibits about 200 examples of bronze or copper gilt statues of Buddhist or Hindu deities. Opened in 1997 by King Birendra, the building's 14-year restoration was funded by the Austrian government. Highlights include a 12th century seated Buddha, named Shakyamuni, made ofcopper alloy and gilt and the Museum's Keshav Narayan Chowk courtyard (complete with wood carvings, red-brick facade and golden door and window). The works are accompanied by helpful explanatory information, produced by the eminent cultural historian Mary S. Slusser. The Patan Museum Cafe, situated in the peaceful garden, offers good quality snacks and light meals.
where? Patan is situated about 3 kms from Kathmandu's Thamel region, and can be accessed easily by bus, taxi or rickshaw. when? The Patan Museum is open 10.30am to 4.30pm six days a week. Closed Tues. £$€¥ Entry to Patan is free. The Patan Museum charges foreigners Rs250.
10. Kopan Monastery
The Kopan Monastery is a gated community of Buddhist monks found on a hilltop north of Boudhanath. Founded by Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche in the early 1970s, the Monastery houses 360 monks in grounds which include an enormous Bodhi tree, theChenrezig gompa (temple), statues, prayer wheels, prayer flags (at the top of Kopan Hill) and the colourful Thousand Buddha Relic Stupa (pictured).
The Monastery is twinned with the nearby Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery. Those visiting should expect to replace the hubbub of central Kathmandu with morning chanting, an evening pooja/puja ceremony (involving pageantry and traditional Tibetan music made from cymbals and large horns), study, silence, peace and love. The Monastery also offers daily and longer courses in meditation and yoga, provides panoramic views over the Kathmandu valley, has an immaculately kept garden and great gift shop and café. Just beware of the monkeys: they have a habit of stealing ice-cream from unsuspecting tourists!
where? Kopan Monastery, north of Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. The Monastery can be reached by an 8-kilometre, 2-hour hike from the Thamel area of Kathmandu. A taxi journey takes about 30 minutes and should cost no more than 750 Rupees. Alternatively, take a bus to Boudhanath and complete your journey on foot (a 40 minute walk). when? The Kopan Monastery welcomes day visitors. To make the most of your trip, arrive by 10am to take part in a meditation and discussion group on Buddhist topics led by a western teacher, followed by lunch. £$€¥ Eight day Buddhism/meditation courses cost $80, 10-day courses cost $110 and one month courses cost $450
11. Royal Botanical Gardens
The Royal Botanical Gardens, found 18 kms south of Kathmandu in the foothills of Mount Phulchowki, are a site of outstanding beauty. Opened by King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 1962, the Botanical Gardens—the only in Nepal—now hold over 500 species of plant in 82 hectares. Highlights include the decorative Coronation Pond, visitor centre (with interesting exhibits on Nepal's flora), greenhouses, and collections of rhododendrons (Nepal's national flower), lilies, orchids, cacti and ferns. Spring and autumn are the peak flowering seasons and therefore the best times to visit. The Godavari Spring, found 200 metres from the Botanical Gardens' main gate, is also well worth a look. This freshwater spring spouting ice-cold water from the Gadavari river is reputed to have been created when the Buddhist MysticPadmasambhava struck a rock (in order to demonstrate that the ultimate truth is clear and will fulfill the people's thirst); unsurprisingly, the Spring is a popular Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage site. Those with more energy will enjoy a hike to the top of Phulchowki (2715 m), the highest hill in the Kathmandu valley, to take in the views and a small Buddhist shrine at the summit.
where? Royal Botanical Gardens, Godavari, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Tel. 9771 290546. when? 9am to 5pm from March to Nov; 9am to 4pm Dec to Feb. Avoid Fridays and Saturdays, when the Gardens are often overrun with schoolchildren. £$€¥ Rs100 for foreigners. Rs25 for SAARC. 50% discount for children. A small charge is levied for the use of cameras and video cameras.
12. Swayambhunath Stupa
The Swayambhunath Stupa (meaning the ‘self-created’ stupa, aka the Monkey Temple) is found on a hilltop to the west of Kathmandu. Second in importance only to the Boudhanath Stupa, the Swayambhunath complex,founded by King Manadeva during the fifth century, contains a stupa, temples, shrines, Tibetan monastery, museum and library. The Stupa, re-gilded with 20 kilograms of gold in 2010, has a large white dome at its base, above which are painted four sets of Buddha’s eyes and eyebrow; further up the Stupa are found four pentagonal Toran (gateways) and thirteen tiers leading to the Stupa’s golden spire. Monkeys live to the north-west of the complex; they are said to be holy because they grew out of head lice living in the bodhisattva (enlightened person) Manjusri’s long hair! Visitors should also inspect the carvings of the five Panch Buddhas found on each side of the Stupa, the two lions guarding the Stupa’s entrance, the adjacent Harati Devi Temple, Shantipur (a small temple northwest of the main stupa), and the Pratappur and Anantapur shrines. We recommend accessing Swayambhunath by the 365 worn steps that lead up the eastern side of the hill; the start of this climb is marked by a 12-foot Tibetan prayer wheel and three painted Buddha statues. The Stupa offers great views over Kathmandu, especially in the early evening. To catch the Tibetan pilgrims, you will need to arrive before 9am.
where? Found on a hillside on the west of Kathmandu, about 20 minutes by taxi from the Thamel area. when? Sunrise to sunset each day. £$€¥ Rs250 (the main ticket office is half way up the eastern staircase).
13. Langtang National Park
Langtang was established in 1976 as Nepal's first Himalayan National Park. Covering an area of 1,700 square kilometres, Langtang has a maximum altitude of 7,200 metres and contains climatic zones ranging from the sub-tropical to the alpine. Found in the Nukator, Rasuwa and Sindhulpalchok districts of central Nepal, Langtang is best known for its flora and fauna, sacred Hindu sites and great trekking (being the third most popular trekking area after Everest and Annapurna).
The Langtang National Park's highest peaks are Langtang Lirung (7,227 metres) and Dorje Lakpa (6,966 metres). At lower levels the flora includes oaks, pines, maples and rhododendrons, and the fauna includes red pandas, Himalayan Tahrs (which resemble goats) and black bears, Rhesus monkeys and (if some accounts are to be believed) the occasional Yeti! At 4,380 metres and with a surface area of 34 acres, the sacred Gosainkunda lake(pictured) is a must-see. Considered to be the home of Hindu deities Lord Shiva and Goddess Gauri, the lake is a popular pilgrimage site for the Janai Purnima (Sacred Thread) festival in August of each year. This festival marks the date on which Hindu men change the yellow cotton cord worn around their chest or right wrist.
Starting at Sundarijal, a short taxi ride from Kathmandu, the 10-15 day Langtang valley trek takes you into the heart of the Langtang range. Passing through the villages of Chisapani, Kutumsang and Gosainkund, the trek crosses the 4,610Laurebina Pass on its way to Langtang village. The views of the surrounding peaks—for instance the 6,400 Gangchempo or 'Fluted Peak'—and the Everest and Annapurna ranges to the east and west are breathtaking.
when? The best seasons to visit are April-May and October-November, thereby avoiding the monsoon and the coldest weather. £$€¥ There is a Rs3,000 fee to enter the Langtang National Park. Bring your passport for identification.
14. Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams is a beautiful enclave found a stone's throw from the centre of Thamel. The Garden—formal in style—occupies about half a hectare. Its lush lawns, sunken flower gardens, large central pond, fountains, gazebos and three neo-classical pavilions are kept in pristine condition. Built by Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher (1892-1964), son of Nepal's prime minister Chandra Shumsher, the Garden was inspired after a trip to Edwardian England using funds that Kaiser had won from his father in a game of cowrie shells. The Garden was restored by the Austrian team responsible for the renovation of the Patan Museum (see above). They are best savoured in good weather, over a picnic or whilst reading a book or surfing the net (wifi available).
when? 9am-10pm, 7 days a week. where? Garden of Dreams, Kaiser Mahal, Tridevi Marg, Kathmandu, Nepal. T: 977-1-4425340 E: email@example.com £$€¥ Adults: Rs160; Children: Rs40.
Located 80 miles to the west of Kathmandu, Pokhara is a stunningly beautiful and refreshingly tranquil traveller’s paradise.
Pokhara is built around the Phewa Tal, Nepal’s second largest lake (pictured). It offers a number of high-end hotels, clean and comfortable guesthouses, and a range of excellent restaurants and bars.
Don’t miss the opportunity to paddle a boat into the middle of the lake and capture a picture of the sacred Machhapuchhare (Fish Tail) mountain and the Annapurna range reflected by its emerald coloured waters.
Other activities include: swimming in the lake or in the lakeside pool of one of Pokhara's hotels (non-residents can usually use the pools if they pay a small fee); the 1-2 hour walk through lush forest on the western shores of the Phewa Tal to theWorld Peace Pagoda; an early morning start to take in the Himalayan views fromSarangkot; visiting the extensive International Mountain Museum (and trying out its 21 metre-high climbing wall); or taking a course in meditation or yoga. For those after more of an adrenaline rush, why not take a rafting trip down the Kali Gandaki and Seti rivers or trying your hand at paragliding.
When? October to March is the best time to visit, to maximise your chances of clear mountain views after monsoon season.