We have been to Kathmandu in Nepal several times and the city holds a special place in our hearts. It’s a unique city brimming with ancient temples, rickshaws, narrow alleyways and hole-in-the-wall shops. Indeed, in parts of the city it still feels as though you are stepping back in time.
In the traveller’s hub of Thamel, there’s a mind-boggling array of restaurants, bars and guest houses. Thamel is the perfect base for trekkers to chill out before and after heading out on their Himalayan adventures.
It’s not unusual for first-time visitors to experience a severe dose of culture shock – Kathmandu is dusty, polluted and crowded. However, it’s also colourful, compelling and totally unforgettable. Here’s our pick of the best things to do in this incredible city:
1. The Monkey Temple
Sitting on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley is the fascinating Swayambhunath, otherwise known as The Monkey Temple. On the way up the three 365 steps to the summit, the ubiquitous monkeys that give the temple it’s name are very much in evidence. The temple complex consists of one large stupa set amongst smaller stupas, shrines, stalls, cafes and shops – a mini Buddhist village.
The main stupa is surrounded by prayer wheels, which pilgrims spin in a clockwise direction as they pass. Leaping monkeys are never far away. The Buddhist chant of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ resonates through the air as you cast your gaze over the city.
Thamel, the travellers ghetto, is a maze of streets brimming with tiny shops selling everything from trinkets and t-shirts to trekking gear. Street vendors, peddling tiger balm and Nepali stringed instruments called serangis, stroll through the area. An array of restaurants serve food from all over the world and many of them have roof top dining areas. Bars compete for custom with bargain Everest Beer and live bands. Sometimes when you’ve been travelling a long time, a ‘Thamel’ is just what you need!
3. Durbar Square
In the heart of Kathmandu, Durbar Square is a great place to people watch from the high steps of a temple. Surrounded by a labyrinth of alleyways, impressive traditional style Nepalese buildings and shrines are located throughout the square. Vibrantly dressed sadhus will let you take their photographs for a few rupees. In a tiny courtyard, the Living Goddess, Kumari, makes occasional appearances on her balcony. Elsewhere, pigeons scatter as small children run amongst them, locals sell fruit and vegetables or worship at a colourful shrine.
4. Garden of Dreams
Adjacent to Thamel, The Garden Of Dreams is an oasis of calm amidst the crazy streets of Kathmandu. Outside there are belching car exhausts, crowds, beggars and noise. Inside, hidden behind high walls, is peace and tranquillity. A manicured garden of hidden courtyards, ponds, statues, shrubs, fountains and trees provide respite from the chaos. Overlooking the lotus pond, there is an upmarket cafe serving drinks and great food. A surprising area of serenity in the middle of a chaotic metropolis.
The strange and somewhat unsettling Pashupatinath is where Hindus cremate their dead and scatter the ashes in the nearby sacred river Bagmati. Pilgrims, ash covered sadhus, cows and humans disguised as Hindu gods wander around the temple grounds and adjacent streets. On the other side of the river, travelling holy men find shelter in individual intricately carved stone structures. Monkeys leap from wall to wall startling unsuspecting passersbys. Meanwhile, the smoke rises from a funeral pyre next to the polluted river. You never know what you may see next – it is certainly an intriguing place to visit.
Patan’s Durbar Square and its adjacent museum provide a fascinating insight into Buddhist and Hindu culture. The third century monuments and temples display exquisite carvings, and as with all of the squares in the Kathmandu Valley, it is a perfect place to people watch. The museum is contemporary, slick and contains an abundance of exhibits and comprehensive explanations of the significance of them. There is also a garden cafe, a peaceful spot to enjoy a drink and snack.
7. Pilgrim’s Bookshop
In Thamel, but worthy of a mention of its own, Pilgrims is a Kathmandu institution. A bookshop specialising in all things spiritual, it is easy to spend hours browsing in this wonderful and sprawling shop. Apart from books, they have an unusual stock of postcards and knick-knacks including prayer flags and handmade note paper. At the rear of the shop is an excellent cafe called called ‘Feed and Read’ where delicious momos and Everest Beers are served.
Like an open museum, Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square is a jumble of palaces, temples and monasteries. Many of the ancient buildings display fine examples of Nepalese art work in stone, metal and wood. Wandering the square is like stepping back in time and if luck is on your side you may even catch a festival or ceremony taking. As with many areas of the city, one of the best ways to take in the view is from a high-in-the-sky roof top restaurant.
9. The Royal Palace Narayahiti
The palace was the scene of the horrific massacre of the Nepalese royal family in 2001, when Eton educated Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents, brother, sister and five other members of the family. Since Nepal has become a republic, the palace has opened it’s doors to the public. Frozen in time, a sixties and seventies theme is evident in everything from the architecture to memorabilia. It’s an eclectic and surreal place, complete with an abandoned garden in a state of disrepair. There are markers showing which members of the royal family were shot and where. Not your usual royal palace.
One of the largest and most beautiful stupa’s in the world, Bodhnath is a centre for Tibetan Buddhism. At the base of the impressive stupa is a circle restaurants, monasteries and shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia. Novice monks and nuns from all over the world stroll between classes as prayer flags flutter overhead. A rooftop restaurant is a perfect place to sit and watch the proceedings as hypnotic chants emanate from the monasteries.
You can read an account of one of our previous trip’s to Nepal on our blog – The Highs and Lows of Nepal. Check out the situation regarding COVID-19 and any restrictions that may be in place at the Nepal Tourism Board.