Located at 1,400 metres above sea level and surrounded by hills that will eventually lead you to the mighty Himalaya, lies a city that’s rapidly increasing in popularity amongst backpackers and trekkers. And I don’t blame them. Although Kathmandu certainly has some challenges in terms of handling their increasing pollution, traffic jams, power outages and overall noisiness, it remains a place you’ll find hard to ever forget. Before you know it, you will be namaste-ing your way through the shopping district of Thamel or in one of it’s many ancient religious sites. To put it in the words of the Nepal Tourism Board when it comes to visiting Nepal: ‘Once is not enough’.
Keep in mind that Nepal was hit by a devastating Earthquake in April 2015, which killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000 people. Although the earthquake took place 80km northwest of Kathmandu, you can still see some of scars it left behind on the buildings in and around Kathmandu. But don’t worry, the country has made a great effort to restore its previous status and has succeeded in most areas.
Kathmandu is definitely a must-see in Nepal, but spending two or three days in the city is usually enough to visit all the main highlights, before heading off to you next destination in Nepal. This guide will help you spend your time effectively and contains places to visit, what to do, where to stay and where to eat in Nepal’s vibrant capital.
The buzzing city centre of Kathmandu is also known as Thamel. This is the place where you’re most likely to go on your first day in Kathmandu and where most of the hotels, guesthouses and hostels are located. Walking along the dusty streets and small alleys of Thamel is an experience by itself. You’ll find many street vendors selling anything from wooden flutes to tiger balm. You can go on an absolute souvenir shopping spree here. It also has an incredible diverse cuisine, with Tibetan, Western and Nepalese restaurants in every direction. Oh, and did I say the streets are covered in a ceiling of prayer flags?
If you’re going trekking in Nepal, Thamel is a great place to start your visit to Nepal. Most of the country’s trekking shops are located here, so it’s ideal for finding trekking gear at cheap prices or booking a trekking guide through one of the many travel/trekking agencies. Some great trekking maps at reasonable prices are sold at the Himalaya Map house.
Restaurant & Bar Places is a great recommendation to try some of the local food with seating at ground level tables. If you’re looking for some tasty coffee and some solid wifi (which is quite rare in Kathmandu) be sure to check out Cafe With No Name. Both are located within the Thamel district.
A great place to stay in Thamel is the Shangri-La Boutique Hotel. Their location is a little of the main roads of Thamel which make it a nice place to retreat to after a long day in the busy city, and they have a rooftop. They have both dorm beds and private room at reasonable prices and breakfast is included. I found it quite easy to meet other travellers there.
On the outskirts of Kathmandu, located 11km from the city centre, lies one of the most famous tourist places in Kathmandu: the Boudhanath ‘Stupa’. A stupa is a monument for Buddhists to come and meditate or perform spiritual practices. Due it’s geographical location on an ancient trade route linking Tibet and India, Boudhanath has been a place to rest and make prayer offerings for Tibetan merchants since the 14th century. The platform on which it stands has a shape of a mandala, a buddhist representation of the universe. The stupa stands tall at 36m and is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
In the 1950’s, when China invaded Tibet, many Tibetan refugees chose to settle in Kathmandu and in fact, around the Boudhanath stupa. Ever since many monasteries, stupa’s and shrines have been built in the area, making it a small town on its own. Walking around this village can be exhilarating, as it’s one the best place to experience Tibetan culture outside of Tibet. You will see many monks prayer and making offerings around the platform of the stupa. It’s just one of those places which has it’s one ‘vibe’ and its purity will certainly impress you.
Even though Boudhanath was severely damaged in the 2015 earthquake, they restored the stupa within the same year and you will hardly see any damage. Keep in mind that walking around any Buddhist religious site is done clockwise. The entrance fee for Boudhanath is 400 NPR, a little less than $4. One other notable place to visit in the area is the Shechen monastery, located just a few hundred meters northwest of Boudhanath. It’s a monastery which houses 300 monks and that is open for visitors.
Kathmandu is called the “city of temples”, and whoever spends more than 10 minutes walking around in Nepal’s capital will know why. Kathmandu breathes religion, both Buddhism and Hinduism. Situated 4km from Thamel, the Hindu temple complex of Pashupatinath marks one of the most impressive places to visit in Kathmandu. It’s one of places that has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since 1979. Often called the Varanasi of Nepal, this is the place where Hindus from all over Nepal and India will want to arrive just before they die and have their bodies burned by their loved ones along the banks of the Bagmati River, which eventually connects to the holy river Ganges in India.
You will be able to see these ceremonies being performed on one of the many platforms along the river. Visiting Pashupatinath is not for the faint-hearted, especially as a Westerner. There are hardly any restrictions as to how close you can come to the the cremation ceremonies besides your own level of comfort. Seeing this for the first time might be a little shocking, as you will surely notice death is treated quite differently here than in Western culture and religion, but it can be an incredibly profound and educational experience.
Around the complex you’ll find many Saddhus, sages dressed in colourful robes who renounced the worldly life and focus on meditating most of their days. They are however not completely immaterialistic, as it has become common that they ask you for money before you can take a picture of them.
The entrance fee to Pashupatinath mounts to 1000 NPR, a little less than $10. As soon as you buy a ticket there will be guides coming over to you to sell tours around the complex. It’s entirely up to you if you want to take a tour or go exploring the complex by yourself. If you do want a guide, make sure to bargain hard and question the guide’s credentials and knowledge level before committing to anything. Keep in mind that the main temple inside the complex is off limits to non-Hindu’s (foreigners/tourists) but the Pashupatinaths surroundings alone are definitely worth a visit.
Situated on top of hill just 3km west of Kathmandu city lies the Swayambhunath stupa, one of the most ancient and sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in all of Nepal. Surrounded by numerous prayer wheels and shrines stands a gold coloured dome-shaped structure with Buddha’s face painted on the top. The Swayambhunath stupa is believed to be 2000 years old and going here is believed to assist in facing physical and mental difficulties. This makes it a very serene and harmonious place to visit and you’re likely to see monks and pilgrims coming to make offerings or perform religious ceremonies.
Swayambhunath is also called the Monkey Temple, referring to the hundreds of monkeys running and jumping around the complex. As shop keepers use homemade catapults and rocks to keep the monkeys away from their shops and food storages, the attitude of the monkeys can be quite aggressive. Avoid making eye contact with them for too long and don’t carry any food within sight. You wouldn’t be the first to get bitten or scratched at Swayambhunath.
There’s two ways to enter the temple complex, on the east side there is a path of 365 stairs upwards. This is the route most pilgrims take, as it is part of their journey and tradition. On the west side there’s also an entrance along the Ring Road, which can be reached by car if you don’t feel like taking the stairs. On this side you will enter the temple complex via the three giant statues of Buddha. I enjoyed taking the west entrance and exiting through the east entrance as you’ll see more of the complex itself, including religious artefacts and a Tibetan monastery and library.
It’s possible to walk to the Swayambhunath stupa from the city centre, it will take you around 45 minutes and you will go through some interesting suburbs of Kathmandu. The entrance fee for the temple is 200 NPR, a little less than $2. The Swayambhnath stupa is especially nice to visit around sunset, when most of the tour operator crowds have left and when the light is better for photography. You’ll be rewarded with a great view over Kathmandu city. Just don’t expect to take any award-winning sunset photographs here, as the air over Kathmandu is quite polluted and smoggy, thus limiting your field of view.
Garden of Dreams
If you’re looking for a place to getting away from the noise and the dust, be sure to check out the Garden of Dreams. It’s located just outside of Thamel, but don’t let it’s location set you back from visiting, as it’s walls keep out most of the city buzz. The garden features three different pavilons, an amphitheatre and a pond. Whether you just want a break from shopping in Thamel or you’re on your way back to your hotel or hostel after a long day of sightseeing, the Garden of Dreams makes a nice place to sit back and relax.