A necessary pass through to get to Everest or any of Nepal’s other more scenic regions, Kathmandu is a major Asian hub burgeoning with culture and chaos. Since you will likely need to spend a few nights here on your way in or out of town, here’s how to make the most of your time in Nepal’s capital and where else to visit in the mystical country.
Meet the Locals
Home to both the Sadhu people (holy men who have renounced modern life) and the monkeys, Pashupatinath is the largest Buddhist stupa in the world and the most sacred of all Hindu sanctuaries in Nepal. Situated on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the temple but can observe the undertakings from the other side of the bank. A major pilgrimage site, thousands come to pay homage during the festival of Mahashivaratri. Be aware that it is also an active crematorium so there may be some sights and smells that are shocking to foreigners but are a regular part of their religious practice so it’s important to remain respectful.
See the Great Stupa
A dome shaped shrine and one of the largest Stupas in Nepal, the Boudhanath Stupa is another important place of prayer. An ancient architectural marvel with eyes on each side for protection, it is believed that circumventing the building creates good karma and those that walk all the way around will have all their wishes granted. Besides the good fortune, you’ll also just want to take in the impressive edifice from all angles.
Visit the Monkey Temple
Climb the steep 365 steps of Swayambhunath Stupa to the Tibetan monastery and you’ll be greeted by monkeys of all shapes and sizes darting through the complex. The Tibetan name for the site is “Sublime Trees” so they might just think they’re at home in the forest. Legend says the monkeys were created out of the lice of Manjushree (ew), the bodhisattva of wisdom so if you can get over that gross tidbit, it’s a great place to find some zen. Set on a high hill, it’s also a prime spot to get a panoramic view of the city.
Explore the Ancient Old City
Durbar Square at Basantapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former Royal Palace of Kathmandu Kingdom. Centered around a plaza courtyard, many of the buildings collapsed during the earthquake of 2015, but you can still get a sense for the area’s legacy and grandeur.
Wander the Streets of Thamel
Kathmandu’s commercial downtown and touristic district, Thamel is a maze of colorful prayer flags, alleys, artistry, and bazaars that all seem to blend into one another. It’s easy to get lost in the alleys so be sure to bring a map or keep your phone handy to navigate your way back out. Knock-off outdoor gear, handicrafts, jewelry, pashminas, and harem pants are popular souvenirs to keep an eye out for.
Looking to get out of town? Here are some of the most popular trips from Kathmandu and a suggested Nepal itinerary.
With just one runway that drops straight off a cliffside, Lukla is widely regarded as the most terrifying airport on the planet but it’s a small price to pay to make it to one of the most remote regions in the world. If you can brave the harrowing flight, you are well on your way to conquering the bucket list Everest Basecamp Trek. The entire hike takes around 12 days, but some people just go for a taste by trekking the four days to Namche Bazaar, which is where most people rest and acclimate.
Annapurna Circuit or Foothills
Nepal’s other big trek, the Annapurna Circuit generally takes between 16-20 days depending on how fast you’re moving and how many places you stop to take in the views. Like the Everest Basecamp Trek, it also requires permits and extensive pre-planning. The foothills are a good alternative for those who don’t want to hike for more than a week or are prone to altitude sickness. You can do a four-day trek to get a nice overview of the landscape and culture of the Himalayas. The gateway city for these treks is Pokhara, which is known as the city of lakes so give yourself at least a few days to take advantage of your surroundings.
Want the views but not into hiking? Nagarkot is the place to experience the magnitude of Nepal right from your hotel balcony. Just about an hour and a half from Kathmandu, Nagarkot is a village of vistas clinging to cliffsides. Once an ancient fort stationed in the Kathmandu Valley, the city was built to monitor the external activities of other kingdoms so it’s strategically positioned for all the best views before being turned into a summer retreat for the royal family. Admittedly, there’s not much to do beyond get some mountain therapy so if you’re looking to get off the grid, this is a good place to do it.
A traditional medieval village, history buffs will appreciate Bungamati for the way things used to be. Just about 15 miles from Kathmandu, the ancient hub is essentially a living museum in stark contrast to the modern world. Trades like wood carving, farming, and fishing abound while a fusion of Tibetan, Buddhist, and Hindu religions peacefully coexist.
Start Planning Your Trip: Places to Stay in Kathmandu
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