Kathmandu to Bhaktapur: a day trip guide
This post is about how to plan your day trip from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. It is only 12 kilometers from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, but it feels like a completely different world. Bhaktapur is one of the three ancient medieval cities in the Kathmandu valley.
Unlike urbanized Kathmandu and Patan, Bhaktapur has kept its small town ambiance along with its rich cultural heritage. It was the capital of the Greater Malla Kingdom from the 12th till the 15th century. This is when most of its great monuments were built. Although there was a lot of damage from the 2015 earthquake, Bhaktapur is still famous for its well preserved elegant art and religious architecture.
Bhaktapur has more temples per square foot than any other place in Nepal. The local Newari community call their town Khwopa, or city of devotees. With its traditional homes and traffic free alleys it feels like a journey back in time.
Bhaktapur offers a unique insight into Nepali life in the Kathmandu valley. Locals gather in the small squares and courtyards to socialize or play cards, women wash their clothes or collect water in the ancient ponds and artisans are at work in their workshop.
How to get from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur
There are several ways to get from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. The most straightforward and easiest option is to take a taxi. Another, much cheaper, option is to take the local minibus.
The local minibuses depart from Ratnapark or Bagbazar in Kathmandu and the Lagankhel bus park in Patan. If you can not read Nepali you can always ask for help and people will point out the right bus. Buses depart frequently.
Although it is only around 15 kilometers from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur the journey will take around an hour. Both taxis and mini buses will get stuck in the same crazy traffic.
When you arrive from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur buses and taxis stop at the tourist bus park at the northern edge of the city or the Navpokhu Pokhari bus stop at the western edge of the city. From there it is a short walk to the traffic free old center of Bhaktapur.
Bhaktapur entrance fee
There is an entrance fee to Bhaktapur of 1500 NPR for foreign nationals. If you plan to stay more than one day you can get a weekly ticket. This money is used to preserve the ancient cultural heritage of the city and to restore the damage of the 2015 earthquake.
This includes everything there is to see in Bhaktapur. Except for the National Art Museum that costs an additional 150 NPR if you wish to visit.
Things to do in Bhaktapur
The best temples and tourist attractions in Bhaktapur are centered around 4 ancient squares. First of all the ancient royal palace square or Durbar square. Although Historically one of the most important squares, the Taumadhi and Dattatreya squares are even more beautiful.
Below I will mention the most important sights, but note that you will see the true beauty of Bhaktapur by simply wandering around the ancient narrow streets. Don’t make the mistake and focus only on the main squares, but also go beyond and visit the small courtyards, local ponds and the ga hiti stone drinking fountains.
Bhaktapur is one of three royal palace squares in Nepal. The ancient Kathmandu valley saw three different kingdoms. The other palace squares are in Kathmandu and Patan. All three saw considerable damage during the 2015 earthquake. Restoration efforts continue till this day.
Golden Gate and the palace of 55 windows
All three squares have their own charms. Special to the Bhaktapur Durbar square is the ancient Golden gate that gives access to the Palace of 55 windows. All 55 windows have unique wood carvings that certainly deserve a closer look.
There are over 30 temples in and around Bhaktapur’s Durbar square. The Taleju temple is among the holiest shrines in Bhaktapur. Taleju is a tantric goddess as well as the patron deity of the Newari people in the Kathmandu valley. The story is that Taleju was once a goddess in South India that traveled all the way to Nepal.
There are three important Taleju temples in the Kathmandu valley. All were built in the early 16th century by the Malla kings on the durbar squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. The one in Bhaktapur is the oldest. People believe that it has the original golden image of Taleju that a South Indian king took with him to Bhaktapur when his granddaughter married one of the Malla rulers in the 14th century.
People believe Taleju is a powerful goddess that manifests itself in the Kumari. The kumari is a living goddess. Girls are carefully selected from the Newari Shakya caste. Once selected, they remain the Kumari till they reach puberty. During this time she lives in the Kumari house where people come to worship her.
Although the royal Kumari in Kathmandu is the most famous living goddess, Bhaktapur has its own Kumari ghar.
The Pashupatinath temple is one of the oldest temples in Bhaktapur. The two storey pagoda temple dates from the 15th century and has beautiful wood carvings.
Vatsala Durga temple
Vatsala Durga temple stands out at Bhaktapur Durbar square because of its different style. This white stone temple is dedicated to the goddess Durga. The original temple was from the 17th century, but saw severe damage in the earthquake. The current structure is the result of careful restoration.
The Taleju bell in front of the temple, that marks the morning and evening prayers, is still the original.
Char Dham temples
The Char dham temples are important for Hindus that can not afford the pilgrimage to the char dham temples in India. Although these temples are less prominent as some of the other temples at Bhaktapur’s Durbar square, they attract lots of devotees who believe they will bring special spiritual merit.
National Art museum
If you are really interested in the ancient and medieval art of the Licchavi dynasty and the Malla kings, a visit to the National Art Museum at Bhaktapur Durbar square is well worth a visit. Some say it is one of the best museums in Nepal.
The collection includes stone statues, ancient thangka paintings and 14th century manuscripts. The entrance fee is 150 Nepali rupees that also gives you entrance to the Wood Carving Museum and the Brass work museum.
Taumadhi square is one of my favorite squares in Bhaktapur, because it is home to the most beautiful temples in the city. It is rather small and has only a few sights compared to the other squares, but in this case less is more.
The Nyatapola temple is the most impressive temple in Bhaktapur. This five storey pagoda style temple is in fact the tallest in Nepal. A solid temple as it survived both the earthquake in 1934 and the one in 2015.
King Bhupatindra Malla ordered the construction of the temple in 1702. It took only 214 days to complete the temple due to the help of the Newar people of Bhaktapur. The temple is surrounded by myths. One is that the goddess Siddhi Laxmi was called upon to control the god Bhairava who threatened to destroy the current civilization in Bhaktapur.
Therefore the Nyatapola temple had to become larger and bigger than the nearby Bhairavnath temple. Inside the temple is an image of the fierce tantric goddess of Siddhi Laxmi that people believe is so powerful that only the temple priests can see and pray to her. Less powerful images are on the detailed wood carvings of the temple.
Right beside the Nyatapola temple is the three storey Bhairavnath temple. This temple is much older and dates all the way back to the 13th century. That said, the temple saw many restorations and additions throughout its long history. It saw severe damage in the earthquakes in 1934 and 2015, but every time the temple was rebuilt.
The Bhairavnath temple plays an important role in the Bisket Jatra festival of Bhaktapur. The Lord Bhairav from this temple is an incarnation of Shiva. Legend goes that Lord Bhairav came from Varanasi to see the Bisket Jatra festival. A priest recognized him and to prevent Bhairav from returning to Varanasi beheaded him.
Bhairav is the most fearsome incarnation of lord Shiva associated with annihilation. People believe he is the one that creates, sustains and eventually destroys and thereby controls the three stages of life. To control his power to destroy the kings of Bhaktapur prayed to the powerful goddess Siddhi Laxmi and built her a temple right next to the Bhairavnath temple.
Dattatreya square is another charming square with temples, ponds and museums. It is relatively far from the important Bhaktapur Durbar square, but it is a pleasant walk. It was actually not really a square, but a market area. Nowadays the street market is no longer there, but some of the old market stalls have transformed into souvenir shops.
The most important temple in Dattatreya square is the Dattatreya temple. Dattatreya is a deity with elements from the three major gods in Hinduism, namely Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. This temple is the only temple in Nepal that is dedicated to Dattatreya.
It is a visually stunning temple with three tiers and two large stone statues guarding the entrance. Look out for some erotic scenes on the wood carvings.
The Bhimsen temple has its rightful place on this old street market area. Bhimsen is the god of trade and commerce and traders come every Saturday to this temple to worship him.
Peacock window & Wood carving museum
If you like wood carving then don’t miss the wood carving museum and the beautiful peacock window outside. The peacock window is one of the most beautiful wood art works in Nepal.
Bhaktapur is famous for its arts and crafts including pottery. Pottery square has seen a potters market since the 16th century. Up till this day you will see the potters at work. The central area of the square is used to leave the clay pots to dry in the sun.
Changu Narayan is not actually in Bhaktapur, but a couple of kilometers north of the town. The main attraction here is the oldest temple in Nepal. You might think you have seen enough temples on your day trip from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur already, but Changu Narayan is still worth a visit.
The temple itself is beautiful with unique wood carvings and stone elephants guarding the entrance. Its hilltop location makes it even more picturesque with nice views over the Kathmandu valley.
Taste Newari food
Bhaktapur is a great place to try Newari food. Most of the people in Bhaktapur are from the Newar community and therefore it is a great place to try Newari food. The Newars are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley and have kept a unique identity with their own culture, language and cuisine. First of all, Newari food is more spicy. Second of all it features way more meat.
In fact, Newari people eat every part of the animal. If you are adventurous you can also try liver (senla mu), lungs (swanpuka), intestines (bhuttan), tongue (mainh), brains (nhyapu), steamed blood (chohi) and bone marrow (sapumhicha). Below you will find some other specialties to look for.
Juju dhau translates as the king’s curd and is considered the best yogurt of Nepal. It is a specialty from Bhaktapur where it is served in small clay pots. It is very thick and sweet and it is indeed one of the best yogurts I have had in my life. For me a visit to Bhaktapur is not complete without trying juju dhau.
Samay bhaji is like the Newari version of Dahl baath. There are different small dishes on a single plate. With a newari plate it is not rice and lentils that is the center of the dish, but beaten rice and barbecued meat
Chatamari is known as Nepali pizza, although it is very different from the Italian version. The base is a pancake made from rice flour. The pancake is topped with minced meat, vegetables and an egg. It makes a great lunch on your day trip from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur
Bara are spiced lentil patties that make a nice snack along with some tomato chutney or minced meat. Newari’s believe Bara’s bring good luck and therefore it is often served on weddings and birthdays.
Festivals of Bhaktapur
There are already plenty of festivals in Nepal and on top of that Bhaktapur has some large festivals of its own.
So many communities in Nepal. So many new years. Bisket Jatra is the Nepali new year or the new year celebration of the Newar community in Bhaktapur. It’s a festival full of legends and myths that was started by the Malla kings in the 11th century.
Bisket Jatra is also known as the victory over the serpents. The legend goes that a prince, with the help of goddess Bhadrakali, killed two serpents that came from the nostrils of his newly wed princess. The Newar people show respect to the serpent as they believe the snakes will then not kill anyone and help in bringing enough rain for a good harvest.
Festivities in Bhaktapur center around the chariots of the god Bhairav and fierce goddess Bhadrakali. The chariots are pulled through the narrow streets till they reach Bhaktapur Durbar square. Then a tug of war starts between the eastern and western side of the city that try to pull the chariots in their direction.
Another tug of war happens at the lyo sin dole. A sky high pole that needs to be pulled down. Everyone can pull the rope on the day of Satruhanta Jatra. When the pole finally hits the ground, the enemy is killed and the new year will start.
When: starts on the 27th day of the Chaita month till the 5th day of the Baisakh month (April)
Gai Jatra is a street festival that celebrates cows and honors the dead. Cows are a holy animal in Hinduism and people believe that they help guide the souls to life after death.
The best way to help family members that passed away in the last year is to lead a calf in the Gai Jatra procession. Cows are expensive though and as a substitute children will dress like cows instead or Tahamacha bamboo poles, made out of straw, are carried to symbolize the holy animal.
Despite the theme it is a day of fun and joy. The Gai Jatra procession includes cross dressing, dance, music, comedy and street performances. The comedies often include satirical jokes about politics and social issues in the country.
The procession in Bhaktapur follows the Pradakshina Patha route. It includes a number of traditional masked dances of the Newari people such as the Kawana Pyakhan (skeleton dance), the Bhalu naach (bear dance) and the Khicha Pyakhan (dog dance). There will be processions in Kathmandu, Kirtipur and Patan, but those in Bhaktapur are the most vibrant.
When: first day of the waning moon in Bhadra (August)
Kathmandu to Bhaktapur travel tips
It is easy to visit Bhaktapur as a daytrip from Kathmandu. However, Bhaktapur is scenic enough that you might prefer to spend a night in the town or even use it as a more quiet alternative to the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. Good hotels are hotel Bhaktapur Inn, Kumari guesthouse and Tulaja boutique hotel
If you plan to stay in Kathmandu you can choose between the following options
Thamel: Holiday hostel is a good option if you want to be in the center of thamel. If you prefer more peace and quiet you can look into Elbrus home, Birds Nest Hostel, Kathmandu Peace home and Best hostel. All of these are clean budget options within walking distance of Thamel, but in a more quiet area close to the more busier areas.
Boudhanath: There are plenty of options to choose around Boudhanath. I stayed a couple of times at Lotus guesthouse. A nice place with affordable and clean rooms. Aarya Chaitya Inn also has great reviews.
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