What to do in Kathmandu: a city travel guide

What to do in Kathmandu was a famous song back in 2006. It was the first time I visited Nepal. It was a time of political turmoil. Bandha’s where everything closed down were still very common.

And that was what this song was about. What to do in Kathmandu when there is yet another strike. It turns out there is always something to do in Kathmandu

What to do in Kathmandu
Kathmandu

What to do in Kathmandu 

Truth be told, Kathmandu is beautiful, but it is also a polluted, dirty and chaotic city. I used the strikes to wander through the empty streets that are normally clogged by honking traffic. 

This ancient city is full of history and culture. Even during a bandha there is always something going on. People praying at the local temple, passersby offering flowers to the gods or men sipping a cup of tea in front of their house.

Kathmandu’s true beauty lies in the details. The intricate lattice work among the traditional homes in the old center of Kathmandu or the wood carvings of gods and goddesses at the ancient temples of the royal square.

What to do in Kathmandu also depends on the time of the year. Kathmandu is the best place to experience some of the colorful festivals of Nepal. In spring you have holi and in autumn comes Dasain and Tihar. Both see festivities throughout the city. There are also lots of local festivals in the nearby Kathmandu valley to look out for such as Bisket Jatra.

Many people only stay a couple of days to arrange their trekking permits for their hikes in the Annapurnas or in the Everest region. But Kathmandu and all the places to visit near Kathmandu really deserve a couple of days. 

What to do in Kathmandu
Newari architecture in Kathmandu

The best things to do in Kathmandu

Durbar square

One of the reasons that Kathmandu is worth your time is that it is a historic city with a rich past. Durbar square is proof that Nepal is not only about nature, but also history and culture.  This square is among the oldest areas of Kathmandu and home to the royal palaces and temples that once belonged to the Malla kings and the Shah monarchy.

Before Nepal became one country, there were in fact three Newar kingdoms. Kathmandu was one of them together with Patan and Bhaktapur. Although the earthquake in 2015 damaged many of the old temples, there is still lots of beautiful architecture around.

The temples on Durbar square remain important places of worship. Any time of the day you can see people offering flowers and sweets to the Khal Bhairav statue and people sitting on the staircases of the temples. 

Durbar square in Kathmandu
Durbar square in Kathmandu

Kumari ghar

One of the most peculiar Newari traditions is those of the living goddess Kumari. Newari people believe she is the reincarnation of the fierce goddess Taleju. She is selected at a very young age through a rigorous selection procedure. One of the tests includes being in a room with severed buffalo heads and men dancing with demon masks. The real Kumari will not be frightened. 

Once selected, she will remain in the Kumari ghar till she reaches puberty. During those years she will only leave the Kumari ghar on special occasions like the Festival of Indra Jatra. As her feet can not touch the ground she will be carried around.

Every day the Kumari will make a very quick appearance from one of the windows at the Kumari ghar at Durbar square around 4 pm.     

Ason bazaar

Ason bazaar near Durbar square is always busy. Despite being one of the most crowded places in Kathmandu it is also one of my favorites. A great place to buy souvenirs or to simply soak up the vibrant atmosphere.

You will hear temple bells, people bargaining, bicycles ringing and motorbikes horning. Ason can be an overwhelming explosion of sounds and smells. If it’s fresh vegetables you are looking for it is best to go early in the morning. If you want to try Nepali street foods you should come around lunch time.

Ason is a great place to try Nepali food like samosa, pakora or aloo chop as well as sweets like jalebis. 

What to do in Kathmandu
Ason bazaar

Swayambunath

Many temples in Nepal are perched on top of a hill. You might wonder why when you are climbing the stairs, but you will soon understand when you reach the top and enjoy the views. 

Swayambunath offers the best views over Kathmandu in the company of cheeky monkeys. It is also known as monkey temple. A group of playful monkeys have lived around the temple for generations and they have learned very well how to steal food from the people. 

The temple is a buddhist temple and the area is home to Tibetan buddhists. The Tibetan restaurants near Swayambunath have some of the best momo’s in town. 

What to do in Kathmandu
Swayambunath temple
What to do in Kathmandu
Budha statue at Swayambunath

Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath is one of the holiest places in Kathmandu. India has Varanasi on the Ganges and Nepal has Pashupatinath on the banks of the Bagmati river.

Tourists come here to see the cremation ghats while Nepali’s come here to pray at the important Shiva temple.

Some of Nepal’s biggest festivals see large celebrations at Pashupatinath. The biggest being Shiva Ratri when thousands of sadhu’s gather around the temple. At Teej Nepali women come to the temple to pray and dance for a good life for their husbands.

When you are in Kathmandu during one of these festivals you should definitely visit Pashupatinath 

What to do in Kathmandu
Pashupatinath

Bouddhanath

The Boudhanath stupa is one of the most important buddhist stupas in Kathmandu. While always busy with pilgrims and tourists it keeps a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere.

Around the stupa are rooftop restaurants offering great views on the stupa. Roadhouse cafe is one of my favourites.

The backstreets are home to a couple of buddhist monasteries and some nice budget hotels.

Many tourists stay in Thamel, but I find boudhanath a more quiet alternative with still enough tourist facilities. 

Boudhanath

Narayanhiti palace museum

When I first visited Nepal, Nepal was still the only Hindu kingdom in the world. It was 2006. Only 5 years after the controversial royal massacre.

The official story goes that the crown prince could not marry the girl of his dreams and killed his whole family before he killed himself. Many unofficial stories and conspiracy theories go around. 

Was it India or was it the king’s brother who happened to be in Pokhara and became king himself afterwards? One thing is for sure. King Gyanendra was never popular. After the 2006 revolution and the 2008 elections he fled the country to India. Leaving behind the palace.

I visited the palace in 2009 when it just opened its doors to the public. It revealed a modest palace. In the garden there are signs of some of the bullet marks and markers where some members of the royal family were found.

Narayanhiti Palace

Enjoy the comforts of Thamel

Thamel is where most foreigners stay. Personally I have a love-hate relationship with Thamel. It has the best restaurants in town, but it is also crowded and noisy and not particularly beautiful. 

Personally I prefer to stay around Boudhanath, but still end up visiting Thamel a couple of times whenever I am in Kathmandu. 

If you have only a few days before or after trekking in the mountains, Thamel is a practical place to arrange your trekking or enjoy some comfort afterwards.

Shops in Thamel

Garden of dreams

The Garden of Dreams is a nice and lush garden. a quiet and peaceful space surrounded by the hectic streets of Thamel. Worth a visit when you are around and have the time.

Chabahil stupa

The Chabahil stupa is not as impressive as boudhanath or swayambhunath, but it is the oldest stupa in Kathmandu. 

The stupa was built by the Indian princess Charumati. She married a Nepali prince from the Lichavi kingdom in the 4th century.

Chabahil stupa

Kopan monastery

The serene Kopan monastery near Kathmandu is one of the best places near Kathmandu to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery welcomes foreign visitors to come for a day visit or a longer retreat and also offers courses. Day visitors can attend the daily dharma talk, visit the library or simply enjoy the tranquil environment or meditate in the gardens. Do check if the monastery is open. It sometimes closes down such as for the annual one month long meditation course in November-December. How to get there: Kopan is 10 kilometers from Kathmandu. There are frequent mini buses from Ratnapark to Kopan village from where it is an uphill walk to the monastery. The journey takes around 20 minutes depending on the traffic.  

Kopan monastery

Budhanilkanta

North of Kathmandu and just south of the Shivapuri forest national park lies an old and mysterious Hindu temple. It has the largest stone carving in Nepal. 

The reclining Vishnu is 5 meters long and carved out from a single block of basalt. Its origin and age are unknown although the first records mentioning the statue is from the 6th century. Devotees believe that the statue floats in the water without any support.

The name can also cause confusion. Budhanilkantha means blue throat. And although it is a Vishnu temple, it was Shiva that had a blue throat after drinking from the sacred Gosaikunda lakes. The name refers to the pond that the statue floats in. People believe this water is from Gosaikunda which makes the place even more sacred.

Nowadays, Budhanilkantha is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. On the 11th of the month Kartik hundreds of pilgrims come to celebrate the Haribondhini Ekadashi festival. You can easily combine a day trip to Budhanilkantha with a walk in the Shivapuri forest national park

How to get there: Budhanilkantha is 10 kilometers from Kathmandu. There are frequent mini buses from Ratnapark to Budhanilkantha. The journey takes around 20 minutes depending on the traffic.  

Budhanilkanta

Patan

Patan was once a separate city called Lalitpur and the capital of one of the three Newar kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley. Nowadays it has grown into one large urban area with Kathmandu.

But Patan still has its own durbar square. One that is even more beautiful than the one in Kathmandu with lots of ancient temples and palaces.

The square is the main attraction, but Patan is more than its famous palace square alone. More beautiful Newari architecture and small shrines are waiting for you in the small backstreets. 

Also don’t miss the Golden temple with its golden plates. Certainly the most beautiful temple in Patan.

How to get there: mini buses leave frequently from Ratnapark to Patan. The journey takes around 20 minutes depending on the traffic. 

Patan durbar square

Try Nepali food

Kathmandu is of course also a great place to try Nepali food. Kathmandu is a multicultural city home to ethnic groups from the mountains, people from India and Tibetan refugees. 

This means you can try different cuisines in the city. Let’s start with Newari cuisine. Newari’s are considered to be the native population of the Kathmandu valley. They like meat and they like it spicy. The best Newari eateries are in Lalitpur

For Tibetan food head to Swayambunath or Boudhanath. There you can try momos and thukpa.

Dahl bath is the national dish often served as a thali with different condiments. Every mountain community serves their own thalis. Most famous are the thakali thalis from the Thakali people along the Annapurna circuit.

Nepali dahl bath

Places to eat in Kathmandu

Gaia restaurant

A great restaurant in Thamel with an international menu and a great atmosphere. The food is great whether you choose nepali dishes, pasta or western food.

It’s a personal favorite whenever I am in Thamel 

Road house cafe

Road house cafe is famous for its excellent pizza’s. It now has several branches throughout Kathmandu including one in Thamel and Boudhanath. 

I can really recommend the pizza’s, but also their starters and salads. It’s not the cheapest restaurant, but the excellent food is worth the price.

Himalayan java coffee

Himalayan java coffee was one of my favorite places for breakfast. Not only because of their great coffee. I prefer the nepali tea. But also their nice breakfast sets.

Places to stay in Kathmandu

If you are looking for accomodation in Kathmandu you first need to decide where in Kathmandu you should stay. There are three areas where there is a good choice of tourist facilities. 

Thamel

The most famous is Thamel. I have a love hate relationship with Thamel.This touristy area is crowded and in my opinion a bit seedy.

But it has the best tourist facilities in the country. Thamel is a great choice if you spend only a couple of days in Kathmandu before or after going on a trek in the Himalayas. It has everything you need to prepare for a trek and has some of the best restaurants. 

Holiday hostel is a good option if you want to be in the midst of it. 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.

Street food in Thamel

Boudhanath

The area of Boudhanath is a little bit far from the center of Kathmandu, but a much nicer and quieter option than Thamel. Boudhanath is my first choice if I stay for a long time in Kathmandu

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.  

Boudhanath

Patan

Patan also has a cluster of hotels and restaurants. Again, these are not very close to the center of Kathmandu. A lot of expats stay in this area and therefore the hotels are also a bit more upmarket. Kaji home is a good budget option.

What to do in Kathmandu travel tips

How to get there

Kathmandu has an international airport. It is sometimes much cheaper to fly into India, but it is a long journey overland to Nepal.

It is worth considering if you like to visit both India and Nepal. One time I combined a visit to Rajasthan and Varanasi with Nepal. Another time I crossed from Delhi into Western Nepal to visit Bardiya National Park before continuing to Kathmandu by road.

Public transport in Kathmandu

When to visit

The best time to visit Nepal is spring and autumn. January and February will be cold and foggy. March, April and May are the warmer months before the monsoon. As the rainy season approaches in May it can become hot, dusty and humid. 

June, July and August are the monsoon months bringing lots of rain sometimes causing flooded streets in the city. 

September, October and November are the most popular months to visit Kathmandu and Nepal in general. Autumn brings clear blue skies and mild temperatures before the cold sets in in December. Autumn is also a festive season with the celebration of Dashain and Tihar. Nepal’s biggest festivals.

Monsoon in Kathmandu

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