The allure of Nepal attracts adventure-seekers from all over the world. Home to a part of the breathtaking Himalayas, this South Asian country exudes mystic fantasy so close to a very diverse experience with nature. Entering the country means landing in the capital city of Kathmandu. While most travelers usually make this a minor pitstop, this city is brimming with history and culture that’s definitely worth a second look.
Kathmandu is a noisy and energetic metropolis at the basin of the Kathmandu Valley. In 2015, an earthquake wreaked havoc on the city and destroyed many iconic landmarks. However, there are still plenty of remarkable sights that are worth including in your itinerary. If you’re not keen on joining the crowds, there are still lots to do outside the city’s main attractions hidden in the backstreets. Immerse yourself in the Nepali way of life and prepare for a memorable, somewhat bizarre, and sometimes surprisingly relaxing trip.
As in many ancient Asian cities, daily life revolves around a public square in the vicinity of royalty. In Kathmandu, that’s the Durbar Square. Located in Basantapur, the square was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It used to be the site of the Hanuman Dhoka or the Royal Palace and 12th Century Buddha Temples. However, the 2015 earthquake took most of the southern section of most temples and placed several other structures into ruin.
Devastating as it may seem, this iconic part of the Old City still serves as a good starting point for a stroll. From Durbar Square, you can carve your own path to Thamel through narrow maze-like streets. There are maps available in main streets, so grab one and looking for shrines and statues hidden away in unlikely places.
Within Thamel, you can shop at the market square of Indra Chowk, marvel at the ornate Seto Machhendranath Temple, or watch the mass of people looking through a massive market of fresh produce at Ason Tole.
After making your way through the chaos of Thamel, take a breather at the Garden of Dreams. This half-acre property is a stone’s throw away from the center of Thamel. The peace and quiet make it a welcome sanctuary for weary visitors and tired locals.
The Garden boasts of lush lawns, sunken flower gardens, fountains, gazebos and three neo-classical pavilions that are kept in pristine condition.
It was built by Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher, son of Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher. WiFi is also available on the grounds for those who simply can’t relax without internet.
If you’re looking for iconic, make your way to one of the holiest and most recognizable sites in Kathmandu: The Boudhanath Stupa.
Another UNESCO world heritage site, the Boudhanath is the largest temple in Nepal with a diameter of 120 meters. A visit to the temple will take hours on its own for your to absorb its wealth of symbolism.
The stupa has an octagonal base surrounded by 147 prayer wheels and 108 images of Buddhist deities. The top is adorned by prayer flags draped from a 36-meter central spire. These flags are blessed with juniper incense each new year and, altogether, makes the stupa the religious center of Nepal’s Tibetan and Buddhist community.
There are five statues of Dhyani Buddhas, “self-born” celestial buddhas who have always existed from the beginning of time, representing the earth, fire, water, air and ether. There are nine levels representing Mount Meru, the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology, and 13 rings from its base to its apex for the steps to Nirvana.
The Boudhanath Stupa is surrounded by 50 monasteries so the sight of Tibetan monks is very common.
The stupa is visited by troves of people all year round. Whether you’re a local and especially when you’re a tourist, you are expected to observe Tibetan custom of walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction.
Another popular Buddhist temple is the Swayambhunath. Situated atop a hill to the west of Kathmandu city, a visit involves a tiring trek of 365 stone steps. Aside from the cultural and religious significance of the stupa, a big attraction are the monkeys that reside within the vicinity. You’ll see hundreds of monkeys living on and roaming around the temple premises.
The monkeys are allowed to live there as they’re believed to be holy. They’re said to have been formed from the head lice of the Buddhist deity Manjushri who was raised at the stupa. It was founded in the 5th century and the oldest of its kind in Nepal. The 2015 spared the stupa and remains as majestic as it was centuries ago.
The Pashupatinath was built in 1696 on the orders of King Bhupendra Malla. This pagoda-style structure is situated on the banks of the Bagmati river. The construction is very opulent with a distinctive gilded rooftop, intricately carved rafters featuring members of Shiva’s family and four silver-plated main doors surrounded by statues of deities.
Sadhus or holy men spend a lot of time around the temple, their painted faces attracting photos and selfies with tourists for a small fee. There are also many traders and vendors around the area.
Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the main temple, but tourists can still explore the vast grounds. As an important Hindu temple, the Pashupatinath is home to several ancient rituals that go on even as the modern world passes by. From 7:00-10:00AM, you can watch open-air cremation of bodies on funeral pyres. At 6:00PM, you can watch and participate in the aarti or the worship with fire.
The Narayanhati Palace Museum, also known as the Narayanhati Durbar, was a residence to Nepal’s monarchy until the monarchy was abolished in 2008. The last reigning monarch was King Gyandera, a deeply unpopular King voted out by Nepalis to give way for a new parliament.
The Palace earned its controversial status from the murder of King Birendra, Queen Aiswarya, and six other royals. They were shot dead by Crown Prince Dipendra in 2001 driven by revenge because the King and Queen refused to approve his marriage intentions. The Crown Prince then turned the gun on himself after eliminating his family. Around the Museum, visitors will find markers on where the family members were killed.
The Palace Museum was opened by the Prime Minister in 2009. It has 52 rooms and occupies 74 acres. The Museum holds memorabilia from the former Nepali royal family including photos of Queen Elizabeth II when the Windsors were still on good terms with the Shah dynasty.
Another sprawling UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chitwan National Park is a 932-square kilometer nature reserve established in 1973. This same area used to be a hunting reserve for the rich and famous.
Visitors are sure to get an incredibly memorable experience at the park. With its name meaning “heart of the jungle”, the reserve is now home for thriving herds of one-horned rhinos, deer, monkeys, wild boars, hyenas, gharial crocodiles and over 450 species of bird. Animals roam wild and free, and lucky visitors might even be able to spot the more elusive residents: leopards, wild elephants, sloth bears and Bengal tigers.
The National Botanical Gardens was opened by King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev in 1962. Over 500 species of flora and fauna cover 82 hectares of land. The Gardens are located 18 kilometers south of Kathmandu city in the Lalitpur District and attracts over 200,000 visitors per year.
The main attraction is the Coronation Pond surrounded by scattered evergreen and ornamental plants including Irises, Lilies, Amaryllis, Ferns, Spirogyra, Chara and Japanese cherry. There are several other gardens around the area, landscaped in different styles. The Terrace Garden is the most local to the country, featuring Nepali-style greenery with tall trees and beautiful wildflowers in different terraces. There is also a Nepali-style stone tap at the top with a sparkling waterfall.
The National Botanical Garden sits at the foot of Mount Phulchowki. Those looking for a more adventurous trip can hike to the top of this highest hill in Kathmandu Valley.
Also known as “Lalitpur” or “City of Beauty”, the suburb of Patan is an excellent and easy day trip from Kathmandu Valley. In contrast to the feverish atmosphere of Kathmandu, Patan is more refined and considered a major cultural and artistic hub.
Temples in Patan are testament to the city’s rich metalwork history. It also has a lesser known but equally beautiful Durbar Square. The Patan Museum is filled with bronzes, wood carvings, and stone sculptures. In the western area, the city’s rich and affluent flaunt grand homes and manicured streets and lawns.
Nepalese cuisine is very diverse. Different regions have their own distinct dishes dictated mostly by the diversity of geography, climate, and even culture. While Nepalese cuisine can look like a variety of different Asian cuisines, one particular dish characterizes the heart of Nepalese cuisine: Daal Bhat.
Daal is a soup made of lentils and spices served with or over rice or tarkari, a type of vegetable curry. It’s served with small condiments, most popular of which is achaar, a spicy kind of pickle.
You can find Daal Bhat throughout Nepal, but this iconic dish has become a destination of its own. You’ll find many classes offered all over Kathmandu, including the one from Homestay Kathmandu. You can choose between a morning or an afternoon session and learn from a Nepali family for the most authentic way you can cook Daal Bhat.
Another Nepali icon, the Thangka style of art depicts images of deities, Buddhas, and Mandalas. Steeped in culture and tradition, Thangka painting is almost meditative, but its significance is beyond aesthetic. It’s used in schools as teaching tools to depict the life of Buddha or telling stories about historic events.
This art has been around for centuries, believed to have come about when Tibetan Buddhism was introduced in Nepal. It’s usually assumed that only monks create these paintings, but there are many people and artists who are very adept at creating Thangkas.
There are academies that offer full courses on Thangka painting, but Backstreet Academy lets students learn the basics in 3-4 hours. The classes are taught by Man Bahadur who has been painting Thangkas for over three decades.
Another iconic dish in Nepal is momos. They’re a type of steamed dumplings that originated in South Asia and widely popular in the Himalayan region. It’s very similar to Japanese or Chinese dumplings with soft dough stuffed with minced meat, paneer, and spiced vegetables. They’re served either steamed or fried and eaten with dips usually made from tomato or fermented vegetables.
After a long day of exploring and discovery, momos are the perfect comfort snack to end the day. It’s not very difficult to find in Kathmandu as it’s one of their staple dishes. Of course, if you’re looking for the best, try momos in different styles and with different kinds of stuffing at New Momo, Cafe Du Temple, or Le Trio.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!