If you follow my adventures over on my social media channels (follow me on Instagram!), you’ll know that I fell madly in love recently…with Nepal. Ah Nepal. I visited last November and five days were enough to make me add it to my list of favourite countries in the world. I wished I could have stayed longer, however, this was just a quick getaway that I took in between freelance assignments in Dubai. During my time there, I was based in Kathmandu but I also managed to fit in some trips to the surrounding areas. So I decided to put together a massive travel guide to Kathmandu for you all (warning: spending time in Nepal, no matter how little, puts you at risk of wanting to return. Immediately. I’m planning a trip back there in April 🙂 )
A Travel Guide To Kathmandu
I usually dislike backpacker areas, but strangely enough I had missed the buzz of being in a traveller hub, so I based myself in the Thamel area of the city. And I’m actually really glad that I did, as it didn’t grate on me in the way that most backpacker districts usually do. It had a really nice vibe to it, although be prepared to handle the onslaught of traffic and shopkeepers imploring you to check out their goods. The area has some great eating options, friendly pubs and cute cafés, as well. I’d stay there again.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square
On my first day, I didn’t want to stray too far from my hotel because I was exhausted, so I decided to do a Lonely Planet walking tour that ended in Durbar Square, which is one of the city’s main attractions. Durbar Square – the place where Kathmandu’s kings once ruled from – is a good starting point for your explorations when you first arrive in the city. Despite the fact that a lot of it was destroyed during the 2015 earthquake, many temples and key monuments still stand, defiant of Mother Nature.
There is still a bit to see here and you can spend a few hours walking the streets and people watching. I must say, though, that this was probably my least favourite part of the trip, but it’s still definitely worth a look.
Kumari Ghar: Home to the Kumari – a girl who is selected to be Kathmandu’s living goddess until she reaches puberty. The residence contains a three-storey courtyard that features magnificent carved wooden balconies and windows. You can even catch a glimpse of the goddess on most days between 9am and 11am.
Ashok Binayak: A golden shrine of Ganesh – a much-loved Hindu god. It is believed that making an offering at this shrine ensures safety during any forthcoming journeys. So if you’re off trekking and are superstitious, a visit here is a must!
Kala Bhairav: Bhairav is Shiva at his most fearsome, and this huge stone image is rather terrifying to look at. It is believed that if you lie before it, you will die instantly, so it was once used as a form of trial by ordeal.
Getting there: You can easily walk to Durbar Square from Thamel. In fact, I’d recommend it – I came across so many pretty little squares with stupas along the way.
Cost: Entrance to the square is 750 rupees. You pay at the various ticket booths that are easy to spot as you approach the square.
Patan and Patan Durbar Square
I absolutely loved Patan’s Durbar Square (and Patan as a whole), which is far better maintained than Kathamandu’s equivalent. A mere 30-minute drive from Thamel, Patan has a long Buddhist history, so even the town’s Hindu temples show Buddhist influences. Four stupas mark four corners of the city and are believed to have been erected by the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka.
I wandered around here for the best part of day, taking in the interconnected Buddhist courtyards and hidden temples.
Patan Museum: Some of the finest samples of religions art from Asia are on display at the Patan Museum, which was one of my favourite places. It gives you a great introduction to the art, symbolism and architecture of the valley, and you can easily spend a couple of hours here, going through everything properly. There’s also a great café in the grounds, which I mention below in the ‘Eat’ section.
Entrance to the museum is 400 rupees and it is open from 10:30am – 5:30pm (last admission at 4pm).
Mul Chowk: This chowk (square) is arranged around an impressive carved sunken water tank, which has 72 carved stone plaques that depict tantric deities.
Golden Temple: Following Bodhnath, this was probably my favourite place. The Buddhist monastery is north of Patan’s Durbar Square and features stunning courtyard temple architecture. I spent more than an hour alone in this place, despite the fact it’s not particularly big – there was just so much to take photos of, from the elephant statues guarding the door through to various Buddhist figures that adorn the facade.
Entrance to the temple is 50 rupees and it is open from 5am – 6pm
Getting to Patan: You can take a cab from Thamel to Patan for approximately 5oo rupees – be prepared to haggle. You’ll find taxis all over Thamel.
Cost: Entrance to the square is 500 rupees. You pay at the various ticket booths that are easy to spot as you approach the square.
Hands down my favourite place during this visit, Bodhnath Stupa is a very special place. In fact, I had one of my most memorable – if not the most memorable – travel moments while I was there.
This stupa is one of the largest spherical stupas in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site. But it’s not just the majestic stupa, which was damaged in the earthquake and recently restored, that inspires awe. The whole area that surrounds the stupa, which consists of Tibetan monasteries, shops and restaurants, is something special. Most people living in the area are Tibetan refugees who fled the Chinese after 1959, and it’s known for being one of the few places where you can witness Tibetan culture. Watching pilgrims do their ritual circumnavigation around the stupa is a magical experience, so I advise you to arrive late in the afternoon once all the annoying tour groups have gone home and soak up the atmosphere; better yet, stay until nightfall and enjoy the sight of all the lit butter lamps. I spent hours here just walking around, entering the various monasteries, watching people chanting mantras, taking photos and striking up conversations with shopkeepers.
Important note: Remember to walk clockwise around the stupa when you’re there. The same applies when spinning prayer wheels.
Tamang Gompa monastery: One of the colourful buildings that are located around the stupa, this monastery is certainly worth a look. Upon entering you’ll find a massive prayer wheel in a room to the left. Head up the stairs to the right and you’ll come across a terrace which overlooks the stupa; in the hour just before the sun goes down, pilgrims sit here and chant mantras, which is a beautiful thing to witness. In the room that is next to the terrace you’ll find a big Buddha statue (photos aren’t allowed there). Up one more flight of stairs you’ll find a rooftop terrace that offers fantastic views of the whole area, so definitely head up there if you want to take some great photos.
Shopping: Butter lamps, Tibetan drums, singing bowls, ceremonial horns, incense, prayer flags – you’ll find all the paraphernalia essential for Buddhist life here. It’s a great place to shop for souvenirs.
Taragaon Museum: This space seeks to document 50 years of research and cultural heritage conservation efforts for the Kathmandu valley. It documents what photographers, anthropologists and architects have contributed to these efforts in the second half of the 20th century. I didn’t get the chance to visit, but I’ve been told it’s definitely worth a look – and it’s free entry! You enter the museum from the Hyatt Regency’s main gate.
Getting to Bodhnath: You can take a cab from Thamel to Bodhnath for approximately 300 rupees – be prepared to haggle. The drive takes around 15 minutes.
If you want to catch some stunning Himalayan views but don’t have time to trek (or are too lazy to, like me) it’s worth taking a day trip to Nargakot to see the sun rise. It is located approximately 30 kilometres away from Kathmandu, but thanks to dodgy mountain roads it can take up to an hour and a half to get there. But you should be rewarded with a spectacular sunset, particularly if you visit between October and March. Although be warned – pesky clouds can make an unannounced appearance any time of the year. Oh, and it’s SO COLD up there, so make sure you dress appropriately. Unlike me, who went in my harem trousers and almost froze to death.
Getting to Nargakot: I hired a driver for the day to take me to Nargakot, Bhaktapur and Changunarayan for about 3,800 rupees (not including admission fees for Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square). I had to be up at stupid o’clock (4:30am if my memory serves me right!), but it was worth it.
When I booked a driver to take me to Bhaktapur and Nargakot through a company called AFA Travels, I told the guy whom I dealt with that I also wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t touristy. He recommended that I visit Changu Narayan, which is said to be the oldest Hindu temple in the Kathmandu valley that’s still operational. When he told me that most tourists don’t visit I knew I had to go.
For me, the experience was all about watching the rituals that were taking place around the temple; groups of people huddled around priests (well, I assume they were priests) and made offerings while the priest instructed them at which point to drop various items on a plate – rice, flowers, money, coconuts. I stayed there for an hour, observing what was going on, and I got an insight into daily life at the temple. I assume making a pilgrimage here is a big deal, as people were dressed in their finest clothes.
If you plan on doing a day trip to Nargakot and Bhaktapur I really recommend that you add the temple to your itinerary. To reach Changu Narayan, you walk through a little village where mandalas, shawls and other souvenir type objects are sold. But sure enough, apart from me, there were no other tourists at the temple when I visited. I like it that way.
Cost: Entrance to the temple and surrounding village is 100 rupees.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Of all the Durbar Squares, I think this was the most impressive (although personally I preferred the vibe at Patan). I usually hate having a guide, but one was sprung on me when I arrived here (he was my driver’s friend) and although I was a little annoyed at being accosted like that, I’m really glad that I let him show me around, as I am sure I would have missed many things if I didn’t have someone leading the way (I fear this happened to me in Patan). This ancient city is the third of the Kathmandu Valley’s city states and was hit hard by the 2015 earthquakes. Temples toppled, traditional buildings were destroyed, and while it’s business as usual today, it will take years for the city to fully recover.
Nevertheless, it still maintains its magic. You really are stepping back in time when you’re there, and part of me wishes that I didn’t have a driver waiting for me that day – I would have loved to explored more. So if you have enough time, I recommend staying a night at one of the many guesthouses.
Here are the highlights:
Golden Gate: The intricately designed entranceway to the Royal Palace, this frame has immeasurable archeological, historical and religious importance.
Nyatopola Temple: This towering temple is said to be Nepal’s tallest, so you won’t be able to miss it. The stone staircase is lined by stone figures: the first two are Bhaktapur’s strongest men, Jayamel and Phattu. They’re followed by two elephants, then come two griffins, then come Baghini and Singhini – the tiger and lion goddesses. The temple is dedicated to the bloodthirsty incarnation of the goddess Durga, Siddhi Lakshmi.
Brave the steps and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the square and surrounding mountains.
Potters’ Square: The centre of Bhaktapur’s ceramic industry, Potters’ Square is a great place to walk around and learn about the labour intensive process of making clay pots.
I had some pretty incredible meals in Nepal and my only regret is not staying longer to sample more. From the traditional dal bhat to Bhutanese cheese curry, to one of the best pizzas of my life (yes, in Kathmandu!), here is a selection of places that I dined at.
This was probably my favourite restaurant in Kathmandu and I wish I could have returned. Dechenling serves up Himalayan food from Tibetan through to Bhutanese and, of course, Nepalese. I opted to try something I had never even heard of before – Bhutanese cheese and potato curry – and let’s just say that I still dream about that dish frequently. When I make it back to Kathmandu, this is going to be the first thing I eat!
The courtyard/garden setting is adorable, too, so it’s a lovely place in which to while a few hours away. The crazy streets of Thamel feel like they’re miles away while you’re here. Oh, and you MUST have one of their hot toddies while you’re there. They’re yummy and just what the doctor ordered on those cold Kathmandu nights (like I need an excuse).
Thamel, 11am – 9pm , tel: 01 4412158
Fire & Ice Pizzeria
While I was in Kathmandu I met a lovely Italian gentleman who leads his own NGO in Nepal. When I asked him to recommend the best places to eat, he mentioned an Italian pizzeria that I just had to try. Now when an Italian tells you to try an Italian place, you know it’s going to be good. So on my last day, me and a lovely lady who I had literally met a few hours before I was due to be at the airport went and had lunch there. The pizzas were out of this world and HUGE. This is a must-try place for those nights when you’ve had enough of local cuisine.
Thamel, 8am – 11pm, tel: 01 4250210
This charming little café serves yummy breakfasts (I love their masala omelettes), as well as the best ginger chai that I had while I was in Nepal. I loved the courtyard setting – all the digital nomads out there may find this a nice little place to get some work done in (they have free WiFi) and have a spot of lunch – the menu features a lot of international cuisine as well as traditional dal bhat. The staff are lovely, too.
Thamel, 7am – 9pm, tel: 01 4261633
Momos are of course a beloved dish in Nepal and I ate my fair share while I was in town. I liked this place, which was in the centre of Thamel. They did decent momos, my favourite being the palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese) ones – they were so good that I had to order a second round! They also have an interesting selection of beers. Nice staff, too.
Thamel, 11am – 10pm, tel: 01 4259862
While in Boudhnath I spotted this Vietnamese restaurant and I just had to stop by, even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. I had some gỏi cuốn (summer rolls) and stared wistfully at the Vietnamese coffee filters that were on display. As I had quit coffee only a few weeks earlier, I was unable to indulge in my old favourite drink (sniff). If you’re in Boudhnath and like Vietnamese food it’s worth checking this place out.
Boudhnath, near the stupa
Patan Museum Café
Patan Museum, as I mentioned above, is a must-experience while you’re in the area. It also helps that they also have an adorable garden café at the back that serves up great Nepali food. I had the dal bhat here, which was delicious! It’s a lovely place to sit and take a break from sightseeing, too.
Patan, 10am – 5pm, tel: 01 5526271
Tom & Jerry Pub
When I first started travelling solo, a good friend of mine gave me one piece of advice: wherever I am in the world, to try and find an Irish pub, as that’s where I’d meet people – this advice has served me well in the past. And while Tom & Jerry Pub is not an Irish pub, it has the vibe of one: dingy, lovely staff, a live band, strong drinks and patrons who are willing to chat to you. Loved this place and wish I had more time to go back again. And again. And again…
Thamel, 10am – 11pm, tel: 01 4700264
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was in Kathmandu and that I was looking for a place where I could enjoy some live music, a lovely lady who was living there at the time suggested Jazz Upstairs. I’m so glad I tried this place out – it’s a small, intimate bar that has live jazz on Wednesdays and Saturdays (from 8pm) and blues on Mondays. The vibe is really friendly and the crowd is a mix of locals and expats. It’s located in Lamzipat, which is only a ten minute cab drive away from Thamel. Worth the ‘trek.’
Lamzipat, noon – 11pm on Sunday – Friday, 7 – 11pm on Saturday
- Visas are available on arrival at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport. For single-entry visas that are valid for 15/30/90 days you have to pay US$25/40/100. They take most major currencies at the airport. Bring two passport sized photos with you.
- Best time of year to go is October through to November and then March through to April.
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