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You’re coming to Nepal. You’re going to trek in the Himalayan Mountains, or ride elephants in the hope of seeing the elusive tiger in Chitwan National Park. Either way, you arrive and leave from Kathmandu. Here are some suggestions of how to spend the 3 or 4 days you have in this fascinating capital city.
Start out with a visit to the first of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nepal, Bhaktapur. An easy half hour drive from Kathmandu on a modern graded road thanks to the Japanese, is the monument site of Bhaktapur, one of the three Durbar Squares, or urban centres with palaces and temples, in the KTM Valley. Bhaktapur is the largest of these and considered by many to be the finest and best preserved. You can easily pass a half day wandering around this pedestrian only area. If you choose to hire a guide (they wait near the place where you pay the entry fee), chat to him/her for a few minutes first to ascertain their fluency in your language. A lot of guides are well practiced at the initial welcome speech, but become hard to understand when you get into more details about myths and religious festivals. Or you can rely on your guide book to explain the significance of the main palaces, temples and statues. Allow time to explore the many woodworking and other craft shops, and get lost down narrow cobbled streets with their sloping buildings and intricately carved wooden window frames. Plenty places for refreshments or lunch – Watshala Garden Restaurant has wonderful outdoor seating.
Recharged, head off to Changu Narayan, another World Heritage Site. You can actually walk there from Bhaktapur if you can find someone to point you on the right path. Changu is a complex of beautiful temples, several intricately carved statues and a museum of various artifacts – all expertly displayed with helpful cards in excellent English. Changu Narayan doesn’t get many tourists but it is well worth a visit. Considering you can see here the oldest stone inscription in the country– dating back to the 5th century – it’s amazing there are no fences or vigilant guards protecting it.
Head back to Kathmandu and spend your evening sampling a traditional multi course Nepali meal and a Nepali cultural show with traditional dancing and music. Nepali Chulo in Lazimpat (01-4220475) and Bhojan Griha in Dilli Bazar (01-4416423) both offer very similar experiences in renovated old buildings. Beware of the Raksi, a locally brewed spirit that is served to you upon arrival – tastes like paint stripper and probably does as much damage to your insides! Reservations are recommended.
Begin your day at Swayambhunath Temple – also known as Monkey Temple. Although it has both Buddhist and Hindu significance, the most iconic part is the central white stupa with its painted Buddha eyes. A stupa in case you don’t know (most people don't) is a “mound like structure containing Buddhist relics and used by Buddhists as a place of meditation.” You will take at least as many photographs of the monkeys that noisily inhabit this religious site as they sit grooming each other or snatch an unsuspecting tourist’s snack! Allow an hour.
Walk or take a taxi into Thamel, the throb of ‘downtown’ Kathmandu. It is comprised of just a handful of narrow streets but allow two hours (more if you are dedicated shopper) as the streets are packed with places to shop and eat. Start off with a freshly brewed coffee at Himalayan Java (opposite side of the road from Fire and Ice pizza parlour – which is a landmark all the locals know). Now you’re ready to shop till you drop. Thamel is the best place to pick up trekking gear that you may need, but be ready to bargain hard. Shopkeepers realize the average tourist doesn’t know what the street price is and will often start at ridiculously inflated prices. There are a few stores – near the Himalayan Java coffee shop - that sell genuine brand items for genuine European prices. Otherwise, the ubiquitous North Face pants for sale are known locally as North Fake. So-called ‘Pashmina’ scarves are very popular being a locally made product and prices range from $8 to $80. But actual pashmina wool is rare and is sourced from a mountain goat in the Himalayas. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are getting the real McCoy for a snip of a price. You are buying Nepali sheep wool mixed with something else. If cheap is what you want, then these make ideal gifts and they come in 101 colours, but if it’s quality you’re after, wait till you visit the Fair Trade shops this afternoon near Patan. Also available in Thamel – Buddhist singings bowls, Hindu deities made into door knockers, rings and bangles made of every metal and alloy known to man, leather goods, teas and weed. Yes, if you want it, you can buy it on the street and at a bargain of a price!
There are many places in Thamel to recharge the batteries over lunch. A popular place with a funky atmosphere is OR2K. Although the menu is vegetarian, there is something for everyone here from tabouleh to Thai green curry, from Nepali momos to chocolate crepes. An up-market option, but in a decidedly beautiful garden setting is the café inside the Garden of Dreams (opposite side of road from Fire and Ice and a little further down the road, headed out of the bustle of Thamel.) Near the Kathmandu Guest House (another famous landmark) are two good choices: Yin Yang serves authentic Thai cuisine or try the original Roadhouse restaurant (now there are two others) which has excellent pizzas and pasta dishes.
For the afternoon, cross the Bagmati River to your second Durbar Square in Patan. It offers a similar historical and cultural experience to Bhaktapur, but it is more compact so you can see it all in an hour.
Jump in a taxi or, if you like to walk, ask directions to the Himalaya Hotel which is on the Pulchowk road, south of the bridge crossing the Bagmati River. Here you will find the Fair Trade shopping area and can do more souvenir shopping. This is an excellent place to buy pashmina scarves as you can be certain of the true nature of the fabric. Prices are not negotiable, but the quality is higher and you can feel good about helping a cottage industry or women’s rural employment project. Start at Dhukuti’s – the largest of these shops but explore others a block in each direction and on the other side of the road.
A short ride away – past the Jawalakhel chowk (roundabout/traffic circle) close to the ring road - is the Tibetan Handicraft Centre. After the Dalai Lama fled, many Tibetans also left their homeland and settled in Nepal. Some of these refugees were skilled rug makers and with foreign aid, the handicraft centre was established. You are welcome to walk around the ground floor and see the women hard at work knotting rugs on huge looms with amazing dexterity. Upstairs is the showroom with carpets of every shape and size. Prices are very reasonable and depend on the design, the size and the number of knots per square inch. You can custom order a rug to your exact specs. Smaller rugs will fit in your luggage, but the centre will also ship internationally and from all accounts, this is a reliable service.
Nearby there are some excellent places to have dinner, but restaurants do tend to come and go alarmingly quickly. One day you eat at a place you like, a month later it is closed. Keeping that in mind, these restaurants are all currently in business and have eclectic menus and reasonable prices. Several have outdoor dining options. In Pulchowk (walking distance from Jawalkhel chowk): New Orleans, Vespers, another branch of the ever-popular Roadhouse café and Lhakpa Chulo (down an alley opposite Roadhouse Café). In Jamsikhel: Moksh (live music some nights), Black Pepper (http://blackpepper.com.np), Grill Me (carnivores only!) and Le Jardin (as the name implies, outdoor seating).
Start out at yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Pashupatinath. The actual temple is closed to non Hindus, but what is really fascinating for foreigners is to witness is the ritual of washing dead bodies in the sacred Bagmati River and afterwards wrapping them in shrouds and draping them with marigold garlands (malas). The bodies are carried to the ghats where they are cremated in public. If there are a number of cremations at once, the air can become thick with smoke, so this is a site to miss for asthmatics (well, the pollution on the streets in KTM might make the whole city off limits for asthma sufferers…) Ignore the urging of the wannbe guides at the entrance, and don’t go up to the steps to watch from a balcony above the ghats; instead cross the river to a vantage point where the smoke is thinning out. If you find the cremations too macabre, take a photo opportunity with the many Holi men or Sadhus – they are the ones sitting with a relaxed gaze on their face, half naked, painted in a ghostly white powder and sporting Rastafarian-like hair styles! Small tips for the photo are expected.
Next head to nearby Bouddhanath (another, you’ve guessed it, World Heritage Site) to see the largest stupa in Nepal, and the robed monks turning the prayer wheels. Rated the number one thing to do in Kathmandu on Trip Advisor, this is one you can’t miss. Around the stupa are many stalls selling the same ole’ prayer flags and incense sticks but it’s noticeably calmer than the markets in Thamel. Complete your Buddhist experience lunching on Tibetan bread and noodles at one of the small restaurants around the stupa while listening to the primordial sound of the monks chanting. The rest of the day you will be humming Om Mani Padme Um!
Finally, head out to Kopan Monastery http://kopanmonastery.com A working monastery with incredible views of terraced fields and mountains beyond, this is “a meeting place between East and West, between religious and worldly life” and foreign visitors are welcome to come and walk around. In fact, if you have 7, 10 or 30 days to spare, you can enroll in a meditation course, offered throughout the year, which provide an opportunity to "taste the Dharma" and to facilitate reflection about living a meaningful life. According to the website, daily talks are conducted when there are no courses scheduled.
Round off your day at the Rum Doodle www.therumdoodle.com or the Factory in Thamel sipping a cold, locally produced Everest or Gorkha beer. Both bar/restaurants have good evening atmosphere and reasonably priced food.