When visiting Nepal, capital city Kathmandu is where you’ll very likely end up first. Don’t make it a fleeting stop on your itinerary though. It’s worth living a while in this mesmerizing place and soaking up its atmosphere. These top things to do in Kathmandu include heritage, structural design, culture, religiousness, and shopping.
Marvel Over Historic Durbar Square
Kathmandu’s ancient old city is set around the Durbar Square at Basantapur, south of Thamel, where the royal family stayed until the 19th century. It was selected a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In addition to the Royal Palace (Hanuman Dhoka), there are numerous Hindu and Buddhist shrines dating as far back as the 12th century. Unfortunately, a huge earthquake damaged most of the southern section of temples and badly damaged additional buildings, including the palace, in 2015.
Poor upkeep, continuing restoration works, and the high price of tickets (1,000 rupees per person for immigrants) have discouraged many visitors from arriving the Durbar Square. Though, there are two more detailed and historically valuable Durbar Squares nearby in the Kathmandu Valley, at Patan (500 rupees for foreigners) and Bhaktapur (1,500 rupees for foreigners). These attractions represent much better value for money and are worth seeing, though the earthquake also causes substantial damage to both. Various companies offer exclusive tours, such as this Patan and Bhaktapur Day Trip from Breakfree Adventures.
Walk Through the Old City
From Durbar Square to Thamel, strolling through old Kathmandu’s enchanting maze of narrow streets and alleys will keep you occupied for hours, if not days. You’ll be stunned to find temples and statues hidden away in unlikely places. So, take a map and get exploring!
At Makhan Tole, on the northeastern corner of Durbar Square, head along Siddhidas Marg to the teeming market square of Indra Chowk, where five roads unite. Go On straight along Siddhidas Marg to Kel Tole, which has one of Kathmandu’s most opulent temples – the Seto Machhendranath Temple.
Further along Siddhidas Marg, you’ll reach Ason Tole, the busiest intersection in Kathmandu. A captivating mass of people ply this route from morning to night and produce from all over the Kathmandu Valley is sold there. It’s worth spending some time just realizing it all. There’s also a beautiful three-story temple devoted to Annapurna, the goddess of abundance, which attracts the pious. Turn left onto Chittadhar Marg and stroll for about 5 minutes, turn right onto Chandraman Singh Marg, and go on until you reach Thahiti Tole. It’s house to a 15th-century Buddhist stupa and the Nateshwar temple, devoted to Lord Shiva. Leading a private courtyard on the way is Kathesimbhu Stupa, a 17th-century copy of the great Swayambhunath Stupa situated just outside Kathmandu.
North of Thahiti Tole is Thamel Chowk, in the centre of Kathmandu’s tourist hub.
Shop and Hang Out in Thamel
Kathmandu’s Thamel tourist district is congested and chaotic at times but it still operates to maintain an old-world feel, perpetuated by the rows of Tibetan prayer flags and cycle rickshaws that wander by.
The streets of this lively area are lined with shops bursting with vibrantly coloured clothing, jewellery, paper lanterns, thangka paintings, wood carvings, bronze statues, music, and books. Bargain hard to get a decent price (aim to pay only a third or half the initial quoted price), as merchants can be ruthless. Need some aid? Backstreet Academy presents this trendy Kathmandu shopping tour.
As the day starts fading, Thamel takes on an entirely different atmosphere as its streets glow with the enthusiasm of a variety of lights and the sound of live music drifts from its bars. Head to Brezel Cafe and Bar on J.P. Marg, Rosemary Kitchen & Coffee Shop on Thamel Marg, Pilgrims 24 Restaurant and Bar on Thamel Marg, and Cafe De Genre on J.P. Marg for exceptional food and atmosphere. Sam’s Bar, upstairs opposite Hotel Mandap on Chaksibari Marg, is an old favourite.
Explore the Backstreets of Kathmandu
If you’d like to get to understand the heart of Old Kathmandu in more in-depth, Love Kathmandu conducts a unique three and a half-hour immersive walking tour that will provide you with a varied range of cultural experiences. These involve tea tasting, having a sniff in a spice den, finding hidden temples, discovering about local legends, and standing where the antique Tibetan caravan route began. The tour leaves daily at 1 p.m. in front of the Himalayan Cafe in Thamel and costs 900 rupees per person.
Love Kathmandu was established in 2014 to allow visitors to see beyond the typical tourist attractions and dig into Nepal’s culture. All the profits are given to grassroots charity projects that help sustain the community.
Try the Local Cuisine
Just around the corner from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Roots Eatery started in 2016 as an expansion of a foundation set up by the holders after the earthquake. It aims to encourage the Newari heritage of the region and provides tasty authentic Newari food cooked by the family. Apart from the food, the ambience is lovely with welcoming staff, fashionable interiors made from reused materials, and outdoor seating area. Portions are large and prices are reasonably priced. Nepali beer is provided too!
Roots Eatery is open on a daily basis except for Sundays, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Its address is 23 Nabahi Chowk, just off Freak Street near Eden Hotel, Ombahal.
Take a Class or Workshop
Loved eating Nepali cuisine and want to learn how to prepare it? Or, maybe you’ve been smitten by the complicated Buddhist thangka paintings and want to make one?
SocialTours’ Cook Like a Local Tour is extremely advised for anyone involved in an experimental cooking experience. It’s the company’s signature tour and is famous as a must-do in Kathmandu. You’ll be transported to a market to source fresh ingredients and become familiar with the flavours, before being shown how to make momos, daal bhat, and aloo paratha.
Nepal Cooking School in Thamel offers sought-after cooking classes as well. Earnings are used to fund social programs that encourage women and girls in a secluded village. Backstreet Academy also proposes a wide variety of experiential tours, all performed by a well-informed local. Their Thangka Painting Workshop is one of the most popular ones, and you’ll end up with a rare souvenir to take home!
Visit Villages in Kathmandu Valley
Leave Kathmandu’s traffic and urban stretch behind, and step back in time in the Kathmandu Valley where the rural community have preserved a traditional way of living, unaffected by modern development. Two of the most famous villages to pay a visit are Bungmati and Khokana, situated to the south of Kathmandu, not far from Patan. These two villages were unfortunately hit hard by the 2015 earthquake and need tourism more than ever now.
Bungmati village dates to the 6th century and revered rain god Rato Mahhendranath is said to have been born there. Sadly, his temple was damaged by the earthquake and his idol is now kept at Patan. Many of the villagers are involved in wood carving and sculpture, and you can drop by their workshops. Khokana is a lush farming village, where mustard oil is collected, and locals spend most of their days involved in agriculture.
Breakfree Adventures presents a private Bungmati and Khokana Village Day Tour from Kathmandu.
Dodge Monkeys at Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath, Nepal’s popular Buddhist temple, lies at the top a hill to the west of Kathmandu city. It’s touched by an exhausting walk up a flight of 365 stone steps. One of the first things you’ll notice, even before you start mountain climbing, is the monkeys. Hundreds of them live on and roam around, the temple grounds. They’re considered to be holy, though it’s best not to think about the reason why — they’re said to have been formed from the head lice of Buddhist deity Manjushri, who was grown there.
Luckily, most of the Swayambhunath temple complex lasted the 2015 earthquake. It was established at the beginning of the 5th century and is the oldest of its kind in Nepal. If you’re concerned in gaining insight into the spiritual aspect of the temple and its importance in society, take this Swayambhunath tour led by a local monk. You’ll be able to take part in ceremonies and chanting sessions.
The temple entrance fee is 200 rupees for non-nationals.
Get a Blessing at Pashupatinath