When visiting Nepal, capital city Kathmandu is where you’ll most likely end up first. It’s worth staying a while in this captivating place and soaking up its atmosphere. These top things to do in Kathmandu encompass heritage, architecture, culture, spirituality, and shopping around the city.
Kathmandu’s ancient old city is set around the Durbar Square at Basantapur, south of Thamel, where the royal family used to live until the 19th century. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In addition to the Royal Palace (Hanuman Dhoka), there are many Hindu and Buddhist temples dating as far back as the 12th century. Sadly, a huge earthquake destroyed most of the southern section of temples and badly damaged other buildings, including the palace, in 2015.
However, there are two more elaborate and historically important 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, although the earthquake also cause significant damage to both.
From Durbar Square to Thamel, wandering through old Kathmandu’s fascinating maze of narrow streets and alleyways will keep you busy for hours, if not days. You’ll be surprised to discover shrines and statues hidden away in unlikely places. So, grab a map and get exploring!
Kathmandu’s Thamel tourist district is crowded and frenetic at times but it still manages to retain an old-world feel, perpetuated by the rows of Tibetan prayer flags and cycle rickshaws that trundle by.
The streets of this lively area are lined with shops overflowing with brightly colored clothing, jewelry, paper lanterns, thangka paintings, wood carvings, bronze statues, music, and books. Bargain hard to get a good price (aim to pay only a third or half the original quoted price), as shopkeepers can be ruthless.
As the day starts fading, Thamel takes on a whole different vibe as its streets glow with the warmth of a multitude 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 excellent food and ambiance. Sam’s Bar, upstairs opposite Hotel Mandap on Chaksibari Marg, is an old favorite.
If you’d like to get to know the heat of Old Kathmandu in more in depth, Love Kathmandu conducts a special three and a half hour immersive walking tour that will provide you with a diverse range of cultural experiences. These include tea tasting, having a sniff in a spice den, discovering hidden temples, learning about local legends, and standing where the ancient Tibetan caravan route started.
The tour departs daily at 1 p.m. in front of the Himalayan Cafe in Thamel and costs 900 rupees per person.
Just around the corner from Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, Roots Eatery opened in 2016 as an extension of a foundation set up by the owners after the earthquake. It aims to promote the Newari heritage of the region, and serves delicious authentic Newari cuisine cooked by the family. Apart from the food, the ambiance is really lovely with friendly staff, groovy interiors made from recycled materials, and outdoor seating area. Portions are large and prices are affordable. Nepali beer is served too!
Swayambhunath, Nepal’s famous Buddhist temple, sits atop a hill to the west of Kathmandu city. It’s reached by a tiring walk up a flight of 365 stone steps. One of the first things you’ll notice, even before you start climbing, is the monkeys. Hundreds of them live on, and roam around, the temple premises. They’re believed to be holy, although 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 raised there.
Nepal’s most sacred Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, Pashupatinath draws devotees from the Indian subcontinent along with a motley collection of painted sadhus (Hindu ascetics). Most of the sadhus are friendly and happy to be photographed for a small fee, in return for which they’ll give a blessing.
Ancient Hindu rituals, astonishing and unchanged by time, are practiced inside the temple complex. Enter, and you’ll get an uncensored (and confronting) perspective of life, death and reincarnation including the open-air cremation of bodies on funeral pyres along the river bank.
Tickets cost 1,000 rupees for foreigners. The main temple is off-limits to anyone who’s not Hindu but you can wander about the rest of the vast grounds. If you don’t want to pay to go in, you can get a decent view from the opposite side of the river.
The most interesting time to visit is early in the morning from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. to see the cremations, or in the evening from 6 p.m. to see the aarti (worship with fire). The temple is closed from noon until 5 p.m. daily.
On the northeast outskirts of Kathmandu, within walking distance of Pashupatinath (about 20 minutes), Boudhanath is the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal. It’s an important center of Tibetan Buddhism and culture, as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the sun sets, the Tibetan community comes out to circumambulate the stupa, accompanied by the gentle chanting of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and spinning of prayer wheels.
Early mornings and evenings are the best times to visit, when prayers are offered and tour groups are absent. The entrance fee for foreigners is 250 rupees.
Don’t miss going inside some of the many gompas (monasteries) around Boudhanath. They’re gracefully decorated with vibrant murals. One of the most impressive ones, Tamang Gompa, is situated opposite the stupa and offers an outstanding view of it from the upper floors.
These are the things to do in Kathmandu.