Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal is a haven for tourists. The moment you step off the plane you’ll feel you are in another world altogether. The sights, sounds and smells are a prelude to the excitement, adventure, and exhilaration that await you in this enchanting city.
Kathmandu has attracted tourists ever since Nepal first opened its doors to foreigners in the 1950’s. The first visitors were the mountaineers who came here with dreams to conquer the highest peaks in the world including Mt. Everest. Gradually it became a haven for the hippies who flocked here in the 1960’s and 70s in search of the ultimate Shangri-la at the end of the trail.
Visitors to Kathmandu seek enlightenment in the heart of nature, in the serene Buddhist monasteries, and in the magnificent Hindu temples. It is believed that once upon a time, the number of temples in Kathmandu equaled the houses of the people who lived in the city. Gradual urbanization, however, took over, yet even now you can find a medieval temple tucked away in almost every street in Kathmandu.
Today, tourism is a major industry in the city and indeed in Nepal. Look around and you will find a host of swish shops, Internet cafes, swanky restaurants and hotels jostling for space with the palaces and temples. Visit the stretch from Durbar Square to Thamel, the haven for trekkers and backpackers, and you will be amazed to see the number of people who have converged here from across the globe to experience the intoxication of the city.
Away from the tourist hotspots, a heritage walk of Kathmandu will reveal its amazing cultural and artistic legacy. Temples resplendent in marigolds, courtyards full of drying chillis and rice, and tiny workshops unchanged since the Middle Ages, will transcend you to another era, to another time, when life was less complex, pleasures more simple, people more warm, and beauty more abundant.
Things To See
Kathmandu, with its hundreds of palaces, shrines, temples and statues dotting the narrow streets, resembles an open air museum. It is then little wonder that the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Standing in complete contrast are a bewildering number of casinos, nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, and bars. The peaceful co-existence of two diametrically opposite worlds under a handful of sky is what draws people to the beautiful city protected by the majestic Himalayas.
Thamel: Thamel is the tourist hub of Kathmandu. A stroll through the meandering alleys can be an intoxicating experience. Here, pedestrians jostle for space with rickshaws, cows, bikes all next to the bazaars piled high with spices and silks. The narrow streets from here lead to Kathmandu’s main tourist attraction, the Durbar Square cluttered with remarkable Newari temples and palaces.
Durbar Square: Situated in the heart of the old city, the Durbar Square houses an impressive collection of palaces, courtyards, and temples. Some of these monuments date back to the 12th century. It was here from the Durbar Square the kings of Nepal were once crowned. You can wander through the square to get a feel of the city or get a bird’s eye from the terraced platforms of the imposing Maju Deval. Explore the open Basantapur Sq area, from which runs the Freak Street, the famous hippy hangout in the 1960’s and 70’s. The main Durbar Square area is where the palaces and temples are concentrated. A major attraction here is the Hanuman Dhoka, a former royal palace, which is now open to the public as a museum of Nepali ceremonial architecture. Within its vicinity is the most intriguing sight on the Durbar Square – the temple or residence of the Living Goddess, Kumari, a young girl worshipped by Nepali Hindus as an incarnation of the goddess Taleju. The goddess can occasionally be seen greeting people from her balcony window. Photography is strictly prohibited.
Bodhnath (Baudhanath) Stupa: Situated across the Vishnumati river, the Buddhist stupa is the most ancient and enigmatic shrine in Kathmandu. It is the religious focal point of the Tibetan refugees who congregate here every evening at sunset. The golden spire of the 36m high stupa crowns a wooded hillock from where the views of the surroundings are simply spectacular.
Swayambhunath: This revered Buddhist temple, on a hilltop in western Kathmandu offers great views of the city. It is also referred to as the ‘Monkey Temple’ because of the wild monkeys that crowd the stone stairway to the shrine. You can climb up the 365 steep steps and peer at the world below from the painted eyes of the Swayambhunath. On clear days, you can also take in the commanding views of the Himalayan peaks.
National Museum: Located at Chhauni near Swayambhunath, the museum houses an impressive collection of ancient artifacts, statues, paubha scroll paintings, medieval weaponry and relics of the earthquake of 1934. The museum opens daily from 9.30 AM to 3.30 PM, except on Sundays, Mondays and government holidays.
Changu Narayan Temple: Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, this beautiful temple, embellished with exquisite wood and stone carvings, has one of the finest and oldest specimens of pagoda architecture.
Chobhar: Situated nine-kilometers southwest of Kathmandu, this place is a must visit for nature enthusiasts. There is a famous gorge here from where the water of the valley drains through. There is also a small but postcard-perfect temple of Adinath on the hilltop from where you can take in the panoramic views of the snow-capped mountain peaks.
Dakshinkali Temple: The temple is dedicated to one of the most important Hindu goddesses. It is an important pilgrim spot for the Hindus who visit it in large numbers for offering prayers and sacrifices. The place has been developed as a picnic spot.
Heritage Walk: The Heritage Walk enables you to explore some of the lesser visited though equally fascinating historic sites in Kathmandu. The walk starts at Teku, south of old Kathmandu and weaves its way to Wonder Narayan, a 17th century temple dedicated to the Hindu deity, Lord Vishnu. After a stop at Hyumat Tole, proceed to Kusah Bahi, a Buddhist courtyard built in 1754. The next stop is the Narayan Dewal, a beautiful temple dating back to 1865. You will see Tukan Baha, built in the 14th century as a replica of the Swayambhu stupa. Walk to the Ram temple at the Ramchandra Dewal and then reach Jaisi Dewal, a huge Shiva temple built in 1688. Stroll to Kohiti where you can study the Buddhist and Hindu sculptures in this sunken water fountain. You will also pass by Chikan Mugaland and Atko Narayan Dewal. The Walk also takes you to the namesake of the city, the Kasthamandap pavilion. The final destination is the Bhimsen Dewal, built in 1655 and dedicated to the main deity of local traders.
Festivals and Events
Nepal’s colorful heritage finds rich reflection in its festivals and events. The festival calendar begins with the celebration of the Tibetan New Year in January/February. The celebrations are marked by processions at Bodhnath and Buddhist ceremonies at Swayambhunath and Jawlakhel near Patan. February also sees the celebrations of Shivratri, a festival dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Colorful celebrations take place at the Pashupatinath Temple.
Holi, a festival of colors, is celebrated in March while April/May is the time for the month-long chariot festival to honor Machhendranath, the god of rain. Buddha Jayanti, or Lord Buddha’s birthday is celebrated with enthusiasm at Swayambhunath, Bodhnath, and Jawlakhel in Patan in May/June. Hindus stage the colorful Indra yatra, or chariot processions with masked dances and animal sacrifices to honor Indra, the god of war and weather. Tihar, or the Nepalese version of Diwali, the festival of lights, is celebrated in October/November.
Kathmandu offers a wide range of accommodation options from expensive, luxurious hotels to cheap and comfortable lodges and guest houses. The best lodging options are concentrated in the city’s tourist quarter, Thamel. Depending on your bargaining skills, you can easily find a double room for around $5 to $10 per night with all basic facilities for a comfortable stay. A room in a cheap hotel can cost you aroun d$15-$40 per night, depending on the facilities on offer. You can also take your pick from world-class hotels. These hotels quote their rates in dollars and per night stay usually costs around $100-$300.
“Khana Khanu Vayo?” This is one phrase you will hear often enough on your visit to Kathmandu. Literally translated, it means have you eaten? In case you haven’t, rest assured Kathmandu is a haven for sumptuous food and no matter what your taste or budget, you are sure to find something to tingle your taste buds. Kathmandu is a fine dining destination with a number of eateries in every nook and corner of the city. The cuisine varies from local Nepali, Newari or Thakali to international flavors such as Thai, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Chinese, and Continental. If you are adventurous enough you can try out intriguing East-West fusion dishes.
Typical Kathmandu food consists of rice, vegetables, chicken curry, pickles and other vegetables and meat mix. Fusion food is a way of life here with meals drawing heavily on Indian and Tibetan recipes. You don’t have to travel far to find the restaurant of your choice. Eateries and restaurants specially abound in Thamel, Durbarmarg, and Lazimpat. If you want to soak up the local culture, dine in one of the city’s superb Newari restaurants. Here the meals are served with the accompaniment of traditional dances. For drinks, you can try out San Miguel, Nepal’s contribution to international beer. Besides drinks such as rum, whisky, vodka and gin, imported wines are widely available here. For local liquor, you can check out chang and rakshi, made from barley or millet. A word of caution though—these drinks are highly intoxicating.
While there is no dearth of eateries in and around Kathmandu, we would like to suggest the following:
1905: This elegant restaurant is located in a former Rana’s palace in Thamel. The menu here includes southeastern dishes. The restaurant is patronized by diplomats, the UN crowd, and government ministers. There are seven different menus on the cards with one especially for tea.
Fire & Ice: This is the best place in Kathmandu to savour fine pizzas and gelato in informal surroundings.
Bhojan Griha: Visit this upscale restaurant for a complete Nepali dining experience. You can eat in the Nepali style by sitting on cushions in a traditional dining room or eat at Western-style dining tables. The menu is authentic Nepali food.
Ghar-e-Kebab: This is a must visit for traditional north Indian food. The restaurant is located in Hotel de L’Annapurna. There is live music in the evenings and you can actually see your meal being prepared through a glass-walled kitchen.
Roadhouse Café: Located in Thamel, the café is well worth a visit for excellent coffee and delectable Nepali snacks such as sukuti (dried meat with chilli and ginger).
Baithak Restaurant: The restaurant in At Babar Mahal Revisited has a distinct Victorian setting with crystal and linens. You’ll be served by waiters resplendent in their royal costume. The menu features ‘Rana cuisine’, a courtly cuisine created by Nepali Brahmin chefs and heavily influenced by North Indian Mughal cuisine.
Chang Cheng Restaurant: The place serves authentic Chinese food and is a favorite with the Tibetans and the visiting Chinese business people.
Chez Caroline: This swanky outdoor restaurant is very popular with expat foodies. The menu offers French-influenced main courses such as ‘wild mushroom tart with walnut sauce’, quiche and crêpes. You can also choose from a range of patisseries, teas and wines. After the meal, you can head upstairs for some steamy salsa dancing at Latin Quarter.
Kathmandu is a treasure trove for shoppers. Here you can buy quality products at reasonable rates. Woodcarvings, jewelry, khukuri knives, brassware, hand-made paper, ceramics, masks, Nepali tea, and hand-knotted woolen carpets are just some of the things you can shop for. There is no place like Thamel to shop for clothes, pashminas, jewelry, antiques and other Nepali crafts.
Kathmandu is also a great place to shop for clothes— flowing hippie gauzes, funky neon trance wear, Monk’s robes and elegant silks in myriad patterns and colors are available in hand-woven Nepali fabrics. The best places to shop for clothes are the alleys around Indira Chowk between Thamel and Durbar Square.
No shopping expedition can be complete without buying the beautiful artifacts of Nepal. The sale of real antiques is banned, however, you can shop for brilliant replicas in bronze.
If you are in Kathmandu you can buy pashmina scarves and shawls at a fraction of the price you will pay in Europe or North America. Some good quality pashmina shawls are available near the Tibetan refugee camp outside of Patan.
Electronic items are relatively inexpensive in Kathmandu mainly because it is a tariff free city. There is no sales tax or duty on imported electronic goods from China, Japan and Korea. Kathmandu is an ideal place to shop for iPods, mobile phones, cameras, and other electronic goods. You’ll find the best shops along New Road and Khicha Pokhari, close to Durbar Square. For bigger brands, you can head to Durbar Marg.
If you want traditional Nepali items such as incense, brass pots, block-printed fabrics or spices, the best place is the bazaar between Asan Tol and Indra Chowk in the old town.
Excursions From Kathmandu
Pashupatinath: No list of Kathmandu’s attractions can be complete without a mention of Nepal’s most important Hindu temple, the Pashupatinath temple. Located on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, the temple is a famous pilgrimage place for not only Nepalese but for Hindus across the border in India. Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the main temple but the complex itself is well worth a visit.
Bhaktapur: You can meander through the narrow pedestrian streets and see the beautifully preserved Durbar Square. Buses for Bhaktapur leave every 10 minutes from Bagh Bazar, east of Ratna Park.
Patan: As in Kathmandu, the main attraction in Patan is the Durbar Square with its palaces, artistic courtyards and graceful pagoda temples. Patan is also listed as a World Heritage Site. You can browse through a museum containing an array of bronze statues and religious objects. The 17th century temple dedicated to the Hindu God Krishna is also worth admiring. The temple is built entirely of stone and the rare carvings on its walls depict the epic wars from Hindu mythologies of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Nightlife and Entertainment
Thamel is the focal point of the nightlife in Kathmandu though there are some good bars around Pulchowk in Patan. As per law, all music in bars and restaurants has to be turned off by 11 PM but many bars in Thamel manage to stay open until midnight or later. For the latest updates, you can consult the entertainment listings sections in the Kathmandu Post and The Himalayan Times newspapers.
Casinos: Casinos in Kathmandu can be found in the upmarket hotels and are open 24 hours.
Casino Anna: Located at the Hotel de l’Annapurna, the casino is very popular with Indians. You can play in either Indian rupees or US dollars. The games here include roulette and blackjack.
Casino Royale: Set in a former Rana palace at the Yak & Yeti Hotel, the casino offers games such as roulette and blackjack. Free drinks and a dinner buffet are part of the package. You can also enjoy the performances of Russian girls in a cabaret show.
Bars: There are many bars in Kathmandu where you can enjoy a quiet drink after the sun sets. Rum Doodle Bar, Pub Maya, Sam’s Bar, Full Moon, and Tom & Jerry’s Bar in Thamel are favorites with the trekkers and backpackers. The swanky Tamas Spa Lounge in Thamel caters to a more sophisticated crowd. Some bars worth checking out include:
J-Bar: The bar opens at 11 PM when the others in Thamel shut and keeps going till 2 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. The access to this bar is via a side alley.
Jatra: Head here if you are looking for an intimate venue. Both indoor and outdoor seating is available. There is live music on Friday nights. On Wednesdays, the bar has free cocktails for ladies.
Clubs: The best options are the Underground Bar in Thamel and the Galaxy Discotheque at the Everest Hotel in New Baneshwor.
Live music: For live music the popular options include New Orleans Cafe in Thamel, the Rox Bar at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Taragaon, Reggae Bar, G’s Terrace, Shisha Terrace and Lhasa Bar in Thamel.
Kalamandapa Institute of Classical Nepalese Performing Arts: You can enjoy Nepali dance performances and occasional theatre at Hotel Vajra. Newari music concerts are also held here on Friday and Sunday evenings.
Kathmandu enjoys a pleasant climate for most of the year. The cold months are between October and March when night time temperatures can fall drastically. The days are however still sunny and warm. The temperature goes below 1 Degree Celsius (34 Degree Fahrenheit) in winter and rises to around 25 Degree Celsius (77 Degree Fahrenheit) in summer.
By air: Nepal’s international airport, The Tribhuvan International Airport, is located around 5km east of the city centre. It serves flights from India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and the Persian Gulf. If you are flying from Europe, in all probability, you’ll need to change planes in the Middle East.
Facilities at the airport include bureaux de change, tourist information desk, Internet centre, gift shop, cafe hotel reservation desk, post office, and duty-free shops.
Transport to the city: You can book a fixed price taxi at the Airport Queue Taxi Service desk. Buses run from just outside the airport to central Kathmandu, Ratna Park and the Old Bus Park but it is advisable to take a taxi because these buses can be crowded and the routes confusing.
By Road: Nepal is connected by road to India and Tibet. You cannot self-drive in Nepal. However you can hire taxis for long distances.
Kathmandu is a small city and the best way to get around and soak up the local flavors is by walking or cycling. If you get tired, affordable taxis are readily available.