Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is a culturally and historically dense city. It combines ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, local Newari architecture, and gorgeous mountain views (on a clear day) with modern urban sprawl, gridlocked traffic, and, unfortunately, some of the worst pollution in Asia.
Kathmandu’s a place that travelers either love or hate, with most coming down on the love side, after scratching beneath the surface. While many visitors to Nepal come for the mountains and hang around in Kathmandu just long enough to make plans for trekking, rafting, or jungle sightseeing, there’s a lot to explore in Kathmandu itself. Temples, stupas, monasteries, boutique accommodation at great prices, diverse Himalayan food, handicraft shopping, and green farmland, and hiking trails on the city’s edge, here are some of the best experiences you can have in Kathmandu.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit: March through May and October through November are peak tourist seasons in Nepal. The winter is also pleasant because although it’s a bit cold, the mountain views can be good. Avoid the monsoon months of May to mid-September.
Language: Nepali and Newari
Currency: Nepali rupees
Getting Around: Taxis or local buses
Know Before You Go: Kathmandu is very polluted and dusty. It’s essential to bring (or buy soon after arrival) a face mask to filter out the worst of it.
Things to Do
The Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, and monasteries, and medieval royal squares (Durbar Squares) should be the priority for sightseeing in Kathmandu. Modern-day Kathmandu is comprised of (at least) three ancient kingdoms: Kathmandu, Patan (also called Lalitpur), and Bhaktapur. While urban development connects them all now and they’re all considered part of broader Kathmandu city, they each have different histories and traditions.
- Kathmandu Durbar Square (also called Basantapur Durbar Square) is the center of old Kathmandu, with the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex, the center of old royal Kathmandu (Nepal became a republic in 2008).
- Old Patan, south of central Kathmandu, contains the well-preserved Patan Durbar Square and the excellent Patan Museum, as well as other unmissable temples like the Golden Temple (Hiranya Varna Mahabihar) and the Banglamukhi Temple.
- Bhaktapur has been called a living museum, because of the rich craft traditions that can be seen on display here. Although the Durbar Square was severely damaged in the earthquake of 2015, the spectacular, five-story Nayatapola Temple was unharmed.
- Boudhanath is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist stupa outside of Tibet and a significant pilgrimage site. The Boudha area is Kathmandu's Tibetan hub.
- Swayambhunath Temple, atop a hill just west of central Kathmandu, is colloquially known as the monkey temple (you'll find out why!) Climb the steps for a sweeping view of the city.
Where to Eat and Drink
Most Nepalis will tell you that their favorite food—in fact, the food that they eat multiple times a day—is dal bhat. Although this translates to lentil curry and rice, a full dal bhat meal is much more than this, with various vegetable and meat curries, a side salad, pickles, and papad. There are many places around Kathmandu to get a good dal bhat meal, from simple places frequented by locals to the more upmarket restaurants.
Other de facto Nepali favorites are momos (steamed or fried dumplings) and thukpa (noodle soup). While these dishes are Tibetan, Kathmandu is not only home to many Tibetans, it also has several Nepali ethnic groups who originated in Tibet centuries ago. So, Tibetan foods are a well-loved staple of Nepali cuisine, although most Nepalis will eat them as a snack rather than a main meal.
Newari cuisine is unique to Kathmandu. The ethnic Newars are the ‘original’ inhabitants of Kathmandu, and they retain a distinct culture, language, and cuisine that is different from ‘mainstream’ Nepali. Newari cuisine tends to be very spicy, and uses a lot of meat and dried, beaten rice. Patan and Bhaktapur are good places to find authentic Newari cuisine
Where to Stay
Kathmandu’s main tourist hub is Thamel, in the central city. There’s a massive range of accommodation options here, from ultra-budget to boutique and more high-end. It’s a convenient place to stay as there are many shops, restaurants, and tour companies in the area, but it can also get a bit noisy. If you want a quieter or less intensely touristy experience, Patan offers some charming boutique guesthouses in renovated Newari townhouses, Boudha is close to the Tibetan action, and Budhanilkanatha is further from the city but on the edge of the Shivapuri National Park.
Almost all visitors to Kathmandu will arrive by air to the Tribhuvan International Airport, which is Nepal’s only major international airport at present. Tribhuvan is a bit of a mess, with long waits to get a visa and to claim baggage, and few eating or shopping facilities. It’s just a hurdle that travelers have to grin and bear.
Some travelers get to Kathmandu by coming overland from India, especially on long-distance buses from Delhi. But, this is a long and uncomfortable option, and only really advisable as a last resort.
Culture and Customs
Arriving in Kathmandu can be a bit daunting for travelers who were imagining a bucolic Himalayan paradise. Kathmandu is busy and dirty, but it’s also pretty safe, with a relatively low crime rate and very little crime directed at travelers, so there’s no need to be alarmed. If you take reasonable precautions such as not walking around alone after dark in quiet areas, and taking care of your belongings, there’s no need to feel unsafe in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is a primarily Hindu city, with a sizeable Buddhist minority. Most Nepalis will dress quite conservatively, especially older people. You’ll likely see younger men wearing shorts, and younger women wearing tight jeans, knee-length skirts, and sleeveless tops. But, it’s better to err on the side of modesty, especially when visiting religious sites. Wearing long pants and short-sleeve tops that cover the chest (women) is practical in Kathmandu’s generally hot climate, and culturally respectful.
Tipping is appreciated at restaurants but not always necessary. A service charge is added to bills, but you can never know how much of this is going to the server, so rounding up the bill is a good idea. If hiring a guide, it’s customary to tip him (he’ll almost always be a man!) around 10 percent of the cost of the tour. Give this directly to him, not to the tour operator, so you can be sure he receives it.
Non-Hindus are generally welcome at most Hindu sites, with some exceptions. Non-Hindus (which in practice means anyone who doesn’t look South Asian) aren’t allowed in the inner areas of the holy Pashupatinath Temple, or inside the Krishna Mandir at Patan Durbar Square. It should also go without saying, but when visiting Pashupatinath, where cremations are continuously held, respect the privacy of mourners. Photographing funerals and funeral pyres is ethically dubious, so think twice about whether you need that photo.