Despite looking quite small on a map, Nepal is a big country in practical terms because mountains, valleys, poor-quality roads, and limited domestic flights make getting around a challenge. To get to the most remote and far-flung corners of the Himalaya, you'll need several weeks, if not months, in Nepal. But if you don't have that long, don't worry. You can still see and experience some of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Nepal on a quick, week-long trip. The trick is to not over-fill your itinerary, as traffic jams and flight delays are inevitable in Nepal.
Starting in the capital, Kathmandu, where almost all travelers arrive, this week-long itinerary takes you west to beautiful Pokhara. The two cities couldn't be much more different, but both are representative of different parts of traditional and contemporary Nepal.
Day 1: Patan
While many travelers stay in the Thamel district of central Kathmandu because there are many hotels and tour offices here, a great alternative is Patan. South of the Bagmati River that runs through the Kathmandu Valley, Patan (also called Lalitpur) was once a separate kingdom, with its own royal family, palace, and culture. Nowadays it's part of Kathmandu's urban sprawl, but it still has a distinct feel, and is less frenetic and congested than central Kathmandu. It's just as easy to reach after arriving at Tribhuvan International Airport as Thamel, about a half-hour taxi drive away (traffic dependent).
Patan is home to the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, ethnic Newars, who speak the Tibetan-derived Newari language, and whose crafts and architectural style dominate many traditional parts of Kathmandu. In fact, what many people think of as traditional Nepali architecture is actually Newari. The Patan Durbar Square is an excellent place to see living, working examples of Newari culture at the palaces, temples, and townhouses (some converted into guesthouses) that fill Patan's old town area. The Patan Museum, in the old palace building, offers a stylish and comprehensive introduction to Kathmandu's arts and architecture.
There are many charming accommodation options around Patan, largely in renovated townhouses a short walk from the Durbar Square. There are also good restaurants around here, but no nightlife to speak of.
Day 2: Panauti to Namo Buddha Hike
On day two, head out into the hills surrounding Kathmandu, just beyond the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley, for some hiking. While it's not possible to get deep into the high Himalaya on a week-long itinerary, you can enjoy some moderately challenging hikes in the mid-hills. When the weather is clear (most likely between November and January) you can enjoy sweeping Himalayan views.
A day hike between Panauti and Namo Buddha is a good option, as it includes culture, nature, views, and good accommodation at either end (or, you can arrange for private transfers to drop you off and pick you up either end). Panauti is an old Newari town about 20 miles southeast of Kathmandu. It sits on the confluence of the Roshi and Punyamati Rivers, and has some fine traditional architecture. There are small locally run guesthouses here, or a network of homestays.
From Panauti, the mostly uphill hike to Namo Buddha, 7 miles away, takes you through villages, farm land, and forested areas. Namo Buddha is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist sites in Nepal, though the stupa there is much smaller and less dramatic than Boudhanath or Swayambhunath in Kathmandu. You can either stay at the Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery guesthouse, the lovely Namo Buddha Resort (famous for its organic vegetarian food), return to Kathmandu/ Patan for the night, or travel onwards to Bhaktapur, your day-three destination.
Day 3: Bhaktapur
In the eastern part of the Kathmandu Valley, 10 miles from the central city, Bhaktapur is another once-separate kingdom exhibiting some of the finest examples of Newari arts, crafts, and architecture in Nepal. The highlights here revolve around the Bhaktapur Durbar Square and the multi-tiered Nayatapola Temple. Look out especially for the intricately carved Peacock Window at Pujari Math, and Potters' Square, where potters lay out their earthen pots to dry in the sun before firing. Bhaktapur town suffered a lot of damage during the 2015 earthquake, but the larger temples, fortunately, were mostly spared.
Like Patan, there are small, quiet guesthouses in Bhaktapur that offer a good alternative to staying in busy central Kathmandu. Staying overnight in Bhaktapur will save you from sitting in traffic getting back to the central city. When eating in Bhaktapur, look out for a thick, creamy, sweet yogurt called juju dhau, served in a clay pot. Bhaktapur is famous for it.
Day 4: Fly to Pokhara
Get an early flight this morning to travel west to Pokhara. Early morning flights are best because the flight conditions are usually better at this time, and also because you'll avoid the inevitable delays that arise later in the day from late flights having a knock-on effect. Flights take just half an hour to travel the 125 miles between Kathmandu and Pokhara, which takes 6 to 9 hours by road. Ask for a seat on the right-hand side of the plane, if possible, because if the weather is clear, you'll be treated to incredible views of the entire Himalayan chain through central Nepal.
Pokhara is Nepal's second city but it couldn't be much more different from capital Kathmandu. Set beside Lake Phewa and just a stone's throw from the Annapurna Himalaya, many travelers prefer Pokhara for its laidback atmosphere, cleaner streets and air, comparative lack of traffic, adventure sports, and proximity to the mountains.
There are many accommodation options in Pokhara, from low-key guesthouses to fancy resorts with corresponding price tags. Whatever you opt for, try to get a room higher up the building, so you can get unobstructed views of the lake and Mt. Machhapucchare (Fishtail), visible when the weather is clear. There are many places to eat and drink in Pokhara's Lakeside district, including Nepali, Newari, Tibetan, and various types of international cuisine.
After arriving, take it easy in Pokhara and walk along the lakeside, or shop for Nepali handicrafts. The Women's Skills Development Organisation is based in Pokhara and has several shops and outlets in town that sell beautiful, practical, and sturdy hand-woven items made by local women. Shopping there is an ethical way to get your Nepal souvenirs.
Many Lakeside restaurants and bars offer happy hour deals in the early evening, a perfect time to sit down with a drink and watch the sun set over the lake.
Day 5: Active Adventures in Pokhara
Whatever kind of activities you're into, you're likely to find something to suit your interests and abilities in Pokhara.
The less physically active can enjoy gentle strolls along the shore of Lake Phewa, which is paved much of the way, and a gentle boat ride on the lake. Pokhara's International Mountain Museum tells the stories of the people who have lived in, and climbed, these mountains for centuries.
For the more active, Sarangkot Hill behind Lake Phewa is one of the best places in the world to try paragliding. Beginner kayakers can take paddling lessons on the lake. Whitewater rafting trips to nearby rivers depart from Pokhara and are suitable for beginners and families, as well as more experienced rafters. Day hiking trails in the hills around Pokhara offer great views of the Annapurna, even if you don't have time for the full Annapurna Circuit. HighGround Adventures' ZipFlyer is one of the longest and steepest ziplines in the world, at 1.1 miles long, with a vertical drop of 1968 feet, and the company also offers bungee jumping.
Day 6: Bandipur
Leave Pokhara today and travel along the Prithvi Highway back towards Kathmandu, either by private transfer or tourist bus. But don't go all the way to Kathmandu today. Stop a couple of hours' drive from Pokhara and take the detour up a steep hill to Bandipur.
As you will have seen in the Kathmandu Valley, the ethnic Newari influence around the capital is strong. But, Bandipur is a rare Newari town that's far from the valley. Once on the main trade route between India and Tibet, Bandipur's former wealth can be see in its elegant brick town houses and paved main street. A couple of lovely guesthouses can be found in renovated mansions. When the weather's clear, there are great views of the Himalaya to the north, too.
Bandipur is a good place to break the journey between Pokhara and Kathmandu, and you can do nothing but admire the views, or take some short walks around the steep hillside on which the town is set.
Day 7: Kathmandu
Return to Kathmandu from Bandipur in the morning, and spend your last day in Nepal exploring some of the capital's sights that you haven't already. Basing yourself in or around Thamel is convenient for checking out nearby attractions like the Kathmandu Durbar Square and Swayambhunath Temple. If you visit the Kathmandu Durbar Square (also called Basantapur Durbar Square) you can see how it's similar to, but also different from, the royal complexes at Patan and Bhaktapur. Hilltop Swayambhunath is also highly worth visiting, both for the dramatic golden-spired stupa itself, but also for the sweeping views across Kathmandu.
Alternatively, if you have an international flight the next day and want to be closer to the airport, you can fit in a visit to Pashupatinath Temple and Boudhanath Stupa. By staying close to either of these major attractions, you'll be in the right part of town to easily get to the airport the next day. Pashupatinath is the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal, and a major pilgrimage site for Nepalis as well as Indian Hindus. Set on the banks of the Bagmati River, Hindus believe it's auspicious to die and be cremated here (much like Varanasi in India), so you'll see cremations happening all the time. Non-Hindus can't enter the temples at Pashupatinath, but they're allowed within the grounds.
Boudhanath is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet itself. The area around the enormous white dome of Boudhanath Stupa is Kathmandu's Tibetan enclave, where many refugees live. The stupa is an especially atmospheric place to visit at dawn and dusk, when devotees do a kora of the stupa, a clockwise circumambulation, spinning prayer wheels and reciting mantras. It gets busy, but just go with the flow and don't walk against the tide of humanity.