Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country (81 percent) with a strong and visible Buddhist minority (9 percent), meaning it contains an attractive mix of religious sites. As Hinduism and Buddhism share common roots and histories, many sacred sites are actually important to both faiths. These sites aren't restricted to built structures: Natural features like mountains and lakes are also often considered sacred in Nepal. Wherever you go in this small, landlocked South Asian country, you will certainly see evidence of the Nepali people's deep and ancient culture and religious systems. Here are some of the most beautiful sacred sites in Nepal.
Boudhanath Stupa is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet, and certainly one of the most beautiful sites in Kathmandu. The enormous whitewashed dome is topped with an ornate gold-plated pinnacle, painted with the wise eyes of Buddha, and strung with thousands of colorful prayer flags. The present structure is believed to date from the 14th century (although it was significantly restored after the 2015 earthquake), although holy structures have probably existed here for much longer.
Pashupatinath Temple, on the banks of Kathmandu's Bagmati River, is the holiest Hindu temple in Nepal. Many Indian, as well as local Nepali pilgrims, visit. Devout Hindus come here to die and be cremated on the banks of the holy river (which is, unfortunately, very highly polluted). It's not known exactly how old this Shiva temple is, but some of it dates from the 4th century B.C.E., and different buildings reflect different architectural styles. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple buildings, but all visitors are allowed inside the grounds. Pashupatinath is especially crowded during the annual Shivaratri festival, when sadhus (Hindu holy men) converge on the temple.
While the white dome and golden pinnacle of Swayambhunath Stupa look a bit like those of Boudhanath, this Buddhist site on top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu has quite a different feel. Swayambhu is smaller, but surrounded by lots of other interesting structures, as well as hundreds of monkeys (hence its nickname, the Monkey Temple). The holy complex has been in use since the 5th century, and is definitely one of Kathmandu's must-visit sites.
Located a couple of hours' drive east of Kathmandu, the small village of Namo Buddha houses Nepal's second-most holy Tibetan Buddhist site. The Namo Buddha stupa is small compared to Boudhanath or Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, but marks the spot where the Buddha is believed to have sacrificed himself to a hungry tiger during one of his incarnations. On a clear day, the Himalayan views from Namo Buddha are sweeping, and the newer Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery is also worth checking out.
The Budhanilkantha Temple on the northern edge of Kathmandu is a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu with a rare kind of statue. Vishnu is portrayed reclining in a pond, surrounded by (stone) serpents, and draped in bright orange marigold garlands. Its name actually has nothing to do with Buddha, as many English speakers assume: "Budha" refers to the Nepali word for old man, and "nil" means the color blue. Together, the name translates as "Old Blue Throat." Pro tip: Budhanilkantha Temple is a good place to visit on the way to the Shivapuri National Park.
Located high on a hill in Gorkha District, the Manakamana Temple can be reached via a challenging uphill trek from the Trishuli River, or a scenic cable car ride from Kurintar (on the highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara). The pagoda-style temple was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake, but has since been repaired. On a clear day, there are good views of the Himalayas as Gorkha district is home to some of Nepal's highest mountains.
Trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit pass the Muktinath Temple, located beneath the high-altitude Thorong La Pass, in remote Lower Mustang. Whether you get there via trekking or Jeep from the village of Kagbeni below, reaching the Muktinath Temple is quite an adventure. As it's more than 12,000 feet in altitude, the mountain views are unparalleled. Many Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims make the trip to this holy site. Followers of both religions believe it to be a place where liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth can be found.
Lumbini Peace Park
This small town on the Western Terai (the plains bordering India) is where Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in 623 B.C.E. The site of the Buddha's birth was "lost" for many centuries, but the archaeological evidence here is overwhelming. Unsurprisingly, Lumbini is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world, along with sites just across the border in Northern India such as Sarnath and Bodhgaya.
The third highest mountain in the world sits on Nepal's eastern border with India. Like many other peaks in Nepal, it is considered sacred by the mainly Buddhist locals, who consider it to be a protector god. The 28,169-foot mountain can be climbed, but most travelers prefer to get a glimpse from an easier vantage point. Many short treks in eastern Nepal offer views of the mountain, especially those in the Ilam area, where tea is grown.
Lake Gosainkunda sits in the Langtang National Park directly north of Kathmandu. The 14,370-foot-high lake is surrounded by beautiful mountains and frozen for about half the year. Hindu mythology states that the gods Shiva and Gauri lived here, and thousands of pilgrims flock here during the Gangadashahara and the Janai Purnima festivals. In addition to pilgrims, some travelers make their way here while hiking the easier Langtang Valley trek.
Called Sagarmatha in the Nepali language and Chomolungma/Qomolongma in Sherpa/Tibetan, Mt. Everest is sacred to the local Sherpa people who came over the mountains from Tibet several centuries ago. While the ethics of climbing the Mother Goddess are questionable (and the trek to Everest Base Camp is one of the more crowded in Nepal), the mountain can be seen from various other spots throughout the Himalayas, especially in eastern Nepal. On a very clear day, it can even be glimpsed from Kathmandu if you know what you're looking for.
At the foot of the Annapurna massif in western Nepal, the Annapurna Sanctuary is a conservation area around the mountain's glacial basin that is also spiritually important. Because Lord Shiva, one of the most important Hindu gods, is believed to live in these mountains, the sanctuary is a sacred place to Hindus.
Plus, the local Gurung people, who are mostly Buddhists, worship these mountains for all they provide them with. Until recently, eggs, meat, women, and people belonging to the "untouchable" caste were banned from entering the sanctuary. While women and members of all castes can now enter, it's still a good idea to respect local beliefs and keep eggs and meat out.
Janaki Mandir, Janakpur
The city of Janakpur, on the eastern Terai, is believed to be the birthplace of Hindu goddess Sita, Lord Ram's wife, who is also referred to as Janaki. It's been a holy site for many centuries, but the gorgeous Hindu-Koiri-style temple that is the town's centerpiece dates from 1910. It looks like the kind of building you'd see in India's Rajasthan state, and is very unusual in Nepal.
Another of Nepal's sacred mountains, Macchapuchhare (aka Fishtail) cannot be climbed. In fact, at 22,943 feet, it's the highest peak never to have been climbed (officially). You don't need to climb it to enjoy it, though: The pointed peak looms behind the lakeside city of Pokhara, and can be seen from many treks in the Annapurna Himalaya.
Kailash Sacred Landscape
Although holy Mt. Kailash and Lake Mansarovar sit in southwestern Tibet, parts of the 19,200-square-foot Kailash Sacred Landscape fall in far-western Nepal. The whole area is culturally and biophysically significant and dotted with snowy peaks, high-altitude lakes, and religious sites. It's where the waters of four major South Asian rivers originate: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali. The area is holy to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and followers of the Tibetan Bon religion.