When visiting Nepal, capital city Kathmandu is where you'll most likely end up first. Don't make it a fleeting stop on your itinerary though. 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.
Marvel Over Historic Durbar Square
Kathmandu's ancient old city is set around the Durbar Square at Basantapur, south of Thamel, where the royal family lived 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.
Poor upkeep, ongoing restoration works, and the high price of tickets (1,000 rupees per person for foreigners) have discouraged many tourists from entering the Durbar Square.
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. Numerous companies offer private tours, such as this Patan and Bhaktapur Day Trip from Breakfree Adventures.
Walk Through the Old City
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!
At Makhan Tole, on the northeastern corner of Durbar Square, head along Siddhidas Marg to the teeming market square of Indra Chowk, where five roads converge. Continue straight along Siddhidas Marg to Kel Tole, which has one of Kathmandu's most ornate temples – the Seto Machhendranath Temple.
Further along Siddhidas Marg, you'll reach Ason Tole, the busiest junction in Kathmandu. A mesmerizing mass of people ply this route from morning to night, and produce from all over the Kathmandu Valley is sold there. It’s worth spending some time just absorbing it all. There’s also a magnificent three story temple dedicated to Annapurna, the goddess of abundance, which draws the pious.
Turn left onto Chittadhar Marg and walk for about 5 minutes, turn right onto Chandraman Singh Marg, and continue until you reach Thahiti Tole. It’s home to a 15th century Buddhist stupa and the Nateshwar temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. Dominating a secluded courtyard on the way is Kathesimbhu Stupa, a 17th century copy of the great Swayambhunath Stupa located just outside Kathmandu.
North of Thahiti Tole is Thamel Chowk, in the center of Kathmandu's tourist hub.
Shop and Hang Out in Thamel
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.
Need some assistance? Backstreet Academy offers this popular Kathmandu shopping tour.
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.
Explore the Backstreets of Kathmandu
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.
Love Kathmandu was founded in 2014 to enable visitors to see beyond the usual tourist attractions and delve into Nepal's culture. All the profits are donated to grassroots charity projects that help support the community.
Try the Local Cuisine
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!
Roots Eatery is open daily except Sundays, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Its address is 23 Nabahi Chowk, just off Freak Street near Eden Hotel, Ombahal.
Dodge Monkeys at Swayambhunath
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.
Fortunately, most of the Swayambhunath temple complex survived the 2015 earthquake. It was founded in the beginning of the 5th century and is the oldest of its kind in Nepal.
If you're interested in gaining insight into the religious aspect of the temple and its significance in society, take this Swayambhunath tour led by a resident monk. You'll be able to participate in ceremonies and chanting sessions.
The temple entrance fee is 200 rupees for foreigners.
Get a Blessing at Pashupatinath
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.
Visit Villages in Kathmandu Valley
Leave Kathmandu's traffic and urban sprawl behind, and step back in time in the Kathmandu Valley where villages have retained a traditional way of living, untouched by modern development.
Two of the most popular villages to visit are Bungmati and Khokana, located to the south of Kathmandu, not far from Patan. These two village were unfortunately hit hard by the 2015 earthquake and are in need of tourism more than ever now.
Bungmati village dates back to the 6th century, and revered rain god Rato Mahhendranath is believed to have been born there. Unfortunately, his temple was destroyed by the earthquake and his idol is now kept at Patan. Many of the villagers are engaged in wood carving and sculpture, and you can drop by their workshops. Khokana is a fertile farming village, where mustard oil is harvested and locals spend most of their days engaged in agriculture.
Breakfree Adventures offers a private Bungmati and Khokana Village Day Tour from Kathmandu.
Take a Class or Workshop
Enjoyed eating Nepali cuisine and want to learn how to prepare it? Or, perhaps you've been enamored by the intricate Buddhist thangka paintings and want to make one?
SocialTours' Cook Like a Local Tour is highly recommended for anyone interested in an experiential cooking experience. It's the company's signature tour and is renowned as a must-do in Kathmandu. You'll be taken to a market to source fresh ingredients and become familiar with the spices, before being shown how to make momos, daal bhat, and aloo paratha.
Nepal Cooking School in Thamel provides sought-after cooking classes as well. Profits are used to fund social programs that empower women and girls in a remote village.