Best known for its enormous mountains, the small, landlocked country of Nepal is home to a wealth of cultural, historic, and natural attractions. From the hot, flat, jungle-filled plains (Terai) bordering India, to the hill country where most significant towns are located, to the high snow-capped Himalaya, Nepal is incredibly diverse. Here are 15 destinations every traveler should have on their itinerary.
Patan Durbar Square
These days, Kathmandu is a sprawling capital city in a valley surrounded by mountains, but it was once comprised of separate kingdoms. Patan (also called Lalitpur) was one such kingdom. The predominantly ethnic Newar town still retains a distinct culture that's different from that of Kathmandu proper. The Durbar Square (palace square) contains some of the most beautiful and well-preserved medieval Nepali architecture in the country. Exhibits on Nepali architecture and religious art are on display in the Patan Museum, in the old palace building, and the lanes around the square are full of handicraft stores, small temples, and traditional townhouses.
Bhaktapur, east of central Kathmandu, is another of the Kathmandu Valley's old kingdom and is also inhabited by Newari people. Although Bhaktapur suffered significant damage in the 2015 earthquake, many of the most significant old buildings survived, including the multi-tiered Nayatapola pagoda temple. There's an art museum in the Bhaktapur Durbar Square and local potters dry their work out in the lanes and squares nearby.
Boudha Stupa is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet, the most sacred in Nepal, and a must-see destination in Kathmandu. The whole area of Boudhanath is the center of Nepal's Tibetan refugee community, and there are many monasteries and Tibetan craft shops in the lanes surrounding the stupa. The enormous whitewashed dome of the stupa is topped with an ornate gold-plated pinnacle, painted with the wise eyes of Buddha on all four sides, and is perpetually strung with thousands of colorful prayer flags. The present structure was likely built in the 14th century, but the site has been holy for a lot longer.
Although smaller than Boudha Stupa, hilltop Swayambhunath Stupa is equally beautiful and fascinating, and has a different character, despite its similar white dome and golden pinnacle. The Swayambhunath Stupa is holy to Kathmandu's Newari people, as well as to Tibetans. Swayambhunath is nicknamed the Monkey Temple because of all the monkeys that live around it, and you're certain to encounter them when you visit. The stupa can be reached via a road around the back or steep steps at the front, and there are great views of Kathmandu city.
About two hours east of Kathmandu, just outside the valley, little Namo Buddha is Nepal's second most holy Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage site. The Namo Buddha stupa marks the spot where the Buddha is believed to have sacrificed himself to a hungry tigress, during an earlier incarnation. It's much smaller than the stupas at Boudhanath or Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, but busloads of pilgrims still visit every day. The newer, larger, Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery isn't far from the stupa. When the weather is clear, especially in winter, the Himalayan views from Namo Buddha are incredible.
Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park is Nepal's most popular and easily accessible jungle safari destination from both Kathmandu and Pokhara. A variety of animals can be spotted on Jeep, buffalo cart, or walking safari, including elephants, endangered gharial crocodiles, deer, birds, and especially one-horned rhinoceros—the highlight of any trip to Chitwan. It's also possible to see the Royal Bengal Tiger, but it's elusive.
Nepal's second city is number one in the hearts of many travelers, as it's much calmer than the capital, Kathmandu. Pokhara is located in central-western Nepal, about 120 miles west of Kathmandu, and just south of the mighty Annapurna range of the Himalayan mountains. When the weather is clear (and it often is in winter), the enormous pointed peak of Mount Machhapuchhare looms behind the city, which is set around pretty Lake Phewa. Boating on the lake and paragliding can be enjoyed in Pokhara itself, and the city is a starting point for many long-distance treks, including the Annapurna Circuit.
The Sherpa people of Eastern Nepal are famous as excellent mountain climbers, and many of them live in the small town of Namche Bazaar, a necessary stop on the Everest Base Camp Trek. While tourism dominates Namche these days it is still an excellent place to learn more about the ethnically Tibetan Sherpa people, with several museums, monasteries, and townhouses to visit. There are also spectacular mountain views as Namche is located on a horseshoe-shaped hillside. Namche can only be reached on foot, as there's no road access. It's a two-day walk from Lukla, which is a half-hour flight from Kathmandu.
Just off the highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, a little closer to Pokhara, is the hilltop Newari town of Bandipur. Although most ethnically Newari towns are situated within the Kathmandu Valley, Bandipur is a rare Newari town that's further afield. Bandipur's history as a town on the main trade route between India and Tibet is evident in its brick townhouses and paved main street. When the weather's clear, there are great views of the Himalayas to the north. Bandipur is an ideal place to break the journey between Kathmandu and Pokhara for a night or two, and there are some short walks in the area.
Langtang National Park
One of the worst-affected areas in the 2015 earthquake, the beautiful Langtang National Park has rebounded and is now a popular trekking destination. The treks here are among the most easily accessible from the capital, at just a half-day's drive away. The five-day Langtang Valley trek follows the Langtang River and rewards trekkers with dramatic views of Langtang Lirung at 23,710 feet. Other treks in the area include the Tamang Heritage Trail and the Gosainkunda Lakes trek. Most start at, or near, the village of Syabrubesi.
Janakpur's Janaki Mandir
Rather different from architectural and religious sites elsewhere in Nepal, Janakpur's Janaki Mandir Temple (near the southeastern border with India's Bihar state) makes for a worthwhile detour. The city of Jankpur is believed to have been the birthplace of Sita—Hindu Lord Ram's wife, who is also called Janaki. The site of the current Janaki Mandir has been considered holy for centuries, though the temple is not as old as it looks, having been built in 1910. The design, known as the Hindu-Koiri style, looks more Rajasthani than typically Nepali.
The small city of Gorkha in central Nepal is a historically significant place, as it is where the present-day Nepali language originated and is the birthplace of the Shah dynasty—the kings who ruled Nepal for centuries. Before shifting their capital to Kathmandu to the east, the Shahs ruled from their hilltop palace in Gorkha. Much less visited than the palaces in Kathmandu, the Gorkha Durbar is of a similar brick design, with carved lattice windows and pagoda roofs. Gorkha is a worthwhile detour from the main road between Kathmandu and Pokhara (about an hour's drive from the highway turnoff at Abu Khaireni). There are great views of the high Himalaya of Gorkha District from Gorkha town.
Lumbini is a small town on the western plains bordering India that would be rather nondescript if not for the fact that it was the birthplace of one of the most significant figures in history: Prince Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha. He was born in 623 B.C. at what is now the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lumbini is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world, and is often visited alongside Buddhist sites in North India, such as Sarnath and Bodhgaya. The Peace Park and the many temples constructed by Buddhist organizations and governments from around the world are interesting to non-Buddhists, too.
While tea drinkers tend to know the name Darjeeling, over the border in India, the far-eastern Nepali district of Ilam produces equally fine tea. The tea fields on the hills are a picturesque site, and travelers to Ilam can visit tea plantations and factories, as well as birdwatch and hike. Ilam is also a good jumping-off point for trekking to Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, on the north-eastern border between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim.
The last outpost of Lower Mustang before reaching the restricted Upper Mustang (which you need a special permit to visit), Kagbeni is an ancient village with a distinctly Tibetan Buddhist culture. Getting there is a bit of a challenge and requires a flight from Pokhara to Jomsom, and then a short drive through the Kali Gandaki Valley, or trekking over the Thorung La Pass on the Annapurna Circuit. With an old monastery, family-run guesthouses, incredible views of the barren rocky mountains on this northern side of the Himalaya and the Kali Gandaki Valley, and abandoned meditation caves set into the cliffs a short hike away, Kagbeni is a fascinating place to spend a couple of days.