Header image courtesy of Ben Pauer (via Unsplash)
Stepping off the plane at Tribhuvan International Airport (त्रिभुवन अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय विमानस्थल) is a sensory overload from the get-go—a riot of sights, smells, and colours, Kathmandu (काठमाडौँ) is alluring in every sense of the word. Whether you’re navigating cobbled streets by foot, purposefully getting lost in the splendour of medieval relics, or simply pit-stopping for an ice-cold Everest beer, there is never a lack of sights to explore and things to do in Nepal’s capital city. Simply spend your days wandering at will or book in for one of these must-do day trips to start chipping away at the surface of what Kathmandu has to offer.
Nepal has golden stupas galore, but Swayambhunath (स्वयंभूनाथ स्तूप) is said to be the oldest stupa in Nepal and thought to bring faith and harmony for centuries with both Hindu temples and deities embraced throughout this Buddhist site. Upon arrival, pay a small entrance fee of रू200 (around HK$13) and begin your ascent up the 365 steep stone steps that lead to the 2,000-year-old shrine. Take in sweeping views of Kathmandu Valley as you follow the path of prayer flags in this ancient pilgrimage all the way to the top of the hill and start to make your way around ornate architecture, believed to date back to 460 A.D.
Tip: If you’re unable to climb the stairs, you can drive up the road and park beside another entrance which is only a short climb to the top.
Known as Monkey Temple for one obvious reason—the abundance of monkeys perched atop golden stupas and expertly navigating electrical wiring—these believed-to-be spiritual animals are everywhere you turn. Like with any wild animal, treat them with respect and be careful of your bags and food that you may have to hand, but be sure to get out your camera for beautiful shots of babies clinging to their mothers and cheeky adolescents swinging from shrine to shrine.
Not sure where to begin? Try to pinpoint these important monuments:
Tip: Swayambhunath is always busy, but the largest crowds of people gather on Buddha’s birthday in May each year. If you’re hoping to spend your time really taking in the sights, plan your visit around this religious holiday.
The earthquake in 2015 devastated many of the thousands-of-years-old structures in the squares. However, over the past few years, restoration is now underway and there are countless reasons as to why you should put the historical heart of the capital city on your “to-see” list. To enter Bhaktapur (भक्तपुर) and Durbar Square (दरबार क्षेत्र), there is a रू1,500 ($98) entrance fee, which is used to maintain the temples but once paid, you are granted hours of endless exploring and photo opportunities.
There are many guides offering tours of the square but if you prefer to peruse at your own pace, a pocket travel guide will more than help to navigate you through the winding streets and importance of each temple. Stop for momos (मम; traditional Nepalese dumplings) or a quick Dal Bhat (दालभात; curried lentils and rice) at a rooftop restaurant for the best panoramic views and to plan your next move. Just outside of Bhaktapur is Changu Narayan Temple (चाँगुनारायण मन्दिर), World Heritage site and the oldest temple in Nepal. Dating as far back as 464 A.D, take a quick detour and soak up the rich stone carvings and oldest epigraphs in Nepalese history.
Tip: Duck down one of the alleys and catch locals weaving cloth and throwing pottery—for a small fee, they will happily let you have a go at shaping the clay.
Pashupatinath Temple is one of seven UNESCO sites in Kathmandu and one of the four most important religious sites in Asia for devotees to Shiva (शिव). The sacred site is also the last resting place for people of Nepal, with daily religious rituals and cremations held by the river—a truly eye-opening and sobering experience. Only Hindus are allowed through the gates of the main temple, but you may watch from the hillside across the river.
Situated just a short 5-kilometre drive away from Kathmandu Valley lies the sleepy, ancient city of Kirtipur (कीर्तिपूर). Perched upon a rocky hill, Kirtipur is the perfect day trip from Kathmandu for those looking to explore further afield but be back in time for sundowners in Thamel (ठमेल). Thick in Newari culture, temples are strewn across the hillside and breath-taking views of the valley can be marvelled from all directions. Booking a driver will give you flexibility and take the stress out of navigating your way out of the city—a quick Google search or trip to one of the many tourist centres in Kathmandu will easily help you plan your trip to Kirtipur.
Kathmandu offers so much more than awe-inspiring temples and religious relics, but if you’re wanting to let the dust settle (literally) and get out into the lush valley, book in a mountain biking trip down wooded slopes, weaving through small villages and hidden temples to take in incredible views of the Himalaya, all the way from Makalu to the Annapurnas. Nepal Mountain Bike Tours can create bespoke itineraries from one-day trips to Basantapur, Bhaktapur, and Patan to week-long epic adventures—a timeless experience that you’ll remember well beyond that epic Instagram story.
Note: All pricing and currency conversions were accurate and recommended businesses are still operating at the time of writing.