Destination Information Series
Things to Do in Kathmandu, Nepal
By Sara Tiffany
I will never forget the car ride from the Tribhuvan Airport to my hotel after arriving for the first time in Kathmandu. I found myself staring out the window wide-eyed and amazed, wondering if the colors, sights, sounds and smells were actually that vivid or if I was just experiencing symptoms of complete exhaustion. I woke up early the next morning rested and clear-headed thinking that the city would not put me into sensory overload as it had the day before, but it did; Kathmandu is colorful and lively, and there is more going on in every 10 square meters than there is in 10 square blocks of the typical North American city. There is so much to observe and so much to do that I happily could have spent weeks exploring the city without becoming bored.
That said, if you are planning a trip to Nepal, you should definitely consider spending an extra couple of days in Kathmandu. There is quite literally something for everyone whether you prefer to explore the city’s many historic and cultural sites or you just want to shop, eat and relax.
Any Berg Adventures trip to Nepal that follows the standard itineraries will take you to these three major religious sites: The Monkey Temple, Pashupatinath and Boudanath. These three places should certainly be on your list of things to do in Kathmandu!
The Monkey Temple, also known as Swayambhunath, sits atop a high hill on the western side of the city. While it is traditionally a Buddhist pilgrimage site, it is filled with Hindu influences too. The mingling of Buddhist and Hindu traditions seen at Swayambhunath is typical throughout the city of Kathmandu where the two religions have lived side by side for centuries. The temple is also a great place to buy souvenirs and a great place to get photos of the vast Kathmandu Valley. Keep your eyes open for the monkeys who live on the site.
Pashupatinath is a very important Hindu site and is one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva. Every February or March, thousands of people flock to the temple to give offerings to Shiva for the Maha Shivaratri festival. It is home to a number of sadhus, or Hindu Holy men and ascetics, who dress in ochre clothing, paint their skin, grow out their hair and renounce the modern way of life. Visiting the site with a guide will give you additional insight to the importance of the location of the temple and the role it plays in the Hindu lifecycle.
Boudanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in all of Nepal, has been a Tibetan Buddhist site for centuries. Long before Kathmandu was a booming city, the site of Boudanath was a popular stop and religious site along the Tibetan trade route. When many Tibetans fled their homeland in the 1950s, the area surrounding Boudanath became a popular place to settle and today Tibetans, Sherpas and other Buddhists still call this part of Kathmandu home. Today it is an important religious site as well as a great place to spend an afternoon. The temples, cafes, guesthouses, and countless stores selling Tibetan handicrafts and jewelry will be sure to keep you occupied.
Shopping and Eating:
Shopping for trekking gear can be fun in Thamel and you can certainly find some bargains. North Face has an official store and so does Mountain Hardwear. You’re sure to find quality gear in one of these shops, but you can expect to pay the same prices that you would pay at home for these items. Sherpa brand is a Nepali company making their own trekking gear that is high quality and unique. Their shirts and hats make great gifts for friends and family back home. Other trekking gear can be questionable and you will want to be sure to check the seams, zippers and material. Always try things on before you buy and if you’re unsure, ask one of your BAI guides for advice. In general, you pay for what you get and each shop will have a variety of products with a wide range in pricing and quality.
Food in Thamel is fantastically diverse. From Nepali and Newar restaurants to Italian pizzerias and Mexican cantinas, you’ll find just about whatever you are craving. Some restaurants have rooftop patios which are great for sharing a cold afternoon beer with a friend. If you’re looking for a quick bite, the numerous bakeries have an assortment of delicious savory and sweet treats. The momos, dal bhat and yak platters are sure to become some of your favorites.
Thamel can be overwhelming, but there are also some great places to relax if you know where to look. We know a great place specializing in foot massages which are heavenly after a trek, but you’ll have to join us on one of our treks before we’ll disclose its name and location. The Garden of Dreams is a walled garden that is also a great place to relax. Step inside, take a deep breathe of clean air and feel the silence; you almost forget that you are in Kathmandu at all.
For the History Buffs:
If you are searching for history and culture, you don’t need to look hard to find it. As the story goes, the Kathmandu Valley was ruled by one king and he was lucky enough to have three sons. However, he could not decide which son he wanted to make the crowned prince so he divided the valley into three parts to make three kingdomes – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. These three kingdoms remain today as three separate cities each with their own historic centers.
Old Kathmandu is the closest to our hotel and well worth a visit. The Durbar square is the heart of Old Kathmandu with a number of temples, an ancient palace and even the modern home of a living goddess named Kumari. Even today, Old Kathmandu is a busy religious site and a gathering place for local Nepalis. In the 1960s and 70s, Old Kathmandu was the popular hang-out for trekkers who stayed on “Freak Street”. The street is still home to some great restaurants and tea shops.
Just south of Kathmandu on the opposite side of the Bagmati River lies Patan. The Durbar Square of Patan has largely been restored, so it is perhaps the most impressive of the three ancient sites today. In addition to exploring the ancient temples and palace, you will want to stop in at the impressive Patan Museum, take a lunch break at one of the great cafes and peruse the number of fair trade handicraft shops.
Bhaktapur is the best preserved of the three medieval city-states and it is located to the southeast of Kathmandu in a much more rural setting. The temples are connected by quiet cobblestone streets great for an afternoon wander. Artists and art enthusiasts are sure to love Bhaktapur which is a hot bed of artistic activity and home to the Thangka Painting School, Potter’s Square and the National Art Gallery.
If you’re looking for a piece of modern Kathmandu history, you should consider visiting the Narayanhity Palace Museum. Built in the 1970s and inhabited by the King until 2008, the palace was deemed a museum on the day that the country was declared a republic and the King was given 15 days to move out. Today you can visit the rather modest palace which looks as though it has not changed since it was first built. The décor is of a 1960s vintage with some art deco pieces thrown into the mix. Delicate wallpapers, shaggy carpets and pastel colors are the theme on the main floor with dark woods and heavy pieces on the ground floor. Behind the palace, the beautiful gardens are maintained and open to the visitors of the museum. The site of the 2001 royal massacre is also on the museum grounds and, though the building where it happened is no longer there, display panels describe the events of the evening which became one of the saddest in Nepal’s recent history.
A Word of Advice:
Many people become eager to get home after they return to Kathmandu from trekking, but I encourage you to remember that you are still on vacation and should take advantage of all the city has to offer. Don’t spoil your last few days with thoughts of your flights and the mess you left at home. Instead, get out there to enjoy the colors, the sights and the sounds of this magical city!
Climbing & Trekking in Nepal with Berg Adventures
Berg Adventures offers many exciting climbing expeditions and trekking trips in Nepal. These trips begin and end in Kathmandu. Learn more about these trips: Everest Base Camp, High Passes of Everest, Lobuche Peak, Island Peak, Ama Dablam or Everest.