If you are short of time, these are the top 12 places you need to visit in Kathmandu, Nepal. The country is a natural wonderland of tourist attractions. From its UNESCO World Heritage sites to its majestic Himalayan range, newcomers may find themselves overwhelmed. If you are a first timer on a budget and limited time, fret not! We have compiled a comprehensive list here of the places to visit in Nepal before you leave.
But first things first: Set your clock to the GMT+5:45 as this is the time zone in Kathmandu. After doing so, proceed down our list places you cannot miss in Nepal. Entrance fees as well as the proper decorum in some of the most popular tourist places to visit in Nepal are all indicated.
There is only one international airport in Nepal, and that is the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. An international airport is being built in Pokhara, but it will only be completed in the year 2021.
So in the meantime, when you first land in Kathmandu, your first stop will likely be the Kathmandu tourist hub, Thamel. This is where you’ll find some of the best hotels, international eateries, hawkers that sell yummy local delights like momos, stores with hiking gears (be careful of fake branded goods!) and other shops catering to foreigners.
In particular, Thamel’s primary street, Thamel Marg, is a good place to wander around amidst the colourful prayer flags hung above. Closer to the stupas, there will be the relaxing sound of singing bowls reverberating throughout the air, coupled with the sweet smell of incense or the mouth-watering fragrance of Nepali food.
Meanwhile, Mandala Street has a more modern vibe due to its cafes, book stores, and fairy lights strung above. If you suddenly feel the craving for a cup of coffee, head towards the Himalayan Java Coffee, where you can sip your cup of joe while looking down on the busy street.
In Thamel, there are also many shops selling souvenirs, and it’s okay to negotiate for a lower price. If you’re unsure of what to pick, below are some items we recommend:
I. Prayer Flags
These are colourful cloth flags hung by Buddhists, who believe that the well wishes written on the flags will be spread around when the it disintegrates or is blown by the wind. Contrary to its name, the flags are not meant to carry prayers to deities.
II. Singing bowls
If you’re looking for something to help you relax, this thing can. These bowls produce a calming sound when struck by a wooden stick. Preferably, buy handcrafted bowls as these generate a better sound quality than machine made ones.
III. Tibetan Rugs
These exquisite rugs are a unique traditional craft as the knotting technique used in weaving them is different from the ones used in other countries. Also, if a vendor approaches you and offers to sell you Pashmina scarves or Shahtoosh shawls, it would be best if you decline as the Tibetan antelope which they are made from is already “near threatened”.
Unless you intend to trek the world’s highest mountain, the highlight of your Nepal trip is probably the Boudhanath, the country’s most sacred place for Buddhists. Visited by thousands of tourists and pilgrims, it was constructed when the Tibetan monarch Songtsen Gampo changed his faith to Buddhism sometime after AD 600.
The Boudhanath is among Asia’s most gigantic stupas, a hemispherical building safeguarding religious relics and utilised as a place for meditation. Hence, it can be viewed from miles away and is the most spectacular historical and religious site within Nepal’s capital. It’s a good thing the stupa was only slightly damaged by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal in April 2015.
According to those who have repeatedly visited Boudhanath, the best time to experience the stupa’s solemnity is at dusk when devotees begin igniting incense and butter lamps. Also, please note that there is an entrance fee of Rs200 (US$1.72) to enter the compound.
3. Kathmandu Durbar Square
A short walk south of Thamel lies Kathmandu Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was significantly damaged during the 2015 earthquake. The entrance fee to enter this venue is Rs1,000 (US$8.61).
This historic site contains various stupas and temples, with some Hindu holy men in quiet contemplation. Given the wide area and the large number of buildings, we’ve listed some of the must-see ones below:
I. Seto Bhairab
This is a huge terrifying mask of a three-eyed being with a golden face, red hair and sharp fangs. It was made during the reign of King Rana Bahadur Shah to safeguard Durbar (palace) from evil. The mask is only fully revealed once a year during the September Indra Jatra Festival, which also coincides with the Kumari Festival (Festival of the Living Goddess). During other times, tourists can only view it through a wooden screen.
II. Taleju Temple
It’s lauded as Durbar Square’s most stunning temple with a height of 35 metres. While non-Hindus are not permitted to enter, they can view it through the guarded gates.
III. Mahendreshwar Temple and Jagannath Temple
The former looks like a two-storey pagoda with golden decorations on the roof, and a statue of the Hindu god Shiva stands atop the gate. Meanwhile, the latter is known for its quirky and suggestive carvings.
4. Pashupatinath Temple
Located along the shores of Bagmati River, Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most vital religious sites for worshippers of Shiva, one of the 3 great Hindu gods known as “The Destroyer”. The two-storey building features a golden roof, and its exterior is adorned with silver and intricate wooden carvings.
However, there is a steep fee of Rs1,000 (US$8.61) to enter the compound. Also, please note that only Hindus are permitted to enter the actual temple. Nonetheless, you can tour the outer grounds and watch the ceremonies happening around.
For instance, you can spectate the cremation of the dead along raised stone platforms along the riverbanks. But please don’t take photos or film the burial ceremony, as a sign of respect for the bereaved family members in attendance.
If you want to take photographs, you may take pictures of the Sadhus, Hindu holy men who have renounced worldly life, but kindly ask them first.
If you can’t enter Pashupatinath Temple, there are still other accessible temples nearby dedicated to different divine beings in Hinduism and Buddhism.
In the east along the river is Guhyeshwari Temple, which was built in honour of Shiva’s first consort, Sati Devi. Meanwhile, the Bachhareschwari Temple contains skeletons and suggestive figures linked to the Maha Shivarati Festival. The festival commemorates not only the night Shiva married Parvati, but also Shiva’s divine dance of creation, preservation, and destruction.
Another one is the Ram Temple, where many Sadhus congregate during the Maha Shivarati Festival. Lastly, there’s the Gorakhnath Temple nestled in Mrigasthali Deer Park. Although difficult to find, it’s worth a visit due to its stunning architecture.
Another picturesque stupa is the Swayambhunath, which is also called the Monkey Temple. Notably, there are apes living in the shrine’s northwestern part and these animals are considered holy as they supposedly came from bodhisattva Manjushri.
However, it’s best to be careful when passing through the eastern stairway as the monkeys there may take your food or worse, bite you. This poses a health risk as apes can be afflicted with rabies, albeit rarely.
Along the eastern stairway, you’ll come across a brass-plated thunderbolt (it looks like a double-pointed spear), which is a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. After the stairs, you’ll arrive at the main stupa. There is also another one to the west, just make a left turn from the primary entrance and follow the stone path until you reach a Gompa, a Buddhist fort.
The most ideal time to go to Swayambhunath is at dawn when there are fewer people. If you want to walk around the stupas, it should be done in a clockwise direction per local custom.
You may also want to go the Buddha Amideva Park, where there are three giant golden Buddhas. Also, please note that there is a Rs200 (US$1.72) fee to enter Swayambhunath.
6. Kumari Ghar (Palace of the Living Goddess)
In Nepal, there are so called living goddesses (Kumari or Kumari Devi), young girls under the age of puberty who have been chosen due to the belief that the goddess Taleju inhabits their bodies. There are several Kumari across the country, but the most famous one is Kathmandu’s Royal Kumari, which lives in Kumari Ghar within Kathmandu Durbar Square.
The three-storey building is an architectural marvel. There are intricately carved windows overlooking an open courtyard containing a mini shrine. That’s not all, it’s also possible to spot the Kumari Devi herself there. You will not be allowed to take photos of videos of her, this will be enforced by the guards around the courtyard. The only time the Kumari is out for public viewing is during the Festival of the Living Goddess every September.
Notably, a Kumari’s divine status is only temporary due to the belief that Taleju leaves the body during the child’s first menstruation, or if the girl is afflicted with a serious disease or injury.
7. Bhojan Griha
One of the best things to do in Kathmandu is to eat local dishes and experience the country’s rich culture. Good thing you can do both at Bhojan Griha, a popular restaurant that offers authentic Nepali food.
Their bestsellers include the Kukhura Ko Ledo, a chicken dish covered in rich gravy. Another is the Khasi Ko Pakku, a mouth-watering mutton preparation known for its tenderness and spicy herbal aroma. Their flavourful vegetable Thali is also worth mentioning, likewise for the Aloo Tama ko Surwa, fermented bamboo shoots with potato. They also serve local fruits drenched in yogurt and spices.
While you’re enjoying the traditional Newari feast, you will be graced with dancers and musicians playing traditional Nepali songs. In addition, Bhojan Griha is located on a former palace constructed 150 years ago, and the resto’s walls feature interesting artwork. The bar also features carved wooden murals.
8. Asan Tole
This is Kathmandu’s most popular market for fresh produce and other assorted stuff such as yak wool clothing and Rakshi, a home-made alcoholic beverage. It’s also one of the best places to buy seasonings and spices. Many tourists love to bring these home, as those available in their home country are way pricier. However, please ensure that the spices are properly labelled. You don’t want custom officials to mistake them for contraband.
Interestingly, Asan Tole is surrounded by several Hindu temples. For example, the Krishna Temple features detailed wood carvings, while the Annapurna Temple overlooks the market. As the latter is dedicated to the goddess of abundance, this means that the locals want Annapurna to maintain the prosperity of the market.
9. Jhochhen Tole (Freak Street)
Previously, the most famous place for tourists in Kathmandu was not Thamel. Instead it was Jhochhen Tole, which is commonly called Freak Street as the place used to be popular among Western hippies looking to smoke legal cannabis or hashish during the 1960s.
Prior to 1973, cannabis use was legal in Nepal and those from Europe trekked through the Hippie trail to consume the contraband in Kathmandu. Today, only Sadhus are permitted to smoke cannabis – and only during the Maha Shivratri Festival. While the holy men are not allowed to sell it or let others use cannabis, they can smear the marijuana ash on the forehead of devotees.
Located south of Kathmandu Durbar Square, Freak Street is definitely worth a visit as it is home to some of the capital’s most nostalgic eateries. For example, Snowman Café is known for baking some of the best cakes in Nepal.
Their popular treats include the coffee cake, apple pie, chocolate cake, coffee cake, chocolate brownies, coconut cake and the Chocolate Love Cake. The shop’s interior may look seemingly messy, but upon closer inspection, you’ll discover murals and the written aspirations of the hippies who have visited the shop since it opened in 1965.
Another great dining spot is the Kumari Restaurant & Bar, which serves a mix of delicious local and western cuisine. Their top dishes include chicken Chatamari, bacon poppers, chicken nuggets, cheese with bacon, and many more.
10. Garden of Six Seasons (Garden of Dreams)
If New York has its Central Park, then Kathmandu has its Garden of Six Seasons, a lush haven spanning 6,895 square metres. Hailed as a tranquil oasis in the midst of the chaotic capital, the garden features numerous flora as well as European-inspired structures like birdhouses, pergolas and verandas.
Notably, the garden contains six pavilions representing Nepal’s six seasons – Basanta Ritu (Spring), Grishma Ritu (Summer), Barsha Ritu (Rainy), Sharad Ritu (Autumn), Hemanta Ritu (Pre-winter), and Shishir Ritu (Winter).
Also called the Garden of Dreams, it was constructed in 1920 and was one of the most state of the art private gardens back then. However, it was neglected for decades after its prior owner, Kaiser Sumsher Rana, died in the 1960s. Thankfully it was fully restored in 2007 thanks to the financial support of the Austrian government. Now the garden is open to the public, but there is an entrance fee of Rs200 (US$1.72).
11. Chabahil Stupa
Another place to visit near Kathmandu is the Chabahil Stupa, which is situated along the ring road to the northeast. This is the fourth biggest stupa within the capital. The largest are Boudhanath, followed by Swayambhunath and Kathesimbhu Stupa.
Its small size doesn’t diminish its historical significance as historical evidence shows that it was constructed by princess Charumati, daughter of Ashoka the Great, an Indian emperor who ruled nearly all of Indian subcontinent in the past.
While the stupa was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, it has since been restored to its former glory. At present, the Chabahil Stupa is being maintained by the monks of Charumati Vihar, a nearby medieval Buddhist monastery also built by princess Charumati. To get to the monastery, which is among Nepal’s oldest, go northeast from Chabahil Stupa until you see a smaller white stupa.
12. Kopan Monastery
Last but not least on our list is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery situated on Kathmandu’s fringe. This monastery got its fame for spreading the teachings of Buddha to foreigners from developed countries. The compound consists of the actual monastery on Kopan Hill and the Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery. Within its walls are hundreds of monks, lamas and students living in attendance.
Kopan Monastery may not be as popular as Nepal’s other Buddhist sites, but it is still an excellent place to visit. Not only does it provide a vantage point overlooking the capital, it has also recently emerged as a top destination for travellers seeking enlightenment as well as for those looking to relax amidst the greenery surrounding the monastery. But please note that the place is open to the public only on Saturdays.