The best things to do in Nepal's chaotic capital, Kathmandu
Looking for things to do in Kathmandu, Nepal? From the temples of Pashupatinath and Swayambhunath to the chaos of Thamel, this comprehensive list will provide you with everything you're after.
There's just something about Kathmandu.
From the moment we stepped off the plane, we really enjoyed our time in this bustling city.
It's surprising, because we're not usually fans of heavily polluted cities, nor ones that are claustrophobic, chaotic and exhausting. Despite the constant grumbles from motorbikes, annoying touts pushing trekking tours, and the painfully bad infrastructure, Kathmandu is endlessly appealing.
The rabbit-warren streets of the backpacker district of Thamel are intoxicating, as are the surrounding alleyways which head seemingly in all directions, only to end in the same place. Despite the recent earthquake, the city's cultural and artistic history is prevalent just about everywhere, as are it's medieval temples and royal palaces, all waiting to be explored. And the food.. don't get us started on the food, so delicious, so cheap.
But what made the city just the little bit better were the people. They're all so friendly and accommodating, despite the constant hardships of recent years.
If you're planning to visit Nepal but spend minimal time in Kathmandu, we suggest you change your plans. You need to trust us when we say it's worth it. You won't be short of things to, and that's why we've put together our favourite things to do in Kathmandu.
Our favourite things TO SEE AND DO IN KATHMANDU, NEPAL
#1 WANDER THE THAMEL DISTRICT
Most travellers spend most of their time in Thamel, Kathmandu’s non sleazy answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Rd. Right in the heart of the city with all the major attractions and transport routes close by, it’s colourful, busy and brash!
Thamel’s a complete rabbit-warren of narrow streets and alleyways, and has everything a traveller needs; hotels and guesthouses, restaurants, bars, top quality bakeries (seriously, they are that good!), supermarkets, book stores, pirated DVD’s and everything in between. You could spend hours exploring the streets and meeting all the smiling locals.
It’s also the place to find all your trekking gear (mostly imitation but still good quality), with literally hundreds of stores selling pretty much the same stuff. It’s worth the effort to haggle the prices down as you can save up to 50% from the first offer.
While Thamel is a cool place to hang out in and meet fellow travellers, it can pull you in and not let you out. Make sure you make the effort to escape its grasp and go explore the surrounding areas.
#2 EMBRACE KATHMANDU’S SPIRITUAL SIDE
Nepal is a pretty spiritual place, being the birthplace of Buddha and everything. So it’s not surprising that Kathmandu is home to some of the most revered temples in both the Buddhist and Hindu community.
If you're looking for a great insight to the temples, we can't recommend this Spiritual Nepal guided day tour enough. It takes in all of the key sites below with a super knowledgeable local guide - and it was seriously one of the standout highlights of our time in Nepal!
Pashupatinath, dedicated to the god Shiva, is one of the holiest sites in all of Hinduism and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. On the banks of the Bagmati river, Pashupatinath has existed since 400 A.D and its main temple is considered a masterpiece in Hindu architecture. For westerners, you’ll have to view from outside as the temple is for Hindu devotees only. The main attraction here is the shining Shivalinga and huge golden statue of Shiva’s Bull, Nandi. It’s also home to some pretty colourful artwork.
Pashupatinath is also the location for many buddhist and Hindu cremations, so you’ll likely see one of these taking place on the banks of the river. It’s a pretty confronting sight but incredibly interesting to witness.
We recommend hanging around and watching the Aarti ceremony which commences each evening at 6:30pm. The Aarti ceremony is one of the more important ceremonies in the Hindu faith; it’s full of colour, light and chanting and it’s totally worth staying for.
Overall, the temple only suffered minor damage from the 2015 earthquake so can still be seen in all it’s glory.
Around $10 USD per person
Northeast Kathmandu, about 20 mins from Thamel
A visit to Swayambhunath (or Monkey temple) is an essential experience in Kathmandu. There may be a few stairs (365) and a heap of monkeys to navigate before you summit, but the views at the top are worth it. The temple is a mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography and is quite stunning to witness. The best time to visit is early evening when local devotees circumnavigate the stupa, spinning prayer wheels as they go and making their way through the ever present smoky incense hanging heavy in the air. This lofty hilltop also provides the best vistas of Kathmandu, perfect for a sunset snap.
Unfortunately, during the 2015 earthquake the temple suffered a large amount of damage at the summit however the main structures are still standing.
Around $4 USD per person
Western outskirts of Kathmandu, about 20mins from Thamel
If you really want to experience Kathmandu’s spiritual side, Boudhanath stupa is a must. Thousands of pilgrims visit each day to walk around the central dome, spinning prayer wheels as they go; Tibetan monks chant mantras and pray in the surrounding monasteries while tourists take it all in.
The best time to visit Boudhanath is during the late afternoon when the place has a more authentic feel. Locals go about their daily ritual and the surrounding area is less busy.
Prior to the 2015 earthquake, the eyes of buddha gazed out from the gilded central tower and while this is currently not standing, renovations are taking place to reinforce the structure and return it to it’s former glory.
$2 USD per person
Northeastern outskirts of Kathmandu, 20 mins from Thamel
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#3 VISIT KATHMANDU'S THREE DURBAR SQUARES
No visit to Kathmandu would be complete without visiting these three beauties.
Back in the day, Nepal was split into three main kingdoms – Basantapur (Kathmandu), Bhaktapur and Patan, each of which had a royal palace and surrounding squares located in the Kathmandu Valley.
In the unified Nepal of today, each Durbar Square is made up of temples, idols, statues, open courts and fountains along with other structures. They are the perfect place to admire ancient Nepali architecture, Newari wood carvings and historic traditions. Oh, and it’s a great place to people watch.
It’s hard to say which one is more impressive as they’re all incredible in their own right, but our favourite was Patan. The architecture is stunning, it’s well maintained and it has a much more laid back vibe.
These UNESCO World Heritage sites may have suffered more than most in Kathmandu during the earthquake, but they still retain the beauty and intricacy which made them so famous. It’s easy to spend a day exploring these squares and we absolutely recommend it. We also recommend venturing out into the surrounding areas which are filled with quaint laneways and hidden temples/religious monuments.
$10 – $15 USD to each, per person
Bhaktapur: East of Kathmandu, 40 mins from Thamel. Patan: South of Kathmandu, 10 mins from Thamel. Kathmandu: south of Kathmandu, 5 mins from Thamel
#4 CHILL OUT IN THE GARDEN OF DREAMS
When the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu gets you down, pop into the Garden of Dreams just outside of Thamel for a relaxed oasis of tranquility.
In this beautiful neo-classical garden you’ll find pavilions, verandahs, fountains and a relaxing amphitheatre where you can chill out on one of the pillows provided. It’s also evidently the romantic destination of choice for Nepalis, with lovebirds on every corner!
There’s also the Kaiser restaurant which does a damn fine hamburger if you’re craving a western delicacy!
$2 USD per person
5 min walk from Thamel
Our time exploring Kathmandu's Garden of Dreams
#5 EAT ALL THE DELICIOUS NEPALI FOOD (And learn to cook it, too!)
Don’t be worried by the quality or variety of food in Nepal because it’s incredibly good! Nom.
For the local variety of snacks, start with Momos. The Nepali answer to dumplings, these pockets of joy come in vegetable, buff (buffalo) or chicken and can be fried or steamed. You can also find amazing pakora and samosas on any street corner! Next, find yourself some Choila, spicy grilled buffalo meat which goes down a treat with a beer.
For larger meals, you really can’t go past Dal Bhat, the Nepali staple meal for lunch and dinner. Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepali meal consisting of rice, a lentil based soup and other condiments, and it’s generally all you can eat so you’ll never go hungry. For those who enjoy soups, there is Thukpa or Thenthuk, a delicious mix of meat, noodles and vegetables.
We always say that to truly experience a destination, you have to understand its food culture too - so most places we go, we try to take a traditional cooking class. In Kathmandu, we joined a cooking class at Seven Women, a social enterprise working to empower marginalised Nepalese women through skills training and literacy classes, and learnt how to make a proper Nepalese curry, with veggies, and a rice pudding to finish off. It was DELICIOUS, and if you don't believe us, check out the first photo below - we made allllll that!
On the restaurant front, check out Yangling in Thamel. It has seriously good food at seriously cheap prices. Read Yangling Tripadvisor reviews. Learn more about Nepal’s delicious cuisine with this traditional Nepali cuisine guide by Nomadic Boys.
MORE OF NEPAL: THE BEST PLACES TO VISIT OUTSIDE OF KATHMANDU
#6 VISIT THE MARKETS AND BAZAARS OF KATHMANDU
The bustling market street of Asan is must visit in Kathmandu. Located between Thamel and Kathmandu Durbar Square, you’ll find just about anything. But visiting this market isn’t necessarily about buying things; it’s more about watching the action that unfolds each afternoon, when locals fill the streets in search of a bargain. It really is a sight to behold.
Otherwise, if you’re after the usual tourist paraphernalia look no further than Thamel, which sells everything from Buddha statues, mandalas and colourful wristbands to trekking gear, cashmere scarves and electronic gear.
Asan is a 10 minute walk south of Thamel
#7 CATCH A LOCAL BUS (it’s lots of fun!)
If you want to experience the chaos of Kathmandu, look no further than catching a local bus to any of the tourist sites out of the city, including Boudhanath, Bhaktapur and Swayambhunath. They’re cramped, packed full and driven like a rally car, but they are a great way to see how the locals commute. It’s also the cheapest way to get around town.
Most leave from Kantipath or Ratna Park bus stops just outside of Thamel.
Have you visited Nepal? Let us know your favourite things to do in Kathmandu in the comments below!