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Our definitive guide to Kathmandu

 A CITY OF BEAUTIFUL CHAOS

WHY VISIT KATHMANDU?

There really isn’t an adequate way to describe Kathmandu. Crazy, chaotic, historic, spiritual, haphazard, enticing and vibrant come to mind yet they don’t do this city justice. Kathmandu is just Kathmandu; totally unique and different to anywhere you’ll visit in the world.

Originally known as Kantipur, it was once the main trading route between Tibet and India and gradually grew into the metropolis known today. With a population of around 1.7million, the city will, at times, frustrate you; the constant nagging of street vendors, the beeps of passing cars, exhaust fumes, rubbish and the ever present crush of humans can be hard to manage. Yet push through these and you’ll soon realise that this city is actually a welcoming, achingly beautiful melting pot of buddhist and hindu religion, ethnicity and history.

Most tourists visit for a short time before setting off to tackle the Himalayas, relax in Pokhara, or explore the jungles of Chitwan. But trust us when we say Kathmandu is worth your time.

WHAT TO DO IN KATHMANDU

In Kathmandu, almost everything revolves around the thriving backpacker district of Thamel. Here, winding alleyways lead to Unesco-listed sites, thriving markets, bustling bazaars, and restaurants with just about every cuisine imaginable. We found it incredible, intoxicating and just a little exhausting.

To see the ‘real’ Kathmandu, we recommend stepping outside of Thamel. The rest of the city is jam-packed with cultural and artistic history to rival any European city, endless streets worth exploring, and some of the friendliest locals around. It’s also a little slower paced that Thamel, which you’ll appreciate after a while.

CULTURAL & HISTORY

Kathmandu is home to some of the most revered temples in both the Buddhist and Hindu community. If time is limited, you HAVE to visit the following temples and stupas.

Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Square | 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.

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. 

Also located at Kathmandu Durbar Square is Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu’s former royal palace. It’s currently closed for repairs to damage sustained in the 2015 earthquake, however it is worth your time should it re-open soon.

If you had to chose one (which you shouldn’t), Patan was our favourite. 

Pashupatinath | 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 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.

Swayambhunath | There may be a few stairs (365) and a heap of monkeys to navigate before you summit, but a visit to Swayambhunath (or Monkey temple) is an essential experience in Kathmandu. Apart from the beautiful temple, this lofty hilltop also provides the best vistas of Kathmandu, perfect for a sunset snap.

Boudhanath Stupa| A visit to Boudhanath stupa is a must if you really want to experience Kathmandu’s spiritual side. 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.

Kathesimbu Stupa | If you’re looking for a quieter alternative to Boudhanath, Kathesimbu is your place. It’s an incredibly beautiful stupa located close to Thamel, yet off off the main tourist drag, so it’s very relaxed!

OUTDOORS

The Garden of Dreams | The hustle and bustle of Kathmandu will get you down, so we recommend stepping into the tranquil neo-classical oasis, Garden of Dreams. Located just outside of Thamel, the Garden of Dreams is filled with pavilions, verandahs, fountains and a relaxing amphitheatre where you can chill out on one of the pillows provided.

There’s also the Kaiser restaurant which does a damn fine hamburger if you’re craving a western delicacy!

MARKETS/BAZAARS

Thamel | Kathmandu’s non sleazy answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Rd; Thamel is colourful, busy and brash! It’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.

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.

Asan Market |Located between Thamel and Kathmandu Durbar Square, the bustling market street of Asan has just about everything you could ever need. However, that’s not the reason we recommend visiting. It’s more about watching the action that unfolds each afternoon, when locals fill the streets in search of a bargain, or some delicious street food. It really is a sight to behold.

Note: 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.

THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KATHMANDU

We recommend visiting Kathmandu post-monsoon (late Sept – late Nov), when the weather is clear and dry, the city air clean (cleaner…) and mountains mostly visible. While Kathmandu, and especially Thamel, might be jam-packed, it really is the best time to enjoy Kathmandu at it’s finest.

If this doesn’t suit, Spring (Feb – mid April) can also be a good time to visit. The days are longer and the weather warmer, however, due to crop burn off, the long days are somewhat ruined by a haze which sits over most of Nepal. Visibility in the Kathmandu valley can be low, and tourists are be more prone to illness.

The monsoon period occurs during mid-June to mid-September, at which Nepal comes alive. You probably don’t want to be around Kathmandu at this time!

WHERE TO STAY IN KATHMANDU?

Kathmandu has a huge range of accommodation options to meet any budget. Most properties are located centrally, primarily around the Thamel district.

Prices vary dramatically, depending on where you stay and when. The most common form of accommodation – guesthouses, will set charge between $5 – $35 per night. If you’re travelling outside of high season, prices can drop, so always ask if any discount is applicable.

On the whole, accommodation in Nepal is pretty standard. Most places have a range of rooms, from budget to doubles with en suite. Beware, that cheaper accommodation is of a poor standard; if you’re backpacking, this might be okay, but otherwise, invest a few extra dollars for something nicer.

We recommend the following accommodation options

Budget

Trekkers Home | The location, right in the heart of Thamel, and cleanliness, makes Trekkers Home the best bet of budget guesthouses in Kathmandu.

Standard double room from £9 per night

Mid Range

Kathmandu Guest House | A beautiful location, stunning gardens and agreeable rooms – Kathmandu Guest House is an institution for a reason. While not the finest place we’ve stayed, it’s the perfect mid-range guesthouse right in the heart of Thamel.

Standard double room from £30 per night

Luxury

Dwarika’s Hotel | The pinnacle of accommodation in Kathmandu, Dwarika’s is a collection of former traditional heritage Nepali houses formed around a courtyard. It feels like you’re stepping back in time and absoutely worth the (very) expensive cost. Oh, and the restaurant is one of Kathmandu’s best.

Heritage Deluxe from £230 per night

WHERE TO EAT IN KATHMANDU?

Don’t be worried by the quality or variety of food in Kathmandu because it’s incredibly good! Nom. 

NEPALI

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. Next, find yourself some Choila, spicy grilled buffalo meat which goes down a treat with a beer. You can also find amazing pakora and samosas on any street corner! 

We recommend checking out Yangling in Thamel for cheap Nepali/Tibetan food. It has amazing Momo’s, Choila and Thukpa at seriously cheap prices.

For cheap, 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. It’s very cheap, generally all you can eat, and can be found just about anywhere in Kathmandu; it’s best to speak to a local who’ll be able to show you their favourite restaurant (we went to an amazing place and never got it’s name!). 

Learn more about Nepal’s delicious cuisine with this traditional Nepali cuisine guide by Nomadic Boys

WESTERN

If you’re keen on western food (which you will be after hiking), Thamel is literally overflowing with options. No matter what cuisine you’re after, you’re sure to find it in Kathmandu, including Mexican, Italian, French and American.

Our favourite restaurants in Kathmandu included Kilroy’s of Kathmandu, Fire and Ice Pizza, La Dolce Vita and OR2K.

HOW TO GET AROUND KATHMANDU

Like most of Nepal, the transport network within Kathmandu is very limited, slow and outdated. That’s not to say don’t use it, as it can be a lot of fun and a great way to meet the locals.

TAXI

Taxi’s are the best form of transport within Kathmandu. They’re much quicker and more comfortable than a bus, and quite a bit of fun zipping through the chaotic Kathmandu traffic. You’ll almost always have to negotiate a fare, but they’re generally cheap.

BUS

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. Always establish the fare before getting on board.

Kathmandu Travel Guide - The Common Wanderer

HOW TO GET TO/AWAY FROM KATHMANDU

FLIGHT

Almost all international arrivals into Nepal are through Kathmandu’s international airport. If travelling over peak periods, book flights months in advance as routes fill up. Only a small number of international airlines fly to Nepal, including Qatar, KLM and Malaysian.

Depending on the time of year, the cost of airfares vary. The timing of the high, low and shoulder seasons differ from airline to airline, and don’t always coincide with tourist seasons.

WE RECOMMEND USING SKYSCANNER TO SEARCH AND BOOK YOUR FLIGHTS TO NEPAL 

Note: Nepal’s airport is extremely old and inefficient, so be prepared to wait for immigration/visas, baggage, and baggage checks.

TOURIST BUS

When travelling out of Kathmandu, be prepared for a long, slow journey. In Nepal, the roads are shocking and windy, the traffic is appalling, buses stop often for meal/tea stops, and a breakdown/flat tyre will no doubt occur.

Tourist buses are your best option for travel within Nepal. Tourist buses connect Kathmandu with Pokhara, Sauraha (Chitwan National Park) and Sonauli, as well as Pokhara with Sauraha and Sonauli. Expect a day (6-9hrs) to travel to any of these destinations.

Tourist buses can be booked through agents or accommodation providers, or at bus stations. We do recommend purchasing at least two days in advance, especially in peak periods.

The buses are in okay condition (read: better than public buses) and you’ll often have your own seat. This means a far more comfortable journey, even with the incredibly long travel times. We found bus travel in Nepal the perfect time to read a book, listen to a podcast or sleep.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON TRAVEL WITHIN NEPAL, READ OUR COMPREHENSIVE NEPAL GUIDE

OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION

MONEY

The official currency of Nepal is the Nepali Rupee. We recommend carrying a combination of Nepali Rupee and American dollars at any time.

The current exchange rate is $1 USD = 103Rs.

Nepal has both coins and notes, however we’ve only ever dealt with notes. Notes from from 1 – 1000.

You can find ATMs just about anywhere in most Kathmandu. Most ATMs have a maximum withdrawal limit of 10,000Rs, however some NABIL machines have a 35,000Rs limit.

The 10,000Rs limit can get very frustrating, and can cost a lot in bank fees, however we do recommend getting out as much money as possible each time you visit an ATM; that way you’ll be covered should any issues arise (political, social etc.).

Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Kathmandu at most tourist class hotels, restaurants, airlines, and tour agents. Again, fees do apply.

Money exchange offices are readily available in Thamel, and exchange rates are generally competitive. It’s worth shopping around for the best rate, or negotiating. While all major currencies are accepted, USD, Euros or Pounds are the best.

WHAT DO THINGS COST IN KATHMANDU

FOOD & DRINKS

Snacks | 50 – 200Rs

Inexpensive meal (Dal Bhat)| 180 – 300Rs

Three course meal | 800Rs

Beer | 200Rs

Water | 20Rs

Soft Drink | 50Rs

ACCOMMODATION

Guest house | 400 – 2,500Rs

3 star double room | 2,000 – 8,000Rs

Luxury accommodation | 15,000 – 25,000Rs

TRANSPORT

Local Bus | 20 – 50Rs

Taxi | 45Rs (per KM)

Tourist Bus | 800 – 2000Rs (Kathmandu – Pokhara/Chitwan)

STAYING SAFE IN KATHMANDU

Kathmandu is generally a safe city for tourists. This doesn’t mean you should become complacent; follow these general rules when travelling in Kathmandu:

  • Avoid travelling alone, especially if you’re a woman
  • Take photocopies of your passport, tickets, visa and trekking permits
  • Be aware of your belongings at all times, petty theft does occur in many popular tourist sites

While Nepalis are extremely nice, some exist to scam the many tourists. While we didn’t encounter any scams, here are some common scams to be aware of, according to Lonely Planet:

  • Deals offered by gem dealers that involve you buying stones to sell for a ‘vast profit’ at home. The dealers normally claim they are not able to export the stones without paying heavy taxes, so you take them and meet another dealer when you get home, who will sell them to a local contact and you both share the profit. Except they don’t. And you don’t.
  • Children or young mothers asking for milk. You buy the milk at a designated store at an inflated price, the child then returns the milk and pockets some of the mark-up.
  • Be wary of kids who seem to know the capital of any country you can think of; they are charming but a request for money will arrive at some point.
  • ‘Holy men’ who do their best to plant a tika (a red paste denoting a blessing) on your forehead, only to then demand significant payment.
  • Credit card scams are not unheard of; travellers have bought souvenirs and then found thousands of dollars worth of internet porn subscriptions chalked up on their bill.

In 2015, Kathmandu was extensively damaged by a large earthquake which killed over 9,000 people. Earthquakes are common. When visiting, be on alert for any sign of danger and follow the locals lead if something does occur. If you’re concerned, read our post on what Nepal’s like now.

INTERNET & POWER

Power in Kathmandu | Kathmandu has daily load shedding. Be prepared for daily power cuts, sometimes up to 8-16hrs per day.

Hotels will post a schedule of power cut times, so keep an eye out or ask your hotelier. If you’re worried, book a hotel/guesthouse with a generator.

Internet in Kathmandu | Don’t expect super fast internet in Kathmandu. Many cafes around Thamel offer a fast connection, but are at the mercy of load shedding. We found Himalayan Java the most reliable.

We recommend purchasing a sim card in Kathmandu and using the 3G phone reception.

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Have you got anything to add to our Kathmandu travel guide? Tell us in the comments below!

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