Kathmandu is one of those places that seems shrouded in magic. When I first left the UK with my RTW ticket in hand, the woman at the check-in desk looked at my itinerary and said brightly, “Kathmandu! Where’s that then?” After replying slowly, “Nepal…” (You do work for an international airline, right?), she exclaimed, “Oh! I thought it was an imaginary place!” While I think that Virgin Atlantic could do with giving their staff a geography lesson, it’s true that Kathmandu has that air of adventure and mystery about it.
Kathmandu is one of the famous 3Ks on the original hippie trail, along with Khao San Road in Bangkok and Kuta in Bali. The hippie vibe still remains today, especially in the backpacker district of Thamel and nearby ‘Freak Street’, where dreadlocks, tie dye and hookah pipes rule.
If you plan to stay in Kathmandu for a week or more, the city has plenty to offer, but as the gateway to the Himalayas, many people are simply passing through on their way to hiking adventures in other parts of the country.
If your time in Kathmandu is limited, use our 24-hour guide to make the most out of your stay:
Head out early to visit the Bodnath Stupa and join the pilgrims who circle the stupa while reciting mantras and spinning prayer wheels. This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city but at this hour the crowds are made up mostly of Buddhist devotees.
After soaking up the spiritual atmosphere and witnessing the daily prayer ritual, you’re probably ready for some breakfast. Head for the backpacker’s Thamel district which offers a huge range of restaurants, bakeries and eateries to suit any traveller’s tastes.
Try Pumpernickel Bakery for great coffee, free wi-fi and a nice selection of cakes or Green Organic Café for a freshly prepared lassie and healthy organic breakfast.
While you’re in Thamel, spend an hour or two wandering, soaking up the atmosphere and shopping for everything from silk pashminas to trekking gear. Haggling is a must and brand names have a high possibility of being fake, so shop carefully! Like Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Thamel is an area that most people either love or hate, but a trip to Kathmandu isn’t complete without exploring here.
For a spot of culture, head to Durbar Square, which is a UNESCO protected area that was once the home of Nepalese royalty and houses some interesting buildings and architecture.
While you’re in the area, you might also want to check out Kumari Chowk – the home of the Kumari or living Goddess – a young girl who is worshiped as the human form of the goddess Durga. The Kumari rarely comes outside but you may catch a glimpse of her at the window. Photography is strictly forbidden.
For lunch, why not try one of Nepal’s specialities – momos? Momos originate from Tibet and are little dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables that are the perfect tummy-filler for hungry travellers. Try Royal Saino Momos while you’re at Durbar Square, which is famous for its unusual flavor combinations. Momos are best when eaten with the local beer, named Everest, of course!
If you’re feeling in need of an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city by now, head to The Garden of Dreams, a formal European-style garden right in the heart of the city. This walled garden is a wonderful place for relaxing, walking and enjoying a drink in one of the calm cafes for a couple of hours.
After recharging your batteries, it’s time for a bit more temple exploration. The Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal and the world. Nepalese Hindus travel here to perform the cremation ceremony on open funeral pyres on the banks of the Bagmati River. You’ll also see Sadhus, religious ascetics, often wearing saffron-coloured clothing and with long dreadlocks. Pashupatinath Temple is located on the outskirts of the city so you’ll need to take a taxi and allow for travel time.
Dusk is the perfect time for viewing Swayambhunath Temple, with its troup of entertaining monkeys. The temple is located on top of a hill, so be prepared for climbing steps. Once you’re at the top, you get a great view of the city and you can refresh yourself with some tea in one of the rooftop cafes.
Time for dinner and you’re not short of options in Kathmandu. If you’re heading out on a trek, try the famous Rum Doodle restaurant, with its walls covered in footprint-shaped placemats signed and illustrated by Everest conquerors and trekkers tackling hikes in the Himalayas and the Annapurnas.
Or for traditional Nepalese cuisine, try Dwarika’s Hotel, for some of the best food in Kathmandu, served in up to 22 courses.
Before you hit the sack, Kathmandu has enough nightlife to keep you happy and entertained well into the early hours. If you had dinner at Rum Doodle, stay for a few beers and enjoy a chat with other backpackers and mountaineers. Or try Electric Pagoda with a relaxing courtyard seating area and live music.