Exploring the Kathmandu Valley

written by Stuart Butler

updated 22.12.2023

It was only 70 years ago that Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, was little more than an oversized village. Hidden from the rest of the world, it maintained an almost medieval existence. Fast-forward to today though and Kathmandu is a huge and ever-expanding mega-city thick in pollution and congestion. To some, it’s a fascinating city rich in historical textures and traditions. To others, it’s little short of an environmental disaster zone. Love it or hate it, this is a city that fascinates all.

Exploring the Kathmandu Valley

Beyond Kathmandu city is the large, mountain-fringed Kathmandu valley. It’s dotted with equally interesting towns, villages, and even two other cities, as well as a number of Himalayan viewpoints and secluded shrines and temples. 

Stuart Butler-nepal-kathmandu

Durbar Square in Kathmandu Valley © Stuart Butler

Durbar Square

The heart of Kathmandu is Durbar Square. This central square is filled with palaces, temples, and shrines — off which wind narrow streets lined with busy markets. Unfortunately, many of the square's historical monuments were badly damaged — or in some cases completely destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. Restoration is ongoing but will take many years to complete. 

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal © Stuart Butler

Statue of Kala Bhairab in Durbar Square © Stuart Butler

Carved from a single slab of stone, Durbar Square’s most arresting statue is that of Kala Bhairab. The powerful manifestation of Shiva is associated with annihilation. It’s said that anyone who stands in front of this statue and tells a lie will vomit blood and die. Despite this, many people leave devotional offerings in front of the statue.

Shiva Parbati Mandir building in Durbar Square © Stuart Butler

Shiva Parbati Mandir is an 18th-century building known for the figures of Shiva and his consort Parbati leaning out of the first-floor window. Inside are nine images of the Mother Goddess.

Carved woodwork in the Kumari Chowk royal palace in Durbar Square © Stuart Butler

The wood carving above depicts the Kumari, or Living Goddess, a pre-pubescent girl worshipped as a living incarnation of the goddess Taleju. The chosen girl resides in this small building where she is pampered as only a living goddess could be. She only leaves the building during the Indra Jaatra festival and her feet never touch the outside ground. She very occasionally might be spotted by tourists as she peers briefly out of the windows.

Night in Thamel neighbourhood © Stuart Butler

The neighbourhood of Thamel

The tourist zone of Kathmandu is Thamel, a little way north of Durbar Square. This neighbourhood is wall-to-wall hotels, restaurants, trekking shops, bars, bright lights and more than a few shady characters. 

A kerbside chess game is played on the streets of Kathmandu © Stuart Butler

Life is lived outside in Kathmandu. Whether you’re exploring the narrow, crowded streets of old Kathmandu or the sprawling newer suburbs there’s always something of interest to see. Discover a small neighbourhood temple, chaotic traffic, a kerbside chess game or a cow chowing down on restaurant leftovers.

A woman prays with the iconic dome of the Swayambhu Stupa in the background © Stuart Butler

The Swayambhu Stupa


The iconic Swayambhu Stupa, which sits atop a hill just to the west of the city centre, is a 1500-year-old Buddhist stupa. It’s believed that the site has been considered holy for much longer. 

Indeed, legend has it that the whole Kathmandu Valley was once a snake-infested lake (geologists are actually in agreement about the valley once being underwater). It is believed that only the tip of the hill on which the Swayambhu Stupa sits was exposed above the waters. 

Today, tourists commonly know this spiritually powerful spot as the 'Monkey Temple' on account of the many (often aggressive) monkeys that have made their home here. However, this does much to diminish the power and importance of the site. Try to visit at sunset when huge numbers of locals come to pray. Take in the view or even engage in a bit of sport by running up and down the steep staircases leading up to the stupa.

 

The Shiva temples of Pashupatinath © Stuart Butler

The temples of Pashupatinath

The (now highly polluted) Bagmati River runs past the eastern side of Kathmandu. From here, one can discover riverside ghats (steps) and the Shiva temples of Pashupatinath. This is Nepal’s most important Hindu holy site. Entry into the main temple, the Pashupati Mandir, is forbidden to non-Hindus. Even so, the riverside ghats, where huge numbers of pilgrims bathe and bodies are cremated, are fascinating.

Take time to explore the area away from the river and main temples as there are many small shrines and lesser temples hidden under the trees. During the Shiva Raatri festival (held over the Feb-March full moon) tens of thousands of pilgrims, including many sadhus (holy men) come here from all across South Asia.

 

The Boudhanath Stupa, just north of Durbar Square © Stuart Butler

The Boudhanath Temple

It’s hard to believe today, but it was only about fifty years ago that the fabulous Boudhanath Stupa was surrounded by fields. Today it’s very firmly a part of Kathmandu, but it’s also a part of Tibet. Since the 1959 Chinese takeover of Tibet and the subsequent arrival in Nepal of huge numbers of Tibetan refugees, the huge Boudhanath Stupa has become one of the most important holy sites in the Tibetan Buddhist world.

It’s at its best in the early evening. Large numbers of Buddhists make a kora (religious circumambulation) of the giant stupa and the air smells of incense. Prayer flags whip in the breeze, and chanting fills the air. This is quite simply one of the most magical religious sites in all of Asia.

 

The city of Patan © Stuart Butler

The city of Patan

The Kathmandu Valley contains both the city of Kathmandu as well as two other cities and numerous small towns and villages. Not long ago these were all distinct from Kathmandu itself but today much of the valley has become one continuous urban sprawl. 

Of the valley's two other cities, the most important and, in our opinion, most beautiful, is Patan. It’s just to the south of Kathmandu proper.

Like Kathmandu, the centre of Patan is the Durbar Square. However, unlike Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, this one received only light damage during the 2015 earthquake. There are numerous palaces and temples in and around the square. 

The main building is the former royal palace which today houses the best museum in Nepal. In the cool evening, Patan’s Durbar Square fills with locals who sit on temple steps eating ice cream and catching up on the day's news.

 

The lively city of Bhaktapur © Stuart Butler

The city of Bhaktapur

The third of the Kathmandu Valley’s cities is Bhaktapur, whose old town is a wonderfully preserved conglomeration of medieval architecture and colourful markets. 

The most arresting buildings are probably the Bhairabnath Mandir. 

This stocky, multi-layered temple houses a tiny Bhairab idol and, just opposite, the graceful, five-tiered Nyatapola pagoda. Oddly, this building is devoted to such an obscure tantric goddess named Siddhi Lakshmi, that she apparently has no devotees at all! 

Discover Nepal for yourself

Stuart visited Kathmandu with Third Rock Adventures.

For your own Nepal adventure, why not let Rough Guides local experts in Nepal craft your ideal trip? Simply contact us when you're ready to travel, and we'll create a fully customisable itinerary.

Sample Nepal itineraries:

  • The UNESCO World Hertiage Sites of Nepal (13 days): Discover Nepal's UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a 13-day trip, where the heart of the Himalayas meets a rich blend of history, culture, and nature, ideal for seasoned travellers
  • A Taste of Annapurna (12 days):  Immerse yourself in the stunning Nepalese outdoors. Traverse picturesque mountain villages like Ghorepani, witnessing breathtaking sunrises from Poon Hill, and gazing at the snow-capped Himalayan peaks for a unique adventure.

Or see more of our Nepal itineraries for inspiration.

 

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Stuart Butler

written by Stuart Butler

updated 22.12.2023

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