Nepal’s energetic capital is the entry point for most travellers who come to this mountainous and culture rich country. Foreigners tend to apply a “get in and get out” policy to the sometimes overwhelmingly chaotic city, sunk in the basin of the Kathmandu Valley. There are, however, plenty of remarkable sights in the metropolis to make a few days or more here compelling, memorable and – though it may seem surprising – relaxing. Here are our top tips on the best things to do in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu is the best place in the country to try this Nepalese and Tibetan speciality: vegetables or minced meat wrapped in dough, which are then either fried or steamed and accompanied by a spicy sauce. For budget momo options, don’t miss out on a freshly steamed batch from a street-seller, or try the scrumptious fried pork and chicken options at Thakali Bhanchha, a Nepali-Tibetan restaurant overlooking central Thamel. For a more upmarket option, go for the Bhutanese take on these tasty dumplings at Dechenling. Their speciality steamed pork momos are extraordinary. Ignore the waitresses’ warnings about them being “smelly” – something probably got lost in translation, as they smell as marvellous as they taste.
Pilgrims and tourists alike flock to climb the three-hundred-odd steps leading up to Swayambhu, the magnificent ancient golden stupa from which excellent 360-degree panoramas over the city and across the Kathmandu Valley are afforded. Around 1500 years old and steeped in Buddhist symbolism, Swayambhu is an essential sight while in Kathmandu. It's often referred to as the “Monkey Temple”, and primates abound; you'll spot them fighting over discarded cans of Red Bull and other items unsuitable for monkey consumption. Be sure to keep your distance.
It’s worth incorporating a slight detour during a visit to Swayambhu to take in the three giant golden Buddha statues erected at the bottom of the hill, just west of the stupa. These dazzling beings, often overlooked, each stand around 20m tall and are a glorious sight. The tranquil garden in which they stand is an ideal place to sit for a few moments and take in your surroundings.
In the last decade or so, the number of vehicles on Kathmandu’s streets has increased at a rate well outstripping infrastructure development, leading to major congestion and an enormous environmental problem in the city. Unless it’s the middle of the night, traffic is pretty much guaranteed to be terrible, so if you aren’t going vast distances, consider exploring on foot. As you wind your way past dozens of workshops and bahals (courtyards), happen upon discreet, mysterious temples and walk through alleyways full of children darting in and out of billowing laundry, you’re bound to gain a better sense of everyday life in this bustling city.
This touristy but must-be-seen plaza in the heart of the old town is filled with medieval religious and royal buildings, interspersed with vegetable hawkers, sadhus (holy men), vendors selling candy floss on giant sticks and people clustered on the steps of the many-tiered ornate structures, watching the world go by. Set in front of the old royal palace, Durbar Square was once the home of the Shah and Malla kings, and its past grandeur is still profoundly resonant today.
Sometimes called “Lalitpur”, meaning “City of Beauty”, the refined suburb of Patan was once a fully independent kingdom. The pace of life here is a refreshing change compared with the feverishness elsewhere in Kathmandu. It’s also a major artistic and cultural hub, known for a rich metalwork history, evidence of which can be seen in the abundant temples and old houses in Patan’s own, less visited Durbar Square. The Patan Museum, full of bronzes, wood carvings and stone sculptures, is well worth a stop. For a real change of scene, take a walk through Patan’s western areas where affluent residents and expats reside, through peaceful streets lined with organic coffee shops.
The constant heckling of “come look my shop” in the backpacker-filled warren of streets that constitutes Thamel may become quickly tiresome, but after a day’s sightseeing the dozens of relaxed cafés are sure to come in handy. Pilgrim’s Feed ‘n’ Read is a reliable choice for Nepali and South Indian options in a tranquil garden, or stop in at one of the city’s best bakeries, Pumpernickel – try the cheesecake.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Kathmandu is expanding at an astonishing speed, escaping the exhaustingly clustered urban streets is quick and easy. About 4km west of Swayambhu lies the rustic, unassuming temple of Ichangu Narayan – but it’s the walk there that’s most impressive. Within minutes the city disappears, and the road winds through the pretty Ichangu valley. Meet curious villagers and enjoy lush views on route.
Many visitors book their treks from abroad before travelling to Nepal, but it’s often cheaper to book them from Kathmandu, and you can shop around. Agencies, which are two-a-penny in Thamel, skim a big chunk off guides’ wages in commission. If you’ve been recommended a particular guide by someone who’s trekked with them, cutting out the middle man can be a good option; it’ll be cheaper for you (in the region of US$30–35/day) and the guide will earn more. Always meet your potential guide beforehand, and don’t feel you have to go with the first one you speak to. You can also buy a great deal of your trekking gear in Thamel for a fraction of the cost it would be back home, though it will almost all be fake brands of varying degrees of quality. For more information, see our online trekking guide.