What to see and do on your visit to Kathmandu
Fly to: Tribhuvan International Airport (Kathmandu)
Flight Time: 5 hours
My parents both live in Kathmandu, and the two times that I have been able to fly over to see them, I’ve been taken aback by the history and charm that exudes as soon as you step off the plane and onto the dusty streets. The city is still recovering from the devastating effects of 2015 earthquake, but even so, there are endless side streets and medieval relics to explore. Spend the day wandering through ancient cities and settle in with a (large) plate of momos and an Everest Beer come the evening. Here’s my 15 must-dos…
Thought to be spiritual creatures in Nepal, prepare to encounter more monkeys in one space than you’ll ever see in your lifetime! Perched atop glistening, golden stupas and ornate architecture, mothers and babies cling to one another as they jump from temple to temple. Said to be over 2,000 years old, Swayambhunath is the oldest stupa of its kind in Nepal and offers sweeping, panoramic views of Kathmandu Valley (an Instagramers dream). For a small entrance fee of NPR 200 (approx $15) toss a coin and make a wish in the fountain, climb the stairs (trying to resist the gorgeous and colourful jewellery on the way up) and have your cameras at the ready… although, of course, don’t get too close and respect the animals, not all monkeys are ready for their closeup.
The halls are lined with mounted tiger and rhino heads, accompanied by enormous portraits of past royalty. The locations where Prince Dipendra massacred his family in 2001 are marked clearly along the way and amongst the outdated, 1970s decor, bullet holes are still visible in the walls. You can book a tour online if you’re keen to go into more depth about the palace history, otherwise the entrance fee is roughly NPR 500 (approx $40). Cameras and bags aren’t allowed into the palace.
Tip: Spend the afternoon exploring the Palace Museum and then around 4pm cross over to road to Mezze, order a glass of wine and watch the sun set over the palace from its rooftop
Sadly, many of the thousands-of-year-old structures were destroyed in the earthquake, with others deemed uninhabitable and to be torn down, but these ancient cities remain charming and are an absolute must-see. Navigate your way through medieval squares and winding streets where locals weave cloth and throw pottery (you can even ask to have a go for a small fee!) and socialise in the communal courtyards. For Bhaktapur and Durbar Square there is an entry fee of NPR 1,000 (approx $80), which goes towards maintaining the surrounding temples. Look for restaurants with rooftops for incredible panoramic views and enjoy traditional, Nepalese dumplings (momos) as you snap away at the scenery.
The colonial décor and grand gardens at the Yak and Yeti Hotel is the perfect spot for a fresh cup of coffee (or pot of Earl Grey!) and a hearty buffet lunch for NPR 1,800 (approx $140, excluding tax) at its Sunrise Restaurant. Oozing with history (the sunburst chandeliers were constructed locally from long abandoned crates of imported crystal) the hotel captures the old charms of Kathmandu and makes for great conversation. The hotel rooms are also pretty amazing if you’re looking for a unique place to stay!
Built quite recently, Chandragiri Hills is a seven-kilometre cable car ride up steep peaks, offering incontestable views of Kathmandu. Albeit a little touristy at the top (think kids playground and branded shops), grab a quick bite to eat and just admire the scenery. On a clear day you can see the Himalayan ranges from Annapurna to Everest – which makes fighting the crowds worth it, in my opinion.
Take a Trip Down Memory Lane: Old Freak Street
Located south of Durbar Square, this small street was once an epicentre during the Hippie Trail! The area was a nirvana for those seeking legalised marijuana and hashish, however walking down Freak Street is now more of a trip ‘for old time sake,’ offering cheap guest houses to backpackers, a ton of trekking agencies, souvenir shops and restaurants. It doesn’t quite hold the same lure, but worth the trip down memory lane if you have the time.
Go for a Night out in Thamel
The streets of Thamel come alive on Friday nights, everyone is ready to celebrate the weekend and bars and restaurants are bustling! There are plenty of places to choose from if you just fancy strolling until something takes your fancy, but a personal fave of mine has to be New Orleans Café and Bar. With live, fusion music and guest artists taking the stage every Wednesday and Saturday nights from 7pm, the food is also to be contended with. A lively dinner spot that will often come recommended by tourists and locals alike, tuck in to “Awesome Hamburgers,” “Brilliant Fish & Chips” as well as delish Tibetan Momos, Dal Baht and Old Kathmandu-style Sandeko. The cocktail section is pretty great, too… Mississippi Mud, anyone?
One for the foodies among us, Nepal Cooking School is a hands-on, immersive experience that takes you from ‘farm to table,’ accompanying you to the local market to source all of your veg (in a rickshaw!) and back to the kitchen to whip up traditional, tasty bites. Located in Thamel, classes are four hours long and run daily (9am and 1.30pm). The cost is roughly $280 (USD35) and the profits go towards funding social programmes for local charity, Journey Nepal!
Running every Saturday, the farmers market at Le Sherpa is popular with local expats and tourists alike. Offering up a wide variety of organic goods, spend the morning browsing (and sampling) fresh veg, fruit, cheese, breads and honey – the ideal setting for a spot of breakfast and a chat with those living in or passing through Nepal.
Flight of the Angels
Nepal is a seriously special place, so if you’re going splurge, it may as well be on champagne atop Everest Base Camp, right? Check out Adventure Mission Nepal (Raj Dhamala is your man – swing him an email!) where you’ll find an endless list of awesome, adventurous trips from trekking to climbing and jungle wildlife tours. The ‘Breakfast with Everest‘ experience will take you on a three – four hour round trip from Kathmandu where you’ll have time to explore Base Camp before flying to Yeti Mountain Resort for a breakfast that you’ll remember forever – bubbly included. The price is steep (at around USD 2, 200 per person) but how many people can say that they toasted to good health in front of the world’s most infamous mountain?
“One of the four most important religious sites in Asia for devotees to Shiva,” visit and watch daily rituals carried out Pashupatinath. This sacred site is also where last rites are read and daily cremations are held across the river, which truth be told, can be quite a sobering experience to witness.
Professionals and avid golf players alike visit Gokarna Forest Resort to experience its unique course, which was formerly the King’s old hunting grounds. The 6,755 yard par 72 course “boasts the only bentgrass greens on an 18 hole course in South and South East Asia” and is truly somewhere special for a round. There has even been the odd leopard sighting early in the morning!
5km from Kathmandu is the ancient city of Kirtipur. Dotted with medieval temples and cosy backstreets, hire a car (Raj Dhamala will be able to sort the logistics for you) for the afternoon and enjoy all of that this old town has to offer.
Take an Adventurous Day Trip
If you’re feeling a little ‘templed out,’ rent a mountain bike (Nepal Mountain Bike Tours is a good bet) and go with a guide for a day trip out of Kathmandu and up into the hills of surrounding valleys. And if you’re happy to go a little further out, there are some great white water rafting companies (I’d recommend Thamel based company, Ultimate Descents) which will take you further out for a morning rafting the Trishuli River.
With so much to see and do, Kathmandu can be a bit of a sensory overload, so my final ‘must-do’ is to take a load off with a Himalayan cup of joe. There are three Himalayan Java Cafés in Kathmandu, and the Thamel location is the perfect pit-stop after a long day exploring. Decked out with hundreds of travel and history books, it’s a hub for locals, expats and travellers alike to stop for a bite to eat, a relaxing read and an inspiring conversation.