Kathmandu is the country’s capital and largest city. A somewhat chaotic city, but full of life. It is situated in a bowl surrounded by mountains at an altitude of about 1400m. It combines areas stuffed with buildings with others with single-family houses. Some large avenues always full of traffic and a network of streets and alleys that follow an uncertain pattern. Some tidier areas and others rather neglected. Outside the “Ring Road”, which is like a belt around Kathmandu and Patan, the city continues in a mix of low-rise houses mixed with orchards and fields that have yet to surrender to the onslaught of the city.
Kathmandu’s highlights are not difficult to visit and getting around is relatively easy by taxi.
Thamel is Kathmandu’s tourist district and the place where everyone goes sooner or later. It is full of restaurants, accommodation, cafes and shops of all kinds. It is a small neighbourhood, great to hang around with no direction, and in fact, they have banned the transit of vehicles (not the tourist ones) so it is now quieter. It is a neighbourhood where it is essential to stroll around and explore its countless interesting corners that you will find at every turn.
If you are looking for a quiet and curious place, you can go to the “Garden of Dreams”. It is a small neoclassical garden (entrance fee) near the border of Thamel on Tridevi Marg, where you can lie on the lawn or have a drink or meal in one of the two restaurants.
Bouddhanath or Bouddha, as it is also known and gives its name to the neighbourhood, is the big iconographic stupa of the city that you have seen in many pictures. It is located inside a large round-shape square full of life, with devotees praying and surrounding it clockwise, tourists, dogs, pigeons… There are some restaurants and cafes with terraces on the upper floors with good views over the square and the stupa, which can also be seen from the Guru Lhakhang temple. But Bouddha is much more than its stupa, it is the neighbourhood that hosts a large part of the Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu, and its alleys are always full of people up and down, shops and Buddhist monasteries and temples that can be visited freely.
From Bouddha to Pashupatinath you can walk for about 40 minutes through narrow streets where you won’t find too many tourists. It is quite interesting, as a part of this non-tourist Kathmandu. There are different possible itineraries, but you will finally reach the river, where there are some temples and ghats, which you will cross to get to Pashupatinath. There is an entrance, a bit like the back door, where there are some temples that have been somewhat neglected.
(Of course, it is possible to do the route the other way round).
Pashupatinath is the most sacred and important Hindu temple in Nepal, with the main temple where non-Hindus are not allowed to enter, and it is the most frequent place to celebrate the funerals in its “ghats”, the crematoriums of the deceased, located on the sacred and polluted Baghmati River.
If you come from Bouddha and enter through the old temples beside the river, some steps up will take you to a hill full of temples of all kinds, where some sadhus and astrologers offer their services. From there, you just keep going down to the main area of Pashupatinath, where the ghats and main temples are located (you can also do it in the opposite direction).
Keep in mind that this is a sacred space, where funerals are being held, so be discreet and respectful, keeping your distance. In the afternoon most of the large groups of tourists already left. Outside there are quite a few little shops selling offerings, flowers, and other cult-related products.
Swayambhunath, perched on a hill, is a cluster of Hindu and Buddhist temples and has the city’s second great stupa at its centre. It is also known as the monkey temple, for obvious reasons. It offers interesting views over the city, especially at night or in the morning, and is also much more than its stupa. The whole compound has interesting nooks and crannies, and just its eastern access up the steep stairs from Swayambhu Marg is worth the effort. The area extends into Amideva Park on the western side, just off the Ring Road where the bus parking area is located and where there are three giant Buddha figures. There are some eating establishments, as well as on Swayambhu Marg.
It is a 45-minute walk from Thamel through the more “real” Kathmandu and across the river.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is not just a square, it is a small neighbourhood south of Thamel. It brings together what used to be the palaces and administrative compounds of the kingdom, mixed with tenement houses, offices, shops and restaurants. As a small neighbourhood, it has different entrances with ticket counters. With very diverse buildings, one of which is home to Nepal’s best-known Kumari Devi. The Kumari is a living goddess incarnated as a girl from the age of four until she enters puberty. Although there are other Kumaris in the valley of Nepal, the one in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is the most important, as in the past the kings received her blessing and nowadays the president of the republic does. They only appear in public about six times a year, or the few times when they appear somewhat bored through a window.
These are the highlights of Kathmandu, but of course, there are many other interesting places. From Kathmandu, it is also easy to visit both Patan and Bhaktapur, although we recommend always spending the night there. The areas of Bungamati and Kirtipur, Nagarkot, Dhulikhel and Namo Buddha, etc. are also worth visiting, but you will better get a car. And of course, we also recommend doing a short trekking route nearby.