Kathmandu. For mountaineers and trekkers, the capital city of Nepal holds an almost indescribable draw. It’s hectic and crowded, but it’s also full of culture, character and captivation. Not to mention being a welcome source of food, entertainment and all the creature comforts you’ve missed on the trail! But what are the best things to do in Kathmandu?
As you will probably know, Kathmandu is the city we fly in to for all of our adventure trips in Nepal. Whether you’re off to take on the Mount Everest Base Camp trek or to trek the Annapurna Circuit, your journey will begin in Kathmandu.
On all of our Nepal treks, you will have a couple of days to explore Kathmandu, with both a locally-guided tour of the city and free time to spend at your leisure. Here are our top suggestions of what to do, buy and eat in Kathmandu.
What to do in Kathmandu
The first thing you should do in Kathmandu is join a city tour. We include a Kathmandu city tour in all of our Nepal trips, which is a great way to get a feel for the city and learn about the history of its major sights from a local guide. On a Kathmandu city tour, you will visit all of the highlights of this bustling medieval city.
Wander the streets beneath the temples of iconic Durbar Square. This UNESCO World Heritage site is located in front of what was once the royal palace of the Kathmandu Kingdom. Marvel at the intricate Newar architecture of striking buildings such as Nyatapola, Taleju and Jagannath temples, along with the impressive statue of King Pratap Malla, and the Big Bell. Durbar Square collapsed during the earthquake of 2015, and has since undergone significant reconstruction work.
Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath Stupa)
Another must-visit site in Kathmandu is Swayambhunath Stupa, otherwise known as Monkey Temple. This is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal, and it is certainly spectacular, sitting atop a hillock. As you would imagine, it is nicknamed Monkey Temple because of the large population of monkeys that roam the area, scouting for treats from unsuspecting tourists. However, the stupa is stunning in its own right, with its large white dome and golden tower decorated with the signature all-seeing eyes.
If you visit Kathmandu, you have to visit Boudhanath Stupa. Not only is this stupa – which is located around eight kilometres east of Kathmandu – one of the largest in the world, it is also considered to be the centre of Buddhism. Locals believe that the stupa entombs the remains of Kassapa Buddha – but whether or not this is the case, it is an amazing site!
There are also countless fascinating Hindu sites in Kathamndu. Possibly the most famous of them all is Pashupatinath Temple. Also known as the temple of Lord Shiva, Pashupatinath Temple is well worth a visit for its golden pagoda-style roof alone. This sacred temple complex is set over the banks of the holy Bagmati river, with many temples, ashrams, images and inscriptions to discover.
Patan Durbar Square
There are actually three Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, and Patan Durbar Square is also well worth a visit. Here you can explore Patan Museum, which is located inside the former royal palace to learn about Nepal’s history and witness the breathtaking Krishna Mandir temple, perhaps the most impressive of all the Durbar temples.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
This ancient Newari city is believed by many visitors to be the most beautiful in all of Nepal, so if you have time for a day trip, it’s well worth the 13km journey. Here you can find the Nge Nyapa Jhya Laaykoo – more commonly known as the ’55 Window Palace’, the golden gate (said to be the most intricate of its kind in the world), and Nyatapola temple, which boasts the tallest pagoda in Nepal. In the south of the city, you can also visit old potteries and shop for local wares in market stalls.
What to buy in Kathmandu
When it comes to finding artisanal goods at excellent prices, there aren’t many shopping destinations better than Kathmandu. The city is home to countless cottage industries, including woodcrafts, metalworks and pottery. Here, you can find pretty much anything you could imagine – usually at the fraction of the price that you’d find it at home!
The first place you will encounter on any of our trips to Nepal is the district of Thamel. It’s well worth taking a stroll from the hotel to look around Thamel’s many shops selling trekking gear – some of it genuinely branded and highly discounted – and some less so! Either way, you can find everything you need for your trip here, whether you’re after trekking poles for your Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Lakes trek, or crampons to climb Island Peak.
Going to Nepal and coming home without an item of locally-crafted clothing? It’s almost unheard of. All around the city, you can find countless local designs, from yak wool scarves (that are light yet incredibly warm!) and cashmere pashminas to knitted hats (which our Bucketlisters almost always buy before their treks!) Of course, you can also find a wide range of traditional and modern clothing, often intricately embroidered in vibrant colours.
If there’s one thing you’ll want to bring home from Nepal, it’s some local handicrafts. There is so much to choose from in Kathmandu, from prayer flags (which you can buy around most stupas) to singing bowls, incense, wooden carvings and a wide range of other souvenirs. Just make sure to ask your local guide before buying, to check you’re getting a good price!
Spices and tea
Once you’ve tried Nepali cuisine, you’ll want to take a taste of it home with you. Most visitors buy spices and tea during their time in Kathmandu. Browse the market stalls for spices like masala, cardamom and saffron to add a bit of Nepalese flavour to your cooking. When it comes to tea, look out for silver tip tea, as this is the purest variety. Ilam tea is one of Nepal’s most famous blends, but you will have a myriad of options to choose from.
Where to eat in Kathmandu
When it comes to food, Kathmandu is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Here, you can find almost any kind of cuisine, from local Nepali dishes to steakhouses, Italian restaurants and Vietnamese joints. On any trip to Nepal, you have to try the essentials – dal bhat, momos, and the rest – but here are a few of our picks for the best places to eat in Kathmandu.
The Sherpas are the ethnic group of the Nepalese Himalayas, and their cuisine is completely unique. If you still want more Sherpa food after your trek, visit Le Sherpa in Kathmandu. However, this is a far cry from the food of the teahouses, as one of the best fine-dining restaurants in the city. Sit in the luscious open-air courtyard as you enjoy Nepali fare at its best.
If you’re looking for traditional Nepalese cuisine in traditional surroundings – with an up-market twist, Bhojan Griha restaurant is a great choice. The building was first constructed as a royal priest’s quarters over 150 years ago and is now a popular restaurant where you can sample everything from momos to Newari dishes. Get comfy on the colourful traditional cushions and enjoy your food, served on classic brass dishes, while watching a show of local folk music and dance.
Fire and Ice Pizzeria
If you ask any of our guides where you should eat in Kathmandu, they will tell you the same place: Fire and Ice. This pizzeria offers a refreshing taste of Italian cuisine after weeks of Nepalese dishes. Here, you can indulge in pizzas, pasta, risotto and even gelato – all cooked using both imported ingredients and high-quality local produce.
Of course, whenever you visit Kathmandu you absolutely have to try local street food. You can find this everywhere, especially in the Thamel district, and there are endless choices to peruse. Sample samosas, Sel roti (something a little like doughnuts), pan puri and lassi. It’s all delicious, and super cheap, too!
So, those are our suggestions on what to do, see and eat in Kathmandu. We’ve visited the city countless times for our treks in Nepal, and we’re still discovering new things every time. It’s a fascinating city, and exploring its streets is a bucket list adventure in its own right.