In this blog you can read all about the highlights of Kathmandu, like Thamel, the busy touristic centre, UNESCO’s Durbar Square, the lovely city escape that’s called the Garden of Dreams, the biggest stupa in Nepal at Boudhhanath or Buddha Stupa, and for souvenir shopping and a beautiful view over the city there’s Monkey Temple.
Because we arranged all our trips and tours from Kathmandu, like the Everest Basecamp Trekking and the Chitwan National Park Tour, we spent a lot of time in Kathmandu. This allowed us to see a lot of the highlights of Kathmandu and visit lots of interesting places. As a result of that we can now give you some good advice on where to go in Kathmandu.
General advice Nepal
Make sure you always have a mouth cover with you when you go to Thamel. In Thamel itself it’s okay, but ass soon as you walk or drive into another neighbourhood you will be covered in dust. There’s so much traffic here and from September onward it’s very dry in this area, so dust is flying around everywhere. This is not only a bit disgusting but it can also cause some annoying throat irritation. Better to prevent this! Fancy cotton mouth covers you can buy in Thamel but for the disposable kind you can just go to any drug store or pharmacy.
- Make sure, if you need to use any kind of transport, that you’re carrying small cash. At local buses you need to look out for scams, so it’s better if you can pay the right amount and don’t have to wait for your change. Most of the times the bus takes off before you got it (in Nepal you pay when you leave the bus). Taxi drivers are quite honest but sometimes they don’t have a lot of change.
- Going out for dinner? In September it’s easy to get a table anywhere, but make sure you make reservations in high season as it can be rather busy in Thamel. You’ll find our recommendations for nice restaurants somewhat further in this blog.
- What tour operator will you pick? Of course you’re in Nepal to do one of the great tours, like a Himalaya Trekking, a visit to a national park or a day trip from or in Kathmandu. When you go look for a tour operator you might be a bit overwhelmed. There are so many tour offices in Thamel, and you also get picked from the street by local people who get some commission if they bring you inside an office. This is a good way to support the local people though, when you are looking for an office anyway. Just trust your gut on the people in the office, if it feels right and the price of the tours are in your budget, you for it. Just don’t but it if prices seem to good to be true. Mostly, they are. When you want to do a trekking it’s important that the tour office provides rescue service. If prices are very low this often isn’t included, which means you’re on your own when you get high altitude sickness during your trek. Really no idea where to go? We went with The Everest Holiday and really loved their expertise and service. Need more info? Just send us a message.Before you go on any trek, make sure your insurance covers high altitude rescue. Just in case you need it, you want this to be covered by your insurance as it is really, really expensive.
One of the most famous highlights in Kathmandu is the touristic area of Thamel which makes it an ideal place if you like (souvenir) shopping. Nepal is known for it’s colourful clothing and so this is what you see, wondering through the busy streets of Thamel. All the colours together give the neighbourhood a cheerful vibe. Other things you will find here are outdoor gear and clothing, Buddhist singing bowls, mountaineering gear, cashmere shawls, (secondhand) travel guides and many cute souvenirs.
Remember: always bargain about the price. They even expect you to! You can easily start below half the price they’re asking. They might look a little shocked, but they know it’s reasonable. I wouldn’t pay more than half what they are asking for most things, unless it’s really unique and I really, really want it. But most of the times, there are more shops that offer the exact same thing, so just go there and try again. It helps when you take a price in mind that you think the product is worth. This way you don’t exceed you own limits and you know when to walk away.
Don’t forget that everything you can buy in Thamel is fake. Yes, also the cashmere shawls and that Northface jacket. Outdoor clothing is very fake but can be useful when you only need it for one trekking. If you need it more than once though it’s probably smarter to buy it at an official store of the brand. Best option though, take your stuff from home! Safes you a lot of money. You surely need a warm jacket, sleeping bag and good socks and shoes, and depending on the season also warm clothes, a hat and gloves.
Riding a rickshaw is also one of the highlights in Kathmandu and you should try it at least once. It’s not just a fun experience but it’s also a good way to support this very hard working group of Nepalese people. But also here you should haggle a lot and don’t expect to be very comfortable.
Nice and quiet spots
Thamel is a nice part of Kathmandu but it can be very busy and crowded. Sometimes the 10th person asking you in the street to buy a tour, souvenir or hash is just one too many. Luckily there’s some nice spots where you can easily get away from the loud noises, busy traffic and somewhat annoying salespeople. Try Thamel’s New Orleans Cafe or, a bit out of Thamel, the lovely Garden of Dreams.
Since Thamel is so very touristic, there’s a lot of restaurants. Nepali, Indian, but also Western like Italian or the Belgian snack bar. Our favourite places:
- Momo hut. Serves Nepal’s number 1 speciality, momo’s! These tasty dumplings are filled with meat, cheese, vegetables and/or curry. Choose ‘kothey’ style for a steamed and fried momo, our favourite! And our favourite flavours: spinach/ cottage cheese and garlic/ cheese. Yumm! The desert momo’s are also pretty good, but they are deep fried so not very healthy and very heavy. Don’t order too much of these.
- New Orleans Cafe. From the busy streets of Thamel you walk right into this heavenly courtyard of peace and quiet. It’s a nice spot for an afternoon or early evening drink. Big plus; they serve really good apple pie with whipped cream!
- Dolce Vita Pizza. Got hungry after your afternoon drinks? Check out this Italian restaurant with real Italian food. Pizza’s as they should be with a thin, crispy crust and the best imported cheeses. It’s not Nepal cheap, but 10 dollars is still okay if the food is this good, believe me.
- Lassi. A typical Nepali drink is Lassi; a freshly blended yogurt drink with different fruits and herbs. You can get it in any restaurant in Kathmandu in several fruity flavours, but nothing beats the original street lassi. From a little shop they sell glasses of lassi over the counter. You recognize these places by the big amount of people standing in line and sipping from their glass in front of the shop. You can’t choose flavours here, there’s only one, but you have to pick your size: big or small. We went to this place on the way from Thamel to Durbar Square and I can highly recommend it!
- Sarangi Vegetarian Restaurant. A restaurant with delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu that made even Riny happy. We especially liked the Biryani. Also try Dal Bhat if you haven’t had this before. It’s Nepals main dish made out of a lot of different small dishes and accompanied by rice and papadum. Anywhere in Nepal you get free refills with this dish, so it’s especially worthwhile when you’re on a budget. This nice restaurant has a roof top terrace with Nepal style low tables and cushions on the floor. Not a fan? You can also choose a beanbag to sit on.
Garden of Dreams
One of the most peaceful highlights in Kathmandu is the Garden of Dreams. A beautiful inner garden where you can relax and escape the busy city for a while. It’s outside of Thamel but it isn’t far and definitely worth it. The entrance fee is 200 rupees but it’s well worth it. Once you are inside you forget about the hectic city and imagine yourself in paradise and you can easily spend a few hours here. Take some food to have a picnic in the grass or have a bite at the restaurant.
Monkey temple – Swayambhunath
Monkey temple is one of the well known highlights in Kathmandu. It isn’t just a temple. It’s a huge park with several temples, stupa’s, souvenir shops and, of course, monkeys. Start on the main road at the west end of the park. In the maps.me app this place is called ‘Buddha Park’. It’s a huge temple where you’ll find many monks, many places to lit a candle and many homeless people. If you’re lucky there’s a Buddhist ceremony going on behind the three huge Buddha statues.
Walk further east, past the many souvenir shops uphill until you reach a asphalt road. Walk further up until you see a staircase on your left. Make sure to put away all your food before you walk up here, because this is where you will find all the monkeys. Seriously, everywhere you look there’s monkeys, a very good spot for some photos. Go straight from the top of the staircase and cross the square. Follow the road until the next square, where you’ll find typical Tibetan flags all over the place. Again a beautiful picture place. On the square there’s a little stand where you can buy some drinks and snacks. On the right side of the stand you can take the staircase down. Follow the street until you see a staircase leading towards Monkey Temple. This square is very touristic but it’s a nice place for some souvenir shopping and you get a pretty amazing on the city of Kathmandu. You can leave through the huge staircase leading down. This is the main entrance, so by following our instructions you didn’t have to pay any entrance fees. Nice!
Probably the most famous of highlights in Kathmandu is this beautiful, old square full of temples that unfortunately got struck by the earthquake pretty bad in 2015. Even though it’s still a good place to visit. The demolished buildings look impressive and the ones still standing are as amazing as always. To visit this UNESCO sight you have to pay a steep entrance fee of 1000 rupees, which they really need to ever be able to restore all the damaged buildings. Go and see all the beautiful old temples decorated with fine wood carvings.
Try to go there during a festival and you might be lucky enough to get in for free, because there are too many people to keep track of payments, or there’s basically no one who wants to manage the ticket office at these times. Also during a festival there will be a lot more to see here, like traditional dances and everyone dressed in gorgeous Nepalese clothing. Make sure to bring your camera!
There are a lot of guides walking around on the square at all times, which are worth their money if you like to learn about culture. Make sure to first negotiate for a fair price. We paid 2000 rupees for 90 minutes of guidance. Good thing is that you don’t have to go look around for a guide, they will find you. Group up with other tourists to lower the individual price.
Warning! During the Dashain festival (2018: 16-21 October, 2019: 5-10 October), especially on the last 2 days, it’s better to avoid Durbar square because they will be offering (aka slaughtering) live stock here on those days. Everywhere you look there will be ritual offerings and trails of blood and this might not be your ideal image of a vacation in Nepal. It’s much better to be in a nice home stay during the festival to celebrate ‘Nepalese Christmas’ with them. If you are lucky they might even dress you up like a real Nepali.
During our stay we were lucky enough to be in the Nagarjun home stay, with the Simkhada family in Kathmandu, during Dashain Festival. On one of the days during the festival, called ‘Tikka’, we were invited to join the special tikka ceremony. This ceremony is about blessings, being given by the family elders, and speaking out wishes for everyone attending. Truly special.
Riny and me were asked to come together before the elders. Tradition is that a man donates a symbolic amount of money to the family elders, in our case the father and mother of the family, and that the woman receives a symbolic amount of money. Which is not to be spent because this will cause bad luck. For this occasion the family has taken out some brand new bank notes from the bank.
On a big dish in the centre of the room, these gifts are placed, together with a lot of tasty snacks like fried sugar dough, sugar crystals, nuts and much more. These are the gifts you will receive during the ceremony. You are required to sit cross legged, holding your hands up as if you are begging. This is how you ‘ask’ for a blessing. The family elders will then simultaneously perform a prayer or blessing and speak out certain wishes for your future. In our case a long and happy marriage, so sweet.
After this we each get a tikka; a bit of red coloured sticky rice on the place of your third eye, in a triangle with your eyes. When the rice dries it easily falls off but you’re not actually allowed to take it off. Which is okay for the rice, but the red dot can stay there for days! We see many people in the city with this red dot still on their forehead. After the blessings are done we get some treats in our hands and then try to get up without spilling everything. Quite the challenge in a sari, haha!
Mother was so sweet to dress al the ladies in beautiful sari’s, in which we’ve danced all day. The men were also dressed up in traditional Nepalese clothing; suited up and wearing the traditional hat. Really a fantastic experience!
Pashupatinath Temple en cremation centre
A very extraordinary place in Kathmandu is Pashupatinath. An UNESCO world heritage site where you can witness local cremation ceremonies from the other side of the river. The entrance fee is 1000 rupees and you will be checked several times after you’ve passed the entrance, so make sure to keep the ticket on you. There’s multiple temples to see here and you encounter many Sadhu’s; holy, mostly old men, wearing orange robes and yellow, red, orange and/or white paint on their faces. Some pose for pictures, others want to ‘bless’ the tourists, but you should know that they do expect you to pay for this. 20 rupees will do.
We were lucky enough to visit this place with our dear Nepalese friend from the Nagarjun Homestay. He brought us to a small hut inside Pashupatinath where we could sit with a well known and well respected ‘baba’. This man reached a lot of things in his life which made him a guru. Lots op people walk in to get a blessing or get answers on important questions. He has the highest status possible and is known through the whole village. His hut is not bigger than 2×2 meters and the most simple. There’s 2 mattresses, one for him to sleep on and sit on during the day, and one for visitors to sit on. They are divided by a beautiful altar filled with flowers, candles, food and money. People that come here for advise or a blessing leave him with a big gift as a token of their appreciation. I found a video on YouTube where you can see this baba and how he lives. It’s a great honour to talk to this man, but unfortunately we were a little unprepared and didn’t make the most of it. It was still a very special experience though.
On the side of the river where the cremations take place, there’s more squares and temples you can visit. When you cross the bridge please take in mind that you could encounter dead bodies being carried into the entrance on your left. When we were there, there was some sort of ambulance parked but we didn’t see anything. Don’t go into the entrance that leads to the cremation plateaus. This is not a show, it’s a real thing with mourning people and it would be very rude to disturb them.
Bouddhanath or Buddha Stupa is located on the east side of Kathmandu. It’s not far from the city and you can easily get there by bus or taxi. It’s not a big entrance, but if you use the Maps.me app you can see exactly where you have to be. Search for Boudha Stupa and choose one of 7 entry points. Since this is an UNESCO World Heritage site you have to pay an entrance fee, which is not too high, about 4000 Rupees. If you go late in the afternoon you might be lucky and find no staff checking for entry tickets. You can also ask people leaving for their ticket, because it’s a multiple entry ticket that stays valid for one week, and not many tourists visit more than once. The late afternoon is also a good time because there will be lots of people praying at the stupa at this time. Also you could see some praying ceremonies of the monks if you’re lucky.
The Tibetan tradition of a stupa is that you have to walk three circles around it, clockwise, and meanwhile spin the praying wheels (also clockwise) for good luck. Since this is a huge stupa, the biggest in Nepal and one of the biggest in all of Asia, it takes a while to fisnih your laps. You see many, many people walking around the stupa and it’s a pretty magnificent sight. When you’re finished you can enjoy the view of the stupa from above from one of the many cafes and restaurants surrounding it. Pick one with a roof terrace for some great views and to be able to see the people praying behind the stupa walls.
You can also walk on the stupa at certain appointed areas. We didn’t do this because it’s actually nicer to see the stupa from a distance, but you can if you like. It can be quite crowded at times though.
We really hope you liked reading about the highlights of Kathmandu and that it’s helpful information when you visit Nepal. Make sure to check out all the beautiful pictures that go with this blog here and please follow us on Facebook and Instagram! Thanks! Sharing is caring.