The chaos of Kathmandu is part of its allure. This city is so alert and awake. It practically hums with vibrancy, color and life. You either love it or hate it, but this is reality of Nepalis. Amid the chaos, genuinely kind and helpful natives navigate the teeming streets. Cars, motor bikes and buses jostle and weave their way along dirty and dusty streets, competing for valuable space on the already choking pavements. We’ll help you navigate this incredible city in our Kathmandu City Guide.
With the influx of eager trekkers, Kathmandu has adapted and grown. A disjointed and mismatched city, Kathmandu is messy and charming. Energy beams from its seams, filled with trekking stores, local handmade crafts and busy electronic stores, the city ebbs and flows with throngs of people, foreigners and locals alike.
History and Geography
Nepal is nestled in western Asia, in between the two giants of China and India. A tiny space in comparison, it measures approximately 600kms long by 200kms wide – slightly larger than the state of Arkansas. Mountains and hills cover over 75% of the nation’s area.
Witnessing the majestic Himalayan Mountain range with your own eyes is reason enough to visit Nepal. Himalaya in Sanskrit translates to “abode of snow”. The mountains will take your breath away, with their sheer presence, ever-looming over the small cities and villages of Nepal. Not only does it contain the world’s largest mountain, the imposing figure of Mt Everest, but also 200 other mountains, that range in breath-taking heights.
Kathmandu is an energetic city of just over 1 million people. The roads and streets are saturated with people. After the earthquake, accommodation stretched even thinner than before, and apartment buildings became inundated with homeless families. Despite the chaotic paths that create this city, it definitely has a certain charm.
In April 2015, a vicious earthquake struck the city of Kathmandu. The quake destroyed many sacred religious sites, and tourism in Nepal was significantly affected. The devastating natural disaster claimed close to 9,000 people, injuring more than 22,000. The earthquake triggered an avalanche on Everest, killing 21 people, the deadliest day on the mountain. Hundreds of thousands were left stranded and homeless.
The cultural cost of the earthquake was immeasurable. Buildings that have stood the test of time for centuries were reduced to rubble. Many of these were UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including some in Durbar Square, Patan, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the Changu Narayan Temple and many religious Stupas.
The recovery process has been a slow one. Many sights in Kathmandu are still under construction. Many locals are still struggling to find income, and the economy is drowning under the pressure. The best way to help the Nepalese is to go there! Pack your bags, and visit this incredibly diverse country. Tourism plays an important role in the Nepalese economy and they need every cent. Help to make this beautiful place flourish again.
Must-see attractions in Kathmandu
1. The Boudhanath Stupa
This iconic Stupa is synonymous with Kathmandu. It’s one of the holiest and most recognisable sites in the city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the largest temple in Nepal with a diameter of 120m.
The stupa is built on an octagonal base, is surrounded by prayer wheels, and has colourful prayer flags draped from its 36-metre central spire. The temple itself is rich in symbolism. The five statues represent the five elements, the nine levels represent Mount Meru (a mountain of the utmost religious significance) and 13 rings from its base to the peak, representing the steps to enlightenment.
As the centre of the Buddhist community in Kathmandu, the temple is surrounded by numerous monasteries and smalls stalls selling Tibetan artefacts and items of religious significance. You can spend hours strolling around this incredible complex, and watching as the locals spin the mantra wheels.
Local Tip: Be careful to observe Tibetan custom by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction.
2. Durbar Square
This sprawling square is a popular attraction with tourists. This iconic area was once where the kings were crowned and where they ruled from (durbar translates to palace). The square remains as the heart of old city Kathmandu. Majority of the square dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and some buildings are even older. The entire square was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The area is actually made up of three loosely joined squares, and most tourists miss out on some beautiful spaces because they don’t realize this. The first is Basantapur Square, the former royal elephant stables and a bright and open space. The main square is Durbar, dotted with temples and teeming with tourists. The third is the second part of Durbar Square, containing the entrance to Hanuman Dhoka and many more temples.
We recommend strolling around all of the squares, and bask in the deep orange hues of the area. It’s filled with restaurants, small stalls, tourist souvenirs, and an array of beautiful fabric stores.
Local Tip: While you’re there, keep an eye out for the old men playing a game called Bagh-Chal – meaning “tiger game”. It’s a highly strategic, two-person game which involves tigers hunting goats. The game originated in Nepal and the old men take it very seriously.
3. Hanuman Dhoka Palace
Originally built between the 4th and 8th centuries AD, Kathmandu’s royal palace is epically impressive. It houses 10 different courtyards and sprawls over five acres in Durbar Square.
You’ll be able to recognise it by the entrance. The monkey God stands guard at the main entrance points. Also standing guard are two lions, one ridden by the God Shiva and the other by his wife, Parvati. The Hanuman statue marks the entrance, he is draped in red robes and holds an umbrella, dating back to 1672. The face of the statue is constantly smothered in orange vermillion paste by the devoted locals, hiding his appearance.
Unfortunately, the palace was hit especially hard by the 2015 earthquake, and the damage was extensive. Originally the palace contained 35 courtyards, this has been reduced to just 10. Visitors have only just been allowed back into the palace, and you are now able to access the beautiful royal courtyards and royal museum.
Local Tip: Ensure that you leave enough time to explore the grounds and buildings of this complex. Even after the Earthquake, there is still so much to see and do.
4. Asan Tole
If you want to truly immerse yourself in the anarchic chaos that is Kathmandu, look no further than Asan Tole. The busiest square in the city has it all – with vendors selling EVERYTHING, including coconuts, yaks, vegetables, spices and more.
Operating all day, you can stand at this junction and people watch to your heart’s desire. But beware – you will not be able to stand still for long! You will be pulled in every direction by industrious vendors wanting a sale, or scooters and motorbikes zooming past you. Fresh produce is brought in every day from the surrounding valley.
Local Tip: Do not bring your valuables. It’s a very popular place for theft.
5. Swayambhunath Temple (monkey temple)
As you approach the iconic ‘monkey temple’ you will instantly understand how this religious site was given its nickname. The temple itself is perched on top of a steep hill in the middle of the city, however at the bottom, monkey’s rule the land. Covered in benches, religious statues and dense shrubbery, the platform at the bottom of the hill is overcome by monkeys, playing with each other, taunting tourists and scampering for food. Be careful – they will take food from your bag and hands. Keep your camera close too!
You will then ascend towards the temple, via a steep and rocky staircase. Bring your water, when we say steep, we mean steep! Once you’ve reached the top, you will behold an incredible view of the entire city. The temple is a bright gold and white, and adorned with prayer flags and surrounded by mantra wheels. The area at the top of the hill is quite large, and houses the temple, several buildings and an array of tourist stalls. The monkey’s still rule the land on the top of the mountain, and scamper around your feet as your stroll around the complex. Every so often, a police officer with a baton will chase after the monkeys, resulting in them fleeing through the shrubbery down the mountain.
Local Tip: Arrive early in the morning to avoid the tourists, or later in the afternoon when the smog has lifted, and you can see the city in all its glory.
6. The Gardens of Dreams
Wedged between trekking stores, anarchic streets and blasting horns is the tranquil relief of The Garden of Dreams. Created in the 1920s, the garden is a tapestry of stone buildings with high ceilings, supported by vine covered columns, offering shade and elegance. Stone elephant statues sit protecting the water fountains and streams. Tress, rose gardens, hedges, palms and greenery automatically releases your tension from the busy street outside its high walls.
The east corner of the garden houses a small but delightful cafe, where foreigners and locals share cold drinks, snacks and cakes under the stone pillars and columns.
There’s a small museum in the garden, opposite the café, which outlines the history of the gardens in beautiful giant black and white images. It shouldn’t be missed! In another corner, there’s a massive bamboo swing, which tourists and locals love to capture ‘selfies’ on. The backdrop of the garden makes these images Instagram worthy indeed.
Local Tip: Escape the chaos of the city and escape here with a good book, a picnic lunch, or for some sunbathing. It asks for a small entrance fee, but you can stay for hours. Ask for the free padded mats, to make your sunbathing more comfortable!
Author: Michelle Hyde
Images captured by: Ben Fehervary