Top 5 Must-Visit Attractions & Hotspots in Kathmandu
The Nepalese capital of Kathmandu has been a royal capital for much of its existence, and is home to several glorious palaces, mansions and gardens as a result. The mixed, multi-ethnic population of Hindus and Buddhists makes for a vibrant and colorful city full of cultural celebrations and ancient temples that assault the senses at every turn.
Despite Nepal normally being known for its famous trekking tours to the Annapurna Circuit or famous Everest Base Camp trek, it should come as no surprise then that Kathmandu has been added to many a list of up-and-coming and best value destinations.
Though struck hard by an earthquake in 2015, most of Kathmandu’s most important and impressive sites survived unscathed, so here are the top 5 attractions and hotspots you simply must visit when exploring Nepal’s capital.
1. Kathmandu Durbar Square
Many of Kathmandu’s most fascinating attractions are found around Kathmandu Durbar Square and its two adjoining plazas. Although it is yet to be fully-restored after being damaged by the 2015 earthquake, it remains the city’s cultural heart.
Here you’ll find several historic gems including the royal palace complex of Hanuman Dhoka, which was the main residence of the royal family until around a century ago. There is also the sixteenth-century Taleju Temple, rising 35 meters over the square, and the Kumari Bahal. This latter intricately-carved red-brick structure built in 1757 is the home of the Kumari, a young girl chosen to become the city’s ‘living goddess’, a living embodiment of the Hindu female goddess called Taleju.
Although still receiving extensive restoration to repair earthquake damage, make sure you also visit the Kasthamandap, or ‘Pavilion of Wood’, from which the capital takes its name, and the Maju Deval, a temple to the Hindu master god Shiva built in 1690. Make a note to also visit the other two similar Durbar Squares of Patan and Bhaktapur.
- Location: West of the recreation ground and south-west of the royal palace in the center of the city.
- Open: Daily, with museums open 10 am – 4pm
- Entrance fee: Rs. 1000 (USD 9)
- Top tips: Get away from the crowds by heading to one of the cafes on the wonderfully named Freak Street (Jhochhen Tole).
Perched on a hill just outside of Kathmandu, Kirtipur’s quiet streets make for a great escape from the hubbub of central Kathmandu. On clear days the small Newari-majority town has fantastic views over both the Kathmandu Valley and the Himalayan range.
Founded at the end of the eleventh century, it is an ancient city and former regional capital full of temples, monasteries and palaces. The traffic-free old city, which is entered through an ancient gateway, lies at the top of a wide set of steps from the main bus station. The main square is guarded by the whitewashed Narayan Temple, and ringed by former royal palaces.
Its other main attractions are the sixteenth-century Bagh Bhairab Temple, one of the oldest in Kirtipur, and pagoda-style Uma-Maheshwar Temple, one of the highest of Kirtipur from where you can get a panoramic view of Kathmandu. Bagh Bairab has an impressive collection of historic swords and shields, while the eastern door of Uma-Maheshwar is protected by imposing elephant sculptures.
- Location: 5 km southwest of Kathmandu
- Open: Daily during daylight hours
- Entrance fee: None
- Top tips: Bagh Bhairab Temple is best avoided early on Tuesday and Saturday mornings when animal sacrifices take place.
3. Boudhanath Stupa
One of Nepal’s holiest sites, the Buddhist Boudhanath Stupa is also one of the country’s largest, boasting a diameter of 120 meters.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the stupa sits on an octagonal base surrounded by an astonishing 147 prayer wheels and yak-butter burners around the area. Its nine levels represent Mount Meru, the mythical peak at the center of the cosmos, and the 13 rings from base of the peak to the top symbolize the number of levels required to reach the state of Nirvana.
There has been a stupa here since 600 AD, and it continues to be a significant site for the Buddhist community. As if to demonstrate this, it is surrounded by more than 50 different monasteries that are the home of high-ranking officials and lamas. It is also a great center for Tibetan Buddhism, and their shaven headed monks in maroon robes can be seen praying and meditating here.
- Location: Chabahil, 5 km east of central Kathmandu
- Open: The stupa premises is open around the clock. Tickets however, should be bought during daylight hours.
- Entrance fee: Rs. 250 (USD 2) for foreign nationals
- Top tips: Ensure you respect Tibetan custom by walking around the stupa in clockwise direction.
- Visits are best timed for late afternoon, when large tour groups have departed.
4. Pashupatinath Temple
Built in 1696 by the orders of the king, Bhupendra Malla, this is Kathmandu’s most-important Hindu temple. Standing on the banks of the River Bagmati, it is recognizable across the city by its glinting golden rooftop and pagoda architectural style.
Overseen by priests known as Bhattas and a chief priest called the Mool Bhatta or Raval, non-Hindus are not allowed into the temple itself, but are able to see glimpses of the god Shiva’s bull Nandi from the silver-plated main doors of the western entrance.
The temple is still worth a visit to explore the world of the sadhu holy men, with painted faces and long dreadlocks, who sit around the structure amid stalls of marigold flowers and burning incense. Cremations take place daily and very publicly on the riverside ghats.
- Location: 5 km north-east of central Kathmandu
- Open: Daily from 4:00 – 21:00
- Entrance fee: Rs. 1000 (USD 9). Children under 10 get in free.
- Top tips: Every evening at around 18:00, the priests come out to the riverside ghat to perform Arati, a daily worship ritual accompanied by holy songs and music. You can experience this visual treat up close.
5. Godavari Botanical Gardens
The spectacular Godavari Botanical Gardens can be found less than 20 kilometers south of Kathmandu in the foothills of Phulchowki hill. The only such garden in Nepal, the 200-acre garden is home to more than 500 species of plants.
The visitor center has interesting exhibits on Nepal’s natural flora, while other highlights include the Lily garden, the Conservation and Education garden, the Coronation Pond and other gardens with a collection of orchids and cacti. The collections extend into several hot houses too. Due to the numerous species of plants found here, the garden is also a great place for bird watching.
Just 200 meters from the gardens’ main gate is Godavari Spring. Legend has it that this ice-cold freshwater spring erupted from a rock when it was struck by a Buddhist mystic by the name of Padmasambhava, and remains a popular pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
- Location: Godavari, 18 km from central Kathmandu
- Open: Daily 9:00 – 17:00 from March until November and 9:00 – 16:00 from December to February
- Entrance fee: Rs. 100 ($1) for foreign nationals; children enter half price. There is also a small charge for still and video cameras
- Top tips: Spring and autumn are the main flowering seasons and therefore the best times to visit. Try and avoid Fridays and Saturdays when the gardens are overrun with school children.
Despite being a world away from the snowy mountains of Nepal, Kathmandu has a wealth of must-see cultural attractions. A vibrant city, it is packed with history and tradition that helps tell the story of the Himalayan nation, both ancient and modern.