Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest and only real city, can be somewhat of a shock to the system, with an excess of traffic and noise amongst a concrete jungle and the backpacker paradise of the Thamel district. However, step inside the heart of enchanting Kathmandu, wander through the winding streets and watch as the fascinating traditions and heritage of Nepali life unravel before the eyes, all amidst the watchful eye of the finest Newari architecture.
The huge, sprawling city that, due to a lack of street names, can often appear daunting is nevertheless easily manageable. The mesmerising World Heritage Durbar Square is the most intriguing area and stands proudly like an outdoor museum in the Old Town. Encompassed by a captivating array of frantic bazaars and backstreets, this area is home to numerous bronze statue and craft sellers, ideal for pitting your bargaining powers against.
To the north lies the bustling Thamel district, with an abundance of hotels, bars and restaurants. The majority of backpackers set up camp here, basking in the nightlife and range of restaurants. Kathmandu is somewhat of a dining paradise, with an astonishing array of cuisines, including the local, Nepali and Newari, delights. The rooftop terraces are perfect for sampling a plate of momos or a bowl of thukpa whilst watching the action from above. South from Durbar Square is Freak Street, the former hangout during the hippy era, and stretching east is New Road, a popular and vibrant shopping area.
There is plenty more to see than what lies within the city and spreading east into the Kathmandu Valley are no less than six inspiring World Heritage Sites. Take some time to experience the delights of neighbouring towns, Patan and Bhaktapur, where time seems to stand still, or gaze in awe at the Buddhist stupas at Swayambhunath and Bodhnath. With so much to see, half of the adventure is meandering aimlessly and discovering the unexpected pleasures.
Being the capital of Nepal, transport links are understandably excellent. Tribhuvan airport, 2km east of the city, serves a number of domestic cities, Pokhara, Lukla and mountain areas. International destinations, although limited, include Delhi, Varanasi, Kolkata and Bangkok. Arriving to Kathmandu is easiest by bus. The main bus station, Gongbu Bus Park (or “bus park), north of the centre, serves long distance locations, such as Pokhara, Butwal, Bhairawa and Sunauli (for the Indian border). Buses leaving for destinations in the Kathmandu Valley, counting Patan, Bhaktapur and Nagarkot all depart from the City / Ratna Park station. Travelling around the city and neighbouring districts is best achieved on foot or bicycle.
Perhaps not as laid back as the remote towns and villages throughout Nepal, Kathmandu, with its energy, culture, traditions and colourful festivals, is still worth every moment spent. Remember, don’t be fooled by what is on the cover and delve deeper to uncover the hidden charm the city has to offer at every turn of corner.
Things to do in
Walking - Kathmandu is a great place to walk and explore, with each blink of an eye revealing something new, unexpected and fascinating. Walking from Thamel to the south of the city sees a dramatic change from the commercial centre, through vibrant bazaars and on to the historic areas. North and south of Durbar Square, the labyrinth of alleyways lead to courtyards, squares and monuments in the most unlikely places. Keep your eyes peeled at all times.
Durbar Square - The blossoming focal point of the old traditional city, setting foot in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is like walking into an open air museum, with a fascinating collection of palaces, temples, shrines and courtyards. Hours can be spent admiring the architecture, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the locals go about there daily activities from the terraced platforms of the temples. The square is the location for a number of festivals. Entrance fee Rs200 (valid for day of entry, however a free long-term visitor pass is available from the Site Office to the south).
Festivals - Kathmandu plays host to an abundance of colourful festivals throughout the calendar, including Indra Jatra and Teej Festival. Indra Jatra, marks the end of the monsoon, celebrating Lord Jatra (God of Rain) and witnesses a rare appearance of the Kumari Devi. The Teej festival (August/September) is the time for women to give thanks to their husbands and pay homage to Lord Shiva.
Swayambhunath - Proudly perched atop a hill to the west of town is the oldest and arguably most spectacular shrine in the Kathmandu Valley. The huge white dome and dazzling golden spire dominate the skyline for miles. The shrine is reached via a steep staircase, surrounded with monuments and inhabited by playful monkeys. It is within walking distance of Thamel. Entrance Rs75 (payable at the top of the staircase)
Freak Street - Affectionately named after the hippies who came in search of spiritual enlightenment during the 1960’s and 70’s, the area has a collection of cheap hotels and laid back, colourful cafes. Less hip than it once was, it is still a welcome break from the commercial craziness of Thamel.
Shopping Kathmandu - Anything and everything is available in Kathmandu, from bronze statues and gems, to Kashmir scarves and trekking gear. For clothing, Thamel has the widest selection, then walking south are bazaars selling curios and Kashmir products. For bronze statues, the markets around Durbar Square have the biggest selection and best bargaining options.
Kathmandu has an extensive range of hotels and guesthouses, ranging from swanky international hotels to cheap lodges, with most being located in the Central Thamel and Pajankol areas. Almost all offer discounts, so don’t be afraid to ask upon arrival.
Budget Hotels Kathmandu
Acme Guest House - In the centre of Thamel but tucked away in a quiet side street. Large rooms and those at the front have balconies overlooking the garden. Tel (977) (1) 4700236.
Kathmandu Peace Guest House - Pleasant hotel in the Pajankol area, 5 minutes from Thamel. Clean and comfortable rooms and great views from the rooftop. Tel (977) (1) 4380369.
Tibet Peace Guest House - Another comfortable hotel in the Pajankol area, with good restaurant and relaxing garden. Tel (977) (1) 4381026.
Kathmandu Guest House - Right in the heart of Thamel, the converted Rana mansion is one of Kathmandu’s most well known hotels. Good service, a range of rooms and even a mini-cinema and sauna. Tel (977) (1) 4700004
Century Lodge - Reasonable budget and ever popular option in Freak Street. You get what you pay for here. Tel (977) (1) 4247641.
Midrange Hotels Kathmandu
Hotel Blue Horizon - Away from the hustle of the city, this is an excellent value hotel with a range of rooms. Fantastic views from the rooftop garden. Tel (977) (1) 4421971.
International Guest House - Friendly, elegantly furnished Tibetan style hotel. Situated to the west of Thamel, on the road to the Indrani Temple. Tel (977) (1) 4252299.
Hotel Courtyard - Welcoming hotel, built in Newari style and a little classier than the others. Good discounts. Tel (977) (1) 4700476.
Luxury Hotels Kathmandu
Shanker Hotel - Excellent heritage hotel converted from a Rana palace. Away from the chaos but still within walking distant. The swimming pool is heavenly. Tel (977) (1) 4410151.
Dwarika’s Hotel - A little out of the way, however the stunning grounds are somewhere between a museum and mini village. Makes for the perfect romantic setting. Tel (977) (1) 4470770.
Hyatt Regency Kathmandu - In true Hyatt style, this hotel is the ultimate in luxury. Located outside of the city, it is worth passing by to admire the architecture. Tel (977) (1) 4491234.