Nepal may be famous for its mountains. But it turns out, the cities are pretty interesting too. And there is no better place to start your exploration of Nepal’s history and culture than in the Kathmandu Valley. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the center of Newari culture. Interested yet? Then read on for the list of the best things to do in Kathmandu and around.
Kathmandu itself is a pretty interesting city. But to get the most out of your time there, take a few day trips to the many places to visit around Kathmandu as well.
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1. Visit Kathmandu Durbar Square
One of the best examples of medieval architecture in Nepal — and possibly in all of Asia — is right in the heart of Kathmandu. Durbar Square is where kings once ruled, trade caravans to Tibet once passed through, and a child goddess still resides.
The square — actually three linked squares — contains a smattering of ancient temples and historical buildings. Some were extensively damaged in the 2015 earthquake, while others were left basically untouched by the disaster.
While history is the draw here, Durbar Square has a very ancient-meets-modern vibe. Shops operate out of the ground floors of many of the old buildings. Locals come to pray at several of the temples and shrines. And of course, motorcycles and taxis constantly threaten to run you over!
Admission to Durbar Square in Kathmandu costs 1000 rupees. It’s well worth it, as this is one of the best things to do in Kathmandu.
2. Take a day trip to Bhaktapur
Of all the historical cities in the Kathmandu Valley, little Bhaktapur is the most pleasant to visit and the best-preserved. Unlike in Kathmandu, the entire town maintains its historical character. Even better — it sees far fewer tourists than the other major Kathmandu attractions.
Bhaktapur also has a stunning Durbar Square. But the real highlights are the other two squares: Taumadhi Square and Tachupal Square. Both contain amazing examples of Newari architecture in the form of elaborate temples. The temple guardian statues are particularly unique.
But Bhaktapur isn’t all about headline attractions. The real appeal of doing Kathmandu day trips to Bhaktapur is to wander around the streets that feel like they haven’t changed in 800 years. A self-guided walking tour like this one from Lonely Planet is the best way to see it and is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Kathmandu and around.
In order to preserve its traditional character, Bhaktapur charges a 1,500 rupee admission fee to visit the town center. This covers Durbar Square and most of the other attractions.
You can get to Bhaktapur by bus from central Kathmandu — it takes about an hour. See my post on Bhaktapur for more information.
3. See the sun rise over Mount Everest at Nagarkot
It’s meant to be among the most spectacular sunrises anywhere in the world — and it’s just 20 miles outside of Kathmandu.
That’s the reward for visiting Nagarkot, a small town in the Kathmandu Valley. Unlike the other ideas on this list of things to do in Kathmandu, this one requires an overnight visit — but it will be well worth it, especially if you aren’t doing an Everest Base Camp trek during your time in Nepal. Since Everest is one of the top Nepal attractions, you wouldn’t want to leave Kathmandu without seeing it, would you?
Most travelers take the bus to Nagarkot the night before, stay overnight to watch the sunrise, and then head back to Kathmandu the next day. It’s also possible to trek to Nagarkot — solo women should be careful about doing this alone. It’s only worth doing this trip during October-December and maybe March-May, as the views will be too hazy at other times of the year.
For more information and inspirational photos, check out this article.
4. Explore the Buddhist stupas of Boudhanath or Swayambhunath
At the top of most travelers’ lists of things to do in Kathmandu is see an important Tibetan Buddhist stupa. After all, this is one of the most accessible places in the world to experience Tibetan Buddhism. Two popular options are Boudhanath and Swayambhunath.
Swayambhunath is more popularly known among travelers to Nepal as the “monkey temple.” It gets its name from the hordes of macaques that hang around outside. A visit to this hilltop stupa is one of the essential things to do in Kathmandu, especially around sunset — the views from the top are incredible. You can walk here from central Kathmandu.
If you don’t mind going a bit further afield, Boudhanath is the more interesting of Kathmandu’s major Buddhist sites. It’s the largest stupa in Nepal and the most important Tibetan monument outside Tibet. The best time to visit is late afternoon, when the tour crowds go home and monks and pilgrims gather to pray. Boudhanath is a short taxi ride (350 rupees) or a half-hour minibus ride from Thamel.
5. Learn about Hinduism and Buddhism at Nepal’s best museum
Patan is the third ancient kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley. Like Bhaktapur and Kathmandu itself, Patan has a Durbar Square filled with temples and monuments.
Unfortunately, the earthquake damage was more noticeable here. But it’s still worth including Patan on this list of things to do in Kathmandu and around because of its fantastic museum, located inside the ancient royal palace.
The Patan Museum contains Hindu and Buddhist artifacts and iconography. It couples them with great English-language explanations of the symbolism and meaning embodied in them, along with the history, traditions, and blending of the two religions that is unique to Nepal. This is undoubtedly the country’s best museum and if you’re even remotely a museum person, it’s can’t-miss.
Allow two hours to fully explore the museum and the architecture of the palace it’s housed in. The cafe in a pretty garden within the museum walls makes for a good tea break.
Admission to the Patan Museum is included in the 1,000 rupee Durbar Square entrance ticket. You can’t buy a standalone ticket to the museum.
Patan is a short bus ride from Kathmandu — in fact, the two towns have more or less become one bigger city. It’s one of the most convenient places to visit around Kathmandu and easy to fit into a short trip. You could easily spend a whole day wandering around and visiting the other temples and shops in Patan. See my post on things to do in Patan for more information.
6. Splurge on backpacker essentials in Thamel
Now that you’ve checked off all the historical and cultural essentials, the last thing on the list of things to do in Kathmandu and beyond is to treat yourself.
Thamel is the main backpacker/tourist district in Kathmandu. It’s obnoxious, loud, crowded, and expensive. But it’s also tons of fun, especially if you’re coming off a long trek in the mountains. Even better, it has one of the best international dining scenes you’ll find in any city in the world.
If you need to pick up supplies for trekking, Thamel is the place to do it. You can find high-quality, locally made down jackets and sleeping bags, trekking poles, backpacks, and more — all for bargain prices. I just wouldn’t recommend purchasing hiking boots here. You’ll want to buy those at home and break them in before your trek. I recommend these Merrell boots.
Food is the other big appeal of Thamel. Highlights include Or2k for Israeli, Roadhouse Cafe for Italian, Hankook Sarang for Korean, and Dechenling for Bhutanese curry. Pumpernickel Bakery has fantastic black forest cake, and the best independent coffee shop in town is Gaia Restaurant.
Where to stay while exploring these things to do in Kathmandu and around
With the exception of the sunrise trip to Nagarkot, everything on this list of things to do in Kathmandu and the Kathmandu area can be covered on Kathmandu day trips. So you can stay in the city center the whole time.
Most backpackers stay in Thamel. This is convenient and social, and there are seemingly infinite cheap guesthouses all within a ten-block radius. The downside? It’s very touristic and very loud. Many travelers complain about music blasting from nearby bars until 2 am every night.
For a quieter alternative, consider staying north of Thamel. The charming, family-run Elbrus Home is one of the top budget hotels in Kathmandu. Dorms are as cheap as $3 a night, and private rooms start at $12. All include a large breakfast. If you have the choice, try to get one of the brighter rooms in the main building.
How much time do you need in the Kathmandu Valley?
I highly recommend exploring the Kathmandu area independently, either by taxi or public transport. You’ll meet more locals and get a better sense of daily Nepali life. If you want to travel this way, you need four days to cover everything on this list of things to do in Kathmandu.
If you don’t have that kind of time, you can opt for a guided tour instead. Generally these are minivan tours that rush you through the major historical sites in a single day. The biggest benefit is you’ll have a local guide to explain things for you. These tours cost around $40, although if you’re on a guided trek it may be included. You can book from any Kathmandu travel agency.
Looking for more Kathmandu travel advice? Check out my two-day itinerary for more detailed coverage of the capital city itself. There are tons of hidden back-street temples and courtyards worth visiting in between your Kathmandu Valley sightseeing.
However you prefer to travel, don’t overlook the Kathmandu Valley on your list of places to visit in Nepal. Nepal isn’t just about the mountains — it’s a historically and culturally rich country too. Take the time to explore the capital city and surrounds and you won’t regret it. You’ll come away with a much deeper appreciation for this fascinating and beautiful country.
Do you have other ideas for places to visit around Kathmandu? Leave a comment!
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