As the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu is known for its stupas and colourful yet chaotic streets. The jewel of Kathmandu Valley, it is the gateway to the Himalayas and home to a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. While there are endless backstreets to explore, here are the top sights and experience to have in Kathmandu as a first-time visitor:
- 1 Boudhanath Stupa
- 2 Pashupatinath Temple
- 3 Backstreet Academy shopping and street food tour
- 4 Everest View Flight
- 5 Garden of Dreams
- 6 Bhojan Griha
- 7 Where to stay in Kathmandu
A perfect example of Mandala architecture, the Boudhanath Stupa is one of the biggest round stupa in the country. The Mandala is a design with different levels that represents the chakras – body, speech, mind, with wisdom in the middle where Nirvana is. The dome shape signifies the universe with the two eyes representing that God is watching from every direction.
There are many legends surrounding the building of the stupa. Situated on the northeastern outskirt of Kathmandu, the temple is along the ancient trade route between Tibet and Nepal. Built sometime between the 4th to 8th century, one legend says the stupa was the work of a young prince whose father sacrifices himself to bring water to the valley. Another of an old woman who built it with her four sons as instructed by the remains of Kāṣyapa Buddha. She petitioned the king and he granted permission and was questioned by others. The king stated that since he has given his words, he won’t take it back and it is also the other name of the temple.
There are shops and restaurants surrounding the entire stupa, and we ended up having lunch at Boudha Stupa Restaurant & Cafe, which offers a great view of the stupa. It’s customary to walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, and you can go as far up as the second level.
Opening times: 9:00 – 17:00
Admission fee: 400 for tourists, 100 for SAARC Nationals, children under 10 free
Also known as the Monkey Temple, the Swayambhunath Temple sat atop a hill overlooking the city. Built in the 5th century, it is smaller and appears similar in appearance to the Boudhanath Temple, but it is not of Mandala architecture.
The temple also has a creation myth that ties to the Buddhist scripture. The Kathmandu Valley was once said to be a lake, and from it grew a single lotus. A bodhisattva named Manjusri had a vision of the valley and came to the mountain. It is said that he cut the valley to drain the water to make the site accessible for pilgrims. This finally leads us to the name Swayambhunath, coming from the word self-create.
The temple has two entrances – a long staircase and a shorter one. The main stupa is on the very top of the hill, in front of the long staircase with prayer wheels. You can also find a row of stone stupas at the back that features other and older design of stupa.
Now onto the other name of the temple: the Monkey Temple. There are dozens of monkeys around, but the majority congregates around the long staircase. They are not aggressive, though it’s best not to provoke them.
Admission fee: 200 rupee, 50 for SAARC Nationals
A sacred Hindu Temple, the Pashupatinath Temple is better known as the Cremation Temple. Located on the banks of the Bagmati River, a crucial element in the Nepalese Hindu burial ritual and a holy river that is said to be the origin of Nepal. Pashupatinath is Nepal’s national deity, an incarnation of the god Shiva.
The current temple is built around the 15th century, although legends claim that it was built as far back as 1st century BC. numerous temples have been built around the location since its inception, and now it sprawls across the bank and resemble more of a temple complex. As you can glimpse from its nickname, this is a cremation temple for the Nepalese Hindus and it is done in open air. You can get a good view of the main section on the hill which also faces the cremation platforms by the river.
The ritual involves watching the deceased three times in the river before cremation ceremony, led by the eldest son. He and any family members are encouraged to wash in the river afterwards. There are also monkeys as you go downstream, and children can be found playing in the water.
Note: a local guide will likely try to offer his service when you purchase a ticket, simply be polite and decline his offer. There are also locals milling around who are keen on talking to tourists, but they are very friendly and often also want a photo.
Opening times: 4:00 – 21:00, best to visit in the afternoon
Admission fee: 1000 rupee, free for Indians
Backstreet Academy shopping and street food tour
Want to get a taste of Kathmandu but don’t know what to eat? Or do some souvenirs shopping but afraid you will get ripped off? I felt the same way and decided to join a tour by Backstreet Academy with a local guide. It negates any problems that might come with a language barrier and offers the expertise of a local who knows where the good food is.
Shopping in Kathmandu
The shopping portion of the trip is flexible and we ended up in Thamel as it is right by my hotel. Kanti, our lovely guide, was there to help whenever we saw something we like. She was able to help us talk to the store owner as well as tell us when the price is unreasonable. I ended up getting a dress, a skirt, two pashminas and made a killer saving on some masala tea by avoiding the tourist packaging.
People are generally friendly and receptive to haggling, for reference, I got the pashmina two for 400 rupees each, the skirt and dress together for 4000, and the tea for 90.
Street food tour in Kathmandu
Admittedly, most of my Nepalese food experience prior to the street food tour limits to Dal Bhat and Momos, but as cliche as it sounds, there is so much more! With influence from India and Tibet, there is a dazzling array of food that I had never heard of or tasted, and here are what we had:
Our first stop was a complete hole in the wall with an added back alley and stairs to keep it truly secret. Bara is a lentil gingerbread accompanied by spicy potato and soya bean, roasted with mustard oil (suitable for vegetarians).
The ladies who run the shop made it right in front of us, while customers huddled on the three benches gobbling down the goodness. Being my usual self, I couldn’t really handle the spiciness, but the bread was fantastic.
However, my favourite was the Yomari, which at first sight looks savoury but is a rice dumpling with milky cream fillings. It’s a popular dish in wedding and difficult to make, and my its sweet mushiness still haunts me in my dream.
It’s not a street food tour without a stop for some Momos! This time, the place we stop at is actually in the courtyard, a curious contrast to the serene surrounding. We ordered some buffalo momos and veggie ones, which come with a slightly different sauce with coriander. Truth be told, the buffalo meat just tasted like beef but with a stronger aroma.
Next up is samosa. Tip-top Samosa is a popular place, but it didn’t take long for Kanti to get us one. I am usually not a huge fan of samosa, but the syrup that goes with it is the perfect sweet to complimentary it.
If you have no idea what it is, you are not alone. I was clueless too and had to ask Kanti to spell it out for me. It is basically a yoghurt potato puri, which also doesn’t mean much if you don’t know what a puri is. Puri is deep fried bread from India, and Dahipuri Chat is a little cup of crispy fried bread with yoghurt, mash potato, chickpeas, fried noodles, onions and various other goodies inside. You have to eat it in one go as otherwise it will just spill. The explosion of flavours and texture is sensational.
Last but not least, my personal favourite, is the Mango Lassi. Lassi is a yoghurt drink popular in the Indian subcontinent and in Nepal, and they sell them in a small or big cup. This one is thicker than expected, complete with a topping of walnuts and raisins.
Everest View Flight
Mount Everest is the highest and most famous mountain in the world. It is many people’s dream to hike to the top or even just the base camp, but some will settle for just seeing it. Did you know that you can actually book a flight to see the Everest, and the Himalaya range, from the capital? I certainly didn’t! Though it isn’t the cheapest, it sure makes for an easier and cheaper experience than attempting a trek, particularly if you don’t have the time.
The best time to go is in the morning when the weather is likely to be optimal from sunrise and the clouds haven’t rolled in yet. Departing from the domestic airport, the whole journey lasts about an hour or so. Only the window seats will be seated, and don’t worry about which side you end up sitting on because the left side faces the mountain on outbound and right side faces it on the inbound.
We are each given a short window to see the view from the cockpit, which is admittedly cool but actually not that easy to photograph. The windows of the planes are not the cleanest and tinted, but the view is unrivalled.
As our flight returns to Kathmandu, we were given champagne to celebrate. That was an interesting choice for breakfast, but I won’t complain!
Note: the view is subject to weather condition, the people who went the day before apparently only saw a sea of clouds!
The centre of Kathmandu’s history, Durbar means royal palace and this is the square in front of it. Although some buildings are damaged during the 2015 earthquake, the square remains intact and open. Scatter around the square are various temples built in different eras, as well as palaces that were built as far back as the third century.
However, the square itself and the temples are from the 15th century onwards. The square is usually busy with locals transporting goods or paying respect to the temples. Since we end up passing it on a quick morning walk, I haven’t got a chance to see it in depth, but it’s worth going just for the vibe.
Note: while officially they charge 1000 rupee entrance fee for foreigners, but they practically never enforce or check ticket. You can simply walk in without going past the ticket booth.
Admission fee: 1000 rupee, 150 for SAARC Nationals
Garden of Dreams
A hidden park in the heart of Kathmandu, the Garden of Dreams is a curious sight. A neoclassical design, the pavilions, benches, fountains, and veranda would not be out of place in Europe. Build in the 1920s, it was designed by Kishore Narshingh for Kaiser Sumsher Rana, a field marshal in the Royal Nepalese Army.
The garden was abandoned after his death in the 60s, but revived with the help of Austrian Government. Now open to the public, it’s a popular photo spot and place to chill.
Address: Tridevi Sadak, Kathmandu 44600, Nepal
Opening times: 9:00 – 22:00
Admission fee: 200 rupee, curiously you can also get WiFi by the hour for a fee
For a feast of senses, dinner at Bhojan Griha is sure to not disappoint. Located inside a 150 years old heritage building, they have beautifully restored it so you can get a sense of a Nepalese palace.
The restaurant offers a traditional Nepalese menu, and they have their own farm providing the freshest organic ingredients. Of course, you can also try Dal Bhat, a lentil soup with rice, spinach and curry, here.
Address: Bhojan Griha, Dillibazar, Kathmandu, Nepal
Where to stay in Kathmandu
A brand new boutique hotel in Thamel, Nepali Ghar is centrally located but in a quiet side street that shelters you from the noise at night. A beautiful blend of tradition and modern comfort, the building feature a hollow central axial that allows light through. Their lobby is beautiful with a selection of tea bags and cool tea there for you always, and super friendly staff.
Here’s what the room looks like:
I went out one night with friends in Thamel at Buddha Bar, and it’s only a 5 minutes walk back. While the street the hotel is on is still muddy, its location and amenities are unrivalled!
*Disclaimer: I was hosted for the Backstreet Academy tour