Nepal’s most important Hindu temple stands on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, surrounded by a bustling market of religious stalls selling marigolds, prasad (offerings), incense, rudraksha beads, conch shells, pictures of Hindu deities and temples, tika powder in rainbow colours, glass lingams, models of Mt Meru and other essential religious paraphernalia.
A journey up to the Buddhist temple and Unesco World Heritage Site of Swayambhunath is one of the definitive experiences of Kathmandu. Mobbed by monkeys and soaring above the city on a lofty hilltop, the ‘Monkey Temple’ is a fascinating, chaotic jumble of Buddhist and Hindu iconography.
Just 5km southwest of Kathmandu, the sleepy town of Kirtipur has a wonderful sense of faded grandeur thanks to the impressive medieval temples dotted around its backstreets. When Prithvi Narayan Shah stormed into the valley in 1768, he made a priority of capturing Kirtipur to provide a base for his crushing attacks on the Malla kingdoms.
The tiny village of Chobar, 6km from Kathmandu, tops a hill overlooking the Bagmati River where it flows through the Chobar Gorge, allegedly chopped out by the sacred sword of Manjushri. The village itself is lovely, with a tangle of old streets surrounding a famous temple, but the gorge has been ravaged by mining to supply cement for construction in Kathmandu.
There are several other sights scattered around Swayambhunath. Before moving on, get a taste of Tibet by joining the old pilgrims on a clockwise kora (pilgrim circuit) around the base of the hill, passing a series of gigantic chörtens (reliquary shrines), mani dungkhor (giant prayer wheels) and Buddhist chapels.
East of the centre of Kathmandu, on the way to Bodhnath, the suburb of Chabahil has a number of historic temples and shrines. Right on the Ring Rd is the imposing Chabahil Stupa, the fourth largest stupa in the Kathmandu area after Bodhnath, Swayambhunath and the Kathesimbhu Stupa near Thahiti Chowk.