Nepal is famous for its trekking trails, but the road network offers plenty of adventures at less dizzying altitudes. Having your own set of wheels – whether that means a rented bike or motorcycle or a chartered car and driver – means you can escape the crowds, explore at your own pace and visit remote areas that would otherwise be out of reach.
Self-drive rental cars are not available, but it’s easy to hire a vehicle with a driver, and some adventurous travelers drive their own vehicles or jeeps overland from Europe. If you plan to join them, you’ll need an international carnet (a customs document) and an international driving permit, and other pieces of paperwork.
A much easier option is to hire a motorbike in Nepal – just make sure you have an international driving permit or a national driving license endorsed for motorcycles, as a regular car license is insufficient.
It’s also important to consider Nepal’s poor road safety record. Many roads are in poor condition and road rules are widely flouted, leading to frequent accidents. Then there's the mountainous terrain – the steep, winding roads can be treacherous and the weather, particularly during the monsoon, is unpredictable. This is not a country for novice drivers or motorcyclists!
Yet despite these caveats, Nepal offers some truly spectacular road trips – here are five of our favorites.
Drive the Middle Hills for history and heritage
Pokhara–Gorkha; 130km (81 miles); allow 2 days
This easy road trip whisks you from the tourist hub of Pokhara to two of the most interesting and attractive towns in the Middle Hills: Bandipur and Gorkha. Initially, you'll head east along the Prithvi Highway towards the capital, gradually leaving behind stunning views of the Annapurna range before spiraling south up a steep road to Bandipur, a ridge-top bazaar town filled with beautiful 18th-century architecture.
From here, the route continues northeast to Gorkha, another medieval township and the former home of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king who unified Nepal’s warring kingdoms in 1769. The dynasty he founded ruled Nepal almost uninterrupted until 2008, and the king's precipitously-located palace-temple, the Gorkha Durbar, sits on the ridge above town, reached by a steep stone pathway.
Although you can drive this route in a single day, it’s far better to stay overnight in Bandipur, which has several atmospheric places to stay – the Old Inn is particularly charming – and then travel onto Gorkha the following day.
Drive from Dhulikhel to Nagarkot for the best Himalayan vistas
Dhulikhel–Nagarkot; 56km (34 miles); allow 1–2 days
This short drive around the eastern fringes of the Kathmandu Valley combines panoramic views with trips to sacred sites and medieval hill towns. The route starts in the Newari town of Dhulikhel on the valley rim, which offers stunning views of towering peaks, especially at sunrise.
From here, drive south to Namobuddha, home to a famous Buddhist monastery and stupa, which sits amidst verdant forests. The next stop is Panauti – one of the oldest towns in the country – which lies to the west; its medieval bazaar is packed with well-preserved Newari houses and ancient temples.
The drive finishes in the village of Nagarkot, where a string of hotels and guesthouses line up along a ridge gazing up at the Himalayas. Assuming you arrive when the skies are clear, the views at sunrise are quite simply breathtaking.
Get off the beaten track in Eastern Terai
Janakpur–Ilam; 320km (199 miles); allow 3–4 days
The eastern part of the Terai – a steamy, subtropical plain that spans southern Nepal – receives relatively few travelers, despite boasting a broad range of attractions. This route showcases some of the lowlands' star turns, beginning in the city of Janakpur, where the glorious Janaki Mandir – a vividly colorful temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Sita – attracts pilgrims from across South Asia.
After turning east onto the Mahendra Highway, drive to the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, where pristine areas of wetland teem with birdlife – at least 527 different bird species have been spotted here. The final stop is the mountain village of Ilam in the far east of the country, the center of Nepal’s tea-growing industry. After a long drive, it’s the perfect place to park up and kick back with a cup of chiya (sweet Nepali tea).
Adventure sports enthusiasts will love driving the Araniko Highway
Dhulikhel–Kodari; 83km (52 miles); allow 1–3 days
Named after a renowned Nepali architect from the 13th century, the Araniko Highway traces the first part of an ancient trade route from Kathmandu to Lhasa in Tibet. Following this winding road, you'll travel up from Dhulikhel to the frontier settlement of Kodari, where the Friendship Bridge stretches across into Tibet.
Along the last stretch of road before the border, you’ll find several excellent adventure sports camps – including Borderlands and the Last Resort – offering whitewater rafting and kayaking, canyoning, bungee-jumping and a host of other thrill-filled activities on or around the Bhote Kosi river.
Note that driving the Araniko Highway is not something to be undertaken lightly. Hazards include sheer drops on the side of the road, landslips and flooding, particularly during the monsoon, when this route is best avoided.
The Tribhuwan Highway is the best plains-to-the-hills drive
Birgunj–Kathmandu; 116km (72 miles); allow 2 days
This steep, dramatic route follows the oldest highway in Nepal from the frontier with India to Kathmandu. Completed in 1956, the Tribhuwan Highway winds its way up from the dusty, noisy border post of Birgunj in the lowland plains, passing through the busy town of Hetauda and the hill village of Daman, which offers perhaps the finest Himalayan views in the whole of the Middle Hills.
After an overnight stay in Daman, you'll continue north until you reach the Kathmandu Valley – which is generally heavily congested, so following back roads is a wise move – and then, finally, the nation’s capital. There are quicker, easier and less potholed routes from the plains to Kathmandu, but none match the Tribhuwan Highway for its views and sense of adventure.
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