Kathmandu, the Nepali capital, is a divisive city. Its fans admire Kathmandu’s centuries of culture and history, its exquisite (if ramshackle) old architecture, and the warmth of its people. Others, however, get out of Kathmandu’s dust, pollution and gridlocked traffic as fast as possible, their sights set on the towering, romanticized Himalaya just beyond the Kathmandu Valley’s edge.
You needn’t fall so firmly into the “love it” or “hate it” camp, though, when visiting Kathmandu. Using the city as a base for exploring small towns and villages on its outskirts is an easy way to have the best of both worlds. Here are some places that can be easily reached within one or two hours of central Kathmandu, making ideal day trip or comfortable overnight destinations.
Catch a gorgeous sunset in Nagarkot
Why go: Watching the sun rise and set over the Himalaya is an unforgettable Nepal experience, and Nagarkot is a popular place to do this. While it’s not exactly undiscovered, that makes it an easy and comfortable place to spend a night or two, as there are plenty of places to eat and sleep while you soak in the scenery.
What to see: Aside from the sunrise and sunset—best enjoyed from your hotel room or the lookout tower on a clear autumn or winter’s day—there are some other attractions in and around the town. Hike to a small waterfall, and check out the large golden Buddha statue in the Peace Garden.
How to get there: Nagarkot is just over the eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley. While you can get there by bus, this requires changing at Bhaktapur. Most travelers like to get a private transfer in time to catch nature’s daily light shows and then spend the rest of the day in Nagarkot.
Visit one of the most sacred sites in Namobuddha
Why go: Namobuddha is one of the holiest Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage spots in Nepal, second only to Boudhanath. It’s believed to be the place where, in his incarnation as a prince, the Buddha sacrificed his life to feed a hungry tiger and her cubs. A small white stupa with spectacular mountain views marks this spot.
What to see: As well as the stupa, the large Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery is a must-visit. There’s a simple guesthouse for travelers, but day-trippers are also welcome to drop in. The views from Namobuddha in the clear winter air encompass a vast swathe of the Himalayan chain. A great way to admire the views is over an organic, vegetarian lunch on the patios of the Namobuddha Resort.
How to get there: Namobuddha is about two hours’ drive southeast of Kathmandu, over the other side of the valley rim. To get there you will need to pass through the highway town of Banepa, and the hill town of Dhulikhel, which is also a popular day-trip destination. It’s possible to get a local bus—you may need to change at Banepa—but more comfortable to take a taxi.
Explore the temples of Pharping
Why go: On the southern edge of the valley, Pharping and the nearby Dakshinkali Temple offer two completely different types of religious experience. Dakshinkali is a major Hindu pilgrimage site, while the meditation caves in Pharping attract Buddhist visitors. Tourists are likely to appreciate them both, as well as, the bright green terraced rice fields that surround the town and the new monasteries that have been built around the town.
What to see: The important Tibetan Buddhist figure, Guru Rinpoche, is believed to have meditated in what is now the Yanglesho Cave in Pharping, which can be visited. Also check out the Newar Vajrayogini Buddhist temple, in the town. Just south of Pharping is the Hindu Dakshinkali Temple, dedicated to Mata Kali, a bloodthirsty goddess who craves blood sacrifices. Animals—particularly male goats and roosters—are regularly sacrificed here, but the spectacle reaches its height during the Dashain festival in September/October.
How to get there: Pharping is relatively easy to get to by bus from Patan (Lagankhel Bus Park) or Kathmandu (Ratna Park), a journey of about 90 minutes. Private taxis are quicker.
Wonder amongst grand temples and mansions in Panauti
Why go: Although not a Unesco World Heritage Site just yet, Panauti is on the “tentative” list, under consideration to the A list. The small trading and agricultural town near Namobuddha and Dhulikhel is one of the best-preserved Newar towns in Nepal. The Old Bazaar has some fine mansions, and the complex beside the river has a number of impressive temples. Local belief is that Panauti sits upon a single large rock, making it impervious to earthquakes. The lore seems to ring true, Panauti hasn’t experienced serious earthquake damage over the centuries.
What to see: The multi-tiered Indreshwar Mahadev pagoda is Panauti’s grandest temple and a must see. Built between the 13th and 18th centuries, the structure you see today is believed to be the original; if so, it’s the oldest surviving pagoda temple in Nepal. Visit early in the morning to witness the daily puja ceremonies.
How to get there: Panauti is southeast of Kathmandu, about a two-hour drive away. There are also established hiking trails linking Panauti with other towns. A fun way to get there is via the Sanga to Panauti Community Hiking Trail, starting near the large Shiva statue standing at the eastern entrance/exit to the Kathmandu Valley.
Take in the incredible views of Changu Narayan
Why go: Changu Narayan is an easy add-on to a day in Bhaktapur. In the east of the Kathmandu Valley, just north of Bhaktapur, this little town is set high on a hill and has good views of the city. Parts of the temple complex date from the 5th century, making this the oldest remaining temple in Nepal. Along with the big-ticket cultural sites of Kathmandu, Changu Narayan is a Unesco World Heritage Site, though it’s rarely overwhelmed with tourists.
What to see: As well as the temples, the Living Traditions Museum is worth some time. The elegant old rest-house in which it resided was badly damaged in the earthquakes of 2015, and the museum was closed for renovation for years. It has recently reopened and is the place to go to learn more about some of Nepal’s many ethnic groups.
How to get there: Most people visit Changu Narayan while visiting, or staying in, Bhaktapur. From Bhaktapur it’s about a 20-minute taxi ride, traffic dependent, while from central Kathmandu it’s about an hour’s drive (although longer if you get stuck in Ring Road traffic). You can also hike to Nagarkot from here.
Hike through Shivapuri National Park
Why go: On the northern edge of the Kathmandu Valley, the Shivapuri National Park is the easiest way to get a dose of nature without going far from the city. Starting just above the town of Budhanilkantha, the park is covered in forest, hiking trails and a few cultural attractions like monasteries and nunneries. There are great city views on clear days.
What to see: There are many routes you could take through the park, but an ideal day hike is from the Budhanilkantha entrance of the park to Baghdwar or Shivapuri Summit, via Nagi Gompa monastery. The first hour or so follows a dusty road but then cuts up into the forest. The monastery is a good place to stop and admire the city views, before pushing on to the summit of Mt. Shivapuri (8963 feet/2732 meters), or stopping at Baghdwar, the source of the sacred Bagmati River that runs through Kathmandu.
How to get there: Direct buses and micros to Budhanilkantha are available from around Kathmandu, including the large green Sajha Yatayat bus that comes all the way from Lalitpur, on the opposite side of the valley. From Budhanilkantha, the entrance to the national park is less than a mile uphill.