Kathmandu has long been an essential stop on the outdoors circuit—but this enigmatic capital city is also a hotbed of culture, cuisine and creativity. From timeless temples and world food flavors to chic boutiques in former palaces, Kathmandu will keep you enthralled even if you aren’t planning a trek.
The Nepali capital has hidden depths that warrant a long, leisurely wander. Most visitors start with Kathmandu’s history and heritage, but those who explore beyond its captivating stupas and statues will be richly rewarded. With a diverse population of 1 million souls, and an annual influx of globe-trotting trekkers, the food scene is stellar – if there’s a cuisine you can’t find in Kathmandu, you haven’t been looking hard enough.
Then there are the arts – and no, we don’t mean the dance shows performed in Kathmandu’s timewarp Nepali theme restaurants. Look a bit further and you’ll find music, theater, film and fine art shows showcasing the astonishing talents of contemporary Nepali artists, craftspeople and performers.
Here’s a guide to the best ways to get under the skin of Kathmandu.
Finding history in Kathmandu
Everyone knows about temple-studded Durbar Square, the ceremonial heart of old Kathmandu, where centuries-old temples and palaces are slowly being restored to their medieval glory after the devastating earthquake of 2015. The sublime Buddhist stupas of Boudhanath and Swayambhunath are almost as famous, thronged by a constant tide of sightseers and devotees.
But history in Kathmandu is not a musty museum exhibit, it’s a living thing. You’ll feel its pulse as you squeeze your way through the crowded bazaars of Asan Tole and Indra Chowk, or duck into backstreet bahals (courtyards) where locals practice cottage industries, surrounded by statuary and carvings that would be locked away in a museum anywhere else in the world.
Essential stops to get a feel for old Kathmandu include Itum Bahal, a medieval monastery courtyard that provides a sudden haven of calm after the frenetic street scenes outside, and the Kathesimbhu Stupa, a scaled-down version of the great stupa at Swayambhunath, in a stupa-studded square reached through a bazaar of “Buddha shops” selling prayer flags and other Buddhist essentials.
Eating your way around the world in Kathmandu
It’s no exaggeration to say you’ll have some of the most memorable meals of your life in Kathmandu. For one thing, if you’ve been trekking and consuming just the nourishing but solid dal bhat (lentils and rice), you’ll be ravenous!
And Kathmandu’s food offerings span the globe. Fancy fine Thai food? Pop into Yin Yang, where chefs have been frying up blisteringly authentic Thai flavors for generations. Fine French more your thing? No problem, Chez Caroline in the Baber Mahal Revisited complex can rustle you up a Roquefort salad or crêpe Suzette on demand.
For pizzas, there’s really no choice but Fire & Ice, but come early to nab a table, as the Roman-style thin-crust pizzas here are deservedly popular. And a schnitzel and Sachertorte stop in the cafe at the ornate Garden of Dreams will transport you to Vienna in a setting that resembles the great gardens of Europe.
Less familiar cuisines also get a look in. Hankook Sarang can whip you up a flavorsome plate of bulgogi (barbecued beef, marinated in pear juice) or hearty bibimbap (rice, meat, egg and veg, cooked in a hot stone bowl). Just over the river at Pulchowk, on the outskirts of Patan, Sing Ma Food Court holds nothing back with its full-flavored beef rendang curry.
Vegans and vegetarians are well catered for. Israeli houmous, fatoush, labneh cheese and other veggie treats get an outing at Or2k, while Forest & Plate works wonders with quinoa, kale and other healthy, wholesome ingredients.
Indian food, surprisingly, can be hit or miss in Kathmandu, but Third Eye in Thamel gets the flavors just right, though you may have to ask the kitchen to raise the chili to appropriate levels (it’s often dialed down for tourists). For Nepali food, skip the touristy-themed restaurants and follow locals to family-run Yangling Restaurant, where the momos taste like they were made by grandma and filled with love.
Exploring the arts scene in Kathmandu
On one level, Kathmandu is one enormous gallery of traditional Nepali craftsmanship, but there’s plenty of contemporary art too if you step outside the tourist circuit. The Nepal Art Council always has something interesting going on at its gallery space on Madan Bhandari Rd, with an emphasis on local artists and art forms. The well-funded Siddhartha Art Gallery at Baber Mahal Revisited hosts a lively program of exhibitions of painting, drawing, sculpture and more, with shows by big Nepali names given the gallery space they deserve.
Pulchowk’s RN Joshi Museum of Modern Art was founded by Nepali art pioneer RN Joshi in 1970, and it stills hosts interesting shows today (check if the gallery space is open as shows moved online during the pandemic). Another great local space to check out is the ARTUDIO Center For Contemporary Visual Arts, a collective art space near Swayambhunath that showcases up-and-coming talent.
One great way to find out what is on is to check the arts pages of the Kathmandu Post. Be sure to also investigate the cultural programs run by international embassies – while promoting international culture to a Nepali audience is their stock-in-trade, there are often events giving a platform to Nepali talent. Don’t overlook Nepali film – the industry is becoming increasingly confident, and Nepali arthouse movies are screened regularly around the city.
Tuning in to the sounds of Kathmandu
Spend an evening in Thamel, and you could be forgiven for thinking that music in Nepal had been stuck in suspended animation since Neil Young released 'Rockin’ in the Free World'. But the Kathmandu music scene has more breadth than just covers bands in backpacker bars.
At a loose end on a Wednesday? Join the locals and ex-pats tapping toes appreciatively at Lazimpat’s Jazz Upstairs. For the latest Nepal bands and DJs performing in Nepali for Nepalis, head to locals-first venues such as Lord of the Drinks and metalhead-favorite Purple Haze Rock Bar (sadly, Thamel’s much-loved House of Music closed in 2020). The Kathmandu Post covers entertainment in the city, or look out for flyers on noticeboards and lampposts around Thamel.
Surprising shopping in Kathmandu
You could kit out a whole hippy boudoir from a five-minute shopping spree in Thamel, but shopping in Kathmandu is more sophisticated than just “Yak, Yak, Yak” t-shirts, chunky Tibetan jewelry and knock-off North Face jackets. For a start, there are the camera shops on New Road, a famously inexpensive place to pick up the latest camera tech if you know what you’re after (and have razor-sharp bargaining skills).
Kathmandu’s malls may seem modest if you’re used to the megamalls of Europe, the US and Southeast Asia, but there are decent deals to be had, particularly for clothing. The shiny new City Centre in Kamalpokhari is the pick of the malls for day-to-day fashion; for upscale Nepali outfits (at upscale prices), head to the swooningly chic boutiques of Baber Mahal Revisited.
If the experience matters as much as the merchandise, join the locals shopping for essentials in the bazaars of old Kathmandu – Asan Tole is the place to come for brass, copper and steel cookware and utensils and nearby Indra Chowk is great for yak wool blankets, while the Buddha shops near the Kathesimbhu stupa sell prayer flags, silk scarves, butter lamps, brass dorjes (ceremonial thunderbolts) and other Tibetan Buddhist must-haves.
There’s definitely a place for Nepal’s wonderful arts and crafts – the level of craftsmanship on display in the Kathmandu Valley has to be seen to be believed. You’ll find everything from butter tea churns to yak felt slippers in Thamel, but savvy shoppers shop for crafts in the neighborhoods where they are produced.
Jawalakhel is the place to come for hand-knotted Tibetan carpets (try the long-established Jawalakhel Handicraft Center for quality weaving), while central Patan is the thangka (Buddhist fabric painting) capital of the valley, and the back alleys around the Bodhnath stupa hide the workshops of the best repoussé metalworkers in Nepal. Find top-notch crafts at fixed prices (and support rural communities in Nepal in the process) at the fair-trade shops at Kupondol on the way to Patan – Mahaguthi comes highly recommended.
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