For many, stepping off a plane into Kathmandu is a pupil-dilating experience, a riot of sights, sounds and smells that can quickly lead to sensory overload. Whether you’re barrelling through the traffic-jammed alleyways of the old town in a rickshaw, marvelling at the medieval temples or dodging trekking touts in the backpacker district of Thamel, Kathmandu can be an intoxicating, amazing and exhausting place.
The 2015 earthquake destroyed several temples in Kathmandu's Unesco-listed Durbar Sq, but most areas emerged unscathed. Stroll through the backstreets and Kathmandu’s timeless cultural and artistic heritage still reveals itself in hidden temples overflowing with marigolds, courtyards full of drying chillies and rice, and tiny hobbit-sized workshops.
This endlessly fascinating, sometimes infuriating city has enough sights to keep you busy for a week, but be sure to leave its backpacker comforts and explore the ‘real Nepal’ before your time runs out.
Kathmandu: Voted Top 10 City as Best in Travel 2022
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kathmandu.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Sq was where the city’s kings were once crowned and legitimised, and from where they ruled ( durbar means palace). As such, the square remains the traditional heart of the old town and Kathmandu’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture. The square bore the brunt of Kathmandu's 2015 earthquake damage. Half a dozen temples collapsed, as did several towers in the Hanuman Dhoka palace complex, but it's still a fabulous complex. Reconstruction will continue for years.
Kathmandu's royal palace, known as the Hanuman Dhoka, was originally founded during the Licchavi period (4th to 8th centuries AD), but the compound was expanded considerably by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. Sadly, the sprawling palace was hit hard by the 2015 earthquake and damage was extensive. At the time of research, the main Nasal Chowk courtyard was open and the Tribhuvan Museum was close to reopening, with other buildings closed for reconstruction.
From the entrance gate of the Hanuman Dhoka palace you immediately enter its most famous chowk. Nasal Chowk was used for coronations, a practice that continued until as recently as 2001 with the crowning of King Gyanendra. The coronation platform is in the centre of the courtyard, while the earthquake-damaged Basantapur Tower looms over its southern end.
Southwest of Asan Tole at the junction known as Kel Tole, this temple attracts both Buddhists and Hindus – Buddhists consider Seto (White) Machhendranath to be a form of Avalokiteshvara, while to Hindus he is a rain-bringing incarnation of Shiva. The arched entrance to the temple was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake and the temple is currently closed for repairs.
The long, rectangular courtyard of the Itum Bahal is the largest bahal (Buddhist monastery courtyard) in the old town and remains a haven of tranquillity in the chaotic surroundings. On the western side of the courtyard is the Kichandra Bahal, one of the oldest bahals in the city, dating from 1381. A chaitya in front of the entrance has been completely shattered by a Bodhi tree, which has grown right up through its centre.
At the junction of Durbar and Basantapur squares, this red-brick, three-storey building is home to the Kumari, the girl who is selected to be the town’s living goddess and a living symbol of devi – the Hindu concept of female spiritual energy. Inside the building is Kumari Chowk, a three-storey courtyard. It is enclosed by magnificently carved wooden balconies and windows, making it quite possibly the most beautiful courtyard in Nepal.
The beautifully restored Swapna Bagaicha (Garden of Dreams) remains one of the most serene and beautiful enclaves in Kathmandu. It's two minutes' walk and a million miles from central Thamel.
From dawn until dusk the six-spoked junction of Asan Tole is jammed with vegetable and spice vendors selling everything from yak tails to dried fish. It’s the busiest square in the city and a fascinating place to linger, if you can stand the crowds. Cat Stevens allegedly wrote his hippie-era song 'Kathmandu' in a smoky teahouse in Asan Tole.
The section of the Hanuman Dhoka palace west of Nasal Chowk, overlooking the main Durbar Sq area, was constructed by the Ranas in the middle to late part of the 19th century. This wing bore the brunt of the damage in the 2015 earthquake. Many exhibits were destroyed and the Department of Archaeology has estimated that reconstruction will take years. It is unclear at this stage whether such offbeat treasures as King Tribhuvan’s favourite stuffed bird survived the disaster.