Nestled along the Himalayas in Central Asia, with China to the north and India to the west, east, and south, Nepal is a mystical land full of adventure seekers and abounding culture. It houses the world’s tallest mountain, birthplace of the Buddha, and numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A fascinating mix between the Buddhist and Hindu religions, the capital city of Kathmandu is full of incensed-infused tantric temples, trekkers devising their Himalayan expeditions, and warm-spirited locals eagerly greeting you with “Namaste” at every corner. It is truly a city intertwined between adventure and spirituality.
Even your first steps off the plane arriving into Kathmandu can be a dizzying and exciting experience. Not sure where to start in planning your trip to this chaotic city? Fear not. Here’s our list of the top 20 things to do in Kathmandu.
Top Things to Do in Kathmandu
Located on a hill on the outer rim of Kathmandu, the Swayambhunath Temple offers 360-degree far-reaching views of the city and is home to hundreds of monkeys, giving the complex its nickname “The Monkey Temple.” Be ready to climb 365 stairs to reach the top, or catch a taxi up a winding road to the back side of the temple for easier access.
The complex itself is full of different relics, temples, and a stupa, a dome shaped Buddhist shrine, complete with the Eyes of Buddha painted on the sides watching over the city. Make sure you keep your personal belongings close – the monkeys are devious little creatures!
Most visitors to Kathmandu will make a stop in Thamel, and with good reason. In the narrow, winding streets there are oodles of bars, restaurants, shops, nightclubs, hotels, hostels – you name it! It really is the center of action for travelers to the city and one of the best things to do in Kathmandu. The Electric Pagoda Bar & Café and The Purple Haze Rock Bar are two great options for a buzzing night on the town.
Souvenir shops and stalls are dotted all throughout the city, but Thamel is your best bet for haggling politely to get the best deals on unique souvenirs. You can find prayer flags, incense, jewelry, pashmina scarves, outdoor and trekking gear, tea, handicrafts, and more. My favorite keepsake I picked up is a thangka: a mandala painted in meditative states by practicing Buddhist monks.
The Kathmandu Valley is home to three Durbar squares: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The Kathmandu Durbar Square, though badly damaged by the 2015 earthquake, is still home to numerous intricate temples, monuments, museums, and palaces, all of which are still being restored. For a look at authentic Nepali culture and history, the Palace museum in the square shouldn’t be missed.
Kumari Ghar, the temple of the Living Goddess, is located on the south end of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. Known to be a direct reincarnation of the Hindu goddess of war, strength, and protection, the Kumari is a young girl who is selected through a rigorous process and worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists as a living goddess. Although it is forbidden to photograph the Kumari herself, it is considered a great blessing if she glimpses at you. She usually shows her face between 9 and 11am.
Legend has it that nailing a coin to this wooden log acts as an offering to the god of the toothache, Vaisha Dev, and will heal any of your tooth ailments. Worth a shot and sure beats sitting in a dentist’s chair!
About 13 kilometers east of Central Kathmandu is Bhaktapur Durbar Square, known as the ‘Abode of Ancient Nepali Culture.’ Unlike the two other durbar squares of the Kathmandu valley, it is largely untouched by Western culture and is a great way to step back in time and glance at how Nepal looked in medieval times.
Known as one of the largest stupas in the world and the center of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, the Boudhanath Stupa was built just after the passing of the Buddha in the 14th century and attracts followers of the religion from all around the world. Follow the locals and worshippers in walking clockwise around the stupa three times, showing respect for the Buddha and his teachings, and spinning the numerous Tibetan Prayer Wheels on route for luck. The complex also houses numerous shops, studios, and restaurants, so it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.
The best advice I ever received on my travels has been “eat as the locals do.” Two great options for traditional Nepali cuisine are The Village Cafe and the Dream Garden Restaurant at the Kathmandu Guesthouse Hotel. Make sure to try some momos, a South-Asian steamed dumpling, and dal bhat, a lentil curry.
Even better than just eating the delicious food, take a cooking class and learn how to make it! One of the best things to do in Kathmandu, Nepal Cooking School offers different classes from cooking a four-course meal, learning about the ingredients, even walking to a nearby market to source your own ingredients.
Combining traditional ayurvedic practices with Buddhist medicines and rituals, the Pancha Kosha Himalayan Spa is the perfect place to unwind after some hectic exploration of Kathmandu. Whether you choose a standard aromatherapy body massage or indulge in the hot stone therapy session, you’ll surely leave blissed out and ready for more adventuring.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation, the holy Pashupatinath Temple is the largest temple complex in Nepal. Though only followers of Hinduism may enter the main temple, the entire rest of the complex is open to visitors. It’s common to see traditional Hindu funeral cremation ceremonies at the numerous concrete pads, or ghats, along the riverbank. It’s truly a sobering reminder of life and death and a direct look into the Hindu belief of reincarnation. While it’s okay to watch and take photos, make sure to give the families plenty of space to grieve.
If you’re lucky, you might meet and receive a blessing from a sadhu, or holy man. The sadhus live on the Pashupatinath complex in tiny caves or dwellings and have a very unique appearance, often with long dreadlocked hair, adorned in yellow and orange garb, and faces covered in paint or firewood ash. Sadhus have dedicated their lives to prayer and meditation to break from the Hindu reincarnation cycle of life and death and have renounced their ‘worldly’ lives. They’re often friendly to visitors and willing to take photos, but for a small fee.
Considered to be the commercial center of the Kathmandu Valley, Asan Tole is stippled with stalls and shops selling everything from fish, meat, and spices to jewelry and clothing. Fun fact: this is thought to be where the inspiration for Cat Steven’s song “Kathmandu” came from.
Located just steps from the busy streets of Thamel, the Garden of Dreams feels like it’s a world away from all the commotion of the city. Grab a cup of coffee from the Kaiser Café in the grounds and relax in the quiet tranquility of the gardens built to represent Nepal’s traditional six seasons.
Several local airlines, like Buddha Air or Yeti Airlines, offer daily flights (dependent on weather) through the Himalayas. Your chance to get up close and personal with Mount Everest – without the hike to Everest basecamp! The small planes often sit anywhere from 6 to 20 passengers and allow for you to enter the cockpit, giving you the perfect opportunity to take the most insta-worthy snapshots of the world’s tallest mountain. Truly a once in a lifetime experience!
The healing power of sound and vibration is thought to balance a person’s chakras, your body’s energy points, so why not give it a whirl? Kundalini Sound Healing and Om Singing Bowls and Healing Hub, both located in Thamel, are a great option to realign and recharge those chakras. You can also pick one up to take home, a great reminder of your time in Nepal.
Located just about 8 kilometers north of the city of Kathmandu lies the largest stone statue of the Lord Vishnu, protector of the universe, at the Budhanilkantha Temple. It’s very common to see people leaving offerings at the foot of the 5-meter-long stone carving, which is over 1000 years old!
Just about an hours’ drive from Central Kathmandu and located just on the outer rim of the Kathmandu valley is the town of Nagarkot, best known for its expansive views of the Himalayas. Trekking Team Group offers a sunrise Nagarkot panoramic trail hike, including pick up and drop off from your accommodation in Kathmandu. It’s a great way to escape the chaos and smog of the humming city, even just for a few hours.
Originally built as a hostel, the unique Taragaon Museum has been transformed into a home to modern Nepalese art and documents the architectural history of Kathmandu. The buildings themselves are a work of art, almost resembling something from a sci-fi film.