Kathmandu has surprised us from the airport. The airport is designed in an old style with red bricks. The building definitely stands out. We had to go through a lengthy visa on arrival process. See the detailed information about this here.
After clearing the immigration, we got out in the crazy crowded place, where a lot of drivers were offering us their taxis. We were glad, we asked the hotel to send a taxi, as otherwise it would be a lot of hassle.
Driving to the city center by taxi already provided the crazy sights of numerous motorcycles, traffic with no rules and hardly any road lights, and the overall poverty.
Our hotel staff, as all Nepalese we met were very nice and welcoming.
Most people only spend a day or 2 in Kathmandu and then venture to mountainous areas, hardly caring what this valley has to offer. If you, like us are interested in the culture, architecture and people, then definitely give it more time. I would suggest at least 5 days.
It should be underlined that 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Kathmandu valley – the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur; Hindu temples – Pashupatinath and Cahngunarayan; Boudhist stupas – Swayambunath and Boudhanath (see their descriptions below).
You can find the list of entrance fees here: https://www.welcomenepal.com/plan-your-trip/heritage-site-entry-fees.html
Here is the possible 5-day itinerary for exploring Kathmandu valley.
Day 1 – explore Kathmandu – Durbar Square, Swayambunath, Garden of Dreams, Narayanhiti Palace
The Kathmandu Durbar square is located in the heart of city. You can easily walk here from Thamel and see some interesting temples on the way, like Kaathe Swyambhu Shree Gha Chaitya and Indra Chowk. It is not just a small square, it’s quite a big place with a number of spots to explore and discover, so allocate at least a couple of hours to it.
Durbar means palace. This was the place, where kings lived and ruled from. There are three durbar squares in the valley (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur). These city states were competing with each other, which resulted in amazing architecture
The Hanuman Dhoka palace complex was damaged by earthquake, but you can still explore parts of it. The reconstructions will probably take a while. Don’t miss visiting the Kumari house – the house of a “living goddess”.
Entrance fee is 1000 rupees (about 10 USD) for foreigners. Locals enter without fees. There are kiosks at several spots for you to buy the ticket. Don’t believe any of the people, who will approach you and try to sell you one. Btw they will give you a map of the area at the kiosk, which is very useful for you to explore all corners.
Unfortunately, the square is not well maintained, as most places we visited around here. You will find garbage everywhere, tons of people trying to sell stuff.
After the square, go get back to Thamel and visit the Narayanhiti Palace. I didn’t suggest to start with the Palace, because it works only 11am to 3pm in winter and to 4pm in summer (you can buy tix until 2pm and 3pm respectively).
Entrance costs 500 rupees. You are not allowed to take any bags, cameras or mobile phones inside. You will have to leave everything in the locker outside. I kept a small purse with our passports, cards and money, as I never leave those anywhere. As a result of these rules, we have no photos taken there.
In its current form, the palace was constructed in 1963. Before that there were other constructions, which were demolished. Walking around the palace, it feels like the place of the 70s, with old tv sets, old technology, etc. It is quite strange, given that the royal family lived here until the 2001 massacre.
You probably have heard of the famous massacre. If you haven’t here is a short recap. The crown prince Dipendra killed his mother and father (the King and the Queen), his brother and sister and cousins, before committing suicide by shooting himself in the head. The massacre happened during the family dinner. The shooter was proclaimed king while he was in coma and died three days later.
No one knows the real reason of the shootings. There are several theories. The most commonly repeated one is that the crown prince was in love with a woman from the “lower class”, while his parent objected to their marriage. There are other conspiracy theories as well, but no one really can say for sure.
Several years after this, in 2006 monarchy was abolished and Nepal was declared a republic.
After visiting the palace, walk several minutes to the Garden of Dreams. you will definitely need to relax after the heavy history of the Palace. The garden is very small and cute with an amphitheater, pools and pavilions. It was built in 1920. Entrance costs 400 rupees per person.
After relaxing in the garden, head to the highlight of the day – the Swayambunath.
Swayambunath (Monkey Temple) is I guess my favourate place in Kathmandu. It stands on a hill and provides nice views of the city. We really loved spending time here, exploring the different corners, watching the monkeys play.
To get to here from the city center, you will most probably have to take taxi, unless you are ok walking about 35-45 minutes. This walk may not be as amazing, you may not have sidewalks oftentimes, but it’s a good way to see the spots, where tourists don’t venture. We took a taxi there and walked back to Thamel in the evening. I suggest to walk up from the side, where the car will bring you to the Maha Manjushree Sarashwati Temple and then walk up to the Statue of peace. These areas are lovely and worth exploring for sure. This will also provide less problematic climb, than the main stairs. Actually, we didn’t know about this way, the taxi driver took us there and we were very grateful, as we got to see these parts too. Afterwards, you can walk down from the main stairway. Or you can do vice versa, go up from the main entrance side and down – from the other side. You will have to overall climb 365 stairs (I read so, we didn’t really count them 😊).
The temple is said to date back to the 5th century. This is a temple complex, with the main temple being far smaller than boudhanath, but similarly has all-seeing eyes on all sides.
It is not called a monkey temple for nothing. There are hundreds of monkeys around. They hang out in groups. We threw a couple of bananas to them and it was fun watching them peel it and eat. They didn’t fight over food though, which was surprising 😊 Overall, these monkeys were far less aggressive and unpleasant, than the ones we saw in other parts of Kathmandu. Maybe the locality affects their behavior 😊 We didn’t stay there at night, but I have heard monkeys fully take over at the end of the day.
Day 2 – Patan (Lalitpur), Kirtipur
Patan (currently known, as Lalitpur – a city of beauty in translation) is located just 5 km from central Kathmandu, south of the Bagmati river. You can walk here from Kathmandu Durbar square, it would take you about an hour. The way is not that amazing, obviously many streets have no sidewalks, crossing the streets can be out of a horror movie and the dust is unpleasant, but it still is very interesting to see the areas, less visited by tourists and to just observe the local way of life. On the way back, we took a taxi though, it took about 20 mins (the traffic is just crazy) and cost about 5 USD (they always ask more from tourists).
This old city is another UNESCO heritage site in the Kathmandu valley. It is believed to date back to the 3rd century BC. The Durbar square and the surrounding areas were quite strongly affected by the earthquake. Many temples were completely destroyed. However, the city still has a lot to explore.
The entrance fee is 1000 rupees (as in case of Kathmandu durbar square).
Patan Durbar square is far more relaxed than Kathmandu one and less dirty. You can sit and watch people. You will find many locals just chilling.
This was an independent city state with its own Malla rulers. Their palace (thought to be built in the 16th century) currently houses a museum, a shrine to Lakshmi and the lovely courtyards.
There are a number of amazing temples and pagodas in the area, including the Golden temple, the Krishna Mandir temple (the one on the photo), Kumbeshwar Mahadev Temple and many more. Just wander around and explore at your own pace. You will also find a number of craft shops in the area.
From Patan to Kirtipur it’s a 15-20 minute drive.
Kirtipur is a hidden gem of the valley. Its name translated as the City of glory. It is located in the south-west of Kathmandu. The Tribhuvan university is nearby. The cute little city is spread out on the hill. Therefore, the views from the old city part looking over the valley and to the mountains are wonderful.
Not many tourists visit it. It is not on the usual tourist routes and itineraries. So you can have the old narrow streets all to yourself. We only met three other foreigners overall, while wandering around the city. It was quiet, peaceful and simply amazing. So do visit it before it gets overcrowded.
Kirtipur is a city with Newar culture. We met one man, who was very interested in us and explained that he was Newari. We expected that he would ask for payment, but strangely he only asked for the Georgian and Turkish money.
Some highlights of the old city include Bagh Bhairab temple believed to be built in the 16th century. God Bhairab is depicted, as an angry tiger. Exploring it is very interesting and views are awesome. Animal sacrifices are made here every week. Chilancho Stupa is a well-known Bouddhist stupa. Uma Maheshwar is the highest place in Kirtipur and definitely worth a visit. It is dedicated to Shiva and Parvati. It is constructed in the 17th century. It was destroyed and renovated a couple of times, with last renovation being completed in 2008.
One warning – there are a number of stray dogs all around the old city. They didn’t seem very friendly, so be careful.
Day 3 – Bhaktapur, Changunarayan (not fully necessary), Thamel
Bhaktapur is another UNESCO site and the best-preserved area in the Kathmandu valley. Among the three Durbar squares, it was the least damaged during the earthquake. It has amazing architecture. It is also bigger compared to other Durbar square areas. The price is also more – at 1500 rupees. You can use the ticket for up to a week. For this you need to ask them to make note of it and I believe you need a passport.
The Mallas dynasty ruled the whole valley from Bhaktapur. However, the king Yakshya divided the kingdom among his three sons in the 15th century. Hence, the three little kingdoms (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur) were created.
Do wander around and find the beautiful museums and temples. The 55-window palace is very beautiful and worth sparing some time for. It houses a gallery. It also has a lovely yard. Here is also a famous Golden gate. In this area you will find entrance to the Taleju temple. Most you can do is peek here, as they won’t let you in, unless you are Hindu. This was a second such place in Nepal we encountered.
Explore the Nyatapola Temple – the tallest (5-storey) and the most outstanding building here. It is dedicated to goddess Lakshmi. Datattreya temple was constructed in the 15th century by king Yakshya. It is a three-storey temple. Don’t forget to look for the Peacock window near the temple. You can climb up the stairs of some of them and enjoy the views.
The city still is the pottery center. You will even find a Pottery square here with a lot of crafts lying around to be dried in the sun.
Bhaktapur also retains old way of life. Walking around the small city, it was fascinating to see, how people live. To be honest, sometimes, when walking on the side streets, we felt like we were somehow imposing, as people were sitting outside doing their daily housework – like peeling potatoes, washing clothes and dishes and what not. Those narrow streets are like village yards.
From Bhaktapur you can take a taxi to Changunarayan. It is not a very long drive, would take about half an hour. The drive is nice going uphill with the rice field views. As far as I know, there is no public transport that will get you there. Btw, on the way our taxi driver paid some people on the roadblocks. When we asked, why was he paying, he said that otherwise they wouldn’t let him pass. So there seems to be some corrupt scheme in place, that we didn’t fully understand. It was not the entrance fee, as we paid the entrance fee to the temple on the spot – 300 rupees per ticket.
Changunarayan temple is a second most prominent Hindu temple in the valley after Pashupatinath (see below) and the oldest temple in Kathamndu valley. However, it was destroyed and restored, so the present temple dates back to the 17th century, although some 5th or 7th century (no exact date of its construction is known) parts are remaining. It is another of the valley’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. It is dedicated to Vishnu.
We were especially fascinated by the statues of Garuda here.
It was interesting to see, however, if you have limited time and should skip something, I would I guess skip this one.
After a long day get back to Thamel and enjoy its lovely restaurants and cafes and especially the amazing bookshops and craft shops. I particularly loved the bookshops and spent a lot of time there. I also bought a couple of local books that would be hard to find in other countries.
Day 4 – Explore more of Kathmandu – Monasteries (Kopan, Khawalung Tashi Choeling, Shechen), Boudhanath (and surrounding monasteries, particularly, Guru Khakhang), Pashupatinath
There are a number of interesting monasteries in Kathmandu and in the valley in general. Some of them are located in the North-East side of Kathmandu. They are the amazing centers for teaching art and philosophy.
Kopan monastery is the most famous among them. Standing on top of the hill, it not only has beautiful structure and peaceful environment, but also provides amazing views over Kathmandu. Keep in mind that if you are visiting in October to December, the Monastery is closed from the end of October till the end of December. As our visit was during this time, we were unable to enter. However, we still went up there, peeked in and delighted in the amazing views.
During this time of the year, some people attend the classes here, living for a few weeks in the monastery. I believe anyone can do it , if you are interested, but I am not sure about the costs.
From this monastery, I suggest not to take any transport and to just walk downhill, enjoy the area and observe the local life. You can get to the next monastery Khawalung Tashi Choeling in about 20-30 minutes. We loved this walk.
Khawalung Tashi Choeling monastery is very peaceful. There were only a few people around during our visit. It may not be very famous or outstanding, but we still loved the environment there. It also has nice views.
From here, you can continue your walk down to get to the Shechen monastery. That will take you another 20-30 mins depending on your pace. We loved this monastery. I think it was my favourate. It was amazing to observe, how monks live. Of course, be careful not to disturb anyone. We did not go close, while they were doing their daily chores. Again, there were very few people visiting the monastery, so it was very peaceful, and the vibes were amazing.
From here it’s a short walk to Boudhanath.
The Boudhanath Stupa is the main site for Tibetan Boudhists in the area and is the largest stupa in Kathmandu valley. They say best time to visit and listen to the prayers is at the dawn. Honestly, we didn’t manage to wake up and go there that early 😊 But it is beautiful any time of day and evening. And you see numerous people paying their respect. It was particularly crowded in the evening after dusk.
The all-seeing Buddha eyes are on all 4 sides of the stupa. Originally a stupa was built at this location in the 7th century by the king, as a penance for killing his father (the legend is quite strange. The king wanted to sacrifice himself for finding source of water and tricked his son to kill him). The original building was destroyed by Mughals and the current construction was built in 14th century.
Its upper part was significantly damaged by the April 2015 earthquake. It was renovated and reopened by the end of the year.
There are a number of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops around the stupa and in the area. Do sit at one of the cafes on the upper floors and enjoy the view 😊
Also don’t miss the Guru Kakhung Monastery. It is located near one of the entrances to the circle around the stupa. The monastery is beautiful and it’s worth exploring. It is very crowded. Do go upstairs for seeing the numerous incenses and the views towards the stupa.
From Boudhanath you can walk to Pashupatinath temple. That would take you about 25-30 minutes.
Pashupatinath is the most famous and oldest Hindu temple in the Kathmandu valley. It is dedicated to the god Shiva. Before going to Nepal, we somehow thought that the majority of Nepalese is Buddhists. But we were mistaken, apparently the majority is Hindu.
The temple stands on the banks of sacred Bagmati river. It is an extensive ceremony performed A temple was built at this location, as early as the 5th century. Currently, there are a number of temples inside the Pashupatinath area. The main temple at the riverbank can not be visited by non-Hindus. It is a beautiful building with golden colors. But everyone can visit the rest of the areas.
The temple complex is located near the Boudnadath (some 15 mins walk away). So I suggest to visit both in one day. Get the taxi to drop you off at one and walk to another. When you get there, you will be accosted by people, who will offer to guide you. Be careful with them, as I heard about a number of scams. If you want a guide, arrange one in advance. Instead of listening to them, get to the ticket booth. The tix cost 1000 rupees.
Cremations are performed in the open air at the riverside near the main temple. As a result, there is always specific smell at the riverside and the river is very polluted. You can see the cremations from the other side of the river but be respectful and silent throughout the ceremony.
There are a number of monkeys in the area. Btw. Swayambunath is called the #monkeytemple , but there are even more of them in #pashupatinath . Somehow we felt that here monkeys are much more aggressive and dangerous, than in Swayambunath, where we were not even afraid to get closer to them. Here, they snatch food and bags. I wouldn’t go close to them. Be careful, while walking around.
There are many yogis around the area. Keep in mind, that if you want to take a photo of them, you should pay. Otherwise, if you try taking photos even in their direction, they may get aggressive.
Day 5 – Nagarkot
Nagarkot is a beautiful village scenic area some 30 km from Kathmandu. It provides beautiful views overall Himalayas. If you are not much of a hiker and are not visiting Nepal for the long mountain hikes, Nagarkot provides a nice alternative. However, in order to enjoy its views, you have to make sure that the visibility is good on the days you head there. Usually they say that October and November are the best times.
It takes about 2 hours to get here from Kathmandu. The entrance to the town costs 399 rupees and you will have to pay it at one of the roadblocks to the city.
Some people make it a day trip together with Bhaktapur, some prefer to spend longer time here. Many people will also advice to stay here overnight. It definitely would be a great experience, albeit very expensive, so it all depends on your budget. You can also find some hostel-like places, but during my research I didn’t find anything remotely decent and cheap.
Either way, it’s your decision, depending on how much time you want to spend here. There are a number of hiking opportunities here, ranging from a few hour hikes to several days.
Otherwise, there is nothing else to do here. So if you want other activities, rather than hiking, don’t stay too long.
If you have more days in Kathmandu valley, you can see Panauti (It is very cute, but we didn’t make it there), Namo Buddha temple, Kakani area, etc.