Nepal is jam-packed with glorious mountain views and epic hiking trails. The Himalayan mountain range runs through the entire country, and impressively, it contains 8 of the world’s 10 highest peaks. The most famous, of course, is Mount Everest, the tallest of the bunch.
If you are looking to explore those mountains, there is no way around spending some time in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The city is the definite hub for travelers heading to the Himalayas and contains the only international airport in the country. You simply must come through here before you can visit the more remote regions.
Many people consider it a necessary evil, because being dusty, noisy and dirty, the city is a far cry from the beauty of the countryside. However, spending time in Kathmandu doesn’t have to feel like a living hell. There are interesting things to see & do there, and you may be surprised to find excellent eateries around as well. You just need to know where to look! The city is also rich in temples, Hindu and Buddhist culture, as well as smiles and kindness. We’ve been to Kathmandu several times (once for almost a week straight), and we’ve learned to tolerate it. The mountains will always be a much stronger draw to us, but our mantra is that when in town anyway, we might as well get the best out of it.
So let’s get right to it. What exactly should you spend time on in Kathmandu?
What's covered in this post
We start out this post by walking you through the main things to see and do in Kathmandu. We also go over our favorite eateries and show you where to find the best coffee. Then we leave you with some extra tips & tricks to help you have the smoothest possible experience in the city. Oh, and as a bit of travel inspiration, we have thrown in a video from our 2019 trek to Everest Base Camp as well. Enjoy!
- Pashupatinath Temple
- Boudhanath Stupa
- The Monkey Temple
- Kathmandu Durbar Square
- Practice Yoga & Get a Massage
- Stroll around Thamel
- Escape to the Garden of Dreams
What to see and do in Kathmandu
There are about a million things to see and do in Kathmandu, but we won’t list them all here. You have TripAdvisor to make those generic lists for you. What we will share, though, is our personal favorites that we spent time on ourselves, and which made the greatest impressions on us.
We start out on the outskirts of the city, just a few minutes from the airport. Here you find the famous Hindu temple known as Pashupatinath, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is definitely not a place you should visit if you are a very sensitive individual. What happens here is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a strong and very real experience that will stick with you. It made a huge impact on us, and we are usually quite tough going in this regard.
The temple is one of the holiest places in the country and is considered to be the seat of Pashupatinath, the reincarnated Hindu god Shiva. Unlike many other temples, Pashupatinath is no architectural marvel and doesn’t look particularly impressive. However, that’s not what the temple is known for, either. Rather, it’s famous for being a sacred Hindu funeral place, where a ceremony known as Antyesti takes place.
Antyesti means “last sacrifice” and is basically a ceremony that ends up with a public cremation of the deceased on a ghat by the river. If you show up at Pashupatinath, you’ll see the whole thing from start to finish. This can be quite a shocking sight, and if you’re a Westerner, you might never have seen anything quite like it. There are lots of interesting things to say about the ceremony, but we recommend you go and have your own experience. We don’t know enough about the background of this holy ceremony, or the technicalities, to give you a thorough explanation.
Just know beforehand, especially if you go with kids, that you will see burning corpses and people in deep mourning. You get the opportunity to experience this cultural and very personal ceremony, which will no doubt leave a huge impact on you – no matter who you are. We definitely recommend it, especially if you want to learn a little about local customs and culture. This is nothing like a funeral back home, but despite it all being very foreign to you, please promise to behave yourself and respect the grieving people at Pashupatinath.
Boudhanath is another UNESCO World Heritage site in Kathmandu. It is the most famous stupa in the country, and if you are considering a visit to Nepal, you have probably already seen pictures of it. Contrary to Pashupatinath, Boudhanath Stupa is a Buddhist structure, and you will see plenty of monks around the site.
We recommend you visit early in the morning, just around sunrise. Although this stupa is not quite in the center of town, it’s worth getting up early to watch the spectacle. It feels like a million people show up during their morning routine. They circle the stupa, always in a clockwise direction, and spin the prayer wheels. You may also see them make offerings in exchange for blessings as well as provide food to the local monks.
It is quite the experience to walk amongst all of these people and see what a big part of their life this is. To get a bird’s eye perspective of the whole thing, we suggest you head up to Himalayan Java Coffee for a morning brew. Here you can watch the spectacle below while sipping on a flat white, relax and just soak in the atmosphere.
The Monkey Temple
The Monkey Temple is actually called Swayambhunath. Yeah, good luck pronouncing that! It’s a Buddhist temple, and yet another a UNESCO World Heritage site. Like Boudhanath, it too is located a bit outside of the city center, so you’ll need to grab a taxi there.
Once you get to Swayambhunath, it’ll be very obvious why it’s better known as the Monkey Temple. There are plenty of monkeys there, and although you may think they are cute, you should take care around them. Under no circumstances should you feed them! They are smart little creatures, but they are no longer afraid of humans.
Before getting to the temple itself, you’ll have to brave a very long set of staircases. Swayambhunath is perched on a hilltop, and on a clear day, there are excellent views of Kathmandu city. If you can time it right, we think this may be a superb sunset spot.
Apart from the hilltop location and the many monkeys, this is a typical temple, as found in the region. We didn’t spend much time up there, as we had already seen plenty of temples. There are a lot of wild dogs around, combined with the rather filthy monkeys and plenty of pigeons. It quickly got a bit much for us, and our visit ended up being quite short. It was still worth the drive, though!
Kathmandu Durbar Square
Kathmandu Durbar Square is the 4th UNESCO World Heritage site on this list. It lies in front of the Royal Palaces, in the old town of Kathmandu. You have to pay a small price to visit the area, but it’s next to nothing, and you will find several interesting temples and old buildings inside. The admission fee is fair enough, considering the amount of restoration necessary. This is probably the first thing you notice. Most of the buildings are pretty much held up by sticks, courtesy of the infamous 2015 earthquake that shook the entire country. Even today, the buildings are still not repaired but look to be held up temporarily.
It was fascinating to see how life goes on like usual here, even though the historic buildings were clearly falling apart. It seemed a popular place to hang out for tourists and locals alike, and even though we usually don’t enjoy such historical sites much, we spent a good hour or so wandering around here. All in all, an interesting place to see and experience. We actually walked to Durbar Square from Thamel, and recommend you do the same. You get a good feel for the hustle and bustle of the city, and it’s not far at all.
Practice Yoga & Get a Massage
Yoga is a big part of the Nepalese way, and most people here prioritize physical and mental health in their everyday lives.
By the way, if you have ever been to a yoga class back home, you’ll be familiar with the word: “Namaste.” In Nepal, it’s not just a phrase said before and after a class, but also seems to mean Hey, Hello, Goodbye, Thanks, and so much more. We quickly got used to saying Namaste, pretty much all the time.
We obviously couldn’t spend a couple of days in Kathmandu without going to a yoga class. Or well, Kia couldn’t, Nick felt just fine without the experience. There are plenty of places to choose from, but she ended up going to Mandala Yoga Studio & Spa. It had gotten good reviews, and offered a free massage after the session. Win!
Stroll around Thamel
Thamel is a popular tourist area in the middle of Kathmandu. Pretty much all foreigners decide to stay here, and that makes perfect sense. You can walk almost anywhere, all the great restaurants are within easy reach, and there are plenty of shops. Most of these are selling souvenirs (tea, soaps, t-shirts, the usual stuff) as well as cheap (fake) hiking gear.
The downside to this popularity is, of course, that it gets quite busy, and there are a ton of street vendors who may call out to you. There really isn’t any other obvious place to stay in Kathmandu, though, so you’ll just have to find your peace with the mayhem. The traffic and constant honking can be extremely annoying, but over time, you get used to it.
We actually quite enjoyed walking around the area, despite everything. Although touristy in parts, it somehow still manages to show you the everyday life of the Nepalese people living in Kathmandu.
Escape to the Garden of Dreams
When you get fed up with Thamel, head over to the nearby Garden of Dreams for a little piece of quiet, calm, and serenity. You have to pay a small amount to enter, but we found it to be well worth the expense. As gardens go, it’s not overly impressive. Still, it felt like the air was just a bit fresher, and the change of scenery was definitely welcome. When you come back to Kathmandu after spending days or even weeks in the fresh mountain air, it almost feels like you are getting choked by the dust and polluted air. This little oasis in the middle of the city was just what we needed!
It should be said, though, that the Garden of Dreams seems to be the preferred dating spot for the younger generation in Kathmandu. Evidently, they like to hang around in pairs and don’t shy from the occasional Instagram photoshoot. It can be funny to watch, but it can take away from the tranquility as well.
Where to eat in Kathmandu
We were positively surprised about the food in Kathmandu. In the rest of Nepal, particularly at altitude, it isn’t always that exciting (to say the least). You may judge us for not really having any local options on this list, but just wait until you have visited yourself. Having been on the EBC trek for several weeks, we were so very tired of Dal Bhat and canned tomato sauce. Kathmandu offered some much-needed diversity to our taste buds, although far from all the restaurants we tried are recommendable. The ones we liked the most follow below!
This was our favorite restaurant in Kathmandu. We can particularly recommend the Paneer Tikka Masala, but everything we tried was really, really good. The staff is super friendly, and they even have a cozy outdoor courtyard. If we only had one night in Kathmandu, this is where we would go.
The food was great at Forest and Plate, but we would most like to highlight the cocktails. Yes, you can have great cocktails in Kathmandu! What’s more, the restaurant is located outdoors, on a small rooftop in a cozy setting. This fact alone made us come back on a few occasions. They also make homemade pasta dishes and fresh salads, which were really delicious and came as a welcome relief from the typical local cuisine.
In the picture below, it can be hard to tell that we are in Kathmandu and not back home in Europe, right?
Well, we are in Kathmandu, on a lovely, sunny terrace at Melrose Restaurant & Bar. Although it’s just a stone’s throw away from the street, it feels much more distanced from the hustle and bustle of Thamel. They serve some great craft beers here and various international dishes. The prices are a bit higher than the other places we are suggesting, but the great atmosphere makes up for it. They even have live music every Friday night, so if you are in Kathmandu during the weekend, this is the place to be.
This is a great little lunch spot! A tasty kebab, and some crunchy falafels, was exactly what we needed on our walk around Thamel. We highly recommend it, and the price is really good. They only have very limited seating, so be prepared to eat while standing or take your food with you.
We only had a single real dish here: Pizza! It was delicious and served as the perfect lunch. The location is great as well, with outdoor seating right next to Forest and Plate, which we recommended above. The yoga place Kia tried out is also nearby, so perhaps you can somehow find a way to combine pizza, yoga, and cocktails! We were in the mood for a beer, though, and were happy to learn that they served extremely cheap pitchers here.
Where to find good coffee in Kathmandu
We have spent a very long time sipping coffee in Kathmandu. It’s just a great way to kill time. A real cup of barista-made coffee reminds us of home and goes extremely well with a good book. We don’t know what we would have done if they didn’t serve good coffee in Kathmandu, but thankfully, we never have to think about that. You’ll find our favorite places below!
This place is definitely the easiest to find, as it is a proper coffee chain that seems to be everywhere in Kathmandu. Almost no matter where you are in the city center, there will be a Himalayan Java Coffee relatively close by. They, for example, have one overlooking Durbar Square, as well as Boudhanath Stupa. We even brought a takeaway cup of coffee from the branch in Thamel for our visit to the Garden of Dreams. It might not be the very best of all the coffees we tasted, but the convenience was unbeatable, and their WiFi was actually decent as well.
We came here because we had heard about their Eggs Benedicts (a weak point for Nick). Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed in that regard. We can, however, recommend the place for their excellent coffee. They served up a delicious cappuccino in a huge cup, which definitely satisfied our lust for coffee and milky foam.
We went in here because we walked by a few times and liked the look of their outdoor terrace. It has a great location overlooking an old tree in the middle of Thamel. Better yet, the coffee was really good, and as such, we recommend the place. However, you shouldn’t expect much service, as the waiters seem to have forgotten about the typical Nepalese hospitality.
More tips and tricks for Kathmandu
Here we are just throwing in a few more tips & tricks to help you have the smoothest possible visit to Kathmandu.
Where to live in Kathmandu
Our clear recommendation is to stay in Thamel, the tourist center of the city. While we like to get off-the-beaten-path sometimes, in our opinion, that is not necessary in Kathmandu. Everything feels off-the-beaten-path enough for all but the most hardcore backpackers. Also, when you live in Thamel, you will be able to walk to most of the things you want to do, saving you from spending too much time in the deadly Kathmandu traffic.
Personally, we always stay at Hotel Friends Home as we know they have comfy beds and REAL duvets! Trust us, this is important after days or weeks out in the mountains. Don’t come expecting any sort of luxury, or even Western standards, because you won’t find it. That goes for anywhere in Nepal if you were wondering. The upside? Prices are extremely low everywhere!
How to get from the airport to Kathmandu city center
It’s really easy to get from the airport to pretty much anywhere in Kathmandu. Simply walk towards the exit, and just before getting out in the dusty air, you’ll find a dedicated taxi desk. Here you can book legitimate taxies, and will have a fixed price quoted. It won’t cost you much.
You will be guided to a tiny, almost rally-style looking, car of Japanese origin. If you are more than 2 persons, chances are the luggage will be thrown on the roof and off you go. Don’t put too many thoughts into safety, as the seatbelt is unlikely to work. It’s just a question of holding on for dear life, and consider the drive as an experience. Close your eyes if that helps and take comfort from the fact that speeds aren’t that high in the congested streets. If you are particularly fortunate, your driver will have a little light-switch on his steering wheel so that he can honk and honk and honk almost continuously. Oh, what a sweet melody.
Getting a local sim card in Nepal
In Kathmandu, and in Nepal in general, WiFi coverage isn’t particularly good. It is sketchy in the mountains due to a lack of (solar) power, and even in Kathmandu, you might experience actual power outages. To stay connected, we recommend you get an inexpensive local sim card. These can be found both in the airport and in most of the countless small shops throughout Thamel.
Your passport and a photo are required for registration. There are two providers: Ncell and Nepal Telecom. Opinions differ on which are the best and having tried both, we don’t see any clear winner either. Rumors have it that Nepal Telecom might have broader coverage in the mountains but that Ncell is generally a bit faster. In our experience, both were fine in the city but outright horrible in the mountains.
Having a little too much time?
If you have a bit too much time to kill in Kathmandu, it might be a good idea to get out of the city. We certainly don’t suggest you stay put in the dusty streets for weeks on end. Consider getting some hiking done instead, or head out to the famous Chitwan National Park for some tiger spotting!
Travel video - Everest Base Camp
Not sure if visiting Nepal is worth the effort? Take a look at this travel video filmed during our Everest Base Camp trek in 2019. We dare say you’ll be convinced to drop by the Himalayas!
If you liked it, then head over to our dedicated Travel Video page for many more!