The capital of Nepal is an intoxicating, infuriating and yet amazing place, a sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds that threaten to overwhelm first-time travellers. With an old town of traffic jammed alleys, intriguing medieval temples and enough to keep you busy for days, or even weeks, Kathmandu is an essential stop and deserves much longer than an overnight halt on route to the mountains.
Wander the timeless backstreets and allow yourself to slowly fall in love with the city, discovering a cultural and artistic heritage that is truly unique to Nepal. The hidden courtyards of drying chillies and rice, the tiny workshops and the colourful cycle rickshaws are all part of the experience.
Most travellers choose to base themselves in the backpacker hub of Thamel; this area is part of the old town and is characterised by its incredible number of travel and trekking agencies, handicraft shops and traveller-oriented restaurants. Many hotels and guesthouses can also be found in Thamel, hidden within the confusing web of winding backstreets and alleyways.
Whilst staying here puts you at the heart of the action, the area just outside Thamel is far easier to access, especially by taxi, and is also a somewhat quieter place to base yourself. We always stay at and highly recommend Blue Mountain Homestay, situated on a backstreet off Galko Pakha, a 10 minute walk from Thamel. With clean cosy rooms, comfortable areas to sit and relax, an included breakfast and a family who treat guests like one of their own, the $15 double rooms are a steal.
What to do with One Day in Kathmandu
If you’ve only got one day to see what Kathmandu offers, forget about the valley towns and focus on the city’s bustling heart. Spend the morning exploring the old town; the best way to get a feel for this area is on foot.
Thamel to Durbar Square (2km, 2 hours)
- Start by walking down THAMEL MARG to THAHITI TOLE, a square that wraps around a 15th Century stupa. The NATESHWAR TEMPLE on the northern side of the square is dedicated to the Newari god of music; the brass doorway depicts creatures playing a variety of musical instruments.
- Continue heading south, past shops selling prayer flags and khata (ritual scarves), then take a right turn under an obvious archway to KATHESIMBHU STUPA. The stupa lies at the centre of a courtyard and radiates prayer flags; a two-storey pagoda dedicated to the goddess Hariti lies in the north-western corner while to the north-east you’ll find the DRUBGON JANGCHUP CHOELING MONASTERY. Kathesimbhu is a copy of the great Swayambhunath Stupa and was built around 1650.
- Back on the main road, 30m down on the left, you’ll pass a small GANESH STATUE and then, in a recessed area with a grilled doorway, an intricate 9th Century STONE RELIEF depicting Shiva and Parvati on Mt Kailash. An almost unrecognisable orange Ganesh head lies to the right of the door.
- Continue south to BANGEMUDHA SQUARE, on the way passing a string of small (uninviting) dentist shops. A wooden shrine to the TOOTHACHE GOD gives the square its name.
- Heading 50m east will bring you to the triple-roofed UGRATARA TEMPLE by the small Nhhakantalla Square; prayers here are said to aid the eyes!
- A little further on, on your right, you’ll pass the Krishna Music Emporium and then a gated entrance that leads into HAKU BAHAL; look for the ‘Opera Eye Wear’ sign. This tiny courtyard has some intricate carvings, including an ornate wooden window that overlooks proceedings.
- You’ll soon reach bustling ASAN TOLE, the old city’s busiest junction and a place where vegetable and spice vendors sell all kinds of produce. It’s a fascinating place to linger, watching the chaos of local life unfold before you. The three-storey ANNAPURNA TEMPLE lies in the south-east corner and is dedicated to the goddess of abundance; nearby is the two-storey GANESH SHRINE, covered in bathroom tiles, and the small NARAYAN SHRINE near the centre of the square.
- Continue south-west on Siddhidas Marg past the ornate octagonal KRISHNA TEMPLE, jammed between gleaming brass shops. Looking closely, you’ll notice the elaborate woodcarvings depicting, for example, beaked monsters and a Tibetan protector.
- A little further on, at the junction known as KEL TOLE, an alley on your right will lead you to SETO MACHHENDRANATH TEMPLE, one of the city’s most important. The temple attracts both Buddhists and Hindus; Buddhists consider Seto Machhendranath to be a form of Avalokiteshvara while Hindus consider him a rain-bringing incarnation of Shiva.
- At the end of the street you’ll reach the busy intersection known as INDRA CHOWK with its stepped MAHADEV TEMPLE and AKASH BHAIRAB TEMPLE. The square is popular with newspaper sellers and is also a centre for the sale of blankets and cloth, merchants covering the platforms of the Mahadev Temple with their wares.
- Take the small alleyway to the right of Akash Bhairab Temple and, after about 200m, look for a tiny entrance on the right, by a triple shrine and under the sign for ‘Jenisha Beauty Parlour,’ that leads into the long rectangular courtyard of ITUM BAHAL. The courtyard is one of the oldest and largest in the city with some intricate architecture and stupas; it’s filled with swirling patterns of drying grain in the autumn and winter months.
- At the end of Itum Bahal exit and turn left; at the next junction you’ll see the NARADEVI TEMPLE on your right. The temple is dedicated to Kali; across the road you’ll see a small dance platform where dances are still performed in honour of the goddess.
- Head south at Naradevi; further along on your right is the entrance to the YATKHA BAHAL, a large courtyard set around a mini Swayambhunath-style stupa.
- Back on the main road, you’ll pass a RED-BRICK TEMPLE dedicated to the Newari mother goddess, Chaumanda; the temple features a six-point star in the upper window frame.
- Continue south, past a series of drum and marching band shops on your right, to reach DURBAR SQUARE.
Spend the next 1-2 hours exploring Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was badly hit by the 2015 earthquake; reconstruction is still ongoing. The square was where the city’s kings were once crowned and from where they ruled; durbar means palace.
Entrance to Durbar Square is NRs 1000 for foreigners; it grants you access to all the temples as well as Hanuman Dhoka and the museums inside it. Although the ticket is only valid for the day stamped, it’s possible to get a free visitor pass, allowing you access for the duration of your visa. Head to the Site Office (6am-7pm) on the south side of Basantapur Square; you’ll need your passport and one photo and the process is very quick.
There is a huge amount to see and you could spend half a day wandering from temple to temple; here are some things to look out for:
- SINGH SATTAL – Squat building with stalls and curd shops on the ground floor; a popular place for bhajan (devotional music) in the mornings and evenings.
- ASHOK BINAYAK – Tiny golden Ganesh shrine; one of the most important in the valley. Look for the golden shrew opposite the temple.
- MARU TOLE – Street leading down to the Vishnumati River where a footbridge allows you to continue walking to Swayambhunath.
- SHIVA-PARVATI TEMPLE – Hindu temple that stands on a two-stage platform; built in the late 1700’s by Bahadur Shah, son of Prithvi Narayan Shah. Contains a pair of much-photographed images of Shiva and his consort.
- KUMARI BAHAL – Red-brick three-storey building home to the Kumari, Kathmandu’s living goddess. The goddess is regarded as a living symbol of devi, the Hindu concept of female spiritual energy; at puberty the selected girl reverts to being a normal mortal. Although photographing the Kumari is prohibited, you are free to take photos in the courtyard when she is not present.
- GADDHI BAITHAK – Built as part of the Hanuman Dhoka palace, this white neoclassical building stands as a memorial to the imported European style that was popular in Nepal during the Rana period.
- BHAGWATI TEMPLE – Triple-storey, triple-roofed temple that is part of the Hanuman Dhoka palace courtyard. It originally contained an image of Narayan, which was stolen in 1766; Prithvi Narayan Shah substituted it two years later with a likeness of the goddess Bhagwati.
- GREAT BELL – Atop a white building erected by Rana Bahadur Shah, the bell is only rung during puja at the nearby Degutaleju Temple.
- GREAT DRUMS AND KOT SQUARE – The Great Drums were once used to warn the city of impending danger; they stand in a pavilion to the north of Hanuman Dhoka. Just behind lies Kot Square, where Jung Bahadur Rana committed the famous 1846 massacre that led to 100 years of Rana rule. Each year during the Dasain festival hundreds of buffaloes and goats are sacrificed in Kot Square.
- KING PRATAP MALLA’S COLUMN – A square stone pillar (the Pratap Dhvaja) that was previously topped by a famous statue of King Pratap Malla looking towards his private prayer room in the Degutaleju Temple.
- SETO BHAIRAB – Opposite King Pratap Malla’s Column lies a pavilion containing the mask of Seto (white) Bhairab. The mask is revealed each September during the Indra Jatra festival; at other times peak through the grille to get a glimpse of it.
- JAGANNATH TEMPLE – A two-storied temple with a three-tiered platform; noted for the erotic carvings on its roof struts.
- DEGUTALEJU TEMPLE – A triple-roofed temple that is part of Hanuman Dhoka; most easily seen from outside the palace walls.
- KALA BHAIRAB – A huge stone image of Kala (black) Bhairab who has six arms, wears a garland of skulls and tramples a corpse (symbolic of human ignorance). Bhairab is Shiva in his most fearsome form. Telling a lie whilst standing in front of Kala Bhairab is said to bring instant death; it was once used as a form of trial.
- INDRAPUR TEMPLE – Little is known about this temple; the lingam inside points to it being a Shiva temple, the half-buried Garuda image indicates that it is dedicated to Vishnu. Its name, however, says that it is devoted to Indra!
- STONE INSCRIPTION – A long stone inscription to the goddess Kalika written in 15 languages; created by King Pratap Malla in 1664 and located on the outside of the white palace wall.
- KOTILINGESHWAR MAHADEV TEMPLE – A 16th Century stone Malla temple dedicated to Shiva; the temple has a square structure topped by a bell-shaped dome.
- MAHENDRESHWAR TEMPLE – A Shiva temple at the northern end of Durbar Square; it dates from 1591 and is always busy with pilgrims. Look for its spire, which is topped by a golden umbrella.
- TALEJU TEMPLE – The most striking temple in Durbar Square is not open to the public; even Hindus can only visit briefly during the annual Dasain festival. The 35m-high temple is dedicated to Taleju Bhawani, originally a goddess from the south of India who became the royal goddess of the Malla kings in the 14th
- TANA DEVAL TEMPLE – North of the Taleju Temple lies a 10th Century kneeling Garuda statue facing a small Vishnu temple. To the east, in a walled courtyard, is the often-ignored Tana Deval Temple; it has three carved doorways and multiple struts. Makhan Tole begins here, once the start of the main caravan route to Tibet.
- HANUMAN DHOKA – Kathmandu’s royal palace was badly damaged in the 1015 earthquake but is once again open to visitors. It originally housed 35 courtyards but, due to the 1934 quake, now holds 10. Within the courtyards you can see such treasures as the former coronation platform, the audience chamber, the Tribhuvan Museum, the Basantapur (Kathmandu) Tower, the ritual bathing pool and numerous statues and temples.
After exploring Durbar Square, break for lunch at one of the nearby cafes or restaurants. We highly recommend stopping for a delicious slice of cake at Snowman Restaurant on Freak Street; it’s a mellow place that attracts everyone from locals to hippie backpackers.
Spend the afternoon either exploring the southern part of Kathmandu’s old city or relaxing in the Garden of Dreams.
Want to Hike within the Kathmandu Valley? Check out Nagarkot and Dhulikhel: Top Tips and a Hiking Guide!
South of Durbar Square
The area south of Durbar Square is far more local, attracting just a handful of inquisitive travellers; this is an area where you can witness city life continuing as it has for centuries. The following walk can be done in around an hour, starting and finishing at Durbar Square.
- Start at the south-western corner of DURBAR SQUARE, forking right at the SINGH SATTAL. Follow the road for about 50m past a stone SHIVA TEMPLE with a carved pilgrim shelter.
- On your right you’ll soon see a large sunken water tank beside the BHIMSEN TEMPLE. The temple is fronted by a brass lion on a pedestal, which holds up the electric wires; tourists are not allowed to enter.
- Continue heading south, keeping straight (left) at the junction; take the next left at the end of the road, passing the deep KOHITI WATER TANK.
- Turn right at the next junction to pass the RAM CHANDRA TEMPLE; the courtyard is named after Ram, an incarnation of Vishnu and hero of the Ramayana. The temple is especially noted for the tiny erotic scenes on the roof struts.
- A little further along the road you’ll pass a SHIVA TEMPLE; opposite the temple duck into TUKAN BAHAL, a lived-in courtyard containing a 14th Century Swayambhunath-style stupa.
- Follow the road, with a few bends, turning left at Wonde Junction, which is marked by a number of temples including a WHITE SHIKHARA TEMPLE.
- Detour off Brahma Tole to the MUSUM BAHAL, with its phallic-shaped chaityas, an enclosed well and surrounding interconnecting courtyards.
- Back on Brahma Tole take a left at the next junction; look out for the entrance to TA BAHAL on your right, a courtyard containing garishly painted chaityas.
- The road opens onto a square known as Lagan; here you’ll see the white 5m-high MACHHENDRANATH TEMPLE.
- Turn left at the end of the road and keep going until you see a KRISHNA TEMPLE on your right at a cross-roads. Turn right here, back towards Durbar Square.
- On the way, pass the red-brick HARI SHANKAR TEMPLE and a VISHNU NARAYAN TEMPLE, followed by a second, larger Vishnu temple known as the ADKO NARAYAN TEMPLE, one of the four most important Vishnu temples in Kathmandu.
You can also explore the area further south of the old town on the northern banks of the Bagmati River, which is home to several little-visited temples and shrines as well as some of the worst poverty in the city.
Footpaths lead west to cremation ghats and a temple at the sacred confluence of the Bagmati and Vishnumati Rivers. Heading east will take you past some of the city’s poorest communities to the triple-roofed Tripureshwar Mahadev Temple, currently a museum housing Nepali folk musical instruments.
Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams is situated on Tridevi Marg, just a short walk from the heart of Thamel at Narsingh Chowk. These beautiful, serene gardens make a great escape from the chaos of Kathmandu; they are well looked after and come complete with pavilions, fountains and ponds.
The Kaiser Café lies within the grounds, commemorating the late field marshal, Kaiser Shamser, who built the gardens in the 1920’s. Foreign visitors must pay NRs 200 to visit the complex, which is open from 9am to 10pm.
On the same street as the Garden of Dreams are the Three Goddesses Temples, devoted to Dakshinkali, Manakamana and Jawalamai; the roof struts have some erotic carvings.
Finish your day in Kathmandu at Swayambhunath, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple; it makes a great spot to watch the sunset and, from its hilltop location, there are fantastic views over the city.
Read all about Swayambhunath in our post: Six Places You Should Explore in the Kathmandu Valley.
Are you heading to Pokhara? Check out our Insider’s Guide!
Looking to move away from the crowds? Check out: Why You Should Visit Gorkha and Tansen or Top 11 Off-the-Beaten-Track Day Trips in the Kathmadu Valley!