Kathmandu

Kathmandu is one of my favourite cities in Asia. There is something so intoxicatingly beautiful about the city, that I easily spent a lot of time there during my three month trip to Nepal. While I had plenty of people warn me about it being polluted, chaotic, noisy and congested, there’s so much more to Kathmandu if you take your time to explore it.

The streets are a patchwork of colours, sounds and aromas that mean each time you walk down the same street (which is inevitable) you’ll notice something different. The tourist neighbourhood, and almost a microcity in its own right, Thamel, has enough cafes, bars and shops to keep you occupied for days, or even weeks in my case. But it’s also worth exploring beyond Thamel and diving into historical parts of the city like Patan and Bhaktapur.

While many tourists linger only for a short time, usually only long enough to organise a trek and gather supplies, it’s worth spending time to get to know this beautiful city. Here’s my guide to Kathmandu based on my time spent in Nepal. You’ll find all you need to know, including the best restaurants to eat, the best things to do in Kathmandu and where you should stay.

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About Kathmandu

Kathmandu is the capital city of Nepal. Located in the Kathmandu Valley surrounded by the Himalayas, the sprawling city sits at an altitude of almost 1400m. It has a long history having been founded back in 723 by Raja Gunakamadeva. It was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Nepal, with plenty of historical temples, palaces and gardens still intact today.

The city is the gateway to the Himalayas, with many trekking and climbing expeditions and hiking adventures beginning and ending in the city. Tourism is a huge part of the local economy, drawing visitors for hiking, climbing, religious pilgrimage and cultural trips.

Kathmandu has a number of UNESCO World heritage Sites, including Durbar Square. The earthquake in 2015 has left a devastating scar on many of these old buildings, with ongoing restoration to try and restore some of it to their original glory.

Kathmandu city

Helpful travel tips for Kathmandu

  • Be prepared for chaotic traffic and air pollution in Kathmandu.
  • Get your Kathmandu Durbar Square ticket extended beyond 24 hours. You can do this by going to the tourist office inside the square, behind the small souvenir market, if you provide a passport photo along with your passport they will give you a pass which lasts for as long as your visa for no extra cost. The tickets for both Patan and Bhaktapur can also be extended for as long as you request when purchasing.
  • Be prepared to bargain for things but not too hard. Nepalis will always inflate the price for tourists, but not quite as much as some other Asian countries.
  • 10% service charge and 13% VAT tax will often be added to food bills and some services (menus will always say whether these taxes are applicable or already included).
  • Shops are generally open mid-morning until 8 or 9pm, it’s not a ‘city that never sleeps’ type of a place, although you will find some bars in Thamel open late.
  • Saturday is Nepal’s ‘Sunday’ and many shops, some restaurants and all official offices will be closed.
  • The trekking permit office ( for TIMS and National Park fees) is inside the Nepal Tourism Board near Ratna Park (their Thamel office is permanently closed) and they’re open every day, including Saturdays and public holidays.
Kathmandu market

Impact of the tourism industry

At first glance, you could easily brush Kathmandu off as being overly touristy and believe me, that was my first impression. There are men standing on each corner who approach you for, “Trekking?” or to sell you tiger balm or wooden flutes or, “Hash, weed, you want to smoke something?”.

However, when you can find hidden stupas in courtyards, trendy rooftop cafes to hang out in and even look at yak wool scarves for sale with just a friendly “Namaste” from the shop owner, I’m not going to complain. It’s less intense and less likely to make you cringe than Asia’s other backpacker neighbourhoods.

But it is a city that has been seeing foreign tourists for decades now, which brings a lot of changes to the local culture and streetscape. For a place that had just one hotel in the early 1960s, it has capitalised on tourism and within just a short walk around Thamel you’ll see that plenty of Nepalis rely on the industry for their livelihood.

However, heading south from Thamel, it doesn’t take long before you get transported to somewhere completely different (albeit with the same level of chaotic traffic). The market streets that feed into Durbar Square offer an insight into the everyday life of Nepalis, with shops selling knock off Calvin Klein jeans and the latest fashion, fresh fruit, spices, rice and bolts of fabric ready to be made into whatever you like by the many tailors you can see sitting behind old Singer machines.  

What I’m trying to say here is that you should give the city a chance. Don’t pass it off as being another tourist oriented Asian metropolis, because there is still plenty of culture to immerse yourself in if you head beyond the streets of Thamel.

Read next: Responsible Travel Guide to Nepal

Durbar Square earthquake damage
Earthquake damage in Durbar Square

When is the best time to visit Kathmandu

Nepal has two main tourist seasons: Spring (March-April) and Autumn (October-November). This is when the weather is at its best, with moderate temperatures, less humidity and clearer skies. Autumn is slightly more popular than Spring, with more trekkers and travellers around and the highest prices.

Summer brings the monsoon and the weather can be pretty terrible for sightseeing and some of the roads and trekking trails will be closed.

Winter is a nice alternative time to visit, however, many of the trekking areas are off limits due to snow fall.

Kathmandu shops

How to get around Kathmandu

The public bus network can be very confusing and slow to navigate as a foreigner. While Nepalis are extremely friendly and willing to help you out, it’s usually easier to simply jump in a taxi. The only exceptions for this is if you want to go to Patan and Bhaktapur. These buses leave frequently from Ratna Park, just on the outskirts of Thamel and the price is very cheap (although confirm the ticket price before jumping on!).

Walking is otherwise a good idea to get around Kathmandu. It’s surprisingly walkable, although you will have to be prepared for the crazy traffic and pollution. I happily walked around from Thamel to most of the temples and out to the Tourist Office for my trekking permit.

Kathmandu stupa

Getting in and out of Kathmandu

Nepal International Airport

The main airport in Kathmandu is the Tribhuvan International Airport, just a few kilometres outside of the city centre. This is where most international and domestic flights take off and land. Despite the volume of flights, it’s not an overly modern airport and you’ll have to allow some patience and take your own initiative to work everything out.

Tourist buses to Pokhara

From Thamel, the tourist buses to Pokhara leave from Sorhakhutte on the edge of Thamel. There are anywhere between 15-30 buses running every day at 7am in high season and the journey takes around 8 hours. Almost every second shop, cafe, agency or hotel can book a ticket for you in advance.

Durbar Square
Durbar Square

Best things to do in Kathmandu

There’s plenty of things to do in Kathmandu. While cafe hopping and eating your way through all the restaurants in Thamel is a popular pastime, it’s worth exploring the ancient Durbar Square and stupas around the city as well.

Durbar Square

While each of the old kingdoms, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, have their own Durbar Square, the one in Kathmandu is obviously the most popular to visit. It’s an incredible place to step back in time and admire some traditional architecture.

Unfortunately, Durbar Square is quite devastating to visit since the earthquake in 2015. Many of the original buildings crumbled and only a few remain. The ongoing construction effort seems like it will continue for years to come with just a few men chipping away at repairs by hand. However, the old royal square is still the cultural heart of the city and with an unlimited pass for the duration of my visa, I was able to head down there to people watch the afternoon away many times over. 

From sadhus posing for photos, to men selling fairy floss, to children chasing pigeons and young lovers sitting on the steps of the old buildings, it’s not a waste of 1000 rupees (AUD$12). Although the steep entrance fees for many temples and squares in the sprawling city begs the question about where the money actually goes, but that’s another story. 

Swayambhunath Stupa
Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath Stupa

One of the most beloved attractions of the city, Swayambhunath Stupa is located just west of Thamel on a hilltop overlooking the sprawled city. It’s best known as ‘monkey temple’ and is one of the most popular places to spend the last hours of the day before the sun sets.

The view of Kathmandu below gives a good perspective of just how large the city really is and, on a clear evening, even a glimpse of the snow capped peaks that lie beyond the Kathmandu Valley.

Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath Stupa is one of the largest stupas in Asia and the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. It’s not overly close to Thamel, requiring a nearly 20-minute drive east of the centre. The large dome is encircled with small shops selling thangka paintings and rooftop cafes with an impressive view looking down on the prayer flags flapping in the wind and the selfie-taking tourists. 

Pashupatinath Temple

Some of the most important religious sites in Asia are located in Kathmandu, including Pashupatinath Temple. It’s a sacred Hindu site on the Bagmati River and one of the four most important temples for followers of Lord Shiva.

It is a large complex, and although non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the main temple, there are plenty of spaces to explore including a viewing platform over the area. There is also a small burning ghat by the water, where like in Varanasi, bodies can be seen being cremated in the open air around the clock.

Pashupatinath Temple
Pashupatinath Temple

Patan

Patan, or Lalitpur as it’s known today, is a large city with its own historic Durbar Square at its centre. It seems almost a continuation of Kathmandu but is actually a distinct city in itself. It has small temples and stupas hidden amongst its alleyways and quieter streets.

It has also become a favourite place for diplomats and expats to call home and has many cafes and shops to explore. It’s home to some of the best food of the Newari people, one of the major ethnic groups of the Kathmandu Valley.

As the city is only a 20 minute taxi ride from Thamel or half an hour in a bus from Ratna Park, many people explore Patan in a day before heading back to Thamel. However, I spent a couple of nights there exploring the small temples and skinny streets and sampling a lot of the Newari dishes, which offers a nice break from Thamel.

Traditional dance Nepal
Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur

I also took myself to Bhaktapur for a few days to get out of the chaos of Kathmandu and it was one of my favourite places I visited in Nepal. The ancient royal city is a quiet place and gives perhaps the best idea of what the whole of the Kathmandu Valley would have looked like centuries ago. The central part of the city is well preserved in the old architecture with cobble stone streets and intricately carved details in the wooden windows and doors.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square is a beautiful, large courtyard where older generations can be seen sitting on the steps talking and watching the world go by. It’s also known for its handicrafts, especially pottery, which can be seen drying out in the sun in what has become known as pottery square. It’s a place that makes you feel like you have been transported back in time and, with no traffic in the old city, it’s a relaxing getaway from the chaos of Thamel. 

It’s just an hour in the local buses that leave frequently throughout the day near Ratna Park in Kathmandu. It’s worth spending at least a night though, as once it gets closer to sunset and the tourists have all gone, it’s a peaceful small town and I almost had the square to myself.

Pottery in Bhaktapur
Pottery Square in Bhaktapur

Best places to stay in Kathmandu

There are literally hundreds of Kathmandu accommodation options. From backpacker hostels to fancy upmarket hotels, you’ll definitely find something to suit your budget. Here are a few recommendations:

Yog Hostel || For the budget backpacker, this hostel gets rave reviews. From as little as 400 rupees or $5 per night for a dorm room, it’s exceptional value. Right in Thamel, they have a beautiful rooftop area perfect for chilling out and meeting new friends. Book here.

Newa Home || This is a small family-run hotel that is a great budget option. It is run by a very lovely man and so carefully decorated in traditional Nepali style. The owner cannot do enough for you, constantly offering cups of tea and food and anything you may need. It’s a very comfortable place and for 1300 rupees or AUD$15 for a private room (shared bathroom), it’s exceptional value. Book here.

Mount Annapurna Guest House || Another budget guesthouse, this place is right in the heart of Thamel and run by friendly staff. They have single and double rooms with private bathrooms starting from 1100 rupees per night (AU$13). Book here.

Sanu House (Patan) || This place is more like a homestay and was such a beautiful experience. It’s just outside of the main historic centre but is easily walkable. The family were so welcoming and friendly. They have private rooms and offer home-cooked meals for just an extra 150-200 rupees, which are 100% worth it. Book here.

Shiva Guest House (Bhaktapur) || You can’t get a better location in Bhaktapur. It’s right inside Durbar Square and above a popular restaurant. It was a great place to stay for the price and had a beautiful view of the square from the few private rooms that they have. Book here.

Dal bhat
Dal bhat from Fusion Cafe

Best places to eat in Kathmandu

I will be raving about the food in Kathmandu for some time to come. You can eat so well for so little in this city. From the best falafels I’ve ever had to healthy smoothie bowls to local dal bhat (the meal that majority of Nepalis eat twice a day and consists of rice, dahl and curry), the options are endless. These are my top picks:

OR2K Restaurant || Probably one of the best restaurants in Nepal, the Israeli restaurant also has a branch in Pokhara. Offering breakfast, lunch and dinner, from smoothie bowls and pancakes to falafels and grazing platters and pasta, it has a great menu that can alter almost anything to suit vegans and gluten-free eaters. They make buckwheat pancakes and roti and have soy and coconut milk and even date syrup to replace honey. Highly recommend: falafels and smoothie bowls.

French Bakery || By far the closest thing you’ll find to a Melbourne cafe, the French Bakery is owned by a local guy who worked in Australia as a chef and baker. He has delicious cakes which walk out the door, including gluten free and vegan options. The menu has tea and coffee, burgers, pastas and snacks like nachos, and fresh bread and cookies are also for sale. Highly recommend: gluten free brownie.

Fusion Cafe || In my opinion, one of the best dal bhats you’ll find in Thamel and all at reasonable tourist prices. They also have Tibetan favourites like momos and thenthuk soup, served by friendly staff.

Loving Heart || The first all vegan restaurant in Kathmandu that also has gluten free options. They are open for breakfast through to dinner and even offer delicious desserts. Highly recommend: Spinach ragi crepe and vegan ice cream (obviously not together though).

Green Home Cafe || A tiny hole in the wall place that doesn’t look that appealing from the exterior and requires a climb up some rickety stairs. But the two Indian brothers running this place are lovely and it’s one of the cheapest places you’ll find in Thamel for local food.

Yangling Tibetan Restaurant || A popular place to go for Tibetan food and reasonable prices, makes this spot busy most nights that they’re open. Highly recommend: fried rice.

Newari Kitchen (Patan) || A popular place in Patan that is known for some of the best Newari food and is the perfect place to try some. The set plates are the best value as they can be refilled like dal bhat and give a sampling of multiple dishes. It’s a bit more upmarket, with tourist prices.

Newari food
Newari Kitchen in Patan

Hiring and purchasing trekking supplies

As the gateway to the Himalayas and many of the best trekking routes in the world, Kathmandu is perfectly capable of servicing your every need prior to any trek. Many shops sell up to date trekking maps, knock off hiking and climbing gear and most also rent sleeping bags, down jackets and walking poles. A few recommendations if you’re looking to purchase or hire gear:

  • Shona’s Alpine Rentals is a very reputable shop for hiring gear. While the staff aren’t the friendliest, they’re straight to the point and you get decent gear for a fair price. I hired a good down sleeping bag from them a couple of times for 120 rupees per day (AUD$1.50). You can find them on Amrit Marg in Thamel.
  • Kala Patthar Trekking Store is another recommended hiring shop. This little place in a corner in Thamel is packed full of gear and at a cheaper price. I paid 90 rupees per day for a brand new -20 degree down sleeping bag for a trek. It’s a bit weird being taken up to their shady storeroom, but the guys do a roaring trade with plenty of trekkers.
  • Many of these random trekking shops in Thamel will be selling knock off gear, no matter what they try and tell you. In saying that, some of it isn’t too bad quality but it can be hit and miss.
  • If you want to purchase proper brand gear, North Face, Marmot, Rab and Black Diamond have official stores all clustered together on Tridevi Sadak just outside of Thamel.
  • You can purchase trekking maps and national park maps from virtually any bookstore or gear shop in Thamel. They’re all relatively similar, selling the same but Pilgrims Book House in Thamel is a traditional backpacker favourite.

There are also a few good minimarts and one large supermarket in Thamel called Shop Rite, which are perfect for picking up snacks.

You could effectively come to Nepal with nothing and pick up everything you needed for a two week trek in the mountains just in Thamel. It’s this aspect that gives it an infectious buzz and will have you convinced you need to go trekking even if you had no prior desire to do so.

View of Kathmandu
View of Kathmandu

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