Nepal is a popular destination for international travellers, with a well-trodden path for those looking for adventure, outstanding natural beauty and vibrant cultural immersion. For over 30 years avid trekkers and mountaineers have arrived in Kathmandu before heading off to Everest’s legendary Base Camp, or further, on epic treks lasting days through the Himalayas.
Whilst trekking is by far the largest organised activity in Nepal, those who prefer the less-active approach find themselves kicking back in the capital Kathmandu for a few days to absorb the the laid-back energy of the city centre and the relative tranquillity of the UNESCO temple sites a short distance away.
As the gateway for most visitors, the best way to define Kathmandu is as a combination of chaos and beauty. Sadly, since the massive 2015 earthquake a large number of the city’s most iconic heritage sites, as well as many other buildings, were seriously damaged and destroyed and the process of rebuilding these is still underway. However, the city still has a lot to offer and several days or even weeks can easily be spent exploring this hectic, but incredibly friendly city.
The centre of the city: Thamel
Pollution, traffic, noise and unimaginable amounts of activity fill the highly tourist-friendly Thamel district in the centre of the city. For most visitors, this is a great place to stay with trendy bars and restaurants overflowing with people from all over the world. Most people opt to stay in Thamel as it has a huge amount of wide-ranging hotels and hostels for all budgets and the majority of the city’s trinket shopping and nightlife.
Thamel consists of several narrow streets where scooters and cars do an exceptional job of avoiding the throngs of walkers during the day and night. In high season (March to June) it can get exceptionally busy in the streets but there are always plenty of places to eat and drink. For light sleepers it is worth packing a pair of ear plugs as the bars and clubs go on to the early hours, with live rock music also being hugely popular in Nepal. Night Owls and Rockers should check out Purple Haze and Reggae Bar for some of the best live acts, whilst for those preferring a more relaxing evening, Namaste Café terrace and The Café With No Name (which also has the fasted wifi in the city and is an NGO supporting street children) are two great options.
For those wanting an altogether more relaxing time in Kathmandu, the area of Sanepa over the river has a number of higher-end hotels and its own, less frenetic, bar and restaurant scene.
Temple’s and cultural visits
Kathmandu has a number of beautiful temple sites which can be reached from the centre by a short taxi ride of a couple of hundred rupees. The most accessible of these can be reached on foot from the centre of the city in around 15 minutes and are dotted around the outside of the Thamel district. One of the must-see temples which is found over the river to the west of the centre is Swayambhunath Stupa, or the Monkey Temple. This is one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Nepal and, you guessed it, is home to a large number of incessantly-hungry monkeys. The climb of several hundred steps to get to the top of the temple is well worth it with a fantastic panorama over the city.
Lalitpur, or Patan as it was historically known, is one of the largest temple sites in its own district in Kathmandu valley. A taxi here from the centre costs around 500 rupees and it is easy to spend a few days admiring the UNESCO sites and enjoying the relative peace and tranquillity outside of the city centre.
Trekking and mountain tours
You could probably visit Nepal on a trekking holiday and arrive with an empty suitcase as there is no shortage of shops selling trekking gear at very reasonable prices. As the primary tourist activity, Kathmandu is something of a trekker’s paradise (pollution aside). Most will arrive and be very well looked after by their guides who not only organize the whole tour but also provide excellent advice on what will be needed before you set off.
As it is such a popular activity, with hundreds of trekking agencies and hotels offering tours, it is worth shopping around to see what the best itineraries and routes are on offer, as well as checking the reviews of the agencies.