Often used a stopping-off point on the way to or from the Himalayas, Kathmandu sometimes risks getting overlooked as a destination in its own right. Given that it is more than 1,400 metres above sea level and is surrounded by mountains, it certainly the perfect place to buy trekking gear or indulge in a little rest and relaxation after an expedition. However, it has a great deal more to offer those who take the trouble to explore its historic streets and squares.
The city's old name, Kantipur, translates as City of Glory, which some have interpreted as referring to its many temples, monasteries and stupas. Seven of its most important monuments are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. These include Durbar Square, Swayambhunath Stupa and Boudhanath Stupa. Some of these famous places are within walking distance of each other but foot-sore visitors, or those who are simply short of time, may prefer to take a taxi or an electric tuk-tuk.
As might be expected of a place where both Hinduism and Buddhism have such importance, Kathmandu celebrates several religious festivals with fervour. One of the most energetic to watch out for is Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. The city also strives to blend tradition, nature and modernity, one example of this is its International Mountain Film Festival.
Things to do
Explore the heart of the city
One of the seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, Durbar Square, situated outside the old royal palace, is at the heart of Kathmandu. Many of the temples and other buildings are several hundred years old, although periodic earthquakes have necessitated a certain amount of rebuilding. Once upon a time, kings were crowned in the square; now, it is more of a place for admiring the pagoda-style architecture of the surrounding temples, buying souvenirs and people-watching. It is also a fantastic place for orientating oneself and getting a sense of how the city works.
At the southern side of Durbar Square is Freak Street, once famous for its government-run hashish shops. Now that the sale of hashish has been made illegal, trekking outfitters and souvenir emporiums have taken the place of those shops. However, the history of the street is still a lure for visitors and an interesting contrast to the nearby square.
See the sunset from the monkey temple
Swayambhunath Stupa, often referred to as the monkey temple, sits on a small hill, three kilometres from the city. The site is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists, and prayer wheels surround the base of the hill. At the summit, the daytime views of Kathmandu and its surrounding valley are surpassed only by the sunsets.
Relax in the Garden of Dreams
Properly known as Swapna Bagaicha, the Garden of Dreams was built in the 1920s as a private garden. Its walled space, filled with pavilions, pergolas, flowers, goldfish ponds and statues, is a little oasis in the busy city. There is also a restaurant, the Kaiser café, which serves great thalis, a round mixed platter of local delicacies. Outside the garden is an array of small shops, selling snacks and souvenirs.
Shop in Thamel
Having taken over from Freak Street, Thamel has been Kathmandu's main tourist district for decades. Packed with hotels, restaurants and a few nightclubs, it can be a good base from which to set out to see the rest of the city. It is also the main place to go when it comes to shopping. As well as every conceivable necessity for a Himalayan expedition, prayer flags, Tibetan Singing Bowls, incense and Kukri swords are all sold here. Bargaining is expected because most prices are not fixed.
Stand in awe before Boudhanath Stupa
Standing alongside Everest as one of Nepal's most photographed icons, this enormous Buddhist stupa seems familiar even to those who are making their first visit to Kathmandu. Sitting on an octagonal base, with the eyes of the Buddha looking out from all four sides of its central spire and colourful prayer flags radiating out in every direction, the stupa is a mesmerizing sight. Beneath it, pilgrims and maroon-robed monks spin prayer wheels. Anyone wanting to walk around the stupa should accord with custom and do so in a clockwise fashion. For those who want to watch rather than participate, the surrounding rooftop restaurants offer good vantage points to take in the scene.
Calendar of events
Holi: This springtime Hindu festival of colours is famous around the world. Nowhere, however, is it celebrated more enthusiastically than in Kathmandu. Revellers sometimes light large bonfires but the main event is painting faces and bodies with brightly coloured powder and spraying coloured water. The festival is exuberant but very good-humoured. Locals typically dress in white clothes so the colours can be seen better. Visitors should wear anything they do not mind getting wet or dirty.
Indra Jatra: Lasting for eight days each September, Indra Jatra marks the beginning of autumn. The highlight occurs in Durbar Square, on the penultimate day, when men dressed as demons reenact mythical fights to the accompaniment of musicians. Later, more people, dressed as a white elephant, Tana-kishi, join the fun. The square gets extremely crowded but it is possible to view proceedings from the top of one of the surrounding temples, such as Maju Dega.
Dashain: Considered Nepal's most auspicious festival, Dashain is celebrated for fifteen days towards the end of September and the beginning of October. The focus is the goddess, Durga. Devotees honour her with pujas, offerings and animal sacrifices. In preparation for the event, local shops and markets are filled with supplies of new clothes, gifts, temple offerings and foodstuffs.
Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival: Held in December, this annual event begins in Kathmandu before touring the rest of the country. It showcases recent films about mountains and their environments, cultures and communities. It has a particular focus on developing countries but has a firm conviction that humankind's relationship with mountains everywhere is worth exploring, documenting and celebrating.