Note that this blog post is available on GPSmyCity as a travel article app in the Kathmandu city section. This article can be downloaded as an app by clicking here. You can also upgrade the article (for a small fee) for gaining access to the offline map with all sights mentioned on the article.
Last year in September, I visited my family in Nepal along with my boyfriend, Stasiek. Since I had started working full-time from March that year, I could take only 16 days off to visit my family. I knew it was ridiculously short but there wasn’t much I could do about it. It was Stasiek’s first visit to Nepal – so I wanted to show him around few major places. He was understandably very excited and wouldn’t let me rest even on the first day home at Kathmandu 😉 Therefore I took him to Patan Durbar Square on the very day we arrived. I hadn’t ridden my scooter for about 2 years and riding with him on the back on the shortcut, unlit roads full of bumps and crazy traffic was quite an experience. He liked the beautiful architecture in the Durbar Square although it was getting dark . We were in Nepal just a few months after devastating earthquakes, so the number of tourists were very low. In fact we could probably count the number of tourists we saw during our whole stay in fingers.
Kathmandu is the city I was born and raised in. Kathmandu is also the gateway for all foreigners who arrive to Nepal by air as it has the country’s only international airport. People who have never been to Kathmandu might relate it with 70s era liberal Kathmandu, but the reality is different: while Kathmandu does have a unique aura to it, it is also a huge, polluted, noisy city. Regardless, I do think this city with densest UNESCO world heritage sites in the world, does deserve a visit. Besides riding on the scooter on daily errand runs with Stasiek , who was giddy with excitement at every little thing he saw on the streets and markets, I also took him to see the major attractions in Kathmandu.
One of the first attractions we visited was Pashupatinath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva (a major deity in Hinduism). It is the biggest Hindu temple in the country, a UNESCO world heritage site and an extremely important religious site for Nepalese Hindus. Non-Hindus (or rather, people who obviously look like foreigners..) aren’t allowed in the main temple, so we enjoyed the sights from the other side of the holy river, Bagmati, on the banks of which the beautiful temple complex is located.
There were plenty of things to keep Stasiek interested for a couple of hours there, and also for me because it brought back so many childhood and teenage memories. Stasiek loved the monkeys, fed them peanuts in the forest, enjoyed watching people and little temples made of stone and wood, and of course the activities on the other side of the river, including cremation process.
We also walked to the nearby Guheshori temple which is said to be dedicated to Goddess Parvati, wife of God Shiva, through the forest. I couldn’t take Stasiek inside the temple again, so we just hanged out in the area and enjoyed the sights, especially the monkeys.
Fun to know: Thousands of devotees flock to the temple, from as far as India, on Shivaratri, the day of Lord Shiva. Among them are sadhus(people who have given up wordy pleasures in search of spiritual satisfaction) who are completely naked top to bottom, sporting their dreadlocks and smoking ganja. (marijuana)
Buddhism is the second most practiced religion in Nepal after Hinduism. These two religions are quite intertwined so I never felt out of place when visiting monasteries even though I grew up in a Hindu family. In fact when I was a teenager I liked going to Buddhist monasteries more because I generally find them more peaceful than Hindu temples. Boudhanath monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in Nepal, a UNESCO world heritage site and a peaceful place located right in the middle of Kathmandu chaos. With an entrance ticket of NRS 250 (about 2 EUR), you get to enjoy the massive, beautiful dome shaped monastery, the colorful markets and restaurants surrounding it and a couple other monasteries in the area.
Unfortunately the shrine at the top of the dome had suffered extensive damage at the earthquakes, so it was still being renovated. We nevertheless enjoyed rotating the prayer wheels (both small and huge ones), looking at beautiful interiors inside the prayer halls and checking out markets.
Boudhanath is an ideal place for observing sights, sounds and people. The monastery has plenty of legends associated with it and carries a lot of historical, cultural and religious significance too. I assume that for someone not familiar with this culture, like my Polish boyfriend, it is even more fascinating. I remember spending many afternoons there with friends, sometimes skipping college lessons 😉
Fun to know: On the day of Buddha Purnima (full moon night marking the birthday of Buddha), the area is illuminated with lights, both from traditional butter lamps lighted by devotees and modern, colorful lights installed in the area.
Kathmandu valley boasts three unique ‘durbar sqaures’ which comprises of old royal palaces (Durbar is palace in Nepali), courtyards, temples, fountains, museums and the surroundings where people from all walks of life come to relax, chat, sell things and do worships.
Before Nepal was unified, it had different small kingdoms, Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur being three Newar kingdoms within Kathmandu valley. Today’s durbar squares are wonderful remnants of Kathmandu’s historic times. The squares often serve as typical representations of Kathmandu culture and architecture. I’ve heard that they were built by the respective kings as competition, so they’re very similar.
All three are UNESCO world heritage sites. I personally prefer Bhaktapur Durbar Square the most as it’s a little far out from the city center and has a more authentic feel to it. The old, wooden structures suffered heavy damages in 2015 earthquakes and many people who were at the sites lost their lives.
It broke my heart immensely to see the destroyed structures, but I hope they will be fully renovated soon. Durbar Squares are a treat for anyone interested in culture, architecture and history and are must-visits in Kathmandu.
Fun to know: Each Durbar Square houses the world’s only living goddess, Kumari. Kathmandu Kumari is the most revered out of three important ones in Kathmandu valley.
Swayambhunath is another UNESCO world site in Kathmandu. It is a famous Buddhist monastery that sits a top of hill and carries immense significance for people of Kathmandu.
The area consists of the beautiful Buddhist stupa (white dome with cubical shrine painted with Buddha’s eyes at the top), a Hindu temple on the same courtyard, greenery, fountain, various small temples, museum, souvenir shops and offers panoramic views of the entire Kathmandu city. Although primarily a Buddhist site, the temple complex is popular with both Hindus and Buddhists. There are also three giant, impressive Buddha statues on the base of the complex.
You can either climb the famous 365 steps leading to the monastery on top or take a less steep detour route (for vehicles) to go to the entrance. Kathmandu doesn’t have a lot of green space, so these monasteries and temples are popular among locals for some peace and calm besides their religious purpose. Some structures were damaged in the temple area from the earthquakes and it was generally very quiet when we visited. I recommend you to search more on the historical and religious symbolism of the monastery if you’re interested because there’s too much to cover here on the blog 😉
Fun to know: Swyambhunath is also called monkey temple because of the hundreds of monkeys that live on the green surroundings. You will certainly have a chance to enjoy the activities of these playful monkeys in the area, like we did.
Thamel and old Kathmandu
Thamel is the tourist hub of Kathmandu. It is here where you’ll find all kinds of Nepali and international restaurants, shops selling trekking gears, bars and pubs and cafes, shops selling handicraft, clothes and souvenirs and myriads of hotels and guesthouses. I took Stasiek to this area just to show him around.
We ended up buying some handicraft from the area, but I had to haggle a lot. We also took a rickshaw and went through its narrow streets up to Kathmandu Durbar Square plaza. The old town of Kathmandu is full of temples, age-old houses, narrow streets, shops and vehicles trying to squeeze their way through. Chances are that you will inevitably end up in Thamel district if you visit Kathmandu.
We also visited tons of other places in the city, because of the fact that it’s my hometown and my family lives there. Not all of them were special must-visits worth visiting, but I really enjoyed showing Stasiek around the city I grew in. Some places that we didn’t find the time to visit but would have liked to were Namo Buddha monastery area, Nagarkot and Shivapuri National Park, all of which are excellent day-trips from Kathmandu.