Top Eight Things to do in Kathmandu, Nepal

Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock


Whether you visit Nepal for trekking or sightseeing, one thing’s almost certain – you’ll enter the country through Kathmandu. You might be tempted to rush out of the city in favour of the beautiful countryside, but that would be a mistake.

Kathmandu is home to one of the biggest Buddhist shrines in the world, and the most famous Hindu temple in Nepal. Durbar Square, historical residence of the royal family, remains glorious even while being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake. And the Garden of Dreams is an oasis of tranquility in a busy city. From the sacred to the secular, Kathmandu warrants a stay of at least a few days to sample everything it has to offer.


  1. Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath is a sacred Hindu temple complex and cremation site, and one of the holiest places in Nepal. It’s one of the seven monuments in the Kathmandu Valley that together form a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. The temple complex was first built in the 5th century, although many buildings have been erected since then. The complex covers more than 650 acres, and it holds over 500 temples and monuments.


Pandra Shivalaya, Part of the Pashupatinath Temple.


A smoky aroma was our first indication that we were approaching Pashupatinath. From the opposite bank of the Bagmati River, we watched a cremation in progress. Monks and mourners observed from behind the altar, while garlands of marigolds draped across the ghats (stairs leading to the river). Even from a distance, the ceremony was moving and beautiful, a sensory tribute to a life lived.

At Pashupatinath, we saw two kinds of Nepali architecture – Pagoda-style architecture in the main building, and Shikhara architecture in the many stone temples on the site.


  1. Boudhanath Stupa

The third major architectural style in Nepal is Stupa (a sacred building in the shape of a hemisphere, used for meditation). Boudhanath Stupa is one of the biggest Buddhist shrines in the world, and is particularly sacred among Tibetan Buddhists. The dome is white, and has a golden pyramid tower on top with eyes facing in each direction to symbolize the all-seeing aspect of Buddha.

Looking Upward to the Top of the Boudhanath Stupa.

Visitors walking around the perimeter of the stupa can spin prayer wheels, whose exteriors are covered in mantras. Most are small, but the building across from the stupa entrance holds an enormous prayer wheel.

From the entrance, visitors can walk around the building on the raised platform. Prayer flags hang overhead, leading to the top of the golden pyramid.

Be sure to have lunch at one of the cafes that ring the square on upper floors of the buildings, so you have a lovely view of the stupa while you eat.


  1. Eat Momos

Which leads to the next thing you must do in Kathmandu: eat traditional Nepali momos. These savory little pouches filled with chicken (or vegetables, or buffalo meat) are ubiquitous throughout the country, and you can’t leave without sampling them more than once. It’s particularly fun to eat them with a view of the stupa: we ate ours at the adjacent Golden Eyes restaurant.




  1. Durbar Square

Durbar Square was once the residence of Kathmandu’s royal family. The square was badly damaged in the earthquake, but much restoration work has been done and still continues.

One of the most important monuments in Durbar Square is the Temple of the Living Goddess Kumari. A new Kumari is chosen every few years, and the choice is based on thirty characteristics, including physical, spiritual, and astrological). Once the Kumari has been chosen and anointed, she leaves the palace just thirteen times a year for special ceremonies, and only occasionally sees her family. When she ventures out, her feet never touch the ground: she is carried everywhere, or pulled in her chariot.


Temple of the Living Goddess Kumari.


Also in Durbar Square: don’t miss the old Royal Palace guarded by a Gurkha soldier, Mahavishnu Temple, and Taleju Temple.


  1. Night Rickshaw Tour

Another great way to explore Durbar Square is by moonlight, which you can do on the Urban Adventures Rickshaw Night Explorer tour. The rickshaw ride itself was pure fun. Our drivers maneuvered the busy streets with skill, avoiding pedestrians, other rickshaws, and most of the bumps and potholes.


Taking a Night Rickshaw Tour.


The evening we visited was blessed with a full moon. We stopped beside Jagannath Hindu Temple, one of the oldest temples in Durbar Square, best known for the erotic carvings on its roof. (Carvings aside, the three-tiered temple is quite lovely.)  Next, we lit candles outside the dramatic Kaal Bhairava temple. Kaal Bhairava is a Hindu deity who is a powerful and dangerous manifestation of Shiva. Nighttime in Durbar Square felt completely different than our daytime visit, with an aura that was mystical and enigmatic.


Lighting Candles Outside of Kaal Bhairava Temple.


The rickshaw ride also took us to Annapurna Temple, dedicated to the goddess of food and prosperity, and to the bustling Thamel Market.


  1. Thamel Market

I was fortunate to spend some time in Thamel Market during the daytime, too. It was a short walk from the Hotel Ambassador where I stayed, and I felt comfortable walking through Thamel by myself. The area hosts a multitude of shops selling a huge variety of goods from pashminas to kitchenware, from jewelry to bulk spices.

Open Air Store in Thamel Market.

One side street led to another, and it would have been easy to while away most of the day enjoying the small shops in this area and the adjacent Asan Market. Many shopkeepers speak English as a second language because Indian tourists visit frequently, and I enjoyed my conversations as I wandered through the market.


  1. The Garden of Dreams


Kathmandu is a wonderful city, but it’s busy and full of activity. On my final day in Nepal, I explored the lovely and peaceful Garden of Dreams. In contrast to the rest of the city, the Garden of Dreams bursts with colour and greenery, and invites a slow exploration.


The Garden of Dreams.


The beautiful walled garden was built by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana in 1920, with six neo-classical pavilions and planting areas (one dedicated to each of Nepal’s six seasons). It fell into ruins after his death, but was restored between 2000 and 2007. Its tranquility is a balm to the rest of the city – no music or loud noise is permitted in the garden, and its layout encourages an easy stroll. It’s hard to believe that this haven of flowers, grasses and ponds is a short walk from the Thamel area.



  1. Flight by Mt Everest

It may not be in the city itself, but the flight by Mt. Everest leaves from Kathmandu – and that’s perhaps the most exciting thing to do while you’re here.

The regal Himalayas have always captivated my imagination, from Tintin in Tibet as a child, to Into Thin Air more recently. The Everest flight was what I most looked forward to on my trip.

We boarded Buddha Air’s sixteen-seater around 6:30 am, early morning flights being the clearest. We each had a window seat, and a flight attendant brought viewing maps to help us recognize the larger mountains in the chain. (It doesn’t matter which side of the plane you sit on, since it completes a round trip.)

Sagarmatha National Park is a region of the Himalayas protected by UNESCO, the centerpiece of which is Everest. Our excitement grew as we started to recognize the mountains on the chart. One of the first we saw was Shishapangma, one of the fourteen extraordinary 8000-metre peaks, and the last to have been summited. The dramatic Melungtse, whose main peak has been summited only once, and Cho-Oyu, also known as the Turquoise Goddess, followed soon after.


View of the Himalayas from the Cockpit.


Finally Everest came into view. It was a magical moment, and I could easily see why this magnificent mountain has captured the imagination of so many climbers and adventurers (not to mention readers). Slightly hazy with a puff of clouds poised in the background, Everest dominated the skyline from the moment it came into view. I took photo after photo from my window, and from the cockpit on the way back.


Mount Everest.


It was the fascination of Everest that enticed me to visit Nepal but, once I arrived, I realized how rich the country is in history, architecture, and natural wonders. And there’s no better place to start than in the compelling city of Kathmandu.




Notes: The author visited Nepal as a guest of Intrepid Travel, who did not review or approve this story.


How to get there


Intrepid offers 27 itineraries to Nepal. While some involve rigorous trekking, I took the Classic Nepal itinerary, which has no mountain climbing (although plenty of hiking) and no high altitudes. It’s designated as a Comfort Level trip, which means we flew from Kathmandu to Pokhara instead of taking a bumpy six-hour bus ride, and stayed in comfortable hotels and simple guesthouses along the way.