Ever since Nepal first opened up to the outside world in the 1950s, Kathmandu has been the front door to the Himalaya. This mesmerising city of cobbled squares and temple towers is the gateway to mighty mountains and sacred shrines, where life moves to the rhythms of chanting monks and chiming temple bells.
With its winding, cobbled lanes, Kathmandu is best explored on foot, so you can explore the ancient temples and hidden bahals (courtyards). Alternatively, take a rickshaw through the teeming bazaars of the old city. For longer journeys, taxis and buses provide easy access to the towns and temples of the Kathmandu Valley.
The 2015 earthquakes took their toll on Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square, but an astonishing amount survives. In the historic centre of the city, a warren of maze-like bazaars, every turn reveals another spectacular temple or bahal (courtyard) full of ancient statues and religious art.
Almost as famous as Durbar Square are the towering Buddhist stupas at Bodhnath and Swayambhunath. Pilgrims move around these sacred shrines in a continuous tide while the eyes of the Buddha gaze out across the Kathmandu Valley from gilded spires. In fact, there are stupas on every second corner in Kathmandu, recalling the city’s history as a vital crossroads between the Hindu and Buddhist worlds.
Religion pervades all aspects of life in Kathmandu. At Pashupatinath, the sacred Bagmati River flows past the city’s most famous Hindu temple, and more religious wonders dot the streets of Patan, Kathmandu’s neighbour to the south, and Bhaktapur, a short hop east across the valley.
For the legions of mountaineers and trekkers who pass through each year, Kathmandu is a place to stock up on equipment for Himalayan ascents, or celebrate the end of a trek with a cold bottle of Everest beer. Thamel is the centre of the post-trek party, and its streets are crammed with traders selling intricate Nepali crafts.
Almost everyone makes time for Kathmandu’s ‘big three’ – Durbar Square, Swayambhunath, and Bodhnath – but you could spend weeks wandering the backstreets in search of ancient temples and hidden squares. Between Durbar Square and Thamel, seek out the Kathesimbhu Stupa, a 17th-century copy of the great stupa at Swayambhunath, and the Garden of Dreams, a gloriously restored Rana-era palace garden that offers a serene retreat from the urban chaos. A visit to the nearby Narayanhiti Palace Museum will bring you up to speed on more recent events, including the transformation of Nepal from ancient monarchy to modern republic.
For hungry trekkers returning from weeks on mountain trails, Kathmandu offers rich eating experiences. All the world’s cuisines seem to have been gathered in this single location, from flawless pizzas (Fire & Ice leads the pack) to authentic Thai food at Yin Yang, fine falafel at Or2k and American grills at New Orleans and Roadhouse. Alternatively, head to Kathmandu’s upscale Newari restaurants, where you can sample the authentic tastes of the Kathmandu Valley at traditional low Nepali tables. Krishnarpan at Dwarika’s Hotel and Baithak at Baber Mahal Revisited are worthy of special mention.