A Quick Guide To Kathmandu
The capital city of Nepal is an intriguing place to explore. There’s an abundance of cultural sites, and ancient practices coexist with 21st century ways of life in many ways. However, most visitors to Kathmandu are on their way somewhere else, and so we gathered information on the basics for visitors planning to come to Kathmandu.
When to go
Deciding when to come to Kathmandu depends on why you’re visiting. January and February are the coldest months of the year. The days are cold, though mild by North European standards, and although the night temperatures rarely dip below zero degrees Celsius, buildings in Kathmandu are not constructed with energy efficiency in mind, which means that you’ll actually find it a few degrees colder inside than outside. During these months it doesn’t rain. Air pollution is extremely high during these last months of winter, although the Himalayas are still visible from the city sometimes. Very few tourists visit Kathmandu during these two months. March brings spring, which means that trekkers start to arrive in the city, although without rain, air pollution reaches a peak and there’s only a very slim chance of seeing the mountains from the city. Those who do stop in Kathmandu, do so only to prepare for one of the many trekking routes or mountain climbing challenges. April and May are the main spring trekking months.
The rainy season starts and the air quality improves steadily. The city bursts out of its seams with visitors on their way to the Himalayas. By June the rainy season is in full swing, which presents some problems for traffic when the streets flood, By now day temperatures has risen to well into the 30s, with humidity adding to the discomfort. By September the rainy season has lost its momentum, and the second trekking season has started, which sees trekkers visit the city until early in December. During the main festivals of Dashain and Tihar (usually somewhere between September and November) the city becomes a virtual ghost town as many locals leave to visit their families in rural areas. Tourist sites and restaurants are usually not affected, though.
From October onward the day temperatures and rainfall decline steadily, and the autumn weather is pleasant. For the next two or three months you can see the Himalayas clearly from the city most days. By mid-December most short-term visitors have left the valley.
Arriving in Kathmandu
Arriving by air to the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu presents your first impression of the country. If you travel from the Middle East, request a seat on the left side of the plane, which will afford you views of the Himalayas as you approach Kathmandu. When travelling to and from Bhutan, you may also request a seat on the north side, which would give you a direct view of Mount Everest.
Upon arrival, you can apply for a tourist visa at the airport, which is the most affordable option. If you prefer, you could visit the Nepal Embassy in your home country, but it will cost you more. A 15 day tourist visa costs $25 and a 30 day visa $40.
Navigating to the baggage carousels will be a challenge to say the least, and then the wait starts for your luggage. In rare cases you’ll find your suitcase easily, but expect to have to wait up to an hour.
There are money exchange counters both in the arrival hall and outside, but only exchange a small amount here for your taxi (if necessary), as you’ll be able to get better rates in the city after you’ve checked into your hotel. You’ll also be able to withdraw money from ATMs throughout the city, although the most you’re allowed to withdraw per day is the equivalent of about $350 (which is 35,000 Nepali Rupees). At some ATMs it is less than $350. At the date of posting the article, these were the current money exchange rates:
USD/NPR - 103
EUR/NPR - 127
GBP/NPR - 145
You should always be able to find some form of public transport wherever you find yourself in Kathmandu. Tourists mostly use taxis, which cost around $3-$10 for a single ride, depending on how far your go.
Buses, micros and tempos are the way most locals travel in Kathmandu, although you’ll need some guidance to figure out where to get on and off, and how to get to your final destination after you’ve gotten off the bus. If you have the services of a local guide at your disposal, we definitely recommend that you try this out. Public transport costs 15-25 Rupees for a single ticket. Pleas bear in mind that most forms of public transport requires you to be flexible about personal space, and getting a seat is not guaranteed.
Walking is the best way to explore your neighbourhood, even though it’s the slowest way to get anywhere. If you have a day open, take to the alleys and see where they lead you. Wherever you end up, there will always be a taxi, bus or tempo to bring you back to your hotel.
Where to stay
Our number one recommendation for a place to stay in Kathmandu is The Lifestory Guesthouse. Situated a few minutes’ walk away from Patan Durbar Square, it’s nestled in a local Newari community square. The building has been restored with care to highlight the Newari architecture. This guesthouse has consistently ranked as one of the top guesthouses in Patan, and has our personal stamp of approval.
If you want to get out of the city, the Himalayan Height Resort south of Kathmandu is a beautiful resort with spectacular views of the Kathmandu Valley. The Langtang range of the Himalayas are also visible on clear days.
Many visitors opt to stay in Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu. Here you’ll find restaurants with food from many countries around the world, trekking equipment and clothing, and of course any kind of gift and souvenir imaginable. Be aware, though, you’ll have to brave late night sounds from the many bars and clubs that cater to tourists. Guesthouses and hotels outside Thamel, especially in Patan, tend to provide an environment where you’ll be able to sleep in peace (not taking into account the barking dogs, of course). Check out Five14 Guesthouse, Gracemandu Guesthouse, Hanna's Café and Goshen House for centrally-located options in Patan.
Where to eat
You may be surprised by the variety of cuisines available in Kathmandu. With tourists and expats from all around the world, it only makes sense that the city caters to the needs of so many. In Thamel, we recommend OR2K (Middle Eastern & Vegetarian), Kathmandu Steakhouse (Steaks, Grills, Pasta, etc.) and Roadhouse Café (Pizza and Pasta). Himalayan Java offers caffeine replenishment to weary travelers.
In Patan, you’ll find the best burgers in the Kathmandu Valley at The Workshop, excellent Mexican food at The Lazy Gringo and another opportunity to sample pizzas at Roadhouse Café. Stop at Top of the World for a truly Nepali coffee experience.
The best Nepali food in the whole city is to be found at Greenland Sekuwa in Tokha Road north of the Ring Road. The easiest way to reach it is by taxi. It is directly opposite Greenland School in Tokha Toad, and Jaya and his team will welcome you with friendly service and the most delectable Nepali food. Ask for his recommendation, sit back and enjoy the feast.
Also, don’t miss out on the small Nepali food stores lining almost every road in the city. You’ll find sweets, chips, cookies and all kinds of local snacks, as well as groceries of all kinds here, and you’ll support small family-owned businesses in the process.
Lastly, treat yourself to the local fruit and vegetable markets. It may not be easy to find for tourists, so ask the locals. Strolling down the corridor at our local market is one of the visual pleasures of the city. You’ll also find some unique food items here.
What to do
If you’re only in the city for a few days, you’ll have to be selective.
If the skies are clear, take a taxi to Chandragiri for a cable car ride to the top of one of the hills surrounding the city. (Yes, in Nepal those mountains are actually called hills, due to the fact that it’s still so small compared to the Himalayas.) From there you have marvelous views of Kathmandu Valley and the Langtang range of the Himalyas. Don’t go there on Saturdays, during school holidays or public holidays, as it will be flooded with visitors, and don’t waste your time on a cloudy day.
Right next to Thamel lies the Garden Of Dreams, a private formal garden and oasis from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu’s streets. You’re not allowed to take a picnic, though, but there’s a lovely restaurant, Kaiser Café, with a variety of European cuisine (including vegetarian options) and Nepali food.
The most effective way to explore the city with limited time available, is to visit one of the Durbar Squares. Kathmandu Durbar Square is located close to Thamel, and Patan Durbar Square is only a few minutes’ walk from The Life Story Guesthouse. Bhaktapur is the least centrally located, but still easily reachable by taxi or bus. At either one of these you’ll be able to see the ancient architecture of the Kathmandu Valley and explore the temples. It’s some of the best places to watch people go by, and the little side alleys that snake away from the squares offer incredible photo opportunities to even the most inexperienced photographers.
Shopping & Gifts
The least complicated way to shop in Kathmandu is to go to Thamel. You’ll find anything and everything a tourist may want, from souvenirs to clothing, from trekking equipment to gifts. Be prepared to bargain, yet willing to pay a fair price. Most clothing and trekking items available for sale has brand names, though it’s usually fake products. There are some local brands that we prefer to buy, like Sonam. Even though their clothing is a little more expensive than the fake brands, you’ll still pay much less than you would at home, and you’ll be supporting a legitimate local business initiative.
Outside Thamel, you’ll find many options in Lazimpat and Patan that provide products of high quality and original design. If you want something different from the average Thamel products, head out to places like Timro Concept Store and Dhukuti. Lokta Paper close to the Big Mart in Ekantakuna is one of my favourite gift shops in Patan, as it carries a great variety of gifts, but the second floor’s handmade paper collection is what really draws me here. Purnaa and Beauty For Ashes offers women from marginalised backrounds the opportunity of dignified work, producing a large variety of gift items, the perfect way to give a thoughtful gift and support a worthwhile cause.
Other places to visit in Nepal
Nagarkot is situated just more than 20km north east of Kathmandu, with beautiful views of the Langtang Himalaya range on clear days. There are some hiking routes in the area, but mostly visitors come here for the views.
Chitwan is the most well-known national park in Nepal. Located in the Tarai region in the south, you should bear in mind that it’s extremely hot and humid in summer months, but milder in the winter. Here you may see one-horned rhinos, elephants, monkeys, leopards and maybe even a Bengal tiger. Package tours from Kathmandu are extremely popular.
Pokhara is the adventure capital of Nepal. Here you can chill with a book on the lakeside of Phewa Tal, grab a bike for some challenging trails, book a paragliding, zip lining or bungee jumping trip, take an ultra-light flight or just go shopping. There is something for everyone to do in Pokhara. There is a Gorkha Museum and the International Mountain Museum, and many caves to explore in the area. One of the most memorable experiences is of course a visit to Sarangkot to watch the sunrise over Mount Fishtail. The pace here is slower and the traffic much less intense than in Kathmandu, and you’ll definitely be able to relax and unwind.
Some trekking is always on the to-do list in Nepal, the roof of the world. Depending on the amount of time you have, you could experience the Himalayas best by trekking. If you have about 7-10 days, why not aim for Annapurna Base Camp or Poon Hill? For visitors with more time on their hands, Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit may be more suitable. Keep in mind that you’ll need to be fit for any of these, and more so the higher you aim to trek. Even short treks don’t exclude you from having to tackle steep trails, both upwards and downwards.
Folks, Nepal is a unique travel destination and offers visitors more than you’ll expect to find, and definitely worth exploring.
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