Bhaktapur’s history goes back as far as the 8th Century and it was in fact the capital of Nepal until the 15th Century. In the heart of the city lies Bhakpatur Durbar Square – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and the 7sq km old city is a living museum housing an impressive array of historical squares, temples and palaces. Make no mistake, Bhakpatur is very much a working city: its residents include a disproportionately large number of artisans highly skilled in pottery, wood carving and metal work which is visible in the innumerable workshops dotted across the city. I’ve listed a whole host of key activities below, but as it is a living museum, the best way to really experience Bhaktapur is to wander its narrow streets, explore down alleyways and venture inside the many shops selling pottery, sarees, masks and black caps unique to the city. You’ll want at least a full day in Bhaktapur, but if you want to explore all the nooks of the city, then best plan for a couple of days.
Bhaktapur lies in the Kathmandu valley. The valley is a bit of a metropolis and actually also incorporates the cities of Kathmandu and Patan; both of which also have a huge amount to offer visitors. All three cities can easily be covered from the same base hotel, but in this particular post, I’ll just cover Bhaktapur (that’s probably a good indication of how much there is to see and do across Kathmandu Valley). More posts on Kathmandu and Patan are on their way as well.
It’s most likely that you’re headed to Bhaktapur from Kathmandu City Center and getting from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur is fairly easy – although considering they’re only 15 km apart it can be a surprisingly lengthy journey if you opt to brave the bus. We chose to hire a taxi for the entire day as we planned to twin our visit to Bhaktapur with Changu Narayan and Nagarkot (more on those two places below). At just USD 40 for about 7 hours I thought the taxi was a bit of a bargain (and we managed to get some insider tips after getting to know our driver over the course of the day). If you’re just looking for a one-way ride from Kathmandu then you shouldn’t be paying much more than USD 8-10 and a return taxi can be picked up outside the main ticket booths in Bhaktapur. If that seems a bit steep then buses to Bhaktapur costing about US 50 cents are also an option, and we were reliably informed that they run from bus stops at Bhadrakali and Bagbazar (with the latter being an express bus – there’s a certain irony to calling 40-60 minutes at snail’s pace ‘express’). Obviously, bus routes tend to be subject to change, so make sure you check the latest routes before you stand outside in the glaring sun and heat for a bus that no longer exists!
If you’re arriving on an international flight via Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport then make sure you also check out my Kathmandu Destination Guide for more hints and tips on clearing immigration and getting from the airport to Kathmandu City Center).
There’s no denying that the 2015 earthquake had a devastating effect on both the people and infrastructure of Bhaktapur. Having first visited before the earthquake it became immediately clear when I went back that the air quality is no longer as good and many of the major tourist sights remain in a state of earthquake damage rehabilitation. Although that doesn’t detract from the experience if photography is your thing – just make sure you do your research beforehand on the current rehabilitation status of the sights to avoid disappointment as some of them are still shrouded behind scaffolding. I would also suggest you check out my guidance on pollution masks in my Kathmandu guide as it applies equally to Bhaktapur – never have my lungs been so grateful for me wearing a mask (which made me look like I was auditioning for the part of Bain in Batman).
Bhaktapur is often referred to as a living museum, and like a lot of museums, it has an entrance fee (most of which I would hope is currently funding the rehabilitation of historical sites after the earthquake). At the time of writing, the fee is USD 15 or 1,500 Nepalese Rupees. The ticket covers everything you’d really want to see and can be picked up (along with a free map and basic guide) at numerous ticket booths dotted around the edge of the old city – trust me, you won’t miss them and if you do they’ll find you! If you’re planning to stay in one of the few hotels in Bhaktapur for a few days then make sure you convert your ticket (at no additional cost) to a week-long ticket. To do that just make sure you have your passport handy when you visit the ticket booth.
If you want to learn more about Bhaktapur than you can read in your guide book (or on my blog) then you’ll find plenty of guides touting for business – particularly in and around Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Some of them appear ridiculously cheap, but just beware that there are varying levels of knowledge and English on offer and you tend to get what you pay for. If you don’t want a guide then just make sure you’re firm but fair in telling them no; we found that a few of them are fairly persistent but eventually get the message.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square: Bhaktapur Durbar Square is the main square of the city and whilst it’s possible that ‘Durbar déjà vu’ might start to set in (particularly if you’re planning to visit Kathmandu Durbar Square and Patan Durbar Square on the same trip) there’s no denying that the stone work, wood carvings and metal work on display is a masterclass of ancient craftsmanship. The architectural and cultural highlights of the square include the National Art Gallery, the Golden Gate, the Palace of 55 windows, the Pashupatinath Temple (not to be confused with the one in Kathmandu City), the Big Bell, the Silumahadev Temple (Phasi Dega), Rameshwor and Kedarnath Temples and the Taleju Complex. Beyond the temples and palaces the real highlight for me was the people watching. The square remains the beating heart of Bhaktapur and you’ll find locals buying and selling fruit and veg, playing board games amongst the temples and stopping tourists for a quick chat (we were actually interviewed by a group of school children who wanted to film us for a class documentary they were making on people’s thoughts on psychology – I sense they were fundamentally disappointed by our lack of knowledge on the subject). Once you’re ‘templed-out,’ take some time to sit back and watch the world go by at one of the cafes around the square.
Pottery Square: As the name would suggest, Pottery Square is best known for its wood carvings – just kidding – it’s the best place to pick up some renowned Bhaktapur pottery. Small potteries line the square and you might be lucky to catch potters using traditional wooden potter’s wheels to shape clay in to vases, tiles, money banks, plates and ornaments. The center of the square is often completely covered by the potter’s various creations as they lay them out to dry in the sun: making for both a perfect photo opportunity and a great place to pick up that souvenir you’ve been meaning to buy for Grandma.
Taumadhi Square: Taumahdi square is within 5 minutes walking distance from Durbar square and offers the best example of multi-tiered pagoda temples in Bhakpatur. Bhairabnath, Nyatapola and Tilmadhav Narayan Temples are all located in the square which is flanked by a number of small shops selling everything from intricately carved wooden Ganesh masks (which I really wanted to buy but wouldn’t fit in our case) to Khukuri knives. Climb the pagoda steps for great views over the buzzing square below.
Dattatraya Square: The oldest portion of Bhaktapur houses Dattatraya Sqaure which is where you’ll find Dattatraya Temple and Bhimsen Temple. Dattaraya Square is also the home of the infamous Peacock window: an intricately carved wooden window designed to look like a peacock with its feathers displayed. The square also houses the Brass, Bronze and Wood Carving museum which is included within the general admission ticket to Bhaktapur.
Nagarkot: This Himalayan hill station is located about a 40 minute drive from Bhaktapur and is famed for its sunrise and sunset views across a number of the Himalayan mountain ranges; including the opportunity to see Everest on particularly clear days. If you’re visiting Bhaktapur then this is a perfect place to spend the night (do arrive early enough for sunset). There are a number of small guest houses and a couple of larger hotels in which you can stay (we personally stayed at Club Himalaya). If you have flexibility in your itinerary then leave the exact night you spend in Nagarkot open to change; that way you can check the weather and visibility to make sure you get the best views possible. Unfortunately we didn’t have that flexibility. However, even though we couldn’t see the mountain ranges the sunrise views were still fairly spectacular from both our balcony and the roof of the hotel. If you’re staying at a hotel or guest house that doesn’t have direct access to the views then make sure you head up to the viewing station for sunrise (we heard many of the hotels will let you up to their roof if you buy a coffee or some such). I’d advise that you arrange a taxi to take you there at that ungodly hour as the roads you will be walking are pitch black and it’s a fairly decent hike up the hill (and there’s no Starbucks to get a caffeine injection beforehand).
Changu Narayan: One of the most important monuments within the Kathmandu Valley, Changu Narayan Temple lies a few kilometers from Bhakpatur and on a less sweltering day it can be reached on foot from the city. For the less aerobically inclined (which included me), a taxi is probably the easiest way to reach the temple and shouldn’t cost much more than USD 5 one way (although I would advise you to ask the taxi to wait to take you back as there weren’t many taxis around at Changu). The temple sits at the top of hill at 1,541 meters above sea level and was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1979. Arriving in the main car park area, you’ll pay a small entrance fee at the ticket booth (USD 3 at the time of writing) and follow the path up through a small village to the temple at the top of the hill. There is a museum and a number of small shops on the route up to the temple where you can watch artisans carving masks, painting intricate canvas designs and weaving (including one where we spent an hour chatting to the owner after she offered us tea and regaled us with stories of her youth). The main temple itself is two-tiered pagoda style and is surrounded by other smaller temples, stone carvings and ponds that are well worth spending an hour or two exploring.
Tribhuvan International Airport Website: http://www.tiairport.com.np/
Respro Ultra-Light Mask Website: http://respro.com/store/product/ultra-light
Bhaktapur Tourism Website: http://www.bhaktapur.com/