If you’re heading to the Kathmandu Valley, then there’s a strong chance you’ve booked yourself on to a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. The capital city is the primary entry point into Nepal before your onward journey takes you deeper into the country where the brunt of your Himalayan adventure really begins. As a result, in Kathmandu Valley you’ll often find hordes of likeminded hikers frequenting the cafes and awkwardly gathering with their tour groups for the first time before proceeding to spend two weeks camping in close confines. To many of these tour groups the Kathmandu Valley serves a clear purpose; a jumping off point that provides tour leaders a good way to gather the entire group in one place before setting off. Some tours even have 24-48 hours in Kathmandu touring the more popular tourist sites before hopping back on a plane to Pokhara or Lukla. With this in mind, and assuming you can spare the extra days off work (we can all dream), then my advice is to set aside 4 days for exploring Kathmandu under your own steam before joining up with your tour group.
Whether you’re on a trekking adventure or no, I’ll highlight a basic itinerary that’ll make sure you can capture as much of the spirit, culture and history that Kathmandu Valley has to offer.
You’ll arrive at Tribhuvan International Airport after a potentially long flight and probably want nothing more than a shower and some much deserved relaxation (this is a holiday after all). You’ll also want to navigate your way through immigration and customs as quickly as possible, so you should check out my advice for how to speed through immigration at Tribhuvan here. Kathmandu City can be a little hectic after a long day traveling, so directly head out of the city and spend the night in Nagarkot – a small Hill Station nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas about an hour’s drive from the airport. The Club Himalaya Resort is a good place to check out if you need a recommendation. Just in case you’re wondering – no, I’m not sponsored by them! After the drive from the airport (which can be arranged through Club Himalaya), you can settle in to your room and shower up before enjoying a dip in the Resort’s indoor pool (weirdly by the dining room, so not for the faint of heart). Alternatively, you could take a quick stroll around the town (it won’t take long, it’s a tiny place). Towards sunset, head to the Resort’s outdoor terrace with a bottle of local brew (or a G&T, I’m not demanding) to watch the sunset over the mountain range. On a clear night you may see Everest from your hotel room balcony. Before you retire for the evening, make sure you arrange with the Resort for a driver to pick you up the following morning at about 9am. You’ll want your taxi for the whole day so that you aren’t constantly searching for taxis. The good news is that hiring a car and driver for the entire day shouldn’t set you back any more than about USD 40.
Today you’ll be exploring Bhaktapur and the surrounding area, so check-out my Bhaktapur Destination Guide for more detailed information on the temples and sites you’ll see (in addition to tips on how to maximise your visit).
Morning: Nagarkot is famous for its sunrises. The good news is that with the jet lag you’ll undoubtedly be experiencing, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to wake up for it! If you’re staying at the Club Himalaya Resort then you can enjoy the sunrise over the mountains and the valley from your hotel balcony or from the roof terrace. If you’re staying elsewhere, then you might want to arrange for a taxi to take you up to the viewing station for the best panoramic views. After sunrise grab some breakfast before checking out of your accommodation and meeting up with your driver. Your first stop will be Changu Narayan; one of the most important monuments in Kathmandu Valley and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll probably want to spend about 2 hours exploring the temple and small town before you make the short drive to Bhaktapur City. When you arrive at the main gate to the old city (near Bhaktapur Durbar Square), make sure you purchase your city ticket before heading to one of the restaurants / cafes overlooking Durbar Square for lunch.
Afternoon: After lunch you’re going to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Bhaktapur on foot. Most visitors focus their attention on the temples, palaces and museums in Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Taumadhi Square and Dattatraya Square as well as visiting Pottery Square to pick up those much needed souvenirs for family/friends. It’s really easy to get carried away with souvenir shopping in Kathmandu Valley so just remember that you might end up straining under the weight of your new purchases for the next two weeks! Aside from the main squares, the real highlight of Bhaktapur lies in strolling around town and exploring the myriad back streets and endless alleyways. As a ‘living museum’ the entire city is of significant historical importance, so if you want to get more information then I suggest you hire a local tour guide. Don’t worry about finding one; they’ll probably find you before you find them. After several hours of wandering (and praying that you manage to navigate your way back to your driver – particularly as he’ll have your luggage in the car) you’ll drive to your second night’s accommodation in Kathmandu City; which will be your base for the remainder of your stay in Kathmandu. Before you leave your driver make sure to ask him if you can hire him for the following two days and arrange for a pick-up at 8am tomorrow – now you’re negotiating directly with the driver you might even get a better deal than the first day. If s/he isn’t available, then no doubt you can arrange a new driver through your hotel.
Evening: After a long day of exploring (and an extremely early wake-up call for sunrise), you may well want to retire a little earlier than usual this evening (especially if you’re old before your time; like me). So, after checking in to your hotel and freshening up, ask reception for some restaurant recommendations for a spot of dinner and drinks before heading back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
Today you’ll be focusing your attention on Kathmandu City, so check-out my Kathmandu Destination Guide for more detailed information on the temples and sites you’ll see (in addition to tips on how to maximise your visit).
Morning: You’ll be met by your driver at 8am this morning and should head straight for Pashupatinath; one of the four most sacred sites for devotees of Shiva and a UNESCO cultural heritage site. Although non-Hindus can’t enter the main temple, you’ll still want to dedicate at least a couple of hours to exploring the entire complex on both banks of the Bagmati River; the site is teeming with activity. Keep in mind, this site is essentially a crematorium, so I’ll leave it up to you to find your own balance of what is appropriate/inappropriate to photograph. Your next morning stop will be the Monkey Temple (or, more accurately, Swayambhunath). If you’re feeling energetic, then get dropped off at the bottom of the main entrance stairs. Tell your (now dubious) taxi driver that you’re going to hike the stairs and meet him/her in the car park at the top (and through all the way to the back of the site). It’s a fairly serious climb up to the temple on a hot day so make sure you have water with you; and beware of the monkeys! Not called monkey temple for nothing. Next, before lunch (and if you’re not starving/dehydrated/fed up with monkeys by now), make a quick pit-stop at the three Buddha’s Temple which is just behind the Swayambhunath Complex. Although it’s a fairly new temple (and isn’t steeped in history as everything else on the itinerary), it is worthy of a 30 minute visit to watch everyday worshippers going about their routine. Finally (or as soon as your co-patriates start looking at you murderously like my wife did), head over to Thamel Chowk for lunch (it may just save your marriage!).
Afternoon: After a long, leisurely lunch (and perhaps a well-deserved beer or two after climbing the steps of Swayambhunath), spend some time wandering the chaotic streets of Thamel. The area is fairly touristy but provides a great opportunity to stock up on low-cost, highly dubious, trekking gear and souvenirs before you head out to the Himalayas. After a couple of hours of shopping and exploring Thamel (and probably buying more than you can fit into your backpack), head back to your hotel to freshen up for the evening.
Evening: Head out again over to Boudhanath Stupa just before sunset. Choose one of the many restaurant terraces that overlook the stupa for dinner and drinks as the sun goes down and worshippers flood the square. As the sun sets, the gold on the stupa creates fantastic reflective colours that make for the perfect photo. Once twilight serenely settles into darkness, the Stupa’s atmosphere takes on a whole new lease on life as candles are lit and cauldrons are set ablaze. Head down to circle the Stupa and really take in the buzz, spin the prayer wheels and feel inspired or confused by the worshipers activities (including prostrating on the ground). It does get pretty smoky down on ground level so you might want to have your pollution mask handy. Once you’ve had enough inspiration and/or confusion, head back to the hotel for a nightcap – you’ve earned it!
Today you’ll be focusing your attention on Patan City (also known as Lalitpur), so check-out my Patan Destination Guide for more detailed information on the temples and sites you’ll see (in addition to tips on how to maximise your visit).
Morning: By this point your driver will have made a small fortune from his time with you as you’ll need him for yet another full day of sight-seeing! He’ll pick you up at around 9am and although you’ll focus most of our day in Patan you’ll start out by visiting Kathmandu Durbur Square. After paying your entrance fee and getting the accompanying map you’ll spend about 3 hours exploring the entire square. The outer complex is where you can see the Kumari-Ghar (home of the living Kumari Child Goddess who appears in the interior courtyard window from time to time), Shiv- Parbati Temple and the Big Bell. The inner complex houses the palace area and its courtyards. After you’ve seen more temples than you can shake a stick at head over to Freak Street (which was named in reference to the hippy trail of the 60’s and 70’s) for lunch.
Afternoon: After lunch your driver will take you south of Kathmandu to Patan City (don’t worry it’s only an 8km drive) where you should start by exploring Patan Durbar Square (that’s right, a third Durbar Square). Personally, this is my favourite of the three Durbar Squares and hence I thought I’d save the best for last. Start with the focal point of the square: the ancient Royal Palace which consists of three Chowks (courtyards) that are the home of exquisite woodwork and stone fountains (particularly Sundari Chowk). Another highlight of Patan Durbar Square is the Patan Museum which exhibits the cultural history and art of Nepal. If you’re still hungry after lunch (or in need of a drink to escape the heat), then the museum also has a café set in a perfect, relaxing, courtyard setting (highly recommended). After visiting Patan Durbar Square, walk towards the Golden Temple (Hiryanya Varna Mahabihar) which is only about 5 minutes from the square. During the walk you’ll pass craft shops displaying the artisanal work that Patan is famous for (it’s also known as the City of Fine Arts!). The Golden Temple’s centrepiece is a three-storey Golden Pagoda which was built in the 12th Century. It’s only a small temple (with an equally small entrance fee), but it’s well worth dropping by. If you have time left in your day then you might also want to try and set aside some time for your driver to take you to visit one of the Ashoka Stupas (there are four of them on each of the 4 corners of Patan City) and the Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre, which is the centre of the Tibetan Refugee ‘Camp’.
Evening: It’s the end of your solo adventure. If you’re trekking, this evening you’ll likely meet up with your tour group for a meet-and-greet and dinner!
My four-day itinerary for Kathmandu Valley is fairly intensive but still doesn’t cover everything you might want to see. If you’re a newbie trekker (or just find yourself short on stamina prior to your trek), you may wish to pin this itinerary to the end of your expedition (while basic it’s still pretty comprehensive). If there’s anything that you think I might have missed (intentionally or not) then I’d love to hear back from you in the comments section below.