Kathmandu: the chaotic gateway to the Himalayas

I had so many people warn me about Kathmandu before I arrived in Nepal. “It’s dirty and polluted.” “It’s chaotic and noisy.” “It’s too busy and congested.” Having come from India, however, I knew that I would know what to expect. I wouldn’t get “the shock” that many new arrivals get. 

And, in fact, it only took me 24 hours after arriving to decide that, this city, this I can fall in love with. 

The streets are a patchwork of colours, sounds and smells that mean each time you walk down the same street (which is inevitable) you’ll notice something new and different. And by new, I mean another hotel, a different café, trekking agency, souvenir or gear rental shop or a combination of a few. The tourist neighbourhood and almost a microcity in its own right, Thamel, has enough cafes, bars and shops to keep you occupied for days, or even weeks in my case. 

Rooftop view of Kathmandu

At first glance, you could brush it off as overly tourist-y and believe me, that was my first impression. There are men standing on each corner who approach you for “trekking?” or to sell you tiger balm or wooden flutes or “hash, weed, you want to smoke something?”. However, when you can sit in a rooftop café and order buckwheat pancakes and a soy chai for AUD$5, find hidden stupas in courtyards and look at the baby yak scarves for sale with just a friendly, “Namaste”, from the shop owner without the pressure to buy, I’m not going to complain. It was far less intense and less likely to make you cringe than Asia’s other tourist neighbourhood, Khao San Rd in Bangkok.

It’s a city that has been seeing foreign tourists for decades and has some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, at some of the trendiest little cafes (and that means a lot coming from a Melbournian). I would literally arrange my whole day around three good meals at three different places (my food guide to Kathmandu is below). For a place that had just one hotel in the early 1960s, it has obviously capitalised on tourism and just a short walk around Thamel proves that plenty of Nepalis rely on the industry for their livelihood.

Kathmandu streets

However, heading south from Thamel, it doesn’t take long before you get transported to somewhere completely different (albeit with the same level of chaotic traffic). The market streets that feed into Durbar Square offer an insight into the everyday life of Nepalis, with shops selling knock off Calvin Klein jeans and the latest fashion (minus the ‘Everest Base Camp’ t-shirts), fresh fruit, spices, rice and bolts of fabric ready to be made into whatever you like by the many tailors you can see sitting behind old Singer machines.  

The buildings are made from old bricks with intricately carved wooden windows and doors in traditional Nepali style. However, you can see deep cracks in the brickwork and long wooden beams reinforcing some of the walls, a sign that the scars from the earthquake will not be gone any time soon.

Nepal architecture

Durbar Square is quite devastating to visit. Many of the old, original buildings crumbled when the earth shook in April 2015 and only a few remain. The ongoing construction effort seems like it will continue for years to come with just a few men chipping away at repairs by hand. However, the old royal square is still the cultural heart of the city and with an unlimited pass for the duration of my visa (information on this below) I was able to head down there to people watch the afternoon away many times over. From sadhus posing for photos, to men selling fairy floss, to children chasing pigeons and young lovers sitting on the steps of the old buildings, it’s not a waste of 1000rupees (AUD$12). Although the steep entrance fees for many temples and squares in the sprawling city begs the question about where the money actually goes, but that’s another story. 

Some of the most important religious sites in Asia are located in Kathmandu, including Pashupatinath Temple, a sacred Hindu site on the Bagmati River and one of the four most important temples for followers of Lord Shiva. It is a large complex, and although non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the main temple, there are plenty of spaces to explore including a viewing platform over the area. There is also a small burning ghat by the water, where like in Varanasi, bodies can be seen being cremated in the open air around the clock. 

Only a couple of kilometres away is Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest stupas in Asia and the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal. The large dome is encircled with small shops selling thangka paintings and rooftop cafes with an impressive view looking down on the prayer flags flapping in the wind and the selfie-taking tourists. 

Pashupatinath temple
Pashupatinath temple

One of the most beloved attractions of the city, however, is Swayambhunath Stupa located just west of Thamel on a hilltop overlooking the sprawled city. It’s best known as ‘monkey temple’ and is one of the most popular places to spend the last hours of the day before the sun sets. The view of Kathmandu below gives a good perspective of just how large the city really is and, on a clear evening, even a glimpse of the snow capped peaks that lie beyond the valley.

As the gateway to the Himalayas and many of the best trekking routes in the world, Kathmandu is perfectly capable of servicing every need prior to leaving for any trek. Many shops sell up to date trekking maps, knock off trekking and climbing gear and most rent sleeping bags, down jackets and walking poles. There are also plenty of good minimarts and one large supermarket in Thamel (called Shop Rite) for picking up snacks and supplies. You could effectively come to Nepal with nothing and pick up everything you needed for a two week trek in the mountains just in Thamel. It’s this aspect that gives Thamel an infectious buzz and will have you convinced you need to go trekking even if you had no prior desire to do so.

The circus that is Nepali driving, the dusty roads and the haze that hangs over the rooftops of the city are enough to immediately put people off. For many tourists, they see Kathmandu as simply a point of entry, a mandatory stop before they make a beeline for Pokhara, or a place to get trekking permits and supplies, however, Kathmandu deserves so much more of your time, even if you spend a lot of it sitting at a restaurant to escape the traffic. There’s plenty outside of the city to explore too and in fact, to fully immerse yourself in the culture of Nepal, some time spent in Patan and Bhaktapur is a must. 

Patan

Patan, or Lalitpur as it’s known today, is a large city with its own historic Durbar Square at its centre. It seems almost a continuation of Kathmandu but is actually a distinct city in itself. It has small temples and stupas hidden amongst its alleyways and quieter streets. Perhaps for this reason, it has also become a favourite place for diplomats and expats to call home and has many cafes and shops to explore. It’s home to some of the best food of the Newari people, one of the major ethnic groups of the Kathmandu Valley.

As the city is only a 20 minute taxi ride from Thamel or half an hour in a bus from Ratna Park, many people explore Patan in a day before heading back to Thamel. However, I spent a couple of nights there exploring the small temples and skinny streets and sampling a lot of the Newari dishes.

Patan brass
Brass shops in Patan

Bhaktapur

I also took myself to Bhaktapur for a few days to get out of the chaos of Kathmandu and it was one of my favourite places I visited in Nepal. The ancient royal city is a quiet place and gives perhaps the best idea of what the whole of the Kathmandu Valley would have looked centuries ago. The central part of the city is well preserved in the old architecture with cobble stone streets and intricately carved details in the wooden windows and doors.

The Bhaktapur Durbar Square is a beautiful, large courtyard where older generations can be seen sitting on the steps talking and watching the world go by. It’s also known for its handicrafts, especially pottery, which can be seen drying out in the sun in what has become known as pottery square. It’s a place that makes you feel like you have been transported back in time and, with no traffic in the old city, is a relaxing getaway from the chaos of Thamel. It’s just an hour in the local buses that leave frequently throughout the day near Ratna Park in Kathmandu. It’s worth spending at least a night though, as once it gets closer to sunset and the tourists have all gone, it’s a peaceful small town and I almost had the square to myself.

Bhaktapur

You might find yourself spending more time than you think in Kathmandu Valley, I certainly did. The chocolate brownies, live music bars, overflowing souvenir and antique shops and laidback people become too comforting to leave. But most people leave eventually, either to get trapped in Pokhara (Nepal’s second largest city and a quieter version of Thamel) or get lost in the beauty of the Himalayas. Yet, trekking in Nepal tires even the most fit and adventurous type and the comforts of the cafes in Kathmandu will have you dreaming of a freshly baked brownie and chai or any food that isn’t dal bhat soon enough.

Survival guide for exploring Kathmandu

  • Be prepared for chaotic traffic! (so you don’t get a shock)
  • Be aware that air pollution can be pretty bad in Kathmandu and many locals wear face masks whilst walking around, they are for sale everywhere if you feel like wearing one yourself
  • Get your Kathmandu Durbar Square ticket extended beyond 24 hours (you can do this by going to the tourist office inside the square, behind the small souvenir market, if you provide a passport photo along with your passport they will give you a pass which lasts for as long as your visa for no extra cost. The tickets for both Patan and Bhaktapur can also be extended for as long as you request when purchasing)
  • Be prepared to bargain for things but not too hard (Nepalis will always inflate the price for tourists, but not quite as much as some other Asian countries, they are much more easy going and will not bother to bargain with you too much)
  • 10% service charge and 13% VAT tax will often be added to food bills and some services (menus will always say whether these taxes are applicable or already included)
  • Taxis are the most convenient way to get around to temples and other areas of the city, although there are local buses you can catch to get to Patan and Bhaktapur with little hassle
  • Shops are generally open mid-morning until 8 or 9pm, it’s not a ‘city that never sleeps’ type of a place, although you will find some bars in Thamel open late 
  • Saturday is Nepal’s ‘Sunday’ and many shops, some restaurants and all official offices will be closed 
  • The trekking permit office ( for TIMS and National Park fees) is inside the Nepal Tourism Board near Ratna Park (their Thamel office is permanently closed) and they open every day, including Saturdays and public holidays 
  • I would recommend taking the time to explore both Patan and Bhaktapur too
Kathmandu

Where I stayed

I stayed at a hostel called Kasthamandap Travellers Home and I couldn’t speak highly enough about it. From as little as 300rupees (AUD$4) per night, they have dorm rooms and a couple of private rooms available. It’s in a perfect location, a side street just on the edge of Thamel, close to everything and still relatively quiet at night. They have a great rooftop area to chill, eat and watch movies at night. The owner, Simon, is great and can help with many things including bus tickets, recommendations on sight seeing and trekking and luggage storage. I came and went many times from this hostel over the course of three months and always stored my bags there.

Another option in Kathmandu and only about 250m from Kasthamandap Travellers Home is Newa Home, a small hotel that is run by a very lovely man and so carefully decorated in traditional Nepali style. The owner cannot do enough for you, constantly offering cups of tea and food and anything you may need. It’s a very comfortable place and for 1300rupees or AUD$15 for a private room (shared bathroom), it’s exceptional value.

In Patan, I stayed at Sanu House, just outside of Patan. It was more like a homestay and was such a beautiful experience. The family were so welcoming and friendly, they also often have long term guests staying there many who are working or volunteering in Kathmandu and who were interesting to talk with. They have private rooms and offer home cooked meals for just an extra 150-200rupees, which are 100% worth it.

In Bhaktapur, I stayed at Shiva Guesthouse, right inside Durbar Square and above a popular restaurant. It was a great place to stay for the price and had a beautiful view of the square from the rooms.

Where I ate

I will be raving about the food in Kathmandu for some time to come, you can really eat like a royal for so little. From the best falafels I’ve ever had to healthy smoothie bowls to local dal bhat (the meal that majority of Nepalis eat twice a day and consists of rice, dahl and curry and is often refilled for no extra cost), the options are endless. These are my top picks:

OR2K Restaurant – Israeli and Mediterranean

Probably one of the best restaurants in Nepal, it also has a restaurant in Pokhara. Offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, from smoothie bowls and pancakes to falafels and grazing platters and pasta, it has a great menu that can alter almost anything to suit vegans and gluten free eaters. They make buckwheat pancakes and roti and have soy and coconut milk and even date syrup to replace honey. Highly recommend: falafels and smoothie bowls

French Bakery – European

By far the closest thing you’ll find to a cafe in Melbourne, with an owner who worked in Australia as a chef and baker. He has delicious cakes which walk out the door, including gluten free and vegan options. The menu has tea and coffee, burgers, pastas and snacks like nachos, and fresh bread and cookies are also for sale. Highly recommend: gluten free brownie

Mitho Restaurant – Multicuisine

A good option with big portions, they have local and Indian food like dal bhat and curries as well as some Western food options like buddha bowls. Highly recommend: dal bhat

Fusion Cafe – Nepali

In my opinion, one of the best dal bhats you’ll find in Thamel and reasonable prices. They also have Tibetan favourites like momos and thenthuk soup.

Loving Heart Restaurant (all vegan)

The first all vegan restaurant in Kathmandu (maybe even Nepal) and also has gluten free options. They are open for breakfast through to dinner and even offer desserts with vegan ice cream. Highly recommend: spinach ragi crepe and vegan ice cream

Green Home Cafe – Nepali

A tiny hole in the wall place that doesn’t look that appealing from the exterior and requires a climb up some rickety stairs, but the two Indian brothers running this place are lovely and one of the cheapest places you’ll find in Thamel for local food.

Yangling Tibetan Restaurant

A popular place to go for Tibetan food and reasonable prices. Highly recommend: fried rice

Newari Kitchen – restaurant in Patan

A popular place in Patan that is known for some of the best Newari food and is the perfect place to try some. The set plates are the best value as they can be refilled like dal bhat and give a sampling of multiple dishes.

How I got in

I came from the eastern border with India to Kathmandu via bus and have a blog post about the border crossing here.

How I got out

From Thamel, the tourist buses to Pokhara leave from Sorhakhutte on the edge of Thamel, five minutes walk from my accommodation at Kasthamandap Travellers Home. There are anywhere between 15-30 buses running every day at 7am in high season and the journey takes around 8 hours. Almost every second shop, cafe, agency or hotel can book a ticket for you in advance.

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