Too many people leave the Nepalese capital as soon as they’ve arrived. While the appeal of Nepal’s unique wildernesses – most notably the Himalayas – are undeniable, it’s a mistake not to allow yourself at least 24 hours in this remarkable city. Battered and bruised, there are certainly prettier, cleaner places in Asia, but you’ll struggle to find any friendlier or quite so packed with quirks.
The past few decades have seen the population swell to over three million, which is more than much of the infrastructure can stand. The problems in the capital, Kathmandu, were compounded by the devastating earthquakes in 2015, which saw yet more people abandon rural homes in favour of life in the city, despite the damage that had occurred here, too.
Nonetheless, Kathmandu is a charming place, one that feels much warmer and quainter than those raw facts imply. Packed with temples and pagodas, its old streets have the feel of a place that should feature in a yet-to-be-made Indiana Jones film that will certainly be better than Crystal Skull and perhaps Temple of Doom, too. By all means see more of Nepal, but don’t leave before you’ve taken a look around this fascinating, troubled city.
Sightseeing and Culture
One of the most obvious sights to see from Kathmandu are the mighty Himalayas that appear in the distance whenever the smog and weather allow. If you don’t have the legs or time for hiking, though, the best option is to take a mountain flight with Buddha Air (www.buddhaair.com, +977 1 5521 015). Lasting 45 minutes, taking off and landing from the international airport, it allows you to gaze on the world’s tallest mountains, including the ultimate peak, Everest.
Back on terra firma, it’s perhaps best to talk to your hotel about hiring a driver for the day in order to squeeze in as much in as possible. Definitely worth the detour is the Swayambhunath, which translates as sublime trees, but is more commonly referred to as the Monkey Temple, owing to the hundreds of primates that have taken up residence at this magical spot. There’s been some place of worship at this site for 1,000 years, but none have been quite so vibrant and monkey-focused as the incumbent.
Swayambhunath survived the 2015 quake admirably, but the same sadly cannot be said for some of Kathmandu’s other main attractions. Formerly an irresistible tourist magnet, Durbar Square still draws crowds, but while plenty of its original its 500-year-old charm remains, it’s now worth seeing in part to understand just how dreadful the earthquake was for this luckless city.
Nearby the royal palace known as the Hanuman Dhoka (hanumandhokamuseum.gov.np, +977 1 4258034) has fared a little better, as has its museum.
Food and dining
Nepal is wedged in between the titans of China and India and most of its indigenous cuisine reflects this confluence of cultures. It’s essential to try momos, the Nepali-Tibetan dumplings not unlike Japanese gyoza. Which eatery offers the best of these is a subject of hot-faced debate among locals, but definitely visit Yangling (+977 1 4257 408) which specialises in Himalayan dishes.
If you’d prefer to treat yourself to a higher level of dining, while still soaking up a local atmosphere, then head to the sensational Dwarika’s Hotel’s Krishnarpan (dwarikas.com, +977 1 4479 488). It may essentially be serving Nepali dishes that you could find elsewhere in the city, but no other establishment has quite the same lavish setting, nor dedication to presentation and service. Don’t fancy local food? Then Third Eye (thirdeye.com, +977 1 4260 289) is the best Indian restaurant in Kathmandu. Questions need answering about why it has chicken kiev on the menu, but ignoring that, its selection of thalis wouldn’t be out of place south of the border.
Elsewhere, if you’re simply looking for a decent cup of coffee or a spot of breakfast, then seek out Gaia Café (gaia-restaurant.com, +977 1 4261 633). Excusing the fact it uses Comic Sans on its homepage, it’s a quiet little spot that offers respite from the crowded city streets and meals through the day.
Unsurprisingly for the capital of a developing nation in the years following a major earthquake, Kathmandu is not exactly the Ibiza of the east. No prizes are won for guessing that the city has its own Irish bar, and fewer still are awarded for guessing that it’s called Everest (+977 984 1329 003) but it’s still a lively spot. Expect to meet plenty of tourists and travellers enjoying a post-trek brew, or backpackers hashing out some grudges on the pool table.
There’s a similar vibe in Sam’s Bar (+977 981 9280 538) but arguably the night-time hotspot is the Tom and Jerry Pub (tomnjerryktm.com) which has been on the go since 1989 and offers live music as well as pool and a pretty reasonable selection of drinks, all things considered.
Where to stay
Such is the quality at Dwarika’s (dwarikas.com, +977 1 4479 488) that other Kathmandu establishments probably regard it as a little unfair. As well as having three of the city’s best restaurants, this historic, family-run business is stand-out accommodation.
The much-loved Oasis Kathmandu (oasiskathmanduhotel.com, +9771 4414 258) is the first obvious alternative, with excellent value rooms found in a tranquil setting in the heart of the city centre.
If you feel more comfortable in an international chain, then Crowne Plaza (www.ihg.com, +977 1 4273 999) and Hyatt Regency (hyatt.com, +9771 5171234) both have slightly sterile options in the city, though just like everywhere else, they’re susceptible to Kathmandu’s periodic blackouts.
Public transport doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. Rickshaws are available, as are cabs, but it’s probably wisest to ask the hotel, bar, or restaurant to book one for you.
Himalaya Airlines and Qatar Airways fly direct to Kathmandu for QR1,330 and QR1,500 respectively. Travel time is around four hours.