In a competition with snowcapped peaks, a dirty and smelly city will never win – and Kathmandu is definitely dirty and smelly. In a competition with other cities though, while Kathmandu might lose on the clean air and reliable electricity indexes, it surges ahead on friendliness, gritty beauty and exuberantly unrestrained incense burning.
Still, many people only use Kathmandu as a transit hub for trekking. They’re missing out on some of the world’s most flavorful vegetarian food, vendor-packed laneways strung with translucent, multicolored flags, piles of yak wool blankets lining the streets, and – best of all – an endless supply of the region’s greatest natural resource: fried momo. Spend at least a few days getting to know the city before you go meet the rest of Nepal.
Places to Go
You can’t go to Kathmandu without going to Thamel neighborhood. Really, you can’t – packed with hotels and restaurants, Thamel is almost definitely where you’ll have to stay. But that’s great, because it’s a vibrant and central quarter of the city.
Thamel is where you’ll buy the carved figure of a miniature elephant that you’ll suddenly realize you’ve always needed, where you’ll touch so many lovely pashmina shawls fluttering from shops into the streets that your boyfriend will have to remind you that all the colors feel the same, and where you’ll tell countless rickshaw drivers that no, you don’t need a ride, and countless figures emerging from the shadows that no, you don’t need drugs.
Once you tire of the busy streets – and they are tiring – you can head toward a busy square. You’ll find Kathmandu Durbar Square just outside of Thamel, a plaza parked in front of a royal palace that now serves as a museum. The plaza is home to spectacular architecture, hidden courtyards, gaping tourists and pigeons. Many, many pigeons.
If you really need to get away from it all, go above it all. The Monkey Temple towers over Kathmandu. It’s not a temple that worships monkeys; it’s a temple that monkeys have taken over so determinedly that they outnumber worshippers. Sitting on a hill that looks beyond the city’s colorful sprawl until the view is cut off by the magnificent Himalayas, the Monkey Temple looks gorgeous from below, but everything else in Kathmandu looks incredible from it.
But one of the most interesting places in Kathmandu isn’t technically in the city at all. Patan is a separate city, but just barely; it’s right next door to Kathmandu, and in the short cab ride between them, you won’t even notice that you’re leaving one municipality and entering another. You’ll be glad you did though. Quieter and better preserved than Kathmandu Durbar Square, but just as fascinating, Patan Durbar Square and its surrounding area features towering palaces and temples, traditional pottery and metalwork, and Buddhist and Hindu shrines packed into every nook, cranny and secret courtyard. Don’t miss it.
Places to Eat and Drink
While you won’t want to drink the water in Nepal, you can’t miss out on the food. If you’re unsure what to order, you’ll almost never go wrong with dhal. If you’re feeling slightly bolder, try ordering Nepali thali platter, a mixture of the restaurant’s daily curries.
After bravely venturing into hole-in-the-wall joints that will surprise you with either their amazingness or their disgustingness, the city has a few tried-and-true cafes, restaurants and bars that won’t disappoint.
In the morning, head to Phat Kath cafe. Phat Kath is the nerve center of Nepal’s hippy culture, which is the nerve center of the globe’s hippy culture; that gives Phat Kath the special distinction of being either the coolest or the most irritating place on the planet, depending on your stance on hemp. If you’re not into hippies, go anyway. Its killer breakfast makes up for the fact that you may have to eat it while sitting on a rug on the floor of what resembles an open-concept tree house.
If you’re craving something hip and contemporary, Himalayan Java is Nepal’s first specialty coffee chain. Its best location is on the pedestrian street about 50 meters from Thamel’s main junction, though there are locations throughout Kathmandu. Bring your laptop and your finest fleece – this is where the cool kids do their homework.
For dinner, go to The Third Eye Indian Restaurant. Order the garlic naan and the paneer butter masala. Then resign yourself to the fact that you’ll never be able to enjoy food as much again.
Just reserve at least one night for a traditional Nepali feast. And bring an empty stomach – the feast at Dwarika’s serves up to 22 courses.
For evening drinks, New Orleans Wine Bar is worth the bit of alleyway digging that you’ll have to do to find it. Cozy and candlelit, it’s the only bar I’ve ever been where I’ve come for the wine and stayed for the live music. (Usually, wine is enough to cover both the coming and the staying.) Here, the drinks and the music are equally fantastic.
Whatever you eat, be sure to eat it with your right hand only; touching food with your left hand is a big faux pas in Nepal.
Places to Stay:
The air conditioning won’t work when it’s hot and the heat won’t work when it’s cold – that’s true of most places in Nepal. Don’t expect anything that entails an uninterrupted stream of electricity. But you can expect that the rooms will be clean and that, wherever you stay, the front desk will be as helpful as any at a five-star hotel.
If it’s a five-star hotel you’re looking for, Kathmandu has a couple of those, such as the Hyatt Regency, which sits in a grassy grove beside the Boudnath Stupa. That grassy grove is especially helpful if you want to momentarily forget that you’re in Kathmandu.
Or, hole up in something that’s both cozier and more beautiful than a five-star hotel: Traditional Homes Swotha, a bed and breakfast. Its warmly rustic rooms are less than $100, but you’d never pay that price for such beautiful design anywhere but in Nepal.
For less well-heeled travelers, Trekkers Home is one of the best cheap hotels in the city at about $30 a night. Hotel Encounter Nepal is a step or two up from that, and you may find that it’s worth double the price of Trekkers Home, which is what you’ll pay.