Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal. It’s also the largest metropolis in Nepal and serves as the central hub for economic, cultural, and political activities.
Kathmandu is known for its beautiful temples, palaces, historic sites, and iconic landmarks, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kathmandu is an essential gateway for travelers heading to the Himalayas, including treks to the Everest region. It is a vibrant city, a melting pot of cultures and traditions, and offers a unique blend of the ancient and the modern.
Where is Kathmandu?
Kathmandu is located in the Kathmandu Valley in the central part of Nepal. The valley is situated in the Bagmati Zone of the country and is surrounded by four central mountains: Shivapuri, Phulchowki, Nagarjun, and Chandragiri. The Bagmati River flows through the valley, passing through the center of Kathmandu.
The city’s geographical coordinates are approximately 27.7 °N latitude and 85.3 °E longitude. The elevation of Kathmandu is about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level. The valley is an ancient lakebed with fertile soil and flat terraced fields, surrounded by green hills and snow-capped mountains at the horizon.
History of Kathmandu
Kathmandu has a history that dates back over two millennia. Its rich tapestry of cultures, rulers, and events has made it a central location in the history of Nepal.
Kathmandu’s history begins with ancient legends. One of the most famous tells of the Bodhisattva Manjusri cutting a gorge at Chobar with his sword, draining out the water from the Kathmandu Valley, a lake, to make it habitable.
The oldest known inscription in the Valley is from the 5th century AD, but the area was settled long before.
The early medieval period saw the rise of the Licchavi dynasty. The Licchavis ruled from around the 4th to the 8th century and are credited with many of the city’s early Hindu temples and Buddhist monuments.
By the 12th century, the Malla dynasty began to emerge.
The Mallas are often credited with the golden age of Kathmandu’s architecture and culture, and this period witnessed the construction of many of Kathmandu’s iconic structures, including those in Durbar Square.
The Malla rule from the 12th to the 18th century is marked by division and rivalry among multiple Malla kings reigning over the Kathmandu Valley’s three city-states: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan. These divisions often led to artistic and cultural competitions, further enriching the city’s architectural and cultural landscape.
Despite these divisions, the Valley experienced a renaissance in arts, architecture, and culture during Malla’s rule, with Hinduism and Buddhism thriving.
In the late 18th century, King Prithvi Narayan Shah of the Gorkha Kingdom embarked on a mission to unify the fragmented kingdoms and principalities of the region. In 1768 he conquered the Kathmandu Valley and shifted the capital to Kathmandu.
With this, the Shah dynasty began its rule, establishing the Kingdom of Nepal and integrating Kathmandu into a larger national framework.
In the 19th century, the Rana dynasty took power and essentially ruled as hereditary prime ministers, reducing the Shah monarchs to figureheads. The Ranas ruled with an iron fist and were responsible for many palatial structures in the city.
It was only in 1951 that the Ranas were overthrown in a political movement, reintroducing a democratic form of governance and restoring power to the Shah monarchy.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen significant political changes, including a bloody civil war and the eventual abolition of the monarchy in 2008, turning Nepal into a republic.
Following the catastrophic and bloody Nepalese Civil War from 1996 to 2006, Kathmandu found itself at the epicenter of a devastating earthquake that caused further damage and chaos in the city.
On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, with its epicenter near Kathmandu. The tremor caused widespread devastation, affecting Kathmandu and other parts of the country.
Thousands of lives were lost, and countless historic temples and monuments were damaged or destroyed. The earthquake caused substantial disruption to the daily life of the residents and had immediate and lasting effects on the city’s infrastructure and economy.
In the aftermath, there was a concerted effort from both national and international agencies to provide immediate relief, such as food, shelter, and medical care, to the affected population.
Kathmandu has experienced many layers of history, each leaving its mark on the city’s culture, architecture, and spirit. From ancient legends to modern struggles, Kathmandu stands as a testament to the resilience and vitality of the Nepali people.
Features of Kathmandu
Kathmandu features streets striking with a blend of ancient architecture and modern developments. The city has historic temples and palaces that harken back to its days as a pivotal center of Hinduism and Buddhism. The air often carries the subtle aroma of incense, mingling with the more robust scents from local markets and street food vendors.
Kathmandu’s most notable aspect might be its people. The city is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, and traditions. Festivals, celebrated by various groups, brighten the city almost every month, showcasing a dance of colors, sounds, and rituals. The warmth and hospitality of the Kathmandu residents stand out, always ready with a smile and often eager to share tales of their storied homeland.
Geography and Climate
Kathmandu enjoys a temperate climate, categorized by four main seasons. The city experiences a warm spring from March to May, followed by the monsoon season from June to August, where heavy rainfall is prevalent.
From September to November, autumn is particularly popular among tourists due to its moderate temperatures and clear skies, offering splendid views of the surrounding mountains. Winter, spanning December to February, is relatively cool, with temperatures sometimes dipping close to freezing, especially at night.
Kathmandu has a population of around 1 million residents. The city boasts a diverse demographic mix. While the Newars are indigenous and have greatly influenced Kathmandu’s culture, architecture, and festivals, the city has seen a significant influx of people from other parts of Nepal due to its economic opportunities and central position.
This migration has added to the city’s cultural richness, with various ethnicities like Brahmins, Chhetris, Gurungs, Sherpas, and many more calling it home. This diversity is evident in the many festivals, cuisines, and languages spoken in the capital.
Kathmandu is the economic center of Nepal and significantly contributes to the nation’s GDP. Traditionally, handicrafts, arts, and sculptures were prominent trades, and while they remain essential, the city’s economy has diversified over the years. Given Kathmandu’s rich cultural heritage and status as a gateway to the Himalayan treks, tourism plays a vital role. The city boasts many hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies catering to tourists.
Additionally, the city has grown in information technology, banking, and telecommunications sectors. The real estate market in Kathmandu has also witnessed expansion, with numerous housing and commercial projects dotting the landscape. Furthermore, as the capital city, Kathmandu houses many government offices and international organizations, employing a significant portion of its population.
However, it’s worth noting that Kathmandu faces challenges, including traffic congestion, pollution, and infrastructural limitations, which affect its economic health. Yet, the city remains a hub of opportunity, attracting investment and talent from across Nepal and beyond.
Things to Do and Places to See in Kathmandu
Kathmandu is a treasure trove of cultural, historical, and architectural wonders. Here’s are the must-see tourist attractions in the city:
1. Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
Swayambhunath is an ancient and sacred temple complex and one of the most recognizable symbols of Nepal. The Monkey Temple is a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to the region. This iconic place is steeped in history, spirituality, and mystery.
Visiting Swayambhunath is not merely a sightseeing experience; it’s a journey into Nepal’s spiritual and cultural soul. Tourists can engage in meditation, observe traditional Buddhist rituals, and explore intricate artworks. The lively ambiance filled with the chatter of monkeys, the fragrance of incense, and the sounds of prayer wheels provide an unparalleled sensory experience.
2. Pashupatinath Temple
The Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most significant Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. It holds a special place in the hearts and souls of Hindus worldwide. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this temple is a religious center and a brilliant example of Nepali architecture.
The Pashupatinath Temple complex sprawls across both sides of the Bagmati River and showcases a stunning collection of temples, ashrams, and inscriptions. Visiting the temple offers tourists an intimate look at Nepali spiritual and cultural practices. Even for those not following the Hindu faith, the architectural beauty, serene atmosphere, and the daily rituals performed by the priests are captivating to witness.
3. Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa attracts both pilgrims and tourists with its magnificent presence. As one of the largest spherical stupas in the world, it is a vital hub for Tibetan Buddhism and reflects the region’s religious diversity. Its unique structure and spiritual significance make it a must-visit destination in Nepal’s capital.
Boudhanath is an architectural marvel and a living center of Buddhist practice and philosophy. Tourists can engage with the rich tapestry of Tibetan culture, join in meditation sessions, and enjoy the local cuisine in nearby cafes. The colorful prayer flags, the calming chants, and the gentle rhythm of spinning prayer wheels create a peaceful and reflective environment that appeals to spiritual seekers and curious travelers alike.
4. Kathmandu Durbar Square
Kathmandu Durbar Square is historically significant plaza in the heart of Kathmandu. It represents Nepal’s cultural, architectural, and historical heritage. Once the seat of the ancient Malla Kings of Kathmandu, the square is now a living museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kathmandu Durbar Square is home to a collection of temples, palaces, courtyards, and monuments, each displaying the artistic excellence of Nepali craftsmanship. Visitors can explore the ancient pathways, interact with local artisans, and even glimpse the living goddess Kumari. It’s an opportunity to immerse oneself in the authentic flavors of Nepali life and tradition.
5. Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square is often overshadowed by its counterpart in Kathmandu, a hidden gem with unique artistry and well-preserved monuments. It showcases the incredible craftsmanship of the Newar people and provides a fascinating insight into Nepali history and culture.
Patan Durbar Square consists of a concentrated mass of temples, traditional buildings, and artistic sculptures, all reflecting the unique Newari architecture. It offers visitors a captivating blend of history, art, and culture. Its peaceful ambiance and extraordinary artisanship make it a must-visit for those seeking to delve into the heart of Nepali tradition.
Thamel, often considered the tourist hub of Kathmandu, is not a traditional square like the Durbar Squares but a vibrant neighborhood filled with narrow streets, shops, restaurants, and hotels. Known for its lively atmosphere and eclectic mix of cultures, Thamel is a must-visit area for travelers looking to experience Kathmandu’s modern, cosmopolitan side.
The neighborhood has various eateries offering local and international cuisine, bars featuring live music, bookstores, and travel agencies. Brightly colored signs, the aroma of street food, and the constant hum of conversation create a sensory-rich environment that encapsulates the energetic spirit of Kathmandu’s tourist scene.
7. Garden of Dreams
The Garden of Dreams spans 6,895 square meters and is filled with lush greenery, fountains, pavilions, pergolas, and unique works of art. Inspired by the Edwardian style, the garden was meticulously designed and consisted of three pavilions, each representing one of the three traditional Nepali seasons.
Visitors can wander through well-maintained flower beds, admire the tranquil ponds, or relax on the benches that dot the landscape. There’s also a café within the garden, allowing visitors to enjoy a meal or drink in this idyllic setting.
For travelers who want a break from the lively streets of Kathmandu, the Garden of Dreams provides a perfect respite. It’s a place to unwind, read a book, or soak in the serene surroundings.
8. Narayanhiti Palace Museum
Narayanhiti Palace Museum, formerly the residence of the country’s monarchs, was turned into a museum following the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. With its rich history and lavish interiors, the Narayanhiti Palace Museum is a compelling attraction for Nepali history and royal life.
The Narayanhiti Palace Museum is an impressive structure that blends traditional Nepali architecture with modern design. Visiting the museum provides a unique opportunity to explore Nepal’s royal heritage and understand the country’s transition from a monarchy to a republic.
9. Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Bhaktapur Durbar Square is a stunning example of religious architecture and cultural tradition. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s one of three Durbar Squares in the valley, each representing the royal squares of the three main city-states of the ancient Malla Kingdom.
Bhaktapur’s square is renowned for its authentic preservation of traditions, fine architecture, and festivals. It allows visitors to witness ancient artistry in action and explore architectural marvels. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the historical significance of the buildings or wander through the narrow alleys to absorb the atmosphere.
10. Hiranya Varna Mahavihar (Golden Temple)
Hiranya Varna Mahavihar, dating back to the 12th century, is a three-story pagoda-style temple adorned with gold. As one of the most significant cultural landmarks in the Kathmandu Valley, it serves as a place of worship, meditation and an embodiment of the region’s rich artistic tradition.
This temple symbolizes creative brilliance and reflects the country’s spiritual depth. Its golden glow acts as a beacon, drawing visitors into a world of serenity and beauty.
The exterior of Hiranya Varna Mahavihar shimmers with golden embellishments and intricate wood carvings, providing a visual treat for visitors. Inside, the monastery houses an array of artistic treasures, including beautiful statues of Buddha, traditional paintings, and ornamental decor.
Ranipokhari, meaning “Queen’s Pond,” was constructed by King Pratap Malla in memory of his deceased queen. Ranipokhari holds significant cultural value and stands as a symbol of love and loss. The pond’s architectural beauty and serene environment make it a point of interest for locals and tourists.
Ranipokhari is a rectangular water tank that spans an area of 63,000 square feet. In the pond’s center lies a beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The pond’s edges are adorned with intricately carved stone statues and figures. Reflecting both Malla and British influences, the architecture of Ranipokhari is a blend of styles. The water’s still surface creates a mirror effect, adding to the tranquility and visual appeal of the site.
12. Kopan Monastery
Kopan Monastery, perched atop a hill near Kathmandu, is a center for Buddhist education and spirituality. Established in the 1960s, it has become an essential hub for studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Known for its courses, retreats, and peaceful surroundings, Kopan Monastery draws worldwide visitors who seek spiritual enlightenment, personal growth, or a tranquil escape.
Kopan Monastery is not only for devout Buddhists; it is a welcoming place for anyone interested in exploring spirituality, mindfulness, or Tibetan culture. It is a sprawling complex with a main temple, residential areas, meditation halls, classrooms, and gardens.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Kathmandu safe for tourists?
Like the rest of Nepal, Kathmandu is considered relatively safe, and instances of violent crime against foreigners are uncommon. However, tourists should remain mindful of potential theft and pickpocketing, particularly in areas like markets or on public transportation.
What is the best time to visit Kathmandu?
Autumn (September to November) is the most popular time to visit Kathmandu. You can also consider visiting during spring (March to May) when the temperatures are warmer and the flowers blossom.
What is traditional cuisine like in Kathmandu?
Kathmandu’s cuisine is a delightful amalgamation of flavors and cooking techniques. The city’s food reflects influences from neighboring Tibet and India, along with the indigenous Newari culture, which has significantly developed local gastronomy.
Using spices and herbs and locally sourced ingredients like rice, lentils, vegetables, and meat form the core of Kathmandu’s culinary tradition.
What are some must-try authentic dishes to try in Kathmandu?
In Kathmandu, the array of local delicacies offers a culinary journey into Nepali culture. Here are the top 4 must-try dishes with concise descriptions:
• Dal Bhat: A staple meal consisting of lentil soup (dal) served with rice (Bhat), accompanied by vegetable curries, chutney, and sometimes meat curries. It’s a nutritious and well-balanced meal enjoyed daily by locals.
• Momo: Nepali-style dumplings often filled with minced meat or vegetables and steamed to perfection. They are usually served with a tangy dipping sauce and are popular street food.
• Newari Cuisine: Kathmandu, the home to Newars, offers unique Newari dishes such as Bara (fried lentil patties) and Sukuti (spiced and dried meat), reflecting the community’s culinary traditions.
• Thukpa: A hearty noodle soup with Tibetan origins, Thukpa is made with meat or vegetables, noodles, and flavored with local spices. It’s a warming and comforting dish, especially during the colder months.
Can I drink tap water in Kathmandu?
No, it’s recommended to drink bottled or purified water. Always ensure that the bottle is sealed when purchasing.
What currency is used in Kathmandu?
The Nepalese Rupee (NPR) is the official currency.
How do I get from Tribhuvan International Airport to the city center?
Taxis are readily available outside the airport. Always negotiate or ask for the meter to be turned on before starting the journey.
Is English widely spoken in Kathmandu?
English is commonly understood and spoken in tourist areas, hotels, and restaurants. However, knowing a few basic Nepali phrases can be helpful and appreciated.
Are there ATMs available?
Yes, ATMs are widespread in Kathmandu, especially in the Thamel area. However, having some cash on hand is suitable as not all places accept credit cards.
How can I avoid altitude sickness in Kathmandu?
While Kathmandu is not very high (around 1,400 meters), it’s essential to acclimate appropriately and stay hydrated if you plan on trekking in the nearby mountains.
Can I find Wi-Fi in Kathmandu?
Most hotels, restaurants, and cafes in tourist areas offer free Wi-Fi, though the speed might vary.
What should I wear in Kathmandu?
It’s advisable to dress modestly. While Kathmandu is more liberal than rural areas, wearing clothing that covers the shoulders and knees is respectful.
Remember, it’s always a good idea for tourists to research or consult a travel guide to prepare for their journey adequately.
With its intricate tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty, Kathmandu offers travelers an immersive experience that’s hard to match. From ancient temples echoing with chants to markets filled with colorful artifacts, the city encapsulates the soul of Nepal.
Despite its challenges, like traffic congestion and urban sprawl, Kathmandu’s allure lies in its contrasts, where the old coexists with the new. For those seeking a blend of adventure, spirituality, and cultural richness, Kathmandu is unquestionably worth the visit. Every corner has a story to tell, inviting visitors to become a part of its continuing narrative.