Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sightseeing Guide for the Kathmandu Valley

Recently we have found ourselves fielding questions about sites to see and things to do in the Kathmandu Valley, so we figured that it was probably time to write up a little guide.

Even if you are coming to Nepal mainly for a trek -- and with the dry season just around the corner, this may be true for some of our readers out there -- chances are, you will spend at least one full day in Kathmandu. We certainly hope you will, because Kathmandu should not be missed in a hurry to start the Annapurna Circuit trek or Everest Base Camp trek. Because we recognize that visitors may have very different time frames for their stint in Kathmandu, we have laid out our sightseeing guide accordingly.

But before we get started, a little clarification is in order. The Kathmandu Valley is made up of three cities (formerly city-states): Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan are separated only by the Bagmati River and have more or less blended into one large city over the years, while Bhaktapur remains a more preserved relic and is separate from the urban sprawl of Kathmandu and Patan.

If you have one day in Kathmandu...
1. Start your day with a trip to Swayambunath (also known as the Monkey Temple).

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Perched on a hill on the western edge of the city, Swayambunath is one of Kathmandu's most famous stupas -- perhaps just as much for its monkeys as for its historical and religious significance. For those soon departing for a big trek, the long, steep staircase winding up the eastern side of the stupa makes for a great little training session; for those not so excited by a Stairmaster in the great outdoors, you can access the stupa from a bus park at the western side. From the top you will be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Kathmandu Valley.

If you are staying in Thamel, you can easily walk to Swayambunath in about 30 minutes. Whether walking or taxiing to Swayambunath, you will probably need about 1.5-2 hours for the round-trip.

2. Travel south to Patan Durbar Square.

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Each of the three former city-states has its own Durbar Square, where the kings were crowned and from where they ruled. If your time is tight, we suggest prioritizing Patan Durbar Square over Kathmandu Durbar Square because Patan's is much larger and has a finer collection of temples and art. You can take yourself on a walking tour, but we recommend hiring a guide upon arrival; the 200 or so rupees (about $3) will be well worth it. After concluding a tour of all of the temples, consider stopping in the Patan Museum, which has an excellent collection of religious art. Whether or not you tour the museum, we suggest the Museum Cafe for lunch. The cafe is located in a lovely, peaceful courtyard.

From central Kathmandu, it takes about 20-30 minutes to reach Patan Durbar Square by taxi. Allow about three hours for a round-trip.

3. Head back to Kathmandu to tour the outskirts of Pashupatinath, the most important Hindu temple in Nepal. Non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, but the surrounding complex of shrines and statues will give you a good sense of this deeply religious place. Cremations take place on a daily basis along ghats (steps) lining the river, so be respectful with your camera here.

If you are traveling directly from Patan to Pashupatinath, a taxi ride will take approximately 20-30 minutes (from other points in Kathmandu, the trip will be roughly similar). Allow 45-60 minutes for touring the temple complex.

4. Make your way to Boudhanath (or Boudha for short), the largest stupa in Nepal.

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We like to save a trip to Boudha for the late afternoon or early evening, when the crowds come out to circumambulate the stupa. Follow the monks, nuns, and lay worshippers as they walk around the stupa in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels, thumbing rosaries, and chanting mantras. It is a place for religious devotion, to be sure, but it is also a friendly and social atmosphere at this time of day. Consider having an organic snack at Saturday Cafe or trying some Tibetan dishes (hint: there is more to Tibetan cuisine than momos!) at Tibet Kitchen, located on the north side of the stupa.

If you are coming from Pashupatinath, you can walk to Boudha along a pleasant stretch of road through small villages and farmland. The walk will take about 20 minutes.

5. If you saved room for dinner and want to splurge on an elegant and traditional Nepali feast, make reservations at Krishnarpan Restaurant in Dwarika's Hotel. The restaurant is located in a stunning setting amid Dwarika's collection of traditional Newari buildings. You can choose the number of courses, from six to 22!

If you have two days in Kathmandu...
1. Head to Bhaktapur, which has a well-preserved city center and old-world charm to match its many temples.

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The city is nestled in a rural setting, and with few cars or motorbikes allowed inside the old quarters, the area is wonderfully free of crazy traffic and blaring horns. Take your time winding through Bhaktapur's series of historic squares and make sure to check out the stores selling pottery, Bhaktapur's notable handicraft. For lunch, we suggest climbing to one of the several restaurants perched high to take in the views of the squares and, on a clear day, the Himalayas. Brian would also insist that you try the King Curd, which is famed to be the best yogurt in the world.

The trip to Bhaktapur is about 45-60 minutes from Kathmandu, so a one-way taxi fare may be as much as 700 rupees (about $10). At just 25 rupees, buses from the Kathmandu Bagh Bazar bus stop are far cheaper. A middle option might be finding a spot on bus tour through your guest house or hotel. Allow at least two to three hours for a tour of Bhaktapur.

2. If you are traveling to Nepal during the dry season, you might luck out with Himalayan views at the top of Nagarkot, a small peak on the edge of the Valley just past Bhaktapur. There is not much else to do on Nagarkot besides Himalayan gazing and short walks around the rural village setting, so you might be disappointed with a trip here during the cloudy months from May to September. If you choose to stay overnight, make sure to rise early for possible sunrise views of the Himalayas.

To get to Nagarkot from Bhaktapur, you can hike for about one hour, take a local bus, or opt for a short taxi ride.

If you have three days in Kathmandu...
Consider a short hike for a half day or full day. We have climbed the four highest peaks surrounding the Kathmandu Valley -- Shivapuri, Nagarjun, Champa Devi, and Phulchowki -- and would recommend them all for a dose of fresh air. In the clear months you may also luck out with some fantastic Himalayan views. With the exception of Phulchowki, which is about 26 kilometers round-trip, these hikes are not especially long, but they are challenging.

Or, combine a relatively short and easy hike with a visit to a monastery by making a trip to Kopan (for non-hikers, you can also reach Kopan by vehicle).

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Kopan is perched on a hillside above Boudha, and the setting is beautiful and peaceful. You will see both Nepali monks and Western dharma students ambling around the campus.

If you have more than three days in Kathmandu...
Send us an email, and we will be happy to suggest some additional sites that are off the beaten path.

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