Stepping off the plane to arrive in Kathmandu after a long-haul flight was an exhilarating shock — the chaotic traffic, the dusty and polluted air, and the overcrowded streets caught me by surprise. Regardless of where I went in Kathmandu, I found myself surrounded by blinding swirls of colors and senses-assaulting smells.
The sensory overload was intoxicating: melodic Hindu prayers echoed through temple walls, brightly colored sculptures of Hindu gods adorned the streets, Buddhist prayer flags flapped in the wind, and holy men (Sadhus) sauntered along the narrow alleys.
The city exploded with an infectious energy and captivating personality, and it didn’t take long for me to fall under its spell. Whether I was weaving through the old town on a rickshaw, people watching from the pagodas of Durbar Square, bargaining with touts in Thamel, or meeting monks in the holy temple of Swayambunath, Kathmandu was captivating. It stirred up emotions in me that I never knew existed.
While the traffic and pollution of Kathmandu can be overwhelming, once you look past all of it, you’ll be sure to fall for its charms too. For those who are looking to get a sense of Kathmandu, here are some excellent sights in Kathmandu that I recommend visiting:
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Best Places to Visit in Kathmandu
This was the first site I visited and the architecture and atmosphere simply blew me away. As one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world, the Boudhanath Temple is the Tibetan Buddhist hub of Nepal. Built on the ancient trade route from Tibet, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was where Tibetan merchants have rested and prayed for centuries.
It is now home to a large Tibetan community, as well as Buddhist pilgrims from all over Nepal and neighboring countries. Dominated by a white dome topped with a golden pinnacles and hundreds of colorful prayer flags, the temple’s architecture itself is impressive. I followed the pilgrims who were circumambulating the temple, rotating the praying wheels along the way.
Poised imposingly on a hilltop overlooking the Kathmandu Valley, this temple has the best views in town. Considered one of the oldest religious sites in Nepal, the Swayambhunath is said to be linked to the birth of the Kathmandu city. It is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in the temple and they are quite a sight to behold. Besides the central dome, the complex also consists of a variety of shrines, a Tibetan monastery, a museum and library.
Swayambunath is definitely a special place for me — I met a group of Bhutanese monks there who were excited to hear that I was visiting their country and were more than enthusiastic to tell me more about Bhutan. I also caught sunset there at a rooftop cafe and the spectacular sight almost moved me to tears.
At the heart of Kathmandu lies Durbar Square, an ancient plaza made up of beautiful Newari architecture, temples, idols, courts and water fountains. Durbar (meaning Royal Palace) Square is a generic name for such squares and there are three in the Kathmandu Valley, one in Kathmandu city itself, another in Patan, and a third in Bhaktapur.
The Kathmandu Durbar Square holds the palaces of the Malla and Shah kings who ruled over the city as well as several elevated pagodas featuring the distinctive Newari style architecture. From the top of one of these pagodas, I watched locals go by their daily life and felt the undercurrent vibes of the city whizz by.
This is where people come to celebrate life and death. As the oldest and most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal, Pashupatinath Temple is one of the seven UNESCO cultural sites in the Kathmandu Valley. It is located along the Bagmati River which is in turn connected to the Ganges River, the holiest river for the Hindus.
Here along the banks of the Bagmati River, pilgrims from all over Nepal carry out daily bathing and cremation ritual of the dead. I visited one evening and witnessed a group of people cleaning and burning the dead body of their family member. It was quite an eye-opening and sobering experience to witness the Hindu funeral customs and to actually see the entire process in person.