The Kathmandu Valley is the cultural melting pot of Nepal, with countless hidden gems and ancient sites to explore. It holds seven UNESCO world heritage sites along with some great vantage points from which to see the Himalaya from a distance. If you have a day or a few days to spend in Kathmandu, here are a few popular and unique things to do.

Popular Activities

Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kathmandu

Swayambhunath perched high above the valley
Swayambhunath perched high above the valley

Kathmandu is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage sites and you can visit two to three of them in a full day, spending about an hour at each site. These ancient sites are the best way to gain a glimpse into the religion and culture of Hinduism and Buddhism, where ancient traditions are still practiced today. The best time to visit most sites is at dawn or dusk when pilgrims come to pay homage and offer prayers. To help decide which sites you'd like to see, check out our guide to Kathmandu's cultural highlights.

People Watch at Durbar Square

Patan Durbar Square
Patan Durbar Square

Each of the Kathmandu Valley's main cities—Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur—have a central square where locals come to sell vegetables, handicrafts, and pay homage to the numerous gods housed in the old pagoda-styled temples around the square. It's a great place to get a feel for Kathmandu and watch locals about their daily routines. Grab a chai tea, climbs the steps, and watch the world go by below. The best times to people watch are the mornings and evenings. 

Watch Sunset at Boudhanath

View of Boudha from a rooftop restaurant
View of Boudha from a rooftop restaurant

Boudhanath is a sacred site for Buddhists and lies at the heart of a thriving community of Tibetans and Sherpa who have made their homes and constructed monasteries in the area. At night, the place comes to life with pilgrims circumambulating the stupa, lighting prayer candles, and monks chanting prayers from the nearby monasteries. This is the perfect place to come and soak up the atmosphere with a few laps around the stupa before taking dinner from one of the rooftop restaurants that overlook the stupe. Especially on full moon days, this is an experience not to miss.

Take a Heritage Walk in Patan

Details of the historical Patan Durbar Square
The historical Patan Durbar Square

Patan, also known as Lalitpur, is known as the city of fine arts and is one of the three ancient cities of the Kathmandu Valley. The best way to experience the city and all its nooks and crannies is to enlist the help of a local guide who can uncover the stories and details of the streets, architecture, and history. You'll walk through the ancient courtyards where artisans live, learn about the Newar culture, and gain rare insights into the lives of artisans and their craft. Also, be sure to visit the Golden Temple, a favorite amongst locals. It's a stunning 12th-century monument run by the Shakya Community. If you visit at the right time, you'll be able to see the head priest doing various rituals.

Explore the Medieval Town of Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur's Durbar Square
Bhaktapur's Durbar Square

Another one of the three ancient cities of the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur is the home of true medieval art and architecture in the Valley. Bhaktapur was founded in the 9th century and is the center of traditional Nepalese wood carving. Bhaktapur is without a doubt the most historically authentic as it is literally a living museum where farmers dry their harvest, potters turn their wheel, and people go about life as they have done for centuries. You can visit Bhaktapur in half a day or for a more unique experience, stay overnight at one of its boutique hotels in the heart of the temples where you can then explore the town in the early morning.

Shop for Gifts & Souvenirs

Wool blankets for sale along the streets of Thamel
Wool blankets for sale along the streets of Thamel

Kathmandu has some fantastic designers and produces of homewares, clothing, accessories, pashminas, Tibetan carpets/furniture, trekking/outdoor gear, art (religious and contemporary), and much more. You can spend half a day (or a full day) exploring the shops and visiting the main markets to buy these goods. Nepal is also a great place to buy silver jewelry; it's affordable, unbranded, and well-made. Brass products, like cups, bowls, and plates, are also available and are great gifts to bring back home.

Unique & Off-The-Beaten-Path Activities

Explore Kathmandu by Vespa

Vespas in Kathmandu
Tour Kathmandu on the back of a Vespa

One of the best ways to explore the narrow alleys and streets of Kathmandu is on two wheels, and better yet, on a vintage Vespa. You'll have a local guide doing the driving so you'll be free to watch and be guided by a local expert. There are a number of tours you can choose from, from visiting local villages on the outskirts of Kathmandu to a graffiti tour of the local street art. En route, you'll stop for a local meal with your guide. Most tours take two to three hours and are run by Vespa Valley.

Take a Local Cooking Class

Dal,bhat,and tarkari—the traditional meal in Nepal
Dal, bhat, and tarkari—the traditional meal in Nepal

First, you'll be guided on a walk through the bustling local markets of Ason and Indra Chowk as you gather ingredients for your meal. You'll then head back to the kitchen where you'll learn how to prepare one of a variety of Nepali dishes, from momos (traditional Nepali dumplings), dhal bhat (vegetables and dhal), or alu paratha (flatbread). The class lasts around three hours and is available in the mornings and afternoons. 

Visit the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery of Kopan

Kopan Monastery
The stupa grounds of Kopan Monastery

Perched on a hill north of Kathmandu, you'll find the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Kopan which houses a large number of monks and holds regular classes for Westerners. You can explore the gardens and the temple hall, and partake in one of their meditation classes. From the monastery, it's a nice half-hour walk down to Boudhanath Stupa where you can have lunch or dinner before heading back to your hotel. Across from Kopan, there is also a nunnery open for visitors. 

Go Beyond Kathmandu

Fly by Mount Everest

Views of the Himalaya from the plane
Views of the Himalaya from the plane

Departing in the early morning, this spectacular fifty-minute flight takes you as close as possible to Mt. Everest and other Himalayan giants. You'll have views over the entire Himalaya including a number of the tallest peaks in the world. This is a great way to experience the mountains if you're not taking a trek or if you're short on time. 

Have Breakfast in front of Mt. Everest

Breakfast at Kongde
The view from your breakfast table at Kongde with Everest in the distance

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, take an early morning helicopter flight from Kathmandu to Kongde, a luxury lodge perched on top of a mountain in the heart of the Everest region. From the breakfast table, you'll have an entire panorama of the Everest region, including Mt. Everest and Ama Dablam. This is a great option for groups where you can split the cost of the helicopter, which fits up to four people. Flights depart Kathmandu at 7 am and you'll be back by 10:30 / 11 am. You can also consider other helicopter tours

Visit Ancient Villages

Ancient statues in the traditional Newari village of Khokana
Ancient statues in the traditional Newari village of Khokana

Just outside of Kathmandu, you'll find the historic Newari villages of Bungamati and Khokana. If you're interested in learning about local culture, ancient traditions and ways of life, these villages offer a window into learning about the Newari culture. Many locals live as woodcarvers (and have done so for generations) and have showrooms and workshops in the main squares where their work has adorned countless homes, temples, and museums. Khokhana is a bit quieter than Bungamati and surrounded by beautiful hills, and the main square of Bungamati was fairly damaged during the 2015 earthquake (and currently being rebuilt). You can either take a private jeep or visit these villages on a Vespa tour.

Hike or Bike in Shivapuri National Park

Shivapuri National Park
Looking west from the top of Shivapuri National Park toward the Annapruna Range

Go hiking or mountain biking in this scenic national park located on the northern fringe of the Kathmandu Valley. There are hundreds of species of flora and fauna, including medicinal herbs, as well as historical and religious sites. Depending on your fitness and time, there are a number of trails to choose from and you'll be dropped off at the top of the trail and can enjoy the hike or ride down back to the valley or along the valley rim. 

Hike to Nagarkot

Nagarkot
The surrounding countryside near Nagarkot

Nagarkot is one of the more popular viewpoints from which to see the Himalaya from Kathmandu. Most travelers spend the night in order to catch views of sunrise in the early morning. To reach Nagarkot, you can drive to Lapsi Phedi (one hour drive from Kathmandu) and hike three hours to Nagarkot, or you can drive all the way to Nagarkot itself (about a one-hour drive from Kathmandu).

Alex
Published by Alex Buri, updated Oct 15, 2018