If you're going to Nepal, you're going to Kathmandu, too. Nearly all visitors pass through the capital on the way to and from the mountains or jungles: it's home to the only international airport in the country.
First-time visitors are often in a hurry to get out into the mountains, but allowing some time in Kathmandu is worthwhile. It's true that the city has a reputation for busy streets and congested traffic. But there are pockets of exquisite beauty and calm, too.
Make the most of a single day in the city by seeing the highlights without trying to pack in too much. How best to do this? Booking strategically located accommodations is key, as is picking sightseeing destinations that are relatively close together.
Practical Tips for a Perfect Day in Kathmandu
Many travelers opt to stay in the Thamel district of central Kathmandu, where there's the greatest concentration of hotels, traveler-friendly restaurants, souvenir shops, and travel agencies. Thanks to the tourist presence, however, it's also one of the least traditionally Nepali neighborhoods of the city.
For a perfect day in Kathmandu, consider staying in Old Patan instead. This district is just four miles south of central Kathmandu, and feels a world away from Thamel. The atmosphere is more local and relaxed, and there are a number of excellent boutique hotels in the area — this article has more information. Apartment rentals are an option too; find out more in this guide to the best Airbnb experiences in the city.
A note on transportation: the traffic in Kathmandu can slow things down enormously. While distances may not look far on a map, it can take up to an hour to travel three miles if you hit bad patches of traffic. Therefore, it's best to focus on certain regions and explore them fully, rather than try to hop between too many places. Kathmandu does have public transport in the form of buses and micro-buses, but if you don't already know the city and/or can't speak Nepali, it's not easy to use. Taxis are affordable — be aware that drivers are likely to overcharge tourists a bit — and most drivers speak enough English to be able to get you around.
Finally, it's wise to consider appropriate attire. There are no strict dress codes in Kathmandu. But women in particular may feel more comfortable doing as the locals do, erring on the side of modesty and wearing skirts and shorts that cover knees, shoulders, and cleavage. For men and women alike, modest dress is a practical choice for Kathmandu's dust and heat.
7 am - Tea and Temples to Start the Day
Nepalis typically start their day early, so if you venture for an early morning walk from your hotel, you'll find many locals out and about. Assuming that you stayed at a boutique hotel in Old Patan, you'll be a short walk from the Patan Durbar Square, a great place to head after breakfast to take in the scenes of people worshipping at temples and feeding pigeons. Grab a masala chiya (tea with herbs and spices) or a coffee at one of the cafés surrounding the square.
Wander the back streets of Old Patan, dropping into temples and courtyards along the way. The Hiraṇyavarṇa Mahāvihāra (also known as The Golden Temple, despite the fact that's it's neither gold nor a temple) is a highlight, as is the Mahaboudha Temple, with its thousands of little Buddha statues.
Around mid-morning, head to Patan Museum, located in the palace building at Patan Durbar Square. The museum displays information and artifacts relating to the Kathmandu Valley's religious traditions, and the building itself is beautifully restored. It is widely considered to be the best museum in Nepal, and a definite contender for the best museum in South Asia. However interested you may be in museums and religious artifacts, Patan Museum is a worthwhile stop.
The restaurant in the garden at the back of the museum sells excellent dal bhat (Nepali lentils, rice, and curry). Do as the locals do and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the garden.
1 pm - Afternoon Tour of Sacred Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist Sites
Walk to Patan Dhoka (Patan's Gate) about ten minutes from the Durbar Square, and get a taxi to Pashupatinath. How long the ride takes depends on the traffic; it could be as little as twenty minutes, or as long as an hour.
Pashupatinath is the holiest Hindu site in Nepal: it's where many Nepali Hindus come to die. On the banks of the holy Bagmati River, temples and cremation ghats (burning platforms) make for a somber but fascinating visit. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the temples themselves, but there are plenty of outdoor areas to explore. Cross the river to meet the colorful sadhus (holy men), who will let you take their pictures for a fee. (For more on local standards for tipping and currency in Nepal, check out this article.)
After these classic photo ops, head uphill to the temples surrounded by parkland. According to Hindu tradition, this is where Lord Shiva, one of the principal Hindu deities, frolicked during his incarnation as a deer.
Once you've finished exploring Pashupatinath, walk or take a taxi to nearby Boudhanath. Note that the walk takes around half an hour, and depending on traffic, it may be faster than driving.
Boudhanath (Boudha for short) is the center of Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu. Many Tibetan Buddhist refugees and their descendants live in the Boudha area, as well as foreigners who come to learn about Tibetan Buddhism. At the heart of Boudha is a huge stupa (a mound-like structure that's used as a meditation space). It's considered the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet. Aim to be at Boudha around dusk, or stay till the sun goes down: this is when the devout come to say their prayers and circumambulate the stupa. Note: even as a tourist, you should always walk clockwise around the stupa and all other Buddhist sites.
Save some time for shopping: Boudha is an excellent place to pick up a few souvenirs. Popular items include prayer flags, incense, Tibetan-inspired jewelry, traditional paintings, and pashmina scarves. Read more here on shopping in Kathmandu.
5:30 pm - Dinner With a Dazzling View
There are lots of great dining options overlooking the enormous stupa. International cuisine is your best bet here: although there are some places to try Tibetan food in Boudha, they don't tend to come with stupa views.
Roadhouse Cafe is a local chain that does good pizza and other Italian food, and Pho99 serves excellent Vietnamese cuisine. If you just want to relax over a good cup of tea, look for the Tea-Zen House, where tea is prepared in the traditional Taiwanese way.
7 pm - Live Music Under the Stars
If you happen to be in town during the full moon, head back to Pashupatinath for a free classical music concert. This is held at the Kirateshwar Mahadev Temple on the hill above Pashupatinath Temple. It's not within the main temple complex, so you don't need a ticket to get in. Performances start around dusk. Take a seat in the open-air courtyard and enjoy the excellent music, some of the best you're likely to hear in Kathmandu.
If you're in the city at any other time of the month, head to Durbar Marg or Thamel for drinks and evening entertainment. Kathmandu's nightlife scene tends to center around the tourist area, where there are many places to catch rock cover bands and a select few that host original local acts (try House of Music). For a quieter drink, Mezze by Roadhouse has a nice outdoor seating area with views of Narayanhiti Palace. Few places in Kathmandu stay open after midnight.
Getting back to your hotel after an evening out is no problem: taxis travel all over town, and traffic is also practically nonexistent late at night.
Have some extra days to spare? Consider an overnight escape around the Kathmandu Valley — read more about the options here.