Unique Ways to Experience Nepal’s Cultural Highlights

Nepal has much more to offer than stunning scenery. The cultural highlights of Kathmandu alone warrant a visit to this Himalayan country. A melting pot of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, you’ll witness incredible woodcarving, painting, sculptures, a unique architectural heritage, and living traditions that surround you with color and prayer.

All the main cultural highlights of the Kathmandu Valley are worth the visit, but often planning your visit in a slightly different way opens up a much more rewarding experience. From avoiding the crowds to finding the local lunch spot overlooking the temple courtyard, here are a few ways to experience these places like a local.

Spend the night at Boudhanath & have dinner with a view

Boudhanath Stupa
The Boudhanath Stupa, surrounded by restaurants, shops, and guesthouses
Butter lamps
Butter lamps in the evening around Boudha (© Alex Buri)
Rebuilding Boudha
Reconstructing the Stupa after the 2015 earthquake

Boudhanath (Boudha for short), dating from the fifth century, is one of the largest stupas in the world and is the most important Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet. Boudha was on the main Tibet-Kathmandu trade route for many centuries, and there is a large population of Tibetans leaving in Nepal. Nowadays, the town around the stupa are a thriving centre of Tibetan life and culture.

Boudha is about five kilometres northeast of Thamel (Kathmandu’s popular tourist hangout), and is best reached by taxi. Early morning and dusk are the most atmospheric times to visit, when the devout come to circumambulate the enormous stupa (always clockwise), whispering prayers and lighting butter lamps.

Spend the night at a Tibetan Guesthouse

If you can, we highly recommend spending at least one night at one of the local guesthouses around Boudha so you can get the most out of the experience, explore the Tibetan shops, and visit the monasteries. Hotel Shambaling is one great option, just a short walk from the stupa, built with Tibetan designs and with a great peaceful courtyard for breakfast.

Tibetan food with a view

There’s numerous places around the Boudha to have a great Tibetan meal. Try a lunch of momos (Tibetan dumplings) at Boudha Stupa Restaurant and Cafe, Tibetan or Chinese tea at Tea-Zen-House, or thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) at Double Dorje. Many rooftop restaurants have amazing close-up views of the Stupa, while others are tucked away in the narrow alleys radiating out from the stupa grounds.

Get up early to climb the 300 stairs to Swayambhunath

Swayambhunath
Swayambhunath perched high above the valley
Kathmandu City
Views over Kathmandu from Swayambhu
Buddhist Shrine
Buddhist shrines around the Stupa

Swayambhunath (Swayambhu for short) is another fifth-century Buddhist stupa two kilometres west of central Kathmandu, perched high up on a hill. When the weather is clear, the views of the city and the greater Kathmandu Valley from Swayambhu are well worth the energy it takes to climb the 300 steep steps to get there. Swayambhu’s is also commonly referred to as ‘Monkey Temple’, and you will find out why (keep food well hidden!). The site is also of great significance to Tantric Buddhists; prayers chanted here are said to be 13 billion times more powerful than those said elsewhere.

From Thamel, you can walk to Swayambhu in about half an hour or take a local taxi. Early morning and evening are the best times to witness the religious rituals being performed, and a great time for taking photos of the Kathmandu Valley.

Morning & evening rituals

Most of Kathmandu’s Hindu and Buddhist sites is most atmospheric at dawn and dusk. This is when worshippers come to pay their respects, leave offerings of incense, flowers and sweets, and spin their prayer wheels.

If you are staying near Thamel, consider getting up around 5 am and making your way to the Swayambhu by pedal rickshaw. In every season, the air is cooler early in the morning and Kathmandu’s traffic light. You’ll also be able to avoid the heat as your climb the 300 steps toward Swayambhu’s summit. You can even enjoy an early morning tea or coffee with your early morning views, at Cafe De Stupa, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the stupa and the city. Just be warned: sunrise tends to be very early throughout much of the year!

Immerse yourself in Hindu ritual at Pashupatinath

Pashupatinath Temple
Looking down acrros the river at Pashupatinath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva
Shiva lingams temples
Shiva lingams temples (© Alex Buri)
Pashupatinath at night
Pashupatinath at night (© Alex Buri)

Pashupatinath is Nepal’s holiest Hindu site, housing a collection of temples and bathing and cremation ghats along the banks of the Bagmati River. The site has held great significance since the third century BCE, but a number of additions, such as the large golden-roofed pagoda, date from the seventeenth century.

Cremations take place here every day, following a strict series of rituals according to one’s caste. Devout Hindus believe that dying or being cremated at Pashupatinath will lead to a better rebirth in the next life.

Only Hindus can go inside the temples, but there is much to see within the general complex itself. This is a sacred place, where you’ll see sadhus (from as far as India) practicing their daily ritual, so please be respectful.

Pashupatinath is about four kilometres east of central Kathmandu, and best reached by taxi. It’s in the same general area as Boudhanath, so consider combining visiting these two sites on the same day (perhaps Pashupatinath in the morning, then Boudha in the afternoon/evening).

Full moon Nepali classical music concert

Every full moon, Nepali classical music is played and sung in the Kirateshor Temple courtyard above Pashupatinath. Everyone is welcome. The performance starts around 4 pm. (Nepali time!), but arrive on time for a good seat otherwise you might just find a gnarled old banyan tree is blocking your view of the stage!

To enter the Kirateshor Temple, don’t enter the main Pashupatinath complex (that is, don’t pay the entry fee). Instead, take the steps to the west of the riverside temples. This is a well-known event, so asking locals should set you in the right direction if you aren’t sure where to go.

Stay overnight at a monastery and learn about meditation

Young monk lighting candles
Lighting candles around the garden shrine at Kopan Monastery

Kopan monastery and nunnery, built in 1969, belongs to the Foundation of the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, and is one of the best places in the Kathmandu Valley to explore Tibetan Buddhism. Kopan has held annual month-long meditation retreats since 1971, and also teaches shorter courses and workshops throughout the year. If you’re not attending a course, you can stay at its simple guesthouse.

The monastery is only open to the public on Saturdays, when it can get quite busy. The two ornately and colorfully decorated meditation halls are a major attraction, as are the beautifully landscaped gardens.

Kopan Monastery is located west of Kathmandu, near Boudha. You can walk to Kopan from Boudha in about forty minutes (uphill), or take a taxi.

Explore daily life in the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu Valley

A Durbar Square is the space adjacent to royal palaces in Nepal, usually filled with religious temples and statues and common meeting place for all Nepali. There are three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. All are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Kathmandu Durbar Square, 16-18 th Century AD

Durbar square
The entrance of Kathmandu's Durbar Square with and 6-limbed Kala Bhairava statue
Durbar square
Streets life inside of Durbar Square (© Alex Buri)
Pigeons in durbar square
Feeding the pigeons (© Alex Buri)

The buildings of the Kathmandu Durbar Square (also called Basantapur and Hanuman Dhoka) mostly date to the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, but the white Gaddi Durbar Palace was built in 1908, and is very European in style. Unfortunately, the Kathmandu Durbar Square was extensively damaged during the 2015 earthquake, including the ancient Kasthamandap temple from which Kathmandu derives its name.

However, it is still worth visiting this Durbar Square as a number of important buildings remain, and the overall atmosphere—with old men sitting and chatting in the shadows and children chasing pigeons—is as quintessential Kathmandu as it always was.

Kathmandu Durbar Square is about a 20-minute walk south of Thamel, in Central Kathmandu. Again, best to visit here in the early morning or at dusk for the best atmosphere.

Patan Durbar Square

Bhimsen Temple
Inside the Bhimsen Temple of Patan's Durbar Square (© Alex Buri)
Krishna Mandir
The stone Krishna Mandir (© Alex Buri)
The Inn, Patan
Courtyard of The Inn, Patan, near the square (© Alex Buri)

Although smaller than the Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan’s Durbar Square is more architecturally coherent, with most buildings dating from the sixteenth century. A highlight is the Patan Museum, located in a wing of the old Royal Palace. This was developed with the assistance of the Austrian Government, and the result is one of the most impressive museums in all of South Asia. It contains statues and other artefacts relating to Nepali Hinduism, Buddhism and traditional architecture. The leafy courtyard cafe is a peaceful and pretty spot for filling, traditional dal bhat.

The Patan Durbar Square is south of the Bagmati River, about 15 minutes by taxi from central Kathmandu.

The area around the Patan Durbar Square is less congested than areas of central Kathmandu in which tourists usually stay, such as Thamel. Dawn and dusk are the ideal times to visit, for a more peaceful atmosphere and to witness the local Newari inhabitants going about their worship.

Consider spending a night in Patan so you can explore the city at your own leisure. There is a great (and growing) selection of small, boutique local inns that we highly recommend:

  • The Inn Patan is a traditional brick-and-timber Newari house that has been converted into ten highly in-demand guest rooms by conservation architect Rohit Ranjitkar;
  • Tajaa Pha Heritage Home in Pimbahal, a quiet neighborhood just ten minutes’ walk from the Patan Durbar Square, overlooking a large water tank flanked by temples and other traditional buildings;
  • Swotha Traditional Homes is just around the corner from the Patan Durbar Square. Downstairs is the high-quality Cafe Swotha, one of the nicest (and more upmarket) places to eat in this part of town.

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur's Durbar Square
Thangka shop
Buddhist thangkas and mandala paintings

The third major Durbar Square of the Kathmandu Valley is in Bhaktapur, the oldest of Kathmandu Valley’s three cities. Although less ‘lived in’ than Patan’s Durbar Square and less commercially bustling than the one in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square is an incredible showcase of fine Newari crafts. Newaris are a Nepali ethnic group largely concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley, and most of the architectural and craft styles that you can see in Kathmandu are actually Newari in origin.

The city of Bhaktapur is much more than just the Durbar Square, and we recommend spending an entire day here. The city is famous for its fine crafts, especially stone and wood carving in particular, as well as pottery. In open-air courtyards through Bhaktapur you will come across terracotta-hued pottery drying in the sun. Bhaktapur is an ideal place to pick up some unique Nepali souvenirs to take home. Although the city, including the Durbar Square, was badly damaged during the earthquake, some of the most important temples are still standing and life continues to go on in these centuries-old streets.

Bhaktapur is 16 kilometres east of central Kathmandu, and roughly 45 minutes by taxi, depending on traffic.

As with Patan and Boudhanath, the most atmospheric time to visit Bhaktapur is at dawn and dusk. At Bhaktapur is quite a long drive from central Kathmandu, to fully experience the old city it is best to stay overnight. Thagu Chhen and Milla Guest House are two excellent boutique hotels with lots of traditional details, such as carved jhyali windows and bronze Buddha statues.

Craft walks

Both Patan and Bhaktapur are renowned for their unique Newari crafts, and the best way to learn about how these crafts are made, their history and their continuing role in Nepali society is to take a tour around the workshops.

Different crafts are concentrated in different parts of the city. In Patan, near the busy main thoroughfare of Mangalbazar, are many metalsmiths. Although it’s easy to see the copper and brass pots for sale on the streets, the workshops are hidden deeper, through the low doorways. It is worth seeking these workshops out, as the family-run businesses are very welcoming of visitors. Bhaktapur is known for its fine pottery, much of which you can see drying in the sun in the large squares and courtyards around the town.

There are many walking tours that take you to the workshops and showrooms of local artisans, where you can learn about their arts and crafts. There are two great tours we highly recommend, below: one for a great local cultural experience, and the other as a unique way to get around and explore the hidden gems of Kathmandu.

Visit the birthplace of Gautama Buddha

Lumbini temple
Lumbini's World Peace Pagoda, birthplace of Buddha

Lumbini, on the western plains, is one of the most important historical, archeological and religious sites in Nepal, as it is the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. The Sacred Garden is where Buddha was apparently born in the 7th century BCE. The site was ‘lost’ for centuries, and rediscovered in 1896, after much searching by British and European archaeologists.

Lumbini consists of a religious park with monasteries, cultural facilities, gardens, fountains and a tourist village (much is still under construction). Many monasteries on-site represent the architectural styles of Buddhist countries around the world, so a visit takes you out of Nepal and into the world of Buddhism.

Lumbini is a 9-10 hour drive from Kathmandu, about five hours from Pokhara and about three hours from Chitwan. The climate on Nepal’s plains is much hotter than in the hills, and Lumbini can get very hot. For more information, be sure to check out the website of the Lumbini Development Trust.

Meditation courses in the birthplace of the Buddha

Some of the monasteries and cultural centres at Lumbini offer meditation courses. These are an ideal way to learn about Buddhism and Buddhist practices more fully, beyond a simple tourist point of view. Vipassana, or silent, meditation is the most common form of meditation taught at Lumbini, running from one to ten days.