must-see places kathmandu first-timers kumari chowk

4 Must-See Places in Kathmandu for First-Timers

Just like any South Asian city, Kathmandu is crowded, noisy, dusty and polluted. The capital city of Nepal is choking under a blanket of pollution particularly now when it is going through a lot of construction, building repairs and roadworks as part of post-earthquake recovery efforts. As such, many travellers typically spend only a day or two in Kathmandu. Majority quickly move on especially the adventure travellers for their main objective is to trek the Himalayan mountain trails in the country. Well, who can blame them – 8 of the world’s Top 10 highest summits are in Nepal including Mount Everest 😊

Regardless, I found Kathmandu quite extraordinary. This urban jungle along with three other major cities (Boudhanath, Bhaktapur, Patan), smaller towns and villages are situated in a valley called Kathmandu Valley which is a major spiritual and cultural centre. Kathmandu Valley is so rich in culture that it has 130 monuments including pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists, 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites of unique Newari architecture, and the highest number of jatra (street festivals) in Nepal. Almost every street corner in Kathmandu Valley is dotted with ancient temples and historic buildings, thus it is no wonder that Nepalis are extremely proud of their rich cultural heritage.

I was in Kathmandu 2 months ago – unfortunately, I spent only half a day to do some sight-seeing while the rest of my time was spent attending a travel conference. No regrets in attending the conference but I wished I had arrived in Kathmandu much earlier to explore the city more in depth.

Here are the sights that I had visited which I also feel are must-see places in Kathmandu for first-timers:

#1 Kathmandu Durbar Square

Durbar Square comprises palaces, quadrangles, courtyards, ancient temples and historical buildings that date back to 17th and 18th centuries (some even older) and are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durbar Square is strikingly impressive for its traditional Newari architecture of magnificently carved wooden windows and balconies, and the site was where the city’s former kings were once crowned and ruled from.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers durbar square
Durbar Square

It takes about an hour or two to explore Durbar Square, or sometimes longer if you wander off the side lanes and alleyways to explore food stalls, markets, shops, barbers and more temples.

Durbar Square area is actually made up of 3 linked squares: Basantapur Square – a former royal elephant stables that now house souvenir stalls; the main Durbar Square area where you can sit by the temples and people-watch; and Hanuman Dhoka area with more temples.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers basantapur square durbar square
Basantapur Square

At the southern end of Durbar Square is the Kumari Chowk – a house in which lives one of the most curious attractions of Nepal, that is, the Kumari Devi or the Living Goddess. The Kumari Devi is a young pre-pubescent girl (as young as 4 years old) who is revered and worshipped by Nepali Hindus and Buddhists (though not Tibetan Buddhists), and is believed to be the incarnation of Taleju, a manifestation of the divine female energy. They also believe that the goddess vacates her body when she reaches puberty, thus ending her role as the living goddess and the girl reverts to being a normal mortal.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers kumari chowk
Kumari Chowk

Admission to the Kumari Chowk is heavily restricted. The Kumari Devi doesn’t leave the house except on ceremonial occasions or special festivals. Her feet must not touch the ground as she leaves the house, as such, she has to be carried. If you would like to read more about Nepal’s living goddess, click here.

#2 Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

Sitting atop a hill, overlooking Kathmandu is Swayambhunath – one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the capital city and is considered as second most important temple after Boudhanath for the Tibetan-Buddhists.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers swayambhunath smaller stupas

The Swayambhunath complex consists of a stupa, shrines and monasteries. The stupa has a dome at the base, above which is a structure painted with eyes of Buddha looking in all 4 directions of Kathmandu. It is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are many monkeys living in parts of the temple.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers swayambhunath stupa
Swayambhunath

Visiting Swayambhunath is a must-do activity in Kathmandu – you will find devotees walk around the stupa spinning prayer wheels, and the location of Swayambhunath is the best place to watch the sun set over the sprawling city.

#3 Pashupatinath

As for the Hindu faith, one of the sacred temples situated on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu is Pashupatinath. The temple built in Nepalese pagoda style of architecture is dedicated to the national deity, Lord Pashupatinath.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers pashupatinath
Pashupatinath

The main temple is located in a fortified courtyard, strictly guarded by Nepal military police and army ensuring that non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the main temple (I have no idea why they enforce such strict rules). However, foreign visitors can walk around the surrounding complex where there are religious stalls selling marigold flowers, prasad (offerings), prayer beads, incense and other religious paraphernalia. You will find sadhus readily available for photo opportunities but with a small fee (of course!).

One of the interesting things to observe at Pashupatinath temple is the open cremation for Hindus and Buddhists at the funeral ghats along the Bagmati River. It was mentioned that cremation fires were burning continuously on these funeral ghats for weeks in the aftermath of 2015 earthquake.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers pashupatinath funeral ghats
Funeral ghats

#4 Boudhanath

Situated outside of the city centre, Boudhanath is probably the largest spherical Buddhist stupas in Nepal…and my favourite site in Kathmandu. The mystical atmosphere in Boudhanath is heightened particularly in the late afternoon/early evening when scores of pilgrims converged at the dome of the stupa doing the kora (ritual circumnavigation) and chanting mantras. It is here in Boudhanath that you will see Tibetan monks in maroon robes, devotees spin prayer wheels, and hear sounds of Tibetan chants played from speakers in shops selling Tibetan religious paraphernalia.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers boudhanath
Boudhanath

must-see places kathmandu first-timers boudhanath tibetan monks

Note: Remember to walk around the stupa clockwise. Should you wish to go back to a shop or restaurant that was located right behind you, do not turn back and walk in the opposite direction (I made a mistake of doing this and I got stares!). Instead, continue walking in clockwise direction until you make a full circle and return to the premise that you wanted to go.

must-see places kathmandu first-timers boudhanath walk clockwise stupa

*My trip in Nepal was part of the Himalayan Travel Mart FAM trip sponsored by Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Nepal Chapter. Opinions expressed in this post are, as always, my own.

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20 comments

  1. I think most of what I’ve read about the country is the hikinģ and mountains so interesting to hear a bit more about the city. I am always fascinated by local customs as well but I can’t help wondering what ordinary life is like after years being revered as a living goddess. Thanks for linking up with #citytripping

    1. Thanks for featuring my post as one of your favs for #citytripping last week! I wonder the same about the living goddess – there are a few documentaries on this – it’s sad that no one bothers or cares about the girl anymore the moment she ceases to be a living goddess.

    1. Yes, and I’m definitely returning to Nepal next year to explore more – to do justice to this fantastic country! And this means spending more time in Kathmandu as well 🙂

    1. Thanks Divya! Yeah I remembered watching a documentary a couple of years ago about the Kumari Goddess. It makes me wanna time my next visit to Nepal in conjunction with their festivals so that I can get to see them bring the goddess out of the house to the streets.

    1. You can wear a mask when travelling in Kathmandu. The city’s attractions including a day trip to a place like Bhatakpur and Patan can be covered in a day. All in all, you would need 3D/2N in Kathmandu, after which you can move on to other parts of Nepal where the air is fresher.

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