My name’s Anil and I am a resident of Kathmandu (although I have spent a considerable amount of time living in other parts of the world). Nonetheless, I am not claiming this to be the complete guide to all the best places to visit in Kathmandu or the only things to do in Kathmandu, but what I can assure you is that this is the Kathmandu I know and love.
So before I get started, if you’re reading this from a cafe in Jhamsikhel or your guest house in Thamel you’re undoubtedly inhaling our dust-filled air – a warm Kathmandu welcome of sorts. And for those of you reading this while planning a trip to Kathmandu then you know what what you’re in for. A quick explanation for the dust is that for the past few years Kathmandu Municipality has embarked on a road expansion program all over Kathmandu. The construction isn’t properly managed and therefore the dust.
Now that you know how Kathmandu welcomes her guests, where do I start? Let’s start off with places you can visit and rituals you can witness and probably even be a part of.
Sights & Sounds of Kathmandu
Nope, I am not going to tell you to go visit Boudhanath on a bright sunny day or give you it’s historical background, you can find all of that on wikipedia. My recommendation here is to visit this Kathmandu sight in the morning around 6:30am and witness the throngs of locals who walk around on foot chanting prayers in the process garnering more dharma (good wishes of the gods). In fact, why don’t you try joining them and be part of the communal process? There’s something distinctly relaxing about the entire process. Note that you always have to walk around the stupa clockwise, doing otherwise is considered an ill omen. Also, around the stupa you’ll find countless vendors offering buttter lamps that can be lit to for good luck, so feel free to light some of these lamps – don’t pay more than Rs.5 for the smallest one though.
Kathmandu is sometimes also called the city of temples, so it’s only right that my first two recommendations be two of the most famous and visited temples in the Kathmandu and Nepal. Pashupatinath is among the holiest of temples for Hindus and here you will find pilgrims from all over South Asia paying homage on the temple grounds. Unless you’re a Hindu, travellers are generally not allowed in the temple complex and you’ll be asked respectfully observe any rituals and ceremonies from the banks of the Bagmati river across the temple. Cremation rituals are a daily occurrence at Pashupatinath so do not be alarmed if you witness one while you’re visiting there. For this, I would suggest you read up a little on the cremation rituals before visiting Pashupatinath. Despite the morbid overtones, if you visit Pashupatinath with an open mind, there’s something uniquely peaceful about the entire experience. In addition you will also run into a number of sadhus or babas here who will happily take a photo with you in exchange for a few rupees.
When you are in Bhaktapur, start with what the guidebooks tell you to because among all the places to visit in Kathmandu this city is an architectural marvel. Away from the busy city traffic, I often find the main palace courtyard a quiet place to read on sunny afternoons. Once you’re done with the main site, I would encourage you to visit the little alleyways that line all parts of the old city and you are bound to discover some hole-in-the-wall shops where you get some of the most authentic Nepali dishes. I however, go to Bhaktapur for one particular reason, Juju Dhau! Just writing those words have me salivating. Juju Dhao is the traditional Newar way of making yogurt and you CANNOT leave Bhaktapur without trying Juju Dhau from the little shops that dot the alleys.
While New Road is known more as a shopping destination and foodies a paradise, I would like to point out that the backstreets of New Road is perhaps the last bastion of Kathmandu’s old charm. Kathmandu is urbanizing at break-neck speed and much of the old character of the city is bulldozed over (literally). If I could describe the New Road I know in three words: chaos, colour and cows! New Road generally comes alive in the early afternoon by which time all the street vendors would have set up shop, and locals start pouring in craving for the favourite street food vendors. Durbar Square is also connected with New Road so if you have a few dollars to spare then purchase the ticket and see how Nepalese royalty lived like during the 17th and 18th century.
Jhamsikhel, also affectionately called Jhamel (after Thamel) by locals has quite the combination of cafes and restaurants for you. A relatively new phenomenon in Kathmandu, Jhamsikhel is gradually becoming the main haunt for locals. Restaurants with names like Vesper Cafe, Lazy Gringo and Red Dingo, there’ something for everyone so whether you’re a hipster, biker or fashionista you’re likely to find something that suits your taste here. Babar Mahal is a network of five beautifully restored courtyards that once belonged to Nepali aristocrats. Now an intricate passageway of little shops, art galleries, restaurants and cafe’s, Babar Mahal is a favourite of mine. The entire premise is within a walled complex and it’s easy to forget the chaos of Kathmandu here – you will often find me with a cuppa at Chez Caroline. Mulchowk at Babar Mahal also offers fine dining options for those looking to spend a quiet evening here.
As an avid traveller myself, I often learn much about a city’s culture and way of life through their food and eating habits. Similarly, let me tell you a little about the food culture in the Kathmandu I know.
Eating in Kathmandu
If you’re expecting me to list one place where we get the best momos, I can’t. That’s like asking a parent to pick their favourite child. :p However, what I can do is list out 2 of my favourite momo joints and you can go on a bit of a momo hunt yourself, fair enough? So here it is, New Dish at New Road and 5 Star Shandar Momo near Durbar Square. Most locals frequent these places anyway so it shouldn’t be difficult to find. A quirky fact about momos is that the variety of momos you get is also a reflection of Kathmandu’s multi-ethnic populace. Originally a Tibetan dish, you’ll find various ethnic groups have taken the momo and made it their own. Even the two momo joints I’ve listed for you distinctly look and taste different. By the way, good luck with the hunt!
If there was ever a scenario where I had to choose one dish that I had to live with for the rest of my life, without a moments hesitation I would choose Dal Bhat. A staple for Nepalis of all ethnic groups, the Dal Bhat combination generally consists of rice, lentils, vegetable curry, pickles and a non-vegetarian curry dish. Unlike momos where I have difficulty choosing my favourite joint, for Dal Bhat it’s pretty easy, it’s the Dal Bhat that my mum cooks :p Now wait, that said, there are two other restaurants I frequent that come in a close second, the first is Muktinath Thakali Kitchen in Thamel and Tukuche in Uttar Dhoka. Tukche is the pricer one where one set will cost you USD 5-6 whereas at Muktinath you will get a set for USD 3-4. Remember that it’s the Thakali Kitchen’s that generally serve good Dal Bhat.
Before Kathmandu became an amalgam of the different ethnic groups that inhabit it today, there was one predominant ethnic group that resided here, the Newars. And if there’s one thing Kathmandu isn’t short of it’s Newari Khaja Ghars (or Newari Food Stall), and thank god for it! For where I would I be without my regular doses of choila (spiced and grilled buffalo meat). A reason why Newari cuisine stands out amongst all the other cuisines in Nepal is that while preparing their dishes, almost all parts of the buffalo or goat is used. So you’ll find dishes like Fokso (batter soaked fried goat lungs), Kachela (marinated raw meat), Me (fried buffalo tongue) and Sapu Mhicha (leaf tripe bag stuffed with bone marrow).. and I love each and everyone of them! Now if you’re beginning to wonder how anyone can digest all of that then let me introduce you to the Aila (Newari liqour), supremely potent and an excellent digestif. Head down to Kishores Newari Khaja Ghar in Jyatha or Honcha in Patan Durbar Square if you’re feeling like a culinary adventurist!
Remember these two things, Chettrapati and 7am – Chettrapati is where you have to be and 7am is what time you have to be there. Why? To get the awesome-est Sel Roti (Nepali doughnuts) and Malpa (Nepali fritters) in Kathmandu. This shop doesn’t have a name, you’ll just have to ask for the Sel Roti shop next to the Mandir (temple) in Chettrapati. There’s no place to sit and eat here so you’ll just have to take the Sel and Malpa that will neatly be wrapped in the previous days newspaper and head to the tea stall a couple of shops down the road. This will make for a power packed breakfast and get you ready for any amount of sightseeing you’ve planned for the day. Oh, and did I mention that you need to able to push through a crowd of aunties to get your order? :p
Away from the tourist district of Thamel and tucked away in the quiet alleys of Lazimpat is Cafe Mitini. Here I go for my regular fix of caffeine, in particular their hand-drip coffee. Out of this world! This quaint little cafe is run by a Korean social enterprise where they teach underprivileged locals how to be baristas and sandwich artists. Aside from their amazing food and drink, I just love their minimalistic set-up. There are no over the top decorations or blaring music, and the staff too are very accommodating. Yunmi is the main person running the show here and in addition to the cafe, she also runs a design center where they conduct regular classes for anyone who signs up. Yunmi will be more than happy to show you around the premises and you’ll be glad to see that they are doing an excellent job in helping many disadvantaged communities in and around the city.
The farmers market at 1905 restaurant is held every Saturday beginning at 9am till 12pm. This quintessentially local Kathmandu sight is a wonderful concoction of locals and expats, all convening here to sell their produce. You will find anything from sausages made by polish couples, french cheese, scented candles made by local women to fresh organic vegetables. I must say that the venue is fantastic with little ponds and bridges forming part of the grounds that hold the market. Here’s letting you in on a little secret, you’re also likely to run into the movers and shakers of Kathmandu in this market, some local celebrities too. So brush up on your knowledge about Nepali film stars. :p
While Nepal doesn’t have a bbq culture as you would find in several other countries, we do have our own version called Sekuwa. You will not find your average Nepali family calling for Sekuwa parties but you will find several sekuwa stalls scattered all over the city. And trust me, it is nothing like any other bbq you’ve eaten. The only similarity it has with other bbq’s is that it’s best served with a glass of chilled beer. I generally head to Bajeko Sekuwa outlets with my friends, and our beer is accompanied by my all time favourites, mutton sekuwa and hyakula.
Ever so often I hear travelers to Kathmandu wanting to do what the locals do, and while you may have heard different tips and suggestions from others, here’s something I guarantee you will be reading about for the first time. Here goes, go to Tudikhel field on a sunny winter afternoon and find your way in through the fences. Once in, you will find vendors selling oranges and roasted groundnuts, buy some. Now all you have to do is find yourself a nice patch to sit on to eat those oranges and groundnuts while basking in the glorious mid-day sun. And there, you’re doing exactly what a local does!
This is by no means an exhaustive guide, just a couple of things I thought you should see or know about Kathmandu.
Recommendations at Backstreet Academy
Mask Carving Workshop hosted by Kedar Dhanuki
Mask carving at at Backstreet Academy has been one the favourite things to do in Kathmandu for travellers since we began in early 2014. The wood carving process is actually a pretty simple one! Simply draw, design, carve and finish! But the tough part is in how to get the carving right. Here’s where the master will be able to guide you through every step of the way so your mask doesn’t end up with deformed facial features. Even then, it wouldn’t look too bad; the face is already pretty long. Sign up for mask carving workshop!
Dal Bhat Cooking Class hosted by Ruby Shrestha
This is the legendary food that Nepalis eat all day all night all year-long. The quintessential staple, this dish comes with rice, lentils soup, curry chicken, cauliflower with potato and a special chutney concoction that will fire up your taste buds. Learn what makes the Nepalis tick through this course!Everyone cooks this staple in their family favored tradition so you might get very different tastes across households! The trick is in the spices and their proportions. Learn to cook dal bhat!
Pottery Workshop hosted by Narayan Prajapati
An integral part of Nepalese culture, the art of pottery goes back millenniums, with the oldest being found in Lumbini with a recorded age of over 2,600 years old. These pots are used in everyday life, be it storing, transporting water, decorative purposes, lamps and even for making liquor. Made on a traditional potter’s wheel, and adorned with traditional Nepali designs, this is quintessential Nepali culture at its best! Learn about how to get the clay to the optimal moisture level for moulding and have lots of fun with the pottery wheel! Once you have your basic shape hammered out, then take your time to adorn it with beautiful patterns and inscriptions. Sign up for this pottery class.