10 things to do in Kathmandu
Most travellers visiting Nepal fly in and out of the capital, but few spend much time in the city, writes Shafik Meghji
Durbar Square: in the heart of the bustling old town, Durbar Square is the best place to start your exploration of Kathmandu. Its focal points are the 16th-century Hanuman Dhoka, the old royal palace, and the 12th-century Kasthamandap temple, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world and reputedly the source of Kathmandu's name. The most intriguing part of Durbar Square, however, is Kumari Chowk, home to the city's "living goddess", a prepubescent girl worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess Taleju in a practice dating back to the Middle Ages.
Swayambhu: a hilltop temple complex dominating the skyline west of the city centre and dating back to the 5th century, Swayambhu is one of the most important Buddhist sites in Nepal. It is crowned by an imposing whitewashed stupa decorated with chains of colourful prayer flags and surrounded by shrines, mini temples and groups of resident monkeys who have given rise to Swayambhu's tourist nickname: Monkey Temple. From the top, there are superlative views over the city and across the Kathmandu Valley.
Freak Street: in the late 1960s and early '70s Freak Street, also known as Jhochhe, was a key stop-off on the hippie trail through Asia. "Freaks" from around the world came to hang out in its cheap hostels, take advantage of the liberal drug laws (which have since been tightened) and eat cakes and drink tea in the many "pie and chai" shops. Those days are long gone, but a few vestiges remain, most notably the atmospheric Snowman Cafe which has been open since 1965 and still has a distinct hippie vibe.
Bagmati Ghats: this collection of temples, shrines, bathing platforms and cremation areas along the banks of the Bagmati River are rarely visited by tourists, but offer a unique insight into the lives - and deaths - of Kathmandu's residents. Highlights include the statues of Hindu gods at Pachali Ghat and Tin Dewal, a temple that blends Indian and Nepali architecture styles.
Patan: once the capital of an independent kingdom, but now part of greater Kathmandu, Patan has a more relaxed, less touristy feel, something that has prompted dozens of international NGOs and charities to set up offices there. The area has long been famous for its artisans, whose skills are reflected in the three-tiered Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (commonly known as the Golden Temple), one of the most exquisite temples in Nepal. There is also a wonderful collection of bronzes, sculptures and wood carvings in Patan Museum (patanmuseum.gov.np), which is housed in the northern wing of the royal palace in Patan's Durbar Square.
Yoga and meditation: from ayurvedic therapies to Newari astrology and dynamic meditation to Iyengar yoga, Kathmandu's spiritual supermarket has something for everyone. Two great options for beginners are the well-run Pranamaya Yoga Centre pranamaya-yoga.com which offers a range of courses and retreats, and Himalayan Healers himalayanhealers.org an organisation that trains members of Nepal's oppressed "untouchable" castes to provide massage and spa treatments. The ayurvedic massage is particularly good.
Shopping: the capital is a treasure trove of shops, stalls and emporia, and fierce competition among sellers means that you can pick up great bargains - haggling, needless to say, is a must, even when prices are supposedly "fixed". Pashminas, hand-woven carpets, thangka (ritual scroll paintings), metalwork and jewellery are some of the best buys, especially if bought from fair trade shops such as Mahaguthi mahaguthi.org and Sana Hastakala sanahastakala.com
Eating out: Kathmandu has an incredibly diverse food scene - you can find anything from Bhutanese street food to high-end French dining - but don't miss out on sampling the local cuisine. In a beautifully restored 100-year-old building, Thamel House thamelhouse.com.np serves exemplary Nepali food, including a delicious version of the national dish, dal bhat (lentils, vegetables and rice), and some unusual options featuring wild boar. If you fancy a splurge, head to Krishnarpan at the five-star Dwarika's Hotel dwarikas.com for the epic 22-course Nepali tasting menu. For an inexpensive snack on the go, try one of countless street stalls selling momos, delicious steamed or fried dumplings filled with meat or vegetables and served with a fiery chilli sauce.
Nightlife: although few places stay open later than midnight (at least, officially) Kathmandu still has some buzzing nightlife options. Located in the smart Lazimpat neighbourhood, Jazz Upstairs has a friendly ambience, jazz groups and a mixed crowd, which, on occasion, has included Sting. Over in Patan's Jawalakhel Chowk area is Moksh, which is popular with the city's many expats for its ice-cold beers and live music (every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights).
Cultural shows: music and dance are essential parts of Nepali life, and festivals, parades and weddings are an almost daily occurrence in Kathmandu. If you want to watch an organised performance, head to Hotel Vajra hotelvajra.com which has an outstanding Nepali dance, music and drama programme. Classes are also on offer, if you fancy developing your own skills.