The best place to begin your sightseeing in the Kathmandu Valley is in the Kathmandu Durbar Square. As you go around the Valley, you will notice that the Durbar (palace) Squares of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, share many characteristics in their way of temples dedicated to similar deities. This is natural since all three areas were built by the Malla kings whom, although ruling different cities and often at war with each other, came from the same ethnic stock.
As you cross from the modern shopping area of New Road into the Hanuman Dhoka complex, you suddenly find yourself in the midst of Kathmandu's famed medieval architecture. This is the Kathmandu of old, from where kings used to rule.
Kathmandu was chosen as the capital when King Jayasthiti Malla unified the valley in the 14th century and the Hanuman Dhoka became the seat of royalty. Since then onwards its status has not changed, and it was kept the ceremonial palace even after the takeover by the Shah dynasty. Although no more the residence of the reigning monarchs, all major royal ceremonies including coronations take place within the Hanuman Dhoka.
Patan, also known as Lalitpur, epitomizes the art and architecture of the Kathmandu Valley. “Lalit” means “art” and “pur” means, “place”; a very appropriate title indeed for a city that is the site of nearly two hundred beautiful temples and the home of many skilled artisans.
Patan Durbar Square
Just like the Malla kings of Kathmandu had their own palace square, so did the Mallas of Patan. The Royal Palace is the main attraction of the Patan Durbar Square. Inside, there are three equally impressive courtyards, the Mool Chowk, the Sundari Chowk, and the Mani Keshab Narayan Chowk.
Patan Industrial Estate
Specializing in cottage industry handloom and handicrafts, the Patan Industrial Estate is located at Lagankhel about one kilometer south of the Patan Durbar Square. Visitors may go to see the craftsmen at work as well as buy finished products from the sales outlets located within the premises.
Tibetan Refugee Camp
This camp was originally established in 1961 in Jawalakhel with aid from the Swiss Government and the International Red Cross as a self-help center for Tibetan refugees who fled the Chinese invasion of their homeland. Today, it is a thriving center for some of the best Tibetan carpets produced in Nepal.
Bhaktapur, also known as Bhadgaon, lies 14 kilometers east of Kathmandu. Shaped like a conch-shell with an area of 6 square kilometers, the city of Bhaktapur is not as affected by modern development as Patan and Kathmandu are. Bhaktapur means “city of devotees,” and within its confines are some of the valley's finest medieval art and architecture.
Wandering around Bhaktapur can be a pleasant experience. Compared to the other two major urban centers of the Valley, there is very little vehicular traffic, and in some areas vehicles are totally nonexistent, which makes walking enjoyable. Pottery, weaving, and farming are the typical industries of this city left behind by time, and still practiced with the traditional methods passed down through the generations.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
The precinct of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square is more spacious and less crowded with temples than the other cities described. But this has nothing to with lack of devotional vigor among Bhaktapur's rulers. Like the other Durbar Squares, Bhaktapur too was once packed with temples. It was the Great Earthquake of 1934 that destroyed most of the monuments.
The Statue of King Bhupatindra Malla in the act of worship is mounted on a column facing the Golden Gate and the Palace with 55 Windows. Among the countless number of statues in Nepal, this life-sized gilded model is considered to be among the finest.
The Golden Gate is the entrance to the main courtyard of the Palace of 55 Windows. Built by Bhupatindra Malla but completed by King Jaya Ranjit Malla in 1754, it is considered the single most precious objet d'art in the Kathmandu Valley. The door is surmounted by figures of the Goddess Kali and Garuda, the winged carrier of Lord Vishnu attended by two sky nymphs.
King Bhupatindra Malla built the Palace with 55 Windows in the 18th century. The three-storied palace displays some of the finest skill in carpentry. Above a splendid setting of elegant terra cotta walls, the whole top story is surrounded by an ornate wooden balcony that has 55 windows. It is unquestionably a masterpiece of wood-carving.
Nyatopola Temple, dedicated to the Goddess Laxmi, was built by King Bhupatindra Malla in AD 1702. Famous for its massive structure and subtle workmanship, this temple withstood the ravages of the great 1934 earthquake, suffering only minor damages while many other monumental edifices were completely destroyed. Sitting atop five levels of plinth, the Nyatopola is a five-storied pagoda reaching a height of 30 meters, making it the tallest temple in the Kathmandu Valley.
The Potters' Square
The Potters' Square is another short walk south-west of the Taumadhi Tole. All through the day one can see the potters working with clay. While the men prepare the larger and more elaborate pottery with the aid of their wheels, the women work on less intricate smaller vessels which only require nimble fingers to shape the clay.
Not very far to the west of the Kathmandu Durbar Square, beyond the Vishnumati River and perched on top of a hill is the majestic stupa of Swayambhunath. It is believed that the great Indian emperor Ashoka paid a visit to this site more than 2,000 years back, but there has been no corroboration of this fact. A more authentic record, however, is an inscription that says King Mana Deva of the Lichhavi dynasty began construction of the stupa in AD 460 and that by AD 1200, it had become an important Buddhist center. King Pratap Malla many other improvements, like gilding the spire, the laying the great eastern stairway, and building the huge vajra (thunderbolt), the shikara and the stone lions.
Often called the “Monkey Temple” by tourists due to the large population of rhesus monkeys living in the surrounding forest, be careful not to eat anything as you approach the stupa, or you may be attacked by those otherwise friendly animals! Swayambhu is also one of the contemporary centers of Tibetan Buddhist culture in the area, so this is the ideal spot to visit monasteries and meet monks and nuns.
Pashupatinath is Nepal's most important Hindu temple and is among the five principal pilgrimage sites for the Hindus. (The others are Muktinath, which is also in Nepal, and Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Amarnath in India.) Hinduism expounds that a mortal body encounters five deadly sins while on earth and only the act of pilgrimage to these five spots will permit complete atonement from all of one's sins. Pashupatinath is a reincarnation of Shiva in his most benevolent form as the shepherd of fertility. In this temple there are no animal sacrifices- only flowers, fruits, and vermilion are offered.
The temple of Pashupatinath lies along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Together with Gujeshwori, this temple occupies a huge complex that is full of temples and holy sites. Devotees can be seen in the act of worship from the early hours, even before the break of dawn, till late in the evening. Being the most important temple of the valley, it is a daily ritual for all devout Hindus of Kathmandu to worship at the shrines of Pashupatinath. For a Hindu, cremation at Pashupatinath means direct passage to Heaven.
Chabahil lies west of Pashupatinath, close to the intersection of the Ring Road. Some of the monuments at Chabahil date back to the Licchavi period between the 5th and the 8th century. The Chabahil Stupa is similar to the one at Boudhanath, and although smaller in size, it is much older. When the Indian emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism, it is said that he converted all the subjects of his huge empire to the new religion. After visiting the Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini, he is said to have also visited Kathmandu, where he married his daughter Charumati to Devapala, a local prince. The royal couple is known to have together founded the twin towns of Chabahil and Deopatan (the place where Pashupatinath lies), and the stupa at Chabahil was supposedly built by Charumati.
Boudhanath is a colossal stupa north east of Pashupatinath and lies a further two 2 kilometers by road. The origin of this stupa is rather obscure. A legend says that a woman named Kangma was banished from heaven by Indra for stealing flowers and was reborn on earth as a swineherd's daughter. Rearing and selling geese, Kangma accumulated a considerable amount of wealth. One day, she went to request the king for a plot of land to build a temple dedicated to the Buddha Amitabha. She asked that she be given land the size which a buffalo's hide would cover. The king agreed to what he thought was a harmless request, but Kangma very shrewdly cut the hide making it into one very long strip of leather. Stretching it out to form a very large circle, she asked for and was given this huge plot where Boudhanath stands today.
The National Museum is located at Chhauni and is near to the Swayambhunath Stupa. It is a veritable storehouse of breathtaking bronze statues, rich collection of Paubha scroll paintings, relics of the Great Earthquakes of 1934, and also includes an extraordinary collection of ancient firearms; weapons captured in various wars in the annals of Nepalese history.
National Numismatic Museum
Housed in the Mahendra Memorial Building of the National Museum at Chhauni, this museum contains a rare collection of Nepali coins spanning from the 2nd till the 18th Century, right across the reigns of the Licchavi, Thakuri, Malla and the Shah dynasties. Extraordinary exhibits on display include clay coins.
This museum dedicated to one of Nepal 's most beloved kings is located in Hanuman Dhoka Palace and highlights the life of King Tribhuvan, chief architect of the liberation struggle against the authoritarian rule of the Rana family in 1951. Exhibits include King Tribhuvan's childhood dresses, ceremonial costumes, personal belongings, and dioramas of his bedroom and office room. The galleries display rare photographs, paintings, and portraits of other Shah rulers and members of the royal family.
The Hanuman Dhoka Palace, also known as Nolchhen, used to be the seat of the Malla Kings of Kathmandu, prior to the conquest of Kathmandu by Prithivi Narayan Shah in 1768. Your tickets entitle you to climb the Basantapur Tower and look out over the temples of Durbar Square. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum.
Another attraction in the historic Hanuman Dhoka Palace complex, this section vividly sheds light on the life of late King Mahendra. The king's cabinet room, office chamber and personal belongings such as medals, decoration, gifts, coins, stamps, and his literary creations are on exhibition.
Natural History Museum
This museum is behind Swayambhunath Stupa and houses exhibits of animals, butterflies and plants.
The Patan Museum displays the traditional sacred art of Nepal. Set within the elegance of a residential court of the former Malla rulers of Lalitpur, this recently refurbished museum is perhaps the most elegant among all in Nepal in respect to its interior design.
Following the renovation, only 200 pieces were selected for permanent display from the existing national collection of more than 1500 artifacts. Most of the exhibits are sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities that were created within the Kathmandu Valley, but there are some that originate from India, Tibet and the western Himalaya.
National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery in Bhaktapur is located in the old Malla Palace of 55 Windows in the Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Two giant lions and images of deities guard the main entrance. This museum has a rich collection of Paubha scroll paintings, bronze, brass, and wooden images. There is also a unique illustrated book on horses that unfolds out to more than 10 feet. There are stone images of Shiva and Vishnu - masterpieces of medieval sculpture. One of the rare images in the museum is one of Indra, the Hindu Lord of Heaven, who is shown with female genitals all over his body.
National Woodworking Museum
Located in Tachupal Tole of the Dattatreya Square of Bhaktapur, this museum is housed in the restored 15th-century Pujari Math built by Yakchhya Malla. The Math (hermitage for holy mendicants) is a museum in itself with the very finest of Newar woodcarvings, including the famous Peacock Window, and was built in the 15th century when Bhaktapur was the capital of the greater Malla Kingdom. The National Woodworking Museum houses a 17th-century Dancing Ganesh, Laxmi, Kuber, Aryatara, Bhairav, Kumar, Manjushree, and a rare image of Yamakinkar, an attendant to Indra and the “demon of fever”. Murals depicting Dattatreya, Vishnu and Shiva-Parvati adorn the walls of the museum.
Bronze & Brass Museum
This museum is located in another 15th-century Math, opposite the Pujari Math in Bhaktapur. A rich collection of domestic and ceremonial metal-ware is exhibited in the museum: kalash (ritual jars), ink-pots, spittoons, ordinary and ritual lamps, medieval utensils, hookahs and giant containers.
Budhanilkantha, a settlement on the Shivapuri foothills is eight kilometers north of Kathmandu , has an important Vishnu shrine. A 7th-Century sculpture of Vishnu, five meters long, lies reclined in timeless eternity on a pool of water. This figure is reckoned to be the most beautiful among all the stone engravings within the Kathmandu Valley.
Gokarna Mahadev Temple
Situated on the banks of the Bagmati River, this sacred site for the Gokarna Aunshi pilgrimage is 4 kilometers east of Boudhanath. This is another Shiva shrine and its origin dates back to the Licchavi period, but the existing temple was built in 1582. It houses another sculpture of Shiva lying on a bed of stone cobras and includes a beautiful 8th-Century carving of Parvati.
The old Newari settlement of Sankhu is 12 kilometers further eastwards of Gokarna. Two kilometers above this village on the side of a hill is the temple dedicated to Vajra Jogini, who is said to be a powerful female Tantric deity. Legend has it that Vajra Jogini resided in the site of this temple much before the time of Manjushree's pilgrimage to the Valley. It is said that she was the one who persuaded Manjushree to drain the lake that engulfed the Kathmandu Valley. Every year there is a colorful ceremony sometime during late winter in which the Vajra Jogini is paraded around the temple and the village.
Thimi is a typical Newari town 10 kilometers northeast of Kathmandu where agriculture and cottage industry are the main occupations. It is the fourth largest settlement within the valley and is the site of the colorful Balkumari Jatra. The smaller neighboring settlements, Bode and Nade also have an integral role in this festival.
At an altitude of 2,073 meters, Kakani lies 29 kilometers north-northwest of Kathmandu. The main attraction of this beautiful spot is the mountains-views. Straight ahead the Ganesh Himal range looks unbelievably close and beside it stands Langtang Lirung. Other peaks visible from Kakani are Annapurna II, Hiunchuli, Lenpogang, and Gauri Shankar.
The temple of Changunarayan is said to be the oldest in the Kathmandu Valley. Although it was rebuilt in 1702, its origin goes back to the 4th Century. Located on the top of a spur rising in the eastern part of the valley, it is 22 kilometers from Kathmandu and 4 kilometers north of Bhaktapur.
Nagarkot lies on a ridge 32 kilometers north-east of Kathmandu along the rim of the valley at an altitude of 2,174 meters. It takes an easy hour's drive to get there following the same route till a kilometer ahead of Bhaktapur from where the road forks left. After a few kilometers, the road meanders uphill for around 12 kilometers as it lays open pretty views of terraced fields and typical village farmhouses.
Nagarkot, along with Kakani and Dhulikhel, is among the popular spots for viewing the early morning sunrise over the mountains, and as a result, hotels have sprung up by the dozens especially during the past couple of years. There is no dearth for accommodations and an overnight visit is recommended. The best period for good visibility is between October and March.
Dhulikhel, a small town 30 kilometers east of Kathmandu, lies along the Arniko Highway to Tibet. It is a lovely place famous for its scenic beauty and old traditions. This is yet another place for the magnificent mountain views. The snowy panorama as seen from Dhulikhel shows the Himalayas all the way from Karyolung in the east to Hiunchuli in the west. Spending a night at Dhulikhel to view the sunrise across the mountain range is money well spent. A number of standard hotels and resorts offer pleasant accommodation and meals. Should you plan to spend more than one night in Dhulikhel, there are plenty of places around the countryside, such as Timal Narayan, Namo Buddha, Banepa, Nala, and Panauti. Many of the hotels rent mountain-bikes for day excursions and some also organize river-rafting trips to the Bhote Koshi River.
Nala is an interesting small village 5 kilometers northwest of Banepa that used to serve as an outpost of Bhaktapur during medieval times. There are two prominent religious shrines in Nala: the Bhagwati Temple in the central square, and the Karunamaya Temple, which lies on the edge of the village.
Another interesting side-trip from Dhulikhel is to the tiny hamlet of Namo Buddha situated close to Panauti. Namo Buddha is an important pilgrimage site particularly to the Tamang Buddhists of Nepal. Since it is connected by dirt trails from both Dhulikhel and Panauti, it is possible to hike there from Dhulikhel and return via Panauti. Much of the scenery along the route is impressive.
Like other pilgrimage sites of greater importance, Namo Buddha has an assortment of religious icons. There is a stupa with the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha, but smaller than those of Swayambhu or Boudha. Further up on top of the hill are more Buddhist shrines with colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Recent additions erected by devotees from abroad include a massive statue of the Buddha and more stupas. The monastery, which is right on top of the hill, has a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Along the Arniko Highway 5 kilometers before Dhulikhel is the sprawling town of Banepa. Banepa itself is not a very interesting town, but it is the intersecting point for routes to Nala and Panauti. To the northeast, just a kilometer beyond lies the Chandeshwori Temple , which has a huge abstract mural depicting the goddess Parvati in the form of Chandeshwori, slayer of the demon Chand.
Panauti is a very old Newari settlement six kilometers south of Banepa situated at the confluence of the Pungamati and Roshi rivers. The 6-kilometer drive from Banepa is bumpy, but worth it. Lying on the old trade route, Panauti was an important trade junction in the past and as testimony boasts of a royal palace in its central square.
There are some exquisitely decorated temples and interesting old houses. Among all, the most interesting ones are the 14th-Century Indreshwar Mahadev Temple, and the recently restored 17th-Century Brahmayani Temple lying across the river, both, good examples of fine wood craftsmanship.
Twenty kilometers southeast of Kathmandu, standing at an altitude of 2,762 meters, Phulchowki is the highest among the hills surrounding the Kathmandu Valley. The name itself means “hill of flowers”, and is especially so during springtime when the hill erupts into a dazzling medley of colors with the blooms of rhododendron and orchids.
From this hilltop one can see a grand view of the entire Kathmandu Valley with a backdrop of the mountains to further enhance the scene. Phulchowki and Godavari have the largest avifaunal variety in the valley so this is an area highly recommended for birdwatchers.
Godavari is a small village below Phulchowki where the Royal Botanical Gardens, Department of Medicinal Plants and the junior wing of St. Xavier's School are located. Small clusters of country houses dot the hills in the midst of terraced farms. Inspired by the presence of the Royal Botanical Garden, many residents of Godavari have taken to floriculture.
Kirtipur & Panga
On a spur at the southwestern side of the Kathmandu Valley, 4 kilometers from the city, is the town of Kirtipur and a little further beyond, the village of Panga. The two villages are the setting for the Indreni Jatra (rainbow festival) that takes place each year between the months of December and January. This is a colorful occasion that lasts for three days.
Kirtipur was the key fortress that Prithivi Narayan Shah had to take before he could begin the conquest the three cities of the Valley. Only on the third attempt did he succeed in capturing this town.
The small picturesque village of Chobhar overlooking the Bagmati River is just a kilometer beyond Kirtipur. The Chobhar Gorge below is the greater attraction. Alongside is the Jal Vinayak Temple, an important pilgrimage site for Valley residents.
This is a shrine south of Kathmandu and beyond Kirtipur, dedicated to the Goddess Kali, Shiva's consort in her reincarnation as the Goddess of Destruction. Animal sacrifices in Kali's honor take place every Tuesdays and Saturdays with Saturdays, being the weekly holiday, attracting a larger crowd.
Lele - Vajra Varahi Temple/Tika Bhairab Shrine
The charming Lele valley lies 19 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu. The road leading to this area is at the Saat Dobato intersection along the Ring Road beyond Lagankhel. Getting there by car may be quite uncomfortable due to the many potholes along the way, but that is offset by the never-ending stretch of picturesque scenery.
Along the road are some typical old Newari villages: Sunakothi, Thecho, and Chapagaon. Close to the last, in a very scenic setting, is the temple of Vajra Varahi. Built in 1665, the Vajra Varahi is the most important Tantric temple of the valley. In the shrine of Tika Bhairab dedicated to Shiva in his terrible form is a somewhat abstract but attractive mural on a brick wall 3 by 6 meters.
Four kilometers immediately south of the Tibetan Refugee Camp in Jawalakhel is the enchanting 16th-Century Newari town of Bungamati. This is one settlement that has been least affected by modern changes and is worth a visit.