Besides being the jumping off point for Everest, Kathmandu has enough cultural attractions to keep you entertained both before and after your flight. With several UNESCO World Heritage Sites right on Thamel's doorstep, it's easy to blow your budget on cabs, admission fees, and post-touring Everest beers. Here are our suggestions for seeing the best of Kathmandu while allowing yourself enough time to relax, shop, and eat your way through the city.
See and Do
There's more to Kathmandu than the backpacker ghetto and trekking shops of Thamel, so don't make the mistake of spending all your time hopping from your guesthouse to the bakery. Durbar Square (750NPR) , a 15-20 minute walk south, offers a dense collection of temples and monuments that hark back to the times when Nepal was ruled by a royal family.
Though none of the buildings are too impressive in their own right, they provide a pleasant retreat as a collective unit. Most interesting in theory (though not in practice) is the Kumari Bahal, home of the Kumari Devi, a "living goddess" who is crowned as a child and lives in the palace until she hits puberty. If you think your teenage years were hard, think about how much it must suck to become a mortal after being treated like a god for your entire childhood!
The Royal Palace has some interesting courtyards, but an awful museum that would be completely skippable were in not for the fact that you already paid for it in the admission fee.
If you're looking to spice up your afternoon, make sure to check out the Jagannath Temple, which features erotic and highly pornographic art on the strut below the roof. There are several other temples in Kathmandu that have similar artwork, so perhaps you can spend an afternoon playing an X-rated version of "I Spy."
If you're not into paying US$7.50 to see a bunch of buildings, consider taking Lonely Planet's walking tour. Not only is it free as long as you (or your guesthouse) has the book, but it takes you to some interesting temples and courtyards that you would have otherwise never discovered.
You'll get to check out the shrine to the local tooth fairy, intricately carved wooden balconies and windows, a 5th century Buddha statue that marks the entrance to a dentist, and hidden courtyards that make you feel like Alice in Wonderland.
Other Kathmandu treasures include the Garden of Dreams (200NPR), which provides serenity from the chaos of the city and free mats and pillows on which you can wile away an afternoon and Swayambhunath, locally known as Monkey Temple.
Best visited right before sunset, Monkey Temple boasts a huge white stupa painted with the eyes of the Buddha and with hundreds of mani, or prayer wheels, at its base. The sounds of the bells from the prayer wheels mix with chanting from the temples and mantras from the CD players to make an enchanting experience that makes you feel like you couldn't be anywhere but Nepal.
Looking up from the stupa, you see colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind, while below you is Kathmandu in all its chaos. Despite being a hive of activity for both humans and monkeys, Monkey Temple somehow provides an escape from havoc and a moment to meditate on life--and your upcoming trek into the wild.
If you have some extra time in Kathmandu either before or after trekking, a day trip to Patan should be on your agenda. Much quieter than Kathmandu and in many ways more beautiful, Patan's Durbar Square (500NPR) offers a mix of temples and palaces but without the crowds or hawkers. The museum is supposed to be the country's best (at least if you're into religious art and sculpture), but we didn't feel like dropping the additional 250NPR on admission to check it out for ourselves.
Either way, Patan is clean, serene, and scenic, with plenty of hidden alleyways, temples and courtyards that you'll likely have all to yourself. The Golden Temple outside of Durbar Square is a must-see in itself and is one of the most spectacular Buddhist monasteries we've seen in eight months on the road.
Back in Kathmandu, leave yourself time to shop for singing bowls, NorthFake jackets, cashmere scarves, and clown pants. There's an absurd number of shops to browse and you can actually get some decent quality gifts if you put in the time.
Thamel is chock-full of cheap guesthouses and except for festival time, it's a buyer's market. We stayed at Hotel Silver Home with my mom for $18 and at Pokhara Peace Hotel next door for $13 after our trek. Hotel Silver Home had a friendly staff who helped us rent some gear at great prices and efficiently arranged our flights to and from Lukla. The room was a tad shabby and the frequent power outages (not their fault) meant that it got pretty stuffy at times.
Our room at Pokhara Peace Hotel was nicer than Hotel Silver Home, but breakfast wasn't included. On the plus side, the shower was hot hot hot, which was amazing after two weeks without hot water.
Eat and Drink
Getting back to Kathmandu after a few weeks on the mountains is like being a kid on Christmas morning. Though none of the food we had blew our minds, we had consistently good (and fresh) meals at the following:
OR2K for Israeli food in a cool atmosphere
Places for vegetarian food with the in crowd
Chick N Falafel for cheap falafel sandwiches on the go
Pumpernickel Bakeryfor a San Francisco-like morning (though with mediocre coffee)
Himalayan Java for good coffee (though with mediocre pastries)
Cookie Walla a hole-in-the-wall, but amazing dessert, fit for gorging on after you come down from the mountains!
The biggest disappointment came from the traditional Thamel House restaurant. While the food was pretty good (Rob and mom loved their boar) and the free pours of local liquor were appreciated, the cultural dance show was so bad that it was painful. It honestly would have been more enjoyable to observe two dogs playing on stage than it was to watch these "dancers" attempt to coordinate a simple movement.
There's very limited public transport in Kathmandu, so you'll have to rely on the taxis to get outside of the city to the other sites in the valley. Make sure to bargain, and never say "yes" to the first price quoted. Our cab to the Eastern Stairway at Monkey Temple cost 150NPR. To Patan, it was 250NPR.
Interested in seeing Kathmandu and Durbar Square without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Kathmandu photo tour.
You can also share your tips for budget travel in Kathmandu by leaving a comment!