If there’a any site that’s considered a “must-see” in Kathmandu, it’s on this list! In addition to the old palace Durbar squares, these three stupas and temples make up the heart of the capital city. Getting around is easy enough with taxis or ubers, though you can also book a day tour with Mosaic Adventures and receive loads of information about the sites.
SwayambhunathEntrance Fee: 200 NPR per person
Getting there: 10 minute taxi ride from Thamel, around 150 NPR
Time: Allow at least 1.5 hours
If it’s hard to pronounce the name of Swayambhunath, you can also call it the Monkey Temple. The setting on a forested hilltop makes it home to a large family of monkeys who are eager to grab food out of your hands, so be careful! According to legend, the Swayambhunath stupa emerged out of a lotus flower that grew from the lake which was once located in this exact spot, and a temple has been located here ever since that time more than 2000 years ago. Stone inscriptions found at the site confirm dates as far back as 640 CE, making it the oldest site in Kathmandu.
Every stupa has 13 tiers, which represent the 13 stages to Nirvana. The faces point in the cardinal directions, and the third eye represents the inner eye, or minds eye, which provides insight beyond ordinary sight. The stupa is circumambulated clockwise, with prayer wheels ringing the entire base perimeter. The prayer wheels should also be turned clockwise as you walk. It is not unusual to see pilgrims prostrating around this stupa as it is considered one of the holiest sites in Nepal.
If you enter from the main entrance, you must climb 365 steps to get to the stupa, but you will be rewarded with a fantastic view of Kathmandu valley. But there is also another entrance, so if steps are a problem you can ask your taxi driver to drive you up the hill to reach the stupa directly.
BoudhanathEntrance Fee: 400 NPR per person
Getting there: 10 minute taxi ride from Thamel, around 150 NPR, or walkable from the Hyatt
Time: At least 1.5 hours, but schedule a whole evening here if you can!
Our most memorable evenings in Kathmandu were spent slowly circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa, looking in to the gift shops and temples that surround it, and eventually settling down to dinner or coffee at one of the many cafes to watch the sun set the golden stupa top aglow.
If you can, schedule an entire evening here, as it is one of the most fascinating places to see even if you do nothing but people-watch. Join the crowds in the late afternoon to circumambulate the stupa on the street level, and then climb the steps to the first level of the stupa’s base to see it again from a higher perspective. Descending to street level again, you’ll probably want to go around a third time to stop in at the temples and gift shops surrounding the square. Finally, be sure to visit the rooftop of one of the square’s surrounding cafes for another amazing perspective.
There are many legends accompanying the history of this stupa in ancient times, but it is believed to have been built sometime after 600 CE, along the ancient trade route from Tibet. Being accustomed to praying here, this is where many of Nepal’s Tibetan refugees decided to settle during the 1950s. There are now more than 50 Tibetan monasteries surrounding the stupa.
PashupatinathEntrance Fee: 1000 NPR per person
Getting there: from Thamel, a 5 minute taxi ride
Time: Allow at least 1.5 hours
Not only the holiest Hindu site in Kathmandu, this temple is considered one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the world for Shiva devotees. The sprawling complex which houses more than 500 temples, ashrams and monuments, is located along the banks of the Bagmati River, which eventually joins the Ganges in India. Lord Shiva is said to have once relaxed here, and being so taken by the beauty of the river and surrounding valley, transformed into a deer to fully enjoy the forest surroundings. The piece of his antler that broke off became the Shiva Lingam now housed inside the temple and the reason pilgrims make the journey to visit from all over the world.
Note that non-Hindus are allowed very limited access around this site. In fact, you may only be allowed to walk around the temple structures, and along the banks of the Bagmati river where Kathmandu’s Hindus are cremated daily. The funerals are not private, and it is encouraged for all to come and watch the burnings. If you do not wish to see cremations, you may not find it to be worth the entrance fee to visit at all. But if you do visit, hire a guide and take the time to talk with the sadhus and priests to gain a full understanding of the site and to soak in the atmosphere of this holy place.
Nepal might draw you for its mountain vistas and trekking adventures, but don’t overlook Kathmandu. In the heart of the city you’ll find these holy places which offer a welcome respite from the hectic streets around them.