Are you dreaming of Asia? Discovering this exotic continent for the first time can be confusing. The choice of countries is bewildering, not to mention the difficulties of exploring a remote land when the language is unfathomable. Overwhelmed just thinking about it? Well, read on and see why Nepal is the ideal destination for trekking, history, culture and more. It’s all here in a travel guide full of advice and information designed to help plan your Nepal travels.
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Discovering Nepal For The First Time
Nepal is absolutely thrilling, no doubt about it! The tallest mountains on Earth are right here in this part of the Himalayan Mountains. Nepal travel includes seven ancient UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kathmandu Valley. Don’t forget about the two Natural World Heritage Sites at Chitwan and Sagarmatha National Parks. If that’s not enough, visit the birthplace of Lord Buddha in Lumbini. There are so many things to do in Nepal and these attractions are difficult to beat.
“I love seeing the different ethnic cultures, traditions, and festivities, walking through the Himalayan foothills and watching the sunrise over the snow-capped ranges when the high peaks shimmer golden and pink. Above all, what impresses me most is the kind hospitality of the Nepali people.”
Kathmandu Durbar Square
It is believed that Nepal’s ancestral capital, legendary Kathmandu, existed more than 2,200 years ago. In more ‘recent’ times, three ancient cities made up the Medieval Kingdom of Kathmandu. From the 12th to 18th centuries, the valley was ruled by separate kings of The Mallas people. They reigned from these three fortified cities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. The entire valley was conquered and unified in 1769 which laid the foundation for the modern Kingdom of Nepal. You can still admire each one today when you visit Kathmandu Valley in your Nepal travels.
Kathmandu Durbar Square (Palace Square) is the most famous of all three ancient cities. It’s a focal point for festivals and activities and a great place to begin your Nepal travels. It’s located in the heart of the main city within walking distance of the hotels in the popular Thamel district. This is the best place to look for accommodation. There are so many things to see in Kathmandu and many points of interest are within this huge plaza. They include a 12th century Royal Palace, the incredible 12-storey Taleju Temple, numerous pagodas, courtyards, and deity statues. One highlight among them all is the peculiar Kumari-ghar where the ‘Living Goddess’ resides.
Tip: Tourists have to buy a day ticket to enter Kathmandu Durbar Square. At the office inside the precinct you can actually have your day ticket extended for up to a month! Best of all – IT’S FREE. Just take your passport and a photo. There’s also no entrance fee after dark.
Patan Durbar Square
Once home to the Newar Dynasty, Patan is only 8 km from Thamel. The stupas on each corner of the extensive old city were erected 2,250 years ago! Treasures inside include 1200 Buddhist monuments some of which are on show in the Patan Museum along with numerous Hindu relics. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Patan Museum is a must-see attraction for your Nepal travels.
The 12th-century Golden Temple is a beautiful Buddhist pagoda that you should also add to your Nepal travel itinerary. Patan Durbar Square is a magnificent combination of temples and shrines. The Royal Palace, baths, and incredible golden-pinnacled 17th-century Krishna Mandir Hindu temple will be highlights of your trip to Nepal.
Bhaktapur Durbar Square
Bhaktapur is some 13 kilometers from Kathmandu center. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited locations in Nepal. Bhaktapur is the largest of the Newa kingdoms and conserves some of the best heritage sites in Nepal. Despite earthquakes which devastated parts of the country in 1934 and more recently in 2015, Bhaktapur is full of wonders.
There are many things to do in Bhaktapur from temples to palaces and famous gates. The beauty inside is stunning. You should visit Nyatapola Temple which mrans “5 stories” and symbolizes the 5 basic elements. Make a stop at the beautiful Nge Nyapa Jhya Laaykoo or “The Palace of fifty-five windows”. Lastly, visit two of the most famous and ornate gates in the world – The Golden Gate and The Lion’s Gate.
Best Attractions to Include in Your Nepal Travels
Nepal is FULL of amazing things to see and do. Your Nepal sightseeing will take you all over and here are some additional attractions to build into your itinerary.
Swayambhunath Monkey Temple
Swayambhunath Monkey Temple is on a hill overlooking the River Bagmati as it flows through old Kathmandu. It’s the sort of place where people go on family outings. You can walk here from Thamel, and up the umpteen steps where the monkeys fool around playfully. Fifth-century Swayambhu is a sacred parkland of Buddhist and Hindu memorials. Large white dome stupas are hung with colored prayer flags. Tree-shaded paths lead visitors to mysterious Hindu memorials swathed in smoking incense. At the top of the hill there’s a small Tibetan monastery where child monks play outside with their orange-robed elders.
Boudhanath is the greatest Stupa in the world. It’s situated some 11kms outside the city limits of Kathmandu. This circular complex is enclosed by monasteries and other historical buildings. Boudhanath was originally designed in the 5th century as a resting place on the Tibetan trade route. Pilgrims walk clockwise around the base of the immense white dome, sometimes prostrating on the ground in an age-old ritual. Nine tiers and 13 rings rise from the base of the monument representing the path to enlightenment. Lines of fluttering prayer flags send mantras on the wind to heaven. When I visited, I ventured into a darkened temple hall and sat quietly listening to the Buddhist monks chanting a morning prayer, as they have done since time immemorial.
River Bagmati flows down from the Himalayas and along Kathmandu Valley on its eternal journey to the Ganges in faraway India. Five kilometers outside Kathmandu city centre there’s a mystical sanctuary down by the riverside known as Pashupati. The extraordinary golden roofed Pashupatinath is said to be the holiest of temples. It’s a magnet that draws Hindus from across the world. Unfortunately, it’s only open for Hindus to enter. However, there’s a fascinating and, quite frankly, disconcerting side to the sacred grounds not far away along the riverbank.
The Hindu goddess of life and death, Kali, has her own little temple next to the bridge. It faces a tree-clad hillside where orange-robed Baba hermits live. A sanatorium faces the river which is lined by steps and it is here that the Nepalese are brought for their final rites. They are swathed in a white shroud with feet touching the water. Then the family performs a purifying ritual for the soul who has just left this mortal world. Across the way stone platforms jut out, some stacked with logs for the funeral pyre. This is the sort of place where you’re thankful for a local friend or private guide. You need someone to explain the significance of what could be a disturbing experience if you just happen upon it by chance. I didn’t stick around to see a cremation.
Diwali Festival of Lights
The name Kathmandu means ‘City of Light’ and the Diwali Festival of Lights is a highlight of the year! It packs five days of festivities with music and dancing, and a great party atmosphere. City buildings garlanded with fairy lights and millions of little oil lamps magically light up the streets as the evening draws in. Kathmandu rigoli street art is made from bright-colored powders. Everyone makes one on the pavement outside their home or business to attract wealth and good health. Each day of ‘Tijar’ has a different custom. For example, sweets left on the roof for the blackbirds, or pets with marigolds garlands and a red Tika mark. The last day has a Christmas feeling. Everyone wears new clothes, sisters and brothers swap presents, and the whole family gets together for a celebration feast. Dates vary according to the new moon but they fall in October or November.
Asan market runs through the busy backstreets of Thamel. The whole district is filled with souvenirs, cashmere, craftwork and hiking kit shops. It’s geared for tourists but the typical Asan bazaar is where the locals shop. You’ll find fruit and vegetable stalls on the pavements, saris in window displays, packets of five-color prayer flags, fresh flowers, fine knit woolens and much more.
Wander through the narrow streets of old Kathmandu. Walk through archways and discover the neighborhoods secreted away from the tourist scene, the countless small plazas, temples, and monasteries. You can even step inside – the monks are friendly. You can also go along at dawn to hear the chanting meditation if you fancy getting up that early. Ultimately you’ll end up back in Durbar Square, the heartbeat of an extraordinary nation – Nepal.
Getting Around During Your Nepal Travels
It’s fine to walk around the fascinating historic centre of Kathmandu by yourself. To explore outside of the city, you can easily get a taxi to outlying towns. There is also a tourist bus down to Pokhara Valley, and even trek the mountains if you’re adequately prepared.
Getting around is relatively easy because in the city and on tourist routes, the majority of people speak some English. This is especially true of the younger generations, and we had no problem being understood.
Nepal Guided Tours and Treks
If you’re visiting Nepal and are limited for time or aren’t confident in organizing your own agenda consider a guide. Maybe you just want someone knowledgeable by your side – hiring a local guide is the way to go. Nepal Adventure Point is really cool. It’s a family run agency based in Kathmandu. They are specialists on treks, guided tours, and high peak expeditions.
I mean, I am not super fit and had not hiked in my life but these friendly guys were reassuring. I suggest the Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek, an ‘easy-going’ walk among the Himalayan foothill villages. A guide sorting out the permits and entrance tickets is a bonus and saves the hassle of doing it yourself.
Being part of a small group, or even just a couple like us, every day is paced to your style. A trainee guide comes along as a porter, to carry your essential gear. It’s amazing to see traditional village life and, after a day’s trek through the countryside, relax with a homemade meal at a basic but clean lodge and listen to some ancestral tales. You don’t have to worry about altitude sickness on this route because the six-day circular itinerary follows long-trodden paths at a lower altitude.
Pokhara Lake City
A traditional resort in the beautiful Pokhara Valley, ‘lake city’ is a relaxing contrast to chaotic Kathmandu. From Pokhara Lake, the Annapurna mountain range can be seen in the distance. It really is the most perfect setting. Get a guide to show you around for the day, starting with a ride up to Sarangkot to see the sunrise over the nearest peaks. The Annapurna circuit trek is more than a brilliant hiking destination, it’s also the best spot for paragliding in Nepal. All of this makes it a must-see part of your Nepal travels
How to Visit Pokhara Lake
Take a car around to see the World Peace Pagoda and gardens, or hire a little rowing boat to take you across Lake Fewa and you can walk there, up the wooded footpath to the top of Anadu Hill where the views are astounding. Finish the perfect day with a stroll along the lakeside promenade.
Fewa lakeside is fascinating to watch. You’ll see families dressed in their finest costumes being ferried over to the sacred Hindu temple. It’s hidden from sight on a small island in the lake. The scene is pretty unique, dozens of brightly painted boats reflecting on the still waters. A man painstakingly crafts a wooden canoe beside the footpath. Ladies of Tibetan descent selling necklaces and bracelets stop for a friendly chat. Young honeymoon couples sit hand in hand, and children run playing in the fields where black buffalo graze.
The most magical time is late afternoon, ambling along to a waterside beer garden and enjoying the sun setting over the lake. Pokhara really comes alive in the evenings, there are lots of restaurants to choose from and pubs with live music. Our favorites? The ones by the lakeside, naturally!
Tip: Some lakeside eateries have a ‘happy hour’ late afternoon when you’ll get a deal on lager. Food is relatively cheap in Pokhara but the drinks can be a bit pricey.
Chitwan National Park
Don’t miss the lowlands at Chitwan Nature Reserve, another nature paradise. From Kathmandu or Pokhara you can get the tourist bus down to Chitwan. The journey of several hours follows the River Trishuli canyon. It’s worth the effort just to stay at one of those tropical lodges! You can enjoy nature walks, paddle across the Narayani River in a wooden canoe, and even watch some folk dancing in the evening. Consider a jeep safari into the reserve as part of your Nepal travels. It is the highlight of this excursion and a chance to see endangered species of white rhino bathing in the river. If you’re lucky, you may even get a glimpse of a Royal Bengal Tiger in the bush.
When to Visit Nepal
As you know, Nepal is a mountainous country in South Asia. It measures 147,181 km2 and is squeezed between Tibet to the north and India to the south. The best time to visit is during the spring and autumn seasons. During this time weather will be optimal for the outdoor activities and trekking that tourists are looking for.
Mountains and Hikes for your Nepal Travels
Earth’s tallest mountain peaks are found in Nepal, in fact, there are 8 eight-thousanders here! At 8,848m above sea level, Mt Everest is the highest. There are scores of exciting treks and expeditions for your Nepal Travels. If this is your first time discovering Nepal these are great options:
- The best trek for novices is definitely the Ghorepani Poon Hill Trek. If I can do it, so can you! Six days walking through the Himalayan foothills is one of the highlights of my life.
- Annapurna Base Camp Trek is a longer more demanding hike which takes around 16 days, including time in Kathmandu.
- The famous Everest Base Camp is a strenuous hike that takes you to an altitude of 5,380m. Minimum of 16 days required to acclimatize and complete the trek.
- Finally, a lesser-known hike, the Gosaikunda Circuit Trek takes you up to a glacier lake in the scenic Langtang Valley near the Tibet border. This trek is classed as moderate so you’ll need 11 days in all.
Author Biography: Karen Marco
Karen Marco is a UK journalist and bilingual travel writer based in Spain. She loves exploring exotic places across the world, visiting iconic sites and most of all discovering local life away from the tourist scene. KaliTravel describes a journey across the planet, an original blog with a focus on independent budget travel in Asia, Central and South America, and Europe. You’ll find travel tips, practical advice and lots of photos!