When Nepal opened its doors to tourists in the 1950s, it was mostly hippy backpackers who ventured there to experience its wonders and magic. I remember listening to Cat Steven’s song ‘Katmandu’ and wondering what it would be like to visit such an exotic place. And sure enough, when I got to visit Nepal for the first time, it did not disappoint.
BURSTING WITH SPIRITUALITY AND CULTURE
Nepal is known as much for its mountains as it is for being a place of spiritual resonance. Do not worry if climbing Mount Everest is asking just a little too much of you. There is plenty to see and do without too much (maybe quite a bit!) strain on the leg muscles. Nepal offers breathtaking sites that will amaze you. Still, it is the deep sense of spirituality and harmonious interactions between different religions that make it such a unique place.
THE DEVASTATING EARTHQUAKE OF 2015
If you recall the devastating earthquake Nepal suffered in 2015, you will know that many of the top tourist sites sustained some damage. However, reconstruction has been taking place, and many sites have been restored and enhanced. I intend to describe 10 magnificent cultural sites, including some of the world’s most impressive temples and stupas you could visit on a trip to Nepal. I hope this whets your appetite if you plan an adventure to this welcoming, extraordinary place.
Famous temples and landmarks within Kathmandu city.
1) SWAYAMBHUNATH (MONKEY) TEMPLE
There is a reason why this temple tops the list. If you can only visit one site in Kathmandu, it should be Swayambhunath. The hippies renamed it “Monkey Temple” because it is a bit of a tongue-twister and because it is loved and frequented by humans and monkeys in equal measure. This temple is possibly the best sunrise/sunset spot in Kathmandu, with a view of the whole valley. Its massive stupa (Buddhist monuments venerating Buddha or other saints, and a place where holy relics are kept) is a place to absorb the peaceful atmosphere. Statues and shrines to Buddhist and Hindu gods abound here, and you will always see worshipers quietly stilling around the prayer wheels at the bottom of the statues.
Pro Tip: Wear comfortable shoes as there are 365 steps to climb to get to the top, but it is totally worth it! Also, you are supposed to walk clockwise around the prayer wheels, so please be sure to respect this tradition.
Opening hours: Swayambhunath is open 24 hours tickets cost NPR 200 (less than $2)
2) BOUDHANATH TEMPLE
You may be forgiven for not picking up that this is, in fact, the largest stupa in Asia and one of the holiest of Buddhist sites. At first glance, it appears to be a heaving mass of movement and noise. But, when you enter the great white dome of Boudhanath, you will be entering a “zen” zone. As the incense drifts around, and the soft chanting of the Tibetan monks who come here every year to observe kora (the ritual that involves going around the dome while spinning prayer balls.) Do not leave the stupa before visiting the many quaint souvenir stalls and coffee shops that surround it. There are also monasteries close by that offer Buddhism classes.
Pro Tip: It gets very crowded, as is usually the case for these kinds of sites. It’s best to visit early in the morning and watch the sunrise over the stupa.
Opening hours: Boudhanath temple is open Sunday to Saturday 24 hours. Tickets cost NPR 400 ( $4) for foreigners
Bhaktapur is an 1100-year-old Newari tribal city listed as a UNESCO World Heritage city. Situated in the Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur has retained much of its traditional Shikhira architecture. Amongst the narrow-lined ancient streets, you enter a long-forgotten world of 18th-century pagodas, temples, statues, and palaces. Rulers of the Malla dynasty, who ran the Kingdom and patronized the arts, have left an abundance of exquisite architecture and artefacts to admire. While most of the structures survived the earthquake, some of the smaller pagodas and temples were destroyed and are undergoing reconstruction. A visit to Bhaktapur usually includes the following places:
Bhaktapur Durbar (Durbar means a palace) Square
There is so much to see here, beginning with the 55- window palace whose walls include tantric carvings teaching the Kamasutra. The Golden Gate which is is the last piece of artwork made by the Malla king. The Pashupatinath Pagoda, the Royal bath which is adorned by snakes symbols as they believed that water never dries in places where there are snakes. Other temples you will visit here include; Chyasalin Mandip, Siddhi Lakshi, and the Vatsala. A stunning 600-year-old wooden carved door that consists of the hand carvings of nine different gods is also located here. However, you are not allowed to photograph it. A statute of the famous Bishnu gunisha Ganesh god where the aristocrats performed sacrifices is also found here.
- Nyatapola Temple – Nepal’s tallest pagoda.
Besides the ancient architecture, Bhaktapur is still a lived-in city with the accompanying hustle and bustle. You can participate in the local economy by purchasing local artefacts and admiring memorable souvenirs, like pottery, painting, and woodworks available to buy straight from the craftspeople. If you would like to evoke some of your inner creativity, you can take a traditional Thanka painting lesson which costs about 10 dollars per day for foreigners.
Interestingly, Bhaktapur is known for its famous yoghurt, juju dhau, which originates from there and is a delicacy served during many Nepali festivals.
Pro Tip: Some of the temples within the city are not accessible to non-Hindus, and photography is forbidden in specific sites.
Unlike the previous sites, it’s worth getting a guide here to learn about its culture and the different sites it has to offer.
Bhaktapur opening hours: 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. tickets cost $1500 ($15)
4) KATHMANDU DURBAR SQUARE
Sadly, Kathmandu Durbar Square bore the brunt of the 2015 earthquake. However, it still deserves a place on the list as it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The only downside to visiting it is that it’s right in the middle of Thamel, Kathmandu’s busy city centre, making it difficult to access. It also houses its own share of ancient shrines and beautiful statues. The Jagannath Temple is considered one of the most beautiful, with its erotic carvings that date back to 1563.
If you have done some basic research on Nepali culture, you will have read about Kumari Ghar, the picturesque home of the girl chosen to be a living goddess. She is believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu warrior goddess and represents female spiritual energy in Hinduism. It is unlikely that you will see her, but the lovely house and courtyard make for a great photo opportunity. Kumari Ghar is located at the Southern end of Durbar Square. I would be remiss if I did not mention here that there are diverse views regarding the extraordinary life of Nepal’s living child goddesses. They are effectively stripped of the title when they get their first period and cannot marry.
Pro Tip: If you do decide to visit the goddess, the best chance of seeing her are between 9 and 11 a.m. and between 4 and 6 p.m.
Kathmandu Durbar Square entrance fee is NPR 1,000 ($10)
5) PATAN DURBAR SQUARE
By far the most famous one on the list, Patan Durbar Square is known as “City of Beauty.” Like the other Durbar squares, Patan is also a UNESCO World Heritage site with a unique assortment of temples, statutes, and a palace. The Square has 136 small courtyards and 55 temples. But what sets it apart is its collection of over 1,500 traditional artefacts, including sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities. One of the important landmarks to see is the Krishna Mandir, a stunning shrine to Lord Krishna.
Pro Tip: Try to arrive there at sundown to experience the lighting up of the temples and monasteries.
Situated in the old palace, built on the site of a Buddhist monastery, Patan Museum exhibits rare treasures from Nepal’s glorious history. There are bronzes, mainly Hindu and Buddhist deities, copper casts, and many examples of traditional Patan craftwork. The museum is considered one of the best restoration efforts in South Asia. A visit to this showcase of Nepal’s rich cultural history must find a place on your “must-see” list.
Patan Durbar Square tickets cost NPR 1000 ($10) and an additional NPR 500 ($5) for the museum.
and has unusual spiritual energy. One of the holiest sites in Hinduism, it is also a sacred cremation place, where Hindus perform the last rites. Cremations take place in the open on raised platforms along the banks of the river. Foreigners may find this practice interesting and disturbing in equal measure.
Dedicated to the god Shiva, Pashupatinath rests on the banks of the Bagmati River, which separates Kathmandu and Patan cities. Only Hindu devotees are allowed into the temple, but there is much to see around it. This temple is constructed in the pagoda style and has a gilded roof and beautiful, intricate wood carvings. There is an enormous golden statue of Shiva’s Bull, Nandi outside and the shining Shivalinga in the courtyard.
Pro Tip: There are free yoga classes offered at the temple every morning. And each evening at 6.30 p.m, the Aarti ceremony a vibrant event that is a delight of colour, chanting, and light in honour of Lord Shiva. You will never forget this unique experience.
7) BABER MAHAL
The Baber Mahal is not an ancient temple like the ones listed above, but it is still worth mentioning on this list. Located north of the Bagmati River, Baber Mahal is a spectacular example of the architectural style of the Rama prime ministers. They were the rulers of Nepal from 1846 to 1951. The Baber Mahal complex is a tourist magnet. You will find fabulous restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and accommodation, including Baber Mahal Vilas’s luxury hotel. The complex is an oasis in the centre of bustling Kathmandu.
8) KAILASHNATH MAHADEV SHIVA STATUTE
If you fancy a trip out of Kathmandu’s hustle and bustle, drive up to Sanga (about 20 km from the city). Here they had to create the tallest statue of Shiva in the world to rival the surrounding views! It is 44 meters high and shows Shiva presenting the mudra offering peace (the classic Hindu hand gesture). Like almost everywhere in Nepal, it is so worth the effort of getting there!
Temples and monuments outside of Kathmandu
9) JANAKI TEMPLE
If you are familiar with the Hindu story, the Ramayana, you will know that Janakpur is the birthplace of Sita, and as such, it is a holy city. It is also the place where she married Lord Ram. For this reason, the Ram Janaki Temple was built at the heart of this city, and it is a favourite pilgrimage place for many Hindus. Constructed over a 15-year period between 1896 and 1911, the beautiful temple mixes Mughal and Hindu architectural styles. It is made of stone and marble with latticed windows resembling Islamic architecture because most artisans involved in its construction were Muslims.
An annual festival, in memory of the marriage of Sita and Rama, takes place in November and December. There are many sacred rituals and arts and festivities that you would expect at such an important event. Try to time your visit to Janakpur for this period, and you will be in for a treat! It is also the best time to visit for clear skies!
Pro Tip: Janakpur is in the Terai region, Southeast of Kathmandu. The easiest way to get there is to fly.
The temple is open 24 hours but gets very busy. You need to get there before 7 a.m. to avoid the crowds.
10) LUMBINI, BIRTHPLACE OF BUDDHA
What better way to culminate Nepal’s list of UNESCO Heritage sites than with an archaeological site that attracts thousands of travellers every year. There are many reasons why Nepal is a place of such spiritual resonance. One of these reasons is the historical city Lumbini, an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists worldwide. Lumbini is not only the birthplace of Lord Buddha, but it is also one of the only four Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world.
In contrast to the other temples constructed by Nepal’s former rulers, Lumbini is a melting pot of numerous temples and stupas built by a host of other countries to honour Buddha. From Myanmar to Vietnam to Thailand and Tibet, even Germany.
Pro Tip: Located in the Terai region, south of the country, the best way to get to Lumbini is to fly. However, you can drive there from either Pokhara ( 5 hours) or Kathmandu.
Finally, I would like to say that I have not done the famous temples of Nepal
justice in this review. It just has to be experienced to be believed. When you plan your trip, leave all your “baggage” behind (remembering that you need to dress respectfully at all times) and relax into the spirit of Nepal.
As Cat Stevens said:
Kathmandu, I’ll soon be seein’ you
And your strange bewilderin’ time
Will hold me down.
If you want to want to see more than Nepal’s traditional and cultural heritage read this post about Amazing attractions in Pokhara if you are not a hiker.
If you are a culturally-inclined traveler seeking inspiration to another Asian city bursting with spiritual resonance read this post about Pakistan, Lahore’s stunning old city.