A Little Culture… Exploring Kathmandu’s Stupas, Temples, and Culture

Last updated on January 2, 2023

temples in durbar square kathmandu
Durbar Square

The early morning light glinted off buildings of Kathmandu as our plane circled the Kathmandu Valley waiting to land. After two months exploring India, I moved into Nepal (full Nepal travel guide here) to spend nine weeks taking a much slower pace to life and travels as I explored everything there is do in Kathmandu, in the wider Kathmandu Valley, and further afield in Chitwan National Park, Pokhara, and other areas. In India, I met my cousin in Mumbai and then rode the trains north for two months. It was a lot of energy to move that fast and far. But, oh the sites we saw. India is a gorgeous country and Nepal—in the foothills of the Himalayas—has continued that theme. The big part of my travels through Nepal is volunteering at a monastery in the Kathmandu Valley. Beyond that, I used my free weekends to explore everything Kathmandu has to offer.

What to Expect in Kathmandu

Before volunteering, the organization helped me tour the major sites and learn the landscape of the city. Holy smokes there is a lot of history in Kathmandu! There are truly so many things to do and sights to visit that even my six weeks of weekends exploring haven’t been enough. Of note though: Spend time in Kathmandu and you will become nonchalant about the sheer craziness of traffic in South Asia. When I landed in Bangkok all of those months ago, the chaos and noise overwhelmed me—I understood so little of how it flowed. Now, however, there are rules to the chaos and underlying codes of conduct that were so foreign. My volunteer organization had arranged a taxi to whisk me into Thamel, the backpacker area of Kathmandu and the place from which I began learning this new country. Because my cousin and I paid for an all-inclusive volunteer program, the hotel and accommodations for four weeks are mostly covered, except for our weekend excursions, when we tested out the best hotels in Kathmandu and beyond to find comfortable and convenient places to stay.

Even better, as I spent the days exploring the squares and stupas of Nepal, I also spent four days in a Nepali language bootcamp. These lessons gave me a crash course in the most basic verbs and commands that I will need when working at the monastery and navigating the country.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, one of the most popular things to do in the city.
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, one of the most popular things to do in the city.

Our first three days were jam packed and organized around our two-hour Nepali lessons. After morning lessons, we visited the major tourist spots in Kathmandu. One of the first things I loved about Nepal is the pace. Nepal shares some cultural nuances with its southern neighbor, India, but without the intensity. The Nepali people are fun and friendly, and each shop was delighted to help me practice my new Nepali. The only comparison I can think of is the difference between Laos and Vietnam.

One of the best bonuses, is the casual acceptance of tourism. India is huge, and there are some cities off the beaten path that rarely see tourism. This isn’t the case for Nepal. Because of the number of travelers hiking the Annapurna Circuit and Everest, foreigners are often given no more than a passing glance. In India, that wasn’t the case. From Gandhi’s ashram to the Taj Mahal, the men and women stared, touched, and followed me. Nepal is a welcome change of pace for any traveler who is also arriving from India!

Each section of town has a different vibe, so that’s the first thing you should know when exploring and picking a place to stay. While many backpackers stay in Thamel (and this is where I passed much of my time since our volunteer office was located in Thamel), other travelers choose to stay deeper in the heart of Kathmandu, where the major historic sites are within walking distance.

A Brief History of Kathmandu

You should always know a bit about your destination before traveling. Here’s what you need to know about Kathmandu before setting out to see and do all the things the city offers.

  • Prehistoric era: The Kathmandu Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years, and there is evidence of human settlement dating back to the Neolithic period. The valley was likely a center of trade and cultural exchange from early on.
  • Early history: The Kathmandu Valley was conquered by the Kiratis, a group of Mongolian origin, in the 7th century AD. The Kiratis were followed by the Licchavis, who ruled the valley from the 4th to the 9th centuries AD.
  • Malla period: The Malla period, which lasted from the 9th to the 18th centuries, was a golden age for Kathmandu. The valley was divided into three small kingdoms: Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. These kingdoms were centers of art, culture, and trade, and the Malla kings were known for their patronage of the arts.
  • Modern era: In the 19th century, Kathmandu was conquered by the Gurkhas, a group of warriors from the Himalayas. The Gurkhas established a monarchy and ruled Nepal until the 20th century, when Nepal became a republic. Today, Kathmandu is the cultural, economic, and political center of Nepal, and is home to a diverse population of over 1 million people.

Best Things to Do in Kathmandu

what is worth seeing in Kathmandu

My Nepali language teachers acted as my tour guide, they were sister pair, Pramila and Urmila. Together, the sisters structured my days to see the best things in Kathmandu each afternoon. The goal was to have us understand the culture, history, and language before heading deeper into the rural areas of the Kathmandu Valley. On this round the world trip, I’ve made a point to collect UNESCO World Heritage sites—these are spots that are natural or manmade sites provide an important contribution to the world’s history and development. The Kathmandu Valley is home to seven UNESCO sites: Hanuman Dhoka, Patan and Bhaktapur, Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, and Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

Hanuman Dhoka (Durbar Square)

This a large square that sits opposite the series of temples and buildings that were once used by royalty. This area was built throughout a large swath of Nepal’s history, developing between the 12th and 18th centuries. Durbar Square functioned as the seat of royalty for thousands of years — the nation’s kings were crowned here and ruled from these former palaces. Three separate squares are known collectively as Durbar Square, but each used to serve a different function. Now, some palaces and buildings serve as museums, others were rebuilt in the 20th century. Through it all, you can explore the square and make a scavenger hunt of finding the many images of Hanuman, the monkey god.

Although much of the square is still filled with history and beauty, many major structures were reduced to rubble during the devastating, tragic 2015 earthquake that struck the Kathmandu Valley. But there is still so much history and beauty to see. If you have the time, I recommend packing a lunch from your favorite cafe, then sit on the steps like the locals watch the pigeons, people, and sadhus wander the square.

Hanuman Dhoka (Durbar Square)
What to do in Hanuman Dhoka

The Kumari Ghar

Kumari Living Goddess *taken by Flickr user bipin_ss1

The part of the square I found most fascinating is the set of elaborately carved doors on the Kumari Ghar. The Royal Kumari of Kathmandu is a living goddess and it’s worth researching to see if you’ll be in Kathmandu during one of her handful of appearances.

The story of the Kumari leaves me equal parts fascinated and baffled. The Kumari is believed to literally be a living incarnation of the Goddess Devi. This living goddess lives in the temple from the time she is selected as the next incarnation of Devi. Each new Kumari is chosen as a three- to five-year-old from group of girls who share similar characteristics.  To become the next embodiment of the Goddess, the girls have to meet a slew of restrictions that range from the date, hour, and minute of their birth to physical features like eye shape, skin color, and voice.

When a new Kumari is needed (when the current Kumari first menstruates), the handful of young girls that meet the tight restrictions are then put through one further test to decide which one is the actual incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Devi (the universal goddess). Each child is locked in a dark room where they hear scary noises and see flickering lights and watch gruesome animal heads and scary scenes. The theory is that the little girl who shows no fear—or the least amount of fear—must be the Goddess.

That chosen one is then taken to live in the Kumari Ghar with her family. She is only allowed to leave the temple 13 times a year for religious festivals. As a westerner, this entire story struck me as stranger than fiction when Pramila shared the history and details. It’s a unique and small part of the city’s quirkiness, culture, and history, and it’s worth reading up on the Kumari if you’re interested. One former Kumari wrote a memoir about what it was like to grow up under all of that attention and power. That book is hard to find, however, so your best bet for more history on the Kumari is The Living Goddess, a fascinating, painstakingly researched account of the history of the Kumari. It’s recent, and it serves as an anthropological study of the interplay between this goddess and the Nepali religion.

history of the kumari ghar, kathmandu

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)

On our afternoon sightseeing in Kathmandu, Pramila and her sister brought me to Swayambhunath, which is also known as Monkey Temple because of the hundreds of monkeys living in the surrounding trees. Like Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As one of the holiest sites in Nepal, the Swayambhunath complex is just beautiful. The Stupa is set high up on a hill (pilgrims and visitors ascend 365 steps to get to the top). From there, the Stupa stands tall and proud overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. Once you stumble up the last of the 365 steps, a massive gleaming white dome looms ahead. From the center of the dome blooms a spire. On all four sides of the spire is the painted image of the wise and all-seeing eyes of Lord Buddha (the middle symbol is the third eye). When you visit, be aware that the monkeys will aggressively steal food from your hands!

Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
Flags at Swayambhunath

Boudhanath Stupa

Boudhanath is also a UNESCO site and is thought to be the largest Stupa in existence, and it’s the largest spherical stupa in Nepal. Although Boudhanath was damaged during the 2015 earthquake, restoration efforts quickly restored this structure to its previous glory and stature. Boudhanath is the center of Buddhism and the stupa is simply enormous. The Buddha eyes also peer from this stupa and look outward, watching over the Kathmandu Valley. This stupa is located in a popular area of the city. Boudhanath was one on the ancient trade route between Tibet and India, and as the Tibetans fled their country in the 1950s, many followed that same route and decided to make a home near this holy spot. And this stupa is so important that it is said to entomb Kassapa Buddha, the 27th of the 29 named Buddhas.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

Pashupatinath Temple

This is a sacred site for the Hindu and it’s not to be taken on a lark. As a Westerner, consider observing the temple from the other side of the Bagmati River. Also a UNESCO site, the position across the river allows you to respectfully watch from above as they regularly perform ritual cremations in the ghats on the river’s edge. Pashupatinath is a sprawling complex as well, so the bird’s eye view on the temples and ashrams is unique to other temples you will visit in Kathmandu. But it’s all worth seeing up close to, so eventually head across the river to see the images and structures.

The burning ghats at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu
Holy ghats burn at Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple

Buy Some Fun Souvenirs

Go on a shopping spree in the city’s bustling markets. The Thamel District is the main shopping area in Kathmandu, and it is known for its handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs. You’ll find a wide variety of items for sale, including traditional clothing, jewelry, and home decor. I bought some gorgeous batik silk scarves on my first trip to Kathmandu that I still cherish nearly 15 years later.

Day Trip to Patan

Patan is an ancient city located just outside of Kathmandu, and it is known for its beautiful temples and palaces. Visitors can explore the city’s many temples and palaces, which are adorned with intricate carvings and art, and visit the Patan Museum, which is home to a collection of artifacts from Nepal’s history.

Tour the Kopan Monastery

The Kopan Monastery is located just outside of Kathmandu and is home to a community of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Visitors can take a guided tour of the monastery, which includes a visit to the main temple and the monks’ living quarters, and participate in a meditation session or a yoga class.

Spend the Afternoon at a Museum

Kathmandu is home to several museums, which are a great way to learn about the city’s history and culture. The National Museum is home to a collection of artifacts from Nepal’s history, including artwork, sculptures, and weapons, and the Natural History Museum is home to a collection of specimens from Nepal’s flora and fauna.

Stop and Smell the Flowers

The Garden of Dreams is a beautiful garden located in the heart of the city that is home to a variety of plants and flowers. It is a great place to relax and unwind, and it also has a cafe where visitors can enjoy a drink or a snack.

View the City from Above

A hot air balloon ride is a unique way to see Kathmandu and its surroundings. The balloon ride offers breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding mountains, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

All of the main sites are right in the Kathmandu Valley and are believed to relate not only to the formation and development of the Valley, but each one is directly tied to the country’s Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. The mix of religions in this part of the world is unique and quite harmonious. The other things to do are a great way to pass time in Kathamandu when you’re “templed” out and need a change of pace.

One of the temple complexes that I visited featured a stupa, a Hindu structure, and even some influences from nearby India. Three types of architecture and multiple religious beliefs all shared the same place and all of the worshippers commingle without conflict. It’s a fascinating mix of cultures and religions that inhabits every heartbeat of Nepali culture and society.

Prayer wheels spinning in Kathmandu
Prayer flags from the view at Swayambhunath temple

And one gorgeous nuance to the entire experience of sightseeing in Kathmandu is the presence of Tibetan prayer flags. The lines of flags cascade like colorful waterfalls from temple peaks and treetops. There is a good reason these flags start in high places, too. Each flag on the string contains a full mantra. When the wind blows through the prayer flags it carries the mantra throughout the world bringing peace and harmony. I just love this idea. The concept is simple and the faith behind these prayer flags makes it all the more beautiful. Likewise, the Tibetan prayer wheels inside the various temples run on a similar concept. Inscribed on each prayer wheel is a series of mantras and prayers. When you spin all of the prayer wheels in succession, you are sending one complete prayer into world. I love the universality of many of these beliefs. The religion aims at gently spreading peace throughout the world as well as using their prayer and spirituality to better their own lives, too.

Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip—a great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost or stolen gear, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used IMG Global for more than a decade highly recommend it!

Quick Travel Planning Tips for Kathmandu

Visas & Getting There

If you’re in India, airlines fly many times a day between Delhi and Kathmandu — this is definitely the easiest way to enter. There are overland options too, but Nepal is mountainous and not every border crossing will effectively carry you to Kathmandu. For visas, entering Kathmandu is mostly easy —  it’s visa-on-arrival for US citizens.  The ATMS are one catch, however, because the airport ATM is never working. I had learned my lesson about carrying backup travel cash in Laos, so I always  and always carried cash stashed away in different spots in my packs. On arrival, I had US $60 in cash, but the three-month visa cost $100 US. Since the ATM was broken, that presented an interesting issue. I ended up bumming money off of a couple of people nearby who I then met up with in Thamel to return their funds!

Plan Your Trip Online

I have a full Nepal Travel Guide on the site. This page details sights, history and culture, recommended reading, and everything essential that you should know before you go. That said, here are three things to keep in mind before traveling around Nepal.

  • Respect local customs and traditions: Nepal is a predominantly Hindu and Buddhist country, and it is important to respect the local customs and traditions. This includes dressing modestly, taking off your shoes before entering temples and homes, and avoiding public displays of affection.
  • Stay safe: Kathmandu can be a chaotic and crowded city, and it is important to take precautions to stay safe. Avoid walking alone at night, keep an eye on your belongings, and avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Carry travel insurance for those times when something does go wrong.
  • Hire a local guide: Hiring a local guide can be a great way to get to know the city and learn about its history and culture. Guides can help you navigate the city, recommend places to visit and things to do, and provide insight into local customs and traditions. I had a local guide while visiting all of the major temples and sights and it really made my experience better.

Best Guidebook

I like using Lonely Planets mostly because I am super familiar with the layouts, they have a good transportation section, and what they lack in history and insight I can easily find online!

Where to Stay in Kathmandu

First, choose an area to stay. Backpackers will head to Thamel and most others will likely want to opt for Boudhanath. But here’s the vibes in each.

  1. Thamel: Thamel is the main tourist area in Kathmandu and is known for its vibrant nightlife, shopping, and dining. It is located close to many of the city’s main attractions, including Kathmandu Durbar Square, and it is easy to get around on foot or by taxi.
  2. Patan: Patan is an ancient city located just outside of Kathmandu, and it is known for its beautiful temples and palaces. It is a quieter and more traditional area, and it is a great place to stay if you want to experience traditional Nepali culture.
  3. Boudhanath: Boudhanath is an area located just outside of Kathmandu that is home to the Boudhanath Stupa, which is one of the largest in Nepal and is an important center of Tibetan Buddhism. The area is known for its peaceful atmosphere and is a great place to stay if you want to experience the city’s spiritual side.

I use Booking.com for the vast majority of my international travel. Consider Hotel Mums Home on a budget, Hotel Tibet for midrange, and Hotel Yak & Yeti for a nice place from which to organize your search.

Nepal Travel Guide

A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.

8 thoughts on “A Little Culture… Exploring Kathmandu’s Stupas, Temples, and Culture”

  1. One of my memorable event in Kathmandu was gorging on sizzling Choila with pickles, potatoes and Chiura in Basantpur. If you visit Kathmandu next time, I recommend this place for mouth watering local Nepali dishes.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Your information is amazing I love to read about lakes in Nepal definitely try to visit these amazing lakes, and there is anything else that you want to share with me about these lakes.

  3. I lived in Nepal for 4 years… Amazing learning curve as a Westerner to say the least!! I love the way you have captured it in words! I travelled overland from New Delhi… I remember going across a bridge into Nepal and everything relaxed and felt so so different!! I was travelling alone in India and had some really crappy experiences… Not in Nepal. Suzi.

    • So funny that you experienced that same sense of calm when you arrived in Nepal. Thank you for sharing your own experiences!

  4. Your description about Nepal is just awesome. Even After being a nepali and visiting almost all the places mentioned above your description was quite amazing I would say.

  5. I read a whole thing about these goddess, They end up having the most horrible lives, because they’re ripped away from their families, when they return they have no social skills, no one wants to marry them and they end up all alone. it’s human torture if you ask me.


Leave a Comment