The October air in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, was crisp and celebratory—Dashain (Dusherra) and Tihar (Diwali) were around the corner, and the nation rejoiced with family and friends. Kathmandu had nearly emptied as most people had returned to their villages, leaving folks like us to revel in the city's serenity.
I was walking to a café with my baby daughter to meet with a friend when I spotted the snow-clad Himalayas through the jumble of urban buildings. This wasn't the first time I had seen the mountains from the city—they are a frequent sight. And like every time, I felt joy and gratitude swell in my heart.
After five years in the hyperactive city of New Delhi, my husband, son, and I moved to Kathmandu in 2021 due to a job transfer, and we welcomed our newborn daughter in 2022. We had been told by friends and many travel blogs that the city served as a pit-stop for travellers and trekkers before they journeyed to the other parts of Nepal. However, I soon realised that Kathmandu is much more than a stop-over. It is a slow conjoining of old and new worlds on the main roads; it is impatient, unruly, and always in a rush, but the inner-city streets have a relaxed vibe.
Kathmandu lies in a valley and comprises three formerly fortified cities, Kathmandu (Kantipur), Patan (Lalitpur), and Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon), that kings ruled. Hence, there are three beautiful squares or durbars, where the former subjects of the erstwhile kings used to gather to pay them homage. Today, these durbars serve as spaces for community celebrations. Of the three courtyards, Patan is the oldest, Bhaktapur is the grandest, and Kathmandu is where the living goddess, the Royal Kumari, resides. We, as a family, tend to frequent Patan the most.
The old-world vibe is strong in Patan. It is the cradle of Newari art and architecture, famous for its exquisite metal and wood carving. You will know you are in Patan when the lanes turn narrow and the old Newari homes come into view. Walk a bit, and the stone water spouts, some as old as 2,000 years, will make their appearance. Once upon a time, clean and cold mountain water used to gurgle from these spouts, but now most are defunct due to negligence.
Patan has many temples and stupas, as it is a cauldron of Hindu and Buddhist cultures, resulting in over a hundred devotional centres. It has close to 140 courtyards that are either surrounded by houses, simply house a small shrine or both. The other old towns of Bhaktapur, Kirtipur, and Boudha have the same undercurrent of calm as the commotion of life continues. It takes time to tune into the vibe of Kathmandu's old towns, but once it happens, it will drape around you like a warm wrap. These towns always leave me enriched with their culture and history.
From the ancient to the new world, we often land in Jhamsikhel, in Lalitpur. A girl needs her coffee and avocado on toast, after all. A business district of Lalitpur, Jhamsikhel also has residential sectors. A celebration of Kathmandu's millennial dreams, Jhamsikhel is home to cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques, shops, and mini-markets that sell imported goodies for the expat community. Yet, Jhamsikhel doesn't feel rushed.
Cyclists are aplenty, faces are familiar, corner shops rule the roost, flowery creepers run madly up walls, and wire cables, and traffic melts away by 8 pm. This laid-back cosmopolitan nature makes Jhamsikhel a top choice for travellers and digital nomads. It is the Kathmandu of the moment, and it runs on WiFi and coffee. Cafes such as The Himalayan Java Coffee, Jalpa Café, and Karma Coffee roast their beans (mostly Arabica) grown in the mountains of Nepal.
A half-hour drive from Jhamsikhel, the landscape melts into pine-scented woods surrounded by verdant paddy fields. The forests of Dakshinkali or Shivapuri National Park are a favourite hiking area of city dwellers, as many of the routes are easy for beginners and even children. If we are not shopping at a weekend farmers' market, we take off to explore the Nepalese countryside in the hills.
Farm stays like The Famous Farm in Nuwakot, and Namo Buddha in Dhulikhel are our favourites for spending a day or two, breathing the refreshing air, enjoying the silence, and recharging for city life. There isn't much to do here except hike in the woods, interact with locals over chiya (tea), sigh dreamily at the rose sunset skies, and eat delectable farm-fresh food. Many retreats here offer wellness packages and hiking guides for guests who want to hike till here instead of driving down.
It's been almost two years since we arrived in the country, and while we have gotten used to working Sundays, we still cannot wrap our heads around its calendar. It is based on the ancient Bikram Sambat tradition, according to which we are in the year 2079, and we miss online shopping. On the other hand, we enjoy running errands on our cycles, drinking our morning coffee at the neighbourhood café, and eating homegrown avocados. I am grateful that the city has welcomed me and nurtured my soul.
1. Soak in the valley's history, art, and culture at the durbar squares of Patan, Bhaktapur, and Basantapur. Kirtipur, another small and ancient town in the valley, is a must-visit if you have more time.
2. The Baudhanath and Swayambhunath stupa are the flag-bearers of Buddhism in Nepal. Baudhanath is one of the largest stupas in the world, while Swayambhunath is said to be the oldest stupa in Nepal.
3. Enjoy a night out in Thamel. This bustling marketplace is filled with cool cafes, many restaurants, and throbbing nightclubs. Thamel is also known for shops selling mountaineering gear. However, keep an eye out for fake products.
4. Go café hopping. Jhamsikhel is teeming with cute and cosy cafes that offer good coffee, food, and WiFi. Many of them open by 8 am and close early as well. Do not expect to get a cuppa at 9 pm.
5. Feast on cuisines from all over the world. Take your pick from Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Turkish, or Singaporean.
6. Remember to take advantage of Nepalese dishes such as thakkali (a thali with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options), jhol momo (momos served in spicy soup), and Newari khaaja. Nepal loves its plate of daal-bhaat-tarkaari (lentils, rice, and vegetables).
7. For hiking enthusiasts, there is no shortage of hiking options in Nepal. You can start with a hike in Shivapuri National Park, located at the city's northern edge. It is possible to hike or cycle to the resorts close to the city.
8. National Botanical Park in Godawari makes for a lovely location for dry picnics.
9. A cable car takes visitors above the Kathmandu valley to the Chandragiri hills. On a clear day, the view from the hills of the faraway Himalayas is one of the best in the city. Once on top, you can visit the restaurant, the temple, and the playground, and there is also a zip line for the adventurous. Fancy spending a night in these hills? Check out Chandragiri Hills Resort.
10. Spend a night or two in the towns close to Kathmandu, such as Dhulikhel or Nagarkot to enjoy the fresh air and see the mountains. I recommend farm stays for their hospitality, food, and pro-sustainability operations. To reach these towns, it is best to take a domestic flight from Pokhara, as the highways need to be better maintained, so the journey may take longer than anticipated.
There are direct flights to Kathmandu, Nepal, from Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata, and one-stop flights from Bengaluru and Hyderabad.