If you’re visiting Nepal, Kathmandu will inevitably be your entry point to the Himalayan nation. The Kathmandu Valley is full of fun & cultural day trips for tourists to explore, making for a great distraction as you acclimatize for a few days.
I think Kathmandu gets a bad reputation with the tourist circuit. People complain about the pollution and say its an ugly entry point to such a beautiful country. While I can understand where they might be coming from, I totally disagree! I stayed in Kathmandu for 6 weeks during my visit, and really fell in love with the city. It is full of friendly people, unique UNESCO heritage sites, and has lots of charm to fall in love with.
To help you get to know the history and culture of Kathmandu a little better, here are 3 great day trips to explore the city!
Swayambhunath is a short 30 minutes away from downtown. Famous for its UNESCO world heritage site, a large white stupa and gold gilded spire make up the main Buddhist shrine. Situated on the top of a hilltop, you climb up to the top and get an excellent few of Kathmandu. It is also dubbed “The Monkey Temple” for the hoards of monkeys (I think baboons?) that live at the site.
I loved my visit to this site. From the minute you walk in, you can smell incense and butter lamps burning, as well as get a little bit of fresh air from all the surrounding trees on the hill. It’s packed with both tourists and locals, and the dogs and monkeys running around adds to the energy of the place. Once you make your way up the hill to the top, you are greeted immediately by the stupa’s impressive size and beauty.
A perfectly proportioned stupa, the white dome represents earth and the gold spire has 13 rings, each which represent the 13 stages that humans must pass through to reach nirvana. Painted on the side of the spire are the eyes of Buddha. I am absolutely in love with this iconography and I find it captivating. The eyes are on all four sides to symbolize that Buddha is always watching and the squiggle nose represents the Nepali symbol for the number one, meaning unity.
All around the stupa are prayer wheels. Buddhists believe that by spinning the wheels, you are saying the prayer or mantra that is inscribed on the wheel. Above that are prayer flags, which serve a similar purpose, as Buddhists believe that when they blow in the wind, the mantra is said. There are also a ton of little shrines all around of different symbols or stories.
And throughout the site, you will be dodging the monkeys, which hide behind every corner waiting for you to drop a scrap of food. They hop from the rooftops, run on the ground and wrestle with the stray dogs. It’s totally chaotic, but so fun to watch the monkeys running all around. They even nestle themselves into the nooks of the shrine.
Shivapuri Nagarjun Forest
This national park is the closest national park to an international airport in all the world, and it accounts for about 40% of Kathmandu’s water supply. It is also a great place to escape to some silence and peaceful nature — a much needed retreat in the hectic and noisy Kathmandu.
This protected forest is one of the last undamaged areas of woodland in the valley, and it provides a home to native wildlife, although we didn’t see anything except birds. The forest climbs up a massive 2095m hill, to provide a panoramic view of the city. The summit is accessible by a two-hour hike (5km) on the footpath leading directly up the hill. While the footpath is in excellent condition, be forewarned that it is nearly all stairs at a steep grade. This is not an easy hike! It’s like 2 hours of stairmaster and boy, my quads and gluts were burning at the end. The stairway climbs up the hill almost directly and you ascend nearly 700m (nearly 2300 ft) in altitude in the short 5km distance.
With a strong sweat going, we took several stops to enjoy the scenery. The forest has a mixture of pine trees and deciduous trees, as well as many vines and shrubs around. It is very peaceful, as the sounds of the city die away and you just hear the wind and some birds. The trees also provide a nice layer of shade from the sun.
At the top of the hill is a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site and there’s a small shrine to Padmasambhava. At the top, there were several other groups of people who had driven up on their motorbikes (what cheaters!) and were enjoying a small picnic lunch.
The views from the city, even with the haze, are incredibly beautiful. I thought the view at Swayambhunath were nice, but from this vista, you can see the shrine and are still towering over it. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Annapurna mountain range and Langtang Lirung mountain range. We could see a few peaks today, but it was still pretty hazy at noon when we reached the top. I’ve been pretty mild about my exercise lately, only really walking, so it felt really nice to get my heart pumping hard and some serious cardiac activity. I guess it was good practice for the 15 day trek I plan to endeavor on later this trip. Gives me an idea of how hard my body will be working!
My favorite of the day-trips is Bodnath. A short 30 minute bus ride from the city center, Bodhnath is home to Asia’s largest stupa as well as a large population of Tibetan exiles. As I mentioned before stupas are a religious shrine deep in meaning. The first layer (mandala layer) signifies earth, the white dome signifies water, the square tower is fire, the spire is air, and the umbrella at the top is emptiness (ether).
One of the most visited sites in Nepal, thousands of pilgrims circumnavigate this stupa daily making prayer offerings, prayer flag offerings and bringing flowers. There are several monasteries on the site as well, so you will notice many Tibetan monks in their burgundy robes and shaved heads wandering around. You can also go up onto the mandala layer of this stupa, to get a slightly elevated few of the pilgrims and tourists making the circuit around. When walking around the stupa, it is important to go clockwise around, so that your right shoulder is always facing the stupa; it is considered impolite to have your left shoulder to Buddhist shrines.
The sheer size of the stupa will strike you as you approach. It is massive and takes about 15 minutes to talk around the full circuit. And of course, I fell in love with the eyes of Buddha monitoring everyone’s walk from atop the spire. The foundation of the stupa is believed to have been laid around 600 AD, but has been frequently torn down or destroyed by earthquake, and then rebuilt. The modern structure has been around and renovated since the 18th century.
Surrounding the stupa, there are loads of shops selling traditional Tibetan products, as well as Nepali handcrafts. And with lots of people to watch, it’s easy to spend an afternoon snapping photos, sipping on tea, and just enjoying the ambiance. There is a very laid-back vibe to Bodhnath, and it feels like a totally different culture than the rest of the city, likely due to the large amount of Tibetan influence here.
There are these lovely little rooftop restaurants which overlook the stupa, providing a perfect vista of the beautiful whitewashed dome. I had a tasty set of chicken momos while enjoying the view and soaking in some much needed sun. The last few days have been pouring rain, and I’ve been cooped up, so this was a lovely change in pace.
Thinking about a visit to Kathmandu? Check out my good friend Jason’s unique AirBnB where you’ll meet friendly local people!