As has been the case with a lot of large cities in Asia, I hadn’t heard a lot of great things about Kathmandu, apart from how exciting the approach to its airport was. The city is surrounded by mountains on all sides, many people told me, so you descend—and then, upon departure, ascend—at a really steep angle. These people also all praised the Himalaya views from the plane.
I was indeed impressed when I began seeing snow-capped Himalayan peaks about 10 minutes before landing in Nepal in mid-November. But in fact, I found the cityscape of Kathmandu itself, a colorful cacophony of cubical houses that looked like Legos, to be sight the most intrigued me as the Thai Airways 777 touched town.
As has often been my experience in the poorly-rated large cities of Asia, I thoroughly enjoyed my 3 days in Kathmandu. Whether you’re coming as a weekend break from elsewhere in the region, or to begin a longer trip, here’s the best way to pass a few days in the capital of Nepal.
Where to Stay in Kathmandu
I wanted my 3 days in Kathmandu to begin on a good note, and my extensive pre-trip research led me to believe that Kasthamandap Boutique Hotel would be the best place to make that happen. This proved a good decision: The hotel offered comfortable accommodation with great design sensibility and awesome amenities (rooftop lounges for the win!) at a fair price—about 5,000 rupees per night. Then again, most any hotel (or even hostel) in Thamel will do, since that’s where your 3 days in Kathmandu will begin.
How to Divide Up Your 3 Days in Kathmandu
Day One: Finding GOD in Thamel
In spite of how much time I spent in Thamel, I found it difficult to decide upon one definition for it. Was it the center of Kathmandu, or simply its backpacker hub? The city’s most iconic district, or just its most cliché one. Whatever the case was, Thamel was definitely a convenient base for my 3 days in Kathamandu, even if I avoided the main drags as much as possible during the time I spent there.
One of the local Nepalese people I met asked if I had seen GOD while in Thamel, which made me roll my eyes until I realized what he had meant: Garden of Dreams, one of the city’s only bonafide green spaces.
“No,” I told him as we sped away on his motorbike, whose seat had a Batman logo on it, explaining that I’d spent my first day in Kathmandu walking from Thamel down to Durbar Square and back, taking in sights like Dharma Dhaatu Stupa and Kaathe Swyambhu ShreeGha—and the colorful local street markets, particularly in the morning—but not managing to stand before GOD, except when I was waiting for him to arrive.
Day Two: A Tale of Two Temples—Er, Three
“This morning,” I continued, once we stopped at an intersection long enough for me to hear myself think above the roaring traffic of the city, “I went up to the Monkey Temple.”
“Swayambhunath?” he asked.
I nodded, albeit not in time for him to notice—we were off again.
Our first destination was Pashupatinath, a riverside temple where Hindus brought their dead to be cremated, among other ceremonies. After that we headed to Boudhanath, often just known by its abbreviated name Boudha, and went up to a rooftop café to enjoy a quick drink before heading back to my hotel.
(Yes, I managed to find a motorcycle-riding bad boy on Grindr in Kathmandu. No, I’m not going to go into further detail, other than to say I was very impressed by my experience.)
Day Three: Bhaktapur and (Maybe) Beyond
The bad news is that I didn’t end up getting to see Batman again on my third of 3 days in Kathmandu. The good news is that I enjoyed my day, which saw me take a day trip to the nearby city of Bhaktapur, enough that I wasn’t totally devastated by our sudden estrangement. OK, maybe I was a little.
Bhaktapur, to be sure, is kind of like if Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was much bigger and was a mostly pedestrian area. In fact, looking back on both my experiences in Bhaktapur and the pictures I took there, the only real difference between Bhaktapur and Kathamandu seems to be that the former was much more damaged by the 2015 earthquake.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t take a day trip there—quite the contrary.
On the other hand, if your trip is simply 3 days in Kathmandu and not, ultimately, two weeks in Nepal or at least an Everest Base Camp trek, you might skip Bhaktapur and instead continue on to Nagarkot, which is the best Himalaya viewpoint in the Kathmandu Valley. If you take this option, you might even go a step further and spend one night here (might I recommend Peaceful Cottage?) so that you can enjoy one of the sunrises for which this little hill town is famous.
Is 3 Days in Kathmandu Enough?
The question of how many days in Kathmandu you should spend depends on a few other factors. How long is your trip to Nepal as a whole? What are your expectations for the city? Can amazing attractions and a unique vibe counteract the annoyance you feel about congestion, pollution and general craziness?
To put it another way, you can absolutely see the best of Kathmandu in 3 days, more or less as I’ve described in this post. Conversely, while I can understand why you’d want to take a shorter trip, I think spending at least a few days here is advisable, especially if you’re traveling elsewhere in Nepal. There’s no more authentic place to settle into the hectic (but endearing, in the end) rhythm of the country!
What to Do in Nepal After Kathmandu
Speaking of traveling elsehwere in Nepal, what to do in Kathmandu for 3 days is only the beginning of the adventure. If you skip Nagarkot or any other day trips from Kathmandu, I imagine you will end up flying to Lukla and doing at least part of the Everest Base Camp trek in order to get your altitude fix.
As I’ve articulated elsehwhere on this site, Pokhara really isn’t all that; I was so turned off by it that I didn’t bother hiking at all in Annapurna. Which is to say the rest of my experience in Nepal reinforced the necessity of a quality Kathmandu itinerary, 3 days or however long you happen to have available.
The Bottom Line
Don’t believe (all) the hype: Kathmandu is an enjoyable city and a great introduction to Nepal, even if you can’t manage to find a motorcycle-riding bad boy to help you navigate the terrible traffic. For those who can’t devote longer to exploring the country, 3 days in Kathmandu is a fun city trip in its own right.