Landlocked between the towering heights of the Himalayas and the hot, subtropical jungles of India, Nepal is a land of temples and monasteries, peaks and Sherpas, and of course adventure. Ever since the country opened its borders to outsiders in the 1950s, this tiny nation has become irresistible to travelers who wish to explore some of the world’s highest peaks and best treks. Others come to Nepal for the vast range of adrenaline sports on offer, and others for the serenity of tiny temples and villages almost from another world.
The chances are many will begin their Nepalese adventure in the capital of Kathmandu, which offers a glimpse into the culture, tradition, and thin air of the country. From here, treks to the Royal Chitwan National Park, Sagarmatha National Park, Langtang National Park, and Annapurna Circuit offer an experience no other place can match – views of eight of the ten highest peaks in the world, including the mesmerising and astonishing Mount Everest.
Of course, other travelers come not for the weeks-long treks but for the atmosphere, culture, and tradition. There is nothing quite like sipping a refreshing drink while peering at the mountains from a viewpoint such as that at Nagarkot or wandering through temple lined medieval city squares such as Bhaktapur or Patan. Perhaps, adventure sports is the reason for a visit, with some of the best paragliding and white-water rafting available in places such as Pokhara.
Regardless of how you spend your time in Nepal, you are certain to wish there was more of it as you leave this extraordinary country.
The capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu is likely to be the first port of call for any visitor to the country and can be a heady, sensory overload experience. The sights, sounds, and smells of this wonderful city are as intoxicating and incredible as they are exhausting, with medieval temples, traffic jammed alleyways, and backpacker trekking routes waiting for excited visitors outside the only international airport in Nepal. Be prepared to take some time to acclimatize to the thin air with the city’s elevation standing at 1,400 meters above sea level.
Another of the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city is Swayambhu, also known as the Monkey Temple, and one of the most sacred sites in the country. Other popular sites throughout the city include Boudha Stupa, Narayanhiti Palace Museum, Thamel Chowk, Freak Street, Pashupatinath, the Garden of Dreams, and Buddha Neelkanth Temple. However, to truly glimpse the soul of the city, take a stroll through the backstreets where the timeless artistic and cultural heritage of Kathmandu reveals itself in the form of temples, courtyards, and tiny workshops.
The second largest city in Nepal, Pokhara ticks all the boxes one would expect from a Nepalese trip – stunning scenery, delicious cuisine, and thrilling adventure activities. A starting point for those who are planning treks in the Annapurna area and the perfect place to recharge the batteries for those on the way back, Pokhara s snow-capped mountains and tranquil lake offer the perfect surroundings. However, there’s much more to Pokhara than its laid back charm and the city also boasts one of the best paragliding venues in the world.
The viewpoints at the World Peace Pagoda and Sarangkot provide the perfect locations to scan the area and watch the sun rise or set. Within the city are a couple of excellent museums – the International Mountain Museum and the Gurkha Memorial Museum. The International Mountain Museum tells the story of mountaineering and its history while the Gurkha Memorial Museum is dedicated to the famous soldiers from Nepal. The city is famous for its adventure activities, and for thrill seekers there are plenty of adventure sports to enjoy including canoeing, white-water rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and of course paragliding.
Just 12 kilometers east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur is the third of the medieval city-states in the Valley and also the best preserved. An ancient city renowned for its elegant art, colorful festivals, indigenous lifestyle, traditional dances, and fabulous culture, Bhaktapur is known variously as an Open Museum, a City of Devotees, a Living Heritage, Nepal’s Cultural Gem, and the City of Culture. This is the perfect place to wander around aimlessly along the cobbled street, squares, and courtyards, and simply soak up the atmosphere.
While wandering around and exploring Bhaktapur, be sure to pop into Nytapola Crafts in the pottery square to discover some of the local arts and crafts which the area is famous for. Just north of the city is Changu Narayan, the oldest temple in the Kathmandu Valley and a UNESCO World Heritage Monument since 1979. The temple is also a perfect scenic spot, situated at 1,700 meters above sea level it offers superb views of the Valley.
One of the largest cities in Nepal and a once fiercely independent state, Patan (also known as Lalitpur) is now almost a suburb of Kathmandu, separated only by the Bagmati River. A traditional center of handicrafts, Patan is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir or two from the collection of jewellery, Buddha statues, and masks on display. The city is also home to one of the finest collections of temples and palaces in the whole country – Durbar Square (not to be confused with Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square).
There are a number of temples on the left of the square including Krishna temple, the Shankar Naravan temple, the temple with a statue of Yognarendra on a pillar in front, two smaller temples dedicated to Vishnu, the oldest temple in the complex dating from 1566, a stone temple to Krishna, the Vishwanath temple, and the Bhimsen temple.
There are numerous other attractions in the city including Mahaboudha Temple, Rudravarna Mahavihar, and Machchhendranath temple, all of which are located south of Durbar Square, and the Golden Temple and Kumbheshwar Temple located north of Durbar Square. It is worth noting that the earthquake that occurred in April 2015 has caused significant damage to a number of the temples in Patan, the full extent of which is not yet fully known.
Located approximately 32 kilometers northeast of Kathmandu, Nagarkot sits on the fringe of the Kathmandu Valley and is famed for its Himalayan views – probably the best in the country. The village is packed with hotels, all of which are stacked on a ridge offering the broadest views of the Himalayas. The best time to visit is between October and March when a view of the mountains is almost guaranteed, however, a visit at any other time of year presents the risk of the mountains disappearing behind cloudy skies for extended periods of time.
There are a plethora of activities to enjoy in and around the village including pony riding, bird watching, meditation, yoga, hiking, and a trek to the nearby Tamang Village. The village also contains the Nagarkot View Tower which is located at 2,150 meters above sea level and offers simply sublime views of the sunrise over the mountains.
Many visitors plan to stay in Nagarkot for a single night so they can experience the sunrise over the mountains, however, if time allows stay a couple of nights and explore the nearby villages of Changunarayan, part of the UNESCO World heritage Site of Kathmandu Valley, and Dhulikhel, a quiet setting to enjoy the non-tourist side of Nepal.
06. Royal Chitwan National Park
The first national park in Nepal, Royal Chitwan National Park was established as such in 1973 and granted the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site only eleven years later in 1984. The park covers an area of 932 square kilometers in the subtropical Inner Terai lowlands of central Nepal and features forests, marshlands, rippling grasslands, and a sizeable wildlife population. Meaning ‘Heart of the Jungle’, the park is known as one of the best wildlife viewing national parks in Asia.
The nature of the park with dense jungles, tall grass, and the nocturnal hours kept by many of its inhabitants all hinder the chances of spotting wildlife. However, for many it is the thrill of the chase and the fact that you are exploring genuine tiger and rhino territory that makes the trip worthwhile. For guaranteed animal spotting, albeit not in the wild, pop into the Gharial Breeding Centre which breed crocodiles and the Chitwan Hatisar Elephant Breeding Centre. The park is also home to Bishajari Tal (2,000 lakes), a chain of lakes made up of many small lakes spreading over a vast area of the park.
One of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, Lumbini is the location where Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, around the 7th or 6th Century BCE. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed pilgrimage site is home to a number of temples, monuments, monasteries, and a museum, and attracts hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world. Lumbini is one of four Buddhist pilgrimage sites based on the major events in the life of Buddha, the other three being located in India – Bodh Gaya (enlightenment), Sarnath (first discourse), and Kushinagar (death).
Another main sight of interest is Ashoka’s Pillar which is protected by a small fence and decorated with prayer flags and banners. The other temples in the area are the Dharma Swami Maharaja Buddha Temple and the Lumbini Buddha Vihar, while the Lumbini Museum displays artefacts from the Mauryan and Kushana periods as well as religious manuscripts.
08. Sagarmatha National Park
A protected area in the Himalayas of eastern Nepal, Sagarmatha National Park encompasses an area of 1,148 square kilometers and is dominated by Mount Everest. The park ranges in elevation from 2,845 meters above sea level to 8,848 meters above sea level at the summit of Everest, and shares an international border with the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve in Tibet. The protected area not only encompasses the world’s loftiest and most famous peak, but has also been identified as an important bird area by Bird-Life International.
Depending on which route you plan to take, there are various small villages scattered throughout the area where you can rest and get some dinner. The most important villages include Ghat, Khumjung, Khunde, Lukla, Monju, Namche Bazaar, Pangboche, Phortse, and Tengboche. In terms of vegetation throughout the park, in the lower forested zone you will come across birch, blue pines, juniper, bamboo, firs, and rhododendron while above this zone the vegetation is either dwarf-sized or comprises of shrubs.
The park is home to at least 118 species of birds, including the Himalayan monal, blood pheasant, red-billed chough, and yellow-billed cough as well as a number of rare mammals such as musk deer, snow leopards, Himalayan black bears, and red pandas.
09. Annapurna Circuit
Considered one of the best treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit covers a length of between 160 and 230 kilometers depending on whether motor transport is used for part of the route and where the trek is ended. The trek covers two different river valleys and encircles the Annapurna massif, rising to an altitude of 5,400 meters above sea level on the Thorung La pass. The trek is most commonly hiked clockwise, due to the less gradual rise in altitude and the easier and safer route across the high Thorung La pass.
Generally, the trek takes between 15 and 20 days and is considered moderate to fairly challenging with numerous river crossings over steel and wooden suspension bridges. Typically, the itinerary of trekker will look something like this – Day 1 Kathmandu to Besisahar, Day 2 trek to Khudi, Day 3 trek to Bahundanda, Day 4 trek to Jagat, Day 5 trek to Dharapani, Day 6 trek to Chame, Day 7 trek to Upper/Lower Pisang, Day 8 trek to Manang, Day 9 rest, Day 10 trek to Letdar, Day 11 trek to Thorung Phedi, Day 12 trek to Muktinath via the Thorung La, Day 13 trek to Marpha, Day 14 trek to Lete, Day 15 trek to Tatopani, Day 16 trek to Ghorepani, Day 17 trek to Birethanti and then to Pokhara, Day 18 arrive back in Kathmandu. Depending on speed and ability, the number and length of side trips can vary.
10. Langtang National Park
The fourth national park in Nepal, Langtang National Park was established in 1976 as the first Himalayan National Park. The area of the park consists of an area of 1,710 square kilometers and exceeds an altitude range of 6,450 meters above sea level. The northern and eastern borders of the national park coincide with the international border to Tibet, while the high altitude sacred lake of Gosainkunda falls within the park’s boundaries. While the main reason for protecting the area is to preserve wildlife and the natural environment, an equally important goal is to allow local people to follow traditional land use practices that are compatible with resource protection.
Another area of significance in the park is Gosainkunda, the area of high altitude lakes which is visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims during Janai Purnima festivals in the month of August. The lake is believed to have been created by Lord Shiva. The route from Sundarijal and Dhunche to Gosainkunda offers outstanding views of Langtang Lining and Himal Chuli and also passes a Buddhist monastery, Sing Gompa. An alternative route crosses the Ganja La pass which can be taken between April and November. The park is home to over 1,000 species of flora and 150 different species of birds and wild animals such as tigers, bears, deer, and wild sheep.