Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, is a vibrant, noisy city. Packed full of history, palaces and temples, it is also within touching distance of Nepal's premier attraction, the Himalaya. Kathmandu is home to gems such as Durbar Square (with temples dating back to the 12th century), Boudhanath Stupa (a world heritage site), the Pashupatinath Temple (the country's most important Hindu temple, on the banks of the Bagmati river), and the Royal Palace (the site of the infamous 2001 massacre of the Royal Family by the then Crown Prince, and now converted into the Narayanhiti Palace Museum).
Kathmandu is also the gateway to the rest of Nepal—in particular the tranquil Bhaktapur, the temple-tastic Patan, the Chitwan National Park, and, of course, the Himalaya (half of the world's 8000-metre peaks are found in Nepal). The mountains hold a magnetic attraction for many who visit Nepal. The trek to Everest base camp, a two-week trip starting with a nerve-racking flight to Lukla airport, is the most popular mountain activity, whilst the stunningly beautiful Annapurna base camp can be achieved by a 7-10 day trek from Pokhara.
1. Boudhanath Stupa
The Boudhanath stupa is one of the holiest and most recognisable sites in Kathmandu. Assigned UNESCO world heritage status in 1979, Boudhanath (aka the Boudha, Chorten Chempo and Khasa Caityais) has a diameter of 120 metres, making it the largest temple in Nepal. The stupa is built on an octagonal base, is surrounded by prayer wheels, and has colourful prayer flags draped from its 36-metre central spire. Boudhanath is rich in symbolism: it has five statues of Dhyani Buddhas, representing the five elements (earth, fire, water, air and ether); nine levels, representing Mount Meru (the mythical peak at the centre of the Buddhist cosmos); and 13 rings from its base to its apex (representing the steps to enlightenment or Nirvana).
Boudhanath is the religious centre of Nepal's Tibetan/Buddhist community, and is surrounded by around 50 monasteries and shops settling Tibetan artefacts. About 15% of the population are Buddhists. Look out for Tibetan monks, with shaven heads and maroon robes, and pilgrims spinning prayer wheels and buying yak butter and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Be careful to observe Tibetan custom by walking around the stupa in a clockwise direction. There has been a stupa on this site since Tibetan king Songsten Gampo converted to Buddhism in around 600 AD. when? Late afternoon is the best time to visit, after tour groups have departed. The Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations are held here in February or March.
2. Everest Region
The 1,500 mile long Himalaya range contains every one of the world's fourteen 8000 metre peaks. Nepal is home to eight of those 8000'ers: Everest (8848 m), Kanchenjunga (8586 m), Lhotse (8516 metres), Makalu (8485 m), Cho Oyu (8,201 m), Dhaulagiri I (8,167 m), Manaslu (8163 m) and Annapurna I (8109 m). The rest are found in Pakistan, China and India.
The Everest region is accessed by a nerve-racking 30 minute flight in a tiny plane to Lukla airport (at 2,860 metres). From there, walkers and climbers trek for two days to the main town in the Everest region, Namche Bazaar (3,440 metres, offering accommodation, good food, internet cafes, and equipment shops). Everest base camp is about another week away, bearing in mind that ascent must be taken slowly because of the altitude. It is reached after overnight stops at small settlements called Tengboche (3870m), Pheriche (4240m), Duglha (4620m), Lobuche (4930m) and Gorak Shep (5160m).
From base camp, trekkers can summit the 5545 metre Kala Patthar, which offers great views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (7,816 m). Trekkers may also be lucky enough to observe Everest climbers, acclimatising themselves for the trip to the top of the world via the deadly Khumbu icefalls (5,486 m), four further high camps, the South Col (7,906 m) and the Hillary Step (a 12-metre rock wall at 8,760 m).
3. Annapurna Region
The Annapurna region is accessed from tranquil Pokhara, and is famous for the Annapurna range and the sacred Fish Tail mountain. The 10-day Annapurna Sanctuary trek is the region's most popular activity. The sanctuary is an oval shaped glacial plateau reached via a narrow pass between the peaks of Hiunchuli (6,441 m) and Machapuchare (6,993 m, aka 'Fish Tail', regarded as sacred and therefore unclimbed).
Annapurna base camp (4130 metres) is the highest point, providing stunning 360 degrees views of the Annapurna range, the glaciers running from it, and the near-vertical south face of Annapurna I (8091 metres). The alernative Annapurnra Circuit trek, taking 12-19 days with a maximum elevation of 5416 metres at the Thorung La pass, circumnavegates the Annapurna range. The scenery includes close-up views of Manaslu, Langtang Himal, Annapurna I, II, III and IV and Gangapurna.
4. Durbar Square
Even though the Nepali royal family moved from the Hanuman Dhoka palace about a century ago, Durbar (Palace) Square remains the tourist heart of Kathmandu.Most visitors are surprised by the sheer number of temples surrounding the square, and the two adjoining squares, some dating back to the 12th century.
The jewels in the crown are the Hanuman Dhoka itself (the complex of royal palaces), the magnificent Taleju Temple (built in 1564 by Mahendra Malla, standing on a 12-stage plinth, and reaching 35 metres in height), and the Kumari Bahal (an intricately carved three-storey structure built in 1757 in which the 'living godess', a young girl selected from the Kathmandu valley, still lives).
Other must-sees are the Kasthamandap (aka the 'Pavillion of wood', the building after which Kathmandu was named and which, legend has it, was constructed using a single sal tree) and the Maju Deval (a triple-roofed Shiva temple dating from 1690, built by the mother of Bhaktapur's king Bhupatindra Malla)
Perfect for travelers who want to experience the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas without arduous physical activity, Nagarkot is best known for the views it offers of the mountains and the Kathmandu Valley. Perched on a high ridge to the northeast of Bhaktapur, the village of around 4,500 inhabitants commands views of eight Himalayan ranges. There’s a variety of appealing hotels in every price range in Nagarkot, many of which are located within walking distance of the Nagarkot view tower, known as the best place to visit in Nepal to view the sun rising over the Himalayas.
Located in south-central Nepal on the Terai plains, Janakpur was once the capital of a millennia-old Indian kingdom known as Mithila, and the Maithili culture still thrives here. Hindus believe Janakpur is the place where Lord Ram wed Sita, also known as Janaki, and thousands of Hindus from all over the world flock to the temple of Janaki Mandir each year to celebrate the anniversary of their marriage. With its three-story construction and 60 rooms, the massive 19th-century marble structure is the largest temple in Nepal. Janakpur is known for the more than 100 sacred pools and ponds scattered around the tranquil city as well.