Travel | August 10, 2022 6:48 am

Making the Case for Visiting Nepal’s Overlooked Capital

Kathmandu is the gateway to Everest, but there's plenty of reasons to go — even if you're not planning a trek

Dawn light over ancient temples in Bhaktapur
Dawn light over ancient temples in Bhaktapur
Feng Wei Photography via Getty

Something’s not right. Because Nepal is home to some of the world’s most spectacular treks, Kathmandu is perceived as merely a gateway to the dramatic landscapes of Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Manaslu Circuit and more. The Nepalese capital is where hikers purchase camping gear, board domestic flights to Lukla and Pokhara and tend to their aching muscles with cheap massages and even cheaper dal bhat platters post-trek. As for those who hate hiking? The city never even makes an appearance on their bucket list. 

What’s missing here is a lost opportunity to discover the UNESCO-listed sites of Kathmandu Valley, temples dating back to the third century, elaborate thangka art and a perpetual showcase of human resilience. Following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake back in 2015, Nepal has continued its reconstruction efforts — even amidst the pandemic — vowing to provide a roof over the country’s most vulnerable residents. And the ultimate address to escape the chaos of Kathmandu come dusk? Dwarika’s Hotel.

A suite at Dwarika’s Hotel
A suite at Dwarika’s Hotel
Dwarika’s Hotel

Where to Stay

Kathmandu isn’t quite where you would go to ‘get away from it all’. Noisy, polluted, and overpopulated, it is a city that’s more catered to travelers than tourists. And then there’s the traffic — that notoriously nasty traffic. Luckily, the public spaces at Dwarika’s promise respite. While the guest rooms are spacious, it’s the wide and atmospheric courtyards that offer the best vantage point to admire the architectural grandeur of days gone by. Accenting the palatial cluster of traditional red-brick buildings are sunken fountains, lush pomelo and persimmon trees, and a light scattering of religious shrines. Arguably the most striking detail can be found at the outdoor swimming pool that’s inspired by 12th century Malla Dynasty baths: water gushing out of stone spouts depicting mythical creatures.

Dwarika’s is the brainchild of the late Dwarika Das Shrestha, who was determined to collect, protect, and replicate the intricately engraved wooden structures that were being desecrated in favor of more modern versions, starting with a pillar that was cast aside to be used as firewood. Today, the family-owned property boasts an astounding collection of artifacts from the 13th century onwards, with beautifully carved doors, pillars, and window frames at every turn — all exhibiting the very best of Kathmandu Valley’s craftsmanship. But don’t let this emphasis on heritage fool you. While the founder’s vision is reflected in each of the 83 rooms and suites, they all feature creature comforts like air conditioning and a well-stocked minibar.

What to Do

Admittedly, Dwarika’s Hotel is much closer to the airport than the city center, but you’ll appreciate its location when it’s time to wake up at 5am for what can only be described as a truly awe-inspiring day. Several local airlines (like Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines) run hour-long mountain flights on a daily basis, providing passengers a front-row seat to the breathtaking, snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas — Mount Everest included. This one’s a must-do, hands down.

Closer to sea level, two major attractions are easily accessible from the hotel, starting with Pashupatinath Temple. Arguably the most famous religious site in all of Nepal, this Hindu temple complex is only an 11-minute walk away from Dwarika’s and the definition of sensory overload. Amidst this riot of colors, sounds, and smells is an opportunity to observe cremation ceremonies, devotees bathing in the sacred Bagmati River, and dreadlocked sadhus dressed in canary yellow and eager to pose for photos in exchange for a few hundred rupees. As stray dogs vie for a spot in the shade and monkeys scamper from temple to temple, we suggest you silently vow to embrace this country and its people wholeheartedly, curious stares and all.

In stark contrast to this parade of human and animal activity at Pashupatinath is the nearby Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas worldwide. Here, Buddhist monks silently walk clockwise around its base, prayer flags of all colors flutter in the wind, and pilgrims spin the many cylindrical prayer wheels that contain scrolls of Buddhist mantras. Like the rhythmic activities that humans turn to in times of stress, the repetitive nature of this environment feels relaxing, meditative almost. But that’s Nepal for you — full of unexpected surprises that have nothing to do with mountaintops. Case in point: the yak cheese by Himalayan French Cheese that you can sample at the weekly farmers’ market hosted by Le Sherpa restaurant.

Another unexpected discovery? The aptly named Garden of Dreams. Because Kathmandu can be as frustrating as it is fascinating, you’ll be in dire need of some peace and quiet after a few hours of exploration. And with its ponds, pergolas, and amphitheater, this neoclassical garden guarantees just that. Those in search of the city’s creative spirit, meanwhile, can distance themselves from the smog, noise, and impatient motorcyclists at Baber Mahal Revisited. Built in 1910 and once belonging to the Rana dynasty that ruled Nepal from 1846 to 1951, this complex houses the likes of Siddhartha Art Gallery (the city’s first contemporary art gallery) and Chez Caroline (beloved for its weekend brunches). Bonus: it’s nowhere near the hectic tourist hub of Thamel.

Also in the vicinity awaits Raithaane, a restaurant that comes highly recommended by Pauline Driard, founder of Pauline’s Rooftop Bar and an expat who has lived in Nepal since 2009. “Taking diners on a culinary journey through ethnic Nepali cuisines, this tiny joint is hidden in the courtyard of a traditional Newar house and rediscovers the ancestral ingredients that modern-day Nepalis have forgotten,” she says. “Just thinking about the buckwheat fries and rikikur potato pancakes served with yak butter and spring onion achaar — a delicious spicy sauce that accompanies everything here — makes me want to drool.”