Wedged between the high Himalaya and the steamy Indian plains, Nepal is a land of snow peaks and Sherpas, yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras. Nepal is the very watershed of Asia. Squeezed between India and Tibet, it stretches from rich subtropical forest to soaring Himalayan peaks: from jungly tiger habitat to the precipitous hunting grounds of the snow leopard. Climbing the hillside of one valley alone you can be sweltering in the shade of a banana palm in the morning, and sheltering from a snowstorm in the afternoon.
Each of the bracelets I wear is from a long trip I’ve taken. One is from Nicaragua. One is from Nepal. One is from Guatemala. One is from Laos. They don’t come off. I walk into a lot of very high-level boardrooms now, and I present to distinguished conferences, but these bracelets remind me of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.– via Adam Braun
Nepal’s cultural landscape is every bit as diverse as its physical one. Its peoples belong to a host of distinctive ethnic groups and speak a host of languages. They live in everything from dense, ancient cities erupting with pagoda-roofed Hindu temples to villages perched on dizzying sweeps of rice-farming terraces and dusty highland settlements clustered around tiny monasteries. Religious practices range from Indian-style Hinduism to Tibetan Buddhism and from nature-worship to shamanism – the indigenous Newars, meanwhile, blend all these traditions with their own, intense tantric practices.
The cultural richness owes something to the shaping force of the landscape itself, and something else to the fact that it was never colonized. This is a country with profound national or ethnic pride, an astounding flair for festivals and pageantry, and a powerful attachment to traditional ways. Its people famously display a charismatic blend of independent-mindedness and friendliness, toughness, and courtesy – qualities that, through the reputations of Gurkha soldiers and Sherpa climbers, in particular, have made them internationally renowned as people it’s a rare pleasure to work with or travel among.
Top Attractions in Nepal
Kathmandu, the capital and largest city in Nepal, is like no other city in the world. The decaying buildings in the heart of the city are a contrast to the lively atmosphere that permeates the streets. The smell of incense wafts from the stores while street sellers push their wares, and people go about their daily lives, all against a backdrop of historic temples and carved statues.
For several hundred years, Kathmandu was one of three rival royal cities, along with Bhaktapur and Patan. Situated in close proximity to each other, today these three almost run together. The highlight of Kathmandu has long been Durbar Square, the largest of the palace squares in the three royal cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Temples and monuments of varying shapes, sizes, styles, and faiths can be found here.
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square was severely damaged in the 2015 earthquake, with many buildings destroyed beyond repair.
Bhaktapur, the third of the “Royal Cities,” lies on the old trade route to Tibet, just outside of Kathmandu. For Bhaktapur, the trade route was both an arterial link and a major source of wealth. Its relative remoteness at the time allowed the city to develop independently and in ways that distinguish it from the other two cities. In contrast to Patan and Kathmandu, the population of Bhaktapur is primarily Hindu. The best place from which to begin a tour of the city is Durbar Square, where in addition to the royal palace, several temples are also situated. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Many of the buildings in Durbar Square in Bhaktapur were damaged in the 2015 earthquake.
Boudhanath Stupa (Bodhnath)
The Boudhanath Stupa, just outside of Kathmandu, is one of the largest stupas of its kind in the world, and dates to sometime around the 6th century, possibly even earlier. Like Bhaktapur, it lies on the old trade route to Tibet and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The stupa sustained minor damage during the 2015 earthquake but is otherwise in good condition.
The stupa itself is a symbol of enlightenment but at Boudhanath, the symbolism is particularly clear. Each different shape represents one of the five elements, earth, water, fire, air, and sphere, which are also the attributes of the five Buddhas. Brought together in the form of the stupa, their unity reflects in abstract fashion the structure of the universe itself.
Pokhara, at the base of the foothills, is 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu and surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, and Annapurna I. For many trekkers, Pokhara is the gateway to the Himalayas. It is the starting point for treks to Jomsom and the Annapurna region. But visitors will enjoy Pokhara and the beautiful scenery even if they are not planning on heading off on a hike.
By population, it is the second largest town in Nepal after Kathmandu but still does not feel like a big city. People coming from the Kathmandu Valley notice the much cleaner air and pleasant climate almost immediately. Lake Phewa, with its cluster of lakeside hotels, restaurants, and shops, is ideal for those looking for relaxation and for day excursions.
Trekking in the Annapurna Region
The Annapurna Region is one of the most popular trekking regions in Nepal, with trekking options of a few days to a few weeks. There are three main routes in the Annapurna Region, which intersect and combine in places, but trekkers can opt to do a portion of a variation on the routes. The Annapurna Circuit around Annapurna Mountain takes about 21 days to complete and is incredibly popular with people who have enough time. This route is sometimes called the “Apple Pie Circuit,” in reference to the fact that most of the teahouses along the route serve their own version of fried apple pie. The Annapurna Sanctuary nestles between the peaks of Annapurna and takes five days to reach. Muktinath is on the way to Annapurna but has since become a destination in its own right. The Muktinath route runs in the Kali Gandaki Valley on the east flank of Annapurna and takes seven days. North of Muktinath is Mustang, a small region that was only opened up to tourists in 1992. This area is unspoiled and has its own fascinating culture.
In many regards, the Annapurna Region, north of Pokhara, is an ideal walking area. The dramatic contrasts of the Nepalese countryside are especially visible, from the subtropical vegetation of the Pokhara Valley to the dry rain shadow area, with features of the Tibetan plateau. The people and cultures are also very different: facial characteristics, houses, lifestyles, customs, and religion. The Annapurna region was declared a protected area in 1986. The region has a good infrastructure to support the many trekkers that come through this area. The paths are well maintained, and food and lodging are guaranteed.
Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park is the place to come to experience a different side of Nepal, apart from the hiking and the intrigue of Kathmandu. This is the place for wildlife viewing and a safari-type atmosphere. At an altitude of only 100 meters in some areas, much lower than Kathmandu at 1400 meters, this area has a tropical monsoon climate, usually quite different than what most people expect to find in Nepal. Visitors come here primarily to see wildlife. Tours from the lodges take visitors out into the park, either on foot, or more often, on elephants for close-up views of the animals. The park is home to rhinos, Bengal tigers, leopards, sloth bears, gaur (buffalo) deer, and many other critters. Freshwater dolphins (Gangetic) and crocodiles inhabit the rivers and streams but are rarely seen. More than 500 species of birds make Chitwan a paradise for ornithologists.
Chitwan lies southwest of Kathmandu close to the Indian frontier and is included in the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage sites. The best time to visit Chitwan is from October to February. Average temperatures hover about 25°C (77°F), with high humidity, although the mornings can be quite cool. June to September is the monsoon season, with frequent and heavy rain.
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
Set on a hilltop to the west of Kathmandu, Swayambhunath is the second most important shrine in the Kathmandu Valley after Boudhanath. Due to the resident monkeys that inhabit parts of the temple, it is more affectionately known as the Monkey Temple. The Swayambhu Stupa, painted with the eyes of the omnipresent God, forms the centerpiece of the temple complex. It was originally a prehistoric cult site, but the temple complex dates to the 5th century. Swayambhu plays a major part in the lives of the Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet, but especially of the Newari Buddhists of the Kathmandu Valley.
The 2015 earthquake caused some damage to the Swayambhunath temple complex.
Everest and the Trek to Base Camp
The summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain on earth, reaches 8,848 meters (29,028 feet) high. Trekking in the Mount Everest area became popular following the now legendary first ascent of the peak in 1953 by Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and the Sherpa Tensing Norgay. Since that time, many more have summited the mountain, but far more trek the route to Everest Base Camp simply for a glimpse of the peak far above. In recent years the mountain has seen its fair share of tragedy and drama. The 2015 earthquake and previous avalanches, along with disputes between climbers on the mountain, have left their mark on Everest trekking and climbing.
The Everest Region is generally not regarded as the most scenic region in the country for trekking, but the allure of Everest draws climbers in large numbers. There are various routes to access base camp and several options for organizing a trip. Many trekking companies offer a guided hike, either with Nepalese companies or western-based companies. It’s also possible to hire a private guide or porter and do it yourself, however, all trekkers are technically required to have a guide. The main hiking seasons are in the spring and fall, from March to May and September to December.
For those not looking to trek to Mount Everest but still wanting to see the mountain, it is possible to see it on clear days from the hill town of Nagarkot near Kathmandu. Hotel staff will knock on guests’ doors on clear mornings if Everest is visible. This might be the lazy traveler’s best chance of seeing the world’s highest peak.
When to go
Nepal is broadly temperate, with four main seasons centered around the summer monsoon. When considering the best time to visit, it’s worth considering that the majority of visitors, prioritizing mountain visibility, come in the autumn peak season (late Sept to late Nov), when the weather is clear and dry, and neither too cold in the high country nor too hot in the Terai. With the pollution and dust (and many bugs) washed away by the monsoon rains, the mountains are at their most visible, making this an excellent time for trekking. Two major festivals, Dasain and Tihar, also fall during this period. The downside is that the tourist quarters and trekking trails are heaving, prices are higher and it may be hard to find a decent room.
Winter (Dec & Jan) is mostly clear and stable. It never snows in Kathmandu, but mornings can be dank and chilly there – and in trekking areas, the fierce cold can make lodge-owners shut up shop altogether. This is an excellent time to visit the Terai, and if you can face the cold, a rare time to be in the mountains too.
Spring (Feb to mid-April) is the second tourist season, with its warmer weather and longer days. Rhododendrons are in bloom in the hills towards the end of this period, and as the Terai’s long grasses have been cut, spring is the best time to visit for viewing wildlife – despite the increasing heat. The downsides are that haze can obscure the mountains from lower elevations (though it’s usually possible to trek above it) and stomach bugs are more common.
The pre-monsoon (mid-April to early June) brings ever more stifling heat, afternoon clouds, rain showers – and more stomach upsets. It also brings edginess: this is the classic time for popular unrest and illness. Trek high, where the temperatures are more tolerable.
Nepalis welcome the monsoon, the timing of which may vary by a few weeks every year, but typically begins in mid-June and peters out in the last weeks of September. The fields come alive with rushing water and green shoots, and this can be a fascinating time to visit, when Nepal is at its most Nepali: the air is clean, flowers are in bloom, butterflies are everywhere and fresh fruit and vegetables are particularly abundant. But there are also drawbacks: mountain views are rare, leeches come out in force along the mid-elevation trekking routes, roads and paths may be blocked by landslides, and flights may be canceled.
Why I Love Nepal
If, like me, you get your highs from pristine mountain views and the sense of perspective that a Himalayan journey offers, then you are going to like Nepal. But if also like me, you’ve always secretly wished that your mountain wilderness came with a warm slice of apple pie instead of a soggy tent, then you will simply love this place. My favorite thing about Nepal? There’s always another adventure. Done Annapurna? Try the Gokyo Valley. Done Gokyo? Try a 6000m trekking peak. It’s adventure heaven, with an espresso on the side.