Nepal might be small, but it really is mighty. The home of the Himalaya is an outdoorsy person’s paradise, packed full of adventure and dotted with wild reserves, ranging from 8,000-meter summits to tiger-stalked forests. But there are also manmade Nepal landmarks that reveal another side of the country, one which tells the tale of six millennia of human history, enthralling religious rites, and a diverse range of peoples.
Despite being landlocked by some of the biggest economic players in Asia – China to the north, India to the south – Nepal still brims with ancient traditions and totally untouched nature. It’s a land where you can spy out looming Buddhist stupas writhed in fluttering prayer flags, long-lost monasteries in the shadow of snowy peaks, and sprawling reserves that reach the very roof the world.
This guide to Nepal landmarks runs through 11 of the most amazing, most unforgettable locations and sights this country has up its sleeve. You’ll find mystical shrines and incense-scented temples, but also the famed natural wonders of the land, from the home of Everest to trekking towns perched on the edges of the fabled Himal.
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The most sacred Hindu temple in country, the Pashupatinath, sits on the banks of the Bagmati River on the eastern fringes of the Nepalese capital. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1979 and is among the oldest monuments in the Kathmandu Valley – a valley that’s peppered with some pretty old monuments!
More like a complex than a single building, the site includes libraries, courtyards, shrines, and towers. They all swirl around the main temple, which sports a dual-level roof with copper and gold coverings. Some parts are thought to date back at least 1,600 years since we have manuscripts that record its presence in Kathmandu in about 400 AD.
Pashupatinath remains a popular site for public cremations. They’ve been happening here for centuries, but it’s something that can come as a bit of a shock to first-time visitors, as bodies are laid out on tall pyres and set alight throughout the day. It’s believed that anyone cremated at Pashupatinath’s Arya Ghat will be reborn as a human in the next life, regardless of any negative karma.
Durbar Square sits in front of the former imperial grounds of the Kathmandu Kingdom. The bygone principality was one of 46 before the country was unified in the mid-18th-century. This regal square was where kings were crowned and where royal proclamations were made. It’s considered a fine showcasing of the era’s prevailing Newar style, which includes features like carapace roofs and carved gateways.
Another UNESCO-recognized site, Durbar is surrounded by many temples, towers, statues, and shrines. Unfortunately, many of the original structures were severely damaged in the 2015 earthquake, but successful restoration efforts have helped to return most to their original glory.
The other great thing about Durbar is that it’s a lived-in, bustling part of the capital. The narrow streets and busy plazas that surround it are brimming with chowks and eateries, curry sellers and tea shops. It’s a top place for people watching, not just witnessing one of the most amazing Nepal landmarks!
Sagarmatha National Park
Sagarmatha is a national park nestled in the Himalayas in Eastern Nepal. The exceptional area of natural beauty is home to dramatic peaks, glaciers, valleys, and wildlife, but the world’s highest mountain– Mount Everest – is what truly dominates the horizon.
Scaling Everest is no small feat and is usually reserved for the most determined mountaineers (or those who can raise the $11,000 required for the permit to the summit). Not you? Then there are still many other reasons to visit Sagarmatha: Trekking up to Everest Base Camp, cruising the Dudh Koshi River, visiting the Khumbu Glacier, and observing the world’s tallest peak from any number of viewpoints.
The wild variety of species that call Sagarmatha their home is also an enormous draw. Sightings can include everything from the uber-elusive snow leopard to red pandas, black bears to bearded vultures. Then you’ve got the unique local Sherpa culture, which you’ll experience in rustic teahouses and monasteries on the plateau. One word of warning: Sagarmatha is high, so prepare for altitude sickness.
The de facto capital of the Khumbu region is perched a whopping 3,440 meters above sea level on the slopes of the southern Sagarmatha National Park (see above). It’s long been a meeting point for traders from India and Nepal in the south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north, and there’s still a regular market where you can purchase craft goods and walking gear.
Often deemed the gateway to Everest, Namche is where many people start their journey to the tallest peak in the world. There’s no vehicle road linking the town with civilization, which means the trekkers you see here are likely either fresh off the plane into nearby Lukla Airport or have completed a multi-day hike up from Kathmandu.
Cascading down a bowl in the mountains to form a sort of horseshoe shape, the town itself is made up by row upon row of tin-topped shacks. There are pubs where you’ll see ECB trekkers celebrating the end of their route. There are stalls selling the famous local yak butter and cheese. You can also scale up to the Sagarmatha National Park Museum (it’s about 20 minutes from the center) to get your first glimpse of Everest itself!
Ancient Town of Patan
Separated from Kathmandu by the meanders of the Bagmati River, Patan is by far the oldest of the three cities in the Kathmandu Valley. Its story goes back to at least the 3rd century AD, which is when a series of stupas were raised by the Buddhist emperor Asoka to mark the urban boundaries of the town. You can still see those stupas, but the real heart of the ancient city is on Patan Durbar Square…
A symphony of palaces and temples, carved statues and bustling courtyards, it’s been the hub of the town since the time of the Malla Kings of Lalitpur some 400 years back. It’s also a UNESCO site, encompassing not just one but a whole handful of the most striking Nepal landmarks of all, from the Krishna Mandir temple and its exquisite stone filigrees to the three-roofed Bhimsen Temple where the god of business is worshipped.
Also don’t miss the series of honorific courtyards known as chowks. The most important is Mul Chowk, which sprouts temple shrines and statues of river gods. But there’s also haunting Sundari Chowk, a place for ritual ablutions that’s guarded by effigies of Ganesh and Vishnu.
Formerly called Baidam Tal, Phewa Lake is the second-largest body of water in the country. Reflecting the serrated tops of the Annapurna Mountain range in its crystalline surface, the lake is also framed by dense forests and colorful fishing boats. There are upmarket hotels, restaurants, and guest houses lining the banks.
But it’s not just Phewa Lake’s natural beauty that draws visitors. The holy Barahi Temple of the Goddess Durga sits in the center. It can only be reached by boat but devout religious pilgrims and tourists alike make the trip each day to the sacred pagoda.
The lake is also famous for water sports such as swimming and sailing. Others come to trek in the foothills around the lake. You can even bungee jump, paraglide, and book helicopter tours in the area if you’re after a real adventure to get the heart pumping!
Situated around 11 kilometers from the center of Kathmandu, the Boudhanath, or Boudha for short, is one of the largest spherical stupas in the world and a UNESCO site to boot. It’s actually one of the most-visited Nepal landmarks of all, drawing huge crowds of devotees and pilgrims, including a lot of exiled Tibetan Buddhists, during major festival dates.
A series of holy relics and the supposed remains of the 27th Buddha, Kassapa Buddha, are thought to reside inside the Boudhanath. However, it’s the exterior that really wows. A wide-shouldered mandala base is the support for a shimmering golden top that gleams as the sun beats down on urban Kathmandu.
Keen-eyed visitors will notice the strange semi-circles of paint that mark the bottom of the stupa. They are thrown on following a traditional painting technique that goes back centuries and takes months to perfect. Surrounding the stupa are a series of enthralling monasteries and buzzy bazaars where you can shop for fresh curries and souvenirs.
Not for the fainthearted or unfit, the Annapurna Sanctuary trek provides 11 days of spectacular hiking into the heart of Nepal’s second-highest mountain range. Sitting high on a glacial basin, encircled by steep peaks, the Annapurna Sanctuary doesn’t require any high passes, but adventurers will ramble below some of the highest mountains on earth.
You’ll reach the Annapurna Sanctuary mid-trip, but enjoy views of the Himalayas and follow the landscape as it transforms from a deep gorge to glacial beginnings. Although treacherous, this trek is one of few in the area that doesn’t require a guide, just the correct equipment and the ability to follow the well-marked trails scattered with villages.
Stay at homestays and dine with local families along the way. The Sanctuary is sacred to locals, so trekkers must respect their way of life along the route.
This upper river course of the Sun Kosi River, known as the Poiqu in Tibet, is a western tributary that calls out to all adrenaline junkies. Perfect for rafting, kayaking, and trekking, it’s the steepest river for water sports in Nepal and one of the best for rafting in the world.
Bhote Koshi is home to level five rapids with tremendous power, drawn from high glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau. The river course is just a few hours northwest of Kathmandu, nestled between the mountains close to the Nepalese and Tibetan border.
If the thrill of the white rapids isn’t enough, you can find one of the highest free-fall bungee jumps in the world here, located dauntingly high on top of a gorge at 160 meters. The river carves a steep, direct drop, perfect for bungee-ing and swinging. But despite appearances, it is very safe.
Situated in the Rupandehi District of the Lumbini Province, these vast and sacred gardens are known as the birthplace of Siddharta Gautama, the Lord Buddha, born in 623 BC. Lumbini has long since been a place of pilgrimage and one of the country’s most prominent religious landmarks.
Among its pilgrims was the Indian emperor, Ashoka, who erected a commemorative pillar in the third century BC from pink sandstone. The pillar is thought to be proof of the fact that Buddha was born in Lumbini.
The Lumbini and Kapilvastu museums are also keen attractions in Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the ruins of Buddha’s place of birth are enclosed on the grounds.
Everest Base Camp
At the base of the world’s top, Everest Base Camp is a reminder of the breathtaking magnitude of mother nature and the peak of adventure in Nepal. Trekkers are invited to make the treacherous trip to the first stop on the Mount Everest climb and get a small glimpse of what mountaineers experience when scaling the world’s tallest mountain.
The base is a chaotic and exciting place, with some of the best views in Nepal, and teams of Sherpas and mountaineers work together to prepare for summit ventures. Helicopter trips are now a popular way to visit the base camp, but the three-week trek to the base is also chosen by many seeking a taste of Everest mountaineer life.
Everest Base Camp also merges Nepal’s adventurous spirit with its religious significance, as holy sites dot the camp and are worshiped by Sherpas and trekkers alike. Regular puja’s, or religious ceremonies, are held in April and May to ensure safe travels for trekkers. All religions come together to bless mountaineers on their mammoth task ahead.
When is the best time to visit Nepal?
The best time to visit Nepal is between September and December, when the weather is dry, the skies are clear, and the views are spectacular. There are also plenty of cultural events happening at this time, especially in Kathmandu. Nepal remains dry until April, but January and February can be freezing, with temperatures in Namche averaging at around six degrees Celcius.
Is Nepal expensive to travel?
Nepal is known to be very inexpensive and great for budget travelers. Many attractions and places of interest are free to visit or have meager entrance fees. The food, drink, and accommodation is also among the cheapest in Asia, making Nepal one of the most affordable places in the world to travel. The average cost of food per day is NPR 936, around $7, and hotels average at $20 per night.
How much does it cost to climb Mount Everest?
Although Nepal is generally a very cheap country, scaling Mount Everest is far from inexpensive. The costs for a standard supported climb range from $28,000 to $85,000, while a fully custom climb can exceed $150,000. This includes transportation from Kathmandu, Sherpa hire, food, base camp tents, and supplemental oxygen. Super-skrimpers can scale the peak for as little as $20,000, but cutting corners to climb Everest is not something you want to do.