The ancient capital of this mountain kingdom is synonymous with the far-flung outpost, and to this day retains a mystical, medieval aura that may leave you feeling like you've stepped through the looking glass.
Its narrow alleyways wind past no less than seven World Heritage sites. Soak up the atmosphere at Durbar Square, with its numerous temples and Royal Palace. Sacred cows and near-naked Hindu holy men, dusted with powder and carrying tridents, stroll the square in search of offerings from the faithful.
Check your worldview at the door when you visit the Kumari Bahal, home to a living goddess. In this temple, a small girl is selected from a particular clan of craftspeople, and after extensive ritual is declared a goddess. She lives in the temple until puberty, after which she is given a life pension and a new goddess is found. The central courtyard of the temple is superbly crafted, with extensive carvings and an elaborate shrine.
This is the largest temple devoted to the Hindu god Shiva in the world. It is situated on the banks of the Bagmati River and draws devotees from all over the Indian subcontinent. A richly ornamented pagoda houses the sacred linga (phallic symbol) of Shiva, dating from the 6th century. Much like Varanasi on the Ganges, the Bagmati is a holy river and an auspicious place to be cremated. There are ghats (steps leading to the river) lining the sides of the river, and you will most likely witness a cremation ceremony. The wrapped body is placed upon a mound of smoldering logs and brush, then set alight; the soul, it is believed, escapes to be reborn once again according to the dictates of karma.
Bodnath is the largest stupa in Nepal: many believe a bone from the Gautama Buddha is interred within its walls and the stupa is considered holy. A thriving Tibetan community has made its home in this area since fleeing Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1959.
At first glance you'll recognize Swayambunath as Nepal's definitive icon. Situated on top of a hill on the Western end of the valley, the "eyes" of the Buddha look out in all directions. Pay attention to the "nose," which is actually the Nepali number ek (one), celebrating unity. Guarding the lower stairs of the stupa are a band of amusing monkeys performing acrobatics and angling for a snack.