The mighty Himalayas are what beckons many people to the small but lofty country of Nepal. The baggage carousels at Tribhuvan International Airport are clogged with duffle bags and backpacks with trekking poles protruding from the sides. However, what many people don’t realize is that for all the rightful glory that the world’s highest peaks receive, there are other sights and experiences in Nepal that deserve equal attention and, to the delight of some, don’t require copious amounts of physical pain or oxygen-sapping altitude. The country’s landscape, culture, and history offer diversity in some of the most unexpected ways. It is home to dense jungle and abundant wildlife as well as important religious sites, unique architecture, and delicious gastronomic experiences even beyond dal bhat. With many of the famous base camps and trekking trails becoming more crowded by the year, it’s the ideal time to discover what the country has to offer beyond the Himalayas. Before you write the country off as purely for mountain enthusiasts, here are six things to do in Nepal that aren’t trekking.
1. Explore the Durbar Squares of the Kathmandu Valley.
Steeped in history and culture, the Kathmandu Valley can easily occupy your time for at least a week. Although at first, you might find Kathmandu’s dusty and crowded streets intense, the city and surrounding area offer many worthwhile sites to explore. The famous Durbar Square of Kathmandu was rocked by an earthquake in 2015 and, with reconstruction still going on, it is difficult to imagine what the old city would have looked like in the glory days of the royal kingdom. However, it remains the true cultural heart of the modern metropolis and you can still enjoy people watching from one of the many temple steps.
Not to be missed is the valley’s other Durbar Squares that are often reserved for those with more time to explore. Both Patan and Bhaktapur were once important royal cities in their own right, although both have increasingly become consumed within the urban sprawl of Kathmandu itself. Patan, now called Lalitpur, is known as the “city of beauty” for its well-preserved royal square, temples, and laneways filled with handmade art and brass sculptures.
A little further away, Bhaktapur demands more than one day to explore its old cobbled alleyways. Staying in the old city, just an hour from Kathmandu, for at least a night is highly recommended. You’ll discover the true charm of the old royal square and the Newari culture once the sun starts to set and the daytrippers head back to Kathmandu.
2. Do yoga and chill out in lakeside Pokhara.
Pokhara is a favorite Nepali city for many because it is less polluted and hectic than Kathmandu. It is the country’s second-largest city and is primarily known as the gateway to the Annapurna Conservation Area, however, the city and area surrounding it make for an ideal mountain retreat. Pokhara is the perfect place to put your feet up or perhaps even hands to the ground in downward facing dog especially if you’ve just completed the hard slog around the Annapurna Circuit. The city is peaceful for its size — nearly 300,000 — and boasts some of Asia’s best yoga retreats with plenty of options ranging from drop-in classes to teacher training courses for beginners to advanced yogis. For the best experience, find a studio with views of Phewa Lake and toward the white-capped peaks of the Annapurna Range. The tourist-oriented lakeside area has a number of vegan-friendly cafes. Its international vibe means non-Nepali-specific items like smoothie bowls and freshly baked croissants are available, but you have to try a proper Nepali coffee at one of the cafes.
3. Visit the tea plantations in Ilam.
The hill station of Ilam in the far east of Nepal is one of the best off-the-beaten-track places to explore in the country as hardly any tourists make it this far east. The small town is surrounded by rolling green hills and tea plantations that see far less tourism than popular tea-producing areas like India’s Darjeeling, just across the border. Exploring the tea gardens and taking strolls through the hills is the best way to explore the area. The town also makes an attractive pitstop if you have plans to cross the eastern border to India. If you do take the time to visit Ilam you’ll most likely have the place to yourself, but be warned that the trip from Kathmandu is quite long — you’ll spend nearly a full 24 hours on the bus, though you can cut that down to 12 hours by driving yourself or 1.5 hours if you fly.
4. Go on safari in Chitwan National Park.
For nature and animal lovers, Chitwan National Park is one of the most well-preserved conservation efforts in all of Asia. It was Nepal’s first national park and the dense forest and marshland stretch for more than 930 square kilometers of pristine wilderness. You’re likely to find one-horned rhinos, deer, monkeys, and over 500 species of birds. However, what lures most people to this part of southern Nepal is the chance to see elephants, leopards, sloth bears, and the Bengal tiger. Don’t hold your breath, however, as sightings of the majestic tiger are increasingly rare.
The best ways to explore the large area are by jeep safaris or canoeing down the Terai River. Elephant-back safaris were once a popular attraction in the park, although for the sake of animal rights and ethical tourism, this is becoming a less accepted option. This part of the lower Terai also has a more tropical climate, making the jungle camps and resorts a nice alternative to the bitterly cold teahouses in the mountains. Just don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent.
5. Stroll through Bandipur and other charming rural towns.
To escape the hustle of Kathmandu and the crowded tourist shops of Pokhara, you can explore some of the smaller rural towns between the two cities. At an ideal halfway point on the highway between them is the small hilltop settlement of Bandipur, a well-preserved Newari town. The Newar people are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley who established a prosperous trading center at Bandipur in the 18th century.
The appeal of the small village is its main bazaar that has remained unchanged over time with intact traditional architecture. It’s known to have an old European vibe, so don’t be alarmed if you feel like you’re wandering the streets of a small Medieval town in Italy or Spain. And just like on any European escape, the highlight is sampling some of the traditional food, which includes beaten rice, bamboo shoot soup, and bara, a pancake-style snack made from lentils. The view from the hilltop is also exceptional and if you’re lucky enough to get a clear morning, you’ll have a picturesque panorama of the Himalayas across the horizon. The best place to catch the sunrise or sunset is from a viewpoint, accessed by a steep set of stairs just outside the bazaar.
Further afield is the village of Gorkha, home to the famously fierce Gurkha warriors and the birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah, who unified the country in the 18th century. Despite the village being the starting point for the Manaslu Circuit trek, its historical and cultural significance demands a trip by any visitor to the country. The old Durbar Palace, with a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, remains the village’s main attraction.
6. Raft down the Trisuli River.
If you’re up for an outdoor adventure that doesn’t require moving your legs too much, try the river rafting. Nepal is considered one of the best places in the world to tackle white-water rapids, which is no surprise considering the steady flow of water that the Himalayan glaciers provide.
One of the best ways to avoid a long eight-hour bus ride between Kathmandu and Pokhara is to raft half of it. The main road between the two big cities follows the Trisuli River and a number of agencies offer day excursions down the relatively gentle rapids that are fit for any age and skill level. If you’re slightly more adventurous and up for a truly unique Nepal experience, then you can also opt to do multi-day rafting expeditions that can include up to 10 days down extremely difficult rapids along the remote Sun Kosi and Tamur rivers — something you can certainly brag about to your Everest Base Camp trekking friends. The rafting seasons are the same as the trekking months, although in autumn after the monsoon is considered superior in terms of water level and thrills.