Ever since Nepal first opened its borders to outsiders in the 1950s, this tiny mountain nation has had an irresistible mystical allure for travellers. Today, legions of trekkers are drawn to the Himalayas’ most iconic and accessible hiking, some of the world’s best, with rugged trails to Everest, the Annapurnas and beyond.
Nowhere else can you trek for days or even weeks in incredible mountain scenery, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal, cosy lodge and warm slice of apple pie await you at the end of the day.
Some travellers are drawn here by the adrenalin rush of rafting down a roaring Nepali river or bungy jumping into a bottomless Himalayan gorge.
Canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and mountain biking all offer a rush against the backdrop of some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.
Temples and tigers
Other travellers prefer to see Nepal at a more gentle pace, admiring the peaks over a gin and tonic from a Himalayan viewpoint, strolling through the temple-lined medieval city squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, and joining Buddhist pilgrims on a spiritual stroll around the centuries-old stupas and temples that lie scattered across the Kathmandu Valley.
Further south lie Nepal’s wild and woolly national parks, where nature buffs scan the treetops for exotic bird species and comb the jungles for rhinos and tigers from the backs of lumbering Indian elephants. Whether you cross the country by mountain bike, motorbike, raft or tourist bus, Nepal offers an astonishingly diverse array of attractions and landscapes.
There are few countries in the world that are as well set up for independent travel as Nepal. Wandering the trekking shops, bakeries and pizzerias of Thamel and Pokhara, it’s easy to feel that you have somehow landed in a kind of backpacker Disneyland.
Out in the countryside lies a quite different Nepal, where traditional mountain life continues stoically and at a slower pace, and a million potential adventures glimmer on the mountain horizons.
The biggest problem faced by visitors to Nepal is how to fit everything in. Many people have spent a lifetime exploring the mountain trails of the Himalayas and the atmospheric temple towns of the Middle Hills, and they still keep coming back for more.
Our advice is to pick a handful of essential experiences for your first visit and save the rest for trips two, three and four.
Four top experiences
Kathmandu’s Durbar Square
Majestic Durbar Square was where the city’s kings were once crowned and from where they ruled (“durbar” means palace). As such, the square remains the traditional heart of the old town and the city’s most spectacular legacy of traditional architecture.
Although most of the square dates from the 17th and 18th centuries (many of the original buildings are much older), a great deal of rebuilding happened after the great earthquake of 1934. The entire square was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Everest Base Camp Trek
The trek has a number of stunning attractions, not least of these is being able to say you’ve visited the highest mountain in the world. The trek gets you right into the high-altitude heart of the high Himalaya. There are some lovely villages and gompas (monasteries), and the friendly Sherpa people of the Solu Khumbu region make trekking through the area a joy.
Most of the trek is through the Sagarmatha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for Everest) and a refuge for musk deer, red pandas, snow leopard, Himalayan tahr and many spectacular types of pheasant.
Annapurna Circuit Trek
It takes nearly three weeks to walk the entire Annapurna Circuit. For scenery and cultural diversity this has long been considered the best trek in Nepal. It follows the Marsyangdi Khola (Marsyangdi Valley) to the north of the main Himalayan range and crosses a 5416m pass to descend into the desert-like, Tibetan-style scenery of the upper Kali Gandaki Valley.
The walk passes picturesque villages home to Gurungs, Manang and Thakalis, offers spectacular mountain views of the numerous 7000m-plus Annapurna peaks and boasts some of the best trekking lodges in Nepal.
The Kathmandu Valley
The basin is a patchwork of terraced fields and sacred temple towns that showcase the glory of the architects and artisans of Nepal. The valley is literally full of medieval villages, centuries-old temples and sacred sites, while just beyond the valley rims lie Himalayan viewpoints and two adventurous roads to Tibet.
Apart from the great UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Patan, Bodhnath and Bhaktapur, try to visit one or two of the smaller Newari villages off the mainstream tourist circuit. All of these can be explored by frequent minibuses, taxi, mountain bike, motorcycle or even on foot, following a web of ancient trails.
Need to know
- Air transport
Nepal has one international airport, Tribhuvan International Airport, just east of Kathmandu. There are no direct long-distance flights to Nepal getting there from Australasia will always involve a stop in the Middle East or Asia. Airlines serving Nepal include Air India (airindia.in); China Southern Airlines (www.flychinasouthern.com); Dragonair (dragonair.com); Jet Airways (jetairways.com); Korean Airlines (koreanair.com); Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com); and Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com).
- Your daily budget
Organised camping trek: $US50-$80 ($A48-$78) a person, a day
Midrange meal in Kathmandu: $US7-$10
Midrange hotel: $US20-$80
Explore Nepal (explorenepal.com) is a useful Nepal portal; try also nepalhomepage.com or nepaltourism.info. Nepal Tourism Board (welcome nepal.com) is a government site.
Visit Nepal (visitnepal.com) is a comprehensive private website with detailed travel tips.