Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

Nepal's capital and largest city simultaneously reeks of history and the wear and tear of increasing modernity. The tightly packed historical centre, with its squares and temples, continues to preserve a world light years away from the shanty towns, expensive hotels, restaurants and shops on the city's outskirts. Kathmandu's core is Durbar Square, with the Vishnumati River to the west and Ratna Park to the east. The Bagmati River forms the southern boundary, while Thamel, the budget travellers' hangout, sprawls to the north.

Kathmandu is really two cities: a fabled capital of convivial pilgrims and carved rose-brick temples; and a splenetic sprawl smothered in the pollution of diesel fumes, dirt, monkeys and beggars. The sights are heavily clustered in the old part of town from Kantipath west towards the Vishumati River. Creativity and patience are required to navigate the city’s narrow, often unmarked streets, but if you lose your way, simply ask a passerby for directions.

Most of the budget accommodation is in the central locations of Thamel and, if you’re feeling nostalgic, Freak Street. Noticeboards at guesthouses have information on everything from pack animals and porters to where to meet a partner. For more expensive lodgings, you’ll have to settle on a less convenient location, although many of these out-of-the-way hotels offer a free bus service into town.

Kathmandu sits slightly south-east of Nepal’s centre. The city is encircled by the Ring Rd, with the main bus station in the north and Tribhuvan international airport to the east.

Most travellers head to the old city of Kathmandu, between the Vishnumati River and Kantipath, the main north-south road. Durbar Sqare, home to the old Royal Palace and the centre of the old town, lies between the river and Kantipath on Ganga Path, the city’s busiest road.

Very much the centre of old Kathmandu, Durbar Square is a huddle of temples and shrines, with intricately carved roofs, doors and windows. Many buildings are ancient, having survived the great earthquake of 1933; others have been completely rebuilt, not always in their original form.

A good place to begin exploring is the unprepossessing Kasthamandap, purportedly the oldest building in the valley. Although its history is uncertain, it was believed to have been built around the 12th century. At first it was a community centre, then a temple to the god Gorakhnath, and more recently, a gathering place for porters trolling for customers. Nearby is the Maju Deval, a Shiva temple with platform steps that are ideal for watching hawkers, rickshaw wallahs and souvenir sellers offering all sorts of services to credulous tourists.

Other noteworthy sights include: the Great Bell which, when rung, is believed to ward off evil spirits; the Jaganath Temple, famed for its blush-inducing array of erotic carvings; the fearsome stone image of the six-armed Kala Bhairab; and the Taleju Temple, easily the most magnificent of the square’s many temples - unfortunately, it’s not open to the public; even the Nepalese are denied entrance and can only visit during the annual Dasain festival.

The palace was originally founded during the Licchavi period, although most of it was constructed by King Pratap Malla in the 17th century. Marking the entrance is Hanuman’s statue (1672), which commemorates the monkey god’s brave assistance to Rama during the events of the Ramayana. Sheltered under an umbrella, the statue’s face is smeared with red splodges - courtesy of paste applied by faithful followers.

The western part of the palace, overlooking Durbar Square, is home to an interesting museum that celebrates King Tribhuvan’s successful putsch against the Ranas. Wander inside and you get an eerie insight into his life: lots of personal effects, extensive photos and newspaper clippings and magnificent furniture and knick-knackery.

Kathmandu’s most famous street from the hippy overland days of the 1960s and 70s runs south from Basantapur Square. Its real name is Jochne but since the early 1970s it has been better known as Freak Street. In its prime, the street’s squalor and beauty was irresistible: the smell of sweet incense, children fluttering prayer wheels, cheap hotels, ad hoc restaurants, and shops selling enlightenment, epiphany - anything. Not surprisingly, it made an instant rapport with the dusty-haired ‘freaks’ who gave the street its name. Love-ins are a thing of the past, but Freak Street’s history and plum position in the heart of old Kathmandu still make it a popular destination.

Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport is the only international terminal in the city. Not many airlines fly direct to Kathmandu: unless you’re coming from Frankfurt, Bangkok or Dhaka, you’ll probably have to change planes, or even airlines, in India. Domestic airlines fly throughout the country - the most popular route is Pokhara to Kathmandu.

There are a bunch of bus services running from various cities in northern India to Kathmandu. Tour companies also run services from Kathmandu to Lhasa, in Tibet. Buses from Kathmandu’s main station, on the Ring Road, travel to Pokhara and the Terai, while those for the Kathmandu Valley and Arniko Highway run from the City Bus Station. There are also more expensive tourist minibuses, mainly to Pokhara and Chitwan.