I've passed through Kathmandu dozens of times in recent years, en route to writing trips in Tibet and Bhutan or on treks to Everest, Langtang, Annapurna and Dolpo, and it's the sense of being at a mountain crossroads that keeps drawing me back. It's a place that attracts mountain expeditions, Hindu holy men, Tibetan traders and Sherpa guides. There are a dozen amazing adventures just waiting at the edge of town.
The city itself ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. The old town spreads in a web of ancient alleyways, a medieval city desperately trying to support the infrastructure of a modern capital. Centuries-old chowks (junctions) are lined with 400-year-old stone carvings and clogged with traffic. At every turn lies a remarkable sight: a craftsman pounding on a bronze Buddha, mountain villagers shopping for Gore-Tex jackets, pilgrims making offerings. It's a city of frustration and wonder, a backpacker's heaven and endlessly fascinating.
The most romantic option has to be Dwarikas (www.dwarikas.com; 00 977 1 4479488). Built with Newari carved wood rescued from across the valley, it's a stylish and quintessentially Nepali blend of oiled red brick, carved wooden lintels and stone stupas. In the high season doubles cost from US$255 (Dh937), including taxes but not breakfast. Artists, writers and travellers in search of some tranquility gravitate to the Hotel Vajra (www.hotelvajra.com; 00 977 1 4271545). The garden complex is on the way to the Swayambhunath (Monkey) Temple and boasts a library, meditation room and a theatre offering weekly concerts of traditional Nepali music. A deluxe double costs $76 (Dh280), including taxes and breakfast.
The best way to get a feel for old Kathmandu is to disappear on foot into the winding narrow alleyways of the old town. South of the backpacker quarter of Thamel, the bakeries and cheap guest houses soon give way to roadside shrines and hidden courtyards full of drying corn. Children pass by, chattering away in their blue school uniforms, while women quietly perform puja (ritual prayers) at a local temple, adorning the gods in strings of marigolds and ringing the entryway bell on the way out. At Bangemudha, look for the stump of wood that doubles as a shrine to the god of toothaches. The bustling market of Asan Tole is jam-packed with valley farmers selling their crops of ginger and greens. Finally you'll arrive at Durbar Square, the city's royal heart, dotted with a dozen breathtaking pagodas and the city's principal meeting place.
The balcony of Himalayan Java (www.himalayanjava.com; 00 977 1 4422519) is a fine spot to join cool young Nepalis sipping their lattes, while watching the snake charmers work their magic on the street below. It's also one of the few places in town to get a decent espresso.
Yangling Tibetan Restaurant ($2 [Dh7] for a meal) is little more than a few humble tables in front of a family kitchen, but the family in question churn out some of the city's best momo (meat dumplings) and it's a great place to share a table with local trek staff. Bodhnath, at the edge of the city, is the place to get a sense of Kathmandu's Tibetan community. Thick with the scents of juniper incense and yak butter, it feels like a miniature Lhasa, a place to practise your Tibetan with the descendants of people who left their homeland 50 years ago. Circumambulate the 100-metre-wide stupa at dusk and you'll be joined by a throng of fellow pilgrims, monks and Tibetan exiles.
1905 (www.1905restaurant.com; 00 977 1 4225272) is a wonderfully restored former royal summer palace that serves excellent international cuisine, from beef Wellington to sesame-coated bekti fish. Choose from half a dozen menus, one for teas alone. It's just outside the tourist centre of Thamel, and not too far to walk. Main courses run to around $10 (Dh37). Krishnarpan at Dwarikas (www.dwarikas.com/restaurantsnepal.html; 00 977 1 4479488) is the place for an extravagant Nepali banquet. The 22-course blowout includes traditional bandel (wild boar) and costs $50 (Dh184).
Kathmandu's Thamel district crams in some of the best bargain shopping in Asia. I love the trekking gear shops, not just for the range of imported gear but for the low-cost locally-made down sleeping bags and jackets. The quality isn't top-notch but the prices are a fraction of what you'd pay at home. Books are another great buy, with an unrivalled selection on Tibet and the Himalayas. Pilgrims Book House (www.pilgrimsbooks.com) is the largest in town, with a restaurant attached, and specialises in local leather-bound reprints of antiquarian travel classics.
Thamel's side streets are lined with craft shops selling jewellery, Ayurvedic soaps and paper products made from the local daphne bush. Tea is another good buy, with first flushes from estates in Ilam, just over the border from Darjeeling. Finally, Kathesimbhu Stupa in the old town is the place Tibetans come for Chinese silks, Buddhist robes and the finest prayer flags.
Thamel is ground central for a host of bothersome would-be trekking guides, gemstone scammers and tiger-balm salesmen who home in on the jetlagged and recently arrived. Don't bother with the hawkers selling cheap prayer wheels and Tantric items; they were all made last week in workshops outside the city, artfully aged over a smoky fire. Don't spend all your time in Kathmandu shopping for CDs and eating chocolate cake. The real Nepal lies out in the Kathmandu Valley or on one of the many trekking routes.
Patan Museum (www.patanmuseum.gov.np), easily Nepal's most interesting museum and a superb introduction to the myriad of deities, statues, architecture and iconography that you'll see throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Bradley Mayhew co-authored Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya, published by Lonely Planet.