Somewhere between the towering, gleaming skyscrapers of Dubai and towering, untouched mountains of the Himalayas lies Kathmandu, a city seen by many as merely a gateway to the dramatic landscapes of Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna Circuit, and more. It’s where they pick up hiking equipment, board domestic flights to the likes of Lukla and Pokhara, and tend to their aching post-trek muscles with cheap massages and even cheaper dhal bhat platters before returning home.
But what happens in this process is a lost opportunity to discover so much more: a UNESCO-listed city square, centuries-old architecture, bustling Hindu temples contrasted by tranquil Buddhist stupas, elaborate thangka art, and a perpetual showcase of human resilience – the Nepalese capital is still reeling from the effects of the 2015 earthquake, yet slowly recovering, one restored terracotta brick at a time. And the ultimate address to escape it all at the end of the day? Dwarika’s Hotel.
Need to Know
The luxury boutique hotel is a powerful symbol of what is possible when one – only one – individual is truly passionate about the preservation of heritage. It’s the brainchild of the late Dwarika Das Shrestha, who was determined to collect, protect, and replicate intricately engraved wooden structures that were being desecrated in favor of more modern ones, starting with a pillar that was cast aside to be used as firewood. What started out as a hobby grew to become a life-long passion that, today, is personified as Dwarika’s Hotel.
The family-owned property houses an astounding collection of artefacts from the 13th century onwards, with beautifully carved doors, pillars, and window frames at every turn – all exhibiting the very best of Kathmandu Valley’s craftsmanship. But don’t let this emphasis on heritage fool you. While the founder’s vision is reflected in every inch of the 83 rooms (be they of the room or suite variety), Dwarika’s more than caters to the modern-day traveler.
Here, handwoven textiles, antique-y furniture, cultural objets d’art, and symbols of Hindu and Buddhist mythology residing in wall niches – all locally produced and distinctly Nepalese in aesthetic – stand alongside creature comforts like air conditioning, cable TV, WiFi, a well-stocked minibar, a French press, and a large sunken bathtub. My favorite detail? Baag Chal, a two-player board game involving four tigers and 20 goats that originated in Nepal, is found in every single room – in brass, no less!
Kathmandu isn’t quite where you would go to “get away from it all”. Noisy, polluted, and overpopulated, it is a city that’s more traveler than tourist. And then there’s the traffic – that notoriously nasty traffic. That’s exactly why you’ll take to the public spaces at Dwarika’s. While the guestrooms are spacious and inviting, it’s the wide, atmospheric courtyards that offer the best vantage point to admire the architectural grandeur of days gone by.
Accenting the palatial cluster of traditional red-brick buildings are sunken fountains, lush pomelo and persimmon trees, and a light scattering of religious shrines – even the hushed conversations that take place in the courtyards contribute to their overall sense of serenity. Arguably the most striking detail can be found at the outdoor swimming pool that is inspired by 12th century Malla Dynasty baths: water gushing out of stone spouts depicting mythical creatures. You’ll want to stroll slowly through this property; it really does feel more like an ancient city reserved for the wealthy few than a boutique hotel operating at capacity.
To compare Dwarika’s to a living, breathing museum wouldn’t be a stretch – but while being surrounded by Nepal’s rich heritage is great, being able to engage with it is even better. Enter: Krishnarpan, the signature restaurant that offers a slow-dining experience not to be missed. For one, you can feast on up to 22 (yes, 22) courses, starting with Samaya Bajee. This selection of hors d’oeuvres – kidney beans, flattened rice, and a pancake of sorts included – is generally served during religious ceremonies, and one that left me feeling a little sheepish.
I was getting ready to pounce on the food (as I tend to do after a long day of traveling), until I was asked to “make a small offering to Lord Krishna first”. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, it’s the flattened rice that I chose to sacrifice. The proceeding courses consisted of everything from buffalo-meat momos and pickled radish to chickpea curry, sautéed mushrooms, spiced potatoes, and flash-fried lentils alongside different types of rice before wrapping up with cinnamon-flavored yogurt and semolina pudding. Not only is a meal at Krishnarpan a culinary journey through Nepal, but it’s also a cultural one.
A hostess, heavily bejeweled and dressed in traditional attire, will both remove your shoes and wash your hands before escorting you to a low table. Native masks, traditional earthenware, and even more wood carvings continue to set the tone, while a customized menu makes for a wonderful little souvenir of your brush with Kathmandu Valley’s Newari community. Bragging rights, however, come courtesy of those who have dined here before you: Prince Charles, Selena Gomez, Hillary Clinton, Demi Moore – and plenty more.
Continuing in the realm of Nepalese traditions is the Pancha Kosha Himalayan Spa, which draws on Ayurveda, Buddhist medicine, and ancient rituals. The spa refers to each of its treatments as “a journey into the self”, a claim I put to the test with the ‘Pancha Kosha Newari Massage Therapy’. And while I remain unsure of its transcendental ability, it was the definitive antidote to a day spent exploring Kathmandu on foot. Borrowing from age-old Newari techniques, this signature massage is based on traditional strokes and features sesame or mustard oil infused with herbs such as fenugreek and camphor – the formula has a slight zing to it, so the massage simultaneously feels relaxing and invigorating.
What will catch you off guard – but in a good way – is the ear massage towards the end, which helps to restore balance and clear any blockages. Next, almond oil is massaged into the face, signaling the end of 75 minutes worth of bliss. All the products used at Pancha Kosha are organic, homemade, and exclusive to the spa. They also make for particularly unique gifts, so be sure to browse the selection on your way out. Yak-milk soap, anyone?
By now, it’s evident that Dwarika’s is the definitive place to engage with just about every aspect of Newari culture – particularly if you’re pressed for time. Elsewhere at this heritage hotel, the amenities continue with Japanese restaurant Mako’s, the minimalistic décor and zen-like ambience of which are inspired by host Mako-san’s interest in Buddhism. There’s also all-day restaurant Toran and casual eatery Fusion Bar, where a weekly poolside barbecue attracts residents and tourists alike.
The onsite library – packed with interesting books about Nepal’s history and culture – makes for a great spot in which to curl up after a heavy meal. You could burn off a couple of calories at the decently equipped gym, but I’d recommend the complimentary yoga class that takes place daily at 7 a.m. instead. And if shopping is your cardio à la Carrie Bradshaw, then a visit to the many boutiques on the premises is another option. Personally, I tend to skip the overpriced gift shops housed within luxury hotels, but the ones at Dwarika’s are actually well worth a visit. They stock everything from pashmina scarves and Tibetan singing bowls to traditional paper products and silver jewelry – all beautifully crafted and easy to carry back home.
Admittedly, Dwarika’s Hotel is closer to the airport – six minutes by car – than the city center, but you’ll appreciate its location when it’s time to wake up at 5 a.m. for what can only be described as the most magical, awe-inspiring day trip in the world. Several local airlines like Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines run hour-long mountain flights on a daily basis, during which passengers get a front-row seat to the breathtaking, snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas – Mount Everest included. This one’s a must-do, hands down.
Closer to sea level, there are two major attractions that are easily accessible from the hotel. Pashupatinath Temple, the most famous Hindu temple complex in all of Nepal, is only an 11-minute walk away. Amidst this riot of colors, sounds, and smells is an opportunity to observe cremation ceremonies, dreadlocked sadhus dressed in canary yellow and eager to pose for photos, devotees bathing in the sacred Bagmati River, monkeys scampering from one temple to another, and stray dogs vying for a spot in the shade.
In stark contrast to this parade of human and animal activity is the nearby Boudhanath, one of the largest stupas worldwide. Here, Buddhist monks silently walk clockwise arounds its base, nuns dole out blessings to those eagerly seeking them, and pilgrims hum while spinning the cylindrical prayer wheels alongside tourists attempting to take the perfect selfie. And while a caffeine culture hasn’t quite arrived in Nepal yet, the facing outpost of Himalayan Java Coffee provides killer views of it all – this is a cup of coffee you’ll need in the cacophony that is Kathmandu.
For more details or to book a stay at Dwarika’s Hotel, Kathmandu, click here.