Fast becoming a must-visit destination, Pakistan is a treasure trove of architectural gems, breathtaking natural wonders and little-used trekking trails. Here are the things you absolutely must do...
The Karakoram Highway is the world’s ultimate road trip, an 805 mile journey from Abbottabad to the Chinese border, through some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery and heart-stopping passes.
Known affectionately as the KKH, the Karakoram delivers epic Himalayan mountains, gorgeously lush valleys, raging rivers fed by glaciers and a lost world of hospitality and solitude.
Each bend in the road, each pass conquered, reveals a new adventure. Enjoy the mayhem of a polo match – old school style – in Gilgit, test your nerve crossing the rope bridge near Passu and explore the trails of Baltistan – the Karakorum Highway offers it all in epic proportions.
Whether you hire a private jeep or travel in one of the technicolour local buses, you’re in for an adventure of a lifetime.
As a purpose-built capital, Islamabad enjoys the benefits of being a planned, modern city. It is neat and clean and surrounded by hills, a relatively calm oasis amongst the chaos that is Pakistan’s other major cities. Nature is never far away. And there are plenty of cultural activities to keep you busy, too.
Faisal Mosque is the city’s most striking sight. It sits at the foot of the Margalla Hills, looking for all the world like a spaceship launch pad. Indeed, the CIA were convinced the minarets were missiles in disguise.
The westernmost foothills of the Himalayas are here, offering plenty of great hiking opportunities with the Mughal village of Saidpur a popular destination. The hike up to Daman-e-Koh offers uninterrupted views of the city.
Make sure you visit the Pakistan Monument, a striking structure based on a blooming flower, with each petal representing the country’s provinces. Illuminated it night, it also house a museum where the history of the country is told in a series of waxworks.
It’s no secret that relations between Pakistan and its neighbour, India, are tense. Border skirmishes are common and with both countries in possession of nuclear weapons, the potential for a more serious conflict is very real.
This is precisely what makes the daily closing ceremony at the Wagah-Attari border, only 24km from Lahore, even more surreal. At 5pm every evening, the border forces of both countries participate in what can only be described as an elaborate dance-off.
What began as a simple flag-lowering ceremony has transformed into choreographed one-upmanship. Soldiers in uniforms and elaborate head gear from both sides compete to see who can kick the highest, strutting along the border like peacocks competing for the affections of a peahen. It's quite the event.
There are stands on either sides of the border where spectators gather to watch. Hawkers wander through selling snacks and a murmur of anticipation bubbles through the crowd. The atmosphere is not unlike a sporting event. Each high kick is cheered like a goal. An exaggerated hand shake and abrupt lowering of the flag indicates that the spectacle is over, eliciting disappointed sighs.
Hiking through the Fairy Meadows to the Nanga Parbat Base Camp in Himalayan Pakistan is one of the most popular treks in the country, for good reason.
You get unobstructed views of Nanga Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the country at 8,125m, as well as a variety of trails to suit every level of fitness and endeavour, each one offering stunning scenery .
You’ll need to catch a bus to Raikot Bridge, 80km south of Gilgit, and then a jeep to the trail head at Fairy Meadows. Here the fancifully-named Greenland Resort makes an affordable pass to explore the various trails, from the easy two hour trek to Beyal Camp, to the much harder and longer trek to Nanga Parbat Base Camp itself. Expect forests, glaciers and up-close views of some of the highest mountains in the world.
Pakistan is not short of incredibly beautiful mosques. From the confrontingly modern Faisal Mosque in Islamabad to the mosaic marvel that is Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, the country is dotted with mosques well worth checking out.
The breathtaking Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, however, should top your list. British royals love it – Diana, Princess of Wales visited in 1991. Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, visited more recently in 2019. It is regarded as one of the most impressive in the Islamic world.
Built in 1673, it was the largest mosque in the world for over 300 years until the Faisal Mosque was completed in 1986. Its 26,000 sq m courtyard can host up to 95,000 worshippers. Its minarets and domes are clad in dazzling white marble, a striking contrast to the red of the main building, but its real beauty lays in the details. The level of artistry in the arches, stucco tracery and intricate frescoes is astonishing.
Deep in the Punjab, 130km south of the city of Bahawalpur, the 40 squat bastions of Derawar Fort stand guard over the empty plains of the Cholistan Desert as they have done since medieval times.
The fort was built by Rai Jajja Bhatti, a Hindu Rajput from Jaisalmer, conquered by the Nawab of Bahawalpur in 1733 and now owned the royal Abbasi family, who use the necropolis for their own private use.
It takes a day to reach the fort and you’ll need special permission to go inside, but you’ll be rewarded with one of the most extraordinary sights in Pakistan. The 30m-high walls are square and powerful, and there is an intricate network of tunnels that local guides are happy to show you around. For a price, of course!
Known as Pakistan’s Shangri-La, the Hunza Valley is as peaceful as it is beautiful. A pocket of verdant green amongst the dry towering mountains, it is a land of burbling streams, abundant orchards and hospitable locals.
The valley is a popular stopping-off point along the Karakoram Highway, with plenty of colourful guesthouses offering comfortable and peaceful accommodation. Food is plentiful and good here, too, with the orchard and pastures providing produce that is fresh and tasty.
The mountains surrounding the valley are dotted with medieval forts, offering breathtaking hikes should you be feeling energetic. Most visitors, however, are happy to pick a comfortable spot on the veranda of their guest house and soak up the jaw-dropping scenery from there, a plate of freshly picked fruit and a hot cup of sweet chai to hand.
The Khyber Pass is the main route between Pakistan and Afghanistan, one of the most notorious stretches of road in the world. Many have tried to control it, from Alexander the Great to the British Raj, and all have failed. It is a places of wild mountain passes and equally wild, lawless lands.
Travelling to the Khyber Pass is certainly an adventure and not always advised. You’ll need a special permit to make the trip and authorities may insist that you travel with an armed guard. If that sounds a little too hardcore, a visit to Smuggler’s Bazaar on the fringes of Peshawar will give you taste of the Khyber without the danger.
This is where all the goods imported through Pakistan to Afghanistan and then smuggled back through the Tribal Areas to avoid paying duty are sold – from cut price electronics and clothes to Hello Kitty stationery. Guns and drugs are traded here to, but at the far end, where a barrier prevents tourists from inadvertently stumbling into an international arms deal.
Lahore’s historic fort has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, first by the Mughal emperors and then later by the British. Indeed, it is said that walking through Lahore Fort is like walking through Pakistan’s past.
You’ll find the fort at the northern end of the walled city, spread over 20 hectares and home to over 21 notable monuments. The oldest dates to the era of Emperor Akbar, the most recent were constructed under British rule.
Look for the fort's massive Picture Wall, dating from the Jahangir period, the iconic Alamgiri Gate and the lovely Mariyam Zamani Begum Mosque. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, the fort is a veritable treasure of Mughal, Indo-Islamic and colonial architectural styles.
Also known as Jinnah Mausoleum, Mazar-e-Quaid is the final resting place of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Heavily influenced by the Samanid Mausoleum in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, the striking white monument has become a symbol of Karachi.
Jinnah was the leader of the All-India Muslim League within the then-British-ruled India, and spent much of his adult life campaigning for the foundation of a separate Muslim State. Sadly, he died within a year of the new country Pakistan being founded, but his efforts are remembered in this simple but moving monument.
You’ll find it in the Jamshed Quarters neighbourhood of Karachi, surrounded by a large tranquil garden that provided a welcome escape from the bustle of the city.
Halfway between Lahore and Islamabad, the Khewra Salt Mine is the second largest salt mine in the world and the source of the distinctive pink Himalayan salt you’ll find on hipster dining tables across the world.
First discovered by Alexander the Great’s horse in 326 BC (it stopped to lick some rocks here, apparently), the mine produces 325,000 tons of salt each year and is one of Pakistan’s most popular tourist attractions.
Visitors come to see the miniature buildings and art works carved from salt set in the cavernous halls of the mine. The ease of building with salt bricks has seen the creation of a number of mini salt versions of the world’s most famous structures, including Badshahi Mosque, the Great Wall of China and Minar-e-Pakistan.
There’s also 25ft-long salt bridge modelled on the Islamic Pul-e-Sirat Bridge you must cross on Judgement Day, as well as brine pools, stunning salt crystal formations and a fully functioning post office - all made entirely from salt.
The highest alpine lake in Pakistan, the beguiling green Saiful Muluk lake sits at 3,200m tall in a valley above Narran, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and glaciers.
Legend has it that a prince, Saif-ul-Malook, fell in love with a fairy princess here, and on a clear night, when the lake is like a mirror, the reflections of the stars twinkle on the surface like a magical parade.
Getting to the lake is not easy. It’s a hot and sweaty two hour hike up the mountain from Narran, or a hair-raising jeep drive up one of the world’s most treacherous roads.
Once you’re there, however, you’ll be treated to pleasant temperatures, breathtaking views and the chance to boat on the lake, ride a horse along its shore or fish for trout. Should you catch one, the locals that live here will happily cook for you.
Built way back in 2,500 BC, Mohenjo-daro was one of the world’s earliest major cities. A bustling trading hub on the Indus River, it flourished at the same time as ancient Egyptian, Minoan and Mesopotamian civilisations. It was abandoned in 1900BC and rediscovered in the 1920s. Today, the incredibly atmospheric excavations stretch over 620 acres.
Sitting on elevated ground in the modern-day Larkana district of Sindh province, the site is laid out in a well-planned grid and features the remains of a sophisticated drainage system. The large number of bathing pools and water towers here has led some historians to believe that this was a society with an ideology based on cleanliness.
Regardless, the atmospheric ruins are a reminder of a time when the Indus Valley was the centre of a civilisation whose power was felt across the entire region.
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