Islamabad to Taxila: the ultimate day trip guide
This post is about how to plan your day trip from Islamabad to Taxila and how to visit Taxila on your own without a tour guide. Taxila is one of the oldest cities in Pakistan. Nowadays, it is an industrial town close to Islamabad, but it was once the cultural and educational center of Buddhism in South Asia.
Getting from Islamabad to Taxila is easy and therefore it makes a perfect day trip from the capital.
Why visit Taxila
At first sight, Taxila looks like any other modern Pakistani town. Concrete buildings and dusty streets clogged with traffic. But under the urban sprawl of the densely packed residential homes are layers of history.
History of Taxila
Taxila’s history goes back to the 7th century BC when it slowly developed as the cultural and religious center in the region. Throughout its long history it has always been a trade hub at the crossroads of the Indian, Persian, Hellenistic and Central Asian civilizations.
Some of the oldest ruins date back to the Aechemenid empire in the sixth century BC when Taxila was part of the Persian province of Gandhara. In Persepolis in Iran you can see reliefs showing delegates from Gandhara wearing loincloths. A clothing style common in Taxila at that time.
In 330 BC, Taxila, also known as Takshashila, became the capital of Gandhara. In the Zoroastrian book of Avesta, Gandhara is described as the seventh most beautiful place on earth. Gandhara is also mentioned in the ancient Hindu scripts of the Ramayana and Mahabaratha. The Greek influence started when Alexander the Great conquered Taxila in 326 BC.
Taxila then became a center of Buddhist culture and knowledge under the Maurya king of Ashoka and as part of the Kushan empire. The Kushan empire in the first century was a large empire that included what is now the Fergana valley in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Varanasi in India.
Taxila, as a famous center of learning for higher education, attracted students from all over the region. Its teachings had a big influence on the Sanskrit language and the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia.
Taxila Archeological sites
After its decline in the 5th century, the beautiful stupas, monasteries and temples fell into disrepair until scholars in the 19th century started to look for the lost city of Taxila. Excavations started in 1913 and revealed the ruins of different times and empires.
Archaeologists made significant strides in uncovering the ancient structures, artifacts, and historical layers within Taxila, but new discoveries are still made.
Don’t expect impressive Stupas and temples like Hampi in India or Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. The ruins in Taxila are scattered around the modern town of Taxila and leave much to the imagination. Still, you can get a good sense of the vast expanse of the archeological sites and give you a glimpse of Pakistan’s rich history.
In 1980 the archeological sites of Taxila became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Things to do in Taxila
The most important archeological sites in and around Taxila cover a large area. Some are within walking distance of each other, while others are far enough from the town of Taxila that you will need some type of transport.
Visiting all archeological sites in a single day is possible, but requires your own transport and will be a long day going back and forth. If you are very much into history this might be worth it, but otherwise visiting the most impressive sites will be rewarding enough.
A good place to start your day trip from Islamabad to Taxila is the Taxila Museum that is in the center of the modern town of Taxila. The museum houses a remarkable collection of artifacts excavated from the ancient sites of Taxila.
This includes beautiful examples of Gandhara art and Gandhara sculptures as well as ancient Indo-Greek coins.
The museum gives you the basic knowledge of Taxila’s history and the influences from the Indian, Persian and Greek civilizations.
Bhir Mound is right in front of the Taxila Museum. We had a difficult time finding the ruins as the field in front of the museum is also used as a cricket playground. Friendly locals eventually pointed us in the right direction. In a corner we found a large area with foundations covered in grass and shrubs.
The Bhir Mound ruins are not that impressive to look at, but they are the oldest ruins in the area dating back to the 6th century BC. What you see are the remains of homes with courtyards that are divided by narrow streets and lanes.
Archeologists found many artifacts in this area that you can see in the Taxila museum. This includes pottery, terracotta toys and coins with Aramaic script. When Persian king Darius, Alexander the Great and king Ashoka conquered Taxila, most of the city was located at Bhir Mound.
How to get there: Bhir Mound is right in front of the Taxila museum.
The Indo-Greek king Demetrius moved the center of Taxila to a new location in the 2nd century BC. Sirkap became a large city that was built according to the Greek Hippodamian grid plan. Therefore, it was a typical Greek city in design with a large street surrounded by homes, shops and religious buildings including buddhist stupas and Jain temples.
Sirkap means severed head and refers to the legend of ‘Raja Rasalu and the seven demons’. In one version the Punjab king Rasalu sets out on an adventure and heads to Taxila to play a game with king Sirkap. Rasalu wins the game and marries the daughter of Sirkap. In another version, Rajalu kills Sirkap who is a demon that eats human flesh.
I found the ruins of Sirkap very impressive due to its large size. Highlights included the sundial and the temples.
How to get there: Sirkap is about 2 kilometers from the Taxila Museum. You can walk there or take a tuk tuk
Dharmarajika stupa was the most impressive of all the ruins around Taxila. The stupa was built in the time when Taxila was an important city in the Maurya empire. According to some legends, Maurya king Ashoka gifted holy relics from Gautama Buddha to Taxila.
King Ashoka built the Dharmarajika stupa around the 3rd century BC in Taxila to protect the holy relics. During excavations, archeologists indeed found a silver casket with bone fragments that are now in the Taxila museum.
How to get there: Dharmarajika stupa is 4 kilometers from the Taxila museum. You can walk there or take a tuk tuk
The Jaulian monastery isn’t as large as the other archeological sites, but it is one of the best preserved ruins around Taxila. The monastery was built in the 2nd century and was an important center of learning and education.
The highlights are the decorated stupas and the Healing Buddha statue. Buddhist pilgrims believe that if you put your finger in the statue’s navel it will heal any ailments you suffer from.
How to get there: Jaulian monastery is 7 kilometers from the Taxila Museum
Mohra Moradu is another small archeological site. This stupa was built around the same time as the Jaulian monastery and is famous for its beautiful stucco sculptures. The sculptures are now in the Taxila Museum though. What you can still sweat Mohra Moradu are the monastery walls and the base of the stupa
How to get there: Mohra Moradu is 6 kilometers from the Taxila Museum
More Taxila sites
Above are the most important and impressive archaeological sites in and around Taxila, but there really is much more to see for the real history lovers. Below are some sites that are more difficult to visit on a day trip from Islamabad to Taxila.
Sirsukh: Eventually the Kushans left Sirkap to build another new town just north of Sirkap in the first century BC. Sirsukh was surrounded by a 5 kilometer long city wall. Only small parts of this city were excavated.
Kalawan Stupa: in the mountains above Dharmarajika stupa are the remains of the Kalawan stupa and monastery. They are difficult to find.
Kunala Stupa: The remains of the small Kushan era stupa are on a hill south of Sirkap.
Giri remains: The Giri remains are the ruins of several monasteries and a fort. There is not much information about them.
How to get from Islamabad to Taxila
Public transport: public transport is the cheapest option to get from Islamabad to Taxila. Minivans to Taxila leave from the Rawalpindi bus station near the Rawalpindi railway station. This means you first have to get to the Rawalpindi bus station. Depending on where you stay in Islamabad it might be better to take a direct taxi to Taxila.
Taxi: The easiest way to travel from Islamabad to Taxila is by taxi. I recommend you use a taxi hailing app like Careem or Indrive. Taxila Museum is a great place to start.
How to get around Taxila.
The archeological sites in and around Taxila are quite spread out. After visiting the Taxila Museum and Bhir Mound you have two options. You can negotiate with one of the tuk tuk drivers that will approach you once you come out of the museum or explore Taxila on foot
Taxila on foot: I decided to explore Taxila on foot and walked first to Sirkap and then to Dharmarajika stupa. This means a lot of hiking, but I enjoyed walking through the streets of modern Taxila and the countryside towards Dharmarajika stupa.
Unfortunately, I had no time to include Jaulian or Mohra Moradu as these sites were too far away. I must also mention that I visited in October and therefore the temperatures were pleasant to walk. I can imagine this is a different story in the summer when it gets too hot.
Taxila by tuk tuk: Outside of the Taxila museum are plenty of tuk tuk drivers that are eager to show you around after you visit the museum and Bhir Mound (that is just opposite the museum). You can negotiate a price for the full day including: Sirkap, Dharmarajika, Jaulian and Mohra Moradu. I recommend this option when you really want to visit all the archeological sites or when you visit in summer.
Taxila travel tips
The museum and the archeological sites are usually open from Saturday to Thursday from 9 AM to 4 PM. There are separate entrance tickets for the museum and the archeological sites. The entrance tickets to the archeological sites are valid for Sirkap, Dharmarajika, Jaulian and Mohra Moradu. Nobody asked for a ticket at Bhir Mound.
Wannabe guides: At Sirkap and Dharmarajika I was immediately approached by men that started to tell me everything about the history of the site. They have interesting stories to tell, but they do expect a payment afterwards. If you don’t want this, be firm that you do not need a guide. If you do want a guide, I also recommend negotiating a price beforehand.
Coins: when walking around Taxila, several people showed me ancient coins. One farmer was indeed walking through his field with a metal detector showing us what he found that day. An interesting mix of ancient and new coins and jewelry covered in sand. At Dharmarajika stupa they no longer just showed me the ancient coins, but tried to sell them. It is difficult to say if these coins are genuine. Even if they are, it is good to keep in mind you are not allowed to take antiquities out of the country.
Where to stay
You can easily visit Taxila on a day trip from Islamabad and therefore I recommend you stay in Islamabad where you have a better choice of sleeping options
Shelton’s Ambassador: I stayed a couple of nights at Shelton’s Ambassador. The hotel offers good value for money and has a nice and safe location in the blue zone. I was the only foreign visitor, so I got some curious stares at the breakfast buffet from the other visitors that were mostly Afghan families.
E-Lodge Guesthouse: I stayed one night at the E-Lodge Guesthouse. It was located in a more quiet and upmarket part of Islamabad. The room was very nice and you can rent bicycles to explore the neighborhood. Location wise, it is not that central.
Holidazzle Lodge: I was supposed to stay in the Holidazzle Lodge, but at the last moment they could not accommodate me. They booked the E-Lodge for me with hundreds of excuses and even came to visit to apologize once more. I can not comment on the room, but the owner is very friendly and helpful.
When to visit Taxila
The best time to visit Taxila is during the spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). Both seasons offer mild temperatures. Daytime temperatures range from 20 to 30 degrees Celsius (68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Summers in Taxila (June to August) can be hot, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) or more, so it’s advisable to avoid this season if you’re not comfortable with high temperatures. Winters (December to February) can be cool, with temperatures occasionally dropping to near freezing, but it’s generally a manageable time for visitors who enjoy cooler weather.
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