The Best Places to Visit in Islamabad, Pakistan
This post is about the best places to visit in Islamabad. Pakistan’s modern capital is the gateway to the northern areas. Most people start their trip along the Karakoram Highway in Islamabad, but they tend to spend as little time as possible in the city.
It is true that Islamabad lacks the cultural and historical sights that are so frequent in cities like Lahore. Islamabad, on the contrary, is a rather new metropolis. Nevertheless, there are many places to visit in Islamabad that are very worthwhile.
Why visit Islamabad?
Islamabad was a pleasant surprise for me. I would later recognize what other travelers wrote down before me. I read that Islamabad feels very different from the rest of Pakistan. Indeed, It does. But that also makes it a very gentle introduction to the country.
Islamabad is clean and green with orderly planned streets and urban grids. In fact, I cannot think of any other large South Asian city where I saw less trash on the streets and where the traffic runs so smoothly through the city. Islamabad is also quiet and peaceful, with a beautiful setting in the foothills of the lush Margalla Hills and plenty of parks.
There are enough places to visit in Islamabad to spend at least one day in the city itself. Once you are ready to face the more noisy and chaotic side of Pakistan, you can easily visit Rawalpindi on a day trip. And although Islamabad has no historic sights of its own, nearby Taxila is one of the oldest cities in Pakistan.
I spent 3 days in the city and its surroundings. For me that was the perfect amount of time to see the best places to visit in Islamabad.
The Best Places to Visit in Islamabad
The Pakistan monument is one of the best places to visit in Islamabad and one of its few tourist attractions.
The Monument has the shape of lotus petals reaching high up in the sky forming a dome. The four larger petals represent the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There are also two smaller petals for Gilgit Baltistan as well as Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Together they symbolize the unity and solidarity of Pakistan with images of important Pakistani people and famous historical buildings.
Insider tip: Avoid the weekends if you don’t like crowds of people. The Pakistan Monument and the Shakarparian Hills are a popular day out as well as a popular stop for school trips. The best time to visit is in the early morning or during sunset.
Another reason to visit the Pakistan Monument are the Shakarparian Hills. A green oasis in the midst of the city with a botanical garden and the International Friendship Park. This park developed in the 1960’s and over the years, leaders of several countries planted trees of friendship with Pakistan.
It is a nice place to walk around and there are a few viewpoints with nice views over Islamabad.
Lok Virsa Heritage Museum
The Shakarparian Park is also home to a number of museums. The Lok Virsa Heritage Museum is one of the best places to visit in Islamabad if you want to learn more about Pakistan’s incredible cultural heritage and traditions.
Pakistan is a very multicultural country with a large number of ethnicities. The museum reflects this diversity in the different handicrafts, costumes and jewelry on display.
The Faisal mosque is probably the biggest tourist attraction in Islamabad. It is the largest mosque in Pakistan, but what makes it really stand out is its rather unique design and its stunning location in the foothills of the Margalla Hills.
The building of the mosque was supported by king Faisal of Saudi Arabia. He held an international competition for the design for a national mosque in Pakistan’s new capital. The winner was a Turkish architect.
Vedat Dalokay did not use the traditional domes and arches common in most mosques, but designed a main hall that resembled an Arab Bedouin tent with four large minarets. Probably to appeal to the Arab heritage of king Faisal as there are no Arab bedouins in Pakistan.
Besides a Bedouin tent, Vedat Dalokay also argued that the design is an abstract representation of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca.
Insider tip: Come just before sunset. This is the best time to take pictures and you can hear the call of the evening prayers as the sun is setting and it slowly gets dark.
Daman e Koh viewpoint
One of the best places to visit in Islamabad for great views over the city is the Daman e Koh viewpoint in the Margalla Hills. It is a popular picnic spot for the locals, attracting groups of cheeky monkeys trying to steal food.
From Daman E Koh viewpoint you can see the Faisal mosque and the Pakistan Monument. It is a great place to see the sunset.
The Best Places to visit near Islamabad
Islamabad is located in the foothills of the lush and green Margalla Hills. Margalla translates as home of the snakes due to the presence of rattlesnakes. Other animals that live in the Margalla Hills include monkeys, a lot of birds and even the rare Margalla leopard.
There are 6 official hiking trails in the Margalla Hills that make for great day hikes that are easily accessible from Islamabad.
Safety: The Margalla Hill trails are safe and well marked. There is no need for a guide. However, it is best not to hike alone. In Particular, solo female travelers can better go in a group of people. Unfortunately, there have been incidents of assault.
Regarding wild animals. You will need a lot of luck to see snakes or leopards, but monkeys are plentiful. These monkeys can be aggressive as they expect people to carry food. There are stories of the monkeys charging hikers. You might want to carry a stick to scare them off.
Before Islamabad developed in the 1960’s, there were already a number of small villages in the foothills of the Margalla Hills. Village life slowly disappeared as the city’s suburbs took over.
Saidpur is one of the oldest villages near Islamabad and one that kept its rural atmosphere alive. It is also a rather sad memory of its multicultural past. The village started as a Mughal village with different religions living side by side.
Hindus believed that the god Rama once visited the local spring in Saidpur and built several holy ponds and temples. Saidpur became a Hindu pilgrimage site and Hindus also came together in Saidpur to celebrate the spring festival Baisakhi as well as the Ram Kund fair.
The village was an example of interfaith harmony. Besides the Hindu temples there was also a Sikh gurudwara and an important sufi Shrine. After the Partition in 1947 all Sikhs and Hindus left Saidpur, taking the idols of Kali and Laxmi with them to India.
Saidpur was recently renovated to attract tourists, saving the ancient temples from being forgotten. That said, It is also used as an argument that Hindus can no longer use the temple as a place of worship. The ancient dharamsala where Hindu pilgrims used to stay is now painted with a floral pattern. It looks nice, but has nothing to do with its Hindu past.
Taxila is the most ancient town in Pakistan and it is famous for its ancient Buddhist stupas from 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.
The Kushans were nomadic people influenced by Greek cultural ideas as well as Hinduism and they played an important role in the spread of Buddhism to Central Asia and China.
Taxila’s history goes back even further. It was already a center for Buddhist learning under the reign of Maura king Ashoka in the third century BC.
Some ruins at Taxila also date back to the Achaemenid 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.
Taxila remains a busy town that is located north of Islamabad. Not all ruins are very well maintained and much is still underground waiting to be excavated. Nevertheless, Taxila is easy to visit from Islamabad and makes for a great day trip.
Rawalpindi is the twin city of Islamabad, but is everything that Islamabad is not. Noisy, chaotic and dirty, but full of history, life and charm. If Islamabad starts to get too boring for you, it’s time to visit Pindi.
The city’s are right next to it. Traveling from Islamabad to Rawalpindi is like crossing an invisible border, but you will notice the difference immediately. The traffic and the amount of people increases as well as the noises and smells. Welcome to the chaos of Pindi.
Rawalpindi’s old city is a maze of narrow lanes full of surprises. Bazaars, sufi shrines, mosques, havelis and decaying Hindu temples. It’s a joy to simply wander around the markets and streets.
The best Places to eat in Islamabad
Monal Restaurant: The Monal is one of the most famous restaurants in Islamabad due to its great location in the Margalla Hills with beautiful views over the city. The restaurant is huge and extremely popular. It is amazing to see how many people it serves on a regular evening. The food is also nice with a large menu. All in All, the Monal experience is almost a must when you visit Islamabad, but I can imagine that there are better restaurants out there.
Savour Foods: Savour foods is a chain that serves rather cheap Pakistani food. It is famous, because of its chicken biryani. This restaurant is nothing fancy, but the biryani is satisfying and will fill your belly.
Loafology Bakery & Cafe: Loafology Bakery does not only sell nice breads and pastries, but also has a menu with Western inspired dishes like Chicken Kyiv. A great restaurant when you feel like eating something other than Pakistani food.
Dera Pashtun: Dera Pashtun is in Saidpur. I had lunch there on my second day in Pakistan. I tried the Mutton Karahi and it was absolutely delicious. Looking back, it was one of the best I had in Pakistan.
Kabul Restaurant: Kabul restaurant serves great Afghan food such as Mantu and Qabuli Pilau. For vegetarians I can recommend the aubergine fry and the Aashak.
Islamabad Travel Tips
Where to sleep in Islamabad
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.
How to get to Islamabad
Bus: It is easy to reach Islamabad by bus from various cities. I used Faisal Movers to travel from Islamabad to Lahore and they are a good company with safe, comfortable and reliable buses
Train: Islamabad also has a train station with trains to Lahore. A few trains depart from Islamabad itself. The train station in Rawalpindi has more trains to Lahore and the South of Pakistan.
How to get around Islamabad
Metro bus: The new Metro Bus is a cheap way to travel throughout Islamabad. In practice I only used it to travel from the airport to the city and to travel from Islamabad to Rawalpindi.
Taxi: It’s easy to underestimate the distances in Islamabad. Taxis are cheap and easy to use, especially if you use Careem or Indrive.
How to get Money
There are plenty of ATMs in Islamabad. But finding an ATM that works with your foreign bank card can be a challenge.
From my experience Alfalah Bank and Standard Chartered Bank work the best. The maximum amount you can withdraw is 20,000 PKR
Safety in Islamabad
A lot of people were concerned about my safety in Islamabad due to the protests around Imran Khan a couple of months before my visit.
Safety in Islamabad, and Pakistan in general, is something that can change rapidly. It’s always good to read the news to know what is going on. Protests and demonstrations can become violent when political unrest spreads.
That said, such events are easy to avoid and as a tourist, chances are small that you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Areas in Islamabad that you might want to avoid are the red zone where you will find most parliament buildings and ministries.
When I was in Islamabad everything was calm and not once did I feel unsafe. I took the same precautions against robbery and crime as everywhere in the world. That means not walking alone at night and keeping my valuables safe in a money pouch under my clothes.
In the end, the biggest risk for travellers in Islamabad and Pakistan is health related. Travellers diarrhoea is very common. Islamabad is the cleanest city in Pakistan, but you still don’t know what happens in the kitchen. Be cautious with raw foods and avoid tap water.
When to visit
The best time to visit Islamabad 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 Islamabad (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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