Islamabad is a green, spacious and surprisingly pleasant city nestled in the Margalla Hills, the foothills of the western Himalayas. The new purpose-built capital superseded Karachi in the 1960s and boasts wide tree-lined streets and postmodern architecture. Islamabad is not, though, on the cusp of being revealed as some under-the-radar traveler hangout!
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The country has almost zero tourism and currently no real ability to build any, given the convoluted process for tourist visas and worldwide assumptions regarding safety. But if you do manage to organise a trip to Pakistan, despite negative perceptions, Islamabad is generally calm and peaceful, and if you like places with no tourists, it’s undeniably authentic.
One day in Islamabad itinerary
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do during your one day in Islamabad.
Visit the Pakistan Monument
First stop is a visit to the Pakistan Monument on the edge of Shakarparian National Park, an interesting piece of architecture dedicated to national unity and designed to resemble a lotus flower. The petals represent the five states of Pakistan and the central black triangle represents Islamabad as the capital. Outside the monument, there are stalls selling snacks, candyfloss and even camel rides. There are also some strange clowns wandering around! It’s a good people watching spot, especially in the evening.
Rawalpindi is Islamabad’s older twin city. Despite being only 20km down the Kashmiri Highway, if traffic is bad, it can take over an hour to reach from Islamabad’s Blue Area. Famous for its historical bazaars, there is also evidence of some ancient Buddhist settlements here. Rawalpindi has some beautiful old wooden buildings: those from the Sikh era have distinctive Indian looking cupolas and latticed windows. Rawalpindi’s streets are narrow and crowded, with stalls selling everything from copper kitchenware and decorated furniture to henna, rose petals, pomegranates, rugs and Kashmiri textiles.
Somewhere in the middle of Rajah Bazaar (you’ll need a guide) is an amazing mosque (Jamia Masjid) with a beautiful patterned archway. Stop by the entrance as it’s great for photographs.
Visit a truck painting workshop
Another highlight is a visit to a truck painting workshop – there are lots around the city limits.
Pakistan’s psychedelic trucks are one of the country’s most iconic sights and a big attraction for western travelers. Each truck is lovingly and carefully decorated with hand cut fluorescent stickers, painted murals, huge tassels and reflectors.
The driver’s cab is built tall like an enormous turban, which, although ruins its streamlining and makes it less fuel-efficient, it is intended to bring much-needed good luck to the driver to cope with long grueling journeys.
Heading out of Islamabad is a restored traditional village called Saidpur in the foothills of the Margalla Mountains. Stop by the small black and white vintage photo exhibition which shows the construction of Islamabad. Then head up through the village to walking trails, which lead to a lookout with a bird’s eye view over the city.
Visit the Shah Faisal Mosque
To the right is the magnificent landmark Shah Faisal Mosque. Make sure you visit the mosque in person to appreciate the unique architecture – it’s particularly captivating at sunset against the backdrop of the dusky mountains.
The minarets emulate space rockets and the roof is designed to look like a Bedouin desert tent in honor of the donor, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who gave (in today’s money) USD 120 million for its construction. The mosque is one of the largest in the world and can accommodate 15,000 people.
Shah Faisal Mosque is on the other side of the Blue Area, where you’ll find most hotels, malls and restaurants and more than likely where you’ll stay if you’re in Islamabad. Going out for an evening meal is a big thing and so places get very busy. Most restaurants have western international menus, so ask around for recommendations for Pakistani food – there are also Afghan, Persian and Central Asian restaurants too, as well as lots of modern patisseries and cafes.
Where to stay in Islamabad?
This can be tricky, because not all hotels can have foreigners as guests. Check on the official tourism website http://www.tourism.gov.pk/
Extra tips for visiting Islamabad
Unless you have a Pakistani sponsor, which in my case was my Pakistani tour company (based in Gilgit), I’m not sure getting a Tourist Visa is that easy for the first time independent travellers. My agent and I created an itinerary and he organised the hotels/driver. He also provided documentation for the visa application process. There aren’t many hostels or cheap hotels available, and in any case all hotels need to be booked in advance and booking confirmations (not reservations) presented to the Visa office run by Gerry’s.
I would highly recommend my tour operator Active Tours. Mr Karim is super-professional, gives great advice and is honest and reliable.
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Sarah Crake is based in the UK and has worked in publishing, PR, and higher education. She is an experienced solo traveler and passionate about all things Asian and Middle Eastern. Sarah has spent extended periods in Asia, including two years in Sri Lanka. She loves traveling with a camera and is particularly inspired by vivid colors in photography, as well as art, culture and eastern religions.