The Bangladeshi capital is a city of energy and enterprise, crowded with people and rickshaws and alive with vibrant colour. In the historic old city, surrounding the teeming docks at Sadarghat, Mughal mosques share space with Hindu temples and the towering monuments of the British Empire in a uniquely Bengali tableau.
Around one million rickshaws are squeezed into Dhaka’s streets, creating some uniquely colourful traffic jams. Auto-rickshaws and taxis are more comfortable but still vulnerable to the traffic – allow plenty of time for the morning and evening rush hour. River boats provide an atmospheric way to explore the banks of the Buriganga River.
Nowhere captures the energy and spirit of Dhaka quite like the ferry port at Sadarghat. The jetties along the Buriganga River are crowded with boats of every imaginable size, from tiny skiffs to the famous Rocket paddle steamers that ply the waterways of the Ganges Delta.
Inland from the river banks are bustling bazaars, dotted with atmospheric Mughal monuments and colonial relics. Lalbagh Fort was founded by the Mughal Emperor Azam Shah in 1678, but Mughal power was already in decline when Nawab Abdul Gani built the handsome Ahsan Manzil palace in 1872. Nearby, the grand Indo-Saracenic façade of Curzon Hall recalls the excesses of British colonial rule.
Modern Dhaka offers a calm escape from the old town. In dynamic Gulshan and Banani, modern shopping malls and office towers rise above the waters of Gulshan Lake. This is the best place in the country to sample the rich flavours of Bengali cuisine.
More traces of Bengal’s golden age can be found in the ancient royal capitals scattered beyond the northern city limits. In the former royal capital of Sonargaon, the streets are lined with the fading mansions of Hindu merchants, while Mymensingh and Muktagacha are dotted with the rajbaris (palaces) of Bengal’s ruling families.
In the old city, seek out some of Dhaka’s lesser known monuments – the Sat Gumbad and Khan Mohammad Mridha mosques date back to the Mughal period, while Dhaka’s Hindu community worships in the ‘hut’ style Dhakeshwari temple. An even better kept secret is the Armenian church in Armanitola, the old Armenian quarter in British times. To experience Dhaka at its most atmospheric and energetic, charter a row boat from Sadarghat and pick your way amongst the traders’ canoes, cargo freighters and ancient ferries. Even better, take the overnight trip on the Rocket to Morrelganj, then loop back to Dhaka by road.
Bengali cuisine is famous for its exotic ingredients and fragrant spices, and Dhaka is the best place in the country to sample it. Seek out delicious biryanis in Old Dhaka – Haji Biryani is a Dhaka institution – and track down rich curries of bhekti and hilsa fish in the restaurants of Gulshan and Banani. Oh Calcutta! is famous for its chingri prawn malai, and locals rave about the biryani at Fakruddin and the meaty skewers served at Star Kebabs. North Dhaka is also a dynamic hub for international dining; try Izumi for sushi, Pan Tao for Thai curries and Le Soufflé for fine French food.