Pakistan is a land of Mughal mosques, bustling bazaars, and desert fortresses that could be plucked from the pages of Arabian Nights. Relics of vanished empires dot the landscape in this historic corner of South Asia, where life moves to timeless Islamic rhythms against a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks.
Exploring Pakistan is easy by road, with fast and frequent bus and jeep connections to every part of the country, but easier by air, with domestic flights connecting Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to the main centres. For local trips, rickshaws and autorickshaws offer the most atmospheric vantage point on the country.
Pakistan is best explored through the prism of its ancient monuments, which spin a tale of desert caravans, feuding empires and rebellious warlords. Lahore is where Pakistan’s ancient history comes alive, with magnificent Mughal mosques and palaces, maze-like bazaars and faded relics from the British colonial administration.
The Pakistani capital, Islamabad, could not be more different. This calm, cosmopolitan and supremely organised city was planned in the 1950s on a tidy grid system, in sight of the green Margalla Hills. Here you’ll find all the institutions of the Pakistani state, as well as fascinating museums, peaceful parks and the largest mosque in Pakistan.
To feel the flow of life in Pakistan, head to Karachi, its largest and busiest city, sprawling along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea. This is Pakistan’s most vibrant commercial hub, and its main sea port. Travellers come to feast on Sindhi cuisine, stroll the city’s beaches and wander the old British colonial quarter.
Few roads inspire such a sense of adventure as the Karakoram Highway. This rugged route from northwest Pakistan to Kashgar in China is one of the world’s most legendary road journeys, tracing the same route across the Himalaya followed by Silk Road caravans in the time of Genghis Khan.
The Mughals and the British were just two of the empires to stamp their identity onto the deserts of Pakistan. At Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh province, monuments built by the ancient Indus Valley civilisation spill out of the desert sands, while at Taxila near Rawalpindi, crumbling stupas mark the site of an ancient Buddhist centre of learning. Across Pakistan, the mausoleums of Sufi saints offer a window onto Pakistan’s Islamic soul, especially on Thursdays, when devotees gather to sing rousing qawwalis (devotional songs). Pakistan’s forts are incredibly atmospheric – as well as Lahore Fort, feel the winds of time in the ruined fortifications at Multan, Rohtas and Derawar.
Pakistan’s food is richly spiced and full-flavoured, a perfect balance between the cuisines of India and Central Asia. In the Punjab, grilled meats spill from clay tandoor ovens, while street stalls serve up fragrant biryanis (spiced rice) and South Asia’s richest dals (lentil stews). In the northwest, frontier cuisine awaits – a regal cooking tradition that harks to the time of the Mughals, with finely seasoned chapli, kofta and seekh kebabs and rice cooked dum pukht style in a sealed clay pot. Pakistan’s most delicious dining experiences are in its cities; visit Lahore for spectacular biryanis and Karachi and Islamabad for international fine dining.