The capital of Pakistan is an island of calm in a sea of noise and activity. Twinned with nearby Rawalpindi, Islamabad is a vital hub for government and administration, and it also enjoys an enviable reputation as the most liveable city in Pakistan. Come for fine dining, shopping and peaceful walks in the Margalla Hills.
With its orderly grid system and wide streets, Islamabad is easy to explore by air-conditioned Metro Bus or by taxi. Local minibuses also zip around the centre and out to Rawalpindi, whose tangled bazaars are best navigated on foot or by auto-rickshaw.
Islamabad is a city of civic monuments and modern mosques and museums rather than historic relics. For those, you’ll have to wander the bazaars of Rawalpindi. In Islamabad itself, the most famous landmark is the Pakistan Monument, whose curving petals represent Pakistan blooming as an independent nation.
Surrounding the Pakistan Monument are the parks and gardens of Shakarparian, which offer stunning views over Islamabad’s tidy street plan. West of the park, the interesting Lok Virsa Museum is dedicated to Pakistan’s traditional arts and crafts, from Swati woodcarving to Punjabi embroidery.
On the far side of the city is the Shah Faisal Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and an iconic piece of modern Pakistani architecture. The mosque has room for 100,000 worshippers, and it cost an estimated US$120 million to construct. For more traditional architecture, head to Rawalpindi, where the bazaars are dotted with mosques and forgotten Hindu temples.
Escaping the city is easy, with the beautiful Margalla Hills starting right on the city limits. Numerous hiking trails wind through the forest, offering grand vistas over Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Another rewarding escape is the train trip to Taxila, where the ruins of Hindu and Buddhist monuments mark the site of one of the world’s oldest centres of learning.
Carpet shopping is one of Islamabad’s lesser known pleasures – as well as modern malls, the city is a major hub for the trade in Pakistani, Turkmen and Afghan rugs, which are sold by dealers across the city. Just south of the city in Nurpur Shahan village is the mausoleum of Bari Imam, the city’s patron saint, where devotees sing moving qawwalis (devotional songs) on Thursday evenings. In the bazaars of Rawalpindi, you can seek out the ruins of pre-Partition Hindu temples and stalls selling everything from dried spices to painted panels for Pakistan’s vividly decorated freight trucks.
Dining in Islamabad is an international experience, with a string of top-notch restaurants catering to the city’s expat and diplomatic community. Perhaps the most atmospheric address is Monal, whose open terraces look out over the city from the Margalla Hills. China Town and Dynasty serve superior Chinese food, while Cinammon and is a top choice for Modern European cuisine and Majlis offers the authentic taste of Arabia. South Asian food is not forgotten – Kabul is a favourite meeting place, with full-flavoured Afghan kebabs from the barbecue, and there are more fine South Asian restaurants in the renovated Mughal village of Saidpur.