Dhaka is not a quiet, retiring place. The city, bursting with nearly 17 million people (most of whom often seem to be stuck in the same traffic jam as you), is a gloriously noisy and chaotic place, bubbling with energy.
It's a city that can sometimes threaten to overwhelm the casual visitor, but once you climb into the back of one of its myriad colourful cycle-rickshaws, Dhaka's charm starts to slowly reveal itself. Life flows from the boats on the Buriganga River to its unexpectedly green parks and university campuses. Mughal and British monuments speak of its history, its mosques and Hindu temples of its spiritual side, and the thriving arts and restaurant scenes – plus the rush to build new roads and a metro railway system – give a glimpse of the direction of future travel.
Dhaka isn't without challenges, but sooner or later you'll start to move to its rhythm and truly embrace this furiously beating heart of Bengali culture.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dhaka.
Running calmly through the centre of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River is the muddy artery of Dhaka and the very lifeblood of both this city and the nation. Exploring it from the deck of a small boat from Sadarghat (shod-or-ghat) is to see Bangladesh at its grittiest. The panorama of river life is fascinating. Triple-towered ferries leer over pint-sized canoes, and country boats bump against overladen barges with barely an inch of clearance above water.
Clouds of incense and a bursting paintbox of colours signal a welcome to so-called Hindu Street. Lined on either side with old houses, garlands of lurid orange marigolds, and dark doorways leading to matchbox-sized shops and workshops, this can be an extremely photogenic part of Old Dhaka, as the shankharis (Hindu artisans) , whose ancestors came here over 300 years ago, busy themselves creating kites, gravestones, wedding hats and bangles carved out of conch shells.
The excellent National Museum, sprawling over several floors, begins with the geological formation of Bangladesh, whisks you through a rundown of the nation’s flora and fauna, saunters through a Buddhist and Hindu past, and brings you up to date with the War of Liberation and the creation of the modern state. Highlights include lively 6th century terracotta Hindu plaques, Buddhist statuary, vignettes of village life and the 'how did they get it inside?' wooden river racing boat.
The half-completed Lalbagh Fort and its well-tended gardens are an excuse to escape Old Dhaka’s hustle and bustle for an hour or so. The fort is particularly atmospheric in the early morning light. Construction began in 1677 under the direction of Prince Mohammed Azam, Emperor Aurangzeb's third son, although he handed it to Shaista Khan for completion. However, the death of Khan’s daughter, Pari Bibi (Fair Lady), was considered such a bad omen that the fort was never completed.
Dating from 1872, the must-see Pink Palace was built on the site of an old French factory by Nawab Abdul Ghani, the city’s wealthiest zamindar (landowner). Some 16 years after the palace’s construction, it was damaged by a tornado, then altered during restoration, becoming even grander than before. Lord Curzon stayed here whenever he was in town.
The shady, tranquil botanical gardens, stretch over 40 hectares and contain over 1000 species of local and foreign plants, as well as lots of birdlife that flock to its several lakes and ponds (particularly in winter). Some way from the centre of Dhaka, it’s a nice respite from the city’s mass of humanity. In the distance you’ll see the Turag River.
Housed in a beautiful whitewashed colonial-era building, this small museum chronicles the 1971 War of Independence, one of the 20th century’s more deadly wars. Though it might not make for happy holidays, this museum is a useful stop for those hoping to understand modern Bangladesh. The shaded courtyard out back has a tea stall and a small stage where cultural events are held from time to time. There’s also a small bookshop.
In 1963 the Pakistanis commissioned Louis Kahn, a world-renowned American architect, to design a regional capitol for East Pakistan. Due to the liberation movement and ensuing war, the National Assembly Building wasn’t completed until 1982. The building often features in books on modern architecture, and is regarded as among Kahn’s finest works. It’s a huge assembly of concrete cylinders and rectangular boxes, sliced open with bold, multi-storey circular and triangular apertures instead of windows.
Dhakeshwari Temple is the centre of the Hindu faith in Bangladesh. It is dedicated to Dhakeswari, the protector of Dhaka and an incarnation of the goddess Durga. Although modern in construction, there has been a temple on this spot for nine centuries. Visitors are welcome at any time (remove shoes on entering).