Because of ongoing security problems in Pakistan, foreign governments advise against all travel, or all but essential travel, to many parts of the country. Your travel insurance may be invalid if you ignore this advice. Because of the risk of political violence, foreign visitors are required to travel with an armed escort in some areas. Seek up-to-date information on the security situation in areas you plan to visit before travelling to Pakistan.
Pakistan is blessed with abundant natural and historical riches. Incredible mountain landscapes are set against a backdrop of desert forts and stories of sultans and djinns. In its cities, ancient bazaars are home to intricately etched copper kitchenware alongside pungent spice racks and steaming tea stalls.
Mughals and Mountains
The teeming cities of the south lie on a continuum with the ancient cities of northern India, while the rugged north is a wild frontier that has changed only superficially since Mughal times. In between are scattered ruins and arid deserts, and capping Pakistan to the north is the western spur of the Himalayan mountain range, including K2, the world's second highest mountain.
Pakistan's urban centers pack enough city delights to satisfy any cosmopolitan traveler. In Lahore, arguably the country's cultural, intellectual and artistic hub, travelers can find spiritual sustenance in qawwali (Islamic devotional singing) performances before striking up a conversation about the latest developments in the world of cricket. Food, fashion, art museums – it can all be found in Pakistan's fabulous metropolitan areas.
The Mighty Karakoram
Pakistan's number one attraction is a bubble of serenity. Stretching north from the Northwest Frontier to Kashgar in China, the Karakoram is one of the world's most epic highways, an astonishing feat of engineering forced against the odds through the tortured bedrock of the Karakoram mountains.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Pakistan.
Built, damaged, demolished, rebuilt and restored several times before being given its current form by Emperor Akbar in 1566 (when he made Lahore his capital), the Lahore Fort is the star attraction of the Old City. Note that the museums here may close an hour or so before sunset. The fort was modified by Jehangir in 1618 and later damaged by the Sikhs and the British, although it has now been partially restored. Within it is a succession of stately palaces, halls and gardens built by Mughal emperors Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, comparable to and contemporary with the other great Mughal forts at Delhi and Agra in India. It's believed that the site conceals some of Lahore's most ancient remains. The fort has an appealing 'abandoned' atmosphere (unless it's packed with visitors) and although it's not as elaborate as most of India's premier forts, it's still a fabulous place to simply wander around. The fort is entered on its western side through the colossal Alamgiri Gate, built by Aurangzeb in 1674 as a private entrance to the royal quarters. It was large enough to allow several elephants carrying members of the royal household to enter at one time. The small Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) was built by Shah Jahan in 1644 for the private use of the ladies of the royal household and was restored to its original delicacy in 1904. The Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) was built by Shah Jahan in 1631, with an upper balcony added by Akbar. It's where the emperor would make a daily public appearance, receive official visitors and review parades. Khawabgarh-i-Jehangir (Jehangir's Sleeping Quarters), a pavilion on the north side of his quadrangle, now houses a small museum of Mughal antiquities. One charming story about Jehangir is that he had a chain suspended outside the fort, which anyone unable to obtain justice through the usual channels could pull. A bell would ring in his private chambers and the petition would receive his personal attention. Moving west, another graceful pavilion, the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), was built by Shah Jahan for receiving guests. The Shish Mahal (Palace of Mirrors), built by Shah Jahan in 1631, was closed for renovation at the time of research, but should be open by the time you read this. Decorated with glass mirrors set into the stucco interior, it was built for the empress and her court and installed with screens to conceal them from prying eyes. The walls were rebuilt in the Sikh period, but the original marble tracery screens and pietra dura (inlay work) are in remarkable condition. The view from here over the rest of the fort and Badshahi Mosque is rewarding. Naulakha is the marble pavilion on the west side of the quadrangle, lavishly decorated with pietra dura - studded with tiny jewels in intricate floral motifs. It was erected in 1631 and its name, meaning nine lakh (900,000), refers either to the price to build it or the number of semiprecious stones used in its construction. You can exit the fort from here, down the Hathi Paer (Elephant Path) and through Shah Burj Gate; if you do, look behind to see the fine painted tilework of the outer wall. There are three small museums on site (photography prohibited): the Armoury Gallery exhibits various arms including pistols, swords, daggers, spears and arrows; the Sikh Gallery predominantly houses rare oil paintings; and the Mughal Gallery includes among its exhibits old manuscripts, calligraphy, coins and miniature paintings, as well as an ivory miniature model of India's Taj Mahal. To better understand the fort's history you can hire a guide for Rs 150. In addition, Lahore Fort, Pakistan's Glorious Heritage, a colour booklet by Muhammad Ilyas Bhatti, sells here for Rs 150. An autorickshaw/taxi from The Mall to Lahore Fort should cost about Rs80/Rs200.
On the fringes of Peshawar as you head towards the Khyber Pass is the Smugglers' Bazaar (Karkhanai Bazaar). It thrives openly on the sale of goods imported through Pakistan for Afghanistan, then smuggled back through the Tribal Areas to avoid paying duty. Everything is available here from cut-price electronics to clothes and stationery. It's an enormous trade that costs Pakistan millions of dollars annually in lost revenue - enough money to generate the bribes that allow the market to flourish. Foreigners are banned from entering the far end of the bazaar where guns and drugs are openly on sale - a barrier prevents accidental entry. The Smugglers' Bazaar and Darra Adam Khel have long been part of the Peshawar tourist experience, and feature on most local guides' itineraries. After all, what other holiday destination offers the chance to see blocks of opium and fire a Kalashnikov? But while guns have long been a part of Pashtun culture (drugs too, although to a much lesser extent), if you're planning a visit it's worth spending a moment considering where the backhanders your guide pays to the dealers are going. There's plenty of cannabis on offer in the bazaar, but the big money comes from opiates. The heroin sold in Peshawar comes from Afghanistan, part of the trade that threatens the Afghan state through institutional narco-corruption as well as funding the Taliban insurgency. The trade provides 90% of Europe's heroin, although the Smugglers' Bazaar mainly serves Pakistan's rapidly growing population of heroin addicts. When we visited, one shopkeeper showed us bags of heroin while ignoring the addicts squalidly smoking the drug on the carpets behind him. As we left we pictured Pakistani tourists paying dealers to show them around the crack houses of London or New York and wondered how different that would be. The drug-funded insurgency is also bringing boom times for the gun shops. One dealer was thrilled that the price of AK47s was going through the roof due in large part, he told us, by radicals wanting to 'do jihad' in Afghanistan and Waziristan. Tourism doesn't come much darker than in Pakistan's Tribal Areas. An official crackdown on the trade saw this part of the bazaar bulldozed in early 2007, but it was quickly rebuilt - with the police officer leading the raid murdered a fortnight later. It's a 20-minute ride from Saddar on one of the colourful city buses; ask for 'Karkhanai'. Don't come here when it's getting dark.
The eye-popping Shah Faisal Mosque, nestled at the foot of the Margalla Hills, is one of Asia's largest and reflects an eclectic blend of ultramodern and traditional architectural design styles. Topped by sloping roofs (a stark contrast to the traditional domes found on most mosques), the main prayer hall and courtyard is said to hold around 100,000 people. Most of its cost (pegged at about US$120 million today) was a gift from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Designed by a Turkish architect, Vedat Dalokay, and built between 1976 and 1986, the mosque's geometric design (modelled on a desert tent) and clean lines make the impressive scale hard to discern until you are up close. The four 88m minarets (an old urban myth is that the ever-paranoid CIA demanded to inspect them, fearing they were missiles in disguise!) tower over the prayer hall. Inside, the ceiling soars to 40m and the air hums with muffled recitations. The mausoleum of the late President, Zia ul-Haq, is adjacent to the mosque. Visitors are welcome, but non-Muslims are requested to avoid prayer times and Fridays. Leave your shoes at a counter before entering the courtyard and remember to dress conservatively (women should bring a head scarf). To get here, jump off an intercity bus at 8th Ave or catch a taxi (around Rs 80 from the Blue Area).
Completed in 1674 under Aurangzeb as the Mughals' final architectural fling, the sublime Badshahi Mosque, opposite the main gateway to the Lahore Fort, is one of the world's largest mosques. Replete with huge gateways, four tapering minarets of red sandstone, three vast marble domes and an open courtyard said to hold up to 100,000 people, it was damaged by the British and later restored. The rooms (admission Rs5) above the entrance gate are said to house hairs of the Prophet Mohammed and other relics. The mosque looks lovely when it's illuminated in the evening. In 1991 the mosque grabbed international headlines when hardline mullahs (Muslim religious leaders) protested at the visit of the late Princess of Wales; her skirt was considered too short and the director of the mosque was criticised for presenting (the then) HRH, a non-Muslim, with a copy of the Quran and allowing her into the sacred precincts while immodestly dressed. The case went to court and ended with the litigant mullahs being ordered to stop wasting the judge's time. In the courtyard stands the Tomb of Allama Mohammed Iqbal, a modest memorial in red sandstone to the philosopher-poet who in the 1930s first postulated the idea of an independent Pakistan. An autorickshaw/taxi from The Mall is Rs80/Rs200.
Standing in a garden on the northern outskirts of Lahore, the elaborately decorated sandstone Jehangir's Tomb is that of Emperor Jehangir. Built in 1637 by Jehangir's son, Shah Jahan, it's believed to have been designed by Jehangir's widow, Nur Jahan. The tomb is made of marble with trellis decorations of pietra dura bearing the 99 attributes of Allah in Arabic calligraphy. These are inside a vaulted chamber, decorated with marble tracery and cornered with four minarets. Outside is a sunken passageway with one tunnel supposedly leading to Shalimar Gardens and another to Hiran Minar - both tunnels are now bricked up. The entrance to the tomb courtyard lies on the right-hand side of Akbar's Caravanserai, a 180-room resting place for pilgrims, travellers and their animals, built by Shah Jahan at the same time as Jehangir's Tomb. The western gateway leads to the Tomb of Asif Khan. The brother-in-law of Jehangir and father to Mumtaz Mahal (the lady for whom India's Taj Mahal was created), Khan died in 1641. An autorickshaw/taxi from The Mall to Jehangir's Tomb (or Nur Jahan's Tomb, described below) costs about Rs350/Rs700.
The Uprising Memorial, is a memorial to those who rose against the Maharaja in 1947. It includes the graves of the local heroes, Mohammed Babar Khan and Safiullah Beg of the Gilgit Scouts, and Mirza Hassan Khan of the Kashmir Infantry. At Partition, many had anticipated Maharaja Hari Singh's eventual accession to India. A clique of Muslim officers in the Maharaja's own army, led by Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan, had been conspiring to seize Kashmir for Pakistan, but word had got out and Hassan was transferred to Kashmir's 'Siberia', the Bunji garrison south of Gilgit. Meanwhile, the Gilgit Scouts' Major Mohammed Babar Khan and several fellow officers (and, according to some, their British commander) had hatched their own rebellion. Within days of the Maharaja's decision, a mob gathered in Gilgit from neighbouring valleys. The governor called Bunji for help, and who should be among the reinforcements but Colonel Hassan. On 1 November Babar Khan arrested Governor Ghansar Singh and the rebels asked to join Pakistan. Within a few days the Scouts, with Muslim soldiers of the Kashmiri army, joined the war with India. In the following months the Scouts took Baltistan, and Hassan got to the outskirts of Srinagar. The fledgling Indian air force at one point bombed Gilgit, no easy task in the narrow valleys. Gilgitis like to tell the story of the Scouts' pipe band, which mocked the Indian pilots by defiantly tootling up and down the airfield the whole time. Memories of the 'Uprising' are still alive in Gilgit. Hassan, Babar and another leader of the Gilgit Scouts, Maj Safiullah Beg, are buried in Chinar Bagh, and many of their offspring are local politicians and entrepreneurs. Of course, it's not 14 August but 1 November that Gilgit celebrates as Independence Day, with spontaneous music and dancing and a week-long polo tournament. One of the best polo teams every year is from the Gilgit garrison of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI), successor to the Gilgit Scouts.
The oldest parts of Baltit Fort date from the 13th century. Over the years more houses and towers were added, and it was fortified. To cement an alliance with Baltistan's Maqpon dynasty in the 17th century, Mir Ayesho II (great-grandson of the legendary Girkis) married a daughter of the Balti ruler, who sent artisans to build a fort at nearby Altit. The princess then came to live in Hunza, bringing her own artisans to improve Baltit Fort. Balti-style renovation continued under the reign of Ayesho II's son. The name Baltit probably dates from this time. The fort took on its present appearance only in the last century or so. Mir Nazim Khan added outer walls and fixed up his own rooms with wallpaper, drapes, fireplaces, balconies and tinted windows. He had the outer walls whitewashed, dramatically raising the fort's visual impact from all over the valley. Also added were a rooftop dais, where royal councils were held in good weather, and the 'lantern' or skylight. Nazim Khan's grandson moved to modern quarters in Karimabad in 1945. By the time KKH travellers first saw the fort in the 1980s it was an abandoned shell, stripped of anything of value and verging on collapse. From 1990 to 1996 it was effectively taken apart stone by stone and reassembled. This was a painstaking effort using advanced preservation principles developed in Europe, while retaining the unique construction and earthquake-proofing techniques pioneered by the fort's original builders. The result is impressive and the renovation work almost invisible. Several rooms have exhibits of clothing and old photos, plus utensils and furnishings donated by local people. Visitors get a half-hour tour with a knowledgeable local guide (you cannot go in without one), and interested persons can use the library. Tickets are sold at a small kiosk below the fort and it is worth noting that the fort's administration is funded solely by these ticket sales.
Author of a famous book on mysticism, the 11th-century Data Ganj Bakhsh, originally from Ghazni in Afghanistan, was one of the most successful Sufi preachers on the subcontinent and is today one of the most notable Sufi saints in Pakistan. The Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri is located west of Bhatti Gate, just outside the Old City. Born Abdul Hasan Ali, he was known as Data Ganj Bakhsh (the Bestower of Treasures) because of his generosity towards the less privileged. A hospital and several institutions for the needy have been added near the shrine over the years. Hordes of devotees gather here on Thursday afternoons to listen to the excellent qawwali. The urs (death anniversary) of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri is held at this shrine on 18-20 Safar (March/April) and is attended by tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of pilgrims.
Some 16km northwest of Jhelum, colossal Rohtas Fort is an extraordinary example of military architecture. It was started in 1543 by the Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri, to protect the strategic Peshawar to Calcutta (now Kolkata) road from the Mughals and their allies. He never lived to see its completion and work was carried on by succeeding rulers. However, it was soon made redundant when Akbar moved his frontier to Attock and built a new fort there. The vast fort is now in ruins except for the crenulated outer walls and most of its 12 gates and 68 bastions. The best-preserved remains are to the west; walk through the town to the western Sohal Gate to start your explorations. Built to an irregular plan on hilly ground, its 12m-thick terraced ramparts have a perimeter of more than 4km and vary in height from 10m to 18m. You can still walk along some of them but they are crumbling, so watch your step. An internal wall separates the inner fort (or citadel for the elite) at the northwest from the outer fort of soldiers and citizens, where the sleepy town still exists. Little remains of the interior, but there are two pavilions of the haveli of Man Singh (governor of Lahore and a general in the time of his son-in-law Akbar the Great), which you can climb for a view over the whole fort. To the west, at the pinnacle of the outer wall, a high stone platform marks the burj (execution tower); victims would be thrown from here into the ditch below. Two gates in the northern wall lead down to freshwater wells and the Kahan River. You could spend two or three hours exploring the grounds. Bring a hat, and although drinks can be bought in the town, it's wise to carry your own.