The capital of Pakistan, Islamabad is a restful oasis in an otherwise frenetic country. This modern yet unmistakeably Islamic city has benefited from forward-thinking city planning; it was built in the 1960s to replace Karachi as the nation’s capital.
Islamabad is laid out in a triangular format, and what its alphanumeric grid system lacks in memorable place names, it makes up for in ease of navigation. The garden city enjoys natural terraces, wide tree-lined streets, and for a capital city is surprisingly free from pollution.
Modern-day Islamabad is a relatively quiet city, despite its importance to the country’s commercial and financial world. Most visitors come for business or to enjoy its peaceful atmosphere and green surroundings, and Islamabad is also an entry point for tourists wanting to visits the foothills of the Himalayas.
Islamabad has eight fundamental demarcations, delineating the administrative section, commercial areas, diplomatic enclave, educational institutions, green spots, industrial zone, and residential and rural areas. E7, F6, F7, G6 and G7 are the oldest sectors – with most of the ‘action’ centred on F6 and F7. The Blue Area that runs along Jinnah Avenue is the commercial centre, which merges into Constitution Avenue, the setting for all main administrative buildings.
The city has a thriving arts scene. The National Art Gallery (located in F5, opposite Parliament) contains a diverse array of contemporary and classical paintings that would not be out of place in many European cities. Private art galleries abound and the three most popular are Rohtas Gallery, Nomad Gallery and Kuch Khaas, all of which are in F6.
For a beautiful view of the city, head to Shakarparian (H7 and G8) a beautiful hilly area perfect for walking. Shakarparian Park is also home to the recently-renovated Lok Virsa Heritage Museum. Islamabad’s nicest museum features more than 25 large galleries dedicated to numerous cultural themes. Close by is the National Monument, the fragrant Rose and Jasmine Garden, and the beautiful Rawal Lake.
Finally, head to Islamabad’s most recognisable landmark: the Shah Faisal Mosque. Built as a gift to the city by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the white marble mosque is striking, day or night. Remember to dress respectfully as this is more a place for worship than a tourist site; non-Muslims will only be able to visit the courtyard.
Islamabad has a good array of international cuisines, and those looking for global dining options can enjoy pizza joints, steakhouses and Chinese food in numerous hotels and restaurants across the Blue Area.
However, Pakistani food is delicious and there are many places where you can try excellent local fare. Try the local favourite, halim (ground spicy lamb with naan bread) at the Food Court near Aabpara Market, or spicy chicken or lamb tikka in Jinnah Market and Namak Mandi. More elaborate dishes can be found in the many restaurants along Jinnah Avenue – wash down the pungent flavours with a refreshing lassi, a yoghurt drink often served with mango.
Those looking for nightlife in Islamabad will find that it does exist but can be hard to track down. For the best suggestions as to where to go, just ask around and at your hotel. Otherwise just enjoy strolling around the city’s many parks and gardens for a relaxed evening out, or enjoy the city’s renowned shops and markets.
At the northern tip of Islamabad is the Margalla Hills, the foothills of the Himalayas. Teeming with wildlife and a designated National Park, the Margalla Hills offer exceptional hiking just a short distance from the heart of Islamabad. Specific places to visit include Pir Sohawa, a 40-minute drive or two-hour hike, or the centuries-old village of Saidpur with its breathtaking natural beauty and rich heritage.
If you prefer history to hiking, visit the archaeological sites of Taxila, just 30km northwest of Islamabad. Featuring 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Taxila is home to a vast network of ancient ruins, comprising distinct Buddhist, Hindu and Ancient Greek areas.