The capital city of Pakistan until the construction of Islamabad in the 1960s, Karachi is the largest city in the country with an estimated 15 million residents. Karachi is also arguably the richest city: its Arabian Sea location is home to two of the region’s largest and busiest ports, and it is also the centre of the country’s financial and trade activity.
Originally a small fishing community named Kolachi, the town was annexed as part of British India in 1843. In 1876 Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern-day Pakistan, was born in the city, remaining a resident after Pakistan’s partition from India in 1947.
After independence Karachi was inundated with Muslim migrants from all over India, and in later years the city was once again a magnet for refugees from Afghanistan and Iran. The culture of the city is therefore characterised by a century and a half of South Asian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Western influences.
Today Karachi is a cosmopolitan city which accounts for a large proportion of the country’s white collar workers. Its liberal nature ensures it is a lively place in which to shop, sightsee and socialise, and accordingly the city has earned its (borrowed) soubriquet: the City That Never Sleeps.
Karachi is home to a thriving arts scene and visitors can take their pick from numerous theatre, film, music and poetry recitals. The country’s National Academy of the Performing Arts is located in the recently renovated Hindu Gymkhana; a striking Mughal-Revival style building which is worth visiting for the architecture alone. To see a further example of this style of architecture visit Mohatta Palace in Clifton, an ornate structure created from pink Jodhpur and yellow Gizri stone which is now the Museum of Regional History.
The city’s Arabian Sea location makes for some beautiful beaches. These include Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit, home to the WWF Wetland Centre where you can learn about the nesting sites of the endangered Green and Olive Ridley turtles which frequent the area. From here you can also take trips into the mangrove forests and Manora Island. Other popular beach spots are Paradise Point – a sandstone rock promontory with a natural arch – and Clifton Beach, a wide expanse of silver sand.
Finally, enjoy the shopping – Karachi was recently found to be the second-cheapest city in the world. Visit the bazaars that dot the city, a frenetic introduction to everyday life in Karachi. Empress Market and Bohri Bazaar are eye-opening recommendations.
Karachi’s eclectic combination of ethnicities makes for a diverse culinary scene which includes everything from fast food outlets to hip cafés to upscale dining options.
Beach Avenue and Sindhi Muslim are popular for American-style franchises, while the affluent Zamzama Boulevard in Defence offers a combination of fast food interspersed with cool cafés and some seriously upmarket restaurants. Shahbaz Commercial is a new rival to Zamzama Boulevard, while the art gallery district between 26th Street and Tauheed Commercial is now home to some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants.
If you’re looking for late night Pakistani food, visit Boat Basin, a 2km-long strip of open air street food stalls. Many of these are open 24 hours, but as with all street stall, food hygiene is by no means guaranteed. Other options include the Burns Road ‘Delhi food district’ in Saddar where you’ll find the best lassi in town; Khadda Market, known for its paratha rolls; and Tariq Road for its samosas and katchoris.
Nightlife in Karachi is livelier than in other Pakistani cities, and bars and nightclubs have popped up across the city. Clifton, Seaview and Port Grand in downtown Karachi are popular but ask Karachiites for the best local suggestions.
Around 30km east of Karachi are the Chaukandi Tombs. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises a series of 16th century sandstone graves, each elaborately carved with images of flowers, jewellery, weapons, horses and horsemen. This style of architecture is typical to the region and found nowhere else in the Islamic world, and makes for a fascinating excursion from Karachi.