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Pakistan: Travel Guide to Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore

We recently went on a 2 week trip to Pakistan. We spent the first half of the trip city hopping from Karachi, to Lahore, to Islamabad and the latter half going to Hunza (separate post on that to come). Below is our honest experience in the 3 major cities of Pakistan.

Why We Decided to Visit Pakistan

It’s no secret that, for most people in the West, Pakistan isn’t at the top of anyone’s travel list. Western media makes Pakistan seem extremely unsafe, particularly for visitors. To a degree, we felt the same way. But then again, this isn’t the first time we’ve felt that way before traveling. We got the same warnings when we went to Thailand, Istanbul, Colombia, and Cuba. And each of those trips opened our eyes to how amazing the people of those places were. Plus, we have ties to Pakistan (we’re both Pakistani).

In the 2 years of our marriage, we have been lucky enough to travel to so many places, yet we never spent the money (or vacation days) to go back and support the country that raised our parents (and Maryam for many years).

That’s why, early this year, we decided to go and see Pakistan. It wasn’t going to be just a trip to go see our family and revisit our past, but to go and truly be tourists in Pakistan. And for 2 weeks, we were on our best vacation to date.

Where We Went

When we started to draw out our itinerary, we knew we wanted to see the 3 major cities of Pakistan:

  • Islamabad – The capital city
  • Karachi – The commercial hub and most populous city
  • Lahore – The cultural capital

From the map, we decided the best route was to go from the southern most city to the northern most (especially since we were going to Hunza in the latter half of our trip). So we landed in Karachi, then went to Lahore, then lastly to Islamabad, where we flew home from.

Getting to Pakistan

Most countries require a Visa to go to Pakistan. You can see details here for the application process, which can take several weeks through mail. If you’re in DC or NY, it’s usually a same day process. Either way though, we suggest starting your Visa application process at least 2 months before you’re planning to visit.

Besides the Visa, there’s really no other special considerations for getting there. The best airlines to go to Pakistan are Etihad, Qatar, and Emirates. If you want to fly within Pakistan, the best airlines are Serene Air and Airblue, though you can also fly PIA if you need.

Packing for Pakistan

Depending on which part of Pakistan you are going to, what you pack will vary. Despite popular belief, not all of Pakistan is hot all the time, though most of Pakistan is at least warm year-round and gets hot during the summers. When you’re packing your clothes though, be respectful of the local culture.

A lot of people asked us how Maryam got away with not wearing a hijab or niqab while in Pakistan. Unfortunately that’s another stereotype propagated in the West and we would like to be clear that there is no requirement (or expectation) that women wear hijab or niqab while in Pakistan. However, things like short shorts, crop tops, etc. are typically frowned upon by locals and should be avoided out of respect for the local culture.

Clothing aside, a few things we recommend packing are:

  • Bug repellent – Depending on where and when you visit, mosquitoes can be a pain
  • Pedialyte – most of the water in Pakistan is not potable, so the possibility of an upset stomach is very real. Pedialyte is packed with the electrolytes you need to avoid dehydration and speed up recovery
  • Probiotics – In the same vein as the above, probiotics will help to flush out your system should you eat anything that doesn’t agree with you
  • Large capacity power bank – Depending on the types of hotels/homes you stay in, you may wake experience a few power outages. That’s especially annoying when the power goes out at night and you wake up to a phone that didn’t charge. A power bank will come in very handy

Converting Currency

In Pakistan you’ll be using the rupee (PKR). A lot of restaurants and stores take credit cards, but we took cash with us to convert. In the end, we ended up not converting any of the cash we brought. Since different places can give different rates based on the different bills (crisp $100 gets a better rate than a folded $50), our conversion method of choice was to get cash from ATMs to ensure we got the best conversion rate possible and using credit cards anywhere they accepted them. Tip: If you plan on travelling internationally, get a Visa credit card that doesn’t charge an international transaction fee.

As far as costs, we budgeted close to $2000 for the 2 weeks (not including cost of flights and accommodations), which was on the higher side but we planned on doing a lot of shopping. We spent just over $1000 including a very healthy amount of shopping, though that’s largely because the PKR has been weak against the USD.

Karachi

Karachi is Pakistan’s economic capital city. It’s the most populous city in the country, and the 6th most populous city in the world. There’s no shortage of shopping or food in the city, and it’s right along the beach as well.

How We Got There

Since Karachi was our first stop, we ended up flying into the Jinnah International Airport. Leaving from NYC, the flights typically land in the middle of the night. Navigating through the airport is relatively straight forward. You’ll likely need to convert at least a little bit of currency to be able to get to your hotel, eat, etc.

From there, you can take an Uber (if you have internet), Kareem (local version of Uber app), or a local cab. But, make sure you take an actual cab and not just some guy standing outside offering a ride.

Where to Stay

While we stayed with family while we were in Karachi, there’s a ton of wonderful hotels in Karachi. Karachi is broken down into small regional areas, some of the best areas to go and stay are:

  • Clifton
  • Defense Housing Authority (DHA)
  • Federal B Area
  • Karachi Development Authroity (KDA)

However, like any other major city, there can be some parts of Karachi where you should exercise a little caution. Though, if you can avoid them altogether, we would suggest it:

  • Hyderi Market
  • Laluketh Market
  • Liary Orange

Things to Do

For most people, Karachi is mostly for eating and shopping, with a little bit of sightseeing to do as well. When you’re shopping in open air markets, exercise a little caution and keep an eye on your wallet and phone.

By no means are the below lists exhaustive. Karachi has a humongouos selection of amazing restaurants and shopping, but the above are places we either visited or were recommended by close friends and family.

 

Places to Shop:

  • Dohlman Plaza
  • Gulf Market
  • Lucky One Mall
  • Tariq Road
  • Zaibunissa Street

Things to See:

  • Burns Road
  • Churna Island
  • Clifton Beach
  • Frere Hall
  • Mazar-e-Quaid
  • Mohatta Palace

Food to Eat:

  • Easy
  • Kolachi
  • Panwaari
  • The Melt
  • Mirchili
  • Mews Cafe
  • Salt’n Pepper Village Restaurant
  • Usmania Restaurant

Lahore

Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan. It’s packed full of history from the Mughal era and is known for it’s greenery and food.

How We Got There

We flew from Karachi to Lahore on a morning flight. It’s a very short flight (about 1.5 hours). Once at the Lahore airport, we took a cab to the hotel, changed and got picked up by our friends at Mein Musafir. Its a travel agency run by a lovely couple. The agency specializes in curating local and international tours based on your needs as well as budget to travel. They created an itinerary for all the things we can see in a day. Asad and his wife were so kind and welcoming, we truly lived and loved every second of our trip to Lahore because of their hospitality.

Where to Stay

There are a lot of boutique hotels in Lahore that are located in the center of everything. Since we only had 24 hours in Lahore, we wanted to make sure we were staying central to all the things we wanted to do. We ended up booking our stay at the Nishat Hotel in Gulberg – this was the perfect location for us since it was literally 5 minutes away from Liberty Market and approximately 25 minutes away from Old Lahore. However, they also have another location near Emporium Mall. If you plan on visiting Lahore for sight-seeing and shopping, I’d suggest staying in Gulberg. There are so many things to do in the area and everything is pretty much walking distance if you like exploring.

Things to Do

Places to Shop:

  • Anarkali Bazaar
  • Emporium Mall
  • Fortress Mall
  • Liberty Market
  • The Mall of Lahore
  • Packages Mall

Things to See:

  • Old Lahore – Walled City of Lahore
    • Ancient gates of Lahore (6)
    • Wazir Khan Masjid
    • Shahi Hammam
    • Havelis inside the Walled City
    • Spice Markets
  • Badshahi Masjid
  • Lahore Fort
  • Shalamar Gardens
  • Lahore Museum
  • Minar-e-Pakistan
  • Lahore High Court
  • Jehangir’s Tomb
  • Mubarak Haveli
  • Wagah Border (Indian & Pakistan Border)

Food to Eat:

  • Chana Chaat from Liberty Market
  • Gol Gappa of Lawrence Garden
  • Halwa Puri from Taj Mahal
  • Lassi from Feeqay
  • Phajjay k paye
  • Qeema Naan from Baba Khan
  • Tawa Chicken from Arif Chatkhara

Islamabad

The capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad is beautiful. As a matter of fact, its voted the 2nd most beautiful capital city in the world! With a largely transient population, the culture of Islamabad is a mixed bag, with food and shopping representing all of Pakistan.

How We Got There

From Lahore, we decided to take a bus to Islamabad. You could fly as well, but we heard great things about the buses that take you from city to city. There are several bus services that make the trip, which is about 4 hours. The most popular bus service is Daiwoo, but we took a newer service called Faisal Movers. The buses are brand new and are target business travelers. The tickets were also pretty inexpensive, coming in at about $25 per person. If you can, take the bus. It’s a beautiful and peaceful ride.

Where to Stay

Much like Karachi, we stayed with family in Islamabad. However, Islamabad has a wonderful selection of hotels and is an especially safe city. Unlike Lahore and Karachi, there’s not much of Islamabad that you can’t safely explore, though you should obviously always exercise caution whenever you travel anywhere. Some of the best hotels include the Islamabad Serena Hotel, Grand Islamabad Hotel, and the Islamabad Marriott.

Things to Do

A lot of people will tell you Islamabad is a boring city, and compared to Karachi and Lahore, they aren’t necessarily wrong. But, that doesn’t mean Islamabad isn’t absolutely worth a visit. As a matter of fact, Islamabad has some beautiful views, modern architecture, and arguably the modern fusion food in the country.

Again, by no means are the below lists exhaustive. Islamabad’s entertainment scene is ever-changing, with new restaurants and attractions popping up regularly. You can use the below as a starting point, but make sure to take some time to explore on your own.

Places to Shop:

  • Beverly Center
  • Centaurus Mall
  • Kohsar Market

Things to See:

  • Faisal Masjid
  • Highland
  • Lakeview Park
  • Monal
  • Pakistan Monument
  • Shakarparian

Food to Eat:

  • 1969
  • Burning Brownie
  • Cannoli
  • Highland
  • Kabuli Chips
  • Karachi Company
  • Monal

Answering Your Questions

After getting back from Pakistan, we asked you all what your questions were about Pakistan. You came to us with a lot of questions, and we tried answering them throughout the post above. However, there are a few questions we wanted to tackle separately:

  • Did you ever feel unsafe?
    • Short answer, no. As long as you’re aware of your surroundings while travelling (and this stands true for anywhere, not just Pakistan), you should be fine.
  • How did you not get sick?
    • We were pretty cautious to make sure we did not drink any water that was not filtered. That includes ice! Always check with the vendor/restaurant if the ice is made with filtered water. Ideally, you should carry a water bottle with you. Also, we drank a lot of Kefir leading up to the trip, which we credit with our gut health as well.
  • Is it safe for non-Muslims?
    • Yes. Contrary to popular belief, Pakistanis don’t have anything against non-Muslims.
  • Can Indians travel there?
    • If you’re able to get a Visa to visit, yes.
  • How are you supposed to dress when in Pakistan?
    • You can wear whatever you’d like, you just need to be aware of local customs and norms. Revealing clothing can be frowned upon, so stay away from shorts, crop tops, etc. If you’re unsure if something is ok, err on the side of caution. While there are no laws against wearing whatever you’d like, it’s best to observe local customs when traveling.
  • Did you have trouble breathing because of the smog?
    • Not at all. Honestly, we didn’t particularly notice any smog. We have family that has asthma and we have not had any issues with breathing the air there when visiting. Though, you should always take a newly filled prescription if you have medical concerns. You may be more sensitive to pollution than us or anyone we know.

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I’m Maryam, your new guide. Welcome to my Blog!

Maryam Ishtiaq is a content creator and social media strategist who currently resides in Dallas, Texas.

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