Having served as the capital of Pakistan since 1963 when construction of this purpose built city was complete enough for administrative functions to be shifted away from the harried chaos of Karachi on the coast, Islamabad has accrued many cultural assets that that short time, and also sits among a natural environment that is refreshing and inspiring to locals and guests alike!
Indeed, with only 1.15 million people in a city that extends over 906 square kilometres, Islamabad is an infinitely more relaxing place than Karachi, which is pushing 20 million in population and quickly, as migrants flood in as they search for employment opportunities.
An abundance of leafy trees give plenty of shade on the sides of its streets, and excellent views to many picturesque mountain peaks abound, which is not surprising given its location well upcountry.
As the nation’s capital, there is no shortage of galleries, museums and mosques to explore, and its proximity to Pakistan’s frontage on the Himalayan mountain range make it an excellent base from which to launch trekking excursions into the alluring peaks that await within a short journey of one of Pakistan’s youngest cities.
One of the most iconic mosques in Pakistan is located in Islamabad. The Faisal Masjid is a mosque with four striking minarets shaped like long slender spikes, each soaring into the sky to a height of 88 metres. Set against the striking Margalla Hills, this mosque is truly a sight to behold for visitors to Islamabad, who may be able to tour the grounds provided that they arrive outside of prayer times and dress respectfully. At certain times, the mosque can be shut completely though, so ask the locals before you get your heart set on a tour of its grounds.
Having recently completed a renovation and stuffed to the gills with exemplary galleries and exhibits on the history of Pakistan, the Lok Virsa Museum is well worth the $5 USD equivalent you’ll pay to gain access to its grounds. Set on exploring Pakistan’s ties to its Chinese, Central Asian, and Iranian neighbours in addition to its own heritage, this repository of culture will take up an entire afternoon as you sort through artifacts detailing the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage.
With items ranging from jewelry to ceramics and audio recordings of traditional Pakistani music, if you haven’t gained an appreciation for the culture of this country before your visit here, you will afterwards!
A more modern addition to Islamabad’s cultural assets is the National Art Gallery, which opened little more than five years ago. Featuring well over 450 art pieces in a thoroughly modern setting, it is the best deal in culture hunting in the city, as admission is free from 11 am to 1pm. The penalty for being a sleepy head here is having to pay 500 Pakistani Rupees for arriving after lunch (>2pm), but you’ll have a substantially emptier gallery, making for a much more peaceful art experience!
A short ways out of Islamabad is Saidpur Village, a traditional reconstruction of a Mughal settlement. This community has been around for ages, having fingerprints of various civilizations and empires visible within its boundaries, from the Greeks and the Buddhists straight through to the British. Having undergone significant restoration in recent years, it is well worth the trip out of town, with preserved Sikh and Hindu temples, a traditional school house, and an old Sufi tomb.
With the foothills of the Himalayas rising from the outskirts of Islamabad, rock climbers will be pleased to know that their sport is experiencing an upswell in popularity here. With a variety of established routes, the rock climbing here is either a great warm-up for more challenging routes deeper into the mountains, or even a reason to venture to the city all by itself!
Similarly, hiking in the Margalla Hills is a popular pastime for those a little less comfortable with adrenaline sports, yielding big rewards for a relatively small amount of effort. The view of Islamabad from many points makes it a worthwhile activity for serious photographers, as it allows a perspective on the Faisal Mosque that is undershot and underappreciated.