Pakistan is beautiful, and I enjoyed my visit to its fullest. However, Pakistan is also a country you might not know much about, and due to its size, it might be difficult to decide the best places to visit when backpacking Pakistan.
I visited Pakistan as part of the IESS program (read more about my experiences here) and therefore spent one week in Karachi, followed by a 10-day tour through northern Pakistan, including the countries’ capital Islamabad and the cultural centre of Lahore. During this time, I was able to see and explore a big part of the country and in the following, I will share the best places you have to visit in Pakistan.
You can see the highlights of my backpacking Pakistan trip also in the following video:
Backpacking Pakistan: Karachi
Karachi is the country’s biggest city – more than 20 million people live here on the southern coast of Pakistan. Therefore, Karachi is certainly not a tourist magnet and might appear rather overwhelming for visitors and backpackers. However, in the busy, crowded and congested streets of Karachi, you’ll experience the real and local life in Pakistan. I’ve stayed for more than a week in Karachi as part of the IESS program of the University of Karachi and was able to explore the city during excursions and trips with the local students. And while I wouldn’t describe Karachi necessarily as “beautiful”, it’s still a very interesting and unique place.
By the way – a few years ago, Karachi had a very bad reputation in the media and was often called a dangerous city which should be avoided. My local friends confirmed that Karachi had severe safety issues several years ago. However, the situation changed, and safety increased rapidly in recent years. At the moment, there’s no issue in visiting Karachi and the city isn’t more or less dangerous than any other big metropolis around the world. Of course, you should still take precautions – don’t show off valuables and don’t wander through the streets at night. But again, this is probably true for most cities in the world.
So, what are the best things to do in Karachi?
When visiting Karachi, you should visit the bazars and markets of the city and just enjoy the busy and chaotic streets, which give you a real glimpse of Pakistan. Also have a look at the Quaid-e-Azam Mausoleum, one of the most popular sites in Karachi.
Since Karachi is located directly at the coast, you can even visit the beach! Keep in mind though that your beach visit will likely be different than what you might be used from Thailand, Spain or the Caribbean. I wouldn’t describe the beaches of Karachi as picturesque – the water is rather dark, and the beaches might be filled with trash and crowded with people. But this is exactly what made my beach visit in Karachi so unique – because it’s been different than what I’m used to. I’ve seen enough picture-perfect white beaches. Therefore, I’ve been happy to see and experience the real local life at the beaches of Karachi.
By the way: Keep in mind that especially women (and sometimes even men) only go swimming fully dressed. Showing lots of skin or even laying on the beach in a bikini would be considered as culturally inappropriate and should be avoided.
Places to visit in Pakistan: Islamabad
Islamabad is Pakistan’s capital and a nice place to visit due to the city’s relaxed atmosphere, good restaurants and clean streets. Islamabad is especially a popular stop if you’re on your way to the northern areas. However, there’s not very much to see and you shouldn’t spend much time in Islamabad – or skip it entirely if you’re running out of time.
One of the most famous spots of Islamabad is also the restaurant Monal, located on the top of a hill outside of the city centre. This restaurant is pretty fance and offers a fantastic panorama on the city. However, we got into town too late and had to skip our planned dinner up there.
The only place which probably would be worth visiting when it comes to sightseeing is the Faisal mosque – a modern, huge mosque just outside of the city centre.
Pakistan Backpacking: Lahore
While Karachi and Islamabad might be lacking some unique sites and places to visit, Lahore is the opposite – the city is full of culture, monuments and attractions and therefore a place you should certainly visit when backpacking Pakistan.
Take your time to explore the busy and narrow streets of Old Lahore, marvel at the stunning Badshahi mosque and visit the Lahore fort right next to it and relax in one of the city’s parks. Lahore has a lot to offer and was my favourite city in Pakistan. Have a look at the following pictures to get a good impression of all the exciting places you have to visit in Lahore.
The India-Pakistan Wagah Border Ceremony
Believe me – this one is an experience you don’t want to miss! Lahore is just a few kilometres away from the border to India and as we all know, the two countries have a, let’s say, rather complicated history. Two times a day (morning and evening), you can attend the border ceremony and I had the chance to visit the flag lowering ceremony in the evening. I had no idea what to expect and was rewarded with one of my most exciting experiences in Pakistan.
Imagine a huge arena, full of people, with the border fence directly in the middle. The crowds of India on one site, the crowds of Pakistan on the other. There’s military music playing, soldiers are marching up and down trying to impress, people are singing, shouting and waving the country’s flags. This experience was completely surreal, and I found myself in the crowd of Patriotic Pakistanis watching and cheering to the soldiers performing a powerful military ceremony. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out on this!
Backpacking Naran & the road to northern Pakistan
On our journey from Islamabad to northern Pakistan, we spent a night in the village of Naran. After leaving Islamabad, you will first pass through some of the bigger cities such as Abbottabad and Mansehra. Afterwards, the street to the northern areas will slowly lead you up the valley, you will leave the busy cities behind and the landscape with its green forests and meadows will make you feel like you’re rather somewhere in Europe then in Pakistan.
After a long day on the road, we finally arrived in Naran, where we spent the night. This town has been the first place where I experienced the culture of the northern areas, which feels like a completely different world compared to the busy and dusty streets of Karachi or Lahore. The air is super clean, and it certainly gets chilly especially in the night (you will need a jacket). You’ll also see that the locals look entirely different than in other places in Pakistan, with lighter skin and hair as well as green eyes. The ethnicity of the people of northern Pakistan is very unique and they are known all across the country for their beauty.
If you spend an evening in Naran, make sure to walk through the busy markets along the main road, visit some of the shops, taste some delicious street food and breath the fresh air – you officially made it to northern Pakistan!
By the way – a few hours after leaving Naran on your way to the north, you will cross the Babusar Pass with more than 4000 metres altitude. Make sure to stop here for a moment and enjoy the wonderful view – this is the highest point of the Kaghan Valley.
After you make you’re way down on the other side on the serpentines, you’ll finally be on the famous Karakorum Highway – known as the highest road in the world! The Karakorum Highway spans all the way up north into China and traveling on this road is incredible, with breath-taking views all along the way.
Best places to visit in Pakistan: Hunza (Gilgit-Baltistan)
Yes – the journey to the Hunza Valley, located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region (also known as Northern Areas) is long and tiring. But when you finally make it up here, you’ll feel like you’re in heaven. This part of Pakistan is the exact opposite of the hectic and busy cities – it’s peaceful, quiet and beautiful. You’ll be surrounded by some of the highest mountains of the world, far away from civilization. Make sure to spend a few days in the Hunza Valley to explore its beauty.
Karimabad is the capital of the Hunza Valley and a place you should certainly visit. You’ll also find a few guesthouses and hotels here and the city is pretty touristic (at least for Pakistan-standards). Karimabad is built right into the valley and it’s exciting to explore the steep and narrow streets, leading you to fantastic viewpoints on the countryside. There are also a few sites and attractions in Karimabad which are worth visiting, such as the famous Baltit Fort. Even if you don’t visit the inside, the walk up to the Fort is worth it just for the panorama.
Just outside of Karimabad, the Eagle’s Next is another spot you have to visit. The Eagles Nest is actually a hotel, located in the mountains. But even if you don’t sleep here, a drive up here is very much worth it – especially for sunset! The Eagle’s Nest is a popular viewpoint and the best place to watch the sun going down. You’ll be rewarded by incredible views!
The Attabad Lake is probably the most beautiful attraction I’ve visited while backpacking around Pakistan. This lake was formed recently due to a massive landslide and is one of the most famous places to visit around Hunza. The water is incredibly blue and while it’s beautiful to watch the lake from the shore, you can also enjoy a boat ride – which I highly recommend.
Hussaini Suspension Bridge
A few kilometres north of Karimabad in the upper part of Hunza, you’ll find the Hussaini Suspension Bridge crossing the Hunza river. This bridge is famously known as the most dangerous bridge in the world and certainly not an experience for everyone. The Hussaini bridge is in a pretty poor condition, constructed with steel ropes and wooden planks. While the Hussaini bridge became a tourist attraction for adrenaline and adventure lovers, the bridge is still the only connection between some villages on the other side of the river and the main road. Therefore, locals cross it every day by foot.
As a tourist, you’re welcome to give it a try and walk on the Hussaini Suspension bridge. I did it, and it’s been a frightening but exciting experience. Just keep in mind to be VERY, VERY careful. If you’re afraid of heights, don’t do it. The bridge is pretty long and I’m honest – it’s been probably one of the scariest and most dangerous things I did in a while. The river below is extremely cold, and the current is fast. There are locals around which would help you in case of emergency, but people did already fall down and die in the past. Even if you don’t want to cross the bridge by yourself, a visit is still worth it, and you can watch the locals crossing it.
I hope I was able to give you an overview of the best places in Pakistan to visit when backpacking Pakistan. As you can see, the country offers incredible cultural and historic attractions as well as natural beauty. I fell in love with Pakistan and I’m sure you’ll have the same experience after your visit!