If you’re considering your first visit to Pakistan and want an itinerary to rival all others, I’ve got you covered. I recently spent 10 days in Northern Pakistan and I had the adventure of a lifetime. If you are planning a visit to Pakistan for the first time, these are the highlights you cannot miss.
Why you should visit Pakistan
Pakistan is one of the most underrated travel destinations for a variety of reasons. Not without its’ problems, Pakistan is known for having a complex and complicated history since it was established in 1947. For that reason I would personally recommend a guided tour for your first visit, though have no reason not to encourage a solo journey given my own experience.
For the sake of clarity, travelling solo (and in particular as a female) in the likes of Bali or Bangkok is very different to travelling solo in Pakistan. If you are new to solo travel I would suggest gaining experience in countries more populated by tourists and indeed, with a more developed approach toward tourism and foreign visitors.
Because I didn’t travel through Pakistan as a solo female, I would suggest reading this post by The Broke Backpacker for further information and clarity given her thorough documentation on the topic (and brilliant coverage of Pakistan!)
This itinerary follows my 10-day adventure throughout Pakistan, starting in Islamabad. The tour was put together by our guide Atta (you can email him here) who works full time as a guide in Northern Pakistan (more on Atta later).
Islamabad (or Isloo to the locals) is the capital city of Pakistan but not even close to the biggest city. There are a whopping 213 million people in Pakistan and just 1 million in Islamabad. That makes the city great for a stopover and introduction to the country. I’d recommend at least one full day to explore Islamabad, though it wouldn’t hurt to allow for two and take advantage of shaking jet lag at the same time.
Start the day right with one of the best coffees in Islamabad, found at Mocca Cafe in Kohsar Market. While you are there be sure to wander around and begin to experience the local shopping. I would suggest taking advantage of the opportunity to buy a scarf or two, as you will need to wear a scarf when entering mosques and as a general rule, it is a good idea to have on one hand for certain situations that call for covering up as a sign of respect to the local culture.
For a beautiful pashmina (which are in fact from Nepal), head over to Maharaja Handicrafts at F6 markez, school road. For Afghan Handicrafts and antiques head over to the few shops around the corner from Maharaja on Aga Khan Road near the flower shops.
Check in to the Serena Hotel if you want an unforgettable introduction to Pakistani culture, architecture, and opulent interiors inside what is considered the most beautiful hotel in Islamabad. The hotel has all the perks you could ever need, including an outdoor swimming pool, fitness centre and huge restaurant to enjoy a buffet breakfast.
An important note on this itinerary: it relies entirely on this first flight from Islamabad to Skardu, which is unfortunately subject to many cancellations given the weather path entering the mountain ranges in Skardu. Should your flight be cancelled and you are travelling as part of a tour, alternative arrangements will be made for you. If you are travelling on your own accord, I would recommend having a few days of flexibility in case of cancellation, as there is only one flight a day and it is entirely weather dependent.
Unfortunately our trip began in just that fashion: a cancelled flight to Skardu, resulting in a 12 hour drive toward that direction and a prompt in us reversing our itinerary. With a dose of optimism I am hoping the same does not happen to you, so will proceed to share the itinerary as it was originally planned as we still visited all of these places – just in reverse and with much more time in a bus!
On the way to Skardu be sure to request a seat on the left hand side of the plane for the best photo opportunities – you won’t regret it as you enter the mountain ranges in the North!
Once you arrive be sure to stock up on dried apricots, walnuts and almonds for the long journey by road over the coming days. There were days where we would not eat for 12 hours at a time given the remote locations of these towns, so it is better to be prepared!
A couple of hours drive from Skardu and you will arrive at Shigar Fort, one of Northern Pakistan’s most beautiful hotels occupying an old fort. The experience is real and raw – almost so real that it feels as if you have stepped in to a movie set because it is so picturesque. The town itself is also great to walk around during the day amidst the hustle and bustle or you can take a bicycle for a more relaxed afternoon to stretch the legs after your long plane and bus journey.
If you can time your luck, there may be a local polo match taking place nearby. Ask your guide or one of the locals for updated information – this is a popular sport in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and known popular as “Game of the Kings”.
It is a further three hours drive to reach Khaplu Palace, but this is hands down one of the most beautiful properties to stay in all of Pakistan and indeed, the highlight of my trip. If you have time to spend more than one night, this property is best enjoyed at a slower pace. Be sure to make use of the guided palace tour as there is much to learn about the history of the palace and its surrounds.
The Royal High Tea is an experience not to be forgotten and is served on a terrace overlooking the palace grounds and has sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. If you ask politely the hotel staff may also let you explore the rooftop of the palace, which has 360 degree views over Khaplu.
If you are feeling more active and adventurous, there is a great panoramic view to be had at Thoqsikhar, a two hour hike from the palace. Ask the hotel to pack a picnic lunch or start your journey early in the morning with the sun and return to the palace for a relaxed lunch in the gardens.
If you have time the day you are checking out, consider stopping at Bara, a small town just 20 minutes from Khaplu and en route to your next destination: Gilgit. Here you will find a wool spinning and weave centre that trains and supports local women. This is also a great place to purchase a local Baltistani topi.
It is a lengthy drive from Khaplu to Gilgit, so be sure to leave in good time if you wish to see Gilgit before dark and perhaps even take a hike to the water channel above the city that offers views of the valley below and also features the victory monument of Taj Mughul as well as the 7th century Kargah Buddha rock carving. Whilst in Gilgit we stayed at the Serena Hotel and I was starting to realise how much I appreciated these beautiful hotels being all across Pakistan! They were extremely welcoming and felt like coming home. Buffet breakfasts were a highlight as were the interiors, always dedicated to the local area and paying tribute to influences in Central Asia.
If you are going to spend a few days in any one place, I would highly recommend basing yourself for a few days in the Hunza Valley. Renowned for its charm, cleanliness and 995 literacy rate, Hunza is commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities to visit in the North of Pakistan.
If you’re feeling peckish, start your day at Cafe de Hunza for a slice of famous walnut cake with an iced latte (which is actually a frappe for ye Westerners) and so refreshing after days and days of instant coffee!
There are many towns to explore in Hunza, but with limited time we made our way to Gulmit, one of the highlights in the Hunza Valley. Here there are a number of women’s initiatives and it was one of the few cities where we saw women in the streets. To support local communities, some great items to purchase as souvenirs or gifts to take home are apricot creams and oils, gem stones, woollen shawls and woodcraft. You will find many artisans and shop keepers on the streets who are more than willing to help (many of which speak perfect English) and not once was I hassled to buy anything throughout my time in Pakistan.
Not too far from Hunza, I would highly recommend a visit to Attabad lake. This lake appeared after a landslide that killed 20 people known as the Attabad disaster. The lake collects glacial silt from the surrounding mountains, resulting in its turquoise blue colour in Spring and Summer. Further down the road edging closer to the border with China is the rickety bridge known as “The Indiana Jones Bridge” for its likeness, though it never appeared in the films. It is totally worth a visit but not for the faint hearted!
Considered to be one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of the 20th century, the Karakoram Highway connects Pakistan and China and is one of the highlights of Northeastern Pakistan. The entire journey is 805 miles long but you don’t need to drive the entire way to experience some of the epic scenery that takes you through hair-raising turns, endless mountain ranges and many small villages where locals will wave as you pass by.
If adventure travel is more your style and you’re ready for one wild ride, do not miss the chance to jump on the jeeps and make your way to fairy Meadows along a steep cliff edge. After a one hour drive to the end of the road, it is just a 1.5-2 hour hike to the Fairy Meadows camp, which is a popular stop en route to the Base Camp for Nanga Parbat.
If time is on your side you might consider embarking on the trek to base camp the following morning – according to my guide this was a further 10-12 hour hike with basic lodging at base camp. The Swiss-style cabins at Fairy Meadows are lovely and lush, complete with hot water and electricity! This was a beautiful part of the world to wake up and enjoy the crisp mountain air so if time is on your side, you may even want to stay an extra night.