Islamabad is sometimes referred to as a “boring city.”
I take issue with that statement.
Wherever you are in the world, there’s always something to be found. Whether you’re in the middle of Siberia or the streets of Pakistan, makes no difference. You can have fun…if you know where to look.
Having visited almost a dozen times by now I can confidently say, YES, there are many things to do in Islamabad. This city and what it offers may not look and feel like other South Asian cities, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.
Over the course of this article, I will show you everything that Islamabad has to offer, from the best places to visit to the best restaurants to eat at. It is my goal to show you that staying in Islamabad isn’t a death sentence. You can stay here and have a good time and you don’t have to treat it as an extended layover.
Let’s get to it.
Things to Do Around Islamabad
Islamabad is a planned city and a relatively new one at that – it’s only been inhabited (as the city of Islamabad) for about 50 years. This means that Islamabad follows has very modern city planning.
Islamabad is laid out like a grid. Neighborhoods are almost perfectly square in shape and all built around a central business area. As such, Islamabad is extremely navigable, although it can take some time to get across town if traffic is bad.
When you do want to get around Islamabad, I recommend using Uber or Careem.
Admittedly, Islamabad can feel a bit dull at times. It certainly lacks the frenetic energy and controlled chaos of other older cities like Lahore or Peshawar and can seem like it lacks energy or soul or something like that.
That being said, there are still PLENTY of fun and interesting things to do around Islamabad. You’ll just need to look in different places and have slightly different expectations.
Below is a map showing where all the best things to do in Islamabad are located:
Visit Faisal Mosque for evening prayer
Often considered one of the best places to visit in Pakistan, Faisal is one of the largest and most modern mosques in the world. It can accommodate a RIDICULOUS 300,000 people at once so, needless to say, it can get a bit crowded here.
I’ll spare you the long-winded explanation behind its inspiration (yes, it is shaped like a Bedouin tent because a Saudi king funded the project, and, no, the towers aren’t meant to be rockets); I’ll simply say that the Faisal Mosque is quite impressive architecturally. It’s a harmonious blend of the old and the new and, at one time, was very forward-thinking in terms of design.
The best time to visit the Faisal is in the evening when the temps are cooler and the light is better for photography. There will be two calls to prayer around this time: one at sunset and another when it is fully dark. If this is your first time experiencing the call, be prepared to be emotionally (and maybe spiritually) moved.
Since this is a place of worship, please remember to be respectful and wear modest clothing – no bare knees or shoulders, and women need headscarves. Note that non-Muslims are not allowed to take part in the prayer ceremonies while underway.
Going hiking in the Margalla Hills
Contrary to popular belief, Islamabad is not located in a desert nor is it a sprawling urban mess. In fact, it’s not even remotely arid. Neither is it totally concrete jungle
Islamabad is actually a tropical city, which means that it’s quite green. It’s also located very close to some beautiful terrain. The lush Margalla Hills (also spelled Margallah), located literally on the edge of the city, are a great place to escape the city and hit the trail.
The hills aren’t so tall, at least by Pakistani standards. They are still steep, enough to get a real workout in, and it can even get downright chilly up there. Snow, although extremely rare, is not unheard of.
Most of the maintained trails are given simple numerical designations. 3 and 5 are reportedly the most popular. If you decide to do Trail 1, then you will end up at Monal Restaurant. Trail 2 will take you to the famous Daman-e-Koh Viewpoint.
Admire (and be admired at) the Pakistan Monument
For photographers and just general appreciators of architecture, the Pakistan Monument is probably the best thing to see in Islamabad.
The monument itself is gorgeous, with beautiful etchings and curving shapes that really draw the eye. At dusk, it is especially beautiful as the sky turns a deep blue and the monument lights up to become a radiant orange.
A little backstory: the Pakistan Monument was designed to emulate the Mughals, who had a profound effect on the region in their time. Each “petal” represents a major culture of Pakistan: the four larger ones are for the Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, and Pashtun people, while the smaller petals are for the minorities of Azad Kashmir and the peoples of Gilgit-Baltistan.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Pakistan Monument is a very popular place to visit in Islamabad for Pakistani tourists, which can only mean one thing for foreigners visiting: selfies. If you look anything like a Westerner, then be prepared to be SWARMED by Pakistanis wanting a photo.
As someone who lives rent-free on half of Pakistan’s social media profiles by now, all I’ll say is that the selfies get a bit old. Sure the first dozen or so are fun as you feel a bit like a celebrity. But after a while, and a few pushy photographers, you get sick of it.
When you’re ready, quietly exit the monument and say “no thank you” to any more photos.
There is a bunch of cultural stuff to do in the area around the monument – and most of it can be done on foot.
Get a History Lesson at Lok Virsa Heritage Museum
Located right next to the Pakistan Monument is the Lok Virsa Heritage Museum, dedicated to the many peoples and cultures of Pakistan. It is primarily an ethnographic museum with exhibitions covering everything from ancient artifacts to remnants of the British colonization.
For anyone interested in Pakistani history, spending an hour or two wandering the halls is a great thing to do while in Islamabad.
While you’re there, ask the front desk if there are any Sufi performances planned at the museum. These happen from time to time and are very fascinating to watch.
Entrance is 500 rupees for all foreigners (around 3 USD).
If you’re looking for a more traditional art gallery, rather than an ethnographic museum, you’ll want to visit the PNCA (Pakistan National Council of Arts) instead. It’s located in Islamabad proper in F-5.
Eat at Kabul Restaurant
Some of the best food in Islamabad comes from Pathan restaurants. Glistening grilled meats, hearty bread, rich pulao, and zesty side dishes define this style of cooking. Everything is delicious.
The best Pathan restaurant in Islamabad – or the most well-known at least – is Kabul Restaurant in F-7. From the outside, the place looks pretty assuming: it’s just a couple of plastic high-tops, a weathered Coca-Cola banner, and a big ol’ grill. Standard Pakistani fair right?
But Kabul Restaurant is oh so much more. The kebabs are perfectly cooked and piled (very) high. The bread is always warm. And there is also a surprising amount of vegetarian options – I personally love the eggplant dish, which reminds me a bit of baba ganush.
Note that there are TWO Kabul Restaurants located quite close to each other: the first, which is tucked away into a lot, is an imposter. Don’t go here. The real Kabul is located on the main drive (College Road) and is usually packed with people.
If you want to grab a table, make sure you arrive before 8 pm. The place fills up quickly after that.
Drink in the Views at Monal
If Kabul Restaurant is the local joint that every local knows about, then Monal is where all the big spenders go. This restaurant, located high up in the Margalla Hills, is the cushiest place in all of Islamabad (that or the Serena Hotel) and every night is like a gala. It seems that ambassadors, industrialists, politicians, and other well-off folks all come here to rub shoulders.
That is not to say it’s entirely exclusive. In fact, a simple phone call is usually all you need to secure a reservation. I’ve managed to get in every single time I wanted to eat there, and I’m usually with a large group of guests as well.
Unlike some other up-scale restaurants in Pakistan, Monal is well worth the extra expenses as well. The food, especially the kebabs, is fantastic here. Even the western food, which is usually pizza, steaks, and hamburgers, is good! The service is also exceptional.
I’ll wrap up this particular thing to do in Islamabad with one last gush: the views from Monal are hard to beat. You see nearly the entire city from the restaurant. At night, the glittering city lights are a real treat, especially after you’ve spent weeks traveling in the wild north.
Treat yourself on your a bit and have a last meal at Monal before leaving Islamabad. You won’t be disappointed.
Celebrate Pakistan Independence Day
Independence Day is BIG in Pakistan. For one week in August, people go all out during this time: decorating everything in green and white, lighting fireworks, and playing games (polo if you’re in the north).
But no other city does Independence Day better than Islamabad.
Being the capital of the country means you gotta show off your nationalism more than anyone else. Having spent Independence Day in Islamabad myself, I gotta say: these guys really put on a show.
Horns blowing. Massive flags paraded in the city. Trucks full of people celebrating.Constant fireworks. It feels like Pakistan wins the world cup every time it’s Independence Day here. At times, it almost feels like America’s own Fourth of July except without booze. Which begs my next question…
How in the hell can these guys party so much whilst DEAD sober?
Regardless, Independence Day is a great time. If you’re planning on being there around 14th, you should absolutely join in. Hands-down, it’s one of the best things I’ve done while in Islamabad.
Sample food at Kohsar Market
Can’t decide on what you want to eat in Islamabad? Why not go somewhere you can get try everything and anything?
The Kohsar Market is probably the closest thing you will get to a food hall in Pakistan. It’s not a food pod or a farmers market by any means and there isn’t a lot of local choices (it’s mostly Western foods). But if you want a good selection of cuisine and something different than karahi or handi, this is a great place in Islamabad to visit.
Here are some options for you to choose from:
- Tuscan Courtyard – “Italian” food. Don’t expect authentic Italian cooking. Do expect a lot of carb-laden, heavy dishes though.
- Porterhouse – A steakhouse. Simple as that. Reliable since Pakistanis do grilled meats very well.
- Street 1 Cafe – A good selection of food you would normally find in a western cafe e.g. bagels, salads, pastries, etc.
- Street Burger – Your standard hamburgers and fast-food fare. Good but nothing over the top (except those weird black buns…)
- Nom Nom Wok – Large selection of East Asian foods, including Thai. Chinese is usually a good choice as it’s a favorite for Pakistanis.
Visit the Best Book Shops in Pakistan
Almost every time I am in Islamabad, I rock up to Saeed Book Bank in F7. They have the best selection of imported English-language books I have found after checking out others all over the country. What sets Saeed Book Bank apart is that they have recent titles, political books, western non-fiction, and a huge variety of works by Pakistani authors.
There is something for everyone in this book store. Prices are not so different from what you might find in your home country, so don’t come in here expecting to get a new book for 50 cents.
Another favorite of mine is the National Book Foundation book shop. If you want things specific to Pakistani history and culture – this place is where you will find it all.
Find a Qawwali Show
Qawwali is a musical performance with roots based in Sufi mysticism. The band is usually composed of a primary singer backed up by a group of musicians who provide additional vocals and driving rhythms.
Qawwali shows are a helluva good time. Everyone, including the frontman and the musicians, gets really into the show and really puts themselves out there. Chanting, sweating, racing hands, the whole show is just a frenzy. The frontman, in particular, is usually a great showman as he sings about love, spiritualism, and Allah almost totally improvisational.
Here’s a video showcasing a qawwali group called Fanna-Fi-Allah (shout-out to Oregon native Aminah Chishti Qawwal, first-ever female tabla player inducted into qawwali brethren):
Unfortunately, qawwali is not so common in Islamabad – it’s more of a thing in the Punjab and Lahore. But that’s not to say it never happens in the capital city, as every once in a while, a show pops up.
Be sure to ask around about upcoming shows and keep an eye on the local dargah (sufi shrines). If you see someone with dreadlocks and a set of drums, you’re on to something.
Go Shopping at Centaurus Mall
Listen: I’m not a shopper. Never have been and never will. I would never recommend going to a mall to anyone EVER…unless it was a fascinating cultural experience.
Centaurus Mall is luxurious, not to mention enormous. Composed of three glittering towers, it looks like something straight out of Singapore or Tokyo. Inside, it’s just floor after floor of shops and kiosks, swarming with people.
The only reason I suggest Centarus as something to do in Islamabad is that it is an interesting juxtaposition with typical Pakistani life. Most Pakistanis shop at conventional, outdoor bazaars, which are obviously much less opulent. To see people wandering around a mall – a mall that could put most in America to shame – is an interesting change of pace and a sign of what might come in the future for Pakistan. Visit here and reflect upon this.
Also, you can literally find everything at Centaurus. It is particularly useful for finding clothing, electronics, or real brand name items. If you’re interested in purchasing your own shalwar kameez or a dress, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better quality and a greater selection than here.
Things to Do Outside of Islamabad
The best things to do around Islamabad may actually be found just outside the city. Hidden caves, cool grottos, and plenty of archeological sites make the surrounding area rife for adventure.
Depending on where you’re going, the furthest you will have to drive outside the city is 2-2.5 hours. Destinations like Rhotas Fort and Katas Raj are flow-blown day trips from Islamabad so prepare appropriately.
Here are the best things to do near Islamabad:
Get lost in the Raja Bazaar of Rawalpindi
Located quite literally next to Islamabad, Rawalpindi is the much older, grizzled sibling town. Gone are the manicured hedges and wide boulevards of the planned city; back are the twisting alleyways and manic energy that you’d expect from South Asia.
The centerpiece for the city is the massive Raja Bazaar. This is one of the finest examples of a bazaar anywhere in the country and features a staggering amount of shops. I’ll admit that when I said that you could everything at Centaraus, I was lying a bit; you’ll find even more in Raja.
So get lost in the alleyways and see what you can find!
Remember though, you’re back in bartering country. Prices are never fixed and you should always try to get a better deal.
If Islamabad really isn’t your cup of chai, then plan on spending more time in Pindi. It may just be exactly what you need.
Explore the Ruins of Taxila
Few people realize that a long time ago Pakistan used to be a hugely important region for Buddhism. Pilgrims carried the religion through Pakistan on their way to Central Asia and further east from the subcontinent. During the Gandhara period, Buddhism was at its peak as were the arts (thanks in part to Greek influence).
Taxila is the former capital of the Gandhara Kingdom and is one of the most significant archeological sites in all of Pakistan. The open-air museum is covered with old stupas and remnants from the ancient city, whilst the museum houses an incredible finest collection of Gandhara art. History buffs should be chomping at the bit to visit here.
Taxila is only 45 minutes away by taxi. With Kareem, it’ll cost $5 tops to get there. That makes for an excellent half-day trip from Islamabad.
Make the Day Trip out to Rohtas Fort
Rohtas Fort is an old fortress dating back to the 16th century. Not only is it one of the largest fortifications on the subcontinent but it is also one of the best-preserved.
One could easily wander around Rhotas for an entire day, checking all of the old watchtowers and walking along battlements. Perhaps you could imagine you’re a soldier standing guard against the local tribes. Or perhaps, like me, you just like the melancholic nature of ruins.
I will say that despite the excellent condition of the fort, the amount of garbage here is a bit sad. Many of the old cisterns, which are incredible feats of architecture, are filled with trash by this point. Seems a shame for this place to have survived 500 years, only to become a bit of a dump. Nonetheless, Rohtas is still worth visiting!
At 2.5 hours, this is a pretty long drive from the city. One could even argue that it barely counts as “a thing to do in” Islamabad. I will contest that Rohtas is in the middle of nowhere so no matter from which direction you’re coming, it will still take a few hours to arrive.
Since you’ve already driven out this far as well, you might also consider visiting nearby Malot. There is another less impressive fort here but it does feature some pretty intricate ruined temples.
Cool Off at Neelan Bhoto or Bruti
Hidden deep inside the Margalla Hills are a handful of remote grottos and valleys. Clean, refreshing, and turquoise in color, the waters here are great for swimming or just admiring.
Neelan Bhoto comes highly recommended by a local expert in the region. To reach here, you will need to arrive at the eponymously named village first, then walk or take a motorbike on a dirt track to reach the pools. The pools of Neelan Bhoto are famous for their brilliant color and large schools of fish.
Fishing is illegal at the pools so please don’t try. Swimming is allowed though.
Another possible place to go for a dip is Bruti. Bruti is a series of streams and cascades that is more of a hike than Neelan Bhoto.
To reach the falls, you’ll need to first arrive at the parking lot for Loh-e-Dandi and then walk to the Bari Imam Shrine before hitting the trail to Bruti. It can seem a bit vague how to get there but this guide offers the most comprehensive explanation I’ve found yet.
Note that both Neelan Bhoto and Bruti will be very busy in the summer months. If you’re looking for a quieter time, visit in the winter. Trust me, it’ll still be hot then.
Visit the Shah Allah Ditta Caves
The Shah Allah Ditta Caves are another interesting Buddhist archeological site located very close to Islamabad. Originally used as a place for deep meditation, the caves are now largely abandoned.
There isn’t much in the way of religious reliquary leftover at the caves. There are some old murals and paint on the old walls but it’s all quite faded.
The caves themselves still look very cool. There are some gnarly banyan trees scattered around the site, complete with hanging roots that sometimes twist around the caves themselves.
The Shah Allah Ditta Caves are a relatively quiet and undiscovered tourist attraction. If you’re looking for something alternative to do in Islamabad, this is a good choice. Consider doing this in conjunction with Taxila.
Go Chasing waterfalls
Umbrella Falls and Sajjikot Falls are two semi-famous waterfalls located quite close to one another. They can easily be knocked off back-to-back in a single day.
First, you will need to reach the village of Poona, which is a bit of a long drive (2.5 hours). Once you arrive, find the parking area and pay to park (50-100 rupees). Now you will begin the hike to Umbrella Falls.
Of the two waterfalls mentioned, Umbrella Falls is arguably the more photogenic. It has only become famous in recent years by local influencers. The hike down to the falls from parking takes around 30-45 minutes. It’s a bit steep but there should be ropes there to help. Bring a plastic bag for your camera!
Further down the road from Umbrella Falls is Sajjikot. Like Umbrella, this waterfall entails a semi-steep descent from the parking area but nothing an experienced hiker can’t handle.
NOTE that there are reports that the water at Sajjikot is quite contaminated, being runoff from a local village. Swim here at your own risk.
Go on a Temple Tour
So far we’ve introduced several Muslim and Buddhist places to worship as potential things to do around Islamabad. Why not add in a Hindu one and make it a hat trick?
Katas Raj is a Hindu temple complex located only 2 hours away from Islamabad in northern Punjab. Judging from the grandeur and size of the complex, one might mistakenly think that they’re actually in India! (Just don’t say this out loud in Pakistan.)
This complex was, at one point in time, one of the most important sites in all of Hinduism. There are several stories surrounding its creation and purpose, which you’ll have to ask about when you arrive.
Unsurprisingly, the temples were a bit neglected after the partition, but, in recent years, the government has actually tried to restore them. Though still a bit dilapidated, the grounds are a bit less littered and the pools are not so terribly polluted as they used to be.
So if want to go on a tour of three of the world’s major religions in one day, you certainly can. Combine this with Taxila and Faisal Mosque for an amazing full-day experience in Islamabad.
Beat the Heat in Murree
Murree is where the British Army used to run away to in order to escape the oppressive summer heat of Punjab. Located high in the Margalla Hills, it is far cooler up here than in muggy, often boiling Islamabad.
Following the extradition of the British, Murree became a mountain resort town for high-ranking Pakistani officials and families. It is now one of the most popular places to visit near Islamabad, at least among locals.
Aside from the agreeable climate, most of Murree’s appeal comes from the old colonial architecture and forested setting. There are a number of trails you can walk on around the town or there is a chair-lift offering some lovely views of the surrounding Kashmiri mountains.
Stay away from the amusement parks in Muree though. They are awful and have largely ruined the vibe of the place.
Where to Stay in Islamabad
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Islamabad is arranged like a giant grid, which makes wrapping your head around the city quite easy.
There are hotels spread throughout Islamabad but, for one reason or another, I always end up staying on the edge of the city in E or F 11/12. This area is pretty nice – hosting mostly ambassadors’ homes – and is relatively chill as well. You’ll be further away from Islamabad’s main attractions, but they’re still just a short taxi ride away.
Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Islamabad:
- Grand Islamabad Hotel – Hitting the “just right” mark in terms of service, location, and price, this is a great all-around 3-star hotel in Islamabad for a comfortable stay
- Backpackers Hostel & Guesthouse Islamabad – A step up from the typical budget hostel, this comfy spot is a great place to meet other travelers while keeping your spending down. Tell Haris Chris says hi!
- Islamabad Regalia Hotel – Classy and romantic without being outrageously expensive, this hotel in Islamabad has a good location for both hiking and city attractions.
Important note: I’ve heard a few people say that Islamabad’s tap water is fine to drink. I call bullshit.
I still insist on purifying the water. Pakistani tap water just has a horrible reputation to begin with and I’ve definitely gotten sick mysteriously while staying in local hotels. Don’t put yourself at risk. Use a purifier, like the GRAYL Geopress, and save yourself the trip to the bathroom.
Getting To and From Islamabad
Islamabad is very easy to reach from all major Pakistani cities. You could take private transport, like Kareem or a shared taxi, to get there, but unless you’re coming from the north or just really need the privacy, I suggest using the bus.
I suggest using Daewoo when traveling around Pakistan. It’s one of the largest carriers in the country and the buses are very comfortable. Compared to northern buses like NATCO, Daewoos are like limousines.
Islamabad doesn’t have a bus station per se. Rather, all buses bound for Islamabad actually stop in Rawalpindi. Here is the location of the main station.
TIP: Make sure you book your taxi or Uber from the Pindi station BEFORE you step outside. Otherwise, you will be harassed by local drivers and will also lose that juicy WiFi.
The nearest major cities to Islamabad are Peshawar (3 hours) and Lahore (5 hours). If you’re coming from Lahore, you will stop at a large rest area about ⅗ of the way.
It is possible to fly in to Islamabad but that is really only applicable if you’re coming from either the north, the far south i.e. Karachi, or internationally. The airport is located about 30-40 minutes away from the city. Expect to pay around 1000-1500 rupee for a taxi. If it is late at night, the fixed taxi cost is 2000 rs.
If you have found some alternative stuff to do in Islamabad, please let me know in the comments below so I can consider adding it to the list!