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Pakistan Travel

Pakistan Travel Beginners Guide (Visa, Itineraries, SIM, Safety)

After spending years travelling to every state and union territory in India, I thought it was time to expand my travel goal to include all the provinces of neighbouring Pakistan. After all, it used to be part of India, so I was sure I’d enjoy it too.

Since then, I’ve travelled to Pakistan three times and covered all provinces except for Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (both are on my to-do list).

On my first trip, I crossed the Wagah border from India to Pakistan.

Pakistan isn’t frequented by foreign tourists due to security concerns, but I think this will change one day. Pakistani people are very welcoming and hospitable, and if you decide to travel to Pakistan, I don’t think you’ll regret it.

That said, you should prepare yourself for Pakistan because it will be a culture shock. There’s a lot to learn. The best place for that would be to watch the videos in my Pakistan playlist on YouTube. In all my videos, I try to help foreigners travel better or understand things about India & Pakistan.

In this post, I’ll cover all the basics of travelling to Pakistan.

How to get a Visa for Pakistan

In 2019, Pakistan introduced an online visa portal which has made getting visas a straightforward process now.

I’ve dedicated an entire post to this topic: How to Apply for a Pakistan Visa-on-Arrival & What Happens When You Land?

The best time to go to Pakistan

Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat. The Northern areas are really stunning. Photo by Imran Khakwani.
Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat. The Northern areas are really stunning. Photo by Imran Khakwani.

The peak travel season is in the cooler months of November to February. In these months you’ll have warm days and cool to cold nights. If you’re going to the mountains in these times, it will be cold, and you might have snow.

The hot summer runs from March to June, and then the monsoon sweeps the country from July and ends in September.

During June, July and August, domestic tourism peaks and people flock to hill stations to escape the heat.

If you want to travel to Gilgit-Baltistan, you can go between April and October (trekking season), with the best time between mid-May and mid-September. You can go in winter if you want snow, but the weather is “bone-chilling”, as one traveller once told me.

What to eat and drink in Pakistan

Pakistanis are foodies, so the Pakistan food scene absolutely rocks. If you’re a meat-eater, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re vegetarian, you may struggle as even the vegetarian dishes contain beef or chicken stock – I wondered how their veg. dishes were so tasty.

You’ll need to avoid street food vendors as best you can, or you may find yourself with a stomach infection wasting 5-days of your holiday. I got sick multiple times in Pakistan from food, unfortunately. If you’re only a short holiday, stick to reputable and clean restaurants.

I probably wouldn’t advise you to do this…

Here’s the yummiest food you must try while in Pakistan:

Paratha with half fried eggs: This breakfast dish is served throughout Pakistani dhabas (small roadside restaurants). It’s a plain fried flatbread that you dip into your egg yolk and enjoy. Don’t forget to cover your eggs in a bit of salt and a ton of black pepper!

I show you how to do breakfast the right way in Pakistan.

Chai: Pakistan runs on milk tea. It fuels everyone. It might sound strange to have tea made with only milk, no water, but give it a try and in no time you’ll be addicted to creamy cardamom chai.

In Pakistan, chai is usually prepared in these pots. I wish I brought some home with me!
In Pakistan, chai is usually prepared in these pots. I wish I brought some home with me!

Chole: Chickpeas are another staple dish often eaten at breakfast. The Pakistani version is quite different to the Indian version too. Pakistanis add a lot more clarified butter and black pepper.

Chinese: It’s not what you think. India and Pakistan have their own version of Chinese food. It’s mega spicy and flavourful. Quite the opposite of Chinese food which is much plainer. Dishes to try are Chilli Chicken, Honey Chilli Potato, and Chicken Manchurian.

Chilli chicken and Mongolian beef from Ginyaki.

Haleem & Hareea: Both are very similar, and I’m not sure what the difference is, but try either. They’re rich meaty soups where lentils, meat, and spices are stirred for 12 hours so it all breaks down into a thick soup. You scoop it up with a thick Rogni Naan. It’s tough to find where I live in India, so I always enjoy a lot of it when I’m in Pakistan.

I eat Hareesa here at Gawalmandi in Lahore. That’s a Rogni Naan in the thumbnail.

Chicken Karahi: This curry is named after the large pan it’s cooked and served in. It’s a tomato and ginger based curry with tons of coriander. Find a restaurant that offers boneless, as it’s usually served with bones.

Sarso Ka Saag with Makki Roti: This is a seasonal dish as it only comes in winter when the mustard crops are harvested. It’s a mustard leaf curry served with cornbread. It’s delicious and my favourite vegetarian dish. I eat it all winter long.

One more dish for vegetarians, Shahi Daal.

That’s a very short introduction to food in Pakistan. You’ll really enjoy exploring their rich food history.

My top travel destinations in Pakistan for first time travellers

I recommend a classic route hitting all the major centres of Pakistan. Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan are left out because both require their own trips.

For travelling to Balochistan, you need to hire private security and get special permissions from the Government of Balochistan. Because of these rules, I haven’t gone there yet. I like to roam free, not be limited like that.

There are no restrictions for Gilgit-Baltistan, but ideally, you travel there in the summer and monsoon seasons – unlike the rest of Pakistan. I’ll be going there on a separate trip and taking a motorcycle throughout the province.

Me outside Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.
Me outside Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. Keep reading for the viewpoint location.

Lahore (3 days or more)

Lahore is the capital of the province of Punjab and is Pakistan’s 2nd largest city after Karachi. It’s a massive city with 11.3M people, and if you’ve ever been to Delhi, it’s very similar in style and vibe.

Go out to the Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort, then go try Chicken Karahi at Haveli Restaurant. Haveli has a fantastic viewpoint where you can get great shots with the mosque in the background.

Another day you can take a walk through the old walled city of Lahore and end up at the stunning Wazir Khan Masjid. There are lots of shopping lanes in this area for women’s clothes.

If you want to experience a traditional street food market, then head out to Gawalmandi and explore that street after dark. This is the old street food market, and it’ll be busy with Pakistanis chowing down on a full variety of delicious dishes cooked fresh in front of you.

From Lahore, I’d also go on a day trip to Kartarpur Sahib, a beautiful Sikh Gurudwara on the border with India. If you want, you can also go out to Wagah Border to see the closing of the border ceremony.

Shopping: Spend a day shopping for high-end Pakistani fashion at Gulberg III. Try nearby Liberty Market, and don’t forget to check the backstreets. There’s a video game market you can explore at Liberty also. If you want the mall experience, head to Packages Mall.

I went shopping for my Wife at the designer stores in Gulberg III.
Here’s an electronics market you can visit in Lahore too, Hafeez Centre.

Hotels: I’d stay around Mall 1, Gulberg III area. It’s a lovely area of town with great restaurants and even an outdoor dining area hidden behind Mall 1.

Khewra Salt Mines & Katas Raj (1 day)

While on route to Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, take a detour to the second-largest salt mine in the world, Khewra Salt Mine, and then to a massive Hindu Temple Complex called Katas Raj.

All you need to know about the Khewra Salt Mine.
On the same day as visiting the Khewra Salt Mines, I went to the Katas Raj Hindu Temple Complex too.

There are not many food options around Khewra and Katas, so you might want to carry snacks at least.

Islamabad (3 days or more)

Welcome to Pakistan’s capital city! It’s beautiful, well planned, and modern. You’ll have a very comfortable stay in this city. If you want, you can arrive here first. It’ll really ease you into Pakistan before you head out to the more crowded and hectic cities like Lahore.

Don’t miss the old Saidpur Village which houses a defunct Ram Temple and Gurudwara and has some good eateries.

I went to Saidpur Village to visit an old Ram Temple.

Faisal Mosque is a must-see; it’s stunning.

The incredible architecture of Faisal Mosque. Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

At the same time, go up to Daman-e-Koh to get a great view of Islamabad.

I spent sunset up at Daman-E-Koh one evening. It wasn’t the clearest day though.

Shopping: Definitely go hang out at Jinnah Super Market. It’s the best market in town and great for shopping and eating. Don’t miss the best chai in Islamabad at Quetta Chai. If you want to try Pakistani Chinese food, head to Ginyaki.

On my first day in Pakistan, I discovered the Jinnah Super Market.

Hotels: Stay anywhere near Jinnah Super Market, F7. It’s a really central and peaceful location. Every morning I’d walk over to the market to have a good breakfast at a cafe.

Murree (1-2 Days)

Murree is a picturesque hill station just 70 km from Islamabad. It’s probably the most popular holiday spot in Pakistan in the summer, so you might want to instead choose one of the quieter nearby hill stations like Nathia Gali.

There’s not a lot to do at Murree besides check out some nice views, walks, and cruise down mall road. There are lots of fun activities for kids though. Both times I’ve been have been underwhelming. But I leave it on this itinerary because you should at least once experience a hill station.

I did however find one fantastic traditional Pakistani restaurant at Murree, Quetta Khan Cafe. I ate every morning at Qoeta (sic) Khan Cafe, located in a lane at the beginning of Mall Road. The nearest Maps location is New Lahore Restaurant. Qoeta Khan Cafe is 5 or so stores down from there.

Hotels: Sorry, I didn’t find any that blew me away.

Shopping: Avoid. There’s just touristy junk there.

Abbottabad & Balakot (3 Days)

Above Ilyasi Mosque in Abbottabad.

I don’t think many foreigners have even thought of going to Abbottabad, especially with reputation after Osama Bin Laden was found there. But the reality is it’s a delightful city in the mountains with some of the best fried snacks I’ve ever had.

Don’t miss the Ilyasi Masjid (freshwater mosque), the pakore (fried vegetables) stores right next door to Ilyasi, and then head up to the chairlift where you can take an alpine gondola to a tea stop.

If you want to get a beautiful view across all of the Abottabad head to Shimla Pahari Park.

Do not attempt to visit the compound where Osama bin Laden was assassinated. It’ll surely land you in trouble. The compound was demolished in 2012 anyway.

I had a great time in Abbottabad!

Hotels: There’s a couple of hotels to choose from. I stayed in a bed and breakfast type place in a suburb near KFC. As soon as you check-in, your host will go to the local Police station to register that a foreigner is staying with them.

Shopping: It’s not really a shopping destination, but I was surprised to find assault rifle stores at the shared taxi stand in town.

Optional: Balakot

From Abbottabad, I’d definitely hire a taxi driver and take a 70 km road trip to Balakot. It’s a stunning drive and will give you a taste of the epic beauty of Northern Pakistan. The same road eventually leads you to Gilgit.

Shot from the road, it's a really beautiful drive from Abbottabad to Balakot.
Shot from the road, it’s a breathtaking drive from Abbottabad to Balakot.

En route to Balakot, you’ll find a couple of excellent viewpoints to take photos at. While at Balakot, enjoy a Chapli Kebab (fried beef with bread) and chai. There’s not a whole lot to do there, and it’s definitely not a tourist destination. But it is a beautiful town on the side of the Kunhar River.

Another word of caution, India conducted an airstrike in the mountains near Balakot in 2019. Do not attempt to go anywhere near it unless you feel like being interrogated.

Watch this to decide if you want to visit Balakot or not.

Peshawar (3 days or more)

This video will give you a taste of Peshawar and all the locations I mentioned above.

Peshawar sits next to the border of Afghanistan, so it has a uniquely Pathan flavour (a predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and North-West Pakistan).

It’s the capital city and largest city in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It’s very different to Lahore and Islamabad and perhaps the most conservative part of Pakistan.

Peshawar isn’t much of a tourist town, but I recommend going there because it has unique flavours. The people, the food, the tea, the dress, the old city, it’s all very charming and unique.

A small street food market in Peshawar. Quite literally you sit on the street and eat.
A small street food market in Peshawar. Quite literally, you sit on the street and eat.

Head to the old city centre and take your own walking tour around. If you want to shop for warm clothes, head to Chitrali Bazaar, the people there come from a much colder part of Pakistan and make a lot of good quality products out of wool.

The Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) area is also very charming and worth a few hours to explore.

The streets of Chitrali Bazaar in Peshawar.
The streets of Chitrali Bazaar in Peshawar.

Don’t miss the very old school chaiwale (tea makers) located all over the city. You’ll recognise them because they’re surrounded by big copper water heaters and sitting in front of a flame where they boil with milk tea or green tea in green pots. Try the local green tea called Kahva.

Here are the tea makers I’m talking about.

Food-wise, the three most famous dishes you should try are Afghani Palau, Chapli Kebab, and lamb chops. You’ll find all these at a street food market called Namak Mandi.

Hotels: There are a lot of good hotels. I prefer to stay a little bit out of the city centre where it’s usually less crowded and more peaceful.

Shopping: There’s talk of a Smugglers’ Bazaar with goods stolen from U.S. forces in Afghanistan and also a nearby drug market. But that information seems outdated, and from news reports, it looks like the Police have cleaned that all up in the last 10 years.

Karachi (3 days or more)

Everything you need to know about Karachi’s famous Burns Road food street.

Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city and is the premier industrial and financial centre. Karachi is a bit like Delhi; it’s so massive that you need a lifetime to explore it all. I only scratched the surface.

I headed out to Mazar-e-Quaid, Jinnah’s Mausoleum. This is the final resting place of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Bags aren’t allowed.

There’s Clifton Beach and the nearby Dolmen Mall. This mall has an excellent collection of Pakistani fashion brands.

It’s a little cheesy, but if you want to have a night out and some good food, head to the broadway at Port Grand.

Hotels: Stay in the posh DHA area. It’s not in the centre of town, but it’s located within walking distance from the beach and mall.

My Pakistan itinerary map

Is Pakistan safe to travel to?

The fluorescent lights of a tea shop and grocery store light the Karakoram Highway. Photo by Diaa Hadid.
The fluorescent lights of a tea shop and grocery store light the Karakoram Highway. Photo by Diaa Hadid.

It all depends on you and how experienced you are with travelling. This is a big topic, so I’ve written an entire article on whether or not Pakistan is safe to travel to.

I’ve also written a blog series about travel safety for India, which will also be helpful for Pakistan.

How to get a SIM card in Pakistan

What a SIM card looks like in Pakistan
4G is available across Pakistan. I found Zong to have the best service.

Sim cards are easy to get in Pakistan, but there are a few catches. Only certain stores sell them to foreigners, and there’s a 60-day rule. I’ve written a whole article on it.

If this helped you, please leave a comment.

By Karl Rock

Karl Rock, is a Hindi speaking Kiwi ex-pat who take viewers behind the scenes of incredible India and its neighbours. He has visited every state and union territory in India, and its culturally similar neighbours – Pakistan and Bangladesh, and aims to make others fall in love with India and the subcontinent.

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