Islamabad is a charming city that looks onto lush green hills and enjoys mild weather. It lies in the north-east of the country, on the Pothohar Plateau, in the area traditionally part of the Pakistan Punjab area.
This noise-free capital is one of the best planned cities in South Asia. It was built in the 1960s to replace Karachi. It was planned in a triangular shape with a grid system by a Greek architect firm and is divided neatly into sectors and zones. The nearby city of Rawalpindi is considered its sister city.
Islamabad is mainly home to governmental and diplomatic offices. It was once predominantly populated by government employees but is now becoming an important financial and business hub, as well as a university city, with the highest literacy rate in the country. The city is also becoming more relaxed with establishments staying open longer, nightlife kicking off, and international businesses opening their branches.
The city is blessed with lovely surrounding scenery and is a good base to explore the coast and the mountains of the Himalayas. Among the city’s attractions is the Faisal Mosque given to the city by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and is the largest mosque in South Asia. Also not to be missed are the Shakarparian Hills, Murghzar Zoo, and Rawal Lake.
Islamabad has a humid subtropical climate. Summers can be very hot and winters quite cool. During the peak summer months, temperatures can climb as high as 47 degrees Celsius, whereas during the coldest periods they can plunge to –4, but these are extremes. Summers are very long and hot, the hottest months are May, June and July. The monsoon season takes place during July and August when the city experiences heavy rainfall. Winters last from October to March and are relatively cold and influenced by snowfall in the nearby mountains.
January average temperature 8 deg Celsius 58 mm rainfall February average temperature 11 deg Celsius, 53 mm rainfall March average temperature 16 deg Celsius, 69 mm rainfall April average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 41 mm rainfall May average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 41 mm rainfall June average temperature 31 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall July average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 257 mm rainfall August average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 224 mm rainfall September average temperature 26 deg Celsius, 97 mm rainfall October average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 25 mm rainfall November average temperature 15 deg Celsius, 18 mm rainfall December average temperature 10 deg Celsius, 41 mm rainfall
Islamabad’s international gateway is the Benazir Bhutto International Airport which serves 34 airlines and has connections to major destinations around the world.
Car rental and public transportation are available.
There are numerous taxis in the city, and they are generally safe. Prices depend on your bargaining skill and the number of sectors traveled. Ask the locals about the normal rates. Note that at night these are higher. It is best to negotiate the price beforehand.
Renting a car is a good way of getting around. Only main roads are equipped with signs but the rest of the city is organized with a comprehensible grid system of streets. Cars can be hired together with drivers.
The public bus network is extensive and served by several operators.
Margalla Hills is a national park situated at the foot of the Himalayas. It includes the Margalla Range, the Rawal Lake, and the Shakarparian Hills. The national park is easily accessible from the capital and offers numerous hiking trails and is a bird-lovers’ paradise. The park is home to an abundance of wildlife: leopard, wild boar, deer, jackal, red fox, vultures, eagles, hawks, just naming a few.
FISHING AT THE RAWAL LAKE
An artificial lake providing water for the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi is located in the secluded Margalla Hills National Park and covers an area of 8.8 square kilometers. It is a popular recreation spot with several picnic sites, gardens and walking trails. The lake is ideal for boating, sailing, fishing, diving and water skiing.
The terraced garden 600 meters high offers a stunning panorama of the nearby hills, the Rawal Lake, as well as the capital and the neighboring city.
The largest mosque in Pakistan and South Asia was envisaged as the national mosque. Its covers an area encompassing 5,000 m2 and can accommodate around 300,000 worshippers. It has four minarets, the tallest in the South Asia, measuring 80 meters in height. The mosque is named after the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and was designed by the famous Turkish architect, Vedat Dalokay. It lies at the foot of the hills at the northern end of the city and dominates the city skyline. Its design is a mixture of contemporary and traditional. Dress modestly as this is primarily a worshipping site, not a tourist attraction.
The panoramic lookout is an ideal place to spend an afternoon or evening. From there you can get splendid views of the city. It features several good restaurants, as well as lush natural surroundings and numerous hiking trails.
The Murghzar Mini Zoo is located at the foot of Daman-e-Koh viewpoint. It was the present from Japan. The zoo features over 300 animals. The Pakistan Museum of Natural History and Japanese Park are also located in the vicinity.
ROSE AND JASMINE GARDEN
The 20 hectare rose garden is famous for its variety. It features 250 different varieties of roses and dozens of types of Jasmines. The site holds several flower shows annually – especially during the spring.
Located in the nearby city of Rawalpindi, the bazaar is a mesmerizing place where you can spend hours upon hours in its colorful streets.
In Islamabad you can find restaurants of international cuisines including Western fast food chains. Pakistani traditional food has a distinctive taste, mixing North Indian and the Mughal cuisine. Pakistan fare is not oriented towards vegetarians, to say the least. Its staples are meat, meat and more meat.
The Nirvana café
Address: St 99 in G6/4 (near Afghan Embassy)
Situated in a former Turkish Embassy residence, the restaurant offers East and South Asian fusion cuisine.
Located in Khosar Market, this simple cozy establishment offers Asian and European home cooking.
Located in Chak Shahzad, this restaurant is somewhat removed from the town as it requires 20 minutes’ drive but is well worth it. It is a private farmhouse with personalized décor, relaxed atmosphere and outside seating in a fabulous garden.
Located in the Marriot Hotel, the restaurant offers authentic Thai food and live Thai music.
The restaurant will satiate every carnivore’s desire, offering meat Afghan style.
Western fast food chains are also available. These include KFC, MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Subway and are mostly dotted in and around the Super & Jinnah Supermarkets.
This is the biggest Muslim festival celebrated all over Pakistan, held at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It is celebrated on the first day of the 10th month of the Islamic Calendar. People exchange gifts and sweets and give alms to the poor.
Eid Ul Azha
Another huge religious festival, Eid Ul Azha is also known as the Festival of Sacrifice. It falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhul Hijja of the lunar Islamic calendar. Celebrations last for three days during which time sheep, goat or cows are sacrificed, commemorating Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his son Ismael as an act of obedience to God. The event also marks the end of Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, carried out by thousands of Muslims every year.
It is a religious festival held on the 14th day of the Shaaban, (8th Islamic month). People celebrate with special Prayers, visiting friends and family and exchange sweets. It is believed that on the night of Shab-e-Barat Allah decides ones destiny for the year to come based on past actions.
Date: March 23
The holiday commemorates the anniversary of the Pakistan state passed by the Muslims of South Asia on March 23, 1940 at Minto Park. A grand parade is held in Islamabad.
Date: first week of October Location: various venues
Lok Mela is a well known festival of folk culture, including music and dance performances, music contests, and the highlight: the exhibition and sale of handicrafts.
It is prohibited to drink alcohol in public. Alcohol is served in bars at several top-end hotels. You can obtain a special permit: i.e. a ‘non-Muslim declaration’ at the local police, allowing you to buy wine and beer.
The Potohar Plateau where Islamabad is situated is considered to be one of the earliest human settlements in Asia. Evidence was found of prehistoric culture and human remains dating back to 5,000 BC, proving the area was settled in the Stone Age. Findings also revealed the existence of a Buddhist town on the site of the present-day Rawalpindi. The area of Islamabad was a strategic location and was often in the way of invading armies pushing on the Indian subcontinent, and was passed by armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur and Ahmad Shah Durrani throughout history. The setting of today’s Islamabad was based on the settlement of Saidpur, an important trading town. In 1849 the British seized the region from the Sikhs and built Asia’s largest cantonment.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
Pakistan emerged in 1947 with the capital in Karachi – its largest town and country’s only port. From there the capital moved to Rawalpindi and then to Islamabad. The decision to build Islamabad arose in 1958 under President Ayub Khan. After extensive studies into climate, location, logistics, and defense requirements the location of the new capital was chosen. In addition to being better positioned and easily accessible from all parts of the country, the new capital was also nearer to Kashmir, a conflict area in the North. The city was designed by a Greek architect firm Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis which envisaged its triangular shape based on a Grid plan, with the apex towards the Margalla Hills. Construction begun in 1961 and grew slowly, sector by sector. There are eight zones: the diplomatic enclave, the commercial district, the educational sector, the industrial area, etc, each equipped with its own shopping area and park. The first residents moved there in 1963 and Islamabad was officially inaugurated on 26 October 1966, when the first office building was occupied.
Since it was established, Islamabad has soaked up people from all over the country, becoming a true cosmopolitan center of Pakistan. Today the city is still expanding, with new roads and commercial buildings emerging all the time.
Pakistan is largely Islamic but its population is comprised of South Asian as well as British cultures and English is widely spoken. There are vast differences between the classes, with middle class virtually non-existent, leaving just the upper-middle class and the lower class.
The accepted greeting is “As-Salamu Alaykum” and the reply is “Wa alaikum As-Salam.” Men greet by handshake, often with the left hand placed over the heart. A man would greet a woman with his left hand over his heart and a slight bow but no handshake – people of the opposite sex do not shake hands when greeting. Avoid public displays of affection. Women should avoid prolonged eye contact with men as this will be seen as sexual advancement. Women will be spoken to through a man.
Women should dress conservatively, avoid tights clothes and keep arms and legs covered. Men should avoid wearing shorts. Hospitality is very important here: If you are invited to someone’s home it is polite to bring a gift. This may be anything from flowers to sweets. Women should be presented the gift through a male relative. Do not give alcohol. Remember to give and receive gifts with both hands.
The city is generally calm and safe but there are certain precautions that should be heeded. Pick pocketing is not prevalent but it does occur, especially in crowded areas such as stations and markets. Avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations as they can become dangerous. Do not wander around alone at night, especially women. Remain in well-lit, public areas.
Dress conservatively. Do not wear shorts. Women should cover their arms and legs. Women should not look anyone directly in the eyes, but rather look at the ground. Dink bottled water. Avoid ice in your drinks if you suspect the hygiene in an establishment.
Photography: Do not take photographs of the military establishments, airports or structures such as dams and bridges. Do not take photos from inside aircraft either. The penalties can be severe.
Tipping: Hotels and restaurants add a 5-10% service charge, but tipping is still acceptable.
Health: There are three major hospitals in the city: the Pakistan Institute of medical sciences (PIMS) located next to G-8 Markaz, Shifa International Hospital in H-8/4 and Poly Clinic in sector G-6. In addition, every sector has various private clinics that offer medical services at different prices. The most reliable drug stores are Shaheen Chemists and D. Watson, which can be found in the Blue Area and Super Market (F-6).
Taxi: ask locals about the usual cab prices, as drivers are known to charge foreigners extortionate amounts of money.
Check with the local US embassy for the most up to date news and alerts.