Located just south of the Margalla Hills on the Pothohar Plateau in northern Pakistan is the city of Islamabad. The capital of Pakistan and the country’s ninth-largest city, Islamabad was built in the 1960s. Initially built to replace Karachi as Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad is now known for its greenery, safety, and high standard of living. Because of that, there are a number of amazing things to see and do in Islamabad, Pakistan.
The city was officially established on August 14, 1967, though the region has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years. Stone Age artifacts from between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago have been unearthed on the plateau, and the Indus Valley Civilization thrived there between the 23rd and 18th centuries BCE.
Today, Islamabad is a safe and peaceful middle- and upper-middle-class city. It has the highest cost of living in the country and is known for the nearly two dozen universities within its boundaries.
I explored Islamabad for two incredible days with my guide Rashid from Manaky, a travel marketplace dedicated to unique travel experiences in Pakistan. I had the most amazing time with them. The people were kind and friendly and provided me with experiences I’ll never forget. Between them, the food, and the amazing locations, exploring Islamabad was a joy. These are the top 10 things to see and do in Islamabad, Pakistan.
In the bustling F10 sector near the heart of Islamabad is Aabpara Market. This busy commercial zone is a one-stop shop for everything from clothing to live chickens to household goods to street food. It dates back to 1960, making it the city’s oldest market.
As is commonplace throughout Pakistan, the vendors are extremely friendly toward foreigners. Multiple vendors and shop owners selling gardening tools, snacks, sugarcane, and more hailed me and my guide Rashid as we explored.
It felt amazing that they were so excited to share their food and culture with me! Their friendliness alone makes visiting the market one of the best things to do in Islamabad, Pakistan.
As a foodie, there’s no way I could check out Aabpara Market without sampling some of the street food. My very first stop was a vendor selling golgappa, which is another name for the Maharashtrian snack known as pani puri.
My favorite South Asian snack of all time, golgappa consists of puris (hollow, leavened balls of crispy, fried dough) that are filled with a mixture of potatoes, chickpeas, vegetables, and a spiced water called pani.
This vendor serves the puris filled with potatoes, chutney, and dahi (yogurt), and gives you a bowl of pani on the side. You get to dip them into the pani yourself, which keeps them extra crispy!
Elsewhere, you can try a syrupy fried dough called jalebi, fried biscuits, samosas, aloo fritters, and chai. One of my favorite stops was Abbasi Dry Fruit, a stand that sells nuts, seeds, honey, and dried fruit.
I’m not a huge sweets guy, but their walnut and almond nuggets with brown sugar and cardamom were outstanding!
If you follow the four-lane Kashmir Highway, you’ll wind up at the Pakistan Monument, a memorial dedicated to national unity and the country’s heroes. The vast monument consists of four pointed minarets that bend inward toward each other. It gives off the impression of a massive, ornate lotus flower! The monument dates back to 2004 and stands atop a hill overlooking the city.
The Pakistan Monument is impressive when you view it from afar, but becomes even more stunning up close. As you get closer, you’ll see that the minarets are carved with the likenesses of a number of historical figures and national landmarks.
Behind the monument are flags and a viewpoint where you can enjoy stunning vistas of the city. Mountains rise up in the distance behind it, and you can even spot a number of landmarks, including Faisal Mosque. I also suggest checking out the nearby Pakistan Monument Museum and Souvenir and Tuck Shop if you have time.
The cost to visit the monument is only 250 rupees/$1.60 USD. It’s open every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., but I suggest visiting early to avoid crowds.
Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory
Just a two-minute drive from Aabpara Market is another street food haven called Melody Food Street. This road is lined with tons of restaurants and street food vendors, and comes alive at night!
The very first vendor I came across sold some deliciously crunchy samosas (crunchy, deep-fried pastries usually filled with a potato filling) and vegetable fritters called pakoras. I also came across others selling freshly filleted raw fish coated in masala, kebabs, chicken chargha, and a guy selling several varieties of paan at Rana Bhai Shahi Paandan Waly.
The paan is a street food snack that also acts as a stimulant and a digestive. It consists of a mix of seeds, nuts, dried fruits, and other ingredients rolled up in a betel leaf. The vendor shoves the whole thing in your mouth and tosses rose petals over you afterward!
Visible from multiple vantage points around Islamabad is one of its most prominent landmarks, Faisal Masjid Islamabad. Better known as Faisal Mosque, this Turkish-style mosque is part of a massive complex. The complex also includes a book shop, a fountain, and more.
A Saudi king, whom the mosque is named after, donated $28 million to build Faysal Mosque in 1976. The end result was a gorgeous, white triangular main building, inspired by a bedouin tent. The main building is flanked by four 260-foot-tall minarets, each topped with a half moon.
It’s the largest mosque I’ve ever visited! Unfortunately, I arrived in the middle of prayer time, so I couldn’t go inside. If you want to go inside, be sure to look up prayer times before you go so you know when you’re free to walk around.
As with all mosques, you must remove your shoes before you enter the building. I also suggest browsing the book shop, which is full of books about Islam. And if you’re hungry, there are vendors outside selling dried chickpeas!
Faisal Masjid Islamabad
Shah Faisal Ave, E-8
Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory 44000
As I explored Melody Food Street with Rashid, I ran into my friend Sulmeen, who runs Manaky, the travel marketplace I partnered with on this trip. She immediately took me to one of her favorite spots in the city, Butt Karahi.
Butt Karahi is a restaurant chain that started in Lahore and has recently expanded to Karachi and Islamabad. There are now multiple locations in the city. They’re famous for their karahi, a pan-fried dish that consists of meat and vegetables in a dense, rich gravy. I highly recommend their chicken karahi cooked in butter, fried mutton chops, garlic naan, kaljoni naan, and chicken tikka.
I enjoyed the well-done mutton chops, which were full of flavor, especially close to the bone, and had a nice char on them. The chicken tikka blew me away with the way it fell apart in my mouth. The chicken seekh kebabs were also excellent and paired well with the fennel-rich kaljoni naan!
But my favorite dish was definitely the chicken karahi. It contained hearty, meaty chunks of fresh chicken in a rich gravy made up of oil, ginger, coriander, and red chilies. The karahi was downright heavenly with the garlic naan.
Adding some of the provided raw onions gives the karahi a powerful, acidic kick. My favorite chicken meat in the dish was the chicken neck, which had a very different flavor from the drumstick and breast meat.
Don’t let the karahi gravy go to waste! I suggest adding some to every dish, which further enriches and enhances their flavors. As far as food goes, it’s one of the best things to do in Islamabad!
One of my favorite places I got to explore in Islamabad is Saidpur Village, located just 10 minutes outside the city. This peaceful, beautiful village was founded over 500 years ago by the Afghan king Mirza Fateh Ali. The king supposedly saw a beautiful spring and bountiful land where fruits and vegetables grew, and decided to build a village there!
At over half a millenia old, Saidpur Village is one of the oldest villages in Pakistan. It’s a great place to learn about local history, and is also a good place to grab some food!
One of the village’s more vibrant locations is Des Pardes, a restaurant with covered bungalows and outdoor seating. Its friendly name, which translates to “guests and locals unite,” matches the atmosphere, which offers comfortable mats, pillows, and sofas to their patrons.
The level of comfort also matches the quality of their menu. A crisp salad with creamy and herbal raita is a great way to kick off a meal, but the heartier dishes are the stars here. Their oily, mutton-rich handi gosht was phenomenal with the garlic naan, which had a texture similar to a pizza crust. Try it with some raita!
If you love lentils, their buttery makhani daal is also excellent. By itself, it’s outstanding, but when you pair it with the naan and mix in the handi gosht, it becomes an almost transcendent experience. Hands down, it was one of the best food experiences I had in Pakistan.
Best of all, the cozy decor invites you to lie down and relax after your meal. Don’t be surprised if you fall asleep—it’s really comfortable! To top it all off, the restaurant owner gave me a gift as I was leaving!
Not far from the restaurant, you can explore more of the historical and cultural side of Saidpur Village. There, you’ll find Gurdwara Singh Sabah, a white-and-yellow Sikh temple that dates back 500 years or so.
The gurdwara stands next to Rama Mandir, a gorgeous 16th-century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Rama. The temple contains a beautiful courtyard and boasts amazing arches and artwork. It’s amazing to see both houses of worship stand side by side! Seeing them is one of the best things to do in Islamabad, Pakistan!
In the village, you’ll also find the Art & Craft Gallery, where you’ll find a number of shops and craft vendors. They sell handmade jewelry, paintings, handmade tea sets, bottles, and much more. You’ll see lots of antique-style silver jewelry, which makes for great souvenirs for your friends and loved ones!
When you’re a busy traveler with a packed itinerary, it’s important to start your morning with great food to fuel you for the day. There are few better places to do that than Chatta’s Authentic Pakistani Food Restaurant.
If the weather is nice, I suggest enjoying their puri, halwa, aloo, pickles, and chana on their rooftop terrace. These types of puri are different from the small, crunchy ones used for pani puri. These puris are much larger, softer, and flakier, and are the perfect vehicle for grabbing and transferring food to your mouth.
Try a bit of everything separately first, and then start mixing. The puri, halwa, and chana combination is a favorite of mine, as the sugary semolina in the halwa and the savory, tomato-based chickpea chana give you a nice sweet-and-savory flavor.
The smooth aloo, or potatoes, also pair well with the airy puri. Add some pickles for a spicy and acidic punch! And, as is customary, wash it all down with a piping hot cup of chai. It’s one of the best ways to start your day and one of my favorite things to do in Islamabad, Pakistan!
Plaza 1 N, Street 14, Tariq Market
2 Street 14, F-10/2 F 10/2 F-10
Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory
In the beautiful Margalla Hills just north of Islamabad is a hill and viewpoint called Daman-e-Koh Park. The site, whose name is a combination of two Persian words that together translate to “foothills,” is a favorite among locals.
Daman-e-Koh offers a panoramic view of the city and several of its top attractions and is also a fairground-like area with games and rides. The area is frequented by monkeys and occasional cheetahs have been known to enter the park. There are also a number of street food vendors who sell a wide variety of Pakistani treats!
One of my favorites is the dahi bhalle. This creamy and crunchy snack consists of a broken-down samosa that’s topped with tomatoes, potatoes, chana, cucumber, onions, a potato fritter, rose jelly, and yogurt. It also has a bit of spice to it!
Vendors there also sell pani puri. Usually, when you have pani puri, the puris are fairly small. That way, the vendors can sell you more of them. They also come in many varieties—some are minty, while others can be spicy, sweet, or just savory.
This pani puri was one of the more unique variations I’ve had on the street. The puri is quite large, so you you have to take a pretty huge bite to eat it in one go. It was also sweet, as it contained some delicious and tangy tamarind chutney, which I liked a lot!
If you love street food as much as I do, Daman-e-Koh is a must. It’s one of the top things to see and do in Islamabad, Pakistan for a reason!
Daman -e- Koh Rd, E-7
Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory
Back in the F10 Markaz area in the heart of Islamabad, you’ll find a wide range of restaurants and street food vendors. Among the most popular is Nagina Burger Point, which I learned is quite famous! Here, they sell burgers that they grill and toast on a large griddle right on the street. I went with their toasted beef burger, which comes with a salad, potato fritter, scrambled egg, ketchup, raita, and sauces on the side.
The burger is almost like a cross between an American burger and a panini. The toasted bread is incredible, and all of the additional toppings made it hearty, crunchy, and bursting with flavor. It’s also very messy, though—the sauces, raita, and salad make it a gooey mess—but it’s one of the best burgers I’ve ever had!
Nagina Burger Point
M2V7+Q95, F-10 Markaz F 10/4 F-10
Islamabad, Islamabad Capital Territory
If you work with Manaky during your trip through Pakistan, you’ll get to enjoy unique privileges unavailable to most travelers. The head of Manaky, Sulmeen, is great friends with Saman Ansari, an acclaimed Pakistani actress known for her dramatic TV and film work and theater productions. If you book with Manaky, you get to enjoy a meal prepared by her!
For this one-of-a-kind experience, Sulmeen took me to a secret location in Islamabad, which happened to be the home of a famous Pakistani chef. There, I met Saman’s best friend, Ayesha, and the legendary actress herself!
Saman was warm and friendly, and fascinating and surprisingly funny! I loved hearing her tell stories about her life and travels as she prepared dishes like dum qeema, soya aloo, dal, and raita. Her expertise in the kitchen, and the hospitality of everyone involved, was incredible.
Everything she made was exceptional, especially the dum qeema. The meat, ghee, onions, garlic, and yogurt were incredible, and the addition of red chilies, cumin, and coriander made it even more savory with a small amount of spice! I also couldn’t get over the dill and potatoes in the soya aloo!
By the time the night ended with tea and story swapping, I was full and feeling very warm and fuzzy. I couldn’t help but, after the hospitality they showed me. You can enjoy this experience yourself if you book with Manaky. It’s one of the most exclusive activities you can have in Islamabad, Pakistan!
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a huge sweets person. But in South Asia, sweets are huge business, so I always indulge a bit when I’m traveling there. One of the best spots to try sugary Pakistani snacks is Jamil Sweets, which sells roughly 25 different confections!
As you scan their display cases, you’ll see everything from laddu to rasgulla to gulab jamun to kaju farfi. My friend Sulmeen and I decided to get a mix, starting with khopra mithai, a dense and crumbly sweet that’s extremely rich in coconut!
I also enjoyed the kaju barfi, which contained cashews and had edible silver foil on the outside. One of my favorites is the gulab jamun, which are condensed, doughy milk balls drowned in sugar syrup. The hot sugar syrup and decadent milk ball was a sugar overload in the best way possible! Trying one is among the top things to do in Islamabad, so jump on it!
Between its remarkable food, incredible people, and unique sites, Islamabad is the type of city any traveler will treasure. The 48 hours I spent there were a whirlwind and I found myself wishing I’d had more time to dive further into the local culture. It’s one of my favorite cities in Pakistan, and the memories I made there are things I will never forget. Book a trip today to experience the top 10 things to see and do in Islamabad, Pakistan soon!
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