Despite being blessed with jaw-dropping scenery and well-preserved historical sites, Pakistan has long been written off as a travel destination by all but the most hard-core adventurers. But as the country’s security situation has stabilized in recent years, its domestic tourism industry has come back stronger than ever, and statistics show that foreign tourism is following suit.
Here, snow-capped peaks tower above remnants of some of the world’s first civilizations. Pakistan is home to a unique brand of hospitality that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. And unlike its highly-trafficked neighbors to the east and north, you can spend weeks in the country without encountering another traveler. Combine this with locals who are genuinely happy to see and welcome travelers, and you’ll come to understand why this South Asian nation is truly one of the final frontiers of immersive adventure travel.
In a few months, you can definitely see a very good chunk of Pakistan, and experience a whole lot, too. But for those limited on time, or who really want to come across a specific aspect of Pakistani culture, you’re going to want to make sure your itinerary is focused on just the right spots. These are the best places to visit in Pakistan for every type of traveler, along with a bit of Pakistan travel advice to take with you.
How to get a visa to visit Pakistan
Pakistan’s e-Visa system, which was introduced in 2019, makes getting a visa to Pakistan a quick and relatively easy process. Americans and many other nationalities have the option of either getting a traditional tourist visa, or what’s called a “Visa in your inbox.”
The latter requires you to submit a request for travel 24 to 72 hours before your flight, where you’ll also need to include your hotel booking or a Letter of Invitation from a tour company or a personal friend. Approval can take anywhere from moments to a full day, but once it does you’re free to head out, and you’ll be granted a 30-day stay once you arrive in Pakistan.
For longer trips, it’s best to apply for a regular tourist visa. Currently, the best visa one can obtain is a one-year, multiple-entry visa good for 90-day maximum stays, for $90. This visa allows you to leave and enter Pakistan an unlimited amount of times within a one-year period. The duration means that you can stay in the country for 90 days each time before needing to either apply for an extension or leave.
Though it is said to be officially substituted by a confirmed hotel booking, most travelers to Pakistan report the best visa results using a Letter of Invitation written by a registered tour company. This is especially true if you’re requesting a multi-entry visa. Keep in mind that you do not need to actually be on a tour to receive a letter.
Pakistan visa extensions
Unbeknownst to most, Pakistan is an underrated long-term travel/digital nomad destination, as it allows travelers to extend their visas many times. Like your initial visa, extensions are also done online and cost $20 regardless of your nationality or desired duration. This allows you to request a specific duration of extension of up to six months or, in some cases, longer.
While you might be able to get away without including one, it’s best to attach an Extension-specific letter, which can be acquired from a registered tour operator. Keep in mind that the online visa system is not without its difficulties. Travelers often report not getting the duration they asked for, even with all supporting documents. This is frustrating, but on the bright side, extensions are quite cheap.
I recommend Adventure Planners Pakistan. I have used them numerous times for Extension-specific letters. They’re established, and provide client-specific LOIs in less than 24 hours of payment.
Travel to Pakistan from the USA
If you’re wondering whether or not Americans can travel to Pakistan, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Unlike Iran, which requires US citizens to be on a fully-guided tour, American travelers can freely and independently enjoy all that Pakistan has to offer.
Despite what you may have heard from the media, Pakistanis DO NOT hate Americans. Certain people may dislike the American government, but that’s not directed at citizens, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll encounter any animosity at all. I have lived in Pakistan for several years now and have witnessed American travelers of all ages experience the same hospitality and kindness that nationals of any other country receive.
Moreover, it’s important to note that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis and people of Pakistani descent live in America, and the two countries are official allies, thus making it very easy to travel to Pakistan from the US. The best airlines to fly from the US to Pakistan include Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Turkish Airlines.
American citizens who possess a valid Indian or Chinese visa can also – in non-Covid times – enter Pakistan by land via the Wagah and Khunjerab borders, respectively. Whether you choose to enter Pakistan on foot or by air, the entry process is extremely easy and no different than entering any other country.
The best place in Pakistan for families: Islamabad
As Pakistan’s capital and cleanest city, Islamabad is the perfect place to visit in Pakistan for families. The green capital, which was established in 1967, is the most modern city in Pakistan and makes for an easy start to any trip.
While typically considered sterile by adventure travelers, for families (especially those with kids) Islamabad is ideal. It’s surrounded by the towering Margalla Hills and sits in the moorland of the famous Himalayas. Margalla has numerous hiking trails for all ability levels, and the city itself is graced with numerous parks perfect for play or relaxation. Uber and the local transport apps, such as Careem and InDriver, are also available on-demand, making getting around the city hassle-free.
Islamabad is home to its fair share of must-visit sites, including the Faisal Mosque, which is famous for its unique design and impressive size. Families can also enjoy the Daman e Koh viewpoint which offers sweeping views of the capital as well as entertainment and food.
For families with older kids looking to delve a bit deeper into Pakistan’s culture and history, a day trip to “sister city” Rawalpindi, which is only a 40-minute drive, will surely satisfy those cravings.
We hope you love the Pakistan accommodations we recommend! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a stay. Listed prices are accurate as of the time of publication.
Recommended accommodations in Islamabad
The best place in Pakistan for solo female travelers: Phander Valley
Solo female travel in Pakistan might sound daunting at first, but a stay in the dreamscape that is Phander Valley will make it seem easy. The peaceful village in the north of the country is one of the safest places in Pakistan, and the locals are just as fantastic as the views.
Unlike other regions of Gilgit Baltistan, Phander has yet to fall prey to mass tourism, which means you’ll likely have turquoise-blue lakes, fields of fluffy cows, and many a viewpoint practically all to yourself.
Locals in Phander are both welcoming and extremely tolerant. While you should still employ typical solo-female-safety tips, it’s a place in Pakistan where people return wallets filled with cash and go well out of their way to help travelers.
You can either camp at the stunning lake of the same name, or opt for one of the many budget-friendly guesthouses along the road. The slow pace of Phander is what makes it so appealing, and while the place remains largely unheard of in western circles, it’s not uncommon to meet other adventurous travelers who are also looking to see what the “Land of Lakes” – a common term for the region that encapsulates Phander – is all about.
Phander is remote and simple and does not yet have a presence on any booking sites, but I highly recommend travelers stay at Lake Inn, which costs about $12 per night and is clean, comfortable, and has a helpful owner.
For information on how to move about Pakistan and reach villages and destinations beyond the major cities, see Matador’s guide on what to know before visiting Pakistan.
The best place in Pakistan for foodies and history buffs: Lahore
“Lahore Lahore Hai” translates to “Lahore is Lahore” in Urdu, and essentially means that there is no place quite like the bonafide cultural capital of Pakistan. In regards to this South Asian country, truer words have never been spoken from a foodie or history perspective. You can’t quite find a gastronomic culture quite as vibrant, cheap, and accessible as Lahore’s. And encountering historical sites as well preserved as Lahore’s might prove even more of a challenge.
The artsy city was a stronghold of the Mughal Empire from 1524 to 1752, and what remains is in exceptional condition. Lahore’s Wazir Khan Mosque, Jahangir’s Tomb, and the Sheesh Mahal inside of the Lahore Fort all stand out as top historical places not just in Lahore, but in the entire country. The Wazir Khan mosque, in particular, features exquisite frescoes originally painted in the 1600s.
From shrines to forts, Lahore has all you can want from a historical perspective. But its food scene isn’t far behind. From adventurous eats like paya (hoof stew – trust that it tastes a whole lot better than it sounds) to Pakistani favorites like chicken karahi and halwa puri, you can find anything in Lahore at virtually any time. The best places to try these dishes are at street corner stalls – keep an eye out for busy stalls that are bustling with locals.
The city is also one for variety and cheap prices. It’s a place where you’ll discover street food haunts that have been out and about since the 60s interwoven with upscale Western-style restaurants. While other cities can certainly hold their own in regards to Pakistani cuisine and history – looking at you here Karachi and Peshawar – what can be found in Lahore is a combination that is unique to the city’s history of multiple conquests and liberations.
Recommended accommodations in Lahore
The best place in Pakistan for hikers: Skardu
Pakistan’s innumerable peaks and glaciers are the best-kept secrets of the alpine world, and they comprise enough trails and summits to keep even the most diehard trekkers busy for years. The country is home to not one but three of the world’s greatest mountain ranges: the Karakorams, Himalayas, and the lesser-known Hindu Kush.
While there are intensely beautiful and nearly empty trails to be found all over regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, for the absolute best hikes in Pakistan, head to Skardu. The mountain city is the perfect place to arrange and embark on a wide variety of seriously epic adventures.
For a tough but worthwhile day hike, aim for Masur Rock, a viewpoint that gives exceptional views of Skardu City and beyond. For mid-level hikers, a two-to-three-day expedition to the flawless Laila Peak Basecamp should be at the top of your list. Companies including Chogori Adventure offer guided treks that start at $1,100 per person. This includes lodging before and after the trek, airport transfer, and most meals.
These two can easily be arranged on your own, but the real heavy-hitters are the treks that lie in the awe-inspiring Central Karakoram National Park, a restricted area for foreigners. To visit, you’re going to need some permits, and most likely a registered guide, too. Fees include a “peak fee,” which varies depending on the trek, a trekking permit that costs $50 per person, and an expedition permit that costs $200 per expedition. These fees do not include any charges set forth by the guide. Apply for the permits, identify and research guides, and pay fees via the park’s website.
Famous treks that require such pre-planning include K2 Basecamp, which allows you to get up close and personal with the world’s second tallest mountain, and Snow Lake, a trek that will give you the opportunity to cross the massive Biafo Glacier and camp atop a glacial basin underneath millions of stars. You’ll also want to hit Trango Towers, a collection of giant rock monoliths in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Recommended accommodations in Skardu
The best place in Pakistan for beach lovers: Karachi
You might have heard that Pakistan has some pretty cool mountains, but what about beaches? The country also has hundreds of miles of coastline, which is best enjoyed in and around Karachi.
As Pakistan’s largest city and financial capital, Karachi is lively, to say the least. But what makes it the perfect place in Pakistan for a day in the sand is the fact that it’s teeming with stunning swaths of coastline. Most well-known is Clifton Beach, which most closely resembles a carnival scene complete with scores of camels, go-karts, and shiny horses, all available for riding.
While Clifton isn’t the cleanest place in the world to swim, fear not, as lots of swimming-friendly seashores exist within two hours of the city center. French Beach is a particularly posh locale filled with trendy huts to relax in and “be seen,” and some of the cleanest seawater in Karachi. This beach is particularly progressive, and even bikinis are acceptable – a rarity in the country.
A few minutes from French Beach, you can catch some other clean and swimmable beaches like Hawkesbay, Turtle, and Sandspit beaches.
The real highlight of Karachi’s beach scene takes a bit more effort to reach, but comes with a huge reward. Deep in the dry, rural countryside two hours from the city is a completely uncommercialized fishing village, and the acclaimed Mubarek. Here, soft golden sand and bright blue water are sandwiched in between arid hills that will make you feel like you’re across the Arabian Sea in Oman.
Unfortunately, public transit doesn’t exist here, which though frustrating, also protects the area from over-tourism. Recently, apps like EzHire have joined the market for moderate daily rates, meaning that you can enjoy this must-see Karachi beach at your own convenience. If you make it there, be sure you hike up to the viewpoint all the way on the left, where you can also visit a local mazar (shrine.)
Recommended accommodations in Karachi
The best place in Pakistan for general travel: Hunza Valley
Hunza Valley is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in Pakistan and also one of the easiest places to travel in, too. Whether you’re a young family, a retiree, or a mountaineer looking to bag a peak, Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan absolutely has something for you.
The culture of the valley is unlike anywhere else in Pakistan, and the people of the central part of the valley even speak a language so isolated that’s been unable to be tied to any others. Situated along the wondrous Karakoram Highway, a visit to Hunza means getting to know a unique culture, savoring organic fruits, getting up close with jaw-dropping scenery, and so much more depending upon your interests.
Aside from its natural beauty, the region also has the highest literacy rate in the entire country and is known for its welcoming and tolerant local people. Even alcohol is widely brewed and consumed by locals. And while you’ll still want to avoid shorts, the general dress code is much more relaxed in Hunza.
Unless you travel by plane, reaching this Pakistani paradise does take a bit of dedication. But for as little as $12 and about 24 hours, you’ll leave the chaos of the cities behind and find yourself in a stadium of the country’s most beautiful mountains. From Skardu or Gilgit, you can take a taxi (see Rome2Rio). If coming from one of the major cities in Pakistan, you will likely need to fly into either Skardu or Gilgit.
Recommended accommodations in Hunza Valley
What to do in Pakistan
For the typical traveler who wants to experience the very best of the country on the quick, here are some of the coolest things to do in Pakistan:
- Spend time in a local home: Pakistanis are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever encounter, and it won’t be long before you’re receiving invitations for chai, accommodation, and more. While it might seem strange to hang out with a random stranger, know that these are the experiences that make Pakistan so much more than just a place with epic mountains. Welcoming guests is deeply ingrained in local culture, so know these invitations are genuine and the best way to get to know real Pakistanis.
- Hike to Fairy Meadows in Gilgit-Baltistan: The most popular hike in the country has truly earned its top spot. The lush meadow, which can only be reached by a combination of a perilous jeep ride followed by a two-to-three-hour trek, gives unparalleled views of Nanga Parbat, which is the world’s ninth highest peak, and dubbed the “Killer Mountain.” If you’re into trekking, you can even keep going to the mountain’s basecamp with a tour operator such as Apricot Tours.
- Try dumba karahi: If you’re looking for a culinary experience that you’ll remember forever, look no further than what just might be Pakistan’s most delicious dish, dumba karahi. Dumba is a specialty of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and consists of the extremely tender – and very delicious – tail meat of a dumba sheep, a species known for their large behinds. Unlike many dishes in Pakistan, which tend to be too spicy for foreign tastebuds, dumba is traditionally made in a style of cooking that forgoes chilies. The most authentic dumba karahi can be found in and around Peshawar, though all major cities have restaurants that serve it.
- Celebrate a local festival: Pakistanis sure know how to party, and few events can provide more cultural immersion than attending and taking part in a big holiday. There are dozens upon dozens of them throughout the year, but the easiest ones to participate in are Eid ul Azha ( a three-day celebration of sacrifice taking place in July) and Eid Milad un Nabi (the birthday of Prophet Muhammad in October). Both are celebrated with fervor and welcome all comers in the old sections of major cities like Lahore and Rawalpindi.