From some of Asia’s most breathtaking mountain scenery to hundreds of beautiful historic and religious sites, Pakistan is a thrilling and unique country. It is one of the best places in the world to explore both traditional and modern Islamic culture, with a local population so welcoming and friendly that it borders on cliche.
Pakistan was once a popular destination with a thriving tourism industry, but conflict within the past decades has relegated it to “too risky” status on many people’s travel bucket lists. However, Pakistan is not as dangerous as most people believe. Though some areas are still best avoided, the country’s cultural and natural highlights are very much safe to visit, especially on a tour.
As more and more travelers realize the potential of Pakistan, the country may soon see more development and infrastructure -- and more crowds. Now is the perfect time to discover Pakistan, and a tour with a local guide is by far the best way to do it.
Modern-day Pakistan is a relatively new country, formed from the partition that followed Indian independence in 1947. However, its cities have been major centers of learning, culture, and religion for many centuries, with majestic palaces, mosques, forts, and tombs spread around the country.
The Walled City of Lahore is World Heritage Site, most known for the beautiful Lahore Fort and its gardens. A few hours away, the city of Multan has been a major Islamist cultural hub for centuries, a tradition which continues nowadays with a stunning array of Sufi mosques, shrines, and tombs.
The ruins of Mohenjo-Daro in the south are a must-see for those interested in ancient civilizations. These remains are all that is left of one of the oldest cities in the world, part of the great Indus Valley civilization that lived in the region some 4,500 years ago.
Silk Road Tours
One of the biggest draws for tourists to Pakistan is the opportunity to travel along part of the old Silk Road on the Karakoram Highway. This stretch of road connects Islamabad with Kashgar in China, passing through some jaw-dropping mountain landscapes.
Although the road has been paved, it is still not for the faint of heart. Winding mountain roads with dramatic drops, hairpin curves, and less-than-ideal pavement conditions make for an adventurous and unforgettable drive. A benefit of taking a tour is not having to drive yourself, but prepare to be put on edge nonetheless.
For those who prefer to explore Pakistan’s mountains and valleys by foot, it can be worth getting off the Karakoram Highway itself and venturing out into the landscape. From easy, day-long hikes to one of the most dangerous peaks in the world, there are hiking and trekking opportunities for every level.
K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, sits on the border with China. Though only the most experienced of mountain climbers should attempt conquering it, there are many (less deadly) treks in the region with incredible views of K2 and the surrounding peaks.
Pakistan is the kind of country where even seasoned independent travelers will consider opting for a tour. With tourist infrastructure being far less developed than, say, neighboring India, it can be harder to simply pick up a backpack and go to Pakistan.
Best Time to Visit Pakistan
The best time to visit Pakistan is from May to October. This is because the winter brings heavy snows to the mountainous north (which is also where most tours focus on), making it almost impossible to travel within that region. Starting in September, cooler temperatures and fewer rains make early fall an ideal time to go.
Temperatures during the warm months will vary greatly depending on elevation -- 100℉ temperatures are common in Lahore and Islamabad, but certain areas of the mountains see snow in July.
What to Look for in a Tour of Pakistan
Most tours will have a specific focus, so the best tour for you will depend on what you are most interested in. If history and architecture are your thing, look for tours that promise a cultural view of the country and that focus on its cities and historical sites. If it’s jaw-dropping scenery you’re looking for, go for a tour along the Karakoram Highway.
A few tours offer a blend of both, which is ideal if you are just looking to get an overall impression of Pakistan. Most tours will tend to focus on the north of the country, where most of the major attractions are. If you are keen on seeing Mohenjo-Daro or any of the other attractions in the south, tours that leave from Karachi and make their way up the country can be a good option.
Typical Tour Cost
As with any country, the cost of your tour will depend on its length, the activities included, the quality of the accommodation, and the overall prestige of the tour operator.
Most mountain tours of Pakistan cost $2000-$2500, assuming a 10-15 day duration and stays at 3-star hotels. Tours that focus on cities tend to be cheaper, with week-long options available for around $600. There are tours designed specifically for travelers on a budget, with rates starting at $1,600 for 15 days.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
If you are visiting in summer, you will need to bring a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Pack clothes in light, breathable fabrics that allow you to stay cool without exposing too much skin to the sun and mosquitoes. If you are going into the mountains, you will need a jacket or fleece to keep you warm in high-altitude areas.
You will need sturdy, comfortable shoes that you can hike in and that won’t get too sweaty in the heat. A pair of walking sandals are a good option. For cultural visits, pack some slip-on shoes that you can easily take on and off as this is required in religious sites.
Pakistan is a conservative Muslim country, so women should pack clothes that cover their legs and arms. Even in the more cosmopolitan cities where locals may dress in a modern fashion, it is a good idea to err on the side of caution as a Western woman. A light scarf or pashmina is always a great thing to pack as it allows you to cover your head and shoulders as needed.
Don't forget to bring DEET-containing insect repellent, as you are very likely to need it. Toilets are often a hole in the ground with a bucket of water for wiping, so you may want to bring some tissues or wet wipes and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
Most hikes in Pakistan do not involve specialist equipment, so gear rental will not be an issue unless you are an experienced mountain climber planning to tackle K2.
Other Tips for Travel in Pakistan
Visitors to Pakistan are often surprised by the sheer number of checkpoints and encounters with local armed police. For the most part, your local guide will deal with the police, but you should be prepared to answer their questions if they decide to talk to you directly. Keeping a few copies of your passport and Pakistani visa on you can be helpful in case you are separated from your group or guide.
The main health risk to most travelers to Pakistan is food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea. Always drink bottled water with the seal intact, eat only peeled fruit and vegetables, avoid juices that may have been watered down with unfiltered water, and ask for drinks without ice. Any food provided as part of the tour should be safe, but you should be careful when buying food independently, particularly from street food stalls.
The CDC recommends all routine vaccinations for travelers to Pakistan, with the addition of hepatitis A, polio, and typhoid. If you are going to be traveling in rural areas (for example, if you will be hiking), they also recommend a rabies vaccine. You may also have to take malaria medication depending on where you go. Your tour operator can give you advice on medications and immunizations on your chosen itinerary.
Although many people are put off from visiting Pakistan due to political instability and terrorism, the places you are likely to visit as a tourist are generally safe. The official travel advisory for the country warns against travel to certain areas, most of which are not included in tour itineraries.
For any areas that are potentially dangerous, the government appoints free armed personal guards for visitors, which can be arranged through your tour company. You may need to take out high-risk travel insurance as well. This is because many standard travel insurance packages do not cover travel to a country with an advisory.
Female travelers in Pakistan often report harassment and groping, but only when traveling alone. As part of a tour, you should be safe from this kind of behavior.