Islamabad, Pakistan

Photo: Imrankhakwani, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

How do you approach a city you never expected to visit? Extensive research, in an attempt to understand the history and the people, is one tactic. Networking, to find friends or friends of friends who have spent a lot of time there, is another. Or you can dive right in and allow the sights, the sounds, and the tastes to guide the way. You usually follow the last strategy.

You decide to stick with it for Islamabad. Yes, you’re heading to Pakistan. The City of Islam is the capital of the South Asian country. It was planned and laid out in a grid pattern when it replaced Karachi for its strategic position in 1963. So, despite the area being one of the earliest human settlements in Asia, the city is relatively young. That means its mosques, museums, monuments, and universities are, too. Add a high standard of living, lots of greenery, and some of the best hotels and restaurants in the country for a surprisingly modern capital.

The best way to begin to understand Islamabad is from high above. The city sits on the northern border of the Pothohar Plateau. The Margalla Hills, which are considered the foothills of the Himalayas, rise from the edge of it. The hills, along with Shakarparian (an amusement park on another hill) and Rawal Lake (an artificial reservoir), form Margalla Hills National Park. The fourth-largest urban park in the world is home to barking deer, Himalayan gorals, and endangered leopards. More than 30 well-marked hiking trails also wind through it.

Trail 3 is the oldest and most famous path in these hills. The oldest is never a problem. That signals it’s beaten the test of time. You usually try to avoid the most popular places, though. They’re usually too crowded for your comfort level. But given how unfamiliar you are with Islamabad, you’re willing to make an exception. Trail 3, here you come.

For such a well-worn trail, this one is shockingly steep. Trail 3 starts along Margalla Road. It takes about 45 minutes on the dirt path to reach the viewpoint. After catching your breath, you’ll stare in awe at the Faisal Mosque, the largest mosque in South Asia, before trying to find other landmarks in relation to it. The rest of the trail may be longer, but it’s also easier. It leads to Pir Sohawa, two restaurants, and seven large decks with plenty of seating. The Monal is where you’ll want to be as the sun starts to set. As the sky turns from pink to purple to gray, the lights in the valley below start to flicker on. They give the city a magical glow that never fails to captivate first-time visitors. Islamabad wins over another skeptic.

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