Chaotic Lahore, Pakistan, Charms Tourists with its Vibrancy

The sounds and sights that fill the Punjab capital of Pakistan will charm even the staunchest non-Muslims

Credit: Hassan Arshad

Pakistan’s Badshahi Masjid, or the “King’s Mosque,” was built in the 1600s and is the fifth largest mosque in the world

Vacationing in a conservative Muslim country like Pakistan offers an opportunity to step out of a Western worldview and experience the ‘Paris of South Asia’

Standing in a market in the pulsing heart of Lahore, Pakistan, I took in a deep breath. The choking smell of smog combined with the delicious scents of sizzling meats, spiced curries and the simmering grease of flatbread parathas cooked in the open-air Anarkali bazaar.

The crowded, chaotic city of 10 million is the second largest in the country and suffocates visitors with unimaginable traffic and pollution so thick it disguises the nearby mountains. But once I got past the grimy façade, Lahore charmed me with its history and vibrancy.

My husband and I were visiting his relatives and attending my sister-in-law’s extravagant traditional wedding. Staying in a Pakistani home, I realized it was a country of hospitality – residents welcome visitors with boisterous hugs, the best cooking and day trips into the city. And so our hosts (my husband’s cousins) showed off their Lahore.

The King’s Mosque – Badshahi Masjid

The walls of the Badshahi Masjid are covered
in mosaics and intricate, hand-carved designs.
Worshippers in the mosque’s open hallways
face west toward Mecca as they pray.
Photo by Hassan Arshad

One of the must-see places in Lahore is the Badshahi Masjid, or the “King’s Mosque” in Urdu. Because Islam informs most customs in Pakistan, from the food they eat to the times for namaaz, or prayers performed five times a day, it was integral for me to get  a glimpse of the devotion guiding the country.

A short drive from the city’s centre, the mosque required an afternoon to fully explore. To blend in with other visitors, we donned traditional salwar kameez, or long tunics with loose pants and a scarf.

At the mosque’s entrance, all the visitors removed their footwear – no shoes are worn when walking in a holy site. Women must also cover their head with a scarf, or dupatta, and many men wear skullcaps for prayer inside the mosque’s walls.  

The dusty courtyard, bordered by four traditional minarets, is massive enough to house the main platform of the Taj Mahal. The mosque was built during the Mughal dynasty in the late 1600s during tolerant historical times – the mosque shares a wall with a golden-domed Sikh temple next door.

Just as we approached the scalloped doorways, beautiful Qur’an verses sung through a loudspeaker echoed through the courtyard, signalling it was time for prayer. Even though the verses were in Arabic, the sincerity and beautiful rhythm of the words were enough to send shivers through the hearts of even the staunchest non-Muslims.

As our group meandered into the mosque, I saw the interior walls and ceilings were covered with stunning mosaics and intricate carvings. Worshippers kneeled on special rugs before a mosaic wall facing the holy city of Mecca to complete their evening prayers.

In addition to creating stunning architecture, the Mughals were also masters of acoustics. Inside the mosque, there’s a whispering room – if one person stands in one corner and whispers into the seam where the two walls meet, the person in the diagonal corner of the room can hear their words as if they were standing next to them.

Fort Lahore

Adjacent to the Badshahi Masjid is Fort Lahore, a lavish Mughal palace surrounded with fountains to cool inhabitants during Pakistan’s painfully
hot summers. Photo by Hassan Arshad

Just opposite to the mosque is Fort Lahore, a lavish Mughal dynasty palace. The structure was first built around 800 B.C. and later emperors built the massive palace on the ancient ruins.

Here we hired an English-speaking tour guide for 250 rupees (around $3) who showed us the normally closed parts of the palace. We investigated the Sheesh Mahal, a famous palace covered wall-to-ceiling with mirror fragments. Mughal emperors loved watching troupes of female dancers, so they made use of the mirrors to see them from any angle.

Another incredible feature of the fort is the Alamgiri Gate, a massive wooden gate leading to oversized stairs the Mughals created for their elephants. The Mughals often used elephants in battle, so they accommodated the pachyderms in their fort.

Though Lahore offers many colourful sights, the slowed pace beckons visitors to take many daytrips and spend evenings relaxing, eating and chatting late into the night. The hospitality and colourful culture can be summarized in a single Punjabi phrase my cousin-in-law translated: “If you haven’t seen Lahore, it’s as if you haven’t been born yet.”

Five Tips for Travelling in a Muslim Country

Mughal emperors were notorious for using elephants in battles, so the rulers incorporated extra-wide paths inside their fort to accommodate their beloved pachyderms. Photo by Hassan Arshad

  • Women should carry a scarf at all times. In certain places, you’ll need to cover your hair as an exercise in modesty, so it’s good to just keep one handy.
  • Always eat with your right hand. As a leftie, this was difficult to remember. But in the Pakistani culture, the left hand is considered dirty, so eat with your right hand to avoid being rude.
  • You’ll notice many places you visit will have a private security detail. Many high-end shops and jewellery stores hire security guards (who often come with their own AK-47s), which is often intimidating.
  • The best time to travel to South Asia is in the winter. Even in November, the temperatures hit the mid-20s with moderate humidity. Anyone not accustomed to extremely hot climates should stick to winter travelling.
  • Hire a driver for the duration of your stay. While it’s nice to experience a rickshaw ride at least once, you’ll appreciate having an experienced driver to maneuver the seemingly nonsensical address system and frightening traffic of a major South Asian city.

Lindsey Peacock moved to Vancouver from Atlanta, Ga, where she was a born-and-bred Southern belle. Upon graduation from journalism school at the University of Georgia, she began her career as a copy editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sweet tea, black-and-white movies and blogging are a few of her favourite things.