Lahore is undoubtedly old. The earliest reliable mention of the city is in the historical texts and writings of Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who passed through the city in AD630.
Legend has it that the city’s original name was Loh, after the son of Ram, hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Others think the city got its name from the word lohawar, meaning a fort as strong as iron. Muslim rule began in the city in 1206 when Qutub ud Din Aibak was crowned the first Muslim sultan of the subcontinent in Lahore. Nevertheless, it was later during the Mughal era that the city saw its greatest flowering and cultural growth. Scattered across town are numerous buildings and remnants from the reigns of all of the great Mughals.
However, during the 18th century Mughal rule and influence over the city started to decline when the city constantly at the risk of invasion. In 1799, it fell to the Sikh general Ranjit Singh, who incorporated the city into the Sikh empire.
Fast forward to March 23, 1940, Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan (Pakistan Day Memorial) was where the Pakistan resolution was passed by the Muslim League, calling for the creation of an independent Muslim nation. Lahore may not be Pakistan’s capital but it wins hands down as its architectural, cultural and intellectual hub.
Home to more than 11 million people, Lahore is Pakistan’s second-largest city. Compared to Karachi, the country’s financial hub, the city has a very relaxed and friendly vibe. From the mid 1950s to the 1970s, the city was an important stop on the hippie trail; it ran all the way from Istanbul to Bangkok, so Lahoris are familiar with visitors.
There’s something unique and beautiful about Lahore. If you’re a history and architecture buff the city will floor you with grandiose Mughal and British structures. On the other hand, if you’re in search of some spiritual sustenance, the city has qawwali (Islamic devotional singing) and Sufism (Islamic mysticism). If you’re a foodie, you better bring your appetite because Lahoris will feed you until you feel sick.
Any visit to Lahore should begin with a trip to its most magnificent and iconic landmark, the Badshahi (Imperial) Mosque. Built in 1674 by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, the building is one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture in the world. At full capacity, the mosque can accommodate around 60,000 worshippers, making it one of the largest mosques in the world and the second-largest in Pakistan.
Coexisting with the mosque is one of the holiest sites in Sikhism: the Gurdwara Dera Sahib, a golden-domed Sikh temple. Nearby is the white-domed samadhi (cremation site) of Ranjit Singh. Every year, thousands of Sikhs from around the world visit the sites as part of a mass pilgrimage to a number of Sikh holy sites scattered across Pakistan.
Adjacent to the Badshahi Mosque is the Lahore Fort, or Shahi Qilla (Royal Fort). The fort is a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains structures built by four Mughal emperors: Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. The entire fort covers more than 20 hectares, so you can easily get lost in its labyrinthine alleyways.
A visit to Lahore would be incomplete without a trip to possibly one of Pakistan’s most photographed historical landmarks, the Wazir Khan Mosque. Built in 1634 by the local governor of the area during the reign of Shah Jahan, the mosque’s interior and exterior are adorned with colourful frescoes and tiles.
A short walk away from the Wazir Khan Mosque is the famous Fort Road food street. Housed in a series of restored havelis (old traditional houses) are some of Lahore’s most popular touristy restaurants.
One of my favourites is Cooco’s Den, owned by renowned artist Iqbal Hussain. It feels more like a museum than an eating establishment. Housed within it are Hussain’s artifacts, inspired by the colourful district where he grew up. A narrow wrought-iron staircase leads you to the rooftop of the restaurant. Once seated visitors can enjoy a scrumptious meal while simultaneously taking in the breathtaking views of the Badshahi Mosque down below. At night the mosque’s elegant marble domes and slender minarets are beautifully lit up.
There’s a reason the locals have a saying: Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya, O Jamyai Nai (One who has not seen Lahore has not been born).