A thriving nightlife, dirt-cheap shopping, high-end fashion shows and delicious food may not be the first things that come to mind when you think of the Pakistani city of Karachi. Yet this booming coastal metropolis, known locally as “the city of lights”, is a place where all this and more can be found, writes Rumaisa Bilal.
Karachi is located in the south of Pakistan, along the coast of the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean.
The city is Pakistan’s most highly populated metropolitan city, with a population of 21 million.
Being Pakistan’s main seaport and financial district, Karachi accounts for a lion’s share of Pakistan’s revenue and is the country’s premier centre for banking, industry, manufacturing, economic activity and trade.
It’s also home to a host of major corporations involved in textiles, shipping, the automotive industry, entertainment, the arts, fashion, advertising, publishing and software development.
In addition to Karachi’s economic prominence, there are parts of the city that are visually quite captivating.
For example, Karachi’s buildings boast an interesting selection of architectural styles, which work together to create an intriguing backdrop for this vibrant city.
Frere Hall, Empress Market, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Karachi Gymkhana and many of the buildings in the Saddar and Clifton area are great examples of the city’s architectural heritage, harking back from the time of British rule, while Hindu Gymkhana and Mohatta Palace are illustrations of Mughal revival architecture. Karachi is also home to many modern high-rise buildings that are illustrations of contemporary architectural style, such as Harbour Front, MCB Tower, Habib Bank Plaza, and PRC Towers in the city centre.
But these days the charms of this seaside city can seem buried under the pervading image of Karachi that is often portrayed in the international media, thanks to incidents of activism and violence that have played a significant part in the city’s public identity since the 1980s.
And although violent events in Karachi have made the city seem uninviting for tourists, the city still has a lot to offer.
For a start, Karachi offers some big-name hotels, such as Sheraton, Marriott, Avari Towers and Pearl Continental, and these hotels offer safe, high quality accommodation at around PKR9457 (AUD$96.5) per night.
Sheraton Karachi guest services director Amna Jabbar said Karachi has no active tourism, but says many foreigners still visit the city frequently on business trips.
“Tourism in Karachi has died recently,” Jabbar said.
“It is now primarily business traffic with the peak season running from September to March.
“People visiting Karachi are always accompanied by their local business associates, on whose invitation they come, and their entertainment is usually dining out.”
But whether it’s good food, chill-out hangouts, concerts or fashion shows that take your fancy, you are guaranteed to find for a good night out in this busy city.
Arguably Karachi’s biggest drawcard is its delicious food.
From fancy tables in the more upmarket restaurants to bustling roadside cafes, finding a tasty treat in Karachi is a hunger that’s easily satisfied.
If you want a real taste of Pakistani cuisine, local food is your top choice.
One of the famous local eateries is Barbecue Tonight, where you can find the Pakistani cuisine for as little as AUD$2 for a main dish.
Tantalising local must-have dishes include mutton ribs, Malai tikka, chicken tikka and karahi chicken.
Tasty vegetarian options include spicy lentils, potato bhaji, naan bread, palak paneer (cheese and spinach).
The complex, which is located in the Karachi Port area, is home to a special “food street” in the form of a one-kilometre-long formerly abandoned bridge that has been transformed to house eateries spread over more than 3700 m2 of climate-controlled space.
Italian, Chinese, French, South Indian and Arabic food can also be found on a single street in Karachi called Zamzama, which offers dinner for two for as little as PKR2000 (AUD$20.40).
Most restaurants are open until midnight, while the city’s famous Boat Basin Food Street is open until 2am and beyond offering food for as little as PKR40 (AUD$0.40).
If you are a big drinker, you should be aware that Pakistan is an Islamic country and alcohol is not easily available in the shops. However, many restaurants and hotels do serve alcohol and it can also be bought from a few designated shops.
Unlike western countries, where pubs and clubs are often the focus of the local nightlife, in Karachi the nightlife more commonly consists of musical events, fashion shows, food festivals, exhibitions, private parties, dining out and walks on the beach.
Syntax Communications account director Syed Mohammad Ayaz says the trend of corporations organising events for their respective niche audiences is rising. “In recent years, corporations have organised many events like concerts, theatre plays [and] fashion shows that had the maximum footfall,” Ayaz says. He says the most popular outing these days is to see plays at the theatre.
“These plays are well attended by youngsters and adults alike, and likewise mini circuses once in a quarter in different parts of city also entice good audiences.
“Recently, major companies sponsored concerts with famous singers both from Pakistan and India that drew massive crowds.
“However, due to strict security conditions such musical events are not organised frequently and at easily accessible venues.” According to Ayaz, the fashion industry and the cinema are also becoming major attractions in Karachi.
“Organisations queue up to throw in sponsorships in a bid to associate themselves with prominent names from the big fashion labels and its fraternity, along with national and multinational brands,” he says.
‘Shop till you drop’ is a phrase that suits Karachi well, as the shopping centres in the city stay open until midnight and sometimes later.
Legions of international brands are on sale, from Levis to Nine West, with prices that range from as little as AUD$5 to a few hundred dollars.
Local clothing brands such as Yellow, Cross Roads, Stoneage, Mantra, Outfitters and FNK Asia are also in high demand by westerner visitors, as they are both extremely affordable and fashionable.
As the local fashion industry booms there is a growing trend to host fashion-focussed events such as Pakistan Fashion Week and Bridal Weeks.
Lawn exhibitions are also increasing, which is a good sign for the economy as many designers showcase their range of designed cloth material used to stitch the traditional dress, shalwar kameez, at these exhibitions.
Catwalk Event Management & Productions owner Frieha Altaf says she believes Karachi is serving as the hub for fashion trends in Pakistan.
“In the last few years, numerous fashion events took place in Karachi as many international fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands were launched, and now Karachi is serving as the hub for fashion trends and brand launches,” Altaf said.
“The frequency may vary during the year, but it increases in summer when our designers start launching their lawn collections, as well as for big events like FPW, LSA, PFDC and bridal weeks.”
According to Altaf, even incidences of violence and activism in Karachi are not enough to cause international fashion investors to take their business away.
“International brands like Mango, Splash, Nine West and many others were launched in the current season, so whatever the city’s condition, investors always wait for a good time to start things.
“Foreign investors are now investing more than PKR200 million for bringing international brands to Pakistan,” she said.
“This means that our fashion and beauty industry is a major shareholder in our country’s GDP.”
Zainab market in the city centre is the best place to shop for traditional souvenirs, handicrafts, jewellery, precious stones and unbranded western clothes, which prices starting from as little as AUD$0.50.
Although incidents of unrest may make Karachi seem uninviting to international travellers, many foreign visitors to the city find their time in Pakistan’s City of Lights to be quite a fun experience.
One such visitor is International Bar Association events coordinator Suzana Su, who lives in Brazil and visited Karachi for an AIESEC internship, which lead her to spend three months in the city.
“I had a really great time working and meeting new people and exploring a different culture,” Su said.
“Before going there I was more anxious and curious rather than scared.
“I think my parents worried more than I did.”
Su says before visiting Karachi she was well aware of the Pakistani culture.
“I actually had Pakistani friends prior to the trip, so I had an idea of what to expect.
“But I reckon I had much more fun than I expected.
“I had an amazing time at some concerts, dining out and seeing stuff.
“I would definitely visit Karachi again and go to other cities in Pakistan as well.”