If you’ve been planning to travel to the northern areas of Pakistan, you’ve likely stumbled across the name Skardu. This important city in Gilgit-Baltistan may be slightly less popular than the Hunza Valley to the north or Fairy Meadows to the west but is nonetheless one of Pakistan’s biggest tourist destinations thanks to the unique natural sites in its vicinity. If you’ve been dreaming of visiting a cold desert or an alpine plateau, Skardu is the perfect destination in Pakistan. And if you’re dying to sample some delicious Balti cuisine as well, it’s certainly time to pack your bags and plan a getaway to Skardu.
Here’s everything you need to know before traveling to Skardu.
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Where Is Skardu?
In the east of Pakistan’s northern Gilgit-Baltistan region at around 2,230 meters altitude lies Skardu, one of the region’s most important cities, It’s situated right along the Shigar River and the Indus River, which separates the Karakoram Range from the Himalaya Mountain Range, This location blesses the region with a unique landscape and ecosystem, which can be found in few other places in the world.
Weather In Skardu
Skardu’s climate is relatively mild compared to other places in northern Pakistan. The warmest months are June to September, when temperatures can get as high as 30°C, and the coldest months are December to February, when temperatures frequently drop in the minus degrees. Expect temperatures around 10°C during the months in between. Rainfall is highest from December through May.
Best Time To Visit Skardu
The best time to visit Skardu is summer from June to September. It’s the optimal time to enjoy lush green landscapes at comfortable temperatures without much rainfall and escape from the suffocating heat in other parts of Pakistan. October is another great time to visit Skardu in order to experience the region in golden autumn colors. Winter turns the region around Skardu into a beautiful white wonderland but it will be more difficult to access the city during this season.
How To Get To Skardu
Getting to Skardu is both a blessing and a curse. Luckily, you have more options than with most other places in northern Pakistan since Skardu actually has its own airport.
Here’s how to get to Skardu:
There are daily direct flights from Islamabad and Karachi to Skardu airport. The flights are operated by national airline PIA with small aircrafts. Despite their relatively short durations, flights to Skardu tend to be quite expensive, ranging around $80 – $200 per one-way flight. The (very scenic) approach to the mountainous region is extremely difficult for pilots but flying into Skardu is still significantly safer than reaching the city by road.
Getting to Skardu by road is a lot cheaper than flying but good luck! I thought I traveled on the world’s most dangerous road near Naran but that was before I experienced the scariest drive of my life from Gilgit to Skardu. The road that connects Skardu with Gilgit (a.k.a the rest of the world) is in such abysmal condition that near-death experiences are almost guaranteed on the way. I’m sparing you from some horrendous details here but it’s no wonder that terrible accidents do happen. In addition, frequent landslides will almost certainly delay your journey by a couple of hours. Our bus got stuck in a small village for over five hours because of this and our six-hour journey turned into a 16-hour journey.
That being said, if you’re broke like me and still decide to visit Skardu by road, there are a couple of options. You can take a public bus from other cities in Pakistan, join a group tour, or hire an experienced private driver. Please don’t attempt to drive on these roads yourself.
Hotels In Skardu
There are many hotels in and around Skardu. If you’re looking for a high-end experience, you might want to consider staying at one of the famous hotels near Skardu. This includes the Serena Shigar Hotel inside Shigar Fort and the Shangrila Resort around the Lower Kachura Lake.
If you’re looking for something on the lower end and still desire a central location, I suggest staying near the actual city. I had a great experience staying at Graceland Resort near Skardu city.
How To Get Around Skardu
The best way to get around Skardu is with a private driver or a tour guide. I personally had a wonderful experience with Kamil Tours. You can also ask your hotel for help.
Best Places To Visit Near Skardu
The region around Skardu is full of amazing tourist destinations.
Here are some suggestions of places to visit near Skardu, arranged in an optimal order:
Starting off with the city itself. Despite its regional importance, Skardu is a relatively small city, meaning it can easily be explored in a couple of hours. Visit Skardu Fort and shop for local crafts and textiles at the city’s souvenir market. Don’t forget to haggle!
Deosai National Park
Ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 meters altitude, the Deosai Plains near Skardu are the second-highest alpine plateau in the world. Deosai National Park was first established to protect the Himalayan Brown Bear and other endangered species and is currently on UNESCO’s tentative World Heritage list. Visit Deosai National Park to enjoy incredible wide and empty landscapes as well as the waters of Kalapani, Barapani, and Sheosar Lake, The drive south from Skardu to Deosai National Park takes one to two hours up a mountain pass.
Manthoka Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall about an hour southeast of Skardu. Surrounded by a serene green valley, Manthoka Waterfall emerges from the mountains so tall and majestically that it’s hard to believe the waterfall is actually manmade! Shower yourself in the waterfall’s pristine water, take photos of silky streams and rainbows, and enjoy a relaxing picnic in one of the most beautiful places near Skardu.
About one hour northeast of Skardu along the Shigar River lies the beautiful Shigar Valley. Follow the scenic road down to the beautiful village of Shigar, where you can not only witness local architectural gems like Shigar Fort or the ancient wooden Khilangrong Mosque but also traditional Balti village life.
Sarfarangah Desert is one of the two famous cold deserts around Skardu. It’s located in the Shigar Valley along the Shigar River is therefore the perfect conclusion for a visit to Shigar. Leave behind your shoes to enjoy the smooth sand and enjoy jumping into the tall dunes with a bunch of friends. But beware, there might be thorns hidden under the sand in some parts!
Significantly closer to the city lies the Katpana Desert, Skardu’s other cold desert. Surrounded by tall mountains and with a beautiful lake in the center, the Katpana Desert is especially stunning in winter when its sand is overed by a smooth blanket of snow. In addition, its proximity to Skardu Airport makes the Katpana Desert easily accessible in all seasons.
Upper Kachura Lake
Kachura is a settlement about one hour northwest of Skardu and famous for its two lakes: the Upper Kachura Lake and the Lower Kachura Lake. The former one is accessible through a 15-minute trek through a small forest. Popular activities at the Lower Kachura Lake include swimming, fishing, and motorboating.
(NOTE: Swimming is not recommended for ladies, unless you have a modest swimsuit with you)
The Lower Kachura Lake is located within the majestic Shangrila Resort, which is hands-down one of the most beautiful places in Pakistan, if not the world. Spend a relaxing afternoon surrounded by the greenest garden in this literal Heaven on earth and make sure to enjoy some organic apple juice in front of the heart-shaped lake. And if you feel extra fancy, consider staying a night at the resort.
Bonus: Manthal Buddha Rock
Just a short drive south of Skardu lies Manthal, home to an ancient Buddhist monument known as the Manthal Buddha Rock. The rock is believed to be around 1200 years old and contains depictions of Buddha. Although I didn’t have the chance to visit Manthal myself, it’s a great addition to your Skardu itinerary if you have some time on your hands.
Food In Skardu
Balti cuisine is perhaps the most under-appreciated cuisine in all of Pakistan. Balti flavors and seasonings are very different from what you might be used to from other parts of Pakistan, featuring a lot more carby comfort foods than spices. Because it’s so hard to find Balti food in other parts of Pakistan, you should try to eat as much as possible when you’re in Skardu.
Some popular Balti dishes include:
- Papu: flat buckwheat pasta resembling Korean tteok in a creamy pesto-like sauce
- Mamtu: steamed wheat dumplings filled with beef, mutton, or yak meat
- Balti lentil soup: a thick and mild lentil and vegetable stew that closely resembles German lentil soup
- Namkeen chai: spiced milk tea with a small dash of salt creating a mindblowing taste
Safety In Skardu
Generally speaking, Skardu is a very safe travel destination. However, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a smooth trip.
As mentioned earlier, the road connecting Skardu with Gilgit is THE WORST. If you decide to travel by land, make sure to:
- Hire a very experienced driver
- Only use vehicles that are in good condition and avoid big buses
- Avoid traveling in the dark and during landslide season
- Budget A LOT of time for this drive
Usually, this is not too much of a concern in the city but avoid getting too far from your vehicle when you’re out in Deosai National Park in the unlikely event that you run into a Himalayan Brown Bear.
As everywhere in Pakistan, food safety is your biggest health concern, which is why you should avoid tap water and sketchy food.
In addition, it’s a good idea to carry some altitude sickness drops with you in case the height is getting to you.
Female safety is a major concern in all parts of Pakistan. To stay safe as a woman in Skardu, it’s advised to not travel alone, avoid dark areas, keep a distance from strangers, and only go with trusted guides. Unfortunately in places like Skardu, every other man calls himself a ‘tourist guide’ but not all of them have certifications and reviews. And if you happen to watch a traditional dance performance, ALWAYS decline if a performer is asking you to join their dance. (This only applies to women. For men, it’s usually no problem.)
Where To Go Next
Enjoyed your trip to Skardu? Here’s some suggestions of places to visit next:
- K2: Skardu is the gateway to the mighty K2 peak, the second-tallest mountain in the world, and other eight-thousanders. While the summit is reserved for the world’s top mountaineers, you can do the K2 base camp trek individually or with a tour.
- Fairy Meadows: Fairy Meadows is the beautiful mountain paradise surrounding the Nanga Parbat peak. The trek to this remote piece of heaven begins near Chilas, meaning you’ll pass the region when exiting Gilgit-Baltistan by road.
- Hunza Valley: Hunza Valley, Pakistan’s most iconic tourist destination, is a place you mustn’t miss when traveling through Pakistan. The beautiful mountain valley is located north of Skardu on the Karakoram Highway.
- Islamabad: If you travel to Skardu by plane, this will likely be the beginning and ending point of your journey, so it definitely wouldn’t harm to spend a day or two exploring Pakistan’s capital city.
More of Pakistan:
Skardu is one of the best places to visit in Pakistan thanks to its unique landscape and beautiful Balti culture. The city has its own airport, making the region significantly more accessible than other places in northern Pakistan. Spend a couple of days exploring all of Skardu’s natural and cultural sites and don’t forget to try all the delicious Balti food that you can find.
Have you been to Skardu yet? How was your experience? Let me know in the comments below!