x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

In the city of mystics

A weekend guide to ... Lahore Relatively untrampled by tourists, Lahore is a veritable treasure trove of Mughal, Victorian and Hindu art and architecture.

Abid Shah

A city of mystics, artists and monuments, Lahore is a short hop from Abu Dhabi. As Pakistan's cultural capital, the city has a buzzing music scene and restaurant culture - Lahoris say that they live to eat - and it is chock full of monuments. Built on the banks of the River Ravi, Lahore was the administrative capital of the western Indian subcontinent, and so was second only to Delhi in the major empires. The Delhi Sultans, the Mughals, the Sikhs, and the British ruled the vast plains of the Punjab and high mountains of north-western India from Lahore.

Consequently, the city is an architectural gem: every ruler had to impress his subjects, and he did it in Lahore. The wealth lavished on the city by its changing guardians shows: Hindu architecture leads to the first domes of the Muslim Delhi Sultans, to the Turkic-Persian influences of the Mughals, and the Victorian Gothic-Mughal mix of the British Raj, as well as the numerous gardens that dot the city. One advantage of visiting Lahore is that it is relatively untrampled by tourists; the monuments are not overrun and are easier to explore.

Lahore has seven million inhabitants and a rich spiritual life. It is dotted with mosques, churches, and Sufi shrines that hum with mystics and their music. And the artists of Lahore have used this energy to create world-class art. Backpackers find Lahore an excellent starting point for a trip across north India - India is less than an hour from the city centre, and a bus runs along Lahore's scenic main canal to the checkpoint.

There are two popular bazaar-style food streets in renovated old neighbourhoods, which can bookend the day; the Lahore museum has an excellent Jain and Buddhist collection, with possibly the most exquisite statue of the Buddha - a hollow-eyed fasting Buddha with delicate veins and a skeletal frame. The suburbs boast of the largest puppetry museum in the world, and in November the city hosts the World Performing Arts Festival, inviting puppeteers, dancers, and theatre groups for a week-long event in a modern amphitheatre. The highlight of the festival is provided by Sufi musicians like Abida Perveen, whose deep voice is second only to the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Visitors can get the mystical experience year-round every Thursday night, when the Sufi shrines are buzzing with qawwali - these are troupes of clappers and chorusers backing the main singer - with dhol walas - drummers who spin - and malangs - hermits - who live at the shrines. Popular shrines include Data Darbar - featuring qawwali and Shah Jamal, where the famous drummers Pappu, Gonga and Mithu Saeen perform. Visit www.danka.com.pk for an up-to-date guide to cultural events.

Art lovers can visit galleries to buy contemporary miniatures - a worldwide art movement based in Lahore that has reinvented the Mughal miniature art. The epitome of the Mughal style can be found on the edge of the old city, in the Lahore Fort and the magnificent Wazir Khan and Badshahi mosques, with their brick-red courtyards, onion-shaped domes and minarets. The Badshahi mosque overlooks the Gurdwara of Arjan Dev, a Sikh holy site. Elsewhere, the tomb of the emperor Jehangir and the Shalimar Gardens are large parks where visitors can relax. The British-built Mall Road has the gorgeous High Court and imposing General Post Office. On the border with India, at the Wagah crossing, visitors can witness a unique ceremony in which, at sunset, patriots from both countries cheer their soldiers on as each side lowers their national flag at the gate.

Budget Regale Internet Inn is a backpacker's haven. It is a meeting place for travellers who make plans for trips to Agra or Peshawar. This bare bones stop has three six-bed dormitories - one for women and two for men - three rooms for rent, a DIY kitchen and a seating area. Women get a free shalwar kameez - Pakistani long shirts and trousers - to fit in on the street. The inn's employees act as guides, taking their guests to performances at local shrines on Thursday nights. And often the inn's charismatic owner, Malik, a former journalist and local historian, invites musicians to jam on the rooftop. Dormitory beds are US$3 (Dh11) a night and rooms are $6 (Dh22) a night.

Regale Internet Inn, Surriaya Mansion 65, Regal Chowk, The Mall (www.regale.com.pk; 0092 42 7311987). Mid-range High quality at an affordable price, the Residency is a small intimate hotel just off the city's main artery, the Mall. The hotel has a coffee shop, an Asian fusion restaurant, a 25-metre swimming pool, and a new health club and spa with European trainers. Conference rooms and car rentals are also available. Rooms start at $95 (Dh349) for singles and go up to $120 (Dh440) for doubles.

The Residency Hotel, 39A Gulberg 5 (www.theresidencyhotel.com; 0092 42 111 395 395). Luxury The Pearl Continental is Lahore's top hotel, with six restaurants, a shopping arcade, beauty salon and two cafes, a health club, gym, swimming pool and tennis courts. Guests might even see a wedding reception as the hotel is a popular spot for the Lahori elite's nuptials, and heavily bedecked brides and grooms are a common sight in the lobby at night. Singles start at $165 (Dh606), doubles at $195 (Dh716). Pearl Continental Hotel, The Mall (www.pchotels.com; 0092 42 636 0210).

Breakfast The city renovated two old neighbourhood streets, closed them off for traffic at night, and created two separate and vibrant 'food streets'. Anarkali Food Street at the Mall is a perfect place to enjoy a heavy and oily Lahori roadside breakfast, followed by a visit to the nearby Lahore museum. You can choose between a paratha (a radish or potato stuffed pancake with yoghurt), a halwa puri (fluffy bread with sweet halwa or chickpeas) or channa anda (chickpeas and boiled eggs). Those who like to start their day with meat can choose paye, or joint stew, a local speciality. Breakfast here costs about a dollar (Dh4). One can return for dinner when the street is closed to traffic, or try out more varieties at the Gawal Mandi Food Street.

Lunch Located in Lahore's MM Alam Road, where the city's yuppies frequent chic restaurants and cafés, Dhaba serves outstanding Mughlai cuisine. With a shady courtyard, good service and rich food, this restaurant is everyone's favourite. Chicken-based dishes are particularly good. Meals cost $10 (Dh37). Dinner Cooco's Den and Café has an excellent view. On the edge of Lahore's red-light area, the Hira Mandi or the Diamond Market, this rooftop restaurant overlooks the grand courtyard of the Badshahi mosque; patrons can also see the Lahore Fort and the Arjan Dev Gurdwara, and sunsets here are gorgeous - Time magazine called it the best experience for the soul in a red-light area. Carry a sweater as it gets cold. The lobby displays the artwork of the café owner and leading Pakistani realist painter Iqbal Husain, the son of a prostitute who paints local bawds. Meals cost $12 (Dh44).

Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Lahore daily. Return fares starts from $520 (Dh1,910), including taxes (@email:www.etihadairways.com). PIA flies daily between Dubai and Lahore. Return fares start from $395 (Dh1,450) including taxes (www.piac.com). Emirates flies four times per week between Dubai and Lahore. Return fares start from $438 (Dh1,610), including taxes (www.emirates.com).

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia (John Murray; Dh108, $29)