In the northwest of Pakistan lies Azad Kashmir, famous for its spellbinding lakes, lush green valleys and snow-capped mountains. It’s an oasis of rich culture and spirituality, all woven into mountainous green-covered landscapes.
Translated as free Kashmir, Azad Kashmir was historically part of the Jammu and Kashmir state. Since Partition, the state has been split between Pakistan and neighbouring India. Azad Kashmir is the Pakistan-administered side, beloved for its hypnotising landscapes that are nothing short of magic. It’s divided into three main divisions – Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Poonch – each with their own distinct charm.
The region grows and blooms under the shadow of the magnificent Himalayas. Look around and you’ll soon find that green is the colour of Azad Kashmir – it’s as if a luscious blanket of green has been draped over its peaks and valley floors. You’ll find mountains sides sweeping down and giving way to pristine dales, dense forest cover that offers shade from the sun’s rays and thick shrubbery that seems to sing with vitality. And it’s no wonder, with the Neelum and Jehlum Rivers snaking their way through the entire region, breathing precious life into the land and all its crevices.
Azad Kashmir might just be the perfect place to wander misty hills and sit beside flowing rivers or simply to breathe in fresh mountain air
Amongst Azad Kashmir’s emerald mountains and valleys lies a tapestry of traditions. The landscape is home to enthralling cultures and innate spirituality. Its unique culture has evolved over the centuries, shaped by the arrival of diverse communities from near and far lands. You’ll likely find many shrines scattered across the valley, a glimpse into Sufism, a gentle, mystical form of the Islamic religion practised here. The region has created a niche for itself in arts, education, music, and handicrafts, too. Explore the region’s crafts – from intricate wooden work to elaborate carpets designs to woollen garments – and you’ll get a taste of its diverse influences.
Red Fort is one of Azad Kashmir’s historical gems. Built with obvious design expertise, the fort stands on the banks of the Neelum River in Muzaffarabad valley. It’s now in ruins but the stories of its past have not been lost. The fort was built by the Chak rulers of Kashmir in the 16th century to ward off attacks from the Mughals, something that can still easily be imagined today as you stand inside the forts imposing walls. As with most things in Azad Kashmir, Red Fort also has its fair share of natural beauty. It offers up an astounding panorama of the surrounding area – the mountains, the Neelum River and the city that sprawls out below.
18km from the city of Rawalakot, you’ll find Banjosa Lake nestled amidst a dense coniferous forest. The resort is one of Pakistan’s famous tourist places, a firm favourite with locals visiting Azad Kashmir. It exudes peace and tranquillity, with the lake’s surface reflecting the surrounding pine trees, a perfect mirror image. Hop aboard a boat and take in the lush trees that stand on the lake’s banks, wander the lake’s surroundings by foot or set up your picnic on the water’s edge. In summer, Banjosa offers a cool break from the summer sun whilst in autumn it brings an explosion of colours as the greenery around the lake transforms into hues of yellow, orange, red and gold.
Built between 1961 and 1965, Mangla Dam sits on the Jhelum River and is a major tourist attraction in the district of Mirpur. It’s among the biggest dams in the world, with a power house, a reservoir and tunnels. But the dam isn’t just practical – it’s also a thing of beauty. Take to the lake’s surface by boat and explore all it has to offer, from Ramkot Fort that sits on a hilltop on the shore, to beautiful sunsets that cast their glow over the water.
Fed by glacial water that flows down from the mountains that surround it, Shounter Lake is one of the many stunning lakes in Azad Kashmir. It’s easily accessible from Kel in Neelum Valley and well worth the journey. The water reflects the blue of the sky, the mountainsides lush and green, whilst puffs of white cloud cap the rugged peaks. As well as being the perfect destination for a day trip, it’s also a great spot to camp. Why not spend a night or two under the stars and experience the serenity, protected by the green cover of trees? You might even get to spot the milky way on a clear night.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to visit in Azad Kashmir, Neelum Valley lies in the north of Azad Kashmir. The valley is one of mother nature’s true masterpieces. Sparkling streams run through the length of the valley, the pristine turquoise water glinting in the sun, and the towering mountains are adorned with lush green trees. In summer, it’s the perfect place for hiking and trekking, for strolling through its quaint villages and getting a feel for the lifestyle of the locals.
One of the best tourist places in Pakistan, Pir Chinasi is a majestic mountain peak located in Muzaffarabad. It’s a mesmerizing place and home to the Pir Chinasi shrine that sits atop the peak, dedicated to a saint named Hazrat Shah Hussain. It’s a major attraction for pilgrims who journey to the shrine and, with its breathtaking hiking trail, it’s also an ideal spot for hikers and adventure seekers. Of course, it’s beautiful in the sun but the rain brings its own charm to Pir Chinasi – the clouds descend and engulf the entire hill, creating a truly magical atmosphere.
Located in the Pir Panjal Range, the beautiful Rawalakot Valley is surrounded by soaring hills covered with dense forest cover and decorated with majestic lakes and rivers. It’s home to the capital of Azad Kashmir’s Poonch district, Rawalakot city, and there are plenty of tourist attractions and accommodation to be found here. Why not venture to Tatta Pani, hot water springs that feed the Poonch River, the grassy fields of Toli Pir hilltop, and the mesmerising Banjosa Lake?
Part of Jehlum Valley, Leepa Valley is one of the best tourist places in Pakistan and it’s not hard to see why. The mountains that surround Leepa are covered in forests of pine trees and dotted with villages. The most distinct feature of this heavenly place, though, is its rice paddies. They form perfect emerald patchworks, their layers staggered downwards towards the valley’s floor. It’s a truly majestic spot and tourists flock here each year to enjoy the valley’s unique beauty.
You can reach Azad Kashmir by road. From Islamabad, you’ll follow a beautiful route that will take you around four and a half hours along the Islamabad-Muree-Muzaffarabad expressway and Rawalakot road, suitable for all kinds of vehicles.
Wazwan isn’t one specific dish but a whole multi-course feast, with around 30 dishes served up. It’s treated with the utmost respect and is an important – and delicious – part of Kashmiri culture. The preparation of Wazwan is considered somewhat of an art and is usually undertaken by Wazas, traditional local chefs. Many of the dishes are meat-based, including Rogan Josh and Goshtaba. Wazwan is a celebration of food and culture, a generous show of hospitality and a mouthwatering treat.
A traditional Kashmiri delicacy, Goshtaba is a hearty dish of tender meatballs cooked in a yoghurt gravy. The meatballs are made from tenderised minced mutton and seasoned with local spices. Traditionally, the meatballs are made melt-in-the-mouth soft and served in the sumptuous gravy sauce. Gashtaba is often cooked for special occasions and known as the ‘dish for the kings’.
Momos aren’t only a Kashmiri favourite but also a common find in a number of northern Asain countries, mostly those that have a cooler climate. The hearty dish consists of dumplings, made with minced meat mixed with vegetables and spices, then wrapped in a layer of wheat dough. The dumplings are later steamed and served with a spicy sauce. Though the dish isn’t native to Azad Kashmir, it’s usually made with fresh, local ingredients, and is perfect for warding off winter chills.
Unlike most Kashmiri dishes, Lyodur Tschaman is a vegetarian dish. That doesn’t mean it’s any less indulgent, though. Lyodur Tschaman consists of cottage cheese which is cooked in a creamy turmeric-based gravy, giving it its distinctive yellow colour and a tangy and sour taste.
Known to many as the signature food of Kashmiri cuisine, Rogan Josh is an aromatic lamb dish – a must-try for meat lovers on a visit to Azad Kashmir. The lamb is extremely tender, flavoured with various spices, finished with sautéed onions and yoghurt, and served with either naan bread or rice
Dum Olav, meaning steamed potatoes, is one of the most popular dishes in Azad Kashmir. The potatoes are cooked with ginger powder, yoghurt, fennel seeds and other local spices, giving the dish a sour and spicy taste. Once cooked, the aromatic potatoes are served with naan bread or chapati.
● Time Zone: Pakistan Standard Time.
● Language: Urdu is the main language in Azad Kashmir, while Pahari-Pothwari is largely spoken across the valley with some varied dialects. A few of Azad Kashmir’s residents also speak Gujari and Kashmiri.
● Religion: The main religion practised in Azad Kashmir is Islam and the majority of the local population are Muslims. The region is also home to a small population of Christians and Ahmadi.
The best time to visit Azad Kashmir is from May to October. Summers are pleasant here – the weather isn’t too warm and there are frequent light rain showers. The region’s pine forests and cascading rivers keep the temperature down, an oasis of cool amongst the heat of the rest of Pakistan in summer. Summer in Azad Kashmir also brings an abundance of fresh produce. The valley of orchards, it offers up a variety of fruits in each season, but summers, in particular, are famous for red cherries and apricots. Winters bring apples, grapes, pomegranate and nuts but are extremely cold. Some of Kashmir’s valleys receive snowfall and in some heavy rain causes the temperature to drop very low.
Visiting Azad Kashmir is a spellbinding experience. It’s hard not to get lost in awe as you explore its sparkling lakes, valleys blanketed in green and rugged, snow-capped mountains peaks. There’s a rich culture to discover here as well, and an innate spirituality that goes back centuries.
Azad Kashmir boasts a whole host of natural beauty to be discovered. You could wander Neelum, Leepa, Jhelum and Rawalakot valleys and boat across majestic lakes, like Banjosa Lake. There’s a rich culture to explore here too. Why not visit the magnificent Red Fort, steeped in history and overlooking the city of Muzaffarabad? And, of course, no trip to Azad Kashmir would be complete without sampling some of its aromatic and flavoursome foods.
Stretching from Gilgit Baltistan in the north to Punjab in the south, Azad Kashmir unfolds over 13,297 km2.
Azad Kashmir is a region in the southwest of Kashmir that’s administered by Pakistan. The larger region of Kashmir itself is made up of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.
How can I go to Azad Kashmir?
Azad Kashmir is reachable by car. You can fly into Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, and drive to the Azad Kashmir region from there. The route to Azad Kashmir will take you around four and a half hours along the Islamabad-Muree-Muzaffarabad expressway and Rawalakot road.