Despite being one of the world’s largest cities by population, Dhaka in Bangladesh remains to be an under the radar destination for most people. Those who come are ultimately rewarded by a travel experience that can now rarely be had in this rapidly shrinking world. Dhaka is the only city I know of its size that visitors can go to without having to worry about being scammed. People here are so friendly and welcoming of foreigners that it is not in the local mindset at all to scam people. The city may be gritty, polluted and crowded but at every turn there is something photo-worthy to capture – whether it be the exotic-looking architecture or the smiles of the locals who absolutely love having their photo taken.
This itinerary of Dhaka shows you how you can cover the city in as little as 2 days – effectively a weekend trip.
Day 1 – Sonargaon, Lalbagh Fort, Dhakeshwari Temple, Curzon Hall
If you are visiting Dhaka as a weekend trip, it may be useful to know that certain attractions are closed on Saturdays while others are closed on Sundays so it’s useful to plan your itinerary accordingly.
If you are starting your Dhaka visit on a Saturday, it will be more practical to venture father afield first – to Sonargaon since it is open on Saturday but not Sunday. It is also advisable to visit Sonargaon just when it opens in the morning as it can get pretty crowded there during weekends especially by late morning.
Sonargaon, the ancient Bengal capital is about an hour’s drive from the city center of Dhaka. There are three main areas worth checking out in Sonargaon and they are quite spread out so it’s better to hire a car with driver who will wait for you at each stop.
Your first stop in Sonargaon should be Panam City (Tues to Sat, 9AM to 5PM; Mon, 2PM to 5PM; closed Sun). This neighborhood is essentially comprised of one street lined with crumbling but charming mansions. These were built by wealthy merchants who fled Bangladesh during the partition of India. These houses were left to caretakers but ultimately, years of abandonment have led to the picturesque state of disrepair today. Admission: 100 takas for foreigners
There’s a particular appeal when one comes here in the morning at around 9AM with a bit of a mist through the air. It does not take long to go through the whole stretch of houses. Around 30 minutes is enough but those looking for instagrammable shots will have plenty of angles to choose from. The first house near the entrance can be accessed through the side door. The second storey is a performance hall and visitors can get a higher view of Panam City from the balconies.
The Goaldi Mosque, around 10 minutes drive from Panam City, dates back from the 16th century and is a good example of the square type of mosque that’s prevalent around the Bengal region. It is normally not possible to enter the mosque itself although it is possible to enter the mosque grounds by locating the caretaker who is usually in the area.
End your day trip of Sonargaon at the Folk Arts and Craft Foundation (9AM to 5PM, closed Wednesday and Thursday). This is a sprawling complex made up of the two parts. Near the entrance is a historic complex called Baro Sardar Bari. Filled with several archways that lead to an inner courtyard and richly adorned with ornaments, this is probably the most attractive looking building in Sonargaon. It also gives visitors a better idea of what the houses around Panam City probably looked like during their prime. Baro Sardar Bari has a separate entrance fee of about 160 takas for foreigners but is well worth it.
The actual museum itself, located a few meters away, offers a peek into local life. Of note are various articles of clothing and decoration pieces. Of particular interest here is a long chest which is used by couples when they sleep together on their wedding night. It’s a local tradition – the chest is quite cramped and I suppose the main idea of having such a small space is to make sure couples conceive right away!
It will be around early afternoon by the time you head back to Dhaka. The rest of the day can then be spent covering parts of the city proper. If your trip is during a weekend, you’d need to visit Lalbagh Fort (10AM to 6PM except Monday when it opens 2:30PM, closed Sunday, closed between 12:30PM to 2:30PM Friday) on a Saturday since it is also closed on Sundays. This unfinished Mughal structure that dates back from the 17th century is Dhaka’s best known landmark. Even in its incomplete state, parts of it remain quite picturesque especially when viewed from higher ground. The four pathways leading to the main building (tomb of Bibi Pari) were done up in the style of a Persian garden with fountains. Towards one side of the fort grounds is a 2-storey building which has a hammam (bathhouse) and small museum inside.
Near the fort area are some noteworthy places of worship such as the Khan Mohammad Mosque, which requires climbing a flight of stairs to get to, and the Dhakeshwari Temple. The latter is a Hindu temple noted for its cone-like Shiva temples and pink color scheme.
On your way back to the more modern parts of Dhaka, stop by the Curzon Hall of the University of Dhaka and check out the delightful British-era architecture. If you happen to drop by during an examination, you can get a glimpse of the exam hall which looks a bit like the lobby of Raffles Hotel Singapore with its white columns and large atrium.
End your day at the rooftop bar of Amari Dhaka, Deck 41 (open 2PM til late), for some drinks and amazing views of the city.
Day 2 – Sadarghat, Ahsan Manzil, Star Mosque, National Assembly Hall, Baitur Rauf Jame Masjid
Return to the old part of Dhaka – this time in the eastern section near the Ahsan Manzil. This is where you’ll find Dhaka at its grittiest – with electric wires tangled above ground and rickshaws competing for space with cars on the dusty roads. The street scenes here are highly photogenic. If time permits, it’s actually a good idea to walk around the old Dhaka area for some nice shots.
Morning is the best time to watch life go by at the Sadarghat. This is the river side pier of Dhaka where you’ll find laborers carrying fruits and other produce to the markets located just by the river. The pace here is simply frenetic, and the activity is a sight to behold.
By 10:30AM, the Ahsan Manzil (daily except Thursdays) opens its doors. This palatial structure is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions but for an off-radar destination such as Dhaka, that means bumping into 1 or 2 other foreign tourist on a good day. The building used to be occupied by the Nawab of Dhaka (think of it as like the local nobility) and the exhibits inside shows how they lived back in the day. Admission: 600 taka
Other architectural highlights in this part of old Dhaka include the Star Mosque with its distinctive star patterns on the walls and fountain done up in the shape of a … you guessed it – a star! A block away is Dhaka’s Armenian Church – a common feature in many cities in Asia that used to be under the British.
By late morning to noon, head to the National Assembly Hall of Bangladesh or the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban. An architectural masterpiece designed by American architect, Louis Kahn, this is one of the Dhaka’s unmissable sights. It’s not at all difficult to survey the modern building from the outside but being able to see the inside requires booking in advance. You can check out their website here for visiting details. Do note that it is forbidden to take photos inside the building.
If you still have some time before your flight, you can pick out some souvenirs from Aarong. The branch is Gulshan is recommended for its wider variety. Many expats and business people on trips to Dhaka have offices in Gulshan so this particular outlet is more foreigner-friendly. You can pick out objects as diverse as rickshaw scale models to traditional clothing and even jewelry.
Before going to the airport, make a detour and head further north to Utara. Here, the Baitur Rauf Jame Masjid stands as one of the most distinctive structures in Dhaka. It is a mosque but its construction is evocative of a design complex. The architect, a local, won the Aga Khan Award for architecture for this mosque. Unique design elements here include the deliberate usage of holes on the ceiling and curves separating the interior and exterior areas. Baitur Rauf Jame Masjid is best visited mid-day when the sun’s rays shine directly on the holes on the ceiling, which in turn create plenty of bright dots on the floor.
Where to Stay in Dhaka
The InterContinental Dhaka is a newly refurbished luxury hotel sitting just in between the older and newer sections of the city, providing easy access to both parts. This strategic location is indispensable given the city’s notorious traffic jams. Rooms are spacious and well-appointed. The bathrooms are especially photogenic. Service is excellent, especially for stays with club access.