First of all, thank you for choosing Dhaka. Dhaka has a rich history — it grew and prospered through jute and muslin trade during colonial times. It used to be one of the most prosperous cities in South Asia. Currently, it is the main city and the economic hub of Bangladesh.
The reason most people don’t enjoy Dhaka is because they don’t understand Dhaka. Dhaka is not your average city where you go to stare at tall buildings and admire the prosperity. Dhaka is wealthy in other ways — namely the companionship of extended friends and family.
A Dhaka resident will consider you a friend after just a few conversations. In order to truly experience Dhaka, plan for a long stay and volunteer or teach so you can make friends through your neighbors, coworkers and by attending events and weddings. Once you get hooked, your heart may become torn between two worlds.
Bangladesh is a developing country and it is overpopulated. So, when you come to Dhaka, don’t expect the most scenic surroundings. Instead, you should understand that managing the inner workings of a gigantic settlement of people is rather complicated. Even New York City has a reputation of being infested by rats and smelling like garbage trucks. New York City is one of the major cities in the most developed country in the world.
Developed countries have had large periods of stability and have had more time to improve themselves. What I am saying is — have some patience and give Dhaka a chance, we can do better over time. In this guide, I’ll tell you about the places worth visiting in Dhaka and anything else that might make your visit be the best experience possible.
As mentioned earlier, Dhaka is not the most scenic. However, there are few historical sites worth visiting.
Dhaka’s Best Places
Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament)
If you look at the map, the National Parliament is the farthest away from all the other destinations. The main attraction of the national Parliament is its unique architecture, designed by the famous Professor Louis I. Kahn. There are greenery and fountains surrounding the monument and you can expect to catch some soothing breeze while taking a stroll.
Suhrawardy Udyan (Race Course Ground)
This place was formerly known as Ramna Race Course and it is currently a national memorial. It used to serve as the military club for British soldiers that were stationed in Dhaka. After colonial rule, it was referred as Dhaka Race Course and was sometimes used for legal horse races on Sunday’s. There is a museum located inside that features the history of Bangladesh spanning from Mughal rule to Independence. The museum is open to the public.
The place also has a monument called Shadhinota Tower or Independence Tower. According to Google, the most popular time to visit is during the evening (3 pm onwards) when the sun’s heat has started to decrease. Because Dhaka suffers from traffic congestion, you can visit early in the morning when it’s less crowded. Suhrawardy Udyan opens at 5 am.
Note: Anywhere you go in Dhaka, you have to start your commute 1 to 2 hours in advance to account for the unpredictable traffic and make sure you are on time. It helps to have a phone and internet connection handy — the best telephone network in Bangladesh is Grameenphone. Get one of their packages so that you have plenty of data and talk time.
Curzon Hall (University of Dhaka)
Curzon Hall is a building that houses the Faculty of Science at the University of Dhaka. It was built during British rule. The university held the reputation of being the Harvard or Cambridge of the East. When India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was a united region — the most brilliant individuals from the sub-continent would come to Bangladesh. The brightest minds passed through the halls of the University of Dhaka. During the Liberation War with Pakistan, the opposition targeted intellectuals from the University of Dhaka so that the civil society of Bangladesh could not help mobilize the masses.
Today, the University of Dhaka still represents academic excellence. The professors of the University of Dhaka are some of most highly educated individuals in the country and they teach primarily for recognition and respect — the salary is not very lucrative. The tuition fee for the University of Dhaka is highly subsidized and the admission exams are the most competitive in the nation. Bright minds from poor and middle-class backgrounds, all compete for University placement.
The University of Dhaka campus is very spacious and most parts are open to the public. Students are required to carry student identification.
The Hussaini Dalan was built during the Mughal rule. It served as the house of the Imam (religious leader) of the Shia community. The venue currently holds gatherings during Muharram, which is an event that commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain, the grandson of Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
Taking pictures inside the venue might be restricted. The venue is open from 7 am and people start visiting from the morning, but the most popular times are 3 pm onwards. Visit early to avoid crowds.
Lalbagh Fort was built by Mughal Emperor Azam Shah, son of Emperor Aurangzeb who was considered the last effective Mughal ruler. The fort remained incomplete, signifying the decline of the Islamic Empire around the world to the dominant British Empire. The Lalbagh Fort has three main buildings, a mosque (for prayer), a tomb (for the Mughal princess) and a residential building. The fort also had planned underground escape tunnels which never got completed.
The fort is located next to the Buriganga River, which is one of the most polluted bodies of water in Bangladesh. However, the Buriganga River is the central hub of Bangladesh’s transportation. You can travel to any part of Bangladesh by small ferries that transport millions of migrant workers to their ancestral lands. If you want scenery, this is the way to go. (But the river is very polluted and the smell is unbearable even to locals.) You can rent small cabins that have beds and access to bathrooms. It’s far from modern, but the amenities are modest and respectable by Bangladeshi standards.
Lalbagh Fort is located in Old Dhaka — a part of town that is known for kite festivals, fireworks, light shows and the most decadent cooking styles. However, Old Dhaka is very run down, the streets are very narrow and reflect that they were not built for the 21st century. Not a lot of development work goes on in old parts of Dhaka, so you have to very picky where you eat if you eat there at all. Transportation is restricted to small vehicles such as the rickshaw or the tuk-tuk (locally called CNG’s). Old Dhaka is also where a lot of cottage industries exist, such as shoemaking, leather processing, glass making, metal work, paper and plastics recycling. Because of this, you might be exposed to pungent smells (best to avoid this area for most — it’s unbearable even for locals) and industrial work residue on the streets which eventually contribute to the pollution in the area and the rivers.
Located in Old Dhaka is also the Armenian Church in an area known as Armanitola (which literally translates to “under the Armani” in Bengali). There was a noticeable Armenian presence in Dhaka during the 17th and 18th century. The Armenians were not the only Christian influence in Bangladesh, there’s also been Portuguese influence in the port city Chittagong. Other than Christian influence, there were likely Persian migrants to Bangladesh as well. Persian and Chinese presence in East Bengal is well documented.
Taara Masjid (Star Mosque)
The Star Mosque is a more recent structure built in the late 19th century by Mirza Golam Pir. The word or title “Pir” means the person is a Saint or Holy Man. The mosque is particularly famous for its elegant design. It is decorated with a pattern of blue stars. The mosque is located in the same area of Armanitola, where the Armenian Church is.
Ahsan Manzil was the official residence of the Nawab (Nawab means Muslim Mughal Nobleman) of Dhaka. It is located in the Kumartoli area near the Buriganga River. The architectural style of the building is known as Indo-Saracenic Revival. It is a combination of Indian, Islamic and Gothic architectures which was initiated by British architects during the 19th-century British rule.
There are many recent built attractions in Dhaka such as the Bangladesh National Museum, Bangladesh National Zoo, Liberation War Museum, a planetarium called the Novo Theater. These attractions are underwhelming by international standards and not worth visiting. The aforementioned attractions are special because of their historical importance. There are a few more historical structures but they are located in the outskirts of Dhaka and making a day trip for a single monument may not be ideal for most travelers — they are great if you are going on a picnic with a group, which is what most locals do.
Any public park in Dhaka is likely to have litter and can get crowded during evenings, but they are good for a daytime quick stroll or morning walks. Most middle-class families of Dhaka have private club memberships which grant them access to swimming pools, gardens and leisure venues in the city. Other than that, they also have guest houses in their ancestral lands that they visit to escape the hustle and bustle of Dhaka.
Before traveling to Dhaka, go through this website. I’ve made available for you information on finding accommodation, avoiding traffic and commuting more effortlessly, buying food and shopping for necessities in the most convenient ways possible. There are many mobile apps available that will greatly improve your Dhaka experience.