Samarkand, Uzbekistan, was one of the highlights of my 3-month Silk Road journey. This is my recommended list of the best things to do in Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone,
by hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known.
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
– James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Journey to Samarkand
Indeed, nowhere else is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand, Uzbekistan. This ancient city was the true heart of the Silk Road, lying in the epicenter of Central Asia, and mid-way between the East and the West.
Samarkand is reminiscent of those bygone era when traders dressed in turbans and robes sauntered around with their camels and goods, bartering in the bazaars surrounding the mosques and medressahs. Wandering around the monuments, it’s easy to be transported through time into those days.
Prior to my visit, I had heard so much about the architecture of Uzbekistan, but nothing quite prepared me for it. The artful assembly of multicolored majolic tiles, intricately carved lattices and beautiful Arabic calligraphy, all combine to create such distinctive and outstanding display of Uzbek art and culture. Here’s a look at some of the best things to do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan:
Table of Contents
- Best Things to Do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
- Essential Information: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Best Things to Do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Visit The Registan Samarkand
If there’s one place you have to see in Uzbekistan, it is the Registan. Lauded as the most famous landmark in Central Asia, the Registan Samarkand is the centerpiece of the city. Translated to mean ‘sandy place’ in Tajik, the Registan is an ensemble of larger-than-life medressahs (Islamic schools) immaculately designed with majolica tiles, azure mosaics and Arabic scripts from the Qoran.
This was medieval Samarkand’s commercial center, and the plaza was the city’s main trading spot. The three medressahs have withstood years of earthquakes and Soviet destruction but have been – some say, indiscriminately – restored to its original glory.
The facades of these medressahs are definitely impressive, but sadly, what remains behind their gates are nothing more than souvenir shops. There is however an interesting photo exhibit and a beautiful golden-inlaid prayer hall in the Tilla-Kari Medressah that are worth visiting.
Explore the Bibi Khanym Mosque
Just a short walk from the Registan is the majestic Bibi Khanym Mosque, ordered to be built by the great warrior/king Timur’s Chinese wife Bibi Khanym. This was once one of the biggest mosques in the Islamic world, with a 41m-high cupola on its main entrance.
Much of the interior of the mosque is still in ruins but under restoration, but I think it adds to the historical charm of the place. Come in the evening to see the mosque all lit up in golden lights. It is generally fine to walk around at night in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Admire the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum
Shah-i-Zinda is in my own opinion one of the best places to visit in Uzbekistan. This avenue of mausoleum is known for having some of the most beautiful tile work in the Muslim world — and you can easily see the immaculate artwork upon climbing the 40 steps that lead to the avenue.
The walkway is flanked by massive tombs that are covered with shimmering azure majolica and terracotta tiles. This winding path of tombs eventually lead to the original grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who’s said to have brought Islam to the area. This is therefore a place of pilgrimage for Uzbeks — many villagers and people from around the country make their way here just to offer prayers in the holy shrine.
Pay Pilgrimage at the Gur-e Amir Complex
Another excellent display of Samarkand architecture is the Gur-e Amir Complex, a mausoleum of the Uzbek conqueror Timur. Gur-e Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King” It occupies an important place in the history of Persian-Mongolian Architecture as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs.
Wander around Siob Bazaar
One of my favorite things to do in Samarkand is getting lost in the Central Market. From the outside, Siob Bazaar looks overly-organized and almost sterile, nothing like the other chaotic and frenetic markets in Central Asia. But don’t be mistaken, venture in and you’ll find a sprawling mess of colorful spice stalls, vegetable stands and butchers.
There are also the usual labyrinth of shops selling cakes, toiletries, electrical products and everything under the sun. It’s a great place to interact with locals and learn more about them. I love the bazaars in Central Asia for their energy and colors, and this market is no different.
Day Trip from Samarkand: Shakhrisabz
Located 80km away from Samarkand, Shakhrisabz makes an interesting day trip from Samarkand if you have some extra time. Historically known as Kesh or Kish, Shahrisabz was once a major city of Central Asia and was an important urban center of Sogdiana.
In recent years the once charming centre of town was bulldozed and rebuilt as another of Uzbekistan’s giant, empty plazas, with a few medieval buildings marooned in the antiseptic blandness. Despite the renovations, it’s a worthwhile day trip from Samarkand. You can even do hikes and homestays in the surrounding mountains.
Essential Information: Samarkand, Uzbekistan
How to Get to Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Samarkand is located in the center of Uzbekistan and it’s about a five-hour drive from the capital of Tashkent. There are shared taxis and buses that travel the route. I traveled to Samarkand as part of a Silk Road overland trip with Oasis Overland.
There are several trains each day from Tashkent to Samarkand. They are fast, comfortable, and generally run on schedule. The trip from Tashkent to Samarkand takes less than 3 hours and you’ll pay 105,000 UZS for the fast train, and 70,000 UZS for the regular train.
You can book your train tickets online but the station names are all in Uzbek which can be confusing. Plus they’ll add a processing fee to the price of the ticket. You can save yourself some cash and confusion by buying your tickets directly at the station.
Getting around Samarkand
None of the taxis in Uzbekistan use a meter. So you’ll have to attempt to communicate your destination with taxi drivers, and negotiate the price before getting in.
The yellow taxis operate on a shared taxi system meaning they will continue to pick up additional people as long as there are extra seats. There is a flat rate of 4,000 UZS for most trips around downtown and the Registan.
Almost every car acts as an Uber though, and are ready to pick up anyone on the road for a small fee. They act as taxis, and can easily be flagged down on the road.
Where to Eat in Samarkand
This is one of the most popular Samarkand restaurants for good reason. The top-floor Russian-style room has a ski lodge vibe with bear skins on the walls, but serves up excellent value Gijduvan-style kebabs, salads and even sushi rolls. Expect to get pulled into the dancing by a conga line of Uzbek grannies if there’s a thumping wedding party on the ground floor. Read Tripadvisor reviews.
This Uzbek theme restaurant remains one of the most popular places for groups and independent travellers alike. The national- and Russian-influenced cuisine can be enjoyed in a variety of settings, from private country hut to airy street-side patio. A nightly belly-dancing show jiggles to life around 8pm. It’s a 4000S cab ride from the centre of town. Read Tripadvisor reviews.
Right in the heart of the city, this bright two-room cafe aimed at students serves everything from real coffee to breakfast pancakes, as well as salads, burgers and pizza (the spicy pizza comes recommended) in a breezy fast-food setting. It’s a reliable place that we kept coming back to. Read Tripadvisor reviews.