6 August 2018.
No other city evokes the starry-eyed wonder of the ancient silk road like Samarkand.
The iconic crossroad between east and west mythologised through the centuries by those who may never even have set foot here.
Much like the time-worn ruins of Athens or Rome, the mosaic-covered masterpieces of ancient Samarkand stand like misplaced islands amidst the urban sprawl of a modern city; glimmering peaks of turquoise and rustic terracotta ravaged by man, eaten away by time and now restored to its former splendour.
As one of the highlights of Central Asia and indeed, for many the sole reason for visiting Uzbekistan, Samarkand is, unsurprisingly, a little overcrowded, particularly with tour groups who bustle in and out of the most famous sights by the busload.
As spectacular as the ancient city is, it is perhaps important to manage your expectations before arriving.
Hawkers capitalise in a big way on the tourist trade and souvenir stands crowd out every corner of the main sights, the city is heavily restored which some say makes it feel more like a museum than the thousand years of history it represents, and the ‘old’ town, the living breathing heart of Samarkand, is hidden from view by an unsightly wall that was apparently erected to shield the mundanity of everyday life from visitors.
As a whole, these can detract somewhat from the majesty of the city, especially for somewhere with such a reputation. But don’t let that put you off. This fabled city will undoubtedly be a highlight of your time in Central Asia.
These are our picks for the most magnificent things to do in Samarkand.
* This post includes affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will earn us a small commission at no extra cost to you. *
Samarkand’s Registan is somewhere that conjures all the mystery of the silk road and for many, it was an image of this very place, dripping in history and glittering mosaics that first laid the seed. A vague idea that one day they might traipse halfway across the world to lay eyes on this masterpiece of ancient architecture.
To stand beneath the immense archways and towering minarets that list ever so slightly is nothing short of breathtaking.
The open plaza once existed as the main bazaar, a humming corner of trade between east and west rimmed by three magnificent madrassas of ochre walls inlaid with fragments of azure. Inside, the walls were filled with tiny Quran rooms, tranquil places of study, that are now crowded out with souvenirs.
While the conqueror Timur worked tirelessly to forge a ‘new’ Samarkand that would become the cultural heart of the region, his son Ulugbek endeavoured to make the city a place of study as well. It is rather fitting then, that the Ulugbek Madrassah, located on the left of the square, was a place of teaching science and philosophy, where Ulugbek himself taught.
Opposite, the Sher Dor Medressa somewhat controversially depicts a tiger-like figure on the intricate outer facade while the interior has some of the most splendid mosaics in the city.
Central Tilla Kari Medrassa is arguably the prettiest of the three with a peaceful tree-laden courtyard, a spectacular gold leaf and cobalt dome and fewer hawkers than the more other madrassas. You’ll also find an interesting black and white photography display which depicts the crumbling structures of Samarkand which fell into ruin after centuries of neglect and numerous earthquakes that damaged the city. Seeing the extent of the ruin, it is even more impressive to witness how the city has been resurrected from the rubble.
The best time to visit is early in the morning before the crowds arrive and vendors set up and you can easily spend half a day exploring the many chambers of the Registan, admiring the intricate tilework and learning about the centuries of history that occurred here.
There is also an interesting light and culture show held at night though we didn’t see it. From what we read, the show is by request only and costs a hefty sum so if you’re there at the right time as a bystander, you might be able to enjoy it for free.
Price | 30,000 som ($3.90) entrance fee or for an additional ‘tip’ you can sometimes gain entry before the official opening hours to enjoy the Registan on your own.
Perched on a hill amidst the city’s main cemetery and a short walk from the Registan, this intriguing alleyway of brightly tiled mausoleums is an essential place to visit in Samarkand.
Dressed in terracotta and turquoise, the necropolis is one of the city’s holiest sights and marks the final resting place of a number of Timur’s relatives.
Shah-I-Zinda is a sacred place with many visitors arriving to contemplate, pray and pay their respects. Be sure to be respectful during your visit.
It’s also a favourite stop for tour buses and the narrow walkway does get rather congested, though thankfully groups move through rather quickly. To avoid the crowds, we’d suggest arriving in the early morning or late afternoon.
Price | 10,000 som ($1.30).
The towering arch of the Bibi Khanym Mosque, built by Timur’s wife, will make even the tallest folks feel positively tiny.
Adorned in an elaborate mosaic that bleeds outwards from the latticework door at its centre, it’s yet another impressive sight in Samarkand that will have you picking your jaw up off the floor.
As the structural integrity of the domed chambers within the mosque has wained over the years, these rooms have been closed off to visitors. However, an extra ‘tip’ to the guard will enable you to climb onto the more stable though unfenced roof for views over the city.
Directly opposite stands the diminutive mausoleum of Bibi Khanym herself which can also be visited.
Price | 21,000 som ($2.70) plus a 5,000 som camera fee ($0.65)
Despite being set apart from the rest of the city’s sights, as such an honoured site, the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum attracts a number of visitors.
The airy courtyard leads into a dark chamber that marks the final resting place of Timur and Ulugbek among other revered associates. Despite the mournful atmosphere, it does get surprisingly noisy and crowded inside as numerous guides attempt to lead their groups through the tight space and hastily whisper their tales of Timur’s untimely death.
We’d suggest waiting for any groups to leave so you can observe the space in silence.
Price | 22,000 som ($2.60)
While being plied with copious amounts of wine was perhaps the last thing we expected to happen in Uzbekistan, that is exactly how we spent our final afternoon in the city.
As a strongly Islamic nation with a taste for vodka, it may surprise you to discover that Uzbekistan is home to a growing band of accomplished winemakers. Perhaps even more surprising is that the slightly sweet Uzbek tipple is something quite delicious.
If you need a break from exploring the ancient sites, you’ll find one such winery in the charming outer parts of the city where you can do a very generous 10 glass tasting of wine, cognac and balsam, a liqueur infused with citrus oils and spices.
Though the winery does cater mainly to larger groups, in low season we were able to enjoy a private tasting without booking in advance. During our visit, there were just two people working here though so you may need to be patient.
Word to the wise, you will certainly leave far more tipsy than when you walked in.
Where | Hovrenko Wine Factory, Mahmoud Kashgari, Samarkand
Price | Somewhat pricey for Uzbekistan, but at 45,000 som ($5.80), it’s still very affordable for the generous portions and makes a rather unique thing to do in Samarkand. Bottles to buy range from 20,000 som ($2.50) for the wines to 45,000 som ($5.80) for the aged cognacs and balsams.
Thought this once thriving warren of streets fed directly into the heart of Samarkand’s tourist hub, a ridiculously high wall has since been erected to remove the ‘eyesore’ of the local streets from us apparently easily offended tourists.
Though this ‘old’ part of the city admittedly doesn’t have the mystique of the ancient parts, it’s an interesting place to explore nonetheless and, we feel, an important part of the city’s story. Stop by the tiny antique shops, watch the kids playing in the street and get a taste for what life is like in modern day Samarkand.
You’ll find plenty of accommodation options in Samarkand to suit any budget but we’d definitely recommend staying close to the Registan for easy access to the historic sites.
Hotel Abdu – Bahodir 2 | We stayed at this guesthouse which is a decent option for those on a tight budget. The property offers both dorms and private rooms, a leafy open-air courtyard and a rooftop terrace with views over the Registan. As with all of Uzbekistan, wifi here is patchy but the breakfast is great.
Amir Hostel | Another great budget choice that receives excellent reviews from guests, this hostel is a little further from the historic centre, but visitors love the helpful staff, homely vibe and plentiful breakfast.
Muzaffar Hotel | A slightly nicer option in Samarkand, this new guesthouse offers spacious private rooms and a hearty breakfast in a great location.
Johongir Hotel | This friendly hotel is a favourite choice in Samarkand and lies just a short walk from the Registan. The property boasts a number of private rooms, a beautiful outdoor setting and an excellent breakfast.
Train travel is an easy, fast and affordable way to get around in Uzbekistan.
If you’re travelling in high season though, popular routes can sometimes book up so be sure to make a reservation at least a day or two in advance if you have a fixed itinerary. There are generally two types of trains, the fast more expensive trains and the older, slower and far cheaper trains, each with three classes.
Long-distance overnight routes can be particularly competitive and remember that many arrive at their destination in the dead of night so don’t forget to confirm your arrival time with your accommodation.
You can now search for train tickets and timetables on the Uzbek Railway website. By entering your start and end destinations in English, the relevant station will appear in Cyrillic so be sure to choose correctly. Otherwise, a reader has provided an update that there is now a ticket office in town. Marked as ‘City Train ticket office’ on Google Maps, you’ll find it on the corner of Amir Temur and Bustonsaroy Streets.
Uzbekistan Airways also travels between Tashkent and Samarkand most days with prices starting at just $23 for the 1-hour flight. Search for the best flight deals here.