26 February 2018.
Like many cities in Central Asia, Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s sprawling capital, has an entirely different feel to elsewhere in the country. A city in a constant state of flux, with tasteless extravagance cropping up alongside poverty.
The leafy well-kempt boulevards lined with pretty pastel facades that make up the humming centre belie the brutal civil war that ravaged these city streets during the 90s and left the nation in ruins. Wander down any side street and you’ll soon see the city is undergoing enormous changes.
You’ll quickly find, however, that there aren’t a great deal of things to do in Dushanbe and it’s perhaps not a place that many travellers will fall in love with, but like most who visit, you’ll likely end up spending far more time in the city than you planned.
Whether you’re coming off your Pamir Highway roadtrip, preparing to hike through the majestic Fann Mountains, waiting for your visa to be processed or simply taking some time to recoup after months on the road, the homely hostels you’ll find in Dushanbe make it a surprisingly difficult place to leave.
If you’ve got some extra time to kill and are wondering what to do in Dushanbe, these activities should keep you busy for a day or two.
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The real reason many people get stuck in Dushanbe? Waiting for visas!
Don’t let the pretty pastel streets fool you, the visa application process in Dushanbe is where the nightmarish bureaucracy of the region really shines through.
Visas for Uzbekistan are generally easy to acquire if your paperwork is in order with a streamlined process proposed for late in 2018. Don’t miss our guide to applying for your Uzbekistan visa in Dushanbe here.
UPDATE | Hurrah, that streamlined process is here! As of July 2018, a number of nations are now eligible to apply for a single entry e-visa for stays of up to 30. Read the post linked above for more details.
Turkmen visas are a different story entirely with the high rejection rates threatening to seriously disrupt your travel plans.
If you plan to apply for a Turkmen visa in Dushanbe, we’d recommend doing it as soon as possible, and don’t forget to have your Letter of Invitation organised in advance if you need one.
Dushanbe’s lively central market is the main hub of trade in the city.
If you’ve been on the road for a while and are craving a good home-cooked meal, you’ll find everything you need right here to cook up something delicious of your own.
Alongside all the usual fruit and vegetables, you’ll also find dried fruit and other snacks perfect for your onward travels in the region.
Between the perfectly manicured rose bushes and animated fountains of Rudaki Park, the towering Dushanbe Flagpole is unmissable.
Erected in 2011 as the world’s tallest flagpole reaching an impressive 165m, it became the showpiece of the city at great expense. This accolade didn’t last long though when just three years later, the Jeddah Flagpole which stands a paltry 5 metres taller was completed in Saudi Arabia.
These ever-growing flagpoles seem to be an amusing source of competition in the region, with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan both former holders of the title.
Within Rudaki Park you’ll also find various other statues and monuments, including the prominent Ismoil Somoni at the main entrance, the mosaic-adorned archway that highlights the figure of Rudaki in the centre and the National Museum located on the opposite side of the lake.
Though it was closed during our visit, this enormous building which the Lonely Planet sums up perfectly as the “love child of a classical mansion and gigantic cement mixer” (one glance and you’ll understand why) is a worthwhile place to visit in Dushanbe to gauge an understanding of the country’s history, particularly if escaping the stifling summer heat is a priority. For those particularly interested in historical artefacts, the National Museum of Antiquities which lies outside of the park also appears to have an excellent selection of relics.
Even without a visit to these Dushanbe attractions, the park is a wonderful place to spend a few hours. There’s plenty of greenery and shaded benches to enjoy, as well as some brightly coloured (and very squeaky) old-school exercise equipment which is rather amusing to try out.
If you’ve been on the road for a while, there will definitely be some foods that you’re craving. Similar to our stops in Almaty and Bishkek, we took the opportunity of being in a big city to gorge all things international.
Right on Rudaki Avenue we found Taj, an excellent Indian restaurant with an extensive menu, large portions and reasonable prices, though a little pricey for Tajikistan, of around 35 to 50 somoni ($4 to $5.50).
Address: 81 Rudaki Avenue | TripAdvisor
UPDATE | Taj is still listed online at this address but has since moved to the ground floor of the Safir Hotel which is a little further out of town.
Quirky and colourful Art Cafe was another surprising find tucked away beside a small park on Rudaki Avenue. With a detailed Cyrillic menu and a friendly waiter who spoke very little English, we struggled somewhat to choose a specific dish and instead opted for an ‘anything with chicken’ approach and let them do the rest. The meals were delicious with imaginative spice combinations and creamy sauces, a rare and refreshing find in Central Asia. If you end up taking our approach, do be sure to confirm the price before you send the waiter away with your order as some dishes are significantly more expensive than others, think 20 somoni ($2) for the chicken, and 50 somoni ($6) for the beef.
Address: Unfortunately not marked on any map we could find, Art Cafe is on the lower section of Rudaki Avenue (where the lanes are separated) on the right-hand side when walking north and set back on a little plaza near the Ministry of Culture.
Once an enormous complex of terraces and staircases that climbed toward the impressive hilltop fortress, today all that remains are the large twin-towered gates that mark the entry. If you’ve come from Uzbekistan, this reconstructed fortress may not be as impressive as what you’ve already seen, but if you’re looking for an escape from the city, it’s a pleasant enough place for a day trip.
Just 24km outside of Dushanbe, the complex is an easy half hour drive which is possible to reach by taxi or marshutka. Confirm prices with your hostel before setting out.
For a major city, Dushanbe doesn’t have a huge range of accommodation options for tourists.
There are however two wonderful hostels where almost all guests end up spending far longer than they planned, won over by the delicious breakfasts, homely vibes and tranquil courtyards where travellers gather daily to swap stories about their journey through the Pamirs or the Silk Road masterpieces of Uzbekistan.
Green House Hostel | We can happily recommend Green House as one of the best hostels we stayed at in Central Asia. Dorms are excellent value while the slightly pricier private rooms are spacious and comfortable. An excellent cooked breakfast is included, wifi is decent, a communal kitchen is available and there are plenty of common areas to meet fellow travellers. It’s no wonder people book for a night and end up staying for a week.
Or search other options for hostels and guesthouses here.
Pamir Highway. If you’re heading off along the Pamir Highway, you can either hire a car and driver from Dushanbe or take a shared 4WD taxi to Khorog and begin the trip from there. Though we did the trip in reverse from Osh, don’t miss our full Pamir Highway itinerary and Essential Tips for your trip.
Fann Mountains. Missing out on the majestic Fann Mountains was one of our biggest regrets when leaving Central Asia. The mountains and lakes of the region can be reached either as part of an organised tour or by shared taxi between Dushanbe and Sarytag. Public transport is a little unreliable in these parts though so check with your hostel before setting out.
Uzbekistan. If Uzbekistan is your next stop, you can either travel directly to from Dushanbe to Samarkand via Denau, or to Tashkent via Khujand. Planning to keep Tashkent as our final stop, we took the somewhat convoluted route to Samarkand which you can read about here. Thankfully, since our trip the Penjikent border has opened meaning the direct route between the cities is also now an option.