TRAVEL GUIDE TO BUKHARA, UZBEKISTAN
The Place of Good Fortune, The City of Merchants, The City of Copper, Bumiskat. Buxoro. Bokhara. Бухорo. Bukhara. The long list of names given to this age-old city seems to be limitless. However, the place they all describe is identical. An oasis city along the Silk Road, Bukhara has been a center of scholarship, Islam, culture, and trade for centuries. The historic center of Bukhara was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
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Rich in historical monuments it contains hundreds of mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), bazaars and caravanserais that are nicely preserved dating back to medieval times.
But the architecture isn’t all, Bukhara also amazes with an abundance of folk crafts, renowned particularly for suzanis (large hand-woven textiles), carpets, gold embroidery, miniature art, metalwork, and wood carving. Staring at the billowing turquoise domes and sand-colored towers against bright blue skies made Bukhara a favorite stop on our Uzbekistan itinerary.
Early Middle Ages
It’s believed that the area around Bukhara has been inhabited for up to five thousand years! With the city itself being between 2000-2,500 years old.
Nestled near the Zeravshan River delta this was a fertile area that became a place to gather water in the vast arid desert. It was once a part of Sogdia, an ancient Iranian civilization that included territory in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
The Sogdian culture was a hybrid of Iranian and Chinese influences, its religion a mix of Zoroastrianism and other traditions including Nestorian Christianity.
Sogdians were the great traders of Central Asia. They ventured along the Silk Road between empires to trade goods and ideas. However, most of their cultural heritage and language vanished once Islam made it to Bukhara.
One thing that is known about this mysterious city is that it has been repeatedly invaded throughout its history. The city was officially founded as one of the main centers of Persian civilization under Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid Empire, around 500 BC (although some scholars and scientists dispute the age). Later passing through the hands of the Greco-Bactrians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, and the Kushan Empire.
Arrival of Islam
The Arabs came in 650 AD and Islam finally took root in 751 AD, becoming the capital of the Samanid Empire. During the Golden Era, Bukhara became the intellectual capital of the Islamic world.
Topics of study included theological sciences, math, law, logic, music, and poetry. After the disintegration of the Samanid Empire, the Karakhanids took control for a few hundred years until they were defeated by Ala ad-Din Muhammad II (Khwarazmian Shah) and their dynasty was eliminated.
Middle ages through recent history
In 1220 the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, arrived and sacked the city. It was the first Muslim city conquered by the Mongols who came to Bukhara with revenge in their hearts after the Khwarazmian Shah (in a decision that changed history forever) arrogantly executed emissaries that Genghis Khan sent to establish peaceful trade relations. Unleashing the wrath of the Mongols into the world.
Later it was seized by Amir Timur (Tamerlane) in 1370. The Shaybanids eventually ended the Timurid Empire, making it the capital of their state under the Khanate of Bukhara.
It then became ruled by the late Emirate of Bukhara 1785-1920, until it was invaded by the Red Army and eventually became part of the Soviet Union (USSR). After the Soviet Union fell in 1991 it is now the fifth-largest city in an independent Uzbekistan.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
There is an ATM next to Budreddin Restaurant and an ice cream shop in the main tourist plaza known as the Lyabi-Hauz. You can take out USD there, and then exchange it into som at the Kapital Bank near Saroy restaurant. There is also an ATM inside the Asia Hotel. Tipping in restaurants isn’t customary, but if you want to, you certainly can.
Interestingly, the main language spoken in Bukhara is the Tajik dialect of Persian. However, the second language is Russian and most of the signs and menus are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Uzbek is also spoken but to a lesser extent.
It would be wise to learn a few basic Russian phrases before your trip. Young people speak the most English. Google translate offline is helpful to have for any communication issues. Just remember to download the Russian language onto your phone before arrival.
How long to stay in Bukhara: 2-3 days
You can see most of the city in two days with three days being the most you’d need to spend there. It’s ideal to give yourself a little extra time to visit some less touristic areas, like the local bazaar, and to wander the romantic backstreets.
GETTING IN AND OUT
Bukhara can be reached by air, train, or a shared taxi.
The airport in Bukhara is serviced by Aeroflot and Uzbekistan Airways. You can fly in from Tashkent, Urgench, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
There are three primary options for train travel: the Spanish designed Afrosiyob bullet train, the slower Soviet Sharq train, and the night train. In our experience, tickets for the Afrosiyob train sell out in advance because of tour groups, so be sure to book ahead online during peak seasons! *There is not Afrosiyob service to Khiva yet (summer 2019).
You can book tickets online through the Uzbek Railways website, although some people complain that the site is confusing and buggy, or through a reliable Uzbek travel agency, but understand that you’ll pay a commission fee.
If you’re taking the Sharq train or night train, tickets are easier to come by, but should still be booked in advance whether at the train station, online or through your accommodation. The cheapest way is to do it yourself at the train station, remember that your passport is required for the purchasing of tickets.
Samarkand: The fast train will take around two and a half hours and the slow train takes about five hours.
Khiva: Khiva now has a train station that can be reached directly from Bukhara on a new passenger train. It takes around six hours and cost us 80k som ($9.40) each. If you’re going from Khiva to Bukhara, unfortunately, there is no direct train, so you’ll have to go through Urgench. At the time of writing, there are still no Afrosiyob trains connecting Bukhara and Khiva yet.
Tashkent: There are two daily Afrosiyob trains, one Sharq train, and one night train between Bukhara and Tashkent. The Afrosiyob train takes around four hours and the Sharq train takes six hours.
Bukhara’s train station is actually in the city of Kogon (7km away) so we recommend buying your onward tickets when you arrive at the station if you don’t have them pre-booked. We paid around 25k som ($3) to get between the train station and the city center.
For more in-depth train info see this Advantour page.
By shared taxi
We didn’t take a shared taxi to or from Bukhara so unfortunately, we don’t know the exact prices. We’d recommend asking your accommodation about what the costs should be.
The advantage of taking a taxi is that you’re usually picked up and dropped off directly from and to your hotels. The disadvantage is that the rides can be pretty cramped.
Samarkand: takes around 4 hours
Khiva: takes around 6 hours
Bukhara is very walkable, and you really should take the chance to wander the ancient streets. In case you do need a taxi they can be found on the street next to Lyabi-Hauz square. Taxis within the city are very cheap, no more than 10k som ($1.20).
THINGS TO SEE IN BUKHARA
This is an Islamic religious complex that contains the most significant architecture in Bukhara. It includes the Kalyan minaret, Kalyan mosque, and the Mir-i-Arab madrassa.
Rumor is that the great conqueror Genghis Khan (a man who bowed to no one) once bowed his head to this minaret. He was so impressed by it, that he ordered it to be spared while the Mongols destroyed most of the rest of Bukhara in the 13th century.
This minaret has had many uses over the years. There are 16 windows near the top from where Muslims were traditionally calling citizens to prayer five times a day. During wartime, it was a watchtower.
It even served as a weapon for the government as the worst criminals of Bukhara were once thrown from the tower, plummeting to their death below.
This minaret is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing since 1127 at 45m (150 ft) it’s the beacon of Bukhara. Unfortunately, you can no longer go up to the top.
The Kalyan Mosque has been the main mosque of Bukhara for 500 years. The one you see today is from the 15th century, although a much older mosque stood here before it. Not nearly as extravagantly decorated as other mosques, but it’s still worth having a look in when you’re visiting the Poi-Kalyan complex.
Still a functioning madrassa, it’s off-limits to tourists, but you can see the front of it from Kalyan Square next to the minaret and the mosque.
The Ark of Bukhara
The oldest structure in Bukhara and the former royal residence, this fortress has been intimidating visitors since the 5th century AD. It was inside this ancient citadel where “The Great Game” played out.
A time during the 19th century when the Russia Empire and the British Empire almost went to war over who controlled territory in Central Asia. Two British officers Stoddart and Conolly were both imprisoned inside the Ark by the emir of Bukhara and were eventually executed.
Something to keep in mind when considering the entrance fee is that the outside is far more impressive than the inside. Firstly you don’t get access to the whole site, secondly, it seems overly restored and you might find yourself bumping elbows with tour groups in dimly lit rooms.
If you decide to go in you’ll be able to see the bug pit. Where the emirs once kept prisoners inside of a deep hole with a grate on it, kicking down any passing insects or spiders that crossed their path. Entrance 15k som + 5k som camera fee ($2).
Bolo Hauz Mosque
Located just opposite the ark. Slip off your shoes and step inside the violet interior, the chandelier that sits above your head lightly illuminates the room. Standing since 1712, this was our favorite mosque in Bukhara. Keep in mind that it’s still in active use, so you’ll need to be respectful of that. The entrance is free, but donations are welcome.
Walk around the Old Town & Jewish Quarter
See the non-touristic side of Bukhara and walk through the muddy alleyways and mahallas. Wander through the old Jewish Quarter where Jews in Bukhara have lived for more than 600 years.
Once one of the world’s largest communities numbering 25,000 people now only 100-150 Jews remain. A Jewish cemetery and two remaining synagogues are remnants of this ancient Jewish community.
These restored trading domes give you a feeling of what Bukhara might have been like back in the day. Sure it’s set up for tourists, but it’s worth seeing the various textiles, embroidery, handbags, jewelry, carpets, scarves, and ceramics! Maybe you’re looking for souvenirs? Be sure to bargain.
Abdulaziz-Khan Madrassa & Ulugbek Madrassa
The Abdulaziz-Khan Madrassa has had significantly less restoration done to it and still has some of its original thousand-year-old tiles.
Unfortunately, it now has too many vendors, but for the cheap price, it’s still worthwhile. The entrance also includes access to the Ulugbek Madrassa across the way, which is one of the oldest buildings in Bukhara. The cost is 8k som ($0.80).
Pro tip: Don’t miss the student dormitory room hidden behind some of the vendor stalls. You can climb the stairs and go into a dorm room that students (who knows who) lived in way back when.
Meaning “by the pond” this plaza represents the heart of Bukhara. It has one of the few remaining ancient water sources left in the city.
Sprinkled with old mulberry trees, it has three religious buildings surrounding the water. In the north is Kukeldash Madrassa (the largest in Bukhara), in the west Khanaka, and Nadir Divan-begi Madrassa in the east.
The area has become rather touristy, but you’re sure to walk by it if you find yourself in Bukhara. Once a meeting point for caravans and travelers, the modern thing to do here is to grab an ice cream cone or a bite to eat and relax.
Ismail Samanid Mausoleum
This highly decorated baked brick shrine originated somewhere between 892 and 943 AD as the resting-place of Ismail Samani, a powerful emir of the Samanid dynasty. It stands as the only remaining monument from that era.
It was once the centerpiece of an ancient cemetery that has survived largely in part to being buried in mud by floods, only to re-emerge later, unearthed by archaeologists. Simple, but looking back it was one of the most unique mausoleums we saw in Uzbekistan. The entrance fee is 4k som ($0.50).
Chor Minor Mosque
The Chor Minor is hiding inside of a neighborhood a short walk from the Lyabi-Hauz. It’s a historic gate for an old madrassa that no longer exists. Famous for its four domed pillars it’s worth a quick stop. You can climb stairs to the roof for a decent view.
Chor Bakr Necropolis
For something different that many tourists never see, head to this serene necropolis located outside of Bukhara. A significant site of the Shaybanids, it’s full of family tombs and old burial sites and sits mostly unrestored.
Summer Palace of the Last Emir of Bukhara
The summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara, known by the name Sitora-i Mokhi-Khossa, translates to the palace of moon-like stars. It dates from the beginning of the 20th century and is a great place to peer into the extravagant life of a Central Asian despot.
This fading gem is a mix of both Russian and Bukharan architecture and design. There are exhibits inside where you can see the royal wardrobe, jewelry, and a collection of Chinese porcelain. Peacocks proudly strut around the property, which is in desperate need of some restorative work.
It’s not a must-see, but if it’s a sunny day and not too hot, this is a nice place to wander around! Two hours should be enough. It’s about 5km outside the city in the countryside so you’ll need to take a taxi to get there. We paid 10k som ($1.20) to get there. The entrance is 30k som ($3.50) per person.
The best time to take photos is at sunrise or sunset. If you have a DSLR it’s best to bring a variety of lenses. Ideally, bring fast lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or better for photographing dark interiors.
Wide angles seem to be the most useful when shooting the architecture in Uzbekistan. The time to shoot at most sites to avoid crowds is early in the morning. However, the most dramatic light overall tends to be around sunset when shooting the Poi-Kalyan complex, the Ark, and the various madrassas. Tripod use is typically permitted.
WHERE TO STAY
Budget: Mekhtarin Guesthouse
We stayed at Mekhtarin Guesthouse. The beds and comforters are soft and comfortable (which isn’t always the case in Uzbekistan). The ornately decorated rooms surround an inner courtyard with a tapchan.
It’s tucked into a local neighborhood in the old town so it can be a bit tricky to find. However, once we found it, we really loved wandering the narrow dirt roads. The staff is really friendly and is quick to help in any way they can. Just don’t expect the best Wi-Fi.
Mid-Range: Hotel Fatima Boutique
Hotel Fatima Boutique is located in the heart of the city. The spacious, decorative rooms get nice natural light and overlook a charming courtyard. The friendly staff is the icing on top.
High End: Amelia Boutique Hotel
Amelia Boutique Hotel is inside of a 19th-century Jewish merchant’s house. Each room is a piece of art in traditional Bukharian style, with an open-air terrace perfect for drinking tea. It’s just a few blocks from Lyabi-Hauz and within walking distance of all the main sites.
WHERE TO EAT
This was our go-to Uzbek restaurant in Bukhara. We must have eaten there at least three times. We enjoyed their Bukhara plov, as well as their dumplings and chicken kebabs.
The service can be a little slow, but the food is delicious, the atmosphere is nice, the price is right, and it’s popular with locals and tourists alike.
Part of the hotel Lyabi House, this restaurant is kind of hard to find, but once you arrive, tasty food and a relaxing atmosphere are waiting. Portions are not huge, but they’re high quality.
Some of the best food we had in Uzbekistan! International cuisine with polite service. Loved the tuna salad, tender lamb, and meat rolls. Vegetarian options are also available.
TWO CAFES YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
Chasmai Mirob Restaurant
This is the perfect spot to have tea and snap some photos while watching the sunset over the Poi-Kalyan complex! The staff here is sincere and left a good impression on us. Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Be sure to stay and watch the minaret illuminate!
The Silk Road Teahouse
Sit in a tapchan and relax at this family-run teahouse. Apparently, this family has been making tea and trading spices for 600 years.
What we liked about this place was that if you buy a pot of tea it includes a free refill and you can choose whichever tea you’d like to fill it with! Try the spicy ginger tea or fragrant cardamom & saffron! Their coffees are also nice.
Bukhara is truly a masterpiece! We’ll never forget this one of a kind destination where we had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of so many cultures, conquerors, and kingdoms.
As Uzbekistan’s most romantic city, it has a huge potential for growth in tourism. We hope that happens so that it gets the credit it deserves and the world can learn more about this fascinating region full of ancient treasures!
Have you ever heard of Bukhara? Would you consider visiting? Comment below…