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.
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Rich in historical monuments this sand-colored city contains hundreds of mosques, madrassas (Islamic schools), bazaars, and caravanserais that are nicely preserved dating back to medieval times. The historic center of Bukhara was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
In a hurry?
But the architecture isn’t all, Bukhara also amazes with an abundance of handicrafts, 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.
History of Bukhara, Uzbekistan
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 was 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. It was officially founded as one of the main centers of Persian civilization under Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid Empire, around 500 BC.
Later passing through the hands of the Greco-Bactrians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Empire, and the Kushan Empire. Like who hasn’t ruled Bukhara?
Arabs and the Arrival of Islam in Bukhara
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.
What did the Mongols do to Bukhara?
In 1220 the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, arrived and laid siege to 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 executed emissaries Genghis Khan sent to establish peaceful trade relations. Unleashing the wrath of the Mongols into the Islamic world.
Later Bukhara was seized by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Amir Timur (Tamerlane) in 1370.
It was ruled by the Emirate of Bukhara from 1785-1920, until it was invaded by the Red Army and later 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. Phew. Are you still with me?
Top Things to Do in Bukhara + Tips
Visit the Stunning Poi-Kalyan Ensemble
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.
Admire the Kalyan Minaret
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 pray 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. Standing since 1127 at 45m (150 ft) it’s the beacon of Bukhara.
Wander the Kalyan Mosque
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 at when you’re visiting the Poi-Kalyan complex.
Take Photos of the Mir-i-Arab Madrassa
Still a functioning madrassa, it’s off-limits to tourists, but you can see it from Kalyan Square next to the minaret and the mosque. A great place to shoot some pictures!
Discover 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 Russian 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 a visit 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.
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. Hours 9am-5pm. Entrance 40k som ($4).
Go to the Beautiful 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.
Shop for Gifts at the Trading Domes
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.
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.
See the 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.
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.
View the Modern Center of Bukhara at Lyabi-Hauz
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.
Step Inside the 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. Hours 8am-6pm. The entrance fee is only 10k som ($1).
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Get Off the Beaten Path at 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.
Go to the Summer Palace of the Last Emir of Bukhara
The summer palace of the last Emir of Bukhara, known by the name Sitorai Mokhi-Khosa, 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.
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. Hours 9am-9pm daily. The entrance is 40k som ($3.50) per person.
Know Before You Go
There is an ATM in the main plaza known as the Lyabi-Hauz. You can take out USD there, and then exchange it for som at the Kapital Bank near Saroy restaurant. There is also an ATM inside the Asia Hotel.
What Language is Spoken in Bukhara?
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’s wise to learn a few basic Russian phrases before your trip. 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 Do You Need in Bukhara?
You can see most of the city and the surrounding area in two days. It’s ideal to stay at least one night to give yourself a little extra time and to visit the countryside and the summer palace.
How to Get to Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Bukhara can be reached by air, train, or 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 four options for train travel to Bukhara: the Afrosiyob bullet train (From Samarkand and Tashkent only), the slower Soviet Sharq train (connecting all major cities), the slowest night train, and a direct train to and from Khiva that runs a few times a week.
In our experience, tickets for the Afrosiyob train sell out in advance, so be sure to book ahead online during peak seasons! Tickets are available 45 days before departure.
If you’re taking the Sharq train, night train, or Khiva train, tickets are easier to come by, but you should still book in advance whether at the train station or online. At the train station, remember that your passport is required for purchasing tickets.
Don’t Miss: Samarkand Crossroad of Cultures
Train Info Cont.
Samarkand: The fast train will take around two and a half hours and the slow train takes about five hours.
Khiva: Khiva can now be reached directly from Bukhara on a new passenger train. It takes around six hours and costs 80k som ($9.40) each. 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.
For more 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 prices. We’d recommend asking your accommodation about what the costs should be.
Samarkand: takes around 4 hours
Khiva: takes around 6 hours
How to Get Around Bukhara
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 10-20k som ($1-2).
Photography Tips for Bukhara
The best time to take photos is at sunrise or sunset. If you have a DSLR or mirrorless it’s best to bring a variety of lenses. Ideally, bring fast wide-angle lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4 or better for photographing dark interiors. Wide-angles generally are the most useful when shooting 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.
My Bukhara Photography Gear
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Where to Eat in Bukhara
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.
We didn’t get the chance to eat here, but the restaurant is highly regarded.
Two Cafes You Shouldn’t Miss in Bukhara
Chasmai Mirob Restaurant
This is the perfect spot to have tea and snap some photos while watching the sunset over the Poi-Kalyan complex! Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Be sure to stay and watch the minaret illuminate! Yes, there is a 20% service charge.
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!
Where to Stay in Bukhara?
- Budget: Book a Room at Hotel Mironshox 9.8/10
- Mid-Range: Book a Room at Hotel Fatima Boutique 9.3/10
- Luxury: Book a Room at Komil Bukhara Boutique Hotel 9.5/10
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!
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