TRAVEL GUIDE TO SAMARKAND, UZBEKISTAN
It’s hard to imagine a vivid place like Samarkand even exists outside of your wildest dreams. Samarkand is the star attraction in a country that is laden with beautiful sights and historical treasures. If you decide to visit, you’ll be fortunate enough to see one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia at the center of the Great Silk Road.
Travelers come to Samarkand to see the architectural splendor created by one of the world’s forgotten tyrants. Amir Timur (Tamerlane) was a crippled cattle thief turned world conqueror, responsible for the death of up to 17 million people.
During his conquest of Asia, when he slaughtered the populations of entire cities, he would spare only scholars, engineers, and the most skilled artisans. He would bring them back to Samarkand to beautify his capital with the spoils of his victories.
The result was the creation of the Timurid structures that give Samarkand it’s UNESCO world heritage status. The most noteworthy being the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Gur-e-Amir, and Shah-i-Zinda. The majestic mosaics on these psychedelic buildings are all a manifestation of Timur’s grandest vision.
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TEN HISTORICAL FACTS ABOUT SAMARKAND
- Samarkand has been at the crossroads of world cultures for 2,500 years.
- It was originally founded in the 7th century BC as Afrasiyab.
- Formerly known as Maracanda, it became the capital of Sogdiana in the 4th century.
- It was captured in 329 BC by Alexander the Great and destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220 AD.
- In the 14th century under Timur, Samarkand was the most important economic and cultural center in Central Asia.
- It was the center for the exchange of goods and ideas along the ancient Silk Road from Europe to Asia.
- Samarkand sat abandoned for up to 50 years from 1720-1770.
- In the 20th century, the Soviets did most of the restorations you’ll see today.
- Samarkand is a city of contrasts, blending old Timurid architecture with Soviet Brutalism.
- Today silk weaving and textiles remain one of the city’s major industries.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Bring clean crisp cash in USD. Unfortunately, it’s still not always easy to pay with a debit or credit card. Banking is still new in Uzbekistan. There is an ATM in the Ulugbek Madrassa in the Registan and a Kapital Bank ATM near the train station. Tipping isn’t customary in restaurants, but leave a little extra if you wish.
How long to stay in Samarkand: 2-3 days
That should be sufficient to see everything. You could do everything in one crazy day if you’re zipping around in a taxi. At the very least you should see the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Gur-e-Amir, and Shah-i-Zinda, but that won’t give you much time to appreciate it all.
GETTING IN AND OUT
Samarkand has one of the busiest airports in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan Airways, Aeroflot, and Turkish Airlines serve this area. Most international flights come in from Istanbul, Moscow, St. Petersburg, as well as domestic flights from Tashkent, Bukhara, and Urgench.
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. Keep in mind that your passport is required for the purchase of tickets.
Tashkent: The Afrosiyob train takes only 2 hours. The Sharq train from Tashkent to Samarkand costs 70k som ($8) per person and it takes around 4 hours.
Bukhara: The Afrosiyob train takes a little over an hour, while the Sharq train takes a little over two.
By shared taxi
Costs for shared taxis depend on what driver you get and how hard you bargain.
Tashkent: It cost 160k som ($19) for both of us to take a shared taxi from Tashkent to Samarkand, and took around 4 hours.
Bukhara: It takes around 4 hours. We’re not sure about the price.
For more in-depth train info see this Advantour page.
Samarkand is mostly walkable with a few things being further away. You’ll likely need a taxi to go to some of the restaurants and the Ulugbek Observatory. Luckily taxis are cheap, for instance, a typical ride costs 4-8k som (no more than $1).
THINGS TO DO & SEE IN SAMARKAND
Explore the heart of ancient Samarkand, Registan Square
Historically, it was a marketplace full of tents, farmers, and merchants. A place where caravans and travelers met to peddle their wares. It was also a gathering site for public announcements and executions (yikes). Timur’s Registan ensemble is composed of three ornately decorated madrassas: Ulugbek, Sher Dor, and Tilya-Kori.
We loved Registan Square so much that we ended up visiting three times. Don’t miss the video mapping show (in English) that starts most evenings at 9pm. We thought it’d be cool, but it surpassed all of our expectations! The site is open daily from 8am to 7pm. The entrance is 40k som per person ($5).
See the astronomical Ulugbek Madrassa
The Ulugbek Madrassa was the first of the Registan madrassas. It was built by astronomer, scholar, and grandson of Amir Timur, Ulugbek in 1420. People came from far and wide to study inside this madrassa, where he held lectures on astronomy and mathematics. It may be a coincidence, but the geometric mosaic above the iwan resembles stars against the night sky.
See a traditional Uzbek concert at the Sher Dor Madrassa
The Sher Dor Madrassa was the next to be completed, almost 200 years later, in 1636. The portal of this madrassa is adorned with an unusual character that resembles a sun with a face rising over a lion-tiger (liger?). This is unique to Islamic art and design, which doesn’t usually include living things. It’s possible that it hints at the Zoroastrian influence of Uzbekistan’s past.
Pro tip: You can access the upper level of the Sher Dor Madrassa. Ask the gift shop owners to show you the way, you’ll be expected to reciprocate by looking in their shop.
Registan square closes at 7pm, but there’s a traditional concert for 40k som ($5) inside the Sher Dor Madrassa that you really shouldn’t miss! The twirling dancers, musicianship, and costumes are excellent, and honestly, it’s just cool to be inside the Registan at night.
Step into a re-creation of heaven itself inside the Tilya-Kori Mosque
The Tilya-Kori Madrassa was the last to be added to the trio, completed in 1660. Meaning “gilded” or “decorated in gold” in Persian, the mosque houses the most splendid ceiling in Central Asia. It once functioned as the Grand Mosque of Samarkand. You’ll find this masterpiece on the west side of the madrassa.
Admire the gigantic Bibi-Khanym Mosque
This huge mosque (completed in 1404) was likely built to celebrate Amir Timur’s conquering of Delhi and to pay tribute to his favorite wife, Bibi Khanym. Supposedly he even had Iranian architects brought in to help with design and up to 95 elephants brought in from India to carry the construction materials.
Unfortunately, his ambitions were a little too big and the building had structural problems that kept it from standing the test of time. Consequently, a powerful earthquake in 1897 destroyed a large portion of the mosque. This photo kept in the library of Congress shows how it looked afterward. Don’t forget to walk to the backside of the mosque and step in to see the ruins behind the renovations. It’s eerie in there!
In the courtyard, there is a stone placeholder for the Quran. There’s a belief that if a woman who hasn’t been able to get pregnant comes to Bibi-Khanym Mosque, touches the Quran reading stand and prays, she will be able to have a baby. The entrance fee is 25k som ($3) and a ticket is good for three days.
Walk through living history at the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum
The origins of this necropolis begin 1,000 years ago with the cousin of the prophet Mohammed who is believed to be buried here. The legend goes that he was beheaded while preaching the word of Islam. Being divine and all he didn’t die, and instead took his head into a well where he drank holy water and became immortal, hence the name Shah-i-Zinda, meaning the “The Living King”.
Since then (between the 9th and 19th century), several burial sites housing the remains of numerous people have been added, including the tombs of Amir Timur’s sisters.
Go early or stay until sunset if you want to see this corridor of decorated mausoleums at its finest. Entrance costs only 15k som ($2).
Be wonderstruck by Timur’s tomb at Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum
This Persian style blue fluted dome contains the remains of Amir Timur, as well as his sons and grandson Ulugbek. It’s interior is second only to the Tilya-Kori Mosque in terms of grandeur. Completed in 1404 we learned that this was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal and you can certainly see the similarities between the two structures. Although the heavily restored interior of this mausoleum is far more impressive than the Taj Mahal’s. Babur (father to the Mughal Empire and descendant of Timur) later brought his architectural genius with him to India. The entrance fee is 25k som ($3).
Have a look around the Siyab Bazaar, the largest market in Samarkand
This market in Samarkand is a great place to meander, interact with the locals, and take some photos. Try the pomegranates, Uzbek pistachios, national candy, or sample the local bread.
We found a tasty local restaurant on the fringe of the market. It’s near the clothes vendors. You’ll notice people eating in tapchans near the back of the bazaar and a wooden sign above the door that says Chayxana. They have the best lagman (noodle soup) we had in Uzbekistan.
Additionally, the women who work there speak some English. You can find its exact location on the maps.me app. Combine a visit to this market with the Bibi-Khanym Mosque nearby.
Visit an ancient stargazing structure at the Ulugbek Observatory
Lying on the outskirts of town, this is a good place to learn more about the famous Islamic astronomer, Ulugbek, whose findings later influenced many contemporary European astronomers. There is a small museum on-site and a statue of him.
Most of the original observatory was destroyed by religious fanatics, but you can still see what remains of the monolithic arc that was used to study the sun, moon, and stars. Not a must see, but something else to do if you have extra time. The entrance fee is 25k som ($3).
The best time to take photos is the same as it always is anywhere else, at sunrise or sunset. If you have a DSLR it’s best to bring a variety of lenses. Bring fast lenses with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider for shooting dark interiors. Wide angles seem to be the most useful when shooting the magnificent buildings in Uzbekistan. They do allow tripods at most sites.
The Registan is best in the early morning to avoid the big crowds. Don’t forget your tripod for photos at night! Be mindful that using wide angle lenses close to the buildings will distort your image significantly. Try some shots from further back with a midrange lens for good measure.
Pro tip: Show up early at 7-7:30am and ask the guards politely if you can enter to take photos, they’ll more than likely let you in for a tip before it officially opens. If not, at least you’re there first.
The mausoleum will be backlit in the morning. The best light is in the late afternoon, but you’ll have to be patient with the crowds. Bring your tripod for tack sharp interior photos or night shots when it’s all lit up.
We went here both in the morning and the evening. Avoid mid-day and Sundays, when it’s the busiest. Inside the mausoleums, you’ll need a fast lens if you’re shooting handheld to avoid pushing the ISO too high.
WHERE TO STAY
Budget: Hotel Minora/Trip.LE Guesthouse
Trip.LE Guesthouse was the perfect hub for exploring the sites of Samarkand. It’s just around the corner from the Registan, no more than a five-minute walk. The rooms are spacious and cozy and the breakfast is big. Mohammed and Oybek were very friendly and helpful with everything we needed. If you stay a combined seven nights at their location in Tashkent and Samarkand, they’ll give you one night for free.
Mid-Range: Jahongir Guesthouse
Jahongir Guesthouse is within walking distance to all the major sites of the city, including the Registan. The rooms are decorated tastefully and you can enjoy hot tea while sitting on the garden terrace. The staff goes above and beyond to help you make the best of your stay.
High End: L’Argamak
L’Argamak is located near the Gur-e-Amir, and it can be seen from the hotel’s rooftop terrace. Great location, welcoming staff, spacious rooms, and the best breakfast. Great value for the money if you want something more luxurious!
WHERE TO EAT
We found the food to be the best in Samarkand overall in comparison to other regions of the country. The obi non (bread) dipped in sour cream is the stuff of legends. Here are our top picks for where to get your grub on!
Try fresh tasty food in this bright modern space. The menu is in Russian, but they have photos of the dishes on a tablet to help you choose. It’s a great place to eat when you’ve had enough Uzbek cuisine or you’re just in the mood for Western food. We loved the chicken with roasted veggies, pasta, and shrimp arugula salad.
Right behind Bibi-Khanym Mosque, this was our go-to place in Samarkand. They have some quality vegetarian options and some of the best salads in Uzbekistan – try them all. The carrot salad is excellent (if you love garlic) and the shredded cabbage cucumber salad is delightfully fresh and crunchy. It’s cheap too, the salads start at 5k som ($0.60). They also have some delicious pillowy dumplings. Sit outside in a tapchan and sip some tea to lounge in proper Uzbek style.
Inexpensive national cuisine in a sophisticated setting. We had the Lyulya kebab, salads, bread, and a few beers here. Only in Uzbekistan would food be so affordable in a restaurant that looks this elegant. You’ll need to catch a taxi, it’s in the modern part of town.
If you walk out from the Registan, cross the main road, and walk left past the supermarket, you’ll see what looks like a fast food place. They have shawarma there for only 14k som ($1.75) each. It does the trick!
Thanks for reading this Ultimate Travel Guide to Samarkand! We hope this helps you with your visit, or sparks enough wanderlust to convince you to go. Admiring the kaleidoscope of colors and patterns at the heart and soul of the Silk Road is something we’ll always take with us…
Is Samarkand on your bucket list? Leave your questions or thoughts in the comments…