Travel Guide to Samarkand, Uzbekistan 2023
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 see one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia. Use the table of contents below to help you navigate this Samarkand Travel Guide.
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Why is Samarkand so Famous?
It was the center of the Great Silk Road. Travelers venture to Samarkand to see the architectural splendor created by one of the world’s forgotten tyrants. Amir Timur (Tamerlane) was a disabled cattle thief turned world conqueror, responsible for the death of up to 17 million people.
During his conquest of Asia, when he slaughtered populations of entire cities, he would spare only scholars, engineers, and the most skilled artisans. He then brought them back to Samarkand to beautify his capital with the spoils of his victories.
The result was the creation of the Timurid architecture that give Samarkand its UNESCO world heritage status. The most noteworthy are 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 grand twisted vision.
Ten Historical Facts About Samarkand
- Samarkand has been at the crossroads of world cultures for 2,500 years.
- Samarkand the name roughly translates to “Stone City”.
- It was originally founded in the 7th century BC as Afrasiyab.
- It was captured in 329 BC by Alexander the Great and destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220 AD.
- In the 14th century, it was the most important economic and cultural center in Central Asia.
- It was the center for the exchange of goods and ideas along the 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.
Best Things to Do in Samarkand
Explore 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 11pm. The entrance is 50k som per person ($5).
See the Astronomical Ulugbek Madrassa (Registan)
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 the Sher Dor Madrassa and a Traditional Uzbek Concert (Registan)
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 a symbol of Samarkand legend and you can also find it on the country’s money. The 200 som note.
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There’s a traditional concert for 50k som ($5) inside the Sher Dor Madrassa in the evening 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.
Pro Tip: You can access the upper level of the Sher Dor Madrassa. Ask the gift shop owners to show you the way up.
Step into a Re-Creation of Heaven Inside the Tilya-Kori Mosque (Registan)
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.
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.
Open 8am-7pm April-October and 9am-5pm November-March. Entrance fee is 30k som ($3) and a ticket is good for three days.
Walk Through Living History at the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis
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 centuries), 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. This site has the most impressive tilework other than the Registan.
Open 7am-8pm April-October and 9am-5pm November-March. Entrance costs 40k som ($3.50).
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. Its 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.
Open daily 9am-6pm. The entrance fee is 30k som ($3).
Look Around the Siyab Bazaar, the Largest Market in Samarkand
The next stop in this Samarkand Travel Guide is the Siyab Bazaar market. It’s a great place to meander, interact with the locals, and take some photos. Try the pomegranates, Uzbek pistachios, and 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.
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.
Open 8am-8pm. The entrance fee is 30k som ($3).
Photography Tips for Samarkand
The best time to take photos is the same as it always is anywhere else, at sunrise or sunset. If you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera it’s best to bring a variety of lenses.
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Registan Square Photo Tips
The Registan is best in the early morning to avoid the big crowds. Don’t forget to return at night with a tripod too. Be mindful that using wide-angle lenses too close to the buildings will distort your image significantly.
Pro Tip: Show up early at 7:30-8am and ask the guards politely if you can enter to take photos, they’ll more than likely let you in before it officially opens. If not, at least you’re there first.
Gur-e-Amir Photo Tips
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.
Shah-i-Zinda Photo Tips
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 for your camera setup if you’re shooting handheld to avoid camera shake or pushing the ISO too high.
Where to Stay in Samarkand
Budget: Trip L.E. 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.
Book Trip L.E. Guesthouse 7.9/10
Mid-Range: Jahongir Guesthouse
Jahongir Guesthouse is within walking distance of 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.
Book Jahongir Guesthouse 9.1/10
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!
Book L’Argamak 9.1/10
Where to Eat in Samarkand
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!
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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. 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 tasty shawarma there. It’s does the trick when you’re on the go!
Top Rated Tours in Samarkand
If you’re short on time or would rather avoid some hassle these tours are highly recommended!
What to Know Before You Visit Samarkand
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’s 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 Many Days to Stay in Samarkand? 2-3 days
Two days minimum. That should be sufficient to see everything. At the very least you should see the Registan, Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Gur-e-Amir, and Shah-i-Zinda. Three days is good if you want to take your time and revisit Registan Square.
Getting In and Out of Samarkand
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 (Khiva).
Trains remain the most popular way to travel in Uzbekistan. There are three primary options for train travel: the Afrosiyob fast train (Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent) the slower Soviet Sharq train (connecting all major cities), and the slowest option the night train (Khiva).
In our experience, tickets for the Afrosiyob train sell out the soonest, be sure to book ahead online during peak seasons! They go on sale 45 days before departure.
You can book tickets through the Uzbek Railways website.
Tickets should be booked in advance at the train station or online. Keep in mind that your passport is required for the purchase of tickets.
For more in-depth train info see this Advantour page.
Read Next: Bukhara: Uzbekistan’s Most Sacred City
By Shared Taxi
Costs for shared taxis depend on what driver you get and how hard you bargain.
Tashkent: It cost 220k som ($19) to take a shared taxi from Tashkent to Samarkand, and took around 4 hours.
Bukhara: It takes around 4 hours. Not sure about the price.
Getting Around Samarkand
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 10-20k som ($1-2).
Samarkand Photography Gear List
Thanks for reading this Samarkand Travel Guide! Hope this helps you on 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 certainly a sight to behold.
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