Samarkand is one of the highlights of Uzbekistan and one of the cities that you must visit during your trip. This small town is packed with strikingly beautiful architecture and so much history. Add in delicious cuisine and cute shops, all in close proximity so it’s easy to walk everywhere. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Samarkand!
Federico Mayor, the former Director-General of UNESCO accurately described Samarkand in his touching quote – “There are such names in the world, which unwillingly lead people to the world of dreams. The magic and fame of these words immediately impact your mind when you hear or read about them. There is such a name among them that attracts our imagination to itself, it is Samarkand. It seems that this name emerged from the whirlpool of clear and diverse colours, the scent of perfume, fabulous palaces, bells of caravans, pure melodies and yet misunderstood feelings.”
So if you’re wondering what to do in Samarkand, then you have come to the right place! Read on for our list of the best things to do in Samarkand!
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Samarkand, Uzbekistan Travel Basics
Know Before You Go
- The currency of Uzbekistan is the Uzbekistani Soʻm (UZS). At the time of writing, the conversion was 8,450 UZS to $1 USD. In this post, we’ll be referring to prices in Uzbekistan currency.
- Many people in Samarkand, and Uzbekistan overall, do not speak English. Ask your hotel to write down the names of the places you want to go by taxi as taxi drivers are often the most difficult to communicate with.
- Google Maps isn’t entirely accurate in Samarkand. Restaurants that appear to be in one location aren’t actually there and some addresses are simply listed as “Samarkand”.
Getting to Samarkand
There are several trains each day from Tashkent to Samarkand. They are fast, comfortable, and generally run on schedule. The trip from Tashkent to Samarkand takes less than three hours and you’ll pay 105,000 UZS for the fast train, and 70,000 UZS for the regular train.
You can book your train tickets online but the station names are all in Uzbek which can be confusing. Plus, they’ll add a processing fee to the price of the ticket. You can save yourself some cash and confusion by buying your tickets directly at the station.
A taxi from the train station to downtown Samarkand or the historic area around Registan should cost you 20,000 UZS.
Getting Around Samarkand
Unfortunately, the Yanix.Taxi app does not work in Samarkand and none of the taxis in Uzbekistan use a meter. So you’ll have to attempt to communicate your destination with taxi drivers and negotiate the price.
The yellow taxis operate on a shared taxi system meaning they will continue to pick up additional people as long as there are extra seats. There is a flat rate of 4,000 UZS for most trips around downtown and Registan.
If you want to take a taxi further than a few kilometers, you’ll need to negotiate a taxi fare. Shoot for 2,000 UZS per kilometer as it seems to be the going rate, even though they’ll always start with a price about twice that. Never get into a taxi before first agreeing to the cost.
Where to Stay in Samarkand
The Sultan Hotel Boutique is located right in the heart of Samarkand and offers stunning views from the rooftop terrace. You’ll be within walking distance of all of the most popular sites in the city. Rooms are comfortable with all of the amenities that you’ll need during your stay.
Where to Eat in Samarkand
Our favorite place for lunch was Cafe Magistr, a small cafe that serves both Western and traditional Uzbek food. Plus, they had the best Wi-Fi that we found in the city. It’s a great place to chill, drink a coffee, and catch up on emails. Be sure to try the Magistr Pizza and the Chuchvara Soup! And if you are in the market for a manicure/pedicure or a haircut, the barbershop right next door has the best prices around and super friendly staff.
The Bibikhanum Teahouse is a cute outdoor restaurant near the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. It’s a bit touristy in that the servers are all dressed in traditional clothing but prices are reasonable and the food is delicious. Be sure to try the “Mantu” and the stuffed peppers!
We’ve included several other favorite restaurants below!
The Top 14 Things to Do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
1. Visit the Registan
Of course, one of the top things to do in Samarkand is to visit Registan. This iconic landmark of Uzbekistan is a central courtyard surrounded on three sides by impossibly beautiful madrasahs.
When you enter the courtyard, Tillya-Kori is directly in front of you. It has the most striking interior area with a small mosque. The walls of the mosque are covered in intricate gold details and the ceiling is spectacular. If you walk around here, you’ll see photos on the walls of the Registan before it was restored to its current glory.
Facing the Tillya-Kori, the Sherdor Madrasa is on the right, and the Ulu Bey Medresesi is on the left. Both have beautiful courtyards in the back as well as small shops with traditional Uzbekistan souvenirs. Be sure to stop by the shop at the Sherdor Madrasa where you can dress up in traditional clothes for the small fee of 5,000 UZS per person. It’s super entertaining and the guy running the place will take as many photos of you as you want!
Around sunset, the lights come on and illuminate all three of the gorgeous buildings. Crowds dwindle and it’s a great time to enjoy the inner courtyard.
2. See the Nighttime Show at the Registan
If you take our advice and stay inside the Registan courtyard for sunset, you’ll be in for another treat. At 7 pm every evening (except, apparently, when they don’t feel like doing it), there is traditional music and dance show in the courtyard of the Sherdor Madrasa.
A small group of five men plays instruments while several others sing and dance. It’s a 50-minute show and you’ll certainly be entertained the entire time. The backdrop of the performance is the beautiful interior walls of the courtyard, lit up with colorful lights.
3. Check out the Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Another one of the best places to visit in Samarkand, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque is directly in front of the Siab Bazaar. It’s a striking mosque with a lovely interior courtyard. Areas of the courtyard and the interior are under reconstruction so a few areas are off-limits. There are so many opportunities for beautiful photos here and it’s generally not that crowded so spend some time here enjoying the peaceful garden.
4. Shop at the Siab Bazaar
The Siab Bazaar is mainly a food market meant for locals, but there are a few things here to satisfy tourists as well. If you enjoy wandering through markets and enjoying the people watching, you’ll definitely get your fill of that here. And if you’re searching for the perfect Uzbekistan souvenir to take home with you, there are several small shops off to the side of the covered market.
The candy, fruit, and nut vendors will call out to you from their stalls, offering you small tastes of their goods. Be sure to try the pistachio halva, it’s a sweet, chewy nougat that is absolutely delicious. It’s easy to get ripped off here so be sure to bargain. A bar of halva should cost no more than 5,000 UZS.
5. Appreciate the Beauty of the Gur-e Amir Complex
The Gur-e Amir Complex is a striking madrasah that houses the tombs of Amir Temur and his beloved descendants. The building was originally meant to be an Islamic school at the direction of Temur’s grandson, Muhammad Sultan. But after he died suddenly in 1403, Temur ordered that the complex be changed to a mausoleum.
Temur was originally meant to be buried in his hometown of Shakhrisabz, but his body was laid to rest at the Gur-e Amir, as well as his other infamous grandson Ulugbek. Amir Temur’s jade stone grave is in the center of the grandiose room that houses all of the tombs. Outside is a lovely courtyard and garden, with a spectacular arched gate at the entryway.
6. Admire the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum
The Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum is a magnificent work of art and a must-see during your trip to Samarkand! Once inside it feels as though you’re walking down the main avenue of a city comprised of the most beautiful mausoleums. The vibrant blue tilework is prevalent throughout the complex, making it a photographer’s dream!
The name Shah-i-Zinda translates to “Tomb of the Living King” which refers to the holiest of the shrines, what is likely the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas. He is famed for bringing Islam to this region in the 7th century. The mausoleums here were built over the periods of the 11th to the 19th centuries as Timur and Ulugbek buried their families and closest confidants here at later dates.
If you want to snap photos here without loads of people in the background, come in the early morning.
There are several rules that visitors are asked to follow during a visit to the Shah-i-Zinda Mausoleum, namely to dress modestly with respect to the deceased. It is also forbidden to take photos next to the tombstones, sit on them, speak loudly, behave badly, put money on graves, or sacrifice animals on the graves.
7. Sample the Goods at the Museum of Wine-Making
At this point, you’re probably wondering what to do in Samarkand besides looking at Islamic architecture. How about sampling some Uzbekistan wine?
The Museum of Wine-Making is less of an actual museum and more of a tasting room. There is a large room with some old winemaking tools on display that you can wander around before heading into a room with a large central dining table. Here you’ll get to try 10 different alcoholic beverages for 50,000 UZS per person. There are three dry wines, four dessert wines, two brandys, and one medicinal liquor similar to Jagermeister. You’ll get some information on the varietals while you sample.
8. Take a Day Trip to Shakhrisabz
Shakhrisabz is a small town located about 55 miles south of Samarkand. You’ll need to hire a driver for the day, the going rate is generally $40 for two people and the drive takes about an hour and 40 minutes each way. You’ll want about two hours to explore the city and your driver will drop you off on one end of the complex and pick you up at the parking lot on the other side.
Shakhrisabz is an important city in the history of Uzbekistan as Amir Temur was born in the neighboring village of Hodja-Ilgar and made Shakhrisabz his residence. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has several interesting architectural sites to explore. Your tour will start at the Ak Saray Palace where you’ll pay 7,000 UZS per person to visit. A large statue of Amir Temur stands proudly in front.
The next stop along your tour of Shakhrisabz is the Medrese Chubin if you choose to visit. It’s 16,000 UZS per person and the museum is poorly signed with some “artifacts” that are just paper-mâché copies of the originals. It is definitely skippable, especially if you are short on time. The Caravanserai Koba has been converted into a very fancy-looking restaurant, and the Medieval Bath is now a cafe.
You’ll wander through the central park before coming to the highlight of the city, the Dorut Tilovat Complex (entrance fee of 7,000 per person). Here, you’ll be able to see the Kok Gumbaz Mosque and two mausoleums. And directly across the park pathway is the Dor-Us Siyadat Complex (entrance fee of 10,000 per person) which houses the tomb that was meant for Amir Temur before it was decided that he would be buried at the Gur-e Amir Complex in Samarkand.
9. Visit the Mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari
The Mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari is about 30 minutes north of the central area of Samarkand, so you’ll need to catch a taxi to get there. The architecture of the complex is similar in architectural style to most of the buildings listed above and it is a revered pilgrimage site in Uzbekistan for the devout. Imam al-Bukhari was a theologian and authored the second most important book for Muslims after the Quran.
The complex houses a mausoleum, mosque, library and museum, and several souvenir stalls.
10. Eat Plov
No trip to Uzbekistan is complete without trying their beloved national cuisine – plov. This hearty rice dish is cooked in a cast-iron pot and topped with chunks of lamb and an assortment of veggies. And the most popular place to eat plov in Samarkand is at Osh Markazi Filial 1. It’s a bit outside of town, but conveniently located just a few blocks from the Ulugh Beg Observatory.
11. Dress Up to Dine Out
A popular nighttime activity for locals in Samarkand is to get dressed up and go out for dinner and dancing. Restaurants serve classic Uzbekistan dishes while blasting club music and the patrons move from their tables to the dance floor throughout the night. There is a strict dress code for locals, but tourists aren’t held to the same standards. But if you show up in workout clothes, you’ll probably feel out of place.
Karimbek is a lively restaurant where you’ll find locals dressed to the nines rocking out to music in the room right off the entrance. If the music downstairs is too loud for your taste, you can grab a private room upstairs. There are no prices on the English menu which can be scary, but everything is quite reasonable. Their local red wine is only 8,000 UZS per glass. Be sure to try the kabobs!
Samarkand Restaurant is perfect if you’re looking to be entertained while enjoying your dinner. As you enter you’ll immediately see the dance floor where locals are dancing to the loud club music. The food is great, the alcohol is cheap, and you really can’t beat the people watching! The menu is quite similar to Karimbek and you’ll have to ask for the Uzbek menu to see the prices.
Oasis Garden is similar to Karimbek and Samarkand Restaurant in that there is a room dedicated to dancing and loud music. But there are also several quieter areas of the restaurant if you’re not in the mood to party. The staff members are super friendly and attentive and the decor is cute and comfortable.
12. Get a History Lesson at the Ulugh Beg Observatory
In full disclosure, our visit to the Ulugh Beg Observatory (also called Observatory of Ulugbek Samarkand) wasn’t our favorite activity in Samarkand. But if you have some extra time in Samarkand, or if you are particularly interested in astronomy, it’s worth a visit.
The Ulugh Beg Observatory was originally constructed in 1428-1429 by astronomer Ulugh Beg and at the time it was one of the finest in the Islamic world. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1449 by religious fanatics and was lost for many years before being discovered in 1908.
Some truly magnificent discoveries were made in this observatory. Ulugh calculated that the length of a star year was equal to 365 days, 6 hours, 10 minutes, and 8 seconds which is only off by less than a minute to our current calculations.
The only thing that remains of the observatory today is the sextant, which was an instrument that was used to determine midday. It is covered by a roof but you can peer down into the large hole and see a large section of it below. There is also a very small museum that gives some history of Ulugh and of the work that was done in the observatory in the 1400s.
13. Stop at the Saint Daniel Mausoleum
If you do choose to visit the Ulugh Beg Observatory, it’s a fairly easy walk back to the main touristy area of Samarkand. There are a few optional stops along the way. The Saint Daniel Mausoleum supposedly houses at least part of the remains of Saint Daniel, a biblical prophet from the Old Testament. It is a religious pilgrimage site for religious people wishing to worship him.
There is also a natural spring that is considered good luck so you’ll see people drinking from it or splashing water over their faces. You’ll need to pay a small fee to enter the mausoleum and an additional 20,000 if you’d like a tour guide to explain the significance of the area.
It is a peaceful place, and it’s a nice break from your walk to sit and enjoy if your legs are tired. But it’s probably not worth going out of your way to visit unless you have a particular interest in Saint Daniel.
14. Visit the President’s Tomb
The President’s Tomb is another easy stop on your walk back from the Ulugh Beg Observatory. But unlike Saint Daniel’s Mausoleum, I would recommend going out of your way to visit this spot. You’ll be able to see both the Hazrati Khizr Mosque and the tomb of the former president.
The former Uzbekistan president, Islam Karimov, ruled Uzbek SSR in 1990 before declaring Uzbekistan’s independence on September 1, 1991. The first general election took place in December of that year which he won by a landslide. He continued to win re-elections with over 90% of the vote until his death in 2016.
As with many of the other religious and historical sites in Samarkand, the mosque and enclosed tomb are absolutely stunning. You may be able to climb the minaret after paying your entrance fee which offers views of the courtyard below. You can take photos here, just not of the actual president’s tomb.
We hope that’s enough things to do to keep you busy in Samarkand, Uzbekistan!
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