The Best Things To Do In Samarkand
Samarkand is the most popular city in Uzbekistan and is also the most visited by tourists. If you’ve been dreaming of living the Arabian Nights, want to photograph the Registon Ensemble or even admire the delicate blue majolica patterns of the monuments’ walls, then Samarkand must be on your travel plan!
In this blog post, you’ll find everything you need to know to plan a visit to Samarkand in Uzbekistan (consider this your very own Samarkand travel guide), including details on where to stay in Samarkand, what to eat, which monuments to visit and secret tips on where to shoot the best travel photography (those beautiful blue majolica patters).
History of Samarkand
Samarkand has long been known for its mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums. It was popular as one of the largest cities on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking the Orient to the Mediterranean. The city also drew importance as Timur (Tamerlane or Timur the Lame) lays burried here in the grand monument known as the Gur-E-Amir.
Today, Samarkand has retained its historic roots with its monuments standing strong and tall. Alongside, its Soviet culture is still very apparent. You can see very disciplined neighbourhood designs, functional and basic aesthetics and Ladas roaming about as taxis. And this is exactly what makes Samarkand a treat to visit!
Samarkand is famous for its iconic Registan ensemble and the beautiful blue walled monuments.
The Registan (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
The Registan is a public square where community gatherings, sacred congregations and even executions took place in the Timurid era. Later it became a symbol of Samarkand, as iconic as the Eiffel Tower has been to Paris in France.
The three beautiful islamic structures have been standing through the last few centuries and still look absolutely magnificent. The Sher Dor Madrassah (right), the Tilya Kori Madrassah (centre) and the Ulugh Beg Madrassah (left) form part of the grand Ensemble around the vast open space.
Check out the best hotels and hostels nearby, here
The best time to visit is in the mornings, when the crowds are yet to pour in. Expect to spend about 2 hours visiting the Madrassahs and the gardens.
The Registan is the highlight of the Samarkand ‘experience’ and it is best to devote a couple of hours to admire the Ensemble. Also, add this to your evening itinerary because the lighting is usually phenomenal! And it is even better if the cultural shows are being hosted at the centre.
Ulugh Beg Madrassah
The Ulugh Beg Madrassah is the oldest of the three Madrassahs. Dating back to the early 1400s, it came up in the golden period of the Taimurid Era (Timur or Tamerlane, the greatest ruler of Islamic Asia). Its fame spread far and wide bringing many great teachers and lecturers from Persia and the Orient. The school also housed dormitories for the students to continue their studies in a more structured manner with more attention.
Tilya Kori Madrassah
The Tilya Kori Madrassah (meaning ‘decorated with Gold’) was built two centuries later, albeit on a larger scale. Housing a large courtyard and numerous dorms for the students, the Madrassah (school) also featured a mosque with a large prayer hall.
Sher Dor Madrassah
The Sher Dor Madrassah is the most beautiful monument of the Registan. Bearing motifs of the Tiger (‘Sher’ in Persian) on the arch and the beautiful turquoise onion domes, it is undoubtedly very attractive. In the evenings, there are cultural shows hosted here. Check with the administrative staff at the ticket counter for the schedule.
Tip: Go up the Minar at Ulugh Beg Madrassah to get the best view of the Sher Dor Madrassah and the city of Samarkand!
The Bibi Khanym Mosque
The largest mosque outside the Registan in Samarkand is the partly dilapidated Bibi Khanym Mosque. What is seen here today is the result of significant restoration works undertaken in the period beginning immediately after Taimur’s death up to now. Taimur had ordered its construction as the grandest mosque in Islamic Asia. But unfortunately, the design and efforts did not please him.
A series of natural effects (wind, rains, snow, heat, etc.) destroyed many parts of the monument until one earthquake in the late nineteenth century took it down. Locals plundered the ruins in their quest to pick up building materials and restoration work was very disappointing. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century when the Soviets took up the responsibilty of restoring the glory!
Expect to spend an hour here. Although it is far from the Registan, there is a cart that ferries visitors between here and the Islom Karmiov statue in the upper gardens. The same route on foot takes about 15 minutes.
Gur-E-Amir Palace and Mausoleum
The tomb (‘Gur’) of Amir Taimur or Tamerlane (even Timur, the Lame) is a very sacred place for Uzbekis. Revered as the greatest King to have ruled their land, the people offer sincere prayers and religious sermons at the tomb almost every morning.
It is a spectacular monument with its beautiful architecture winning hearts in the morning and in the evenings as it comes alive in the flattering lighting. There is a decorated hall inside with gold touches.
Tip: Stay in a hostel around the Gur E Amir as that is the best location in all of Samarkand. It also makes visits to the Mausoleum both early in the morning and in the evenings when its lit up much easier.
The seemingly delicate beauty of its walls and tomb houses has turned this otherwise eerie place into a mesmerising sight. It is the largest necropolis (city of the dead, Shah-i-Zinda meaning “The Living King” to acknowledge the eternal life of the beloved king of Samarkand) in Uzbekistan. The monument houses over twenty royal tombs and is also home to the tomb of Kusam Ibn Abbas, who many believe is the cousin of the great Prophet Muhammad.
Turquoise Blue Majolica patterns are just about everywhere! Walking along this “street” is better with a guide as there are many incredible stories to hear while admiring the stunning blue and brown architecture!
Spend at least an hour here for the best experiences.
How to travel to Samarkand
There are three main modes of transport to get to Samarkand:
Air: The International Airport in Samarkand is located in the city. A few Asian flights land here every week, but there are daily flights from Tashkent and other Uzbek cities.
Train: There are multiple two-hour trains from Tashkent, Bukhara, Navoi and overnight to Khiva. You can even book the tickets online on the official site for as little as UZS 80,000 (USD 8 or INR 580)
Taxi: Take an expensive private taxi from Bukhara, Tashkent, or even Khiva to Samarkand. If you’re looking for a cheap way of going to Samarkand from Tashkent/Bukhara or even Khiva, just take a shared taxi or a Marshrutka (minivan) ride for a few USDs. These can be booked with your hotel or hostel on the previous night. There are shared taxis from other cities to Bukhara too.
Tip: For travel between Tashkent or Bukhara and Samarkand, take the high speed trains. The train station is within the city and can be reached by taxi or tram service.
Where to stay in Samarkand
The best experiences are often found in the old hotels around Gur E Amir. Besides serving a very good breakfast most hostels have affordable guided tours and taxi facilities too, especially if you want to split the cost with other travelers in the hostel!
Having stayed at Emir B&B, a youthfull hostel and hotel behind the Gur-E-Amir, we can wholeheartedly recommend the place. Very clean and really good food too! One night’s stay cost USD 10 (INR 750) with breakfast and tea. In house taxi services to the train station cost UZS 20,000 (INR 200).
Check out the best hotels and hostels here
Travel costs, food and safety
Samarkand is cheap to explore. The tickets to most of the major attractions (like the Ark) are only a few ten-thousand Soms (UZS). The entry to the Mausoleums and Madrassahs including the Registan, and Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is by purchasing a ticket. Hostel dorms are as cheap as USD 5 (INR 350) a night.
Cafes and restaurants at Samarkand serve some of the best Uzbeki cuisine in town; but thats not all – Samarkand is home to a vide variety of cuisines and also, vegan food! Vegetarian options and Naan bread are always available even in traditional Uzbeki restaurants and food houses. ‘Choi’ or tea is very cheap and is the most popular drink in the city. Magister is a nice vegan friendly cafe.
Samarkand is pretty safe. Couples and even female travelers can explore the monuments in the city in peace. Avoid going downtown in the late evenings as Samarkand is quite big and language barriers can cause serious anxiety!
Suggested itinerary for Samarkand
Samarkand deserves two full days if you are taking it slow.
Day 1: Visit The Registan, the Gardens, Islam Karimov Statue and the Bibi Khanym Mosque. They are all located in the same block although there’s a lot of walking to do there. Take advantage of the electric cart if you cannot walk. In the evening, watch a traditional Uzbeki cultural show at El Merosi or see the lighting at Registan.
Day 2: Start the morning with a visit to the Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum and then head to the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis which is further downtown. Visit the Afrasiab museum and the Siab Bazaar too. In the evening, visit the Gur-E-Amir again for the fantastic lighting.
Is it possible to see Samarkand in one day? Yes, one day sightseeing in Samarkand is possible too, as these are the top things to do or top things to see in Samarkand: Gur E Amir-Registan-Bibi Khanym-Shah I Zinda Necropolis-Bazaar-El Merosi Theatre. But you will still have to spend one night atleast since departure and arrival timings of trains and flights need to considered as well.
If you have more questions, or want to explore Samarkand with us, write to us or leave a comment below!
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