Bukhara was love at first sight. During my first trip to Uzbekistan in 2016, this city quickly became my favorite. And today, after two Uzbekistan trips, I still stand by my point. Bukhara is one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. At its peak, it had 250 madrasa schools and you could visit a different mosque every day. In this blog post, I will share 10 great things to do in Bukhara, plus practical tips for money and transportation. Prepare yourself for a lot of photos, because Uzbekistan is ridiculously photogenic.
Short history about Bukhara
Bukhara is about 2500 years old. From the 9th up to the 16th century, it was a major trade hub on the Silk Road. This was mainly due to its location. It was on the crossroad of the Middle East, India, and China. The city had 40 bazaars and more than 20 caravanserais (resting place for traveling merchants). Moreover, Bukhara was an intellectual center for the Islamic world. Unfortunately, many historical structures fell into disrepair in the 20th century. In the 60s the local soviet government started restoration works. This is one of the reasons why Bukhara is looking so neat again today. Some say a bit too neat. The restoration was executed at a fast pace with the main focus to ‘beautify’ the city for tourists. That being said, use your own judgment.
Bukhara things to do
1. Start with the Poi Kalon
Poi Kalon is one of the most impressive things to do in Bukhara. I will never forget my first impression of this religious complex. In 2016 I approached this sight with high expectations, only to find out that the whole thing was in a sudden reconstruction. It was still possible to visit it, but I had to share it with hundreds of construction workers and cleaners. They were busy giving the Poi Kalon a last-minute ‘facelift’ to make sure it looked extra good for the visit of the Chinese president. This meant: new tiles, new asphalt, new paint, and every turquoise tile needed to be cleaned. It was quite interesting to watch actually.
What to see in the Poi Kalon complex?
- Kalon Minaret: a 48-meter sand-colored minaret that even impressed the notorious Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. During the Mongolian invasion in 1220 Bukhara was razed to the ground, but at the request of the Mongolian leader the Kalon Minaret was spared. In the 19th century, the minaret made a whole new name for itself. It became the ‘Tower of Death’. Criminals were executed by throwing them off the tower, wrapped in a bag.
- Kalon Mosque: one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in Bukhara. You visit this mosque for the grand open courtyard. During my first visit entrance was free, but in 2019 I had to pay an entrance fee of 7.000 sum (the ticket is valid for two days).
- Mir-i-Arab Madrasa: right across the Kalon Mosque. Madrasa means an educational institution. The curriculum is not just religious topics, it can also contain secular subjects. Unfortunately, tourists cannot visit this place, because it is still actively used.
- Tip: visit the Chasmai-Mirob restaurant and drink a cup of tea at their rooftop terrace. It has a splendid view of the Poi Kalon square.
2. Relax at the Lyab- Hauz
The Lyabi-Hauz is a beloved spot for many locals. You would think that the meaning of this word had something to do with a house, but that is not true. ‘Hauz’ means pond and refers to the historical pond that is in the middle of the square. Back in the days, Bukhara had 200 water points throughout the city, but many were removed because it could easily spread diseases. The Lyabi-Hauz is one of the last ones left. In the evening, locals love to visit this square and drink tea. There is music and karaoke and kids ride rented electric cars around the pond.
3. Cool down in the toks
In de 16th century the Lyabi-Hauz area was a lively market domain with a dozen of bazaars. The most important bazaars were based in ‘toks’, an indoor market built on a crossroads of trade routes. Today there are three toks left: Tok-i-Sarrafon, Tok-i-Telpak Furushon, and Tok-i-Zargaron. I recommend everyone to pay a visit to these mini bazaars, emphasizing ‘mini’, because it’s super small. However, it is a great opportunity to get out of the heat and look for an Uzbek souvenir to bring home.
Also take a look at the stores surrounding the bazaars. During my first trip in 2016, I had the chance to visit a small workshop and learn more about the art of making a carpet. Something I have never done before, and I clearly don’t have a keen eye for it. The girl that helped me was very nice, but right from the start it was clear I was no natural.
4. follow local traditions and have a pot of tea
Tea is the national drink in Uzbekistan. Locals drink tea before a meal and after a meal. Guests are also offered tea because it is a symbol of hospitality. Usually, you get two varieties (green or black) and it’s served in small cups called ‘paila’. Buchara has many tea houses. The most popular one is the Silk Road Teahouse. Luckily, with the increasing tourism in Uzbekistan, coffee places have also started to open. During my last visit in 2019, I enjoyed a refreshing ice coffee at Tea & Coffee Khona in the Sarrafon bazaar.
5. Discover the old mahalla
I love discovering old quaint doors and Bukhara has loads of these. I spotted the most beautiful doors in the old Jewish mahalla (= area or district). In the 16th century, Buchara had one of the largest Jewish communities in Central Asia. They spoke Tajik and were active in the field of wood carving. After the fall of the Soviet Union, most people emigrated to Israel and the United States. Around 200 Jews stayed in Bukhara. The traditional houses they left behind – often with beautiful wood carving – are starting to crumble. So who knows how long we can admire this.
The mahalla is located near Lyabi-Hauz, look for the synagogue.
6. Admire the Chor Minor – the best sight in Bukhara
Tucked away in a quiet residential area near Lyabi-Hauz, you will find the oddly-shaped Chor Minor – my favorite sight in the whole city. It is quite famous with travelers, due to the cover page of the Lonely planet ‘Central Asia’. And the reality did not disappoint. During my second visit to the Chor Minor, it still left a huge impression on me. I love seeing quirky things and this structure is certainly one of them. It looks like an upside-down chair with blue legs. One of the minarets had a fake stork nest on top of it. I noticed the same thing on top of one of the toks. It is a reminder that once Bukhara was a beloved place for breeding storks.
To get to the Chor Minor, you have to walk from Lyabi-Hauz via Mekhtar Anbar street to Odilnur Guesthouse. There isn’t any signage to guide you. Fortunately, residents are always happy to point you in the right direction. They know that there is only one reason why you are wandering around in their neighborhood: for the Chor Minor.
7. Take a photo of the Ark wall
Khiva is certainly not the only Uzbek city with an impressive city wall. Meet the Ark, the oldest structure in Bukhara. It is a gigantic fort, enclosed by a beautiful 20-meter high ‘bubble wall’. Originally, the building was used as a military complex, but it eventually became the residence for the Emir and family. Essentially, it was a royal city within a city. Today, the Ark houses several museums. If you have time left, pay it a visit. Entrance fee: 15.000 sum. But the most interesting part is definitely the wall.
During my last trip, I noticed a new observation deck across the Ark. I did not get to see the view from the deck myself, but it must be nice. A ticket costs 40.000 sum.
8. Take in all the details of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque
Right behind the observation deck, you will find the 17th-century Bolo-Hauz Mosque. The most impressive part about this mosque is the aiwan, the porch with wooden pillars and a colorful ceiling. Take a good look at it, because there is so much to see. The name means ‘above the pond’ and refers to the water (=Hauz) in front of the mosque.
9. See the beautiful madrasa gates of bukhara
As I said in the introduction, Bukhara was not only a market hub, it was also an important intellectual city in Central Asia. This resulted in many beautiful madrasas (historical educational institutions). Here are a couple that are worth checking out:
- Ulugbek Madrasa: a 15th-century school with the ambition to combine science, astronomy, math, and the Arabic language. It was a project of Ulugbek, the grandson of the great Uzbek leader Timur. He wanted to transform Uzbek cities into cultural learning centers. Entrance fee: 5000 sum. I don’t think going inside is worth the money, except if you’re looking to buy more souvenirs.
- Abdul Aziz Madrasa: right across the previous madrasa you’ll find the winner of the most beautiful madrasa gate in Bukhara. The gold leaf decorations are amazing! Entrance fee: 8.000 sum + 5.000 sum for the museum. The same logic applies here: you come for the exterior.
- Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasa: located at the head of the Lyabi-Hauz square. In the evening there’s often a show taking place in the courtyard. Entrance: free!
10. Extra: Ismael Samani Mausoleum
Do you have some time left? Pay a visit to the Ismael Samani Mausoleum, the founder of the 9th-century Samanid dynasty. This mausoleum is one of the oldest Islamic monuments in Central Asia. The structure is located in the Samonids Recreation Park, a 10-minute walk from the Ark. Historically speaking it is an interesting building. However, I have to admit that it did not leave a big impression on me. The brick tile patron is beautiful, but it’s all rather small. I would say that it’s a nice extra, but don’t go out of your way for it.
What do you need to know before going to Bukhara?
Money: there are ATMs, but don’t expect money
Money remains a tricky thing in Uzbekistan. The situation already improved tremendously compared to 2016, when I had to bring my euros and dollars into the country and change it on the black market. Today, you go to an ATM to simply withdraw Uzbek sums. Unfortunately, there are a few catches. ATMs are often empty. Some only accept Mastercard, others only Visa credit card. Asaka bank seems to be the only one that accepts Maestro bank cards. And lastly, the maximum withdrawal limits is quite low, often 400.000 sum.
My advice: don’t fully rely on the ATMs. Also bring US dollars with you for emergencies. You can change this at the banks.
How to get to Bukhara?
From Khiva: there are one or two daily trains departing from Khiva to Bukhara. It’s often an afternoon train and an evening train. Prices for tickets vary from 120.000 sum for second class to 87.000 sum for third class. It is a long journey (8 hours), so bring enough snacks. You can also take a shared taxi, but you often have to change cars in Urgench. It’s definitely shorter and cheaper, but a lot less comfortable. In my opinion, shared taxis are only an option for short distances.
From Samarkand and Tashkent: multiple train options daily. From Samarkand it is a short trip (2 – 3 hours), from Tashkent it takes 7 to 8 hours.
- Tip: you can easily book your train tickets online via the official website of Uzbek Railways.
Dealing with Uzbek taxi drivers
A special note on taxi drivers. I hate negotiating with taxi drivers in general, but in Uzbekistan (especially Bukhara) the struggle was even more real. It felt like being attacked by a hungry group of hyenas, directly after walking out of the train station. My advice: prepare yourself mentally, don’t let the size of the group intimidate you, and know your price. Most of them don’t speak English (Russian is the language), so get your phone calculator out to smoothen the negotiations. And never accept the first offer thrown at you!
Cost taxi train station – city center
A taxi from the Bukhara train station to the city center shouldn’t cost more than 20.000 sum. If you arrive late in Bukhara, the price will go up to 30.000 sum. During the day there is also a marshrutka doing the commute to Lyabi-Hauz (no. 268), but I never saw this minibus. Also note: Bukhara had two train stations. Focus on train station no. 1 (in Kagan), because train station no. 2 is for freight.
And there you have it: a list of wonderful things to do in Bukhara. Would you want to visit Bukhara or other parts of the Silk Road?
This blog post was first published in 2016 and updated in 2020.