Uzbekistan is still a relatively unknown destination for many people, and that’s quite a shame if you ask me. This is one of the best countries to visit in Central Asia. It’s beautiful, has a long interesting silk road history, and still offers visitors an authentic experience. Moreover, every Uzbek city has something new to offer. Khiva is known for the beautiful old walled center, Bukhara is the city of bazaars and Samarkand has gigantic jaw-dropping historical monuments. In this blog post, I want to zoom in on Samarkand and tell you about the top things to do in this city. Plus, I’ll share a few practical tips.
Top things to do in Samarkand
Registan square – the postcard of Uzbekistan
Let’s start with the most well-known sight of Samarkand, and perhaps of all Uzbekistan: Registan square. The name Registan means a ‘sandy place’. During the silk road trade, this square was used as a market place for caravans. Registan basically functioned as a regional hub because it was located on the crossroad of six trade routes. And of course, all those caravans brought a lot of sand with them from the deserts.
- Large photos are from my second trip in 2019, collages are from my first trip in 2016.
Admire the beautiful madrasas
Registan square is flanked on three sides by gigantic madrasas (=historical educational institutes). Each one has a different patron on the gate. The gate of the Shir Dor madrassa shows some oddly-shaped lions, the scientific school ‘Ulug Beg madrassa’ has stars, and the Tilla Kari madrassa gate is decorated with golden flowers. Make sure to also visit this last madrasa, because the interior is covered in beautiful gold leaves. Not surprisingly, Tilla Kari also means ‘covered in gold’.
Tip: many tourists only look at the Registan square from the front and then go inside. I would also recommend taking a walk around the complex. The backside is just as beautiful.
Entrance fee Registan square: 40,000 sum for foreigners. Opened daily from 8.00 am.
Bibi Khanum mosque – once the biggest mosque in the world
Samarkand is the city of the 14th-century ruler and national hero Tamerlane (often called Timur). Timur saw this city as his trophy. Every building had to be bigger, better, and more beautiful. His masterpiece was the Bibi Khanum mosque. According to legend, Timur’s wife (Bibi Khanum) gave the order to build this mosque to surprise her husband. However, the architect fell madly in love with Bibi Khanum and did not want to finish the mosque before she gave him a kiss. She agreed to this, but the kiss left a mark on her cheek. Timur was angry and executed the architect. The whole story is a bit theatrical. In reality, things went a bit differently. Timur himself gave orders to build the mosque. He hired the best architects and even imported elephants from India to do the heavy work.
Entrance fee Bibi Khanum Mosque: 25,000 sum. Opened daily from 8.00 am.
Taste the best halva at Siyob bazaar
Next to the mosque, you’ll find the lively Siyob Bazaar. This is one of the most popular markets in Samarkand. They sell everything here. From strong cheese and Uzbek naan to meat, fruit, and sweetened nuts. There are also a number of pharmacies and souvenir shops around. I really liked walking around this bazaar and tasting the local goods. My favorite place was the halva stall. The way these sweets were presented already grabbed my attention. There are plenty of options to choose from: pistachio, white chocolate, and sweet versions. Definitely recommend going here!
Good to know: the market is closed on Mondays.
Visit the Gur-e-emir, the golden mausoleum of Timur
Also after the death of Timur, the man is still present in Samarkand. Not far from the Registan you will find the Gur-e-emir, the mausoleum of Timur. The truth is that Timur didn’t want to buried in Samarkand but in his birthplace Shakhrisabz. He even completed a tomb there for himself. However, things went a little bit differently. Heavy snow had blocked the way to Shakhrisabz and Timur’s body had to stay in Samarkand. Gur-e-emir soon became the family grave of the Timur family; his sons and grandson were also buried here. The entrance is marked by a stunning gate decorated with blue mosaic and patrons. But it gets even better because the interior of this mausoleum is breathtaking. The walls and ceiling are covered with gold leaf. The Gur-e-emir is definitely not something you would want to miss.
Entrance fee Gur-e-emir: 25,000 sum. Opened every day, from 8.00 am.
50 shades of blue at the Shah-i-Zinda
The Registan may be the postcard of Samarkand, my favorite highlight was necropolis Shah-i-Zinda. A graveyard might not sound interesting, but this is not just any graveyard. The Shah-i-Zinda means ‘Living King’ and is founded to mark the grave of the nephew of the prophet Mohammed. They say that he is buried here. From the 11th up to the 19th century, all the elite wanted to be buried here and each built their own mausoleum next to each other. The result is a little avenue of the most colorful tombs I have ever seen. Locals come to the Shah-i-Zinda to pay their respect and some leave money on the graves. I came to this necropolis to see all the blue tombs and details. A somber yet beautiful place! Embrace yourself for a lot of pictures 🙂
Entrance fee Shah-i-Zinda: 15,000 sum. Opened daily from 7.00 am. This is a religious site, so dress modestly. This means covering your shoulders and long pants.
More things to do in Samarkand
- President’s Tomb: the mausoleum of the first president of an independent Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov (died in 2016). Entrance fee: 15,000 sum.
- Ulugh Beg Observatory: a museum that shows a model of the destroyed observatory of 15th-century leader Ulugh Beg. Entrance fee: 25,000 sum.
- Day trip to Shahrisabz: birthplace of the great leader Timur. Today it’s the home to several beautiful historical monuments. Taxi: count on 40 USD for a trip with 2 people.
Tip: have lunch or diner at Sayqali Chayhana, located at Tashkent Road (also known as Islam Karimov Road). Close to Bibikhanum Teahouse. The owner has lived abroad and speaks perfect English. He runs the place with his mother and grandma. Adjusting dishes for vegetarians/vegans is not a problem.
What you need to know before visiting Samarkand
A city with two sides
Samarkand really has two sides. One the one hand, you have a tourist center. This is Tashkent Road, a long pedestrian boulevard that connects Bibi Khanum Mosque to the Registan square. There are a few restaurants and souvenir shops around, but overall it is quite empty. A golf cart takes people from one side to the other. And then you have old Samarkand. The area where locals live, come together and children play on the streets. You would almost not notice this old part, because there’s a wall built in front of it to separate it from the tourist section.
Where to stay
The first time I visited Uzbekistan I stayed near Tashkent Road. It was very convenient because almost all the sights are nearby. I stayed at Bibikhanum hotel, which has a splendid view of the mosque. The second time I stayed in old Samarkand at a family homestay (Fayz Guesthouse, an 8,7 rating on Booking.com). I must say that I liked this experience better because it felt a lot more authentic. Click here for an overview of the hotels in Samarkand.
You can find ATMs at Tashkent Road and around Central Park, mostly around hotels or restaurants. I saw a Kapital Bank ATM near Bibi Khanoum Teahouse where you can withdraw Uzbek sum and US dollars. I hadn’t seen this anywhere in Uzbekistan! It was quite handy for us long-term travelers to refill our dollar stash, because US dollars are handy everywhere in Asia.
Good to know: ATMs in Uzbekistan are quite often a hit and miss. They can be empty or they might not accept your credit card. Some only work with Visa, others only accept Mastercard. My advice is: if you find a working ATM, always withdraw the maximum amount. Cash is still king in Uzbekistan.
Getting to Samarkand
Because of its central location, Samarkand is an easy city to get to. The train is often the best way to go. You can tickets in advance online via the Uzbek Railway Website.
From Bukhara: a lot of train options. Most tourists choose the fast Afrosiyob train that takes 2 hours. The price is around 45,000 sum. You can also go with the slower Sharq train, it will then take 3 to 4 hours to go from Bukhara to Samarkand. Are all train tickets sold out? You can also take a shared taxi. Use the app Maps.me to find the departure location.
From Tashkent: Tashkent has two train stations: north and south. For tourists, the northern station is the most convenient one, because it is connected to the metro network. Tashkent North is also the departure location for the fast trains, often going to Samarkand in the early morning (between 07.00 and 09.30, takes 2 hours). Ticket prices vary from 50.000 to 75.000 sum. Tashkent South is the departure location for the slower trains to Samarkand (takes 4 hours). These are slightly cheaper, 40.000 to 60.000 sum for 3rd class. A shared taxi is also an option, around 60,000 sum per seat.
From Khiva: there is a daily night train going from Khiva to Tashkent, making a stop in Samarkand. It will 11 – 12 hours. The arrival time in Samarkand is pretty bad: around 3.30 in the morning. I would not recommend taking this route. It’s better to travel from Khiva to Bukhara and then from Bukhara to Samarkand.
And that is my list of things to do and tips for Samarkand. Is visiting Uzbekistan part of your bucket list?
A few notes on this blog post
This blog post was first published in 2016 and updated in 2020. Also, this blog post contains affiliate links. If you book something through these links, I earn a small commission without you paying extra for it. You can read more about it in my disclaimer.