The Best Things to do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN SAMARKAND

There are so many amazing things to do in Samarkand but we’ve put together the list of what we think are the most interesting.

This article is one of a series of such posts outlining the attractions in different Uzbek cities (TashkentBukhara and Khiva) that we recommend including in any Uzbekistan itinerary.

Over the centuries, this southern Uzbek city of Samarkand has worn the scars of battle — having been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt by the likes of Alexander The Great and Genghis Khan. As one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand formed an important trading post along the ancient Silk Road route.

More recently, it has been Samarkand’s remarkable ancient structures and now historic sites that are proving to be the drawcard for visitors, gaining international acclaim.

Madrasah at night in a square
Just one of the amazing things to do in Samarkand is to see Registan Square after sunset

READ MORE: THE ULTIMATE UZBEKISTAN TRAVEL TIPS & GUIDE

GETTING TO SAMARKAND – TRAIN TRAVEL

It’s likely that you are either travelling from Tashkent or Bukhara and looking at your onward travel to Samarkand.

Train travel in Uzbekistan is a cheap, stress-free and pleasurable way to travel within the country.

We booked and paid for our train tickets online before arriving in Uzbekistan via the secure website: tutu.ru. I was a little apprehensive as to whether this process would be straightforward, but the website offers an English language version that gave clear instructions.

You can, of course, buy train tickets at the train station on the day, but if you’re on a fixed schedule then you’ll want to guarantee a seat so booking in advance is the way to go.

Train ticket online booking sample
Screenshot of the online booking and notification process using Tutu.ru

The general practice when arriving at the train station is to present your passport and ticket for inspection, bags are x-rayed and then you’re given directions to your departure platform.

The only thing that may confuse you is the Cyrillic numbered platforms but just ask one of the local Uzbek people who always seemed happy to assist.

SAMARKAND MAP

THINGS TO DO IN SAMARKAND


1. VISIT REGISTAN SQUARE

Of all the things to do in Samarkand, visiting the majestic Registan Square is a fitting first stop for the day. Not only is it a breathtaking sight, but this is also a good place to orient yourself for other travel around Samarkand.

Registan Square consists of three madrasahs (ancient universities):

  • Ulughbek (the madrasah to the left when at the entrance)
  • Sher-Dor (the madrasah to the right when at the entrance)
  • Tilla-Kori (the madrasah directly ahead when at the entrance)

These huge structures date back to the 15th century and frame a central square in the heart of this ancient city.  In 2001, Samarkand was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Entry to Registan Square is controlled by officials at the fenced-off area of the square’s only entrance.

Tickets, which are valid for 24 hours, can be purchased with cash only from a booth close by the main square entrance.

The entry price for foreigners is 40,000 SOM (USD $4) whilst Uzbek citizens enter for 3,000 SOM (USD $0.30). Gate officials check that you have a valid ticket.

Dome-and-madrasah-up-close
The magnificent Registan Square, Tilla Kori madrasah

So, where do you start once you’re in Registan Square?

Well, two of the three madrassahs (Tilla-Kori and Sher-Dor), open into internal courtyards which house small retail shops, pigeon-holed into the massive earthen walls. The half-height doors of these shops accentuate just how huge these buildings really are.

The third madrasah, Ulughbek, does not permit access to the courtyard but just inside the entrance, a long hallway covets artefacts and old photographs of the madrasahs.

ULUGHBEK MADRASAH

This madrassa (the one on the left when at the entrance), opened into a gold chamber displaying mosaics of exquisite form and colour. The architect sure had an eye for detail. It wasn’t possible to access the inner courtyard, but you could wander along the long hallway containing many old photographs of the time before any Russian restoration.

gold-and-blue-arabic-motifs-on-inner-building
The stunning mosaics of Tilla Kori madrasah, Registan Square

TILLA-KORI MADRASAH

This madrasah faces you when standing at the entrance to Registan Square. There are the usual handicraft shops with vendors greeting you with smiles, beckoning you to ‘come inside’ and see their displays of cashmere scarves, silk hats and ceramics.

One shop worth visiting is the Dil-Suzani Boutique. The shop owner, Dilshod, is immediately upfront about not pushing a sale and then launches into an interesting talk about Uzbek history, traditions and the carpet trade. Pulling out different carpets, he proudly explains the symbolic meaning of the earth, wind and fire patterns on the material.

He encourages you to take plenty of photos and ask all the questions you want. Would you believe he also speaks eight languages fluently – and is self-taught?

(Generally, we found the shop owners in Samarkand to be very friendly and definitely not trying to do the hard sell.)

Owner of a textile shop holding a persian carpet in front of him
‘Dilshod’, owner of Dil-Suzani Boutique, proudly holding an Uzbek carpet

SHER-DOR MADRASAH

This Madrasah (the one on the right when you enter Registan Square), has retail shops inside its courtyard. Something a little different, and maybe a bit of fun too, is the Uzbek traditional dress-up garments that can be hired.

Some tourists wearing the Uzbek traditional dress-up costumes
Some tourists trying out the Uzbek traditional dress-up costumes

REGISTAN SQUARE LIGHT SHOW

Every few nights, laser light and sound shows are projected onto the Madrasahs. They roughly start about an hour after sunset, with the best vantage point at the tiered concrete area behind Registan Square’s entrance.

We asked the tourist police and local vendors about the schedule for the light show but no one seemed to know.  Was it every second night or third night?  The attendants of the coffee shop in Sherdor Park right by the Madrasah seemed confident that the show was on a 2-day cycle.

Note: we have since been told that only the organisers of the light show know exactly when the date it will occur. However, guaranteed performances are on special days such as the New Year, Nawruz (21st March), Independence Day (01st September) and every day in one of the months of the tourist high season (June to August).

light-show-projected-onto-the-madrasahs
Registan Square light show

Travel Tips: Visit Registan Square to capture the sunset over the madrasahs. You have about 20 minutes of natural light after sunset before the artificial lights illuminate the square and surrounding structures. Tilla Kari Park (just behind Registan Square) offers some interesting perspectives of the Registan Square madrasahs.

2. SAMARKAND TOURIST INFORMATION CENTER

Leaving Registan Square and walking 850m north-east down Islam Karimov Street, will take you past ATMs and shops where you can find a tourist information centre.

It’s a great place to stop and ask any questions. Actually, the staff here were so helpful, even to the point of joining us at the local bazaars to help us find a pair of shoes in western sizing.

3. BIBI KHANYM MOSQUE 

This was one of the largest mosques in the world during the early 15th century. It was built by the famous conqueror Amir Timur, in honour of his favourite wife Bibi Khanym. Unfortunately, the grand construction collapsed soon after being built. What now remains are the main portal, three domed halls and a minaret.

mosaic-tiled-exterior-of-a-mosque
Bibi Khanym Mosque

4. BIBI KHANYM MAUSOLEUM

Opposite the Bibi Khanym mosque, is a mausoleum containing five tombs. This mausoleum is all that remains of what was originally the Khanym Madrasah.

Simple mausoleum of earthen bricks and blue domed roof
Bibi Khanym Mausoleum

5. SIAB BAZAAR

Just behind Bibi Khanym Mosque, is Siab Bazaar. This marketplace sells dried fruit, nuts, vegetables, clothes, homewares and of course, bread.

Vendors happily gesture for you to try their produce. Mornings are when you’ll see the market in full swing and by midday, it’s much quieter.

Siab Markets in Samarkand with the many tables of goods on display

Siab Bazaar

6. SHAH-I-ZINDA CEMETERY 

The entrance to the Shah-i-Zinda Cemetery is on Islam Karimov Street. The path winds its way past an array of ornate headstones cramped together as if vying for the best position to look onto the path. This is in stark contrast to other poorer parts of the cemetery.

Immaculately maintained pathway in a green tree filled cemetery
The immaculately kept centre pathway of the Shah-i-Zinda Cemetery
group-of-fancy-mausoleums
Views of the Shah-i-Zinda Complex from the Shah-i-Zinda Cemetery

There are two ways to access the Shah-i-Zinda Complex, either following Shozinda ko’chasi Road or via a much more interesting walk through the Shah-i-Zinda Cemetery, bordering the Shah-i-Zinda Complex.

7. SHAH-I-ZINDA COMPLEX

The Shah-i-Zinda Complex (sometimes called the Zinda Necropolis), consists of more than twenty richly appointed mausoleums of the nobility, dating back to the 12th century.

The mausoleums are packed closely together and tower over the small streets about them.

lady-in-an-arabic-styled-building
Beautiful mosaics of a mausoleum
fancy-domed-Mausoleums
Tightly packed mausoleums are all beautifully appointed

You’re able to walk up the few steep steps and step inside each mausoleum. Inside, exquisite colours and mosaics adorn the ceiling and walls.

To take photos here is an additional cost on top of the entry fee.

8. AMIR TEMUR MAUSOLEUM

About 1 kilometre south-west of Registan Square, lies Amir Temur Mausoleum. This mausoleum is the burial place of Amir Timur, a revered conqueror of many lands, his two sons and two grandsons along with Amir’s spiritual mentor, are also buried here.

Beautiful intricate blue gold mosaics of a mausoleum
Intricate mosaics adorn Temur’s burial chamber
Mausoleum entrance through typical archway
Amir Temur Mausoleum entrance 

Amir Temur’s coffin is unique, in that it has a covering of a single piece of black jade.

From the outside of the mausoleum, the back part is not renovated, leaving you to admire the many centuries-old patterned brick structure. Here, you’ll also find a small underground market selling Uzbek handicrafts.

9) AMIR TEMUR STATUE

Crossing into University Boulevard, a mere 200m away, you can see a giant-sized statue of Amir Temur.

It’s a busy roundabout, but if you time it right with the lights you’ll be able to cross over.

Because the statue is so large, we found the best vantage point for photos was right opposite the statue, in Hamid Alimjan Park.

Large statue of ancient conqueror on throne
Statue of Amir Temur

10. SAMARKAND STREET ART

Close to Registan Square, you can find a long wall of street art. You might be thinking that this would definitely be out of place in this ancient city, but unusually, it has been done tastefully and fits in well.

Colourful street art on a concrete wall
Street art near Registan Square

11. HAZRATI HIZR MOSQUE (CLOSE TO THE SHAH-I-ZINDA CEMETERY)

This 17th-century mosque was renovated in the 1990s and is quite new looking.

Be aware that you are not allowed to take photos inside this mosque. We chose to enjoy the street views of the mosque.

Modern mosque with multiple domes
The modern mosque of Hizrati Hizr

12.  ISLAM KARIMOV MEMORIAL

Not far from Registan Square, is this bronze figure. It depicts the first president of Uzbekistan who reigned from 1991, when the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union, until his death in 2016.

bronze-statue-of-a-man
Islam Karimov Memorial

13. VISIT THE ULUGH BEG OBSERVATORY

The remnants of this early 15th-century building were only discovered in the early 20th century after being reduced to ruins. The building housed a huge sextant of 40m radius, carved from the surrounding rock, of which part of the sextant now remains.

This Observatory has been given Ubekistans’s highest level of cultural protection.

It is approximately 4.5 kilometres to the northeast of Registan Square in the foothills of Chupan-ata mountain.

WHERE TO EAT IN SAMARKAND

Sharq Shirinliklari: This restaurant is situated about 300m from Registan Square. The food isn’t the cheapest but the traditional Uzbek food was certainly tasty.

Bobur Shashlik: Tucked away, behind Bibi Khanym is a local restaurant serving all types of barbequed meat kebabs. Simply pick how many you want and the type of meat. We ate here for two nights as the food and prices were really good.

The front of an old restaurant in Samarkand
The simple entrance to the Bobur Shaslik restaurant 

WHERE TO STAY IN SAMARKAND

We would recommend booking a hotel within a kilometre of Registan Square.

Accommodation options for Samarkand can be found here.

SAMARKAND’S SOVIET HISTORY

Arriving in Samarkand, we had an interesting discussion with one of the shop owners. Although the 20th-century Russian occupation of many other countries has been associated with negative impacts, here in Uzbekistan, it was a welcomed change. The Soviets allowed the Uzbek people more equality than their old ways had allowed under Islamic rule. A good example is that the Soviets encouraged and made it possible for girls to attend school.

Donkey and cart on a busy street with cars in Samarkand
Samarkand maintains a seamless mix of the old, with the new

Another very important task that the Soviets undertook, was the much-needed restoration of many of the ancient buildings, returning them to a state close to that of their former glory.

The disrepair over the many centuries caused by earthquakes and harsh weather had taken its toll on the beautiful facades of these grand structures.

mosaic tiles.jpg
A different take on one of the madrasahs in Registan Square

THINGS TO DO IN SAMARKAND … That’s a Wrap

Ideally, about 3 days will give you enough time to do all these things in Samarkand. The old city certainly has a lot to offer visitors.

Tourism in Uzbekistan is on the rise, and the country’s willingness to embrace foreign travel combined with efforts to promote the country as a secure travel destination will hopefully continue.

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