Nestled in the Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan is the stunning desert town of Khiva, one of the most intact Silk Road cities in the world. Many visitors tend to skip it as it’s a bit out of the way, but missing out on Khiva would mean not seeing an integral part of Uzbekistan’s history and beauty. In fact, Khiva is Central Asia’s very first UNESCO World Heritage City and one of the most breathtaking places on earth with over 50 historical sites in its tiny Old Town. The city is essentially an open-air museum that also resembles a sandcastle town; think clay-colored houses and ancient minarets enclosed inside gigantic fortress walls. Where else can you find a place like this today? Here are some of the top things to do in Khiva to help you make the most of your time here!
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Context: A Brief History of Khiva
A long, long time ago, Shem, son of Noah, discovered a well while crossing the desert. People nearby flocked to it and apparently exclaimed “khey-vakh!”, which means “sweet water”, when they drank the water from the well. Legends say that’s how the city of Khiva was born. Today, you can still see the original well inside the courtyard of an 18th-century house in the Old Town.
Khiva soon went on to become a popular resting hub for caravans and merchants crossing the desert. Between the 10th and 14th centuries, it was a crowded, thriving town — a major trading hub on the Silk Road. Then, in the early 16th century, it became the capital of the Khiva Khanate founded by a branch of the Shaybanids (who also had a large impact on Bukhara and Samarkand). During this time, the city started running a bustling slave market which lasted several centuries. In 1740, Nadir Shah of Persia invaded the region and made Khiva a part of the Persian Empire. Eventually, the khanate of Khiva restored its order before they surrendered to the Soviets in 1924.
Entering The Old Town of Khiva – ‘Itchan Kala’
Most of Khiva’s attractions are inside the historical Itchan Kala — the area within the city’s high fortress walls.
Back in the 19th century, Khiva was divided into two parts: Itchan Kala (inner city) and Dishan Kala (outer city). Itchan Kala stood within 10-meter (32 ft) tall fortress walls, which were destroyed and rebuilt several times in the course of its history. Inside Itchan Kala was where the khans resided, along with the clergies, high officials, and rich merchants. Craftsmen and ordinary people lived in Dishan Kala.
Today, Itchan Kala is very much like an open-air museum. With over 50 historical monuments scattered around, it’s a great glimpse into how a typical medieval Oriental town looked like in the past. There are also over 350 houses inside Itchan Kala, as around 2,600 people still live there.
Itchan Kala Opening Hours
Itchan Kala is open 24/7. You can wander around the streets there as early or as late as you’d like — I highly recommend stargazing in a quiet spot late at night! With that said, all the historical attractions inside Itchan Kala (museums, mosques, minarets, etc.) are only open between 8:00 AM and 6:00 PM.
Itchan Kala Entrance Tickets
You will need an entrance ticket to visit Itchan Kala, and there are three types of them:
- VIP (recommended): $15 USD (150k som) — includes all the historical attractions within Itchan Kala, including the watchtower, minaret, and city walls
- Standard: $10 USD (100k som) — includes everything except the watchtower, minaret, and city walls
- Economy: $5 USD (50k som) — only allows you to enter the ancient city but doesn’t give you access to any historical site inside it
All tickets are valid for two days and are sold at Itchan Kala west gate. Each time you enter a museum or historical site, you will need to scan the QR code on your ticket.
Getting a Local Guide in Itchan Kala
I highly recommend getting a personal guide at the entrance of Itchan Kala. Many places inside Itchan Kala are quite hard to find on your own. Lavish, colorful courtyards tend to be hidden behind small doors you’d never even think to walk through because from the outside, they don’t appear to lead to anywhere special. Plus, with a local guide around, you’ll also get to understand a lot more about the places you’re seeing and learn about the local culture.
An English-speaking guide costs around $30 in total for 2 people, for a 3-hour tour. You can request this service inside the ticket office right at the entrance of Itchan Kala.
12 Top Things to do in Khiva, Uzbekistan
1. Admire the Stunning Kalta Minor Minaret
Before you even enter Itchan Kala, you’ll see the iconic Kalta Minor Minaret from a distance. This beautiful turquoise-tiled minaret was built between 1851 and 1855 during the Khiva Khanate, under the rule of Mohammed Amin Khan. The khan had a dream: to showcase the power of his Khanate, he wanted to build an 80-meters (262 ft) tall minaret that would surpass the famous Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara. Unfortunately, he was killed in battle before construction was completed, leaving Kalta Minor Minaret unfinished at 29 meters (95 ft) tall. The name ‘Kalta Minor’, as a matter of fact, means ‘short minaret’.
The gorgeous decorations on the minaret were the works of some of the best craftsmen in Khiva. Once it was clear that the minaret would remain unfinished, they wanted to make the structure feel complete. Today, you won’t find any other minaret in Central Asia with decorations as bright or as colorful as the ones on Kalta Minor Minaret — it’s truly a one-of-a-kind architectural beauty.
Next to the minaret is Mohammed Amin Madrasah, which was one of the largest madrasahs — Islamic schools — in Central Asia. Nowadays, it actually got turned into a hotel that you can stay in during your time in the city! In fact, Orient Star Khiva Hotel is one of the best places to stay the night in Khiva if you want to be right in the middle of the Old Town, next to one of the most breathtaking historical monuments in Central Asia. Inside the hotel complex, there’s also a currency exchange office, a café, and a travel agency with an airline ticketing office!
Opening hours: You can admire the minaret and madrasah from the outside at any time; there are no gates. Entrance fees: None How to get there: It's right in front of you as soon as you enter from Itchan Kala west gate
2. Visit the Unique Wooden Juma Mosque
Woodworking has long been a tradition in Khiva, and nowhere in the city does this become more evident than at Juma Mosque — the most unique mosque you’ll come across in Uzbekistan. Typically, mosques in Uzbekistan have portals, arched entrances, and domes. Juma Mosque has none of those things; instead, its distinctive features are 218 wooden pillars supporting its roof. In fact, this Friday mosque can totally pass off as a museum of woodcarving, displaying all the different woodcarving styles found in Khiva throughout history!
Many of the wooden pillars are made from almond and elm trees around Khiva and date back to the 10th, 11th, and 14th centuries. Wandering around this quiet mosque, you can see how the carving styles have evolved with time; for example, some pillars from the 16th century have patterns that seem to imitate older techniques. There are also three openings in the ceiling of the mosque that allow the sun to play an enchanting light show between the pillars. That’s right — photography fans, you will especially love this place!
Opening hours: 9 am - 6 pm daily Entrance fees: Included in the Standard & VIP Itchan Kala tickets How to get there: A 3-min walk from the entrance at Itchan Kala west gate
3. Explore the Magnificent Tash Khauli Palace
Built in the 1830s, the splendid Tash Khauli Palace is home to some of Khiva’s most extravagant interior decorations. This palace was the residence of Allah Kuli Khan, and its name means ‘Stone House’ as the complex also displays impressive carved wooden pillars. There are over 150 rooms and 9 courtyards in this palace, and wandering inside feels like navigating a big maze. Don’t be afraid to try small entrances or holes in the walls — they may not look too interesting at first, but they might just lead you to some of the most amazing courtyards!
Top tip: Having a local guide to help you navigate this palace really helps; some of the best courtyards are really hidden and there’s a good chance you’ll miss them completely if you’re visiting on your own.
Opening hours: 9 am - 6 pm daily Entrance fees: Included in the Standard & VIP Itchan Kala tickets How to get there: A 5-min walk from the entrance at Itchan Kala west gate
4. Shop for Handicrafts at the Bazaars
One of the best ways to support the local community is by browsing the colorful, bustling bazaars of the Old Town. A lot of Khiva’s locals make a living by selling their intricately-made handicrafts, and the streets of the Old Town are lined with vendor stores showcasing a variety of handmade items including pottery, musical instruments, silk rugs, hats, and woodwork — just to name a few. There are also a few indoor bazaars that sell everything from jewelry and scarves to suzanis (traditional hand-embroidered textiles). Wandering these markets is not just a great way to find souvenirs, but also to get a glimpse of local life and support the hardworking artists!
Opening hours: Typically 9 am - 6 pm daily How to get there: You'll see them all around Itchan Kala, particularly on the Main Street leading up to the west gate entrance, but also inside the gates, next to the main attractions
5. Get a Bird’s-Eye View from Islam Khoja Minaret
At 57 meters (187 ft) tall, Islam Khoja Minaret is Uzbekistan’s highest minaret. Built in 1910 under the orders of Islam Khoja (the first vizier of the Khiva Khanate), this tower was used to call for prayers and thanks to its impressive height, guided many travelers into the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, you can climb it to get a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Khiva and its 50+ historical monuments. I recommend climbing up in the morning to get the best lighting over the city.
Bear in mind that the staircase is very steep and narrow, so your clothes and backpack are bound to get some (if not a lot of) dust on them. But the climb is completely worth it, as the view from the top is truly something else. Next to the minaret is Islam Khoja Madrasah, which houses the Museum of Applied Arts. In there, you can find a large collection of Khorezm handicrafts including woodcarvings, tilework, and Uzbek carpets.
Opening hours: 8 am - 6 pm daily Fees for climbing the minaret: Included only in the VIP Itchan Kala ticket; it's an additional 20k som ($2 USD) if you have the Standard ticket How to get there: A 5-min walk from the entrance at Itchan Kala west gate
6. Wander the Enchanting Kuhna Ark Fortress
Built in the 17th century, Kuhna Ark is the heart of Itchan Kala — it was the fortress and former residence of Khiva’s rulers. Walking around this beautiful complex, you’ll get to have a peek at the life of the khans back in the days. Directly to the right of the entrance is the gorgeously ornate Summer Mosque, where you’ll see some truly superb white and blue tilework. Next to the mosque is the mint, which is now a museum that displays coins and banknotes that were minted there. The complex also has a throne room, a harem, stables, a prison, and a large reception hall, which is decorated with more amazing tilework. Spend some time exploring around before making your way up to the watchtower (more on that below).
Opening hours: 9 am - 6 pm daily Entrance fees: Included in the Standard & VIP Itchan Kala tickets How to get there: Directly to your left after you enter Itchan Kala from the west gate
7. Catch Sunset at the Watchtower
One place you must visit inside Kuhna Ark is the watchtower, which you can access via stairs from the back of the throne room. Make sure to climb up there right before sunset to catch the best views over Itchan Kala — a spectacular sight you won’t want to miss! In fact, watching sunset from the watchtower is one of the most popular and fantastic things to do in Khiva. Please note that the watchtower only opens one hour before sunset and closes right after sunset.
Opening hours: Opens one hour before sunset and closes right after sunset every day Watchtower fees: Included only in the VIP Itchan Kala ticket; it's an additional 20k som ($2 USD) if you have the Standard ticket How to get there: Take the stairs from the back of the throne room inside Kuhna Ark
8. Discover the Beauty of Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
The stunning Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum houses the tomb of Pahlavon Mahmud, one of Khiva’s biggest heroes and the city’s patron saint. Pahlavon Mahmud was a man of many talents; he was a poet, philosopher, and an accomplished wrestler all at once. Legends say he defeated everyone he wrestled against except for one man, who he learned would’ve been executed had he lost. Today, professional Iranian wrestlers still pray to Pahlavon Mahmud before matches.
Pahlavon Mahmud was said to have died in the 1320s and buried in his workshop. Then, having named him a patron saint, the people of Khiva built a mausoleum over his grave in the 1700s. Eventually, that site turned into a shrine and became the resting place for Khiva’s khans as well. Today, you’ll see some incredible examples of Persian architecture and tilework inside the chambers of the mausoleum.
Opening hours: 9 am - 6 pm daily Entrance fees: Included in the Standard & VIP Itchan Kala tickets How to get there: A 5-min walk from the west gate entrance of Itchan Kala
9. Stop by the Handicrafts Workshops
Wandering around town, you’re likely to come across locals making handicrafts inside workshops hidden in small alleys and madrasahs. Handicrafts (particularly woodwork) have been longstanding traditions of Khiva. Back in the days, most people who lived in this town were craftsmen selling their crafts. They’d rent their workshops from feudal rulers and spent many years mastering their art. In fact, Khiva flourished with many different kinds of handicrafts, including stone carving, hatmaking, leatherworking, shipbuilding, and fur coat sewing.
Today, many craftsmen around town would invite you to take a peek inside their workshops. Some of them are carving wood; others are weaving silk rugs. You can observe their crafting process — in the carpet weaving shops, you can see several women working together on a big silk rug that would take 4 to 5 months to complete. Please be respectful in these workshops as the locals there are living their everyday life, and please ask for permission before taking photos or videos. You can also further support the locals by buying their art in the bazaars around town!
How to find the workshops: These workshops are scattered all over Itchan Kala, and you're likely to come across at least some of them by simply wandering the narrow alleys. One of the silk carpet workshops is inside the Pahlavon Mahmud complex and is open from 9 am to 7 pm daily.
10. Enjoy a Meal with a View at Terrassa Cafe
Right next to Kuhna Ark is one of the best restaurants in Khiva — Terrassa Cafe & Restaurant. The view from the terrace there is absolutely epic, especially during and right after sunset. Pair that with some delicious food, and you’d easily get one of the best dining experiences in Uzbekistan. This restaurant has great vegetarian options as well (which may be hard to come by in this country). Make sure to try their pumpkin manti, shivit oshi (the local specialty), and if you’re a fan of meat — lamb shashlik.
Opening hours: 10 am - 10:30 pm daily Price range: ~50,000 som ($5 USD) per person for a whole meal How to get there: Right next to Kuhna Ark
11. Get out of Itchan Kala: Explore Isfandiyar Palace
There’s more to Khiva than just the inner city of Itchan Kala. In fact, Dishan Kala (the outer city) has some gems too, and Isfandiyar Palace (also known as Palace of Nurullabay) is definitely one of them. This palace is about a 10-minute walk from the west gate entrance of Itchan Kala, and to be very honest, given its relatively hefty entrance fee ($5 USD), I only recommend it as a great place to visit if you’ve already seen all the highlights of Itchan Kala and have extra time to spare.
Built in the early 1900s by Isfandiyar Khan of the Khiva Khanate, Isfandiyar Palace is home to lots of empty extravagant rooms built in a mixture of Eastern and Western styles. Walking around this place, you’ll see tons of over-the-top decorations, gold-embroidered ceilings, and lavish chandeliers. There’s also a large courtyard where you can relax. The best part about it? There are barely any tourists here, unlike the attractions inside Itchan Kala!
Opening hours: 9 am - 6 pm daily Entrance fees: 50k som / $5 USD How to get there: A 10-min walk from the west gate entrance of Itchan Kala
12. Take a Day Trip to the Ancient Khorezm Desert Castles
Get ready for one of the rawest and most unique places you can visit in Uzbekistan — a series of ancient fortress ruins in the middle of the Karakalpak Desert! A long time ago, there were around 400 ancient castles scattered across Khorezm — some of them with more than 2,000 years of history. Today, they look like sandcastles in the desert, and you can visit about a dozen of them, including Toprak Kala, Ayaz Kala, Koi Kirilgan Kala, Jabas Kala, Guldursun Kala, and Kizil Kala.
Built to protect the locals against nomadic raids, most of these fortresses were quite effective — that is, until Genghis Khan invaded the area in the 13th century. His troops destroyed the region, enslaved the townsmen, and the fortresses were abandoned and left to disintegrate. They were later discovered by Soviet archeologists, who, after taking excavated valuables to museums, also left them alone.
Today, visiting these ancient castle ruins is an experience like nothing else. You’ll feel like an archeologist discovering a place that stood for over 2,000 years, with barely anyone else around. There are no laid-out paths, protective ropes, or “tourist” signs to guide you around the area. These fortresses are completely untouched, and you can explore them at your own will and channel your inner Indiana Jones.
You can arrange for a tour of these fortresses either with your hotel or through a travel agency. Your hotel can call a taxi driver who will take you around and stop at however many fortresses you want. Going with a tour agency would cost you a lot more, but you’ll have a guide who can explain more about the history of these fortresses. One day is more than enough to see at least 5 or 6 fortresses.
Opening hours: 24/7 (there are no gates or entrance fees) Taxi / tour agency fees: ~150k - 400k som / ~$15 - $40 USD per car depending on how many fortresses you want to see How to get there: Arrange a taxi tour with your hotel or go with a tour agency
Where to Stay in Khiva
I’d recommend staying either inside or within walking distance of Itchan Kala because that’s where almost all of Khiva’s attractions are located.
($) Budget recommendation: Guest House Orzu (also known as Orzu B&B)
The owners of this guesthouse are very friendly, helpful, and welcoming. They prepared us a wonderful breakfast upon our arrival and made this place feel truly warm and cozy.
($$) Comfort recommendation: Euro-Asia
This clean, elegant, and newly-renovated hotel has the friendliest staff. We arrived here very late on the first night and the receptionist went out of his way to welcome us — he personally took us to the only restaurant open in town (walked with us for 10 minutes)!
($$$) High-end recommendation: Orient Star Khiva Hotel
If you want the unique experience of staying right inside a historic madrasah in the Old Town, right next to the breathtaking Kalta Minor Minaret, then this is the hotel for you. It’s perfectly situated inside Itchan Kala with comfortable and refurbished rooms.
How Many Days to Spend in Khiva
Recommended: 2 days (but 1 day is also enough to see everything)
Khiva is a very small city and you can cover all the important attractions here in one full day. With that said, your day would be looking quite packed with little time to breathe, so I recommend spending 2 days here if you can — you’ll be able to relax, spend more time in each site, and fully soak in the beauty and history of this city. Plus, this little city is known to steal visitors’ hearts, and it’s likely you’ll find it very hard to leave — especially if you only have a day here!
Travel Insurance for Uzbekistan
I highly recommend getting travel insurance before going to Uzbekistan. It’s something I always do before I travel because it’s just not worth risking it. I use World Nomads and have loved it so far — their prices are affordable, their coverage is great, they offer a 24/7 on-call customer service, and also allow you to make claims online while on the road!
Getting Into Khiva
By air (recommended): The closest airport to Khiva is Urgench International Airport (UGC), which is around a 30-min drive from Itchan Kala. You can fly from Tashkent to Urgench with Uzbekistan Airways for around $60 USD. The flight takes 1.5 hours.
By night train: The night train from Tashkent to Khiva departs every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. It leaves Tashkent at 21:00 and arrives in Khiva at 11:00 AM the next day. You can buy tickets directly at the local train station, or, for a much higher price, you can reserve them online with Global Connect.
By taxi via the Khorezm fortresses (recommended): A taxi from Bukhara to Khiva typically takes around 7-8 hours with a stop for lunch. You can arrange it directly from your hotel in Bukhara. A shared taxi for 2 people should cost $20 USD per person for the whole journey. You can also arrange for the taxi to stop at the Khorezm desert castles mentioned earlier in this guide if you didn’t get a chance to see them before. This would make your total journey around 9 hours long and you’d pay an extra $10 USD, but it’s completely worth it given the unique charm of the fortresses.
By train: The train from Bukhara to Khiva runs on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The journey takes around 5 hours and tickets cost $16 USD on Global Connect if you want to reserve them online. It would cost you much less if you buy them in person at the train station though!
By night train: The night train from Samarkand to Khiva operates on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It’s a 10-hour journey and you’ll reach Khiva in the late morning. Tickets start at $42 USD on Global Connect if you prefer reserving them online, but it’d cost you much less if you buy them in person at the local train station.
Getting Around Khiva
Khiva is a very compact and walkable city — you can easily navigate between all of its attractions by feet. The only time you’d need a taxi is to go between the city center and the train station (a 10-min drive) or to Urgench airport (a 30-min drive).
What to Eat and Where to Eat in Khiva
What to Eat – Khiva Specialties
There are two delicious regional specialties of Khiva that I highly recommend: shivit oshi and tuhum barak. These two dishes are available only in Khiva – you won’t be able to find them in other Uzbek cities.
- Shivit oshi is a dish made of dill-infused noodles topped with potatoes, carrots, pepper, tomatoes, and fried meat. It’s also served with sour cream.
- Tuhum barak is a ravioli dish with eggs and milk inside.
Where to Eat
- Xojiakbar – A non-touristy and very authentic local restaurant about a 10-minute walk from Itchan Kala. Try their delicious kazan kabob!
- Yasavul Boshi – This restaurant is located inside a madrasah and has a really great atmosphere. Try their mix dumplings, shivit oshi, and pakhlava. They have good vegetarian options too.
- Cafe Zarafshon – The food here is authentic and delicious, and the restaurant is beautifully decorated.
Day Trip to Khiva From Tashkent
If you have limited time in Uzbekistan, it’s totally possible to visit Khiva on a day trip from Tashkent. Many people tend to do this because it’s much easier to reach Samarkand and Bukhara from Tashkent than it is from Khiva, so it’s easier to be based in Tashkent rather than having to travel forward from Khiva.
If you’re planning to visit Khiva on a day trip from Tashkent, the good news is it’s quite easy to do! There are daily Uzbekistan Airways flights that depart Tashkent in the early morning and reach Urgench airport in 1.5 hours. From there, it’s a 30-min drive to Khiva’s city center. There’s a luggage storage service right on Main Street, leading up to the entrance of Itchan Kala. It’s in the middle of the road and hard to miss when you’re walking to the west gate ticket office. After spending the day in Khiva, you can fly back to Tashkent from Urgench airport late at night and reach the capital just before midnight. (The airport in Tashkent is about a 20 to 30-min drive to the city center).
Khiva vs. Bukhara vs. Samarkand: “Which One Should I Skip?”
Most travelers in Uzbekistan tend to prioritize Samarkand and Bukhara if they’re tight on time and choose to skip Khiva. I highly recommend you to not miss out on this incredibly underrated city though. Instead, you can simply cut your visit to Bukhara shorter by a day so that you can make time for Khiva. It’s hard to come by a place so raw and authentic in Central Asia nowadays, and the open-air museum of Khiva is definitely a unique gem that will steal your heart.
Other Tips for Visiting Khiva
- Best time to visit Khiva: March to May or September to October for the most ideal weather
- ATMs in Khiva: Khiva has very few ATMs that accept Visa or Mastercard, so make sure to have enough cash on you during your time here! If you want to exchange money, using US dollars will give you the best rate.
- Taxis in Khiva: You’ll really only need taxis to reach the airport or the train station. The typical rate is around 12,500 som ($1.25 USD) for a 10-15 minute ride.
- What to pack for Khiva: Bring modest clothes that cover your knees and shoulders for mosques and mausoleums. Outside of sacred places, you can dress however you want.
- Safety in Khiva: Khiva is incredibly safe, even for solo female travelers. Uzbekistan has a very low crime rate and I found traveling here safer than many countries in Europe.
I hope this article has given you lots of ideas for things to see in Khiva! Read my 10-day Uzbekistan travel guide for a complete itinerary and more helpful tips such as how to get the e-visa and how much to budget for your trip!
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A big shoutout to Lukáš Platinský for contributing his beautiful photography to this article.