Samarkand is the ancient beating heart of Uzbekistan, and hands down one of the most astonishing places on earth. Founded in the 7th century BC, this city is one of the oldest towns in Central Asia and has been influenced by a myriad of cultures and religions throughout its history. Today, it’s named ‘Samarkand — Crossroads of Cultures’ in the UNESCO World Heritage, and the city is covered with absolutely jaw-dropping architecture that is bound to take your breath away. There are simply no words to do them justice, but I will try my best. Here are some of the most incredible things to do in Samarkand, along with some helpful travel tips!
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Context: A Brief History of Samarkand
For over two and a half thousand years, Samarkand was a prominent trading hub on the Silk Road route in Central Asia and was also known for its thriving production of crafts. In 329 BC, the city was invaded by Alexander the Great. From the early medieval period, Sogdians, an ancient Iranian civilization, inhabited Samarkand and traded cloth, spices, and precious metals along the Silk Road to as far as China and India.
It was also evidenced from archeological artifacts that several cultures and religions have found a home in Samarkand during the medieval times, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Manichaeism. In the 8th century, the Sogdians fled the region as the Samanid Empire took over, turning Samarkand into one of the major centers of Muslim learning before it was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220.
Much of the architecture you’ll see today around the city is credited to Amir Timur, who rebuilt Samarkand from scratch and made it the capital city of the Timurid Empire in the 1370s. Today, you’ll see statues of Amir Timur all over the country; he’s deemed as a national hero. His grandson Ulugh Beg succeeded him after his death and was also behind a lot of the architecture in Samarkand today.
In 1500, the Shaybanids (a Turko-Mongol dynasty) conquered Samarkand and merged the city with their acquired Khanate of Bukhara. They built some of the most important monuments in the city today, including two of the madrasahs inside the famous Registan Square. Eventually, Samarkand was abandoned by the late 18th century and only revived with the construction of the railway system in the 1890s, which allowed the city to soar back to its ancient role as a trading hub at the intersection of east and west.
11 Top Things to do in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
1. Explore Registan for at Least Half a Day
One of the most breathtaking places to see in Samarkand is Registan, the pearl of the city. During the Timurid Empire, this public square was used for royal announcements and public executions. It was also regarded as the heart of the Timurid Renaissance. Today, three madrasahs — Islamic schools — frame this beautiful square: Ulugh Beg Madrasah (built between 1417–1420 during the Timurid Empire), Sher-Dor Madrasah (built between 1619–1636 by the Shaybanids) and Tilya-Kori Madrasah (built between 1646–1660 by the Shaybanids). Each of these madrasahs has a large courtyard surrounded by two stories of former classrooms and residential rooms for students and professors. You can go inside each madrasah and explore it in full detail.
Registan Highlight #1: Visit the mosque inside Tilya-Kori Madrasah
As you walk into Registan square, Tilya-Kori Madrasah is the one that’s directly in front of you. When you go inside it, you’ll see a beautiful courtyard with trees and benches, and if you turn to the left, you’ll find the entrance to a mosque. Tilya-Kori Mosque will take your breath away from the moment you enter. Its ceiling, made of gold mosaic, holds a magnificent illusion: it looks like a dome, but it’s actually completely flat!
Registan Highlight #2: Climb up to the second floor of Ulugh Beg Madrasah
When you enter Registan, Ulugh Beg Madrasah is the one to your left. This madrasah was considered one of the best religious colleges in the Muslim world in the 15th century. It nurtured many notable Persian poets and philosophers, and one of the professors who taught there was Ulugh Beg of the Timurid Empire (who also ordered the construction of the building himself).
If you go inside the madrasah and walk all the way to the opposite side of the courtyard, you will find a small hidden door that opens up to a staircase which will lead you up to the second floor of the building. The view from up there is absolutely spectacular; you get to see the courtyard and the walls of the madrasah from an entirely different perspective, and there are lots of cool angles for photography too!
Registan Highlight #3: Unveil history inside vendors’ stores
Back in the days, the courtyards of the madrasahs were surrounded by residential rooms of students and professors. These rooms were typically found on the first floor of the madrasahs, and today, many of them have been turned into souvenir shops selling everything from suzanis (a traditional hand-embroidered textile) to intricate paintings.
The cool thing is that parts of the former residential rooms can still be seen inside some of the stores, and some vendors are very happy to show them to you. Deep inside their stores, you can see remnants of the students’ beds and desks, and it’s a really cool glimpse into the history of Registan. The vendors are also really nice people who are genuinely eager to show you the history of the place — they typically won’t charge you to go inside and look even if you don’t buy anything from their stores!
Registan Photography Tip
Unless you visit during the cold winter months, Registan gets super crowded during the day (usually with local tourists). If you want to take beautiful photos here without the crowd, I recommend arriving at the square early in the morning, right at opening time (8 am). You can find my photography gear here.
Registan opening hours: 8 am - 7 pm daily
Registan entrance fees: 40,000 som / $4 USD
How to get there: I recommend getting a hotel near Registan and making it your base because most of Samarkand's attractions are in the same area
2. Watch a Traditional Musical Performance at Registan
Right before sunset, the madrasahs inside Registan Square light up and it’s honestly one of the most breathtaking sights on earth. Watching their intricate tiles glow so majestically as the sky dims moved me to tears. The best part is that that’s only the beginning of a magical evening. In the spring and summer, there’s a traditional musical performance that takes place right inside Sher-Dor Madrasah (on the right side of the square) in the evenings, and it’s an experience you absolutely can’t miss.
Music is a big part of Uzbek culture, and traditional Uzbek music was influenced by lots of notable poets and ancient folklore. The evening performances inside Registan showcase a genre of music called Shashmaqam, which is unique to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It even made it onto UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind!
Against the backdrop of the beautifully lit madrasah walls, you’ll get to watch performers in traditional costumes play Shashmaqam instruments such as the gijak (a four-stringed bowed spike fiddle), the doira (a drum), the stringed dutar (a two-stringed lute), and the tanbur (a long-necked string instrument). The musicians and dancers not only showcase their music but also their culture — they would act out scenes from a traditional Uzbek wedding, for example. Towards the end of the show, the dancers even invite audience members to go up and dance with them. The atmosphere is incredible, and the performance is truly astounding; an unmissable experience if you want to immerse yourself in the local culture!
Performance hours: 7 pm daily (lasts for 1 hour) Entrace fees: 60,000 som / $6 USD How to get tickets: No need to book in advance - go inside Registan and ask for a ticket from one of the many guards
3. Get Lost in Shah-i-Zinda’s Jaw-Dropping Tilework
Shah-i-Zinda is a sacred necropolis and hands down one of the most magnificent places to visit in Samarkand. It was first established over 1,000 years ago, and between the 11th and 19th centuries, various mausoleums and temples were continually added to the complex, forming the avenue of mausoleums you see today. Shah-i-Zinda houses the remains of both famous and unknown people, and it showcases some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. Many of them date back to the 14th and 15th centuries of the Timurid Empire.
There’s also a legend associated with this beautiful site. The name ‘Shah-i-Zinda’ translates to ‘Tomb of the Living King’, which refers to a mythology that states that Muhammad’s cousin, Qusam ibn-Abbas, was buried in this necropolis. Qusam ibn-Abbas is said to have brought Islam to this region in the 7th century, and both Amir Timur and Ulugh Beg buried their families around his grave. Shah-i-Zinda was controversially restored in 2005, so a lot of the mosaic work there today is not original. Regardless, the tilework is absolutely enchanting, and you can easily spend hours admiring all the details.
Dress code: Please dress conservatively — with your shoulders and knees covered — to pay respect to this sacred place.
Opening hours: 7 am - 7 pm daily Entrance fees: 15,000 som / $1.5 USD How to get there: From Registan - 30 mins by feet / 10 mins taxi ride
4. Experience Local Life at Siyob Bazaar
Siyob Bazaar is Samarkand’s largest market, and it’s bustling with activity and colors. It’s the perfect place to wander around, talk to locals, people-watch, and get to know the local life a bit more. All kinds of spices are sold here, as well as fresh produce, bread, meat, and various local snacks. Be sure to try halva – a local sweet that resembles fudge – it’s very popular in Uzbekistan!
Opening hours: Tuesdays - Sundays 5 am - 7 pm / Closed on Mondays
How to get there: From Registan - 15 mins by feet
5. Admire the Magnificent Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum
The splendid Gur-e-Amir is a very important site of the Timurid Empire; it marks the final burial place of founder Amir Timur and his grandson Ulugh Beg. What many don’t know is that the architecture of this site actually inspired the Taj Mahal in India. That should come as no surprise though; Gur-e-Amir’s rich tilework is an absolute masterpiece, and it’s bound to take your breath away the minute you lay eyes on its stunning blue portal leading to the mausoleum.
Amir Timur was actually never expected to be buried in Gur-e-Amir; he had already built himself a crypt in his hometown of Shakhrisabz and completed Gur-e-Amir in 1404 for one of his grandsons. However, in 1405, Timur died unexpectedly of pneumonia in Kazakhstan, and because it was winter, the road back to Shakhrisabz was blocked by snow, so he was buried here instead. Today, the architecture of Gur-e-Amir is one of the most astonishing things to see in Samarkand; the intricate details of the tiles are simply mind-blowing.
Opening hours: 9 am - 7 pm daily
Entrance fees: 25,000 som / $2.5 USD
How to get there: From Registan - 15 mins by feet
6. Tour the Historic Bibi-Khanym Mosque
Bibi-Khanym Mosque was the jewel of the Timurid Empire and one of the biggest mosques of the Islamic world. Completed in 1404, it could hold up to 10,000 worshippers and was built by architects from India and Iran along with 95 elephants hauling construction material. Unfortunately, the mosque was reduced to ruins by the earthquake of 1897, and reconstruction began in the 1970s under the Soviet rule. After the fall of the USSR, Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan’s first president) put a lot of effort into restoring Timurid-era monuments, and much of the mosque was quickly rebuilt. Today, Bibi-Khanym Mosque stands proudly and is a marvel to explore. You can also still see some of the old ruins as you walk around.
There’s also a famous legend behind this mosque: Back in the 14th century, Amir Timur’s wife ordered for this mosque to be built as a gift for him before his return from India. However, the architect quickly fell in love with her and construction progressed very slowly. When she pushed him to get it done quicker, he told her that she must plant a kiss on his cheek. She did after some hesitation, and Amir Timur was soon welcomed home with this beautifully completed mosque. Eventually, Timur found out about the architect and ordered for him to be killed and buried under a mausoleum.
Opening hours: 8 am - 8 pm daily
Entrance fees: 25,000 som / $2.5 USD
How to get there: From Registan - 15 mins by feet
7. Pair Local Cuisine with an Epic View
Just a few steps away from Bibi-Khanym Mosque is a remarkable hidden gem: the Bibikhanum Hotel. This hotel has a restaurant on its terrace that’s perfect to stop by for a meal; as far as ‘restaurant with a view’ goes, it just doesn’t get better than that. As you indulge in traditional Uzbek cuisine, you can admire the intricate details of Bibi-Khanym Mosque’s dome staring right at you. It’s hard to believe how close-up it is! The food at the restaurant is delicious too. Make sure to try some of the staples of Uzbek cuisine: plov, manti, shurpa, and nan bread.
Price range: ~50,000 - 150,000 som ($5 - $15 USD) per person for a whole meal How to get there: It's right next to Bibi-Khanym Mosque
8. Climb up a 400-Year-Old Minaret
If you’re looking for a unique and thrill-seeking adventure, head over to Registan after sunset (or stay there after the evening musical performance) and tell a guard that you’d like to climb up one of the madrasahs’ minarets. For around $10 USD, he will then lead you to some staircases and take you up to the top of Sher-Dor Madrasah’s 40-meter-tall minaret. The ascent to the top is far from easy. You’d be going up a very dark and narrow staircase which isn’t well-paved at all. You’ll also get dust all over yourself, and if you’re claustrophobic, you won’t enjoy the climb. But otherwise, it’s an absolute once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The guards will stay with you for about half of the climb; you’ll have to do the final bit on your own. Why? Because the top platform of the minaret is so narrow, so slanted downwards, and so lacking of barriers that it actually cannot safely fit more than one person at a time. Even standing on the small platform felt too scary, and sitting down requires some balance skills too. I simply stood at the top of the staircase without stepping onto the platform and admired the view with my head poking out. While it was completely worth it, you don’t have to do the final bit of the climb to get a great view — midway through the climb, you’ll get to an open terrace on the madrasah and from there, you can already catch some really surreal views of Registan (see pictures below).
Climbing hours: After 7 pm
Price: 100,000 som / $10 USD
How to get tickets: Go to Registan in the evening and approach a guard
9. Learn Science at the Ulugh Beg Observatory
Built in the 1420s by ruler Ulugh Beg, Ulugh Beg Observatory was once one of the best observatories of the Islamic world and nurtured some of the top astronomers of the time. Under the rule of Ulugh Beg (during the Timurid Empire), Samarkand became a sort of a scientific center. In fact, Ulugh Beg was said to have been more famous as an astronomer than as a ruler. The Ulugh Beg Observatory showcases some of the world’s most advanced astronomical studies led by him; the most notable one being a remarkably thorough star catalog with over 1,000 stars and their locations in the sky. It was created 200 years before telescopes even existed.
Unfortunately, the observatory was destroyed in 1449 when Ulugh Beg was beheaded. It was then rediscovered in 1908 by a Russian archeologist. Today, the Ulugh Beg Observatory is a museum that displays (among other things) a model of the ancient observatory, a copy of a 1605 world map that was created there, and an engraving that shows Ulugh Beg seated with Tycho Brahe and Ptolemy, fathers of European astronomy.
Opening hours: 9 am - 7 pm daily
Entrance fees: 25,000 som / $2.5 USD
How to get there: From Registan - 15 mins by taxi / From Shah-i-Zinda - bus no. 45, 99, 17
10. Visit the President’s Tomb
Not too far from Siyob Bazaar, you’ll find the President’s Tomb, the beloved resting place of the first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. A splendid mausoleum was built over his grave, and its architecture is a blend of modern and medieval techniques. At the center of the mausoleum is the tombstone. Made of white onyx, it has verses from the Quran and the Timurid era inscribed on it. The walls of the mausoleum are ornate with gold leaf, and the portals are covered with writings — quotes by the president himself written in Uzbek, English, and Arabic. The President’s Tomb is a very peaceful place to visit. Please remember to dress modestly and to cover your knees and shoulders.
Entrance fees: 15,000 som / $1.5 USD How to get there: Around 5-10 mins by foot from both Bibi-Khanym Mosque and Shah-i-Zinda
11. Take a Day Trip to Shahrisabz
If you want to get out of the city for a day, the UNESCO city of Shahrisabz is an easy and popular day trip from Samarkand. Founded more than 2,700 years ago, Shahrisabz is the hometown and former royal residence of Amir Timur. It’s also one of the oldest cities in Central Asia. Shahrisabz has lots of historical monuments dating back to the Timurid-era, and much of its medieval historic center has retained its original appearance, making it a very authentic place to visit. Some notable places to see here are Ak-Saray Palace, Dorut Tilovat, Amir Timur Museum (inside Chubin Madrasah), Chorsu Complex, and Dor-us Siyodat.
To get to Shahrisabz, hire a taxi and ask the driver to wait for you while you explore this small town, and then have them take you back to Samarkand. The scenic drive takes 2 hours each way, and the usual rate is $40 USD for 2 people.
Where to Stay in Samarkand
I recommend staying within walking distance of Registan because most of Samarkand’s attractions are within walking distance of that area. Some of the top choices are:
Rabat Boutique Hotel — This charming and cozy hotel has a beautiful garden and terrace, and the hosts are very warm and welcoming. It’s within a 10-minute walk to Registan.
Bibikhanum Hotel — This excellently-located hotel offers an absolutely incredible terrace view of Bibi-Khanym Mosque. As mentioned before, there’s also a restaurant there with the best meal view of the city.
Jahongir B&B — A very friendly family-run B&B located within 5 minutes from Registan. They have a stunning courtyard and garden, very stylish rooms, and gorgeous decor.
How Many Days to Spend in Samarkand
Recommended: 3 days (at least 2 days if you’re tight on time)
Samarkand is one of the main highlights of Uzbekistan and the attractions here are very large in scale — you will need quite a bit of time to fully explore them. Visting Registan, for example, can easily take up almost an entire day. Shah-i-Zinda’s endless mausoleums also deserve at least half a day if not more. In order to fully enjoy your time in this city and not rush from place to place, 3 days is ideal.
Travel Insurance for Uzbekistan
Having travel insurance always gives me peace of mind, and I highly recommend getting one before you travel; it’s not worth risking it! I recommend buying travel insurance from World Nomads — they offer affordable prices, great coverage, 24/7 on-call service, and also allow you to make claims online while on the road.
Getting Into Samarkand
By train: The fastest way to reach Samarkand from Tashkent is to take the Afrosiyob high-speed train, which leaves daily in the mornings and evenings. The journey is approximately 2 hours, and tickets cost around $7 USD at the train stations. The trains are very comfortable and clean. You can also take the slower Sharq train, which takes around 3.5 hours and costs a little bit less.
By train: It’s very convenient to get between Samarkand and Bukhara. With the daily Afrosiyob high-speed train, the journey is 1.5 hours and you can leave in the morning or in the late afternoon. Tickets start at $7 USD at local train stations. You can also take the slower and slightly cheaper Sharq train, which takes around 2.5 hours.
By night train: The night train from Khiva to Samarkand runs on Monday, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It’s approximately a 12-hour journey and you’ll arrive in Samarkand before sunrise. I don’t recommend doing this route if I have to be honest. Instead, go from Khiva to Bukhara, stay a few days in Bukhara, and then get to Samarkand from there. It’s much quicker and more convenient.
Getting Around Samarkand
Samarkand is a big city, but all the attractions listed in this guide — aside from the Ulugh Beg Observatory — are concentrated in one area or within walking distance of each other (around 15 to 30 mins by feet). You’ll also come across lots of hidden gems as you walk from place to place, so I highly recommend exploring this city on foot. Ulugh Beg Observatory is about 1 hour by foot from the city center or a 15-minute taxi ride. You can also get there with bus no. 45 or 99, or minibus no. 17 from the Shah-i-Zinda complex.
Where to Eat in Samarkand
- Oasis Garden – An elegant restaurant with an interesting and unique menu and friendly staff. They offer vegetarian options too.
- Bibikhanum Teahouse – Conveniently located next to Bibi-Khanym Mosque, this well-decorated restaurant is an excellent place to experience the cozy and traditional tapchan (an outdoor sofa) seating arrangement.
- Samarkand Restaurant – A fancy restaurant with a beautiful interior and authentic local food. It also has an elegant disco room for birthday parties and other events — you’ll see dressed up locals dancing the night away!
Other Tips for Visiting Samarkand
- Best time to visit Samarkand: March to May / September to October for the best weather
- ATMs in Samarkand: There are plenty of ATMs around the city that accept foreign cards, however, the ones that are most likely to work are inside high-end hotels and restaurants. I recommend having a bit more cash on you than you may need in case you don’t come across a working ATM for a while.
- Taxis in Samarkand: The typical rate is around 12,500 som ($1.25 USD) for a 10-15 minute ride
- What to pack for Samarkand: Modest clothes that cover your knees and shoulders for mosques and mausoleums. Outside of sacred places, you can dress however you want.
- Safety in Samarkand: Samarkand, like Uzbekistan in general, is incredibly safe, even for solo female travelers. Uzbekistan has a very low crime rate and the friendliest people, so simply take general travel precautions and you’ll be completely fine.
- Samarkand photography tip: The architecture here is incredibly grand and majestic, so bring a wide-angle lens to capture it all! You can find my photography gear here.
My Travel Photography Gear
This is the photography gear I use to capture the best of Samarkand and Uzbekistan. If you plan to take photos by yourself, I highly recommend getting the tripod listed below as it’s very lightweight and portable — perfect for travel!
- Cameras: Nikon D610 + Sony A6400 (check out the best Sony lenses)
- Main lens: Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8
- Wide-angle lens: Tokina AF 16-28mm f/2.8
- Prime lens: Nikon 50mm f/1.4 G
- Tripod: Manfrotto Element Traveller Tripod (Ball Head)
📸 Related post: Best Cameras for Bloggers in 2021: The Ultimate Guide + Reviews
I hope you enjoyed finding out about the top things to do in Samarkand!
🖼 If you enjoyed my Uzbekistan photos, you can also purchase some of them from my print store!
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A big shoutout to Lukáš Platinský for contributing his beautiful photography to this article.