Samarkand, a jewel in the crown of the Great Silk Road and Uzbekistan, is a city like no other. Find out about the top things to do in Samarkand, the crossroad between east and west. Discover historical places in Samarkand Silk Road and get amazed by the array of historical and cultural Samarkand attractions.
Samarkand is often considered a heart of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking China with the Mediterranean region. The highlight of Uzbekistan, or even the whole of Central Asia, this ancient city glimmers with the splendour of turquoise mosaics and architectonic masterpieces.
Samarkand has been found the 7th century B.C. and developed mainly between 14th and 15th century. The Timurid dynasty left its signature on the city with numerous majestic structures and architectural pearls. Samarkand is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN SAMARKAND
The ancient city with history dating back more than 2,500 years, shows off rich culture of Central Asia and Silk Road. It’s famous for its numerous mosques, mausoleums and madrassas. Samarkand’s crucial geographical location made it an important part of the Silk Road and, back in the days, a capital city of Uzbekistan.
It is a majestic city, and even on me, an outdoors junkie, it left a huge impression. However, you need to be prepared for the hustle and bustle in some places, and make sure to get off the main paths to find quiet streets and reflect on the old days of the Timurid empire.
Samarkand sightseeing options are endless. If you wonder what to do in Samarkand, below, you can find the list with the best of the things to do in Samarkand, to help you navigate through the city.
I spent two days there, but even one day in Samarkand, if well planned, will give you an opportunity to see all the iconic places to see in Samarkand.
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#1 Visit Registan square
One of the top places to visit in Samarkand, and the most famous square in the city, the Registan, is worth the hype.
If Samarkand is your first stop on your Uzbekistan itinerary, and you arrive at Registan first thing in the morning, you are going to be left speechless.
The Registan, a centre square of Samarkand, used to be a public space for people gatherings, as well as a big marketplace. It also has been used as a place for public execution. The name means a “desert” in the Persian language.
The square is framed by three islamic schools (called madrasahs): Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Tilya-Kori Madrasah and Sher-Dor Madrasah.
Ulugh Beg Madrasah is located on the left side of the square.
On the right side, you can find Sher-Dor Madrasah, and in the middle Tilya-Kori Madrasah, possibly the prettiest one of the three.
It’s worth going up to the minaret, for the bird’s eye’s view of the whole Registan. Just beware that the stairs are very narrow and on the top, there is space for just one person to pop your head out. If you are claustrophobic, I do not recommend it. It also costs an extra fee.
Tips for visiting Registan in Samarkand
The Registan looks the most beautiful in the morning before all the local crowds arrive. Yes, despite Uzbekistan being off the beaten path destination, there are still crowded places there. Mainly with a local, colourful crowd.
Make sure to also visit Registan at night, when the whole complex is lit up. Even after the entrance is closed, you can still admire the square from the outside. The chirping birds in the nearby trees add to the magical feeling.
The entrance fee seems to be varying and is around 15 000 – 30 000 som (negotiable).
The entrance to the minaret costs 10,000 additional.
Sometimes if you come early for the sunrise, the guards might let you in before the opening hours for an additional tip.
#2 Admire the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum of Timur
The Gur-e-Amir is a mausoleum for Amir Timur, the first ruler of the Timurid empire. You can walk around the building to see people paying their respects to the emperor, or pay a fee to get inside.
I’ve stayed in a B&B Emir hotel just around the corner from Gur-e-Amir, so every time I was heading into town, I would walk past it. It looks beautiful from the outside, during the day and also at night.
As with some other Samarkand tourist attractions, the guards will ask you if you want to enter it out of opening hours for a fee. I didn’t go inside though.
#3 Enter Bibi Khanym Mosque
Bibi Khanym mosque is one of the most important monuments in Samarkand.
The huge structure is worth visiting. It used to be one of the largest mosques in the world, but it has been destroyed with time. It still does look magnificent, from the outside and from the inside, showing off the delicate Islamic architecture design. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to enter the biggest of the domed chambers – they are not safe anymore.
The mosque is located by the busy local street, and near the market, so expect a lot of locals hanging around.
Entrance fee – 21,000 UZS.
#4 Buy local produce on the Siyob Bazaar
Siyob Bazaar is the biggest open-air market in Samarkand and the largest bazaar in the whole of Uzbekistan. It’s located just by the Bibi Khanym Mosque. The Siyob Bazaar is a great place to wander around and explore what items you can get there – from sweets to fresh produce, meat, bread, medicines to kitchen dishes.
I also loved it for people watching and talking to locals. When they sit in the bazaar the whole day, they appreciate a chat with an interested tourist 😉
#5 Enter wooden Hazrat Khizr Mosque
A change from the tiled work, this mosque with the colourfully painted wooden roof is a popular place for prayers for the local people. You can find it on the way from Siab Bazaar to Shah-i-Zinda necropolis.
On the side of the mosque, there is a small museum you can enter for an additional fee.
#6 Admire the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis
The Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is an essential place to visit in Samarkand. A beautiful complex of mausoleums, full of turquoise and terracotta mosaics.
The Necropolis consists of 20 blue-domed mausoleums. They date back to the period between XI and XIX centuries.
The name of the site means “the living king” and it’s connected to the legend that Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, is buried here.
Some of the tombs are the resting place for Timurid’s dynasty, their relatives, as well as some other important figures like Kazi Zade Rumi, the scientist and astronomer.
The Shahi Zinda Necropolis is also a place for pilgrimage. As a sacred place, it’s often visited by locals, who pray and pay their respects. Please, keep that in mind when you visit.
Opening hours: 7 am-7 pm. Entrance fee: 10,000 UZS. I recommend visiting in the late afternoon when it’s quieter and the sun creates long shadows and golden colour on the buildings.
#7 Pay respects in the Muslim cemetery
In the backside of the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, you will find a more modern life cemetery that is accessible to the public.
You can walk on the peaceful alleys sheltered by the trees, and wonder about the lives of people who are not with us anymore.
#8 Explore the Gumbaz Synagogue
The Gumbaz Synagogue is the only Jewish synagogue in Samarkand, located in the local neighbourhood. I went there alone and I was eagerly greeted by the man who takes care of the place.
He spotted me from afar and went ahead to open synagogue for me to see. His excitement about the place is the main reason to visit. The entrance is free, but he will ask you for a small donation into the box inside the synagogue. You can put inside whatever you feel like.
#9 Wander the back streets of Samarkand
When you visit the Gumbaz Synagogue, you will typically go off the main tourist trail in Samarkand. This will allow you to see the life of local people away from the grand buildings.
I also recommend you to walk in other back streets. I’ve done it myself and everywhere I was greeted with friendliness and curiosity. As usual, exercise the usual safety precautions, especially if you travel alone, and do not walk in the unknown area after dark.
#10 Visit the Ulugh Beg Observatory
The Ulugh Beg Observatory is an observatory in Samarkand, considered by one of the best observatories in the Islamic world. It has been built in 1420 by the Timurid astronomer.
The Observatory is located a bit further away from the other Samarkand attractions, but if you have some time to spare, you can visit it.
SAMARKAND TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Where to stay in Samarkand
In Samarkand stayed in B&B Emir. It’s a hostel, located close to Gur Emir complex and a short walk away from Registan.
It features the traditional wooden interior, a rooftop (it wasn’t fully ready when I was there though) and nice, clean rooms. Breakfast wasn’t included, but there are plenty of places in the city where you can get food. Check prices and availability here.
How to get to Samarkand
If you arrive in Samarkand from Tashkent, the easiest way to get there is by train. Similarly from the other way – from Bukhara. The tickets are cheap and the trains are quite fast and efficient. You can book the tickets on the Uzbek rail website. I recommend buying them in advance, as they can get sold out. To avoid hefty bank fees, use Revolut for payments.
You can also use a shared taxi to travel between the cities in Uzbekistan.
Safety in Samarkand
I travelled to Uzbekistan solo, and I felt safe there alone. As everywhere, exercise normal safety precautions and you should be fine.
What to pack for Samarkand and Uzbekistan
A few things that I recommend bringing when you travel to Uzbekistan:
- Revolut card for fee-free ATM withdrawals (some of the local ATMs will still charge a small fee, but it’s not the bank fee). Order your card here.
- Cash – US dollars
- Sunscreen. I love this 50+La Roche Posay.
- Water filter. I recommend SteriPen, that also filters viruses or LifeStraw. You can buy SteriPen here, LifeStraw here.
- Russian phrasebook & dictionary – I used the one from Lonely Planet and found it very helpful. Buy it here.
- First aid kit
- Sunglasses for the harsh sun and higher altitudes
Do you know any other things to do in Samarkand that are worth considering? Have you visited Samarkand before? Let me know in the comments!
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