It is always hard to choose a single favourite place when travelling through a country, but when it comes to Uzbekistan, Samarkand is one of the candidates. Stunning architecture, ancient history, what’s not to love about the most famous Silk Road city?
Sure, these days the sights are spread out all over the city, with many modern buildings in between. But I think it’s that mixture of modern and old that makes Samarkand so special and so interesting to explore. And while walking around, just think about what it must have looked like in the times of Marco Polo, when he tried to make his way to China.
To give you a taste of what to expect, let us show you some of the best things to do in Samarkand:
The best things to do in Samarkand
#1 The Registan
The Registan is Samarkand’s most famous building. It consists of three madrassas, each of them adorned with blue tilework. You can go into these madrassas, where most of the rooms have been taken over by souvenir sellers.
Those shops, by the way, seem to be a common theme all around Uzbekistan. Isn’t it fascinating how you can find at least one souvenir shop in any historical building?
Take your time walking around the madrassas. The most notable features include the golden mosque inside Tilla Kori madrassa. Also, try to find the tigers with faces painted on them on the outside of Sherdor madrassa. It is a rare depiction of human faces in the Islamic world.
The Registan, by the way, used to be one of the most important buildings at the heart of the Silk Road. People would gather on the big square in between the madrassas, to hear royal proclamations or to watch public executions.
And even these days, the space is still used for public shows, as you can see by the many green chairs that workers put up when we visited. Altogether, this is one of the best places to visit in Samarkand that you should not miss.
#2 Climb the Shah-i-Zinda
The Shah-i-Zinda is one of Samarkand’s most impressive sights.
Out of Samarkand’s attractions, the Registan is more famous, but the Shah-i-Zinda is more fun to visit. Located northeast of the Registan, this place is also called the avenue of mausoleums. Climb up the stairs and look at the tombs along the way. Nowhere else in the city will you find as many blue-tiled buildings and blue domes as here.
Most of the mausoleums date back to the 14th to 15th century, although some of the buildings are even older than that. The most famous one is the tomb of Kusam-ibn-Abbas, who, according to legend, was Muhammad’s cousin.
Make the effort of walking all the way up to the top, no matter how hot it is, to take in all the buildings. You have a great view from there, just take enough water because the sun is merciless in summer.
Also, you have to cover your knees to be allowed to get into the Shah-i-Zinda. If you are not dressed appropriately, you will get a skirt at the entrance.
And remember the rules you can read at the entrance. No animal sacrifice on the tombs!
#3 Learn about Uzbekistan’s history in Ulugbek’s observatory
Samarkand has a rich history. With all those old buildings, it’s hard not to guess that this city once belonged to a splendid empire. But you will not grasp the influence it had on your own part of the world until you visit Ulugbek’s observatory.
While not much remains of the building, the museum next door is very informative. Ulugbek was one of the most important astronomers of all times. The museum shows exhibits about his life, his discoveries and the brilliant idea behind his observatory.
Did you know that Ulugbek was able to measure the length of a year and he was off by less than a minute? Quite impressive for his time, right? It took a long time until the first European astronomer even got close to Ulugbek’s achievements.
The observatory is located slightly outside the city centre so consider taking a taxi to get here.
Built in 1399, the Bibi-Khanym-Mosque was once one of the biggest and most important mosques in the world. The mosque fell into disrepair over the centuries but restoration started during the Soviet era and it is now a grandiose sight to visit.
Yes, it might not look that impressive in my photo but when you go there, you’ll see for yourself how hard it is to take a nice picture. That’s the thing about most Silk Road buildings, they’re so huge and impressive that they don’t fit into a regular camera frame!
Besides the huge cupola, which is about 40 meters high, make sure to take a look at the stone Quran in the middle of the courtyard. Legend says that fertility increases if you crawl underneath.
Gur-e-Amir, Timur’s mausoleum, is another great example of Silk Road architecture. It was our last stop in Samarkand and nicely tied up all the bits and pieces we had learned about Uzbek history. The tile work is stunning, even if you have already visited many blue-tiled buildings.
Originally, the building was constructed for Timur’s grandson. But when Timur died unexpectedly and all the passes to his hometown were snowed in, he was buried here. Ulugbek’s grave is also located here. Gur-e-Amir is Persian for “Tomb of the King”, an appropriate name considering who is buried here.
#6 Visit Daniel’s mausoleum
This site is a weird one, with many legends surrounding it. First of all, many places in the world claim to be the resting place of the prophet Daniel. But what is stranger is the length of the sarcophagus inside the mausoleum. The legend goes that the body of Daniel keeps continually growing and that’s why the sarcophagus is so large.
So how did that prophet, who probably lived in modern-day Iran or Iraq, end up in Samarkand? The stories say that when Timur tried to conquer Syria, he failed many times.
Prophets told him that Saint Daniel, who was buried there, was the source of his bad luck. So when Timur finally succeeded, he unburied Daniel and transferred him to his final resting place in Samarkand. Immediately after the Saint’s arrival, a new spring with healing powers erupted from the ground.
So while the mausoleum is not the most impressive one we visited, it was definitely the one with the most interesting stories surrounding its construction and that’s why we recommend coming here.
#7 Buy snacks at the Siyob Bazaar
If you get hungry along the way, you should head to Siyob Bazaar to buy some snacks. This bazaar is the largest one in Samarkand and you can find great nuts and dried or fresh fruit here.
The building is not the most pretty one you’ll see in Uzbekistan, but the bazaar is still interesting, with many vendors selling local goods. Plus, it’s a good place to take a break from all the traditional architecture and buy some refreshing fruit or nuts.
Best time to visit Samarkand
While exploring the best places to see in Samarkand, you don’t want to be uncomfortably hot or cold.
That’s why we recommend going either in spring (April and May) or autumn (September to November). You’ll likely see lots of sunshine, but you don’t have to endure the scorching summer heat.
We visited in June and already had temperatures far above 30ºC (86 Fahrenheit). While we loved exploring the city, we had to take lots of breaks to cool down with refreshing drinks.
On the other hand, if you visit from December to March, you need to pack warm clothes. The temperatures can drop to freezing at times, and a chilly wind makes you feel even colder.
How to get to Samarkand
Samarkand has an international airport, but it’s not very big. Sometimes, you can find Turkish Airways flights from Istanbul that land here.
Another option is to catch a flight from Tashkent. However, we think it’s much easier (and faster) to take the high-speed train.
If you’re coming from Tashkent, the fast train, called Afrosiyob, only takes a bit more than two hours. From Bukhara, it’s even faster and you can arrive in an hour and a half.
You can check schedules and buy your tickets online at the Uzbek Railways website.
For a few years now, it is also possible to travel directly from Khiva to Samarkand by high-speed train. The journey takes almost twelve hours, so you should consider breaking it up with a stop in Bukhara.
Getting around Samarkand
Samarkand is a large city, but it is surprisingly compact, so you can walk to most of the main attractions.
If you want to visit Ulugbek’s Observatory and Daniel’s Mausoleum, consider taking a taxi. You will find lots of taxis driving around the city and can just signal to them that you need a ride. As an alternative, you can also ask your hotel to call a taxi for you.
We hope those sights gave you an overview of what to expect from Samarkand.
Tourists often argue about whether they like Samarkand or Bukhara better, but it’s difficult to compare those two cities. Each of them has its own charm. And then you still have cities like Khiva or even Tashkent where we ended up having way more fun than we thought. Uzbekistan is an amazing country to visit and we hope you have lots of fun here.
So what do you think? What is your favourite sight in Samarkand?
Before you leave, make sure to also check out our other resources which can help you plan your trip to Uzbekistan and Central Asia:
- The best things to do in Tashkent
- Find out what else to do and see in Uzbekistan
- Learn about the Heart of the Silk Road in this photo story
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