Shah-i-Zinfda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand

Top 12 Things To Do In Samarkand

The majestic old city of Samarkand, once one of the most important trading sites along the ancient Silk Road and one of Central Asia’s greatest cities, offers many fascinating things to see and do.

A cultural crossroad for over two and a half millennia, the beauty of its colorful Madrasahs, Mosuqes, and mausoleums, and the history behind them will take your breath away.

Visiting Samarkand, an ancient link between east and west, seeing its sights, and understanding its past, is truly an unforgettable journey. One that should definitely be on your list of places to visit.

This post covers the top things to see and do in the amazing city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Samarkand And The Ancient Silk Road

The Han dynasty officially opened the Silk Road in the 2nd century BC. It started in Xi’an (Chang’an), running to the Mediterranean, with a vast network of routes linking China with the Roman Empire.

Initially, silk moved west and horses east. But soon, a wide variety of goods were being traded over a network that ranged from the Roman Empire to China, west to east, and expanded as far south as India.

Samarkand was a very important stop on the Silk Road, partly because of its location, a mid-way point, and partly because of the people that lived here. Historically renowned traders, they specialized in silk weaving, textiles, embroidery, and metalwork.

Over time, Samarkand prospered, becoming one of Asia’s most important cities: a cultural hub, a place of learning, a place of scientific pursuit, and a place of beauty. Especially in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was at its peak.

Today, its architectural marvels are a testimony to this era, as well as a scenic area, surrounded by picturesque mountains and valleys, and lovely people.

Visiting Shah-i-Zinda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand
Shah-i-Zinde

The Living Legends Of Samarkand

As Samarkand became more and more important, a list of living legends left their mark here. Some came to conquer it, some to destroy it, and others to build an empire, including; Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Timur, of the Timurid dynasty.

Alexander the Great conquered Samarkand back in the 4th century BC, introducing Greek culture to the Sogdians. At the time it was known as Maracanda, the capital of Sogdiana, part of the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. Already reportedly a beautiful city with citadels and fortifications, Alexander reportedly said:

“Everything I have heard about the beauty of this city is indeed true, except that it is much more beautiful than I imagined.”

Alexander The Great

In the centuries following Alexander the Great’s death, this area was ruled by a mix of Iranian and Turkic rulers.

Although Marco Polo never stopped in Samarkand, in the Travels of Marco Polo, he wrote about Samarkand, saying that it “is a great and noble city…”

In the 13th century, in retribution over the killing of his ambassadors here, Genghis Khan attacked and mostly obliterated the city. He captured the city’s artisans, taking them to Mongolia to work as slaves.

It was not until the 14th century when the city was rebuilt. Timur, or Tamerlane, warlord and first leader of the Timurid dynasty, arrived to make Samarkand his capital.

Starting what was called the Timurid Renaissance, he brought in great artisans for planning and construction. This continued, with his grandson building the first Madrasah in Registan square, the Ulugh Beg Madrasah.

In the 16th century, this area was conquered by the Uzbeks, who moved the capital, and became part of the khanate of Bukhara. They continued developing monuments here, adding the Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori Madrasahs.

By the 18th century, Samarkand was in decline and mostly uninhabited, until the 19th century when it became a provincial capital of Russia. In 1991 the Soviet Union disbanded and Uzbekistan gained its independence.

Top Things To Do In Samarkand

Explore Registan Square

Registan Square is the heart of the old city, the public market square where citizens gathered for public events, including announcements, decrees, and executions.

Today, this enchanting square has 3 Madrashas, or Islamic schools, built between the 15th and 17th century: the Madrasahs of Ulugh Beg, Tilya-Kori, and Sher-Dor (left to right below).

Visiting Registan Square is in of the top things to do in Samarkand
The Registan Square

Ulugh Beg Madrasah

The Madrasah of Beg, built in the 15th century by Ulugh Beg, was the first in the Registan. He was the astronomer-king and Grandson of Timur the Great.

Ulugh Beg, considered an enlightened ruler, ruled from 1447-1449. A patron of learning and astronomy, he was best known for his highly accurate star maps, which were made before the development of telescopes. His passion for astrology is symbolized in the star-like mosaics on the facade of his Madrasah.

This Madrasah, renowned as one of the best Islamic colleges in the world, seated up to 80 students, who studied astronomy, mathematics, Arabic, and religious subjects.

Visiting the Ulugh Beg Madrasah is in of the top things to do in Samarkand
Ulugh Beg Madrasah

At the gate there is an inscription from the Koran: ‘The pursuit of knowledge is the responsibility of every Muslim man and woman’.

There are also rumors that you can climb the tower of Ulugh Beg. It’s not official, so you’ll need to find someone to let you do so, as well as negotiate the price. If you do, I suggest trying this around sunset, to see the sun setting and the lights coming on around the square (plus you avoid the heat of the day).

Sher-Dor Madrasah

The Shaybanids, or Uzbeks, conquered Samarkand in the 17th century and although they moved the capital to Bukhara, they continued building in Samarkand. Yalangtush Bakhodur, the military governor of the city, had Sher-Dor built. Modeled after Ulugh Beg, it sits directly across from it.

Sher Dor Madrasah is one of the top things to do in Samarkand
Sher-Dor Madrasah

The name Sher Dor translates to “possesses lion”, due to the tilework of lions chasing deer on the facade. While traditionally using animal and human forms in Islamic art is against Sharia Law, these lions were theoretically acceptable as they are fantastical. They were not considered real animals. There are also rumors of the death of the architect for his heresy for challenging this law, but no one is sure.

Tilya-Kori Madrasah

The third madrasah, in the center of the square, is Tilya-Kori. It was also built by Yalangtush Bakhodur in the 17th century. The name translates to “decorated with gold”, for the gold details on the facade.

Tilya-Kori Madrasah is one of the top things to do in Samarkand
Tilya-Kori


More Details On The Madrasahs

The interiors of these Madrasahs are just as stunning as the facades, and possibly more so, full of colorful tile work and architectural details that will leave you spellbound.

Once entryways for study, they are now full of shops, selling textiles, clothing, and other local crafts. Proof that the traditions of silk weaving and textiles is still important here.


The detail and color of the mosaic work is so brilliant, it’s easy to spend several hours just wandering around this amazing square.


The day I was here, several couples were having wedding photos taken in the Registan. So beautiful!


Re-Visit Registan Square At Night

After visiting Registan Square by day, the next best thing to do is to visit it again by night. This square is transformed in the evening. In additional to the regular evening lighting, which is stunning, around 7 PM there is a spectacular sound and light show, full of colorful lights and traditional music. Sometimes the show also includes traditional dance.

Observe The Ulugh Beg Observatory And Enjoy Its Museum

Ulugh Beg, renowned as an astronomer, had 60-70 astronomers studying at his Madrasah at its peak. He had the Ulugh Beg Observatory built a few years after the Madrasah, designed following the plans of the Maragha observatory, in Maragha, Iran. The Ulugh Beg observatory was the largest 90 degree quadrant observatory of its time.

Sadly however, it was later destroyed by fanatics, and not rediscovered until 1908. Even crazier, this was done after Ulugh’s own son had him assassinated.

The museum built here in the 1970’s honors Ulugh Beg’s work, which was buried and unknown for hundreds of years.

Admire Shah-i-Zinda

Shah-i-Zinda is one of the most important Timurid monuments in Samarkand and one of the most beautiful shrines in Muslim religion.

This is an absolute must on your list of things to do in Samarkand. Not only is it stunning, it’s also very spiritual for Islamists, adding to its allure.

Shah-i-Zinfda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand


Located about a 25-minute walk from Registan square, Shah-i-Zinda is a collection of around two dozen mausoleums, built for important historical figures, and several mosques.

Its name means “The Living King”, referring to a legend that Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who died in a battle with Islamic forces in Samarkand, remains alive here, the king of an underground paradise

Shah-i-Zinfda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand


The beauty of these buildings and the history here, built up to the 19th century, were one of the highlights of my trip to Uzbekistan.

Shah-i-Zinfda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand


As usual, the photos do not begin to do this area justice. So many dazzling blues and teals.

Shah-i-Zinfda is one of the top things to do in Samarkand


The detail of the tile-work is beautiful beyond words.


The Shah-I-Zinda complex is small, and can get crowded, so is best to visit early in the morning or in the afternoon. My visit was close to sunset, and the way the light was hitting the colorful tiles, was beyond beautiful. This is yet another place I hope to visit again.

Admire The Bibi-Khanym Complex

Tamerlane had the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and mausoleum built in the 15th century to commemorate his favorite wife. He reportedly used 95 elephants just to bring in the supplies for this massive complex.

Bibi Khanym is one of the top things to do in Samarkand
Bibi-Khanym Mosque

At the time, it was one of the largest mosques in the Islamic world. It remains on the most notable landmarks in the city today.

Bibi Khanym is one of the top things to do in Samarkand

The mausoleum is located across the street.

Bibi-Khanym Mausoleum

Visit Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is the burial place of Timur. The name stands for, “Tomb of the King”.

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum is one of the top things to do in Samarkand


It later became the family crypt for the Timurid dynasty.

Visit Kazhret Khyzr Mosque

Kazhret Khyzr Mosque is one of the oldest Muslim religious sites in Samarkand. It was originally built in the 8th century, although destroyed (once by Genghis Kahn) and rebuilt several times.

Its position on a slight hill makes in an excellent place to watch a sunset.


It also contains the resting place of the first President of Uzbekistan, Islom Karimov.

Explore Afrisiab, The Ruins Of Ancient Samarkand

This ruins at this site are the remains of ancient Samarkand after Genghis Khan demolished it in the 13th century.

There is really not much left here, so this site is really for the history enthusiast.

Afrisiab | Bruce Allardice

There is also a small museum here, that contains artifacts found in the settlement site.

This area is about a 10-minute taxi ride, or 1 hour walk from Registan Square, here.

Shop At Siyob Bazaar

This bazaar, where locals do their shopping, is located near Bibi-Khanym. From fresh produce, to textiles, clothing, and souvenirs, it’s a great place to walk and people watch.


Eat Plov

Plov is the quintessential dish of Uzbekistan. It’s so important here, it made UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

There are a wide range of varieties, but it mainly consists of beef or lamb layered with rice, vegetables, and spices. It really is delicious and very economical.

Plov

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Try Ubekistani Wine

The wines of Uzbekistan are sweet wines due to the large amount of sun that the grapes get here. One of the best places to try some Uzbekistani wine is the museum of wine at the Khovrenko Winery, which dates back to 1868.

To do this as an organized tour, you can book this Wine Tasting Tour in Samarkand.

Take A Day Trip To Shakhrisabz 

The historic center of the small town of Shakhrisabz, located about 1.5 to 2 hours south of Samarkand, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s worth visiting if you have time. I did not get a chance to visit, but there are several sites here to experience.

Tamerlane, born in a nearby village, chose this as his home and built his palace here in the 14th century, Ak Saray Palace. Its remains have been partially reconstructed with a giant statue of Timur at the front.

Other sites here include the Dorut Tilovat Complex, which is a madrasah, Kok Gumbaz Mosque, and the Dor-Us Saodat Complex, which was intended as the mausoleum for the Timurid Dynasty. This is where Amir Temur’s original tomb was planned, before being changed to the Gur-e-Amir Complex in Samarkand.

To get here, you can hire a local driver for the day or take a tour. If taking a tour, I recommend this one: Shakhrisabz Private Excursion From Samarkand.

Where To Stay In Samarkand

Shoestring

  • I stayed at B&B Bahodir, which is located in the old town, a short walk to Registan Square. The guesthouse itself is very simple, and very affordable, while the family is super charming and gracious, making you feel very welcome. They will ply you with tea when you arrive, help you with anything you need, and serve an amazing breakfast.

Budget

  • Hotel Jasmina is also located within walking distance to Registan Square. Reviewers rate them high for location, an amazing breakfast, and very helpful staff.
  • Stariy Marokand has an unusual name, but gets a lot of exceptional reviews. It’s located a little farther away from Registan Square, about a 25-minute walk. Rooms include a fridge and a dishwasher, while the property has a garden and sun terrace. Similar to the other properties, the breakfast is highly rated here too. Note that some people do complain that this place is hard to find and suggest noting the phone number in case your driver needs it.
  • Amirshox Guesthouse is located about a 15-minute walk to Registan Square and also gets great reviews. Select rooms have a kitchenette, while the property has a garden and a terrace. This guesthouse gets high ratings for location, helpfulness of the staff, and the breakfast.

Affordable 

  • If you want something more elegant, yet still affordable, stay at Zarafshon Parkside. Along with stately architecture, there’s an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a garden, and a terrace. Rooms also have a fridge and the breakfast here gets good reviews too. It’s located near Stariye Marokand above, about a 25-monument walk to Registan Square.

How To Get To Samarkand

Train

High speed trains run daily from Tashkent to Samarkand for less than $10 each way. You can book via ticket.railway.uz, but I found it a bit confusing to use. The Uzbek Railway App is easier to use, so I recommend buying your ticket here.

I personally walked to the station and bought my tickets at the counter. The problem with this is that the high speed trains book up quickly.

For more details on buying train tickets to Samarkand, see Seat 61. According to Seat61, tickets open up 45 days in advance. To get a seat on a high speed train, book as close to this as you can.

The train station in Samarkand is about a 15-minute taxi ride to Registan Square. You can hail a traditional taxi, or use Yandex Taxi, a popular ride hailing app here. MyTaxi is another. You can always use these app to get an idea on a price to negotiate with standard taxis.

Fly

Flight prices are still a bit erratic in 2022, but you can find one way tickets for a little as $30, possibly even less. Flight time is about 1 hour.

The airport in Samarkand is about a 20-minute taxi ride to Registan Square. See the information on taxis above under trains.


Can You Visit Samarkand Independently?

Being an obscure, of-the-beaten-path location, you may wonder if you can travel here independently. The answer is yes, definitely. I traveled here solo from Kazakhstan and found it easy to get around and that the people were very welcoming.

I felt very safe walking solo here, although admit I did not walk around much alone after dark and dressed conservatively. If you Google safety in Samarkand, you will see concerns for petty theft and muggings, but these are common in almost all touristy areas. Be alert, use common sense, don’t wear flashy clothes or of carry a lot of cash, and be cautious when approached by strangers. If someone offers you something too good to be true, it probably is.

If you prefer to visit Samarkand in a tour, I recommend the Samarkand City Tour. This tour hits the highlights and gets great reviews. They also are open to pickups and drop offs at various locations including the train station and Tashkent, making things super easy for you.

Visa Information for Uzbekistan

Citizens of EU countries can stay visa free up to 30 days, while citizens of China and Hong Kong arriving by air can stay up to 7. US citizens need a visa for entry. To get a visa upon arrival, you must first get a Visa Confirmation issues by the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so an eVisa is the easier option.

For more details and how to apply, see the Uzbekistan Visa Policy.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I was spellbound by Samarkand. Although my stay was short, I hope to return to see Bukhara, Kiva, and other magical ancient sites in Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, I messed up my visa and had to leave the country after 2 full days here.

They were very polite at the airport in customs when I arrived, but very firm (LOL). I had read about a 5 day free visa if arriving in Tashkent via air from Almaty, but did not read the fine print, or it was not detailed on the site. When I arrived, I was told this visa was only available if you fly out to a third country. This meant I had to cancel my return flight to Kazakhstan and buy a ticket to a third country before they would let me enter Uzbekistan.

I chose Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (just south of Kazakhstan), as I had to get back to Kazakhstan where I had stored some luggage. The only available flight within my 5 day window, was in 2 and a half days. Ugh. I made it work, taking the first train in the morning to Samarkand and returning very quickly for my flight out.

From Bishkek, I took a Soviet mini bus to cross the border into Kazakhstan and got my luggage which I had put in storage at the airport. A bit stressful, but it all worked. Anyway, just please don’t make this same mistake.

Safe travels!

Hello! I resigned from a corporate career in product development to explore the world. Although my goal was to travel for a year, 8 years later, I’ve been honored to have explored more than 60 gorgeous countries and met some unbelievably amazing people. Our world truly is a beautiful place! Follow me into the gorgeous unknown by subscribing below. You’ll receive details on fabulous destinations, comprehensive travel guides, travel tips and tidbits, and information on travel trends, like experiential, sustainable, and transformational travel. Where is your next gorgeous unknown? Julie

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