Recognized as the ‘Crossroads of Cultures’ in the UNESCO World Heritage list, Samarkand is a silk route city and a Central Asian destination that showcases exquisite Islamic architecture, magnificent mosaics, and incredible madrasas.
In this handy guide, we have shared everything to do in Samarkand and the best places to click stunning shots. You will also find answers to where to stay and eat and the budget to help you plan a trip.
1. Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum
Also known as the Tomb of the King, Gur-e Amir is a testament to Timur’s legacy. It is the final resting place of Timur, his two sons, Shah Rukh and Miran Shah, two grandsons, Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan, and his teacher, Sayyid Baraka.
The turquoise domes, ornate tilework, and the gold that adorn Gur-e Amir make it a visual masterpiece, showcasing the sophisticated craftsmanship of the era of Timur.
- Best Time: The complex is open daily from 8 AM to 7 PM (April to October) and from 9 AM to 5 PM (November to March). However, the best time to visit is early in the morning or during the sunset.
- Entry Fee: 25, 000 UZS
- Guide: 50,000 UZS
Interesting Thing to Know:
We hired a guide at Gur-e-Amir to get more insights into the history of the place. The one exciting folklore I want to share is that just two days before Nazi boots marched onto Soviet soil, a team led by anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov exhumed Tamerlane’s tomb in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
The grave said that the one that opens it calls upon himself the wrath of Timur. Stalin believed in the curse of Timur and ordered his reburial on 20th December 1942, a month before the Soviet victory at Stalingrad (though by this time, the German Army at Stalingrad was already encircled).
Who knows what the history would be if Russians didn’t touch the grave?
Tips to Visit Gur-e-Amir
- If you want to visit Gur-e-Amir without crowds, go there early in the morning (5 minutes before it officially opens) or after sunset (to witness the lights illuminating the beautiful architecture). Remember, the area is significant, but it gets crowded fast.
- We recommend hiring a guide to get the fascinating stories of the Timurids. You won’t regret it.
2. The Registan Square
Located at just a 10-minute walking distance from Gur-e Amir, Registan Square lies at the heart of Samarkand.
The Registan Square translates into a “desert” or “sandy place” in Persian and is made of three madrasahs: Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor, and Tilya-Kori. ‘Madrasah’ is an Arabic word that means a college, school, or university in Islamic culture.
The first one right in front of you is the Tilya Kori madrasah. Students used the complex as a dormitory, but now the rooms are converted into souvenir shops. Sher-Dor is on the right side, while Ulugh Beg is on the left. Ulugh Beg is the oldest madrasah, where Ulugh Beg (grandson of Timur and a renowned Astronomer) gave lectures himself.
The intricate details on the walls and the domes offer a spectacular view of the architecture.
- Best Time: It opens from 9 AM – 7 PM. We suggest you go a little before the opening time to click the best pictures without interruption.
- Ticket: 40,000 UZS
- Cultural Show: 70,000 UZS
- Laser Show: Free
Tips to Visit the Registan Square:
- For an uncrowded and photogenic experience, visit Registan early, ideally when it just opens.
- Explore the intricate details before souvenir shops open, needing just 2 hours for your visit.
- Catch a traditional dance and music show at Sher-Dor Madrasah (Registan’s right side) at 7 pm during peak season.
- But wait, there’s more! If you visit during peak season (late spring to early autumn), Registan puts on a nightly show that mesmerizes audiences. At 9 pm sharp, the facades of the madrasas become a canvas for a dazzling laser light show. Colors swirl and morph, weaving intricate patterns and breathtaking visuals that tell stories of Samarkand’s rich history and vibrant culture.
3. Shah-i-Zinda Complex
Though bearing the name of the Timurid dynasty, the ‘Living King’ mausoleums of Shah-i-Zinda whisper a far older tale. 700 years before Amir Temur’s empire, the ground already sheltered the shrine of Qusam ibn-Abbas, a revered cousin of Prophet Muhammad.
Legend tells of his journey to Samarkand, spreading the light of Islam. When his earthly journey ended, this site became his eternal resting place. Thus, Shah-i-Zinda, while honoring the Timurid family, forever echoes the memory of the ‘Living King,’ Qusam ibn-Abbas.
The mausoleum boasts the richest tilework, brilliant mosaic, majolica, and terracotta work. The vibrant color of the tiles, placement, the delicate details on the blue tombs, and the beautiful play of light and shadow speak volumes of the architectural designs in the Timur era.
However, the complex was majorly and controversially restored in 2005. What you see at present at the Shah-i-Zinda is not “original” and heavily restored.
- Best Time: The place opens early, at 7 AM. We recommend you either be there at 7 AM or visit it post-sunset to avoid crowds.
- Ticket: 20,000 UZS (you can use it for the entire day. Re-enter and exit at your convenience)
Tips For Visiting Shah-i-Zinda:
- While early morning is the best time to visit the place, sunset gives you another experience. Visit during the daytime and plan to venture into Shah-i-Zinda at dusk as well. You’ll be rewarded with a unique experience, a chance to connect with the spirit of this historical gem and capture its breathtaking beauty bathed in the soft, golden light of twilight.
- Out of respect for the site’s sacredness, please refrain from taking photos next to tombstones, sitting on them, or leaving offerings like money. Animal sacrifices are strictly prohibited.
- There are shops inside Shah-i-Zinda with beautiful souvenirs. However, we recommend you skip buying things from here and head to Siyob Bazaar.
4. Explore The Siyob Bazaar
Siab Bazaar, or Siyob Bazaar, is one of the largest bazaars in Samarkand and is located near the mosque of Bibi-Khanym. It is the perfect place to shop for local food items, spices, breads, and souvenirs. The bazaar opens early in the morning before sunrise and ends late in the evening, so practically, it never sleeps.
Do not miss out on exploring the bread trading row in the market, where you will find 17 different kinds of bread.
Tips For Visiting Siyob Bazaar:
- Hone up your bargaining skills to avoid getting ripped in the market with high prices.
- Avoid buying things from the periphery of the market. Walk inside the lanes, climb up the stairs, and reach a point where you see more locals than tourists. This is where you get things at the cheapest price possible. We bought a prayer mat from Shah-i-Zinda for 80.000 UZS and found the same (design and quality) for 40.000 UZS in the bazaar. *Burn*
Once we roamed around the bazaar, we were hungry and sat down at the Istiqlol Uzbeki. This is right opposite the Hazrat Khizr Mosque (on the other side of the road). We ordered plov, laghman, bread, and tea. It was a delicious and affordable meal.
5. Bibi Khanym Mosque
From the restaurant, we walked 100 mts to reach the mosque entrance.
The Bibi Khanym Mosque is named after the beloved wife of Timur. He aimed to build the most captivating and magnificent mosque in the Islamic world. However, the push in its construction resulted in errors and structural problems that reduced the life of the mosque. The mosque slowly deteriorated with the tilework coming out, the dome collapsing, and an earthquake in 1897 left the building in ruins.
The mosque is never overcrowded and allows photographers to take the best shots.
Ticket: 30.000 UZS.
Exciting story: It is said that Bibi-Khanym wanted to surprise Timur with a finished mosque. However, an architect fell in love with her and refused to finish it unless he could kiss her on the cheek. After many ingenious arguments, she agreed, but the kiss left a mark Timur noticed on his return. It is believed that Timur executed the architect for this.
6. Bibi Khanym Masoleum
While you can go inside the mausoleum, we did not. The mausoleum is the final resting place of Bibi-Khanym, Timur’s wife.
7. Hazrat-Khizr Mosque
Hazrat-Khizr Mosque is a sacred site and one of the oldest mosques in Islamic tradition. It was built in the 7th century. While the mosque does not have the extravagant tilework and mosaics as others in Samarkand, your eyes will be drawn to the exquisite woodwork.
It is an essential location for both travelers and locals.
Entry Fee: They did not have an entry fee when I visited.
8. Walk the Vibrant Streets and Eat Local Food
The decorated architecture and beautiful pathways will take you through time, history, and culture. The air is filled with the fragrances of local spices and freshly baked loaves of bread. The bustling markets showcase Uzbek craftsmanship and offer a kaleidoscope of colors.
Uzbeks are friendly, so don’t miss out on conversing with them. Some of the things to try out are:
Other Places To Visit
While there are other places to visit in Samarkand, like the Ulug Beg observatory and Shakhrisabz, we skipped over it. We were short on time and decided to spend more time at the abovementioned places, not only for the popularity or photographic opportunities but also for the hidden tales and unforgettable personalities behind the monuments that promised an experience beyond mere sightseeing.
If you have the time, I recommend planning Bukhara and Khiva instead.
Where To Stay In Samarkand
Although Samarkand has many unique places to stay, here are a few options
Ishonch Hotel – Budget
With numerous room options, Ishonch Hotel is one of the cleanest places to stay with a family-friendly environment. We loved the location – it is quiet and peaceful in the middle of a park. The breakfast buffet spread was yummy.
All the prominent tourist places are within walking distance, and that’s what we did. It was the only place we could take a cab from to Shah-i-Zinda.
Price: $44 a night + $4 in city tax. You will need a receipt for the city tax to buy a sim, book tickets, and more. It is evidence of being a tourist in the city.
Other Options for Accommodation in Samarkand
How To Get To Samarkand:
Our journey began in the vast landscapes of Kazakhstan (Almaty, to be specific), where we crossed the border into Uzbekistan and continued to Tashkent by land. From there, we hopped on a train to explore the historic city of Samarkand. We booked a seating train that cost us 227,840 UZS.
The train from Samarkand to Tashkent was a sleeper, costing us UZS 179,180.
I highly recommend traveling to Uzbekistan by train. It is the most convenient way to get around the country. We traveled from Tashkent to Samarkand, so I will be covering that.
There are two types of trains:
The Afrosiyob is a high-speed train that takes you from Uzbekistan’s capital to Samarkand in 2 hours. It runs daily in the morning and in the evening. However, if you don’t grab the tickets weeks ahead, you won’t be able to.
The Sharq is slower; the journey from Tashkent to Samarkand takes over 3 hours but is significantly cheaper than the Afrosiyob. It runs daily in the morning.
You can book your train tickets on the official Uzbek Railways website.
Where To Eat In Samarkand
The Lane In Front Of Registan – Budget
After strolling through the Registan, we were starving and savored authentic Uzbeki food in the lane in front of Registan. From having tea, shakarap, kebob, non, to shurpa, plov, and manti, you can easily have a delicious treat here.
Café Magistr – Budget
Cafe Magistr offers all types of Western and Uzbek dishes at a decent price. We ordered a pizza, and it was truly bad. So we went to a nearby doner place and got one packed there. That was delicious.
Platan – Expensive
This restaurant serves the most delectable Uzbek and Western dishes. They also have a great cocktail menu and live music. The restaurant is located at a walking distance of just 30 minutes from the Registan.
FAQs – Things To Do In Samarkand
Is Samarkand Safe for Tourists?
Absolutely! Samarkand is generally considered a safe city for tourists. The crime rate is low, and the locals are known for their hospitality.
Of course, as with any travel destination, it’s always wise to be aware of your surroundings and take precautions like anywhere else. Here are some additional tips for staying safe in Samarkand:
- Be mindful of your belongings: Keep your valuables close to you, especially in crowded areas.
- Dress modestly: While there’s no strict dress code, it’s respectful to dress conservatively, especially when visiting religious sites.
- Learn a few basic Uzbek phrases: This will show respect for the local culture and make your trip more enjoyable.
- Use registered taxis or ride-sharing apps Like Yandex Go: Avoid hailing taxis on the street.
- Use The Uzbek Tourist Police: Uzbekistan introduced the ‘tourist police’ a few years back, and you will find them almost everywhere. If you ever feel unsafe – which I highly doubt – go to one of those tourist police stands, and they will help you.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Samarkand?
The best time to visit Samarkand depends on your preferences. The spring (March to June) and autumn (September to October) offer pleasant weather with mild temperatures, making them ideal for sightseeing. However, these are also the peak tourist seasons, so expect larger crowds and higher prices.
If you’re looking for a quieter experience, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (April-May and September-October). The weather is still comfortable, and you’ll find fewer crowds. We went in the first week of October, which was still considerably crowded.
How Many Days to Spend in Samarkand?
Three days is a reasonable amount of time to spend in Samarkand. This will give you enough time to see the main sights, such as Registan Square, the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Shah-i-Zinda, Siyob Bazaar, and the Gur-Emir Mausoleum.
How to Go Around Samarkand?
The best way to get around Samarkand is on foot. You can use Yandex Go (that’s what we did) or take the buses for longer distances.
Things to Know Before You Visit Samarkand?
- Visa & Entry: Most nationalities get a visa-free one-month stay. Others need an e-visa, obtainable online easily. We are Indian passport holders and had to apply for e-visa.
- Currency & Tipping: USD 1 = 12372.73 Som and INR 1 = 148.50 Som. This is the current conversion rate. However, you should always be updated on it.
- Language: Uzbek and Russian are common. Basic phrases go a long way.
- Dress Code: Dress modestly and always cover your shoulders and knees, especially in religious sites.
- Transport: Use Yandex Go for taxis. You can also use the buses.
- Food & Drink: Plov (rice & meat) is a must-try. Samarkand bread is legendary. Local bazaars offer delicious street food.
- Photography: Respect local customs. Ask permission before photographing people, especially at religious sites.
- Etiquette: Avoid public displays of affection. Modesty and respect are valued.
- Maps: Install 2GIS on your phone. Google Maps doesn’t accurately mark the locations, and you might end up at the wrong place. It happened to us more than once.
Bonus tip: Samarkand is steeped in history. Consider hiring a local guide for deeper insights into its architectural wonders and rich Silk Road heritage.
What Is The Average Budget For 2 Days In Samarkand?
We spent two nights in Samarkand and spent approximately this much:
- Accommodation: $88
- Train Fare: $33 (trains from Tashkent to Samarkand and back)
- Food: $30 (for two days)
- Cabs: $6
- Souvenirs: $10
- Ticket Fees: $30
A total of $197 and INR 16,000 for two days.
Are You Ready For Samarkand?
Embark on your Samarkand adventure with an open heart and a curious soul. This ancient city promises to enthrall you with its timeless beauty, leaving you with an unforgettable experience.
Have questions? Please write to us at [email protected]