Things to do in Uzbekistan
The Central Asian country of Uzbekistan is perhaps most famous for its incredibly important stops on the ancient Silk Road trading route that include the magnificent cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. But there is much more to this double-landlocked country than its rich Silk Road heritage. The former Soviet republic is known for its awe-inspiring Islamic architectural wonders, boasting intricately decorated madrassas, mausoleums and mosques, and a history that saw Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane leave their mark. So whether you’re a history buff or a shopping enthusiast, there are plenty of things to do in Uzbekistan to keep travellers entranced.
1. Marvel at the fabulous Registan Square in Samarkand
Arguably Central Asia’s most iconic site, at the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand is the breath-taking Registan Square. Rebuilt under the reign of Tamerlane in the 14th Century after Genghis Khan raised it to the ground, it was once the main city square, occupying a halfway point on the Silk Road route between Asia and Europe. Facing the square are three symmetrically placed grand madrassas; Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor and Tilya-Kori, adorned in an intricate mosaic of blue tiles. Seeing it lit up at night is quite a magical sight.
2. Eat plov!
Uzbek cuisine isn’t exactly world-renowned but we don’t think that’s a reflection on just how tasty it is. You simply cannot go to Uzbekistan without sampling the much-loved national-dish, plov! Made up of rice, vegetables and meat, usually mutton, lamb or beef, swimming in lamb fat and oil, it may not sound particularly appetising but it may just surprise you. Plov is usually served on a large plate from which the whole group eats and each province has its own style. As a country whose love of plov borders on obsession, it can get competitive. But ultimately, plov represents a community coming together, hospitality and a strong, proud identity.
3. Stay with a local family in the Nuratau Mountains
This isolated mountain village in a verdant river valley offers a beautifully peaceful break from the cities for an opportunity to connect with nature filled with mountain lakes, rocky gorges and waterfalls to hike through. The best way to experience the Nuratau Mountains though, is to stay with a local family. There’s no better way to connect to a country than through its people and the hospitable families here will be eager to feed you up, offer plenty of green tea and invite you for a dance.
4. Wander the narrow streets of Ichan Kala (inner city) Khiva
The ancient UNESCO listed city of Khiva was one of the last stops on the Silk Road for caravans to stock up before heading out into the desert towards Persia. It is a perfect example of a well-preserved medieval desert town. Ichan Kala is the small, walled inner city area of Khiva whose labyrinthine streets are easy to explore on foot. It’s the best way to discover some of the 60 historic monuments including the Djuma Mosque, the Mohammed Amin Madrassah and the Kalta Minor Minaret.
5. Visit the Savitsky Museum in Nukus to view the collection of Soviet art
The world-renowned Savitsky Museum in Nukus has one of the most remarkable collections of Soviet and Central Asian art in the world. During the Soviet era, artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky brought half of the paintings in the museum to Nukus to preserve an entire generation of avante-garde work that elsewhere was being destroyed for not falling in line with the socialist realism of the times. The museum also boasts a large ethnographic and archeological collection from the region.
6. Take a ride on the metro to admire the beautiful stations in Tashkent
Head deep underground to take in the Russian-influenced metro stations in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. Built after a devastating earthquake in 1966 and opened in 1977, its 29 stations are designed to offer a unique mix of Soviet modern art and Islamic resplendence. It’s a pleasure to simply jump on the metro and explore the stations. Each one is an original work of art reflecting the name of the station and as long as you avoid rush hour, spend some time casually exploring this grand underground world.
7. Camp on the seabed of the Aral Sea
Once one of the largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea is not a sea at all and is named after the islands that once populated it. Pollution and climate change has contributed to the lake shrinking over the years, but it was in the 1960’s when Soviet irrigation projects started diverting the water from the main rivers that feed the lake. What is left of the lake is a haunting, dusty desert expanse where you’ll find remnants of the area once being deep underwater, including a ship cemetery. There are also yurt camps here providing a very atmospheric camping experience.
8. Haggle in the local bazaars of Bukhara
There are plenty of great places to shop in Uzbekistan, but the title of shopping mecca surely falls on Bukhara. Boasting 140 protected buildings, including some gorgeously restored mosques and madrasas, which are well worth exploring, you can have a lot of fun haggling in the local bazaars and large trading domes that have served as commercial trading centres since the Silk Road days. You’ll find great souvenirs here including local handicrafts, hats, carpets and jewellery. Prices are reasonable and sellers here are friendly and don’t pressure sales.
9. Take a ride on one of the high speed trains
One of the best, most energy-efficient ways of seeing Uzbekistan is by bullet train. The Spanish-built Talgo high speed train not only gets you around the country quicker, but offers a great way to see the desert landscapes of Central Uzbekistan and meet friendly locals on board. A good opportunity to practice your Russian! The train journey from the capital of Tashkent to Bukhara once took a whole day, but takes just three and a half hours on the bullet train.
10. Visit the workshops of fine Silk Road craftspeople in the Fergana Valley
If you’re into textiles and crafts, a trip to the Fergana Valley would make a great day tour. In these lush, fertile valleys, you’ll find the artisans who have made silk, ceramics and wood carvings for generations. The villages here tend to be made up of families famous for their expertise in their specific craft. So in the village of Margilan, you’ll be able to witness the silk production process from silkworm cocoons to the finished product. The village of Rishton is known for the production of Uzbekistan’s famous ceramics and you can observe the dishes being skillfully painted.
11. Go wine tasting at the secret Khovrenko Wine Cellar
Samarkand has a long history of wine-making due to the excellent variety of grapes it produces. When Russia invaded Central Asia, they brought merchants with them, Dmitri Filatov being one of them. In 1868, he founded a vineyard just outside of Samarkand where he was able to produce his own wine and grew a collection of local wines, which he kept in the Khoverenko Wine Cellar. The cellar provided the ideal temperature to preserve his 3000 bottle collection. When the Bolsheviks came to Samarkand in 1917, Filatov fled, leaving his collection sealed in the cellar. It was a well-kept secret until 1968, when a mysterious man tipped the winery off and the cellar was finally discovered. The mould and fungi that grew on the walls provided the humidity needed to preserve half the bottles in a drinkable state. Visitors can experience this time-capsule of a cellar and sample some of these wines for themselves.
12. Explore the desert Citadels just outside Khiva
On the fringes of the Kyzylkum Desert, discover more than 50 ancient desert fortresses, some of which date back over 2,000 years and have been left largely unexcavated. It may be one of the few sites in Uzbekistan that you’re likely to have to yourself. The thick mud-brick walls of the fortresses were designed to protect the thousands of inhabitants that once called them home. Be sure to explore the imposing Toprak Kala, which was settled in the 1st century BC and later flourished in the 3rd century AD as the capital of the Khoresmshah Dynasty.