I fell in love with the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan, but the city that stole the show for me was Bukhara.
With its grand madrassas, its turquoise-domed mosques, and its intricate network of labyrinth-like alleyways and dusty narrow streets, Bukhara provides a journey back in time.
- 1 Things to do in Bukhara
- 1.1 Time Your Trip to Coincide with a Festival
- 1.2 Wander Down Unmarked Passageways
- 1.3 See a Unique Indian-Style Madrassah
- 1.4 Visit a Heartbreakingly Incomplete Madrassah
- 1.5 Eat the Best Lagman in Town
- 1.6 Sip Spiced Tea with a View
- 1.7 Marvel at the Tower of Death
- 1.8 See an Old Mosque with an Interesting Multicultural Backstory
- 1.9 Try Lamb Shish on the City Outskirts
- 1.10 Take a Gruesome History Lesson at the City’s Ancient Fortress
- 1.11 Admire the Intricate Carvings of the Wooden Friday Mosque
- 1.12 Haggle Your Way Through Covered Marketplaces
- 1.13 Spend an Evening at Lyabi-Hauz
- 1.14 Sample Local Uzbek Delicacies
- 1.15 Hire a Local Guide for More Context on Bukhara Attractions
- 1.16 Take a Tour of the Attractions that Sit Outside the City Centre
- 2 Where to Stay in Bukhara
- 3 Getting to Bukhara
Things to do in Bukhara
Whether you have just a couple of days to spend in Bukhara or an entire week, I’m willing to hedge a bet that you will fall in love with the city just as much as I did.
There are plenty of things to do in Bukhara. Some of the city highlights are summarised below.
Time Your Trip to Coincide with a Festival
There are two major cultural festivals that take place in Bukhara each year. One is a local show that is held in the city’s squares and plazas for April fool’s day. The second is the annual “Silk and Spice” festival which celebrates the history of Bukhara’s silk road heritage.
My solo trip to Uzbekistan coincided with the Silk and Spice festival. Watching the performances was a highlight of my Uzbekistan itinerary. Stages were set up outside of grand Islamic buildings across the city, as performers from Uzbekistan, and the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, and others took to the stage in a burst of colour to perform their national dances and songs.
Along the promenade that runs adjacent to the Po-I-Kalyan mosque, stalls selling fragrant spices, saffron strands, exotic teas, silks, and handicrafts were set up on ramshackle stands.
Minus a few people on package tours, the vast majority of those attending the Silk & Spice festival were locals. It was a marvelous glimpse into the colourful culture of Uzbekistan, and the fun-loving nature of its people.
Wander Down Unmarked Passageways
The central old town of Bukhara is comprised of dozens of dusty narrow passageways that twist and turn to reveal old tea rooms and quaint local stores that are hidden down unsuspecting backstreets.
Many of these passageways are not even marked on Google maps, and while they can look a little intimidating, they are worth exploring to stumble upon wondrous places hidden away from the tourists.
See a Unique Indian-Style Madrassah
The Chor Minor Madrassah is one of the most unique architectural wonders of Bukhara. The Madrassah is situated in a residential neighbourhood, a good ten-minute walk away from the centre of the old town, and surrounded by ramshackle houses. Unless you specifically knew to come here, you’d never stumble across it.
The madrassah’s unique structure has not been built in the traditional style – It has four minarets instead of the usual two. This is because the Architect had travelled to India, fallen in love with the design of the Charminar in Hyderabad, and “took inspiration” from it (aka he basically stole the design.)
Once upon a time, local boys residing in this neighbourhood came to the madrassah to complete their studies. The building also served an all-purpose as a caravansary for travelling merchants during the days of the old silk road.
Inside the madrassah is just a simple gift shop which is perhaps quite the anti-climax. It’s worth visiting the Chor Minor though on account of its beauty.
Visit a Heartbreakingly Incomplete Madrassah
The Abdul Aziz Madrassah (1652) was on track to become the grandest of them all. No expense was to be spared in the school’s construction.
The structure was also unique in that its designers aimed to break free of traditions by using colours and icons that were not in the typical style, and which were a nod at the positive relations between Uzbekistan and Iran and China.
From the outside, you can marvel at the bold, vivid colours of the madrassah walls. Heading inside though, you notice a stark difference – the walls are bare and the building was never completed.
The Abdul Aziz Madrassah’s construction took place at a time when people started to trade by ships, and the importance of the Silk Road trade route started to fade away. Landlocked Uzbekistan could not trade by sea, and with fewer merchants passing through to buy and sell handicrafts, the country did not have enough money to complete the building.
Eat the Best Lagman in Town
While the old town of Bukhara retains some of its authenticity in the fact that the majority of the city’s locals still reside here, many of the restaurants here are catered to tourists.
Hop in a cab and head to the Dolan restaurant in the new part of town. Dolan is rumored to serve the best Lagman (spicy beef noodles) in Bukhara (and apparently all of Uzbekistan). In my opinion, it definitely didn’t disappoint. People from all over the country make a point to venture into Dolan while in Bukhara. Head here at the height of lunchtime and it’s near impossible to get a table, but worth the wait.
Sip Spiced Tea with a View
There is a coffee shop called Chasmai Mirob that sits opposite the Po I Kalyan and it offers what are seriously the best views in the city. It’s somewhat tucked away from view which is perhaps why it is relatively free of tourists (for now at least)
I honestly could have sat here for hours reveling in the view and the ambiance, and actually I did sit here for ages cradling my pot of tea long after it went cold. The food here isn’t great so I’d recommend eating elsewhere but come for the views, the tea, and the travel photo opportunities.
Marvel at the Tower of Death
The “tower of death” is the creepy nickname that has been awarded to Bukhara’s tallest minaret – the minaret of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque. The 11th-century tower was built to serve two purposes: to call the local Muslims to prayer, and to act as a waypoint for camel caravans as they made their way through the arid desert.
There is something almost mesmerizing about this tower. It’s pretty interesting to note that when notorious Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan invaded Bukhara, he destroyed almost everything in the city, yet the Po-i-Kalyan tower was so sturdy, he decided to leave it.
The minaret was awarded its name based on a rumour that criminals used to be pushed out of the tower to their doom several centuries ago. There is no local evidence of this, just rumours and stories that have been documented in Russian books. The adjoining mosque boasts a beautiful courtyard and some of the best Islamic architecture in Uzbekistan.
See an Old Mosque with an Interesting Multicultural Backstory
As you pass through the centre of old Bukhara, past the bustling marketplaces, the lively restaurants, and the quaint tearooms, you will see the crumbling remnants of an old mosque that has been turned into a carpet museum. This old mosque is the Magok-i-Attari mosque, and most people walk past it, probably because the museum inside it isn’t very good.
I really liked the way that the Magok-i-Attari mosque looked, and I found it even more interesting after speaking with a local about it. The unpainted, almost decrepit looking structure was once awash with bold colours and turquoise tiles, but time has faded them away.
When this mosque was built, those who constructed it decided to pay homage to all religions and cultures that influenced the country. Zoroastrian symbols were carved into the entryway, and some of the construction was done in a Greek-style. Since there were many Jews living in Bukhara, they were given a dedicated space to pray alongside the Muslims.
This level of harmony is a nod towards just how multicultural Uzbekistan is, and always has been. If only the rest of the world could take note of this kind of acceptance and tolerance of different religions and views, eh?
Try Lamb Shish on the City Outskirts
Just as Lagman can be considered as being Bukhara’s regional specialty, lamb shish is another popular dish enjoyed by Uzbeks. You can’t find this in the restaurants in the city centre, so you need to venture to the outskirts where meats are marinated and cooked on skewers in local grill house restaurants.
The delicious marinated meats paired with spicy tomato sauces and salads reminded me a lot of the marinated dishes that we have here in Greece or the foods of nearby Azerbaijan. Ask the owner of your hotel/accommodation for recommendations on grill houses and shish restaurants. You need to have a local drive you there or take a cab. It’s a trek, but foodie travellers will consider it worth the journey.
Take a Gruesome History Lesson at the City’s Ancient Fortress
The “Ark” is Bukhara’s fortress and the city’s oldest structure. The fortress was occupied by the Royal Emirs of Bukhara for centuries and is essentially a city within a city. You can easily dedicate an entire afternoon to exploring the Ark. There are so many different structures and annexes contained within the fortress complex.
Many of the former Royal and Presidential living quarters have been transformed into “living museums” that provide a glimpse into what life was like for Bukhara nobles and elite. Stop by the living quarters of the Kushbegi (Prime Minister), and the meeting rooms where foreign dignitaries were received.
You can also visit what remains of the room where the various Emirs of Bukhara were coronated, as well as the treasury, mint, and the harem where the noble ladies resided.
Admire the Intricate Carvings of the Wooden Friday Mosque
The Bolo Hauz Mosque is a Friday mosque that sits opposite the entrance to the Ark Fortress of Bukhara. The mosque was constructed in 1712 and was one of the most important mosques in the city, as it was the place of worship for the Emirs and nobles that resided in the nearby Ark.
The exterior of the mosque is carved predominantly out of wood. The twenty wooden columns that sit at the front entrance of the mosque have all been designed differently. Wooden carvings and handicrafts were once an important local product in Bukhara. 20 of the best woodcarvers were asked to design a column for the mosque, and each put their own unique “stamp” on their creation.
Haggle Your Way Through Covered Marketplaces
The old-covered marketplaces of Bukhara are still functional. Although the stalls sell souvenirs and trinkets for tourists, the items sold here are altogether more charming than your typical “tourist tat”.
While admittedly, Bukhara’s handicraft scene is not as thriving as it was during the days of the Silk Road, many locals still make traditional items – beautiful hand-painted ceramics, and stunning silk scarves for example. I picked up a lovely tea set for my parents, as well as some beautiful scarves whose designs were modeled on the interiors of the local mosques.
Shop items aside, the structures of the marketplaces are pretty unique in themselves. Each of Bukhara’s marketplaces have domed roofs – something that kept the vendors and their patrons cool in the forty-degree heat and acted as an ancient form of air conditioning.
Spend an Evening at Lyabi-Hauz
Lyabi-Hauz is one of the most tranquil central plazas in old Bukhara. Here, numerous restaurants and tearooms surround a peaceful pond. The pond’s namesake tea room is a lovely place to sit with a cup of tea as the sunsets.
Sample Local Uzbek Delicacies
While travelling in Uzbekistan, you simply must try the local delicacies. Plov is essentially the country’s national dish and is comprised of rice and beef cooked in lamb fat. Honestly, I was not a big fan, but I can assure you that Uzbek food is far more than just plov and that even vegetarians will not be short of food choices.
Chayhana Chinar was my favourite restaurant in Bukhara and one that was recommended to me by my hotel owner. I recommend writing that down – it isn’t too touristy, but it’s right outside the old town and the food is excellent quality!
Hire a Local Guide for More Context on Bukhara Attractions
The ancient centre of Bukhara is bursting at the seams with magnificent Islamic structures. While it’s easy to only admire the buildings based on their aesthetics, or it can start to feel like you are visiting “yet another” mosque or madrassah, it’s important to learn a little about the history of each structure so that you can really appreciate it.
As you move around the various sites and plazas of Bukhara (and Uzbekistan’s cities in general), you will find a lot of tourism students sitting outside the various sites. For a few dollars, you can hire them as your guide. While I don’t normally do this, I thought it was a nice way to support the locals in Uzbekistan and to provide some extra context to what I was seeing. Not to mention, it provided an invaluable opportunity for an exchange with the local people.
Take a Tour of the Attractions that Sit Outside the City Centre
As if there wasn’t enough to do in Bukhara itself, there are also several attractions that lay outside of the city centre that are well worth visiting on a day trip. The Chor Bakr Necropolis, the Sitorai Mokhi Khosa (Summer Palace), and the Bakhretdin Naqshband Mausoleum are interesting and can be seen in one day.
If you hire a tour guide, it should cost you no more than around $25-$30 for the day. Alternatively, you can negotiate with a cab driver to take you to the Bukhara attractions that you want to see. If you can, I’d advise you to try and do this with the tourist information office in downtown Bukhara, as many of the hotels will try and charge you a higher price.
Where to Stay in Bukhara
You really want to make sure that you stay in the old town of Bukhara. That way you really feel the atmosphere of the ancient city, and you have the main attractions right on your doorstep. Trust me when I say that the new part of town is too far to walk from and to each day.
A selection of the best Bukhara hotels are shortlisted below and cater to a range of budgets and preferences.
The Sumani Bukhara is a great choice for those who want a comfortable, boutique hotel experience when travelling in Uzbekistan. Rates start from $50 a night, and the rooms are decorated with bright, eclectic Uzbek designs. All guests are treated to a lavish breakfast in the hotel’s charming courtyard.
Click here for the latest rates and availability.
The clear choice for backpackers in Uzbekistan is Rumi – a local hostel with an excellent reputation that was named after the beloved Persian poet.
Beds start at just $5 a night, and as one of the most popular hostels in town, you are guaranteed to meet travel buddies here.
Getting to Bukhara
It’s easy to get to Bukhara from Uzbekistan’s major cities. Trains run to Bukhara from Samarkand, Tashkent, and Khiva, though schedules do not always operate daily. You can check the timetables here.
The city’s train station sits slightly on the outskirts of Bukhara so you either need to take a cab or take the bus for 1500 som. Uzbek cabbies always try and overcharge so keep in mind that it should be no more than 5000 som.
Bukhara is also serviced by Bukhara International Airport, in the case that you are flying directly into the city. Buses run between the airport and the city, and several hotels can organise transfers for you.
Have any questions about this Bukhara Travel Guide, or about exploring Uzbekistan in general? I organised and enjoyed a wonderful solo trip to this beautiful nation back in May/June and I’m happy to help you organise the same. Feel free to drop me a comment below if you have any questions. Safe travels, Melissa! Xo
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