Uzbekistan is the Central Asian destination that you’ve been dreaming about. Magnificent blue-domed mosques, towering minarets, atmospheric Silk Road cities and ancient bazaars are coupled with the region’s best accommodation, easiest transportation and great value for money. It’s the most visited of the Central Asian republics and with good reason.
A decade ago, Uzbekistan had a reputation for tricky travel. The country was plagued by complex visa rules, corruption and bureaucratic hassles, but all this has changed dramatically in recent years and it’s now a surprisingly easy place to explore.
If you are at all tempted to explore the glories of Uzbekistan’s iconic Silk Road cities, then all the planning tips you need are here. I've been visiting since the mid-1990s as a Lonely Planet writer for the region and have dealt with pretty much every travel challenge you can imagine!
1. Uzbekistan can be uncomfortably hot in summer
Time your trip to coincide with the best weather. Land-locked Uzbekistan has an extreme continental climate, which means cold winters and hot, dry summers. It’s possible to visit Uzbekistan year-round but the most comfortable months weather-wise are from March to May, and September to November.
July and August’s summer heat often bring punishing temperatures of over 40C (104F), though you may have to visit at this time if you are heading onward to the mountains of neighboring Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.
2. Most nationalities get a visa-free one-month stay
Getting a visa for Uzbekistan is easy these days. Over 60 nationalities now qualify for visa-free travel for up to a month, including the UK, most EU countries, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Israel. Other countries (including the USA and India) are required to apply for an e-visa online, but this is an easy process that only takes a couple of days. Gone are the days of complicated visa invitations and trips to obscure embassies – hurray!
3. Book high-speed train tickets in advance
The most comfortable way to travel the modern Silk Road between Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and the Fergana Valley, is on Uzbekistan’s modern high-speed Afrosiyob train service. It takes just over two hours to travel from Tashkent to Samarkand, and the same again to reach Bukhara from Samarkand. For longer distances, Russian-style sleeper trains are an atmospheric way to travel overnight between Tashkent and the remoter cities of Nukus, Khiva or Termiz.
However, seats do sell out on popular routes, especially for high-speed tourist services, so book tickets a week or more in advance. Try online via the Uzbekistan Railway e-ticket portal, use the Uzrailway phone app, or book through a local travel agency (for a markup).
4. Book B&Bs well ahead of your arrival in the high season
The traditional towns of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara all offer an excellent selection of stylish, comfortable, family-run B&Bs, which are easily the most interesting places to stay. The best ones fill up quickly in late spring and summer, so be sure to book a few weeks in advance. Contact owners directly, or see what comes up on Booking.com.
5. Pre-book an airport pickup when flying into Tashkent Airport
Many international flights to Tashkent arrive into Uzbekistan’s sprawling capital in the dead of night. If you don’t fancy negotiating with a scrum of eager taxi drivers, while still bleary-eyed after a seven-hour flight, it might be worth booking an airport pickup through your accommodation.
If you'd prefer to take a taxi, be aware that overcharging by taxi drivers is not uncommon in Uzbekistan – always try to get a rough idea of the correct fare beforehand. The easiest way to arrange a taxi ride in Tashkent is via the ride-sharing app Yandex Go, though you’ll need a local sim card to use it.
6. Travel is easier if you speak a few words of Uzbek or Russian
English is not widely spoken in Uzbekistan outside of tourist hotels, so it helps to learn some words of Uzbek (a Turkic language similar to old Turkish), or Russian, which remains a lingua franca amongst older people right across the former Soviet Union. Street signs are mostly in Uzbek Latin script, though you may also see some Russian-style Cyrillic script; it’s useful to learn both so you can at least read signs for place names and bus destinations.
Knowing numbers in Uzbek or Russian will come in particularly handy when negotiating with shared taxi drivers. Google Translate can help, but only if you have smartphone data – to minimize roaming costs, tourist sim cards valid for a month are available from several local companies, notably Beeline and Ucell.
7. Be ready for the local bureaucracy
Uzbekistan is very tourist-friendly these days, but there are a few bits of lingering bureaucratic red tape that are worth knowing about. When entering the country, you cannot bring in any codeine-based medications (such as painkillers) and you may need to declare how much foreign cash you are carrying. In reality, you are unlikely to be quizzed at customs if you arrive by air into Tashkent, but you might be when entering via land crossings.
You may also find that your hotel or B&B gives you a small paper registration slip when you check in. In the past you had to show these for every night of your trip when leaving the country; these days, the old paper system has been superseded by an online system and slips are rarely checked, but you should still keep these when given them, just in case.
Be sure to carry your passport (or at the very least a photocopy) with you when you go sightseeing in Uzbekistan. Police have the right to inspect your passport on demand, and you’ll likely need to show it at checkpoints on any long-distance trip. Keep a photocopy to hand to avoid having to dig through your money belt in public.
8. Don’t bother with the black market when changing money
Changing money is relatively straightforward in Uzbekistan these days. You’ll get the same rate at banks and ATMs as you do from shady bazaar money changers, so there’s little reason to change money through unofficial channels.
Credit and debit cards (especially Visa) are accepted by most accommodation and upmarket souvenir stalls. ATMs in major cities accept foreign cards, but stock up on Uzbek som (the local currency) if you are headed into the countryside.
Uzbek bills now come in denominations up to 100,000 som, so you won’t have to carry around the brick-sized wads of cash that were the norm just a few years ago. It’s always a good idea to have a stash of small denomination bills in Euros or US dollars for an emergency or a border crossing.
9. Brush up on your chaikhana etiquette
Chai (tea) is Central Asia’s social lubricant, so it helps to know the local tea etiquette. Look like an expert in the local chaikhana (teahouse) by pouring the first two bowls of tea back into the pot before drinking, to help it brew. Choose from Russian-style kara (black) or Asian-style kok (green) chai.
10. Body Language
Uzbeks are big hand-shakers, so be sure to shake the hands of any men you come into contact with, especially elders (known as aksakal in Central Asia). Another particularly graceful gesture used by Uzbeks and Tajiks is to place your hand on your heart when meeting someone. When meeting women, a slight bow is the norm, in place of a handshake.
At the end of a meal, Uzbeks and Tajiks generally place their hands in front of their face in a cupped prayer gesture and run them lightly over their face to give thanks for the meal. Following suit will earn you respect for understanding and following Uzbek customs.
11. Haggle, but don’t push things too far
Haggling over things like the price of taxis and buying produce at markets is common in Uzbekistan, but prices are not vastly overinflated, so only expect a modest discount. Aggressive haggling is not appreciated – keep things light-hearted and friendly. You may also be able to bargain for a discount on accommodation prices outside the high season.
12. Bazaars are your friend if you’re vegetarian
Food in Uzbekistan is quite meat-heavy, focused on the four staples of shashlik (lamb kebabs), plov (pilau rice), shurpa (stew) and laghman (noodles) – all sometimes featuring more fat than visitors may be used to. But there are almost always some vegetarian options, including plenty of Russian-influenced salads, so don’t be afraid to ask for a meat-free meal.
For food on the hoof, Uzbekistan’s bazaars are good places to stock up on dried fruits and nuts, fresh fruit (Uzbek melons and peaches are legendary), spicy Korean salads, jars of mountain honey and freshly cooked non (naan) bread.
13. Uzbekistan is generally safe
Uzbekistan is generally a very safe country for tourists. Despite sharing a border with Afghanistan, there is little religious extremism and crime against foreigners is rare. As in big cities anywhere, watch out for pickpockets on crowded city buses and bazaars in hubs such as Tashkent; tourist police frequent the more popular tourist sights.
14. Women travelers face few problems
Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, but people are very relaxed. There aren’t many things to worry about when it comes to clothing, and women travelers will have few problems traveling solo here. Short skirts, tank tops and yoga pants are best avoided, and you may want to cover your arms and legs when visiting the conservative Fergana Valley. Bring a headscarf to cover your hair when entering active mosques.
15. Health Issues
The most common complaints amongst visitors are heat exhaustion in summer and the occasional dodgy tummy after eating too much oily plov or shashlik. Wash your hands, avoid the tap water, and wash all fruit and salads before eating and you should be fine.
16. Get more from the sights
We have a couple of bonus tips. Be sure to return to the exteriors of the main architectural sights in Samarkand at night, as most are spectacularly lit up. Also, when planning your itinerary, avoid visiting Tashkent on a Monday, when most of the museums are closed.