The region’s cradle of culture for more than two millennia, Uzbekistan is the proud home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and ancient cities, all deeply infused with the bloody, fascinating history of the Silk Road. In terms of sights alone, Uzbekistan is Central Asia's biggest draw and most impressive showstopper.
Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva never fail to impress visitors with their fabulous mosques, medressas and mausoleums, while its more eccentric attractions, such as the fast disappearing Aral Sea, the fortresses of desperately remote Karakalpakstan, its boom town capital Tashkent and the ecotourism opportunities of the Nuratau Mountains, mean that even the most diverse tastes can be catered for.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Uzbekistan.
This ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas – a near-overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces – is the centrepiece of the city, and arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas, anything older having been destroyed by Chinggis Khan.
The beautiful portal and trademark fluted azure dome of the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum marks the final resting place of Timur (Tamerlane), along with two sons and two grandsons (including Ulugbek). It's a surprisingly modest building, largely because Timur was never expecting to be buried here. The tilework and dome are particularly beautiful; be sure to return at night when the building is spotlit to grand effect.
Samarkand’s most moving and beloved site is this stunning avenue of mausoleums, which contains some of the richest tilework in the Muslim world. The name, which means ‘Tomb of the Living King’, refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is probably the grave of Qusam ibn-Abbas, who is said to have brought Islam to this area in the 7th century. The most stunning Timurid-era tilework dates from 14th and 15th centuries.
On the northern side of the Registan is the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa, completed in 1660, with a pleasant, gardenlike courtyard. The highlight here is the mosque, which is on the left-hand side of the courtyard and is stunningly decorated with blue and gold to symbolise Samarkand’s wealth. The mosque’s delicate ceiling, oozing gold leaf, is flat but its tapered design makes it look domed from the inside. The result is breathtaking.
The Ulugbek Medressa, on the western side of the Registan, is the square's original medressa, finished in 1420 under Ulugbek who is said to have taught mathematics here (the stars on the portal reflect Ulugbek's love of astronomy). Beneath the little corner domes were lecture halls, now housing displays on Ulugbek, and at the rear there is a large mosque with a beautiful blue painted interior and an austere teaching room to one side.
The entrance portal of the Registan's Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa, opposite the Ulugbek Medressa and finished in 1636, is decorated with roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions. The lions, the deer they are chasing and the Mongolian-faced, Zorostrian-inspired suns rising from their backs are all unusual, flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals. It took 17 years to build but hasn’t held up as well as the Ulugbek Medressa, built in just three years.
Khiva's Ichon-Qala is one of the great highlights of Uzbekistan. The perfectly preserved medieval walled town is home to dozens of mosques, medressas and mausolea, most of which are home to small museums. You need a whole day to see the sights, but try also to wander the streets during the cool of dawn or dusk when the town is at its most magical.
The spectacular-looking Ark, a royal town-within-a-town, is Bukhara’s oldest structure, occupied from the 5th century right up until 1920, when it was bombed by the Red Army. For centuries it was the residence of the emirs of Bukhara. It’s about 80% ruins but there are still some remaining royal quarters, now housing several interesting museums.
The Savitsky Museum houses one of the most remarkable art collections in the former Soviet Union. About half of the paintings were brought here in Soviet times by artist and ethnographer Igor Savitsky, who managed to preserve an entire generation of avant-garde work that was proscribed and destroyed elsewhere in the country for not conforming to the socialist realism of the times.