When you approach the historic city of Bukhara, one of the jewels in Uzbekistan’s Silk Road, the first sign that you are approaching your destination may well be the sight of the imposing Kalyan Minaret appearing as an inconspicuous dot on the horizon and growing ever larger as you make your way closer to this fascinating place. Nestled on the route between Samarkand and Khiva, Bukhara features on almost all Uzbekistan itineraries – having stopped off here twice on our trip in 2019, here is our list of the top things to do in Bukhara.
- Visit the infamous Ark of Bukhara
- Have tea at the Lyiab-i-Hauz
- Go shopping in the Trading Domes
- Visit the Samanid Park and Mausoleum
- Watch the sun set over the Kalyan Minaret
- Get up early to explore Bukhara at sunrise
- Visit the Madrassas and Caravensereis
- Check out Chor Minor
- Marvel at the intricacy of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque
Visit the infamous Ark of Bukhara
The Ark of Bukhara is very much a living archaeological site, a haphazard mix of ruins and restoration which will particularly appeal to those with an interest in the turbulent, often violent history of Central Asia and its rulers.
Barely a 5 minute walk from the trading domes and Kalyan Minaret, the Ark has a history dating back to the 5 century AD and was most famously the seat of power for the Emirs of Bukhara.
The Ark of Bukhara was an entire complex of residences, royal courts, mosques and administrative buildings, all contained inside fearsome walls in a similar vein to Moscow’s Kremlin. Indeed, the Ark existed as a fortress until the 1920s, when it was heavily damaged by Red Army bombs.
Today, visitors can visit the restored sections, walking through the imposing main gateway before exploring a number of modest museums and exhibitions which are housed in the public buildings. The visual power of the Ark is at its clearest from the outside looking in, and it looks at its most photogenic towards sunset.
Expect to pay £2-3 entry fee to the complex, and a little more if you have a camera or would like a guide to show you around.
Have tea at the Lyab-i-Hauz
A favourite among both tourists and locals, the Lyab-i-Hauz complex is a beautiful place to relax on a summer’s day. Dozens of tables and benches encircle a sparkling pond, on which you’ll likely find a duck or two floating, whilst the mosques and madrasas on every side provide a dramatic – and typically Uzbek – backdrop.
As with everywhere in Bukhara, Lyab-i-Hauz has an interesting history, being one of the last remaining ponds (Hauz) in a city which used to have dozens, until the majority were filled in by the Soviets. This may have been for the best, given that they were a fertile breeding ground for disease and illness, but Lyiab-i-Hauz survived thanks to its spectacular setting – and today stands, thankfully, disease free.
Grab yourself a tea, and maybe some plov, and watch the world go by!
Go Shopping in the Domes
The trading domes of Bukhara lend an otherworldly feel to any stroll around the city. As one of the major centers of commerce on the silk road, Bukhara housed many of its market under a magnificent network of domes, which houses craftsmen, spices, weavers and more.
Today, the operation may have been scaled back somewhat since Bukhara’s heyday, but the essence of the domes remains unchanged. Hats, carpets, knives, scissors, spices, and even musical instruments – all these and more can be found, haggled for, and bought under Bukhara’s four remaining trading domes.
In a very pleasant change from certain other bazaars, souks or markets, tourists can browse without feeling pressured to buy – this is a pleasantly relaxed experience, and one which is a must-do when in Bukhara!
Visit Samanid Park and Mausoleum
Head outside of the old city, past the watertower and Bolo-Hauz Mosque, and it won’t take too long to find the entrance to Samanid Park, which houses one of the most remarkable examples of early Islamic architecture anywhere in the world.
Completed in the 10th century, the mausoleum has stood for over 1000 years and is worth a detour from the tourist-heavy center of Bukhara. En-route to the mausoleum, a pleasant stroll through the park will give you a glimpse of local life in Bukhara, with families and students meeting for a stroll or trip to the fairground attractions which are a permanent feature.
Once you reach the mausoleum itself, the most impressive views are to be had from the outside. On a still day, the structure will be reflected perfectly in the adjacent pond, and you may very well find you’re sharing the experience with only a handful of others. There is a small (£1-2) entrance fee to go inside, which will allow you a close-up view of the tombs within and techniques used to build this ancient wonder.
Watch the sun set over the Kalyan Minaret
The Kalyan Minaret is perhaps the most impressive landmark on Bukhara’s skyline, towering above the blue domes and intricate facades of the old town’s mosques and madrasas. The imposing structure is very much an icon of the city, with a notoriety which spans the centuries.
As well as performing the expected functions of a minaret – namely to be used for the islamic call to prayer (Adhan) – the Kalyan Minaret has also performed a strategic function as an observation tower, as well as being used to execute prisoners of the Emirs of Bukhara by throwing them from the narrow gallery at the top.
Thankfully for modern-day visitors to Bukhara, it has been roughly a century since the last execution was carried out from the minaret. Nowadays, tourists can safely marvel at the intricate patterns on the minaret’s restored exterior walls, before admiring the views from one of many excellent viewpoints – whether from down an alley, across the courtyard in the adjacent mosque, or from one of the terraced cafes and restaurants which have secured a prized position with stunning views across the rooftops of Bukhara.
Experiencing sunset from one of these terraces is a must-do whilst in Bukhara – grab a tea, and a dish of some hearty Uzbek food, and enjoy the spectacle as the sky turns a blazing gold and the light begins to fade. The icing on the cake is watching the Kalyan Minaret, and surrounding buildings, start to be lit up as darkness falls. An unforgettable way to spend an evening in Bukhara.
And get up early to explore Bukhara at sunrise
Finding the perfect place to watch the sunset in Bukhara will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of your trip to Uzbekistan, but if you can power through the early start then it’s well worth heading out to explore the streets just before sunrise.
Sunrise in Bukhara is special for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, exploring at sunrise is almost certainly your only chance to have places like the trading domes and the Kalyan Minaret to yourself before the tour groups start to arrive – and they do rock up early! It’s well worth beating the crowds for the chance to wander the streets and feel like you could be in a scene from centuries ago. You might even grab that coveted photo all alone with one of Bukhara’s landmarks!
Secondly, heading out early in the morning will let you see a glimpse of “real life” in Bukhara before the first groups of tourists arrive. Stall holders will be setting out their wares, groups of schoolchildren will be heading to their lessons, cyclists will be weaving their way through the narrow streets and alleyways. Pick a spot and watch the Old Town come to life before heading for a spot of breakfast once a cafe opens its doors!
Visit the Madrassas and Caravansereis
Bukhara has a wealth of madrassas and caravansereis just waiting to be explored, each with their own charm – whether it’s a quieter, off-the-beaten-track complex or with a famous facade.
One of the best ways to spend a morning or afternoon in Bukhara would certainly be to form a walking route between them, exploring the side streets as you go.
The madrasas around the Lyiab-i-Hauz ensemble would be an excellent place to start – the Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrasah in particular has a dazzling portal featuring unique depictions of birds and other imagery. Inside, you will find the usual mix of artisans and stalls selling everything from rugs to postcards.
Heading down to the Po-i-Kalyan complex, which has the famous minaret as its centerpiece, will give you the chance to wander around the magnificent courtyard of the Kalan mosque, with its imposing portals and domed walkways. Opposite the mosque you’ll find the Mir-i-Arab madrasa, which is still used by Islamic scholars and is rarely open to the public – nonetheless, the portal and domes are a sight to behold, and visitors are able to take a look through the honeycomb screen at the entrance-way if they’d like to catch a glimpse of the inner courtyard.
Among the remaining places to explore, there are two which we’d like to call out – as they could be easily overlooked, but certainly have their own charm. The first is the Olimjon Caravanserei, a charming little courtyard containing a couple of artisan stalls – including local painters – as well as a fascinating photo gallery run by local photographers, which is well worth a visit. Prints are for sale, but even if you’re not looking to make a purchase you can’t help but be impressed by some of the creativity and views of Bukhara on display.
The second is the Kosh Madrasa ensemble, which is to be found slightly further out of town in the direction of the Samanid Mausoleum. You’ll find far fewer tourists here, and may have the place to yourself even in the middle of the day. The ensemble is made up of two madrasas which stand directly opposite each other, and which haven’t benefited as much from the same levels of restoration as others in the city. They are still beautiful in their own right, and certainly retain a heap of charm. As with other madrasas, stall holders can be found inside, including a lovely clay workshop selling everything from small models of Chor Minor to full chess sets!
Check out Chor Minor
We were so charmed by Chor Minor that it has been granted its own section. This curious little structure means “Four Minarets” in Persian, and sits alone in a quiet courtyard within a residential area of Bukhara. Your walk to Chor Minor will be an interesting opportunity to journey through some of the residential areas of Bukhara which might pass you by when sticking to the main complexes in the old town. Inside, you’ll find more items for sale, but can also pay a nominal fee to climb the stairs and head out onto Chor Minor’s roof.
The views from the top aren’t the most spectacular, but it’s a nice chance to get up close and personal with its four little towers – which were apparently used primarily as storage!
Once you’ve had your fill of Chor Minor, there’s an interesting stall opposite which has a very comprehensive collection of old Soviet pin-badges. One for the collectors!
Marvel at the intricacy of the Bolo-Hauz Mosque
In the shadow of the not-so-ancient watertower stands one of Bukhara’s most unique structures, a mosque which offers a stunning contrast to the grand portals and domes which adorn most postcards of the city.
The mosque was built at the start of the 18th century, and used by the Emirs of Bukhara as their place of worship. It remains an active mosque today, and is worth visiting to admire the incredible wooden columns, which have been painted and carved as true works of art, and which support a wooden roof in front of the stone entrance.
The mosque comes to live around prayer times, with rows upon rows of worshippers lining the ground – a scene which will be almost unchanged for hundreds of years.
This epitomises the beauty of Bukhara – a city which can transport you back centuries in an instant, but which you might very well leave on an ultra-modern high-speed train (see our post on how to travel Uzbekistan by train!) fit for the 21st century.