Despite being the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe is not a big draw for tourists compared to the majesty and adventure awaiting you in the Fann mountains or the Pamir Highway. Dushanbe is a good place to supply yourself and organise your coming trip, but it is not really a place to linger.
Dushanbe certainly had more charm in the past, with stately architecture lining avenues pleasantly shaded by abundant foliage, quirky Soviet-era art decorating the walls and pleasant parks inviting for a stroll.
Like elsewhere in Central Asia, the Tajik government opted for a new vision. The neo-classical architecture of the Krushchev era is mostly gone now or covered up in glass and plastic, the central bazaars were closed and big trees are consistently being cut down, leaving pedestrians to swelter. Thankfully the central Rudaki Avenue has been mostly spared.
Despite this, there are ways to enjoy Dushanbe. Like Ashgabat or Nur-Sultan, Dushanbe’s expensive follies offer a window into the country’s culture and politics, while flaneurs can discover the backside of the city, where most of the population of 800 000 lives.
Dushanbe’s surroundings also offer a number of interesting day or weekend trips.
Dushanbe is famously named after the most disliked day of the week: Monday. This name came about as the village that Dushanbe is built upon had a once-per-week bazaar on Monday. Nothing much can be said about this unremarkable village on the fringes of the Bukharan Emirate’s eastern territory until the newly arrived Soviet invaders chose it in 1924 as the location on which to build a capital city for the Tajik Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, a sub-territory within the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.
5 years later Moscow decided to punish the Uzbeks for various misdeeds, and took the Tajik Autonomous Republic out from under their control and upgraded it to a full republic (and added the northern territory which is now known as Sughd Province). Dushanbe was renamed Stalinabad in honour of Josef Stalin, a name that remained until 1960 when de-Stalinification finally reached geographical names in Tajikistan.
The Soviets brutalised the population relentlessly with collectivisation, destruction of mosques and holy texts, mass execution, hasty and ill-advised industrialisation, forced population transfers, and mandatory adoption of Russian culture.
Life eventually calmed down and the 1960s and 1970s in the Tajik Republic saw a level of what now passes for Soviet prosperity and security, namely the era during which Leonid Brezhnev ruled. The terror had subsided and the quality of life improved.
Dushanbe in particular became a cosmopolitan city in which the Russian language dominated and non-Tajiks formed the core of the population. Much of the population of Dushanbe had been imported from elsewhere in the Soviet Union in order to fill the need for engineers, technocrats, skilled industrial workers, the intelligentsia, and other jobs that required a modern education. Eventually the local Tajik population became better educated and fulfilled a greater role within the republic, especially in Dushanbe.
By the mid-1980s the non-Tajik population of Tajikistan grew uncomfortable as they felt the effects of increased nationalism and began to emigrate. Soviet cosmopolitanism and advanced job skills left with them.
Independence and the Civil War
The first signs of serious trouble were seen with the February 1990 riots in Dushanbe. Demonstrators claimed that they were angered by the settling of Armenian refugees from Baku – news that turned out to be completely false. In the ensuing violence businesses were looted and non-Tajiks, particularly Russian women, were targeted. Emigration increased dramatically after this violent event.
By early 1992 the government was seen to be dominated by northern Tajiks from Khujand and around, while the opposition was formed mostly by Tajiks from the Gharm region and by ethnic Pamiris from Gorno-Badakhshan.
Demonstrations eventually turned violent and the government was abandoned by many of its security forces. Street fighting soon turned to communal conflict that spread immediately to southern Tajikistan, particularly to the Vakhsh Valley where people from various regions of Tajikistan had been settled by the Soviets.
Collective farms were cleansed of people of the “wrong” region or ethnicity and refugees began to flee in every direction, including to Afghanistan. Through summer and fall 1992 in southern Tajikistan tens of thousands were murdered or died in combat.
In fall 1992 a Russian-led offensive took back Dushanbe from the opposition, giving Kulobi Tajiks forces and their local Uzbek allies a series of decisive victories over the Gharmi Tajik and ethnic Pamiri militias on the other side.
A brutal wave of reprisals targeted Gharmi Tajiks and Pamiris, creating another wave of refugees, while rural Tajiks poured into Dushanbe, changing the city’s demographics dramatically.
By the end of 1992 the parliament convened in northern Tajikistan and selected a southern politician named Emomali Rahmonov as the interim leader. Rahmonov, now renamed Rahmon, has ruled ever since.
From 1993 to 1997 combat continued in the sparsely populated Gharm region and at the gate to the Pamirs, as well as along the Afghan border. From 1997 until the mid-2000s Dushanbe was the scene of semi-regular violence as former warlords and mafia figures settled scores and fought over government positions and economic assets.
Although consistently ranked as one of the least livable cities in the world, Dushanbe is now a peaceful city with an uncontested leadership: Emomali Rahmon as president and his son Rustam as the mayor of Dushanbe, and the consensus heir to the throne.
Dushanbe is split by the Dushanbinka River into 2 halves. The tourist overwhelmingly needs to be concerned only with the eastern half.
This eastern part of the city is bisected by a long north-south street: Rudaki Avenue. The centre of the city can be considered everything on or near Rudaki Avenue between the intersections of Ayni Street and Somoni Avenue.
Transport & accommodation
Everything you need to get in, out and around Dushanbe is contained in our Dushanbe transport guide.
Despite the rise in tourism, Dushanbe is still cramped when it comes to the number of beds and the types of accommodation available. There will be a cheap bed available in a distant hostel even in peak season, but in the mid- and upper range, beds sell out quickly, and it pays to book in advance.
The best region in Dushanbe is anywhere close to the southern part of Rudaki, especially the diamond-shaped area between the streets Rudaki, Ayni, Druzhby Narodov and Shohtemur. This district consists of quiet, residential streets where the richer residents of Dushanbe live.
You are within walking distance of Rudaki, and that’s generally what matters in Dushanbe. A quick look at the map shows this is where the majority of accommodation can be found as well.
The northern half of Rudaki, up until the Botanical Garden, can also be considered central.
For plenty more accommodation tips and hotel recommendations, check out the Dushanbe accommodation guide.
Things to see and do
Along Rudaki and Ismoil Somoni avenues
The main landmarks of Dushanbe lie along or in between these 2 streets, which you can combine in a stroll of a few hours. Follow along Rudaki avenue to visit the Ayni Opera and the Museum of Antiquities, then dive into Rudaki Park and Flagpole Park to end up at the National Museum and Ismoil Somoni street, or continue slightly further north to the colourful Rohat tea house.
On Ismoil Somoni, the fanciful Tajik Writers’ Union building stands out, followed by the monstrous Kokhi Navruz and the stylish Ismaili Center. Across the street stands the brutalist Kokhi Korbad cinema, marking the end of Dushanbe’s city centre.
Rudaki Park & Flagpole Park
Formerly home to a statue of Vladimir Lenin, Rudaki Park (Gmaps) was clear-cut in order to give a view from Rudaki Avenue to the unused Palace of Nations. New trees have been planted but many are not yet providing sufficient shade. It took until 2007 before Lenin was finally replaced by Rudaki, regarded as the founder of Persian poetry. Lenin hunters may still find the man in giant proportions in Istaravshan and Khujand.
Next to the far southeast corner, under a large golden arch, is the giant statue of Ismoil Somoni (Gmaps), the most powerful leader of the Samanids, the empire Tajikistan traces its lineage back to. 5 minutes walk west from this statue is an elevated golden state symbol of Tajikistan at the Independence Monument (Gmaps). Further west is an artificial waterfall that is occasionally turned on.
Nearby Rudaki Park is the new National Flag Park, home to what was the tallest flagpole in the world until 2014. There is little to do here except crane your neck upwards for a view of the flagpole.
The Ismaili Centre (Gmaps) serves as a cultural centre and prayer house for the local Shia Ismaili minority. The building’s elegant interpretation of older building traditions starkly contrasts with contemporary Dushanbe’s pompous eyesores.
Free tours by English-speaking guides are available, but the Centre provides no information on when and how. They regularly host cultural events, but like many in Tajikistan they do not advertise very well.
Billed as the world’s largest teahouse, Kokhi Navruz has a bowling alley, wedding halls for rent, a restaurant, and a tour that costs 25 somoni. The opulence is mind-boggling, and it’s worth having a look inside. Out back is an artificial lake that was known as Lake Komsomol, now Javonon Lake (Gmaps).
With the closure of the Etnographic museum, 3 museums of note remain in Dushanbe: the national museum, the museum of antiquities and the musical instruments museum. Should you visit any of them? We review the evidence at museums in Dushanbe.
An equally pricey swimming alternative is Varzob lake.
Off the Beaten Track
Self-guided murals and architecture tour
French-sponsored cultural centre Bactria is working on mapping Dushanbe’s remaining murals. Until they finish, find some locations and pictures in this article. For a round-up of some of the best artwork that did not survive, see this article.
Edda Schlager’s 200-page guidebook on Dushanbe architecture is the best option for finding out the what and where of Dushanbe’s 100-year architectural history. Available only in German, but with many photos. Keep in mind some of the buildings listed no longer exist.
Mosques, churches and synagogues
None of Dushanbe’s mosques or churches are set up for tourist visits. You can always walk up to a mosque and, if dressed appropriately, be shown inside by someone. But none of the mosques are historical or grand in any way.
They are generally small and plain buildings. A massive Qatari-funded mosque, promising to be the largest in Central Asia, has been under construction for some time, with no sign of being close to finished. For now, the central Hoji Yoqub Mosque (Gmaps) is the most notable.
The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church is the main Orthodox church in Tajikistan (Gmaps).
Dushanbe famously destroyed its only Jewish synagogue in 2006 and built the empty Palace of Nations on top (it was in a prime central location). A relative of the president realised that this may seem anti-Semitic (in fact the Tajik government destroys or converts places of worship regardless of religion), so he donated one of his own houses to serve as the new synagogue.
The synagogue seems to not want everyone to know where it is located, so its location won’t be listed here.
Dushanbe’s 2 old central bazaars have been shut down, most notably the popular Shahmansur (Green) bazaar. The Mehrgon (or Mekhrgon) was built in their place outside the city centre (Gmaps). Mehrgon is more orderly but less visited and less captivating version of the older bazaars. Behind Mehrgon is a cheaper bazaar, but vendors here have learned to hike their prices for foreigners – bargain!
If Mehrgon Bazaar seems too small and sterile for you, you may wish to experience the far larger Korvon Bazaar (Gmaps) on the far south side of the city. Don’t expect any products of interest to tourists. The products here are cheap Chinese imports for local people, mostly clothing and household items.
From the corner of Rudaki Avenue and Ayni Street you will find shared cars going to Korvon, all of which display a “Korvon” sign in Cyrillic in their window (5 Somoni), for the return trip to the centre, find a car that reads “Sadbarg”.
Arts & crafts workshops and art galleries
Dushanbe has craftsmen making miniatures, ceramics, suzanis, carpets, kundal paintings, mosaics, jewelry and yak leather accessories. The city also has a number of art galleries for the discerning shopper or browser.
You can learn more about how to visit or contact these people in advance in this brochure (gallery info starts at page 30, crafts workshops at page 44), but be aware the brochure dates from 2014.
A modest botanical garden (Gmaps) north on Rudaki avenue, focused mostly on alien varieties. No signage. Try not to get in the way of the many wedding photographers.
The prized collection of a 100 or so peacocks all live in a tiny cage rather than being free to wander the Gardens – an apt metaphor for the people of Tajikistan. Entrance fee: 2 to 5 somoni, depending on unknown variables.
Ayni Park and the Aquaduct
If you take Bus #1 or #3 straight up Rudaki Avenue, you will eventually get to Ayni Park. The old Soviet amusement rides have been removed, but you can walk through the northern part of the park to find a view of the aqueduct. It is no longer possible to access the south side of the aqueduct, as local young lovers were using the location for romantic rendez-vous. There is now a security gate, but you can still get a nice view without getting on the bridge.
Zoo, Boghi Poytakht and Victory Park
A visit to the Dushanbe Zoo (Gmaps) is described alternately by tourists as a rustic but amusing experience, or a depressing tour of an animal torture prison. The zoo is easy to reach with a #8 shared car coming from the centre.
Boghi Poytakht is a local amusement park with rides (Gmaps). Public transport to this park is complicated, so it’s best to use a taxi.
Victory Park (‘Park pobedy’ to taxi drivers) is located on a hilltop (Gmaps) and thus not a bad place for a sunset view, but it is not quite high enough to really get a full view of the city. Halfway up the hill there is a café, grill and beer garden. At the top is a sprawling war monument. That’s WW2, which was not fought in Tajikistan; nobody remembers the Civil War. The cable car up the hill is broken, as it has been for many, many years.
The best way to get here is to take a long walk or a taxi ride. After dark the top of the hill may be sketchy. It’s not uncommon to see groups of local young men settling down to a bottle of vodka here at dusk. But, most likely, they would just want to share their vodka with you.
Events, food and going out
There isn’t much going on in Dushanbe, and no Dushanbe events calendar exists. Wade through the Facebook pages of Dushanbe expats and various embassies and NGOs to find out about events. Bactria is the most active NGO.
Food and restaurants
Find all our restaurant recommendations in the Dushanbe restaurant guide.
Bars come and go in Dushanbe: we have a forum thread collecting the latest info on where to go for a beer on a Friday night.
Regarding clubs: better not. Unless you like unpredictable drink prices, low-quality alcohol, robberies, brothels, human slavery and STDs.
Theatre and Stage
Art in Tajikistan is not out to rock the boat, and the best artists have left long ago.
At the Ayni Opera and Ballet Theatre (Gmaps), some local productions have the feel of a high school play, but are charming in their own way if you are not too snobby. A schedule is posted inside, and occasionally a Russian troupe visits.
The Mayakovsky Russian Drama Theatre has been bulldozed, but the Lohuti Drama Theatre survives (Gmaps) as it performs in Tajik, not Russian. The Lukhtak puppet theatre (OSM / Gmaps) presents kids-centered puppet shows.
Day and weekend trips around Dushanbe
Dushanbe has a number of good options to get out of town. There is the fortress at Hisor, the Nurek dam, the Khoja Obi Garm sanatorium and Iskanderkul. Destinations slightly further afield are the beautiful Rasht valley and the many sights in the southern Khatlon province – you can make a weekend trip or a week-long trip here.
For nearby hikes, see hikes around Dushanbe, detailing opportunities for overnight treks in the Varzob, Sioma, Shirkent and Karatag Valleys. Obviously, this is nothing compared to trekking in the Pamir or Fann mountains. But definitely nice for a day or weekend trip.
Dushanbe is most of a day’s driving from Khujand in northern Tajikistan. The Pamirs’ central town of Khorog is a full day to the east (in good driving conditions). To the direct south are the smaller mountains, foothills, valley and plains of southern Tajikistan’s Khatlon Province.
Disclaimer, Q&A and reports
What is true of Central Asia in general is doubly true for Tajikistan, and triply for Dushanbe: things change rapidly and unpredictably, and what is true for one person may not be so for the next. In short: YMMV.
We try to keep it all up to date, and your updates, questions and reports are most welcome in the Dushanbe forum Q&A.