Uzbekistan dazzles with its main attractions, the icons of the Silk Road at Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Gawk at the mosques, scale the minarets and maunder from mausoleum to madrassah to get a feel for the history of Islam outside of the Middle East, and the power of the Timurid empire.
Then, wander through the bazaars: Uzbekistan is a land of traders and craftsmen.
If you have less interest in ancient monuments, but prefer to get to know people and their way of life today, Uzbekistan’s sanitised tourist cities can be a turn-off. In that case, take a dip into the countryside. Hunt for masters of craft in smaller towns, or disappear deep into the eastern desert or the southern highlands.
For most tourists, it is the famous monuments to the ruler’s power and glory that will dominate their opinion of Uzbekistan. For those who dare to venture off the tourist trail, a different side of Uzbekistan will open up.
Uzbek culture is rich, warm and dynamic, and quite different from the surrounding nomadic nations. You have not been to Uzbekistan if, after a big meal of greasy plov, you haven’t reclined on a topchan in the shade of a huge chinar tree, getting buzzed on liters of green chai, while discussing the finer points of life in your respective countries with old aksakals wearing tubeteika skull caps.
Understand all these words? Then you have been to Uzbekistan.
A visit to Uzbekistan is usually centered around visiting the medieval city centres of Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, with a sampling of the country’s arts and crafts mixed in.
And who could oppose that? Those are of course highlights. But there is much more to Uzbekistan. Experience a bit of modern city life, take a day off in the mountains or the desert, and definitely visit the village: that’s where the heart of Uzbekistan still is.
Start thinking out of the box with these 38 interesting things to do in Uzbekistan.
The famous sites in the heart of Uzbekistan
The turquoise route above is the standard tourist route: Tashkent – Samarkand – Bukhara – Khiva by train, possibly adding Nukus and the Aral Sea before flying back to Tashkent. Tourists flying in and out of Tashkent with about a week in Uzbekistan tend to take this itinerary: it ticks all the boxes.
While Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are names that echo with luster, do take a moment to be honest with yourself: how much do you really care about medieval Islamic architecture? Let that be your guide in deciding how much time you want to spend in the Silk Road cities of Central Uzbekistan.
Tashkent, Central Asia’s largest city, is a model of the splendid urban vision of the 1960’s Soviet Union.
Qaraqalpaqstan, Ferghana Valley and Termez
In Ferghana Valley (purple route), Margilan and Rishton are famous for their silk and ceramics and Kokand is worth a stop-over for its Silk Road monuments. Beyond these highlights, only slow travelers venture to cities like Namangan and Shokhimardon, often before crossing into Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
Likewise, the attractions of Uzbekistan’s rural south (vermilion route) are overlooked by all but a tiny minority. Termez and surroundings are interesting for history geeks, with Buddhist, Greek and early Islamic history on top of each other.
Trains and road transport
Trains are an easy and comfortable way to move between the big destinations of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. If you are travelling independently, booking in advance might still a hassle, though.
If you missed the train, a shared taxi or minibus is a fast and cheap alternative. With a rare exception, (old and slow) buses should be avoided. They have no air conditioning, no toilets and are very cramped. Marshrutkas are also cramped. Shared taxi backseats are also cramped.
If you’re taking a shared taxi, try to get the front seat (but not if you are a single female traveler, you might be giving the wrong signal); Uzbeks will try to maximize leg and shoulder space in the backseat, leading you to either get squeezed or otherwise find yourself in a never-ending wriggle match (with 2 expert wrigglers).
For cross-border transport, see Uzbekistan’s border crossings and the various city guides.
Flying is a time-saver between Tashkent and far-off Khiva and Termez, or possibly Andijan. Winter has little effect on transport in Uzbekistan, almost everywhere is accessible year-round.
If you are flying to Uzbekistan: both Tashkent and Samarkand receive international flights, and airports are no longer the nightmare they once were – it’s a quick and pleasant experience.
When to go
March-April and October-November have temperate, pleasant weather. Sweaty 40°+ afternoon temperatures are a possibility in a large part of the country from early May until late September.
Most major events take place in spring and autumn. It follows that this is peak season for Uzbekistan, especially for tour groups, and sites can feel crowded. Winter is a good time to go for anti-tourists. It’s not that cold, it’s definitely sunny, and crowds are nowhere to be seen.
Health-wise, diarrhea is the biggest worry.
Generally speaking, food in the region is unhealthy and of little variety, based primarily on meat, fat, pasta and dairy products. Few tourists become unreserved fans of the tastes of Central Asia, but fresh produce at the bazaar is a saving grace.
Plov is ubiquitous in Uzbekistan; for less greasy plov, ask for the cook to scoop from the top, rather than from the bottom, where all the fat gathers. We discuss your options as a picky eater.
The money situation in Uzbekistan has improved enormously since the death of president Karimov. There is no longer a black market for dollars, exchanging money is easy and ATMs are appearing everywhere. Paying by card is not so common yet.
Buying a sim card and getting mobile internet is usually not a problem, and most of the internet is available without VPN. More details in our Uzbekistan articles on money and banking and communications.
Budget and accommodation
The average wage in Uzbekistan is 200$. Keep in mind that’s an average. With most people getting in visa-free these days, that means it’s pretty cheap to get around Uzbekistan, although basic accommodation is not dirt cheap yet due to a convoluted tax code.
Count on 1 euro for a basic meal, 10$ for a hostel bed and a double room in a decent hotel starting at 20$. Average price of a train ticket is 10$. We go in depth on the budget question at the Uzbekistan travel budget page.
We have a lot more tips on selecting accommodation, and we discuss homestays, camping, couchsurfing and more in the accommodation chapter.
Tours and tour operators
There are hundreds of tour operators in Uzbekistan, all offering similar trips. How do you distinguish? It’s a conservative industry focused on the passé idea of large-group bus tours being shepherded around the highlights by a guide with an umbrella in the air.
We selected our tour operators on the ability to listen and think along with travelers. Suddenly we were left with a lot fewer options. Our long-term partners Aliya, Ravshan and Timur can help you design a trip that suits you.
Find out more about Uzbekistan’s different regions.
- Central Uzbekistan: Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva and Tashkent. Stay with locals in the Nuratau mountains and Kyzylkum desert.
- Ferghana Valley: Silk from Margilan & ceramics from Rishton. A traditional heartland.
- Qaraqalpaqstan: Aral Sea, Savitsky museum, and the fortresses of Khorezm.
- The South: Buddhist relics, and a village culture nestled in green uplands to escape the blazing summer heat.
Good to know
- Travel light – you will want to buy souvenirs. Silk, needlework, wood carvings, textiles, paintings, handmade knives and ceramics are dirt cheap and fantastic quality, all locally produced.
- Unlike neighbouring countries, guides in Uzbekistan are very well-trained, available in many languages beyond English, and absolutely not expensive. Count on 30$ for a 4-6h excursion.
- Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s group tour destination. It’s big with the 50+ crowd from Europe. Know that popular tourist sites do get crowded.
- Cotton has dominated life in Uzbekistan for the past 100 years, and it still does. Look out for abstract cotton symbology. Once you learn to recognise it, you will start to see it EVERYWHERE.