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: Uzbeks are 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.
Where to go?
The famous sites in the heart of Uzbekistan
Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are names that echo with luster, but 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. When madrassah fatigue sets in, head for the mountains or the desert at Nuratau or Kyzylkum.
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
The Savitsky museum in Nukus and the corpse of the Aral Sea are the 2 main sights in Qaraqalpaqstan.
In Ferghana Valley, 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.
Likewise, the attractions of Uzbekistan’s rural south are overlooked by all but a tiny minority.
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.
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 fans of the tastes of Central Asia. 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.
For orientation, Maps.me is often better than google maps.
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.
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.