Tashkent, ex-Soviet Central Asia’s largest city (pop. 2,5 million), does not get a lot of love from the traveling community. With its monumental city planning and endless traffic jams, Tashkent fails to live up to the image of Uzbekistan conjured up in tourist brochures focused on Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva.
That leaves more space for those who like to travel off the beaten track, enjoy Soviet architecture, and want to feel the pulse of modern-day Uzbekistan. They will feel right at home in Tashkent, just like everyone else: Tashkent is, even more so than the rest of Central Asia, a big melting pot of nations and cultures from across Eurasia. Add in the new mosques, dictator chic construction and craft beer pubs of today, mix it with the mausoleums of yesteryear, and we’d venture that Tashkent is an interesting place to visit.
How long should you stay?
Having said that, if medieval architecture and colourful arts and crafts is what you came for, you probably don’t need more than a day in Tashkent.
To tick off all of the obligatory highlights, add another day. If, on the other hand, you are a flaneur and a fan of Modernist architecture, you can easily spend 3 more days on top of that, simply strolling Tashkent.
First or last?
If you are entering and leaving Uzbekistan through Tashkent, we recommend you get out of the city soon after your arrival. Tashkent is best visited on the way back, when you might care to eat something other than plov and somsa and might actually even welcome a bit of big-city buzz; in this respect Tashkent serves as a halfway house between your holiday experience and the world back home.
Also, the museums make more sense after you have visited the places where the art came from.
It does not seem so at first sight, but Tashkent is an old city. A fertile oasis fed by the Chirchik river, bringing meltwater from the Tien Shan mountains nearby, settlement probably started more than 2000 years ago. Once called Chach, then Shash, the city got its current, Turkic name from its Karakhanid rulers in the 10th century: Tashkent, city of stone.
The town’s history mirrored that of its neighbours Shymkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kokand, and it must have largely looked the same in medieval times: a warren of mud-walled houses and workshops, crowded bazaars, mosques, madrassahs and mausoleums. With the tsarist Russian conquest of 1865 and the subsequent October Revolution, however, Tashkent changed irrevocably.
Tsarist and Soviet times
The new capital of the colony of Turkestan and later the Uzbek SSR, was refashioned in the image of a Russian city. The ethnic make-up of the city changed as well. After the first Russian colonists, deportees from around the Soviet Union were dumped here in the 1930’s; during World War II, more than half a million Russian refugees doubled the size of the population. Many stayed, and Uzbeks became a minority.
In 1966 a devastating earthquake struck Tashkent, occasioning a blank slate for architects and city planners from across the Soviet Union to create the ideal Communist city. The remnants of the past were now truly relegated to a sideshow in a corner of town as New Tashkent became a monumental metropolis in the 1970’s, Moscow’s “beacon of Socialism in the Orient.”
Half a century later Tashkent still retains much of that Soviet spirit. Broad avenues lined by oak trees take aim for imposing solitary buildings in manicured surroundings. Although many Russians and Jews left after independence, people with roots from all across Eurasia can still be seen knocking melons and squeezing tomatoes at the bazaar. A sense of forced peacefulness and security are pervasive amidst the gentle splash of fountains.
Old Tashkent lies in the northwestern corner of town, with the Chorsu bazaar and the Khast Imam complex as its center of gravity. It contains the old mahallas that survived the modernisation push (so far), as well as Tashkent’s remaining medieval monuments. Take a walk around Old Tashkent to see the sights and get a feel for the place.
Central Tashkent is the area roughly between metro stops Kosmonavtlar and Oybek in the south, Amir Timur Square in the center, and north up to Bodomzor metro station between Amir Timur street and the Anhor canal. Here you will find most museums and monuments as well as the best restaurants and hotels in Tashkent.
Together, these 2 areas comprise almost all points of classic tourist interest. Beyond lie residential neighbourhoods, parks and shopping and entertainment districts.
Things to see and do
Traditional highlights for first-time visitors are the Chorsu bazaar and Khast Imam complex. A walk through Old Tashkent connects the 2 sites with a host of other interesting places in the area. The Sheikhantaur Mausoleums are a bit further off, signaling the end of Old Tashkent.
If you prefer to have a look at New Tashkent instead, try these 2 walks: through the central axis, and along the Anhor Canal. Running through the heart of the capital, they disclose Soviet Tashkent to the first-time visitor.
Museum-wise, the State History Museum and the Fine Arts Museum are the 2 big draws if you are into history and art. If you are absolutely not, perhaps you can skip them in favor of eating ice cream and people-watching.
Despite its size and seeming uniformity, exploring the backstreets and more distant corners of Tashkent on foot can be very rewarding. If you are the type, you know what we mean. If you speak Russian, you can join locals organising off-the-beaten track tours on weekends at the X-Places Facebook group.
Other sights and museums
Tashkent’s Applied Arts Museum suits aficionados of applied arts – others will be satisfied by what they see on bazaars and tourist sites around the country.
If the Fine Arts Museum was not enough for you, pop into the Academy of Arts & the nearby K. Behzod Miniature Gallery, as well as the National Art Gallery.
Interested in politics? You must make a pilgrimage to the former palace of Karimov and snap his golden statue. Along the Anhor Canal, the TV Tower and the Minor mosque are both a sight to behold, and also revealing of the time period in which they were constructed.
If you are a market person: there are plenty of other bazaars and flea markets in Tashkent besides Chorsu.
The following attractions fall into the special interest section:
- Tamara Khanum house museum & other house museums of Tashkent
- Botanical Garden
- Ming Orik excavations
- Kukcha Mosque & Sheik Zayneddin mausoleum
- Zengi-Ata mausoleum
- Tashkent Railway museum
- Museum of Olympic Glory
Events, culture and nightlife
In the evening, a visit to the opera offers fantastic value-for-money without the need for language skills. If you do speak Russian, try to catch a show from the famous Ilkhom theatre company or the Russian Academic Theatre (Otaturk 24).
The State Conservatory (Abai/Batyra Zakirov str.) often has concerts on (+99871 2445320, +99871 2449508). Adventurous culture mavens might dare to attend a show of an Uzbek-language company – Mukimi (187 Olmazar/Gafurov str) and Khamza (34 Navoi str) are the biggest ones. For something lighter: even without children as an excuse, you can still catch a circus matinee.
For a city of this size, there is not as much nightlife as you would expect. There are some nice theme bars if you plan to tipple, as well as tons of karaoke places. Restaurants with a deejay or a guy on a keyboard are not in short supply either; Uzbeks are into merry-making and dance floors fill up easily any day of the week.
Nonetheless, a lot of dancing is wedding-related. If you happen to see one, don’t be shy to announce yourself as a foreigner. You are doing them a favour by inviting yourself in, as a foreign guest is a sign of good luck. Besides, they have plenty of food. You are making sure they don’t have to eat the same thing over and over for the next 2 weeks.
Clubs and discos, as far as we have experienced them, are places for the Instagram generation: bad music, pricey drinks and all about the looks, the selfie and the pick-up. As a foreigner you can get away with a bit of scruffiness, but dress to impress if you want to be sure to get in.
We currently do not have the resources to recommend nightlife favourites and keep up with changes. Instead, we started a Going out in Tashkent forum thread – we welcome your recommendations.
Broadway, the pedestrianised area between Amir Timur Square and Sharaf Rashidov street, has fun games and activities for kids.
Tashkentland, near the Expocenter and the Bodomzor metro stop, is an amusement park (haven’t been). Tashkent’s zoo is not a modern zoo, but one of the cheapest places in the world to see a giraffe for sure.
To escape the summer heat, locals head for the beach at Charvak Lake and onwards into the Chimgan mountains. The chapter on trekking in Uzbekistan is one that still needs to be written, so for now, you’re on your own here.
Rafting the rivers in the area is another option. Contact us if you are interested, we are happy to get you in touch with the right people.
Some people find the police presence around metro stations oppressive (they obviously haven’t been to Xinjiang at that point). We’d let that thought fly; police is courteous towards travelers, and the police state, despite its obvious dark side, does make Tashkent a superbly safe city for tourists.