The manmade wonders of Samarkand never cease to amaze even the most sated of culture vultures. A dynamic city of well over half a million people, Samarkand is quite rightly a must-see stop on every tourist’s itinerary.

Buildings of breathtaking beauty in the heart of regal Samarkand have captured imaginations through the ages and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Medieval merchants must have marvelled at every sight, from the exotic goods on sale to the spectacular manmade backdrops of madrasas, mosques and mausoleums. Centuries on, visitors are still struck by the beauty, the number and the scale of Samarkand’s architectural sites, and are often moved by thoughts of the ambition, dedication and, no doubt, personal sacrifices required to turn dreams into concrete reality.

The Registan Square, with its three exquisite madrasas, is Samarkand’s biggest draw and makes for a picture-postcard scene. It’s far from the only attraction, however, as the ruins of Afrosiab, the observatory of Ulug Beg and the Shah-i Zinda, the necropolis of the Living King, are sights that you’ll never forget.

Registan Samarkand by Evegeniy Agarkov, Dreamstime
© Evegeniy Agarkov, Dreamstime

The time of year you visit Samarkand will have a significant impact on your experience: coming out of season, especially in the autumn months, will enable you to get close to the building’s physical details and to linger for as long as you like. The city always was a bustling, cosmopolitan place, however, so even if you are sucked into the summertime crowds, your experience will be no less authentic: the residents of Samarkand have for centuries made money from the foreigners passing through.

The best things to see and do in Samarkand

The Registan

Samarkand’s central square will make even the most architecture-weary visitor stand up and take note. Pausing for a minute (and a photo) on the raised viewing platform, the square unfolds below you. An almost infinite number of contrasting patterns swirl and dance on every surface but somehow never clash; the equally garishly patterned textiles worn by Uzbek women walking by appear almost as a continuation of the buildings themselves. The effect is completely mesmerising.

Register Night Samarkand by Laurent Nilles
© Laurent Nilles, @societyofexploration

The Registan grew up around the tomb to the 9th-century saint Imam Muhammad ibn Djafar (the tomb can be found in front of the Sher Dor madrasa, but is barely noticeable nowadays), but by the 14th century this was also the commercial heart of the town. Six roads ran through the square, and it was connected directly with Timur’s citadel. Imperial decrees were shouted from the rooftops, and people would have gathered here to watch military pageants and other forms of spectacle.

Bibi Khanym Mosque

This is one of Samarkand’s most impressive sites, but also one of its most controversial owing to the heavy reconstruction that has taken place. It was built between 1399 and 1404, when it was the world’s largest mosque. It seems that the speed of the mosque’s original construction led to shoddy workmanship, and began to decay not long after completion.

Bibi Khanym Mosque Samarkand Uzbekistan © Laurent Nilles
© Laurent Nilles, @societyofexploration

What you see now is an almost total rebuild that started in 1974, as much of the original collapsed after an earthquake in 1897. Restoration is still underway, notably in the great western cupola, where huge earthquake cracks are still visible.

Shah-i Zinda

The Registan may be Samarkand’s poster child, but for many the real star of the show is the line of blue-and-turquoise-tiled tombs known as the Shah-i Zinda. The name Shah-i Zinda translates as ‘Living King’, referring to Samarkand’s patron saint, Kusam ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad who came here in 710 AD to preach Islam.

Legend has it he was beheaded by brigands while at prayer, picked up his head and jumped into a well where, so they say, he lives to this day. Regardless of whether he died or not, one of the mausoleums within the complex is dedicated to him: the Mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas. 

Getting to Samarkand

Given the ease of road and rail travel between Samarkand and Tashkent, and the relatively short distance involved, it seems unnecessary to fly. However, if you do feel the need, Uzbekistan Airways flies at least six times a week in each direction. The flight takes 55 minutes and can cost as little as US$10 one-way. Departures are mostly in the early morning. 

Samarkand’s railway station is 6km northwest of the city centre at the junction of Rudaki and Beruni. It is on the main railway line from Tashkent to Bukhara and Urgench, so it’s fast and relatively straightforward to reach the city by rail. The high-speed Afrosiyob service between Tashkent and Samarkand runs three times daily and takes just 21⁄2 hours. Tickets start from US$11.

If you’re keen to drive, the city is roughly 300km from both Tashkent and Bukhara, an easy 4–5-hour journey from either. The roads are surfaced, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes speed along.