Samarkand in southeastern Uzbekistan is the World Tourism Capital 2023, chosen as the host city for the UNWTO General Assembly this October. Delegations from 160 UN member states will arrive in Samarkand, a place renowned as the heart of the Silk Road, to discuss critical issues facing the tourism sector today, and how we can shape its future.
If you are travelling to Samarkand for the event, or have a holiday planned, this is the travel guide you need to spend 48 hours in Samarkand.
Visit the Shah-i Zinda early
The Shah-i Zinda is a necropolis and one of the most spectacular monuments built during the Timurid era. Every tomb along the street is different in its design, and the interiors are often as ornate as the facades. As the buildings are high and the alley between them quite narrow, the bright midday sun casts harsh shadows. It is therefore well worth visiting first thing in the morning when the site opens, before the crowds arrive, or late in the afternoon once the light has softened again.
Many of the people who come to the Shah-i Zinda are pilgrims. The most important tomb at the site is that of Qutham ibn Abbas, Patron saint of Samarkand and a cousin of Prophet Muhammad. Dress and behave respectfully here; many of those around you are coming to pray.
Shop in Siab Bazaar
The Silk Road was built on trade, and no trip to Uzbekistan would be complete without a visit to a colourful Central Asian market. Siab Bazaar, also known as Central Bazaar, is right next to the Bibi Khanym Mosque and sells everything from freshly baked bread to piles of dried fruits, chocolates to spices, and distinctive ikat fabrics to tourist souvenirs.
The best time to come to Siab Bazaar is at lunchtime when you can browse the stalls and taste many of the products on sale. The stall holders will want you to try before you buy, and you can put together a fabulous picnic to eat outdoors.
Discover the Eternal City
Samarkand’s brand new tourism hub, Silk Road Samarkand, opened in September 2022 and is a destination within a destination. This is where almost all the city’s international events are hosted and where you’ll find the highest concentration of 4* and 5* hotels. But it is also the location of the remarkable Eternal City culture and entertainment complex, designed by award-winning Uzbek artist Bobur Ismailov.
Eternal City brings together almost 3,000 years of Samarkand’s history in one place. The architecture reflects aspects of Parthian, Hellenistic, and Islamic cultures, and wandering the streets feels like stepping into an oriental fairytale. There are performance spaces for concerts, dance recitals, and puppet shows; artisans and chefs at work in open studios and kitchens; numerous tea houses and restaurants; and boutiques and galleries where you can buy Uzbekistan’s finest textiles, ceramics, and other handicrafts.
See the Registan after dark
Without doubt, the Registan is the most famous monument in Samarkand, and arguably on the entire Silk Road. This impressive square dominates the centre of the city and is flanked by three madrassas, each of which is more ornately decorated than the last. Here you’ll find dazzling patterns of blue and turquoise tiles, and also the Tilla Kori mosque with its striking golden interior.
All tourists visit the Registan in the day, but it is well worth returning to the square after dark. Throughout the tourist season, the monument is lit up in the evening, and there’s often an entertaining sound and light show. The contrast between light and dark highlights different features of the Islamic architecture which you might not notice in bright sunshine, and it makes for remarkable photographs of the centrepiece of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Spend an evening at the theatre
Samarkand’s El Merosi Theatre is a catwalk for historic fashion, but also a stage for Uzbekistan’s traditional music and dance. Performances take you back in time, offering a superb visual introduction to the history of Uzbekistan and its multifaceted cultures. Yes, it is educational, but it is also very entertaining, and audience members often report back that it was one of their favourite experiences in Samarkand.
Where to stay
Samarkand’s flagship hotel is the 5* Samarkand Regency Amir Temur at Silk Road Samarkand, next door to the Congress Centre and overlooking the rowing canal and Eternal City. The hotel was named after the famed emperor Amir Temur, who is the national hero of Uzbekistan, and it is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. If you prefer to stay in the city centre, however, book the Movenpick Samarkand, which opened early in 2023 and is just a short walk away from many of the monuments included in Samarkand’s World Heritage Site.
Getting to Samarkand
You can fly to Samarkand International Airport via regional hubs such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv. Alternatively, fly directly from London Heathrow to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, with Uzbekistan Airways and then take the high-speed train to Samarkand.
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