Experience the essence of Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is the heart of the Silk Road, a Central Asian republic which preserves the romance of historic trade and travel, but also draws upon its rich, multicultural past, reinterpreting it to create a modern, vibrant destination.

Board the high-speed train and race across the country from the Tian Shan Mountains to the sands of the Aralkum, but also allow time to wander slowly through the backstreets and bazaars, soaking up the sights and sounds.

You’ll find dazzlingly decorated monuments juxtaposed with cutting-edge modern designs, a tantalisingly tasty local cuisine, and warm, outward-looking locals who treat their guests like royalty.

Cultural Heritage

Brits have long been enamoured with the Silk Road, and with Uzbekistan in particular. From James Elroy Flecker’s The Golden Journey to Samakrand to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, the lure of these places – and of the voyages to get there – permeates our national consciousness and popular literature.

That’s no surprise: Alexander the Great was so bowled over by Samarkand that he declared it was more beautiful than he ever imagined; and even Genghis Khan, not normally known for his sentimentality, admired the Kalon Minaret so much that he forbade his Mongol troops from touching it, even as they razed the rest of Bukhara to the ground.

 Silk Road Cities

Uzbekistan’s Silk Road cities still captivate even the most world-weary of travellers. Four cities, Bukhara, Khiva, Samarkand, and Shakhrisabz, have UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and numerous smaller monuments are recognised by UNESCO as part of the Silk Roads: Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor group.

In a matter of days you can watch sunrise over the Chilpik Dakhma, a Zoroastrian tower of silence first constructed in the 1st century BC; imagine the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by the khans of Khiva in the magnificent palaces of the Ichan Qala; climb the 104 steps to the top of the Kalon Minaret (yes, it’s still standing!); and say a quiet prayer in the courtyard of the Bibi Khanym Mosque, once the largest mosque in Central Asia. The mausoleums and shrines, bathhouses and bazaars, caravanserais and madrassas are almost too numerous to count.

Must-try experiences

Intangible Cultural Heritage

It is not just about the built environment, though: Uzbekistan’s intangible cultural heritage is just as rich. Add to your itinerary a visit to a ceramics workshop in Rishtan or Gijduvan, learn the art of silk weaving in Margilan, and marvel at the artworks of Bukharan artists, Davron and Davlat Toshev, and their students at the Ustoz Shogird Miniature Painting Studio.

The textiles collections at the Sitorai Mokhi Khosa in Bukhara and the State Museum of Applied Arts will give you a good introduction to national costumes, but the best way to appreciate clothes, headwear, and jewellery is to see them worn.

You will sometimes see Uzbekistanis out and about in traditional dress, particularly on special occasions, but the most elaborate attire is reserved for dancing and other live performances.

Book tickets for a performance at the El Merosi Theatre of Historical Costume in Samarkand, or attend one of the nightly shows in the courtyard of Bukhara’s Nodir Divan Beghi Madrassa.

Must-try experiences

Lively Festivals

Uzbekistan’s calendar is punctuated with lively festivals, so schedule your trip if you can to coincide with a big event. Navruz (Persian New Year) marks the summer solstice, the start of spring, and so is always on 21 March.

There are typically carnival-like parades for Independence Day on 1 September, and thanks to Soviet influence, New Year’s Eve is celebrated like a secular Christmas. Individual cities are also capable of putting on quite a spectacle, so look out for the likes of Stihia Festival in Muynaq, Baysun Bahori in Baysun, Silk and Spices in Bukhara, and the 99 Fish Dish Festival in Nukus, too.

Unique Architecture

If you love architecture, you will be in your element. Uzbekistan offers a jaw-dropping array of styles, from Buddhist monasteries with a strong Graeco-Bactrian influence, to monuments from the Golden Age of Islam, and even distinctive Tashkent Modernism. Construction and creativity go hand in hand as national obsessions.

 Religious landmarks

Much inspiration for Uzbekistan’s most impressive buildings has religious origins. Buddhism spread to Central Asia from India 2,000 years ago, and you can still see the dome of a stupa shadowing the courtyards of Fayaz Tepe. Its sister monastery, Kara Tepe, is only moments away, and Buddhist artefacts excavated, including a statue of Buddha sat under the sacred bodhi tree, take pride of place in Termez Archaeological Museum.

The arrival of Islam from the 8th century onwards tied Central Asia politically and culturally to Arabia and Persia, which is why you see such a strong resemblance between Uzbekistan’s medieval monuments and those in Iran. Mosques, madrassas, and mausoleums shimmer with gold and glazed tiles; their blue-green colour scheme is emblematic of the Silk Road.

With very few exceptions, religious buildings are open to both men and women, and as long as you are respectfully dressed, those of all religions and none are welcome.

Must-visit places

Dazzling cities

Samarkand is the anchor destination of every tour itinerary, and rightly so: the Registan is unmissable. Flanked by three mighty madrassas, there’s nothing for it but to stand and stare in awe. The Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Shah-i Zinda necropolis, and the Gur-i Amir, the mausoleum of national hero Amir Timur, are all within walking distance of the Registan, and the fascinating astronomical observatory of Emperor Ulugbek is only a short drive away.

Bukhara has an altogether different feel: unlike Samarkand where the old and new cities are entwined, when you enter Bukhara’s Old City, it feels as if you are stepping back in time. The Ark Fortress dominates the skyline, but although the emir who resided here possessed wealth and political power, Bukhara’s spiritual influence and reputation for scholarship came from the surrounding mosques and madrassas. The Mir-i Arab Madrassa is particularly important as it is still a place of Islamic learning today.

In Khiva, often described as an open air museum, there are so many madrassas that smaller ones have been converted into heritage hotels. Multiple minarets tower like trees above this desert city, but the greatest of its architectural delights is the Juma Mosque’s forest of wooden pillars. Every one of the 213 elm columns is carved in a different pattern, creating a meditative space just a stone’s throw away from the earthly pleasures of the Tash Hauli palace.

Must-see sights

Modernist architecture

Do not forget about Uzbekistan’s Modernist architecture, either. Fans of Brutalism have plenty to enjoy, especially in Tashkent where stand-out examples include Hotel Uzbekistan and the People's Friendship Palace. Since March 2024, about 160 Soviet-era mosaics have been added to the national register for cultural heritage sites. You will see them decorating everything from apartment blocks to factories, and bus stops to station platforms. This love of tiles has lasted centuries.

Flavourful Cuisine

Visiting Uzbekistan is a feast for every one of your senses, and when you smell freshly baked bread wafting from the tandyr, or see the shiny red strawberries piled high, it is inevitable that your stomach will start rumbling. Sightseeing always builds up an appetite, and the Uzbekistani people take incredible pride both in their cuisine and in affectionately overfeeding their guests.

 National dishes

Unsurprisingly, Uzbekistan’s national dishes reflect the country’s Silk Road history. Every family has their own recipe for plov, the rice-based dish which is a close cousin of pilaf and biryani; somsa are pastries akin to samosas, encompassing a tasty hot filling of meat and onion or soft pumpkin; and you’ll want to slurp up multiple bowls of laghman, a hearty noodle soup typically topped with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of dill.

Every community which has come to or traded with Uzbekistan has made their mark on regional gastronomy, which is why you’ll see Russian borscht on menus and even Korean kimchi in the bazaars!

Must-try delicacies

One dish you won’t find anywhere else in the world is shivit oshi, a speciality of Khiva. These bright green noodles are made by hand; the colour comes from the finely chopped herbs which are kneaded into the dough. Eaten with a meat and vegetable stew and washed down with plentiful cups of green tea, it’s a meal you will reminisce about long after you have returned home.

Agriculture remains an important part of Uzbekistan’s economy even today, and in the summer and autumn months in particular, fresh produce is abundant. At every meal, the dining table is weighed down with salads and plates of fruits; there are pyramids of vegetables as tall as a man in the markets; and by the side of the road, people sell buckets of whatever they have grown in their garden.

The strawberries, cherries, and apricots are particularly sweet in late spring and summer, and then in the cooler months you have the indescribable pleasures of pomegranates, often squeezed as juice, and winter melons.

Food festivals

Across Uzbekistan there are harvest and food festivals to celebrate local produce. The 99 Fish Dish Festival in Nukus, the Melon Festival in Khiva, and Tashkent Food Festival all draw large crowds. But if your trip doesn’t coincide with a gastronomic extravaganza, fret not: visit any local market for tastings and street food. The selection in Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar and Navoi’s Central Market is splendid; and the colourful Siyob Bazaar is right next to the Bibi Khanum Mosque in Samarkand.

Uzbekistan has always had a thriving teahouse culture, which you will still see in places like Bukhara’s Lyabi Hauz. But now the restaurant scene is rapidly developing, too, and the variety of foods is growing, including for vegetarians and vegans. In Tashkent, there’s hardly a cuisine you won’t find: there’s a superb Japanese chef at Humo Restaurant, the best Lebanese food is at Resto Forn Lebnen, and the Georgian food at Gruzinskiy Dvorik rivals that in Tbilisi.

Feeling inspired?

Experience Uzbekistan’s rich history, culture and cuisine for yourself.