We visited Uzbekistan for the first time in 2004, but we had been dreaming about travelling there since 1992 when we accidentally laid hands on an Intourist sightseeing brochure about the country. And it turned out the monuments, such as the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara and the Registan in Samarkand, were even more awesome than we had imagined. Since then, we have returned many times on private trips, research journeys for our travel guide book “DuMont Reise-Handbuch Usbekistan” (in German), and as tour guides for German tour groups. And these are our highlights in Bukhara!
The whole town is an open-air museum
The whole old town of Bukhara is basically an open-air museum and you can spend hour after hour just strolling around. If you are in for shopping you will find fabrics, carpets, ceramics, miniatures, hand-made knives and so on: To get a fair price, you have to haggle fiercely! As for the tourist must-sees, every travel guide book lists them – but having seen them all, we recommend especially the Mausoleum of the Samanides and the Kalon minaret.
Mausoleum of the Samanides
The Mausoleum of the Samanides, dating from around 900, is one of the oldest Islamic mausoleums in the whole world (building pompous tombs was not considered proper in early Islam). Almost cubic, it is quite small and, at first sight, plain – without the glazed tiles so common in Uzbek architecture. But the brick patterns and the harmonious proportions are superb. Inside there are always pilgrims and you can join into their prayers for Ismail Samani, who is buried here. We like it for the architectural beauty, the setting in a park, and for the fact that it is not only a tourist spot but also a living pilgrims’ site.
Like the Samanid mausoleum, the Kalon Minaret is made of bricks and also very old: The 12th century Kalon Minaret with its height of over 45 m was such an engineering feat that Genghis Khan who destroyed most of Bukhara at the beginning of the 13th century in his raids, left it standing . Today you can only admire it from below, but when we travelled Uzbekistan in 2004, on our first visit to Bukhara, we could still climb up the narrow dark spiral staircase.
At the Zindan, the old citadel prison, there’s a small postcard shop where we bought a black and white photo of the partially destroyed minaret after the Soviet victory in 1920: Soldiers of the Red Army riding in front of the Kalon minaret on one of the elephants from the private zoo of the last Emir of Bukhara.
Hoja Zaynuddin Mosque
Not many tourists visit this community mosque in the alleys of the old town, but we love the beautiful 16th century interior with intricate patterns on the tiles and kundal paintings. Unlike many tourist places in Bukhara, Hoja Zaynuddin Mosque is not over-restored and not full of souvenir stalls, but an operating place of worship. Moreover it has a tranquil, pleasant atmosphere and is surrounded by a carved summer mosque and a garden. Entrance is free; do not visit during prayer times.
A fierce interest in Silk Road history brought us to Uzbekistan in the first place. Up until the 8th century, Sogdian traders who travelled all over the neighbouring countries were the beneficiaries of the Silk Road trade. Paikent was one of their main towns. There are only ruins left of Paikent, but the town is excavated and can be visited. Paikent is more accessible than Varakhsha, another silk-road town in the area, and the finds in the on-site museum bring the city alive.
Food and accommodation
Beer garden behind Bolo Hauz
Our favourite place to chill in the centre of Bukhara is the open air beer garden behind the Bolo Hauz mosque. The beer from the tap is fresh, most customers are locals and for carnivores there is shashlik, too.
Dilkor Laghman Center
While food within the touristy old town is average at best, there are some real finds if you venture a bit further. The Dilkor Laghman Center in the fifth micro-rayon is the new big thing: a huge hall serving yummy Uighur noodles in spicy broth. They have also a good variety of fresh salads (brought to the table to choose from) and beer from the tap.
Address: Corner of Pindastgir Street/ Alisher Navoi Street, 5th Mikro-rayon, Monday to Saturday 10-22 h. A taxi from the old town should cost around 5000 Som.
Bukhara has an enormous range of accommodation options, but only a fraction of them are old and authentic, comfortable, and well-run. A new one we highly recommend is the small Hotel Old Buchara, run by a very friendly Tajik family. Their breakfast is great – at least for vegetarians.
Minzifa was one of the first Boutique hotels in Bukhara and is still one of the best for mid-range travellers. Their rooms are so comfortable and decorated with traditional textiles, wall paintings, and carvings that you feel instantly at home. Again – we especially like the breakfast (with a lot of fresh fruit)
Another longstanding place and excellent choice in the old town is Komil. Komil’s is an old Jewish merchant’s home – all the restored rooms have nice new bathrooms. The dining room still has an ancient feel and oozes atmosphere.
More highlights in Bukhara
What we also like is the small bread bakery near Ulug Beg Madrasa close to the tourist spots.
As elsewhere in Uzbekistan, we always appreciate the decorative flower beds from basil and Thai basil which also smell good. Practically nobody in Uzbekistan uses basil as a seasoning.
What a hilarious experience to discover a working, although very, very slow Wifi in city bus No. 8!
Our most impressive experience this year was when the dragon staffing the cashier for the citadel suddenly told us the correct price in 2018 – after years of haggling with her inflated demands whenever foreign travellers showed up. It is 15 000 Sum per person (as of July 2018).
And of course we have to visit the Kalon Complex after nightfall at least once during each visit. The Kalon mosque is always open and you might be able to sneak in for a while. Otherwise you can just sit on the open area and dream of the Orient and the old Silk Road. Easy if you have the stars and the moon above you.
Note: We did not receive payment or sponsoring for this article from any of the above mentioned places.