With its stretches of rolling desert, rich culture, tumultuous history, and stunning architecture marking the country’s importance along the ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan offers tourists an exciting and unique adventure. While travel to Uzbekistan might not have quite the undiscovered feel of neighboring Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, as tourist buses crowd the country’s popular sites, this is for good reason.
As any Uzbekistan travel guide can confirm, Uzbekistan is the number one country to visit if you want to see the imposing marketplace buildings and mosques of the Silk Road era.
Stand in a square in Bukhara, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and feel yourself being transported centuries back to a time when merchants and caravans arrived in town from what seemed like the ends of the earth.
Travel to Uzbekistan: Old Town Bukhara
While Uzbekistan’s history runs deep, the country’s political past is less than steady. Having gained independence in 1991 with the break up of the Soviet Union, the country has since been held under the tight control of President Islam Karimov. Many consider Uzbekistan to be not only the most corrupt country in Central Asia, but also one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Some might view this as a reason to stay away, however tourists can still travel safely and comfortably through the country. Moreover, by actually visiting Uzbekistan you will get a chance to talk to locals about their traditions and culture, opening your eyes to an Uzbekistan whose rich heritage goes far beyond its unfortunate political situation.
Indeed, while you might want to avoid Uzbek police when possible, other locals will only greet you with warm smiles and steaming cups of tea!
Travel to Uzbekistan: Samarkand
If you’re going to visit one place in Uzbekistan, make that place Samarkand! The Registan in the center of the city is imposing and iconic, and it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is probably what you’re picturing in your head when you think of “Silk Road architecture.” It’s breathtaking, overwhelming in size and beauty, and the perfect place to take some holiday card worthy jumping photos!
In Samarkand I stayed at B&B Bahodir and absolutely loved it. The sweet manager gave me tea and cookies when I arrived, and it seemed to be a gathering point for backpackers in the region. Plus beds were super affordable. Check current rates and availability here
Samarkand is also an interesting tourist destination as its historic Silk Road sites are scattered throughout an otherwise modern city. Here you can stay in a traditional Uzbek bed and breakfast that’s a short walk both from the ancient Registan and from a flashy department store! This means you’ll get a glimpse of Samarkand’s past, including its time as part of both the Silk Road and the Soviet Union, while also getting a taste of contemporary Uzbek life.
Travel to Uzbekistan: Bukhara
As another great trading city along the ancient Silk Road, Bukhara’s historical center is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike Samarkand, whose most popular sites are scattered throughout the city, however, Bukhara’s ancient sites are mostly contained to its small Old Town. This means that if you stay in one of the many charming inns within the Old Town’s walls you can do all your exploring on foot!
Spend your time wandering through market stalls which have been set up in the Old Town’s beautiful Silk Road buildings, shopping for traditional trinkets to bring home to friends and family, and chatting with a local shop owner over a cup of tea.
When you have had your fill of historical sites (and being around other tourists) you can head to the new part of Bukhara to experience a bit of contemporary Uzbekistan. You can go to one of the many restaurants in town specializing in plov, a traditional Central Asian pilaf dish, which many argue is best in Uzbekistan, and sit and people watch as you enjoy your meal.
While Uzbekistan is a fairly conservative country, there are also several bars in town that you might be interested in visiting to experience a bit of Uzbek nightlife.
In Bukhara I first stayed at a hotel with a creepy manager, but then I upgraded to a nicer hotel, Samani Bukhara, which I loved! So maybe it’s worth spending a bit more on accommodation here (it’s still quite cheap though). Check current rates and availability for Samani Bukhara here
Travel to Uzbekistan: Khiva
While a bit out of the way for many tourists as it lies 470 kilometers west of Bukhara, Khiva is a gem on the Silk Road not to be overlooked!
Mention Khiva to any Central Asian and they will probably give you a big smile, “Ah, Aladdin!” And in fact, wandering around Khiva you might feel as though you’ve just landed in Aladdin’s Agraba, albeit with a little more dust than the Disney cartoon. And surprise, surprise, Khiva has also been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
The historical center lies within the walls of Ichon Qala, which is a pedestrian-only square. You can easily see the entire area on foot, and in fact can also see most of Khiva’s contemporary city (outside Ichon Qala) on foot as well. Again, a lot of people skip Khiva on their Uzbekistan tour, but it’s really worth adding to your itinerary if you want to get a real taste of the old Silk Road sites (plus it was less crowded than Bukhara and Samarkand when I visited).
I recommend staying at the Hotel Qosha Darvoza, which has a beautiful courtyard, lovely staff, and is amazing value. Check current rates here
Travel to Uzbekistan: Transportation
Uzbekistan really is a dream destination for any history, culture, or art fanatic, and it’s the ideal place to learn about the Silk Road. In fact, while no Silk Road tour would really be complete without a visit to Uzbekistan’s sites, travelers could certainly get a fulfilling taste of the Silk Road by only visiting Uzbekistan. Basically, if you’re interested in the ancient Silk Road, you should go to Uzbekistan.
However, while most locals in Uzbekistan are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming towards tourists, the country can still be a bit tricky for foreigners to navigate. Strict regulations require all foreign visitors to obtain official registration cards at each place they overnight.
This means that when traveling independently it is impossible to camp in Uzbekistan, and it can even be difficult (but not impossible!) to organize yurt stays in the Uzbek desert.
Moreover, frequent police checks are the norm, so don’t be surprised if even on a short car or bus journey police pull you over several times to have a look through all your bags. Just wait patiently and answer any of their questions with polite brevity.
Public buses and trains run between main cities in Uzbekistan, but to get anywhere more remote you’ll have to organize a private or shared taxi. Negotiating with taxi drivers can be a nightmare even for Russian speakers, so just stay patient and hold your ground if you’re on a tight budget (whereas if you’re tight on time you can speed things up by paying a little extra.
Taking an organized tour of Tajikistan (and Uzbekistan)
Travel through Uzbekistan (and all of Central Asia) can be difficult, especially if you don’t know any Russian, but I assure you it’s worth it! However if you’re worried about your trip you can always leave the organizing and planning to someone else and take a tour.
I haven’t done this myself, but I’ve heard back from several blog readers who chose to do Central Asia tours with G Adventures and they loved them. The tours organized everything for them, but I think the best part was seeing the region with a group of likeminded travelers.
The two best options for seeing Uzbekistan would be:
The Best of Uzbekistan // this 10-day tour really does take you through the best of Uzbekistan – for a really affordable price. In fact, this might be the most cost-effective way of seeing Uzbekistan. Check current tour prices and the full itinerary here
Best of Tajikistan & Uzbekistan // this 15-day tour covers all of the main sites of both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (more than I was able to see!). This tour is also surprisingly affordable. Check current tour prices and the full itinerary here
If you’re unsure of whether or not to take a tour, or if you want to visit Uzbekistan or another Central Asian country, I’ve written a full guide on how to choose the best Central Asia or Silk Road tour.
Guys, please, please do not forget to get travel insurance for your trip to Uzbekistan! I always get travel insurance wherever I’m going, but it’s particularly important when going through more remote regions like this.
It costs so little, but will save you SO much in the long run – I’ve had to use my World Nomads travel insurance twice over the course of my travels (once when I got sick and once when my bag was stolen), each time saving me over a thousand dollars. They helped get me to the nearest hospital and all I had to do was send them my receipts and I had a check from them in the mail within a couple of weeks. So easy!
You can get a quick quote for your insurance here: