Bukhara the Noble: My two day Bukhara guide and useful tips
At the beginning of the year, it did not dawn on me that I would be writing a two day Bukhara guide – but and opportunity arose, and the Silk Road has long been on my wish list of place to visit. Before I knew it, I had booked a cheap Aeroflot ticket and well… here’s my two day Bukhara guide!
A two day Bukhara guide? Are you crazy?
An unexpected week off, the end of the visa requirements for EU citizens and a long-standing dream was all it took to make me fly to Uzbekistan – pretty much on a whim.
I had little time, so after studying flight schedules, I decided on the ancient Silk Road Cities of Samarkand and Bukhara.
I also love modernist Soviet architecture and would have loved to visit Tashkent, but with just four full days in the country, this will have to wait for another time. When you have little time, giving your sightseeing a bit of structure means you might get more out of the short time there, and although I spent only two days in Bukhara, I managed to see most of its sights – the famous and some pretty hidden ones. Here is my two day Bukhara guide, complete with lovely places to stay, as always, in true Holly Golightly-style, stylish, but not breaking the bank.
A bit of history
Bukhara is on the Great Silk Road and has been an important cultural and trading post for over 2500 years. It is situated on the Northern route from Syria via Merw, Bukhara, Samarkand and Ferghana to China. It was first officially mentioned in the 6th Century, and by the 7th Century had become an emirate complete with a citadel containing a palace, a temple and a prison.
Islam came to the city in the early 8th Century. Under Ismail the Samanid it flourished briefly, but was captured by the Turks shortly thereafter, and destroyed by the Mongols in 1220. Only under Timurid rule it gained gain stability and wealth, and from the early 15th Century it flourished again, having the first madrassah of Central Asia, and continued to do well until the Russians seized the city in 1868 when it became a part of the Russian Empire until 1920 when Mikhail Frunze marched in and made it Soviet territory. This two day Bukhara guide would become a bit too long, so here is a longer article on its history.
I had landed in Samarkand the previous day and had had some time to acclimatise to the country there and buy a train ticket. I took the super fast Afrosiyob train from Samarkand, arrived at noon and immediately set out on a walk around Old Bukhara. Unlike Samarkand, most historical sights are in a small areas easily reached by foot.
My first stop was the “New” Synagogue just round the corner from my hotel. It’s welcoming, a very atmospheric small synagogue with not much going on.
It comes as no surprise it was so quiet because the population of Bukharan Jews has diminished from once 50.000 to about 150. Why is that? Jewish culture was allowed to flourish in Soviet Uzbekistan, but when the Soviet Union relaxed their emigration rules in the 1970s, thousands of Jews left the country, nevertheless. There is now actually a government-supported drive for Jews to return, and Uzbekistan is one of a few places in the world where religious minorities live quite peacefully along a Muslim majority.
If you are interested in learning more about Jewish Culture in Uzbekistan, you might want to read this article in the New York Times. Also, this blog post from a Tashkent-based travel company has stunning details on Jewish places in Bukhara. I wish I had had the time to find the old “Orthodox” synagogue and the stunning Jewish Mahalla Committee House – I had a good go at finding the synagogue but got hopelessly lost in the warren of windswept lanes!
As a visitor of the city, you will pass there eventually, for here is the tourists heart of the city, with restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and some public transport. Centred around the last remaining water reservoir of the city, are the Kukeldash Madrassah, the Nadir Diwan Begi Madrassah and a pilgrims rest house the Chanaka Nadir Diwan-Begi.
All were built between 1560 and 1620 and now are mostly temples to consumerism, as they’re filled with souvenir stalls. They’re set in some sparse greenery and are nice places to visit, but expect them to be quite popular. All are filled with souvenir stalls of varying quality. Having had a nice day of inspecting the madrassahs of the Registan, I decided to give them a miss on my first round.
The Trading Domes and Tim Abdullah Khan
Starting on the Western side of Lyab-i-Hauz, you will find the first of the ancient trading domes the Toqi Sarrafon, or Bazaar of Moneychangers.
Another souvenir cave… and then, passing some minor caravanserais and carpet shops and half-sunken Magoki-Attar Mosque, you reach the second trading dome, the Toqi Telpak Furrushon. It is the architecturally most interesting, a large octagonal structure with little decoration, inhabited by slightly nicer specialised souvenir shops – lots of textiles, if you are interested.
Along a pedestrian street flanked with more modern buildings, lined with yet more souvenir shops, you reach the third trading dome, the Taqi Zargaron, formerly the jewelers bazaar. In terms of wares, there is more souvenir stuff. However, about 100m before you reach it, look to your right for another large domed structure, now hosting a well-received German cafe as well: The Tim Abdullah Khan. Of all the ancient trading places, this still looks like an 1800s bazaar, although a slightly deserted one: it was and is dedicated to silk material and carpets, and has the air of an abandoned, once grand shop. There were a few traders in there, but they all seemed slightly indifferent to the occasional visitor – just the way I like it!
For my first walk, I took the somewhat less touristy back route through the backstreets while looking for a restaurant. Both routes are equally rewarding, and you may not find shops and cafes on the latter, but come across a purely residential area. Once I saw the hulking structures of the madrassahs ahead, I knew I was on the right route.
Ulugbek Madrassah and Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah
Around midday I reached the small Ulugbek Msdrassah, built by the grandson of Timur in the early 15th Century and predating its Samarkand namesake by about three years. For a fee, you can go inside, but having had my fair share of madrassahs the day before in Samarkand, I decided to admire the more gently restored facade lined with blue kufic instriptions.
Standing opposite, is the Abdulaziz Khan Madrassah, much more gaudy and about 250 years younger. Someone had really gone to town with the multicoloured mukarnas (stalactite vaults), wishing this the be the “best symbiosis of architecture and craft that was ever made in Bukhara” according to its developer.
What they managed, however, was to incorporate a slew of motifs new to Islamic architecture: birds, snakes, flowers and clouds. The inside looked quite nice, too, even the souvenir sellers had managed to lay out an appealing display, but someone stopped me right in my tracks, demanding a 10.000 sum entrance fee, and now in need of refreshment rather than retail therapy, and no cafe in sight, I simply couldn’t be bothered. Now I wish I had entered, despite the fee, as the interior has some unrestored (read: less garish) painting and plasterwork.
By now, I was getting a bit hungry or at least thirsty for some nice coffee. Even in the most touristy areas, good places for just a drink were quite hard to come by. After cruising around hot and thirsty, I found some refuge in the Toqi Zargaron or jewellers bazaar. No jewels though, and no cafe either.
After 200m on some baking hot shadeless pavement and now right back in the tourist centre close to the Kalyan complex, I spotted what looked like a busy restaurant terrace … So succumbed to a highly touristy restaurant where a British tour group was finishing up their lunch. It had killer views, though! I admired the magnificcent complex of Kalyan Mosque, Minaret and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah while enjoying cabbage salad, veggie dumplings called manti and green tea. It wasn’t the cheapest or the best, service was a bit slow, but the view more than made up for it.
Fortified, I went to view the Po-i-Kalyan Complex in the early afternoon heat. Bukhara was definitely warmer than Samarkand, and even in March, it got quite dry and baking hot.
I paid the small entrance fee to the Kalyan Mosque, which impresses by its sheer size and preserved layout of a 15th Century major mosque. Unlike the older Bibi Khanym Mosque of Samarkand, it remains almost completely intact. The Soviets alleged;y used it as a warehouse but today it is an active mosque again. Although less grand in scale, it is impressive with its nearly 300 domes, forming a large gallery connecting the four iwans, its main prayer hall raising above all in Old Bukhara.
I also found it a great place to admire the amazing tile work in detail – probably the best place to do so in Bukhara. It was very peasceful – especially since this is one of the few places which has not been taken over by souvenir sellers.
The minaret just outside the mosque is no less impressive, built from unglazed bricks arranged in ever-changing patterns.
The huge Mir-i-Arab Madrassah opposite has a long history and was actually reopened in 1945 to become the only major Islamic educational institution of the Soviet Union. It continues to be an important institution of Islamic Study,and looked far more lively than every other religious place in old Bukhara. It not open for the casual visitor but you can look inside the busy courtyard through side gates when walking around the building.
Its exterior alone is really impressive, and as you can see, it was not really that busy in March.
After taking a few photos, I scoped out some market stalls and shops and ambled back towards the Lyabi Hauz area.
This beautiful small building is tucked away in an old residential neighbourhood east of Lyabi Hauz. There is some debate as to what the function of the building was. It is a lot smaller in scale than any other Bukharan landmarks and was built in the early 1800s by a trader, presumably to serve as a gatehouse to a grander madrassah. This is what is left of it, surrounded by a peaceful little square.
There was hardly any one there, so I sat on the bench a bit while the sun set, then walked back to Lyabi Hauz, for the best chance of finding an open restaurant and ate at the Minzifa Restaurant before fumbling my way back home in the dark.
Full of plans, I booked the earliest breakfast slot of 07.30 at my hotel. Today, I would leave the compact touristy quarter with its cleaned-up sidewalks, ubiquitous shops and try and see some of the outlying attractions of Bukhara.
I marched through the historical centre, even emptier than yesterday, with the vendors in the trading domes just setting up, and an empty Kalyan complex to the massive citadel that is the Ark. With a full-ish day ahead, I marched on through until I reaxhced the Bolo Hauz Mosque.
Bolo Hauz Mosque
Here, outside the old centre, it was strictly locals only at this time of the day. It was prayer time and really busy. A few people beckoned my in,but unsure of whether I’d stick out in there as a tourist, I contented myself sitting on benches outaide.
Bolo Hauz Mosque looks somewhat different in style than many Bukhara buildings, and although started in 17112, it was only fully completed in 1920 when the beautiful columned iwan was added. Once serving the ruling Emir of Bukhara only, it was bene open to all sonce the Russian Revolution and the foundation ofthe Soviet UNion. This is what you see in most pictures and it was used as a summer mosque.
From there, it was a pretty straigjht walk to the Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum – completely devoid of any tourists now, with the street just flankned by residential houses. I noticed a wonderful smell and watched freshly baked bread being loaded onto bicycles and motorcycles. What a wonderful area, I thought. Add to that the Central MArket that is in the same area, it was definitely worth exploring.
The Chashmai Ayub Mausoleum was almost dwarfed by that huge modern market. But the mausoleum is quite remarkable in that it is one of the oldest structures still standing in Bukhara,, and the legend that Job of the Old Testament struck his staff into the ground here and that resulting spring is has particularly pure and healing water. I didn’t go in and walked through a pleasant green park to Bukhara oldest building.
Excellently preserved, this mausoleum was built in the 10th century as the final resting place of the Samanid dynasty. It is small, simple and perfectly harmonious. Only a group of Koreans visited when I was there – it is probably too far out for most visitors but in my eyes not to be missed as it offers a perfect example on early Central Asian architecture.
Hoja Zayniddin Mosque and Chanaka
If you want to see what a largely unrestored 16th Century Islamic Mosque Complex looks like, it is worth finding this gem. It wasn’t really signposted when I wandered along the main road linking the Ark and the Po-i-Kalyan Complex. I just dove into one of the lanes and wandered in the rough direction of the Mosque, then asked a few people. When I got there it was of course locked. I circled it, looking for an entrance, when some passer-by asked if I would like to see it. I followed him as he produced a key form a communal hiding place and unlocked the doors to the complex.
There are no official opening hours, and with my poor Russian I was unable to find out whether the mosque was still used for worship. My somewhat ancient Central Asia Lonely PLanet gave it a mention, and well, was it worth seeking it out! Pictures don’t do it justice.
A long midday tea break at Silk Road Tea House
Feeling somewhat thirsty and foot-lame after my long walk, I steered towards the touristy Silk Road Tea House.
It is very conveniently located, just off the Toqi Telpak Furushon. It may not look much from the outside, but the spacious interior is all low wooden benches and suzani galore. Unsurprisingly, I was the only guest at around 11am, and ordered the full spread of tea, coffee and sweets for about 5 Euro and sat it out for about two hours, all alone. How I wished some other guests had come! But this not being full tourist season, I tried to savour my solitary experience before moving on.
Looking around the old Jewish Quarter (and not finding very much)
I could say that I at least attempted to walk to the lesser known sights of Bukhara… walking towards the Turk Jandi Mausoleum and not finding it, not finding the Far Synagogue and the bazaar either, and finally winding up at a string of carefully restored courtyard houses including my own hotel. A stiff wind carrying sand had come up, so I picked up my luggage and moved hotels to the much cheaper but no less comfortable Chor Minor Hotel.
Magok-i-Attari Mosque and Carpet Museum
After a little midday siesta, I walked once more to the Lyabi Hauz Square and the unremarkable -looking half-sunken mosque behind it. It is actually one of Central Aaias oldest Mosques, having been built in the 12th Century on the remains of a Buddist and a Zoroastrian temple. At some points in the Middle Ages, it was used both as a mosque and a synagogue. While the buildings age and history are undoubtedly attractive, it is no longer a mosque but a small carpet museum – mostly showcasing some antique carpets.
Hoja Gaukushan Mosque and Madrassah
Last not least – before the sun set, I admired the little plaza and the Hoja Gaukushan Complex behind it right next to the mosque. This is kind of where the touristy district dives way to dusty unpaved streets and residential buildings. It is a pleasant luttle complex surrounding another stone-walled pond, and totally out of the limelight thanks to Bukhara’s larger more ornate architectural ensembles. I wish I’d had a little bit more time to relax in cafes and restaurants, go on longer walks and see a bit more than the “famous” sights, but Uzbekistan is a country I hope to visit on a longer trip – one day!
Two day Bukhara guide: Shopping
Given the choice of a shopping spree, I would choose Bukhara over Samarkand. While on both cities, you will get loads of souvenir shops not always offering quality, Bukhara has some really remarkable shops in its old town. I ambled through bazaars and shops on both days in Bukhara and checked out the offerings, especially looking for quality textiles and jewellery.
Where to shop
There is a lot of purely made for tourist trade, with stalls lining the streets leading to Lyabi Hauz, and, like in Samarkand, souvenir stalls in some of the ancient madrassahs. In fact, the street linking the ancient Toqi Sarrafon Bazaar with its twins, the Toqi Telpak Furushon (capmakers bazaar) and the Toqi Zargaron (jewelers bazaar), is full of small shops, some good, some filled with tourist tat.
Of the three, the Toqi Telpak Furushon is perhaps the most promising. In one corner I found a nice textile and carpet shop called Minzifa Textiles where a friendly English-speaking woman sold quality cotton ikat for abut 6 US-dollars per metre as well as pricier silk ikat and vintage carpets.
The pedestrian street linking the Toqi Telpak Furushon with the Toqi Zargaron is lined with touristic shops and perhaps the best place for browsing. I liked these sweet spice contianers and bread stamps but to be honest, I would not have much use for them.
What really caught my eye was several cutlers shops along that street, some with workshops where you could see knifes and scissors being made. I admit that an embroidery scissors or two came with me.
Right on the same street, the Tim Abdullah Khan had some nice selection of Suzani textiles, carpets and ikat. Of all the ancient bazaars, this is perhaps the least visited and least restored, with stalls arranged in a rahter ramshackle fashion and with a great deal of patina.
And as almost everywhere in the former Soviet Union, you will get your fair share of Soviet-era memorabilia. For those who love Soviet design, the old lapel pins make a nice if somewhat useless souvenir.
I also saw these vintage Soviet era porcelain bowls in a stall outside the Po-i-Kalyon complex. Unfortunately, the pricing was a bit outrageous – about 20 US-Dollars for one of the red bowls. Normally they say a 20% discount is quite normal, and often vendors will offer a few dollars off as soon as you show an interest. Considering I bought a modern Uzbek porcelain tea set and vsarious bowls in the bazaar in Afrosiob Bazaar in Samarkand for 5 Euros, I found these prices a bit inflated.
Special mention if you like quality textiles
Last not least, if you are into textiles, do not miss Feruza’s Ikat Store next to the Toqi Sarrafon.
I found it on a blog somewhere when looking for textiles in Uzbekistan. You can easily find it just between the Lyabi Hauz and the Toqi Sarrafon. The owner and her employees are very knowledgeable and straight about their wares, from very simple cotton ikat to highest quality silk ikat. Most of these fabrics, as Feruza told me, are made in the Margilan Valley, the centre of silk production in Uzbekistan.
Trusting such a recommend seller, I bought a few metres of silk and cotton silk. I wuld say the quality was similar to Minzifa Textiles, with Feruzas ikat store being perhaps a bit stronger on silk designs. I also bought a few metres of a gorgeous vintage machine-made silk from the Soviet era, with a traditional ikat-inspired Uzbek pattern. The silk suits my sewing more as it is a mid-weight drapey fabric suitable for clothing. Specialist textile shops in Bukhara usually sell this kind of fabric in pre-cut lengths, although it is not always obvious and out on display.
Although prices are often given in dollars, it is customary to pay in cash with Uzbek Som but it is also possible to pay in US Dollars or Euros. The exchange rates are published everywhere and I had no issue with cash payments anywhere.
Other things to do
I spent two fairly well-paced days in Bukhara, with some long lunches and tea breaks, owed to the heat, a bit of sand storm on my second day and being on my feet a lot on my brief trip to Uzbekistan.
If I had had more time, I would have loved to explore some of the lesser-known sights of the Jewish Quarter, perhaps trying to find the Far Synagogue and some well-hidden gems mentioned in this blog post. Any time you employ the services of a taxi driver they will try and sell you a trip to the Necropolis of Chor Bakr and Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bokhari Memorial Complex.
Chor Bakr is about 15km west from the centre of Bukhara and a complex of mausoleums and considered a holy site – it is often visited my Uzbek Muslims before making the pilgrimate to Mecca.
Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bokhari Memorial Complex is another Muslim site, consisting of the eponymous mausoleum, a mosque, a madrassah and some pleasant gardens. Khazreti Mohammed Bakhauddin was the founder of the most influential Sufi order of Central Asia and is considered a patron saint of Bukhara. It is quit eeasy to reach by public Bus No.60 which leaved from the Ark.
Where to Stay and Eat
Bukhara has an almost overwhelming choice of small boutique hotels and inns in traditional and sometimes historical buildings. In Bukhara, you have the best choice of atmospheric quality accommodation in Uzbekistan. This is the place to pay a little more for a mid-range beautiful room in an old merchant house, madrassah or caravanserai.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
I wasn’t incredibly lucky with my dining choices. I had dinner at the Minzifa Restaurant and found it excellent – nice atmosphere, friendly service, and a large selection of vegetarian foods. On my second night, I looked around for the elusive Ayvan Restaurant inside Lyabi Hauz hotel, only to find the hotel shuttered up. The photos of the interior look really stunning, and it gets consistently good reviews and it appear to be open again.
For lunch, I visited the Chasmai Mirob Restaurant opposite the Po-i-Kalyon Complex. Apart from great views, the food was ok but the absence of a menu put me off. I also went to the Silk Road Tea House in search of a good coffee, as they’re hard to come by on Uzbekistan. Because you pay per person, it seems rather pricey at first, but linger there for an hour or two and enjoy the shade, I thought it was wort the price, and the tea and coffee were very good (while the sweets were meh).
Yeah – not a lot of restaurants for two days, especially for someone who loves to eat! I didn’t expect Uzbekistan to be a culinary highlight of my travel career, and it wasn’t, especially since vegetarian food is a bit hard to come by. I might have just stocked up on the excellent nan bread and snacks and spent the extra money on fabric…
When to travel
It was beautiful and balmy in March, with very few tourists about- in my eyes, the best time to travel to Uzbekistan. Most hotels were already operating but some restaurants were not. Nights were a bit chilly but since there is not too much in the way of nightlife in both Samarkand and Bukhara, it did not bother me. Also, the Soviet-style heating was reliable in most of my accommodations, including those mentioned here, and kept me toasty. The sun rises before 7.00 and sets after 18.00 which allows for plenty of time to explore.
Generally, October into November might be the best time to visit as it is similarly shoulder season with the added benefit of a lot of fresh seasonal produce – important if you are a vegetarian and rely on fresh veggies… I saw a lot of pickles and apples in the local markets and not so much else. As a country that produces most of its food, the Uzbek menu is very seasonal.
Getting around and what to bring
Old Bukhara is small enough to explore on foot, but there are plenty of taxis about – just expect to negotiate a price before getting in.
I also recommend wearing modest clothing as Uzbekistan has a Muslim majority and is relatively conservative compared to Europe. Also, most attractions are mosques and madrassahs so it is a matter of respect to dress appropriately and cover shoulders and arms. Head coverings are usually not required except in the holiest of places like some shrines – I watched what the locals did and covered my head where necessary. What I really loved was the safety – even as a lone woman, I had no issues walking around after dark. I spoke to many locals who wanted to practice their English including a group of men who were acting appropriate respectful at all times.
A little Russian will help especially when negotiating prices but the old pen and paper will do a great job too.
Here’s my practical travel advice post on Uzbekistan, with tips on immigration, travel within the country, money and other practical stuff. I wrote about Samarkand, including a detailed visit of the Registan and Bibi Khanym Mosque here and about ,y second day in Samarkand which included visits to the Ulugbek Observatory, Shah-i-Zinda, Afrosiyob BAzaar and Gur Emir Mausoleum here. If you need to know anything else, please ask me. Likewise, please let me know oif anything else should be included in this two day Bukhara guide.
The Small Print
I visited Uzbekistan in March 2019 on an independent solo trip I planned and paid for myself. I wrote this two day Bukhara guide without any financial rewards from anyone mentioned in this post. This was obviously prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, so different entry rules apply at the time of writing. Please check with the appropriate authority whether you may enter Uzbekistan from your home country at present and whether tourist facilities are operating.
This post contains some affiliate links to Booking.com. This means I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you if you book your accommodation through these links in my two day Bukhara guide. If you would like to know more about where to stay and what to do, please feel free to ask me.