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Ceiling Detail, Gur Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

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Samarkand City Tour

Unlike Bukhara, where walking from sight to sight is possible, Samarkand's attractions are spread right across the city. Starting in the centre, the Mosque of Bibi Khanym dominates the skyline. It was once the biggest mosque in the world and has been partially rebuilt with UNESCO help.

Samarkand City Tour, Uzbekistan

Unlike Bukhara, where walking from sight to sight is possible, Samarkand's attractions are spread right across the city.

Starting in the centre, the Mosque of Bibi Khanym dominates the skyline. It was once the biggest mosque in the world and has been partially rebuilt with UNESCO help. Inside is an enormous Koran stand, under which women yearning for lots of children are reputed to crawl, seeking heavenly help.

Not far away from here, set back from the street, is the Registan Square. It is indescribably beautiful, a monument to majesty covered in majolica tiles of awesome complexity and craftsmanship. The square is made up of three buildings, one of which dates back to the early 15th century. High up on the facade of the Sher Lion Medressa are two giant lions - though the artists had clearly never seen any before - flouting, in a very public way, Islamic doctrine on the depiction of live animals.

About 1km West is Gur Emir, the mausoleum of Tamerlane. The atmospheric interior is covered in golden tiles with inscriptions proclaiming the status of the occupant. The large slab of jade that marks the tyrant's tomb is, by convention, simply a headstone, with the body buried in a separate chamber below.

Heading East you come to the Old Town with its tangled alleyways and hidden courtyards. Extending along the northern side of the Old Town is the Shahr-i-Zindah, one of the city's main cemeteries. Standing on either side of a preserved medieval street here are some exquisite mausoleums, with majolica patterns and colours that are quite distinct from anything else in the country.

Traveling along the Tashkent road out of town you come to Samarkand's best archaeological sight - Marakanda. This was the city that the Macedonians conquered more than 2000 years ago and is now an open archaeological dig, occasionally used as goat pasture by local shepherds. To the north lie the tomb of Daniel - he of the lion's den - and, a little further away, the Ulughbek observatory, the remains of a massive astrolab used to determine the precise position of the stars.

The Russian part of town offers little to most visitors apart from a pretty 100 year old cathedral built by Polish prisoners of war. On Sundays there are services held here that make for an interesting and moving visit. Also on Sundays it is possible to see Samarkand's excellent bazaar, one of the best in Central Asia. The market is almost entirely for domestic consumption and those things that tourists might be tempted to buy - carpets for example - are of better quality elsewhere.

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In & Around Samarkand