IMG_8823.jpg

Hello

This is Alan, the author of the blog “Trails to Culture”. Follow me on the trails to discover the heritage and cultures of the world in style!

Top-7 things to do in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Top-7 things to do in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bukhara is listed in the UNESCO heritage for being one of the best preserved medieval city in Central Asia. Similar to Samarkand, it used to be a major trading place on the ancient Silk Roads. Wandering in the narrow lanes of the old town, we found amazing madrasas and mosques topped by turquoise domes. The compact old town is easy to visit by foot. It is also a place to discover handicrafts and taste plov, the Uzbek national dish. Discover our top-7 places to discover in Bukhara.


1- The Kalyan minaret

The minaret is part of the Po-i-Kalyan complex, which describes the 3 Islamic religious buildings in the center of the ancient town. The minaret stands between the mosque and the madrasa (Coranic school).

We recommend to visit early morning or late afternoon when the sun reflection emphasizes the beige bricks and the turquoise domes.

The Kalyan minaret culminates at 45 meters

The Kalyan minaret culminates at 45 meters

What we appreciated is that the place was not crowded with tourists. Therefore we could enjoy the whole complex for ourselves while visiting in a high-season (Springs).

The Kalyan minaret made of beige bricks reaches a height of 45 meters. It not only served the usual function of a minaret to call believers to prayer; it was also a tower indicating the location of the city to traders on the Silk Roads.

Bukhara was indeed a major point on this network of trading routes running from present China and India until Constantinople (present day Istanbul) via the Middle East and Central Asia.

When he conquered the city in the 13th century, Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan destroyed all religious buildings but saved this minaret.

Indeed, he was so impressed by its size that he could not dare bringing it down. In the 16th century, the Persianized dynasty of the Shaybanid who ruled the Khanate of Bhukara added the current mosque and the madrasa.

The Kalyan minaret and madrasa seen from the Ark fortress

The Kalyan minaret and madrasa seen from the Ark fortress

2- The Po-i-Kalyan mosque

The mosque is located next to the minaret and face the madrasa. It is topped by a giant dome made of turquoise tiles. You can actually best see it from outside the mosque.

We entered inside the mosque for a small fee and were surprised by the dimensions of the inner courtyard.

The dome of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque glowing under the sun

The dome of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque glowing under the sun

The inner courtyard of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque with the domes of the madrasa in the background

The inner courtyard of the Po-i-Kalyan mosque with the domes of the madrasa in the background

The side galleries organized around the courtyard are a succession of domes supported by columns. It is interesting to wander between the columns and a good place to take pictures.

The galleries around the courtyard of the mosque

The galleries around the courtyard of the mosque

When he built the mosque, the Shaybanid ruler of Bukhara wanted a monument rivaling in size with the Bibi Khanym mosque of Samarkand built under Amir Timur (Tamerlan) two centuries before. You can read more about the Bibi Khanym mosque in our article about Samarkand.

The Shaybanid conquered Samarkand and Bhukara in the early 16th century. By doing so, they actually ended the dynasty created by Amir Timur.

Interestingly, both dynasties claimed to be direct descendants from the mighty Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan from different branches.

Later on, the Muslim dynasty of the Moguls ruling India for centuries will claim direct descent from Amir Timur and Genghis Khan (hence the name Mogul derived from “Mongols”).

3- The Mir-i-Arab madrasa

After the mosque, we visited the Islamic school called Mir-i-Arab madrasa. It was also built under the Shaybanid dynasty in the 16th century with the money acquired from trading slaves.

Actually, it is not possible to enter inside the madrasa courtyard because it is still an active theological school.

The iwan (vaulted entrance portal) of the madrasa surrounded by giant turquoise domes

The iwan (vaulted entrance portal) of the madrasa surrounded by giant turquoise domes

We could still get a sneak peak inside from the gates. It was not a big deal since the best part is to observe the building from outside.

The giant Iwan, a vaulted entrance hall, is sided by two giant domes made of turquoise tiles. An iwan is typical in the Persian architecture and you will see them in lot of countries such as Iran or Uzbekistan.

The facade of the iwan is richly decorated with colorful mosaics and Arabic calligraphy.

The Russian Soviet government and now the Uzbek authorities did an amazing job at restoring these architectural wonders. Let’s remember that there were almost in decay one century ago.Earthquakes and the passing of time almost destroyed the complex.

The Mir-i-Arab madrasa is still serving as a theological school

The Mir-i-Arab madrasa is still serving as a theological school

View on the madrasa from behind the doors of the mosque

View on the madrasa from behind the doors of the mosque

Finally, if you want to have an amazing view of this complex, our secret tip is to go to the nearby Ark fortress.

There, you can tip an employee to let you access the ruins of the fortress, which are normally close for visitors. It costs a small fee and it is definitely worth it.

You have to know that part of this fortress was bombed by the Russian planes when they invaded the city in 1920 and later transformed the whole area into a Sovietic Republic.

Today, this bombarded section is a desert no-man’s land made. From this elevated terrain, the panoramic view on the Po-i Kalyan complex and the old town is fantastic, especially at the end of the afternoon.

The Po-i-Kalyan complex from the ruins of the Ark fortress

The Po-i-Kalyan complex from the ruins of the Ark fortress

At that time, all beige facades turn gold and the blue domes start glowing. It definitely makes you feel going back in time on the Silk Roads.

4- The Bolo-Hauz mosque

This mosque dating from the 18th century is located close to the Ark fortress. It is a UNESCO Heritage site.

It is interesting because of the unique architecture of its entrance hall. Indeed, this open-air hall is supported by 20 huge wooden pillars measuring 20 meters each.

The entrance hall of Bolo-Hauz mosque with the reflecting pond

The entrance hall of Bolo-Hauz mosque with the reflecting pond

In front of the mosque, there is a large pond reflecting the mosque and the pillars in the water. Actually, the name Bolo-Hauz literally means “near the pond”.

To note, Russians closed a lot of similar ponds in the old town when they conquered present day Uzbekistan. The reason is that these ponds were nests for water-bone diseases.

The last Emir of Bukhara in the early 20th century was visiting this holy place for his Friday prayers from his residence, the nearby Ark fortress.

The wooden pillars with their colorful muqarnas at the top

The wooden pillars with their colorful muqarnas at the top

If you examine the wooden pillars, they are decorated with colorful muqarnas at the top. Muqarnas are a form of ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture, also called “honeycomb” vaulting.

The honeycomb vaulting on the pillar and ceiling are called muqarnas

The honeycomb vaulting on the pillar and ceiling are called muqarnas

We were also impressed by the wooden ceiling with the colorful woodwork and paintings. We entered the indoor part of the mosque, which was kind of small inside and not as memorable as the entrance hall.

The mosque is a UNESCO Heritage site

The mosque is a UNESCO Heritage site

Fantastic carvings at the base of the wooden pillars

Fantastic carvings at the base of the wooden pillars

The last Emir of Bukhara visited this mosque every week

The last Emir of Bukhara visited this mosque every week

5- Eating homemade Plov with locals

We had he chance to live a unique experience by having several meals at the house of the family of Rhustam, a young resident of Bukhara speaking spotless English.

Beyond the excellent local dishes cooked by the mom, we really enjoyed spending time in the traditional family house and discussing with the son and dad about many topics.

Enjoying homemade Plov in a family-owned restaurant

Enjoying homemade Plov in a family-owned restaurant

Before that, most of our meals were chachliks, the local meat skewers. A change of culinary scenery was appreciated.

We found out the address online and were guided by a staff member of our hotel to the house located centrally close to the Liabi Hauz square. It was only a 5 minutes walk but the old-town streets form a complex maze.

We ringed at the door and were greeted by Rhustam. After crossing the inner courtyard, we entered inside the dining room. It is a beautiful, airy and authentic room with a high wooden ceiling.

The immaculate white walls are decorated with local objects including pots, Suzani carpets, daggers and other items.

The traditional decoration inside Rhustam House restaurant

The traditional decoration inside Rhustam House restaurant

I can particularly remember the Plov we had there, which is the national dish of Uzbekistan.

It is cooked in a cauldron and consists of rice, meat (often lamb), grated carrots and onions. Raisins or chickpeas are often added in the mix. We ate this wonderful Plov before our train journey back to Tashkent and the taste was amazing.

Homemade Plov, the Uzbek national dish

Homemade Plov, the Uzbek national dish

As said before, we loved to openly talk with the dad and the son. We had a great chat about the history of Bukhara and the dad showed us their family photo album. He shared with us how life was back in Soviet times and seemed to miss part of it.

During 3 days in Bukhara, we repeated this restaurant several times and did not regret. Everything tasted authentic.

We advise you to book it in advance as the place is quite small. They serve three-course meals with a possibility to order Uzbek wine. The red one was good, but I did not like the white one so much.

Another advantage is that the place provides a good break from the heat and agitation of the old town.

6- Browsing for handicrafts in the trading domes

In the old town, there are 3 old trading domes that used to be specialized in selling specific items.

Nowadays, they are diversified and you can find all kinds of crafts. They are located close to the popular Lyab-i Hauz square. This square is easy to spot with its central pond surrounded by small madrasas.

At night, locals come there to sit and have a drink.

An ancient trading dome (on the right side)

An ancient trading dome (on the right side)

Today, it is a nice experience to wander from dome to dome and browse for suzani (embroidered textiles), spices and silk scarves.

On the way, you can watch a blacksmith working hard his iron. When we visited, there was a local festival and women in traditional dresses were dancing inside a dome to the sound of drums played by men.

Colorful spices in the trading domes of Bhukara

Colorful spices in the trading domes of Bhukara

Local women performing dances inside a trading dome

Local women performing dances inside a trading dome

On the street linking two domes, we found a shop selling handmade glazed ceramic painted in rich colors, mainly blue and turquoise with touches of green, yellow or red.

This handicraft comes from Rishtan, a city in the Ferghana Valley on the other side of the country.

This art is famous worldwide and has existed for 800 years. Craftsmen use red clay and natural pigments made of ashes from plants to produce all types of vessels including bowls, jugs and plates.

We purchased several big and small bowls and do not regret it. It is possible to negotiate prices, but we talk about high-quality handmade items, not cheap touristy souvenirs.

We ended up spending around 80$ for a selection of large bowls, plates and tea cups.

Beautiful colorful ceramics from Rishtan

Beautiful colorful ceramics from Rishtan

7- Going on top of the cute Chor Minor

The Chor Minor is a small building but very worth a short visit for its original architecture and photogenic appeal.

It was built in the 19th century by a wealthy carpet and horse trader. Its function is not clear but it was likely part of a madrasa (Coranic school).

The 4 towers topped by turquoise domes are not minarets as the name suggests (“minor” means minaret) because 3 of them served as storage spaces.

The Chor Minor and its 4 iconic towers

The Chor Minor and its 4 iconic towers

The Chor Minor is located in a residential area a bit a way from the main landmarks. it took us 10 minutes by foot to reach it from the “central” area of Lyab-i-Hauz, this central square with the pond. We found our way by asking directions to locals.

When I saw the Chor Minor, I realized that it was much smaller that what I was expecting. It looked quite big on the front cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook. We entered the building, which has been transformed into a souvenir shop.

The woman owner demanded a fee to let us climb on top of the roof. I negotiated a bit and it was fine.

We went up the narrow staircase to reach the roof. There you can see the 4 small domes from close range. Each one has its own decorative motives. Being there was also an opportunity to watch the panorama over the roofs of the old town with the Kalyan minaret and the blue domes of the madrasa and mosque in the horizon.

Some towers of Chor Minor were used as storage spaces

Some towers of Chor Minor were used as storage spaces

View on the tower of Chor Minor from the roof

View on the tower of Chor Minor from the roof

Chor Minor is small but still interesting because of its unique architecture. It took us maximum 15 minutes on the site but we did not regret going. To note, it is a UNESCO-protected site.

The view on the old town from the roof of Chor Minor

The view on the old town from the roof of Chor Minor

Recap of our addresses

Hotel: Minzifa Boutique Hotel (centrally located, simple but authentic architecture) / page on Trip Advisor (no website)

Restaurant: Rhustam National House / page on Trip Advisor (no website)

How to go there?

Train: we booked tickets on the modern Afrosiyob high-speed train from Samarkand (1,5 hour journey) via the travel agency Stan Tours / www.stantours.com. To know more about using trains in Uzbekistan, you can read our Guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan.

A complete guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan

A complete guide for a first trip in Uzbekistan

What to visit in Samarkand in 2 days (Uzbekistan)

What to visit in Samarkand in 2 days (Uzbekistan)