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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.