Once closed off to tourists, the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan is now actively welcoming international travellers.
Sat at the heart of the fabled Silk Road, the ancient trading route between China, the Middle East and Europe, the landlocked country offers tourists a unique blend of the old and the new, as well as many eco and agrotourism opportunities.
“The rise of Uzbekistan as a tourism destination started with the change of leadership,” explains Ulugbek Azamov, First Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism.
“Our new president has liberalised the country, which became especially obvious in the tourism sector when the visa regime was liberalised.”
Do I need a visa to visit Uzbekistan?
Now, 93 countries - including all EU member states and UK citizens- can travel to Uzbekistan visa-free, while over 50 countries can visit with an electronic visa. This relaxation of travel rules has seen tourism grow in recent years, with visitor numbers peaking at 6.7 million in 2019.
The pandemic set tourism back globally, but this year Uzbekistan is hoping to exceed its pre-pandemic numbers with an estimated 7 million international tourists expected.
Whether you want to visit the theatres and museums of the modern capital of Tashkent, or the ancient mosques and minarets of the Islamic city of Bukhara, the country has a distinct history, which until recently was out of reach to many travellers.
“We always had this potential,” says Azamov. “We have UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Shakhrisabz and we did not utilise our potential, now we are utilising it.”
So if you want to get to know this sprawling Central Asian country, where should you start?
“Uzbekistan has quite a lot to offer, both for the niche tourist and the tourist that is looking for a unique experience,” explains Azamov. From the paper crafts of Samarkand to the ancient Islamic city of Bukhara, here are some of our top things to see and do in Uzbekistan.
What are the best things to do in Samarkand?
Known as the ‘Crossroad of Cultures’ due to its location between the Middle East and East Asia, the city of Samarkand is the perfect place to start your Uzbek adventure. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, with its roots dating back to the 6th century BC. Home to the monumental Registan mosque, one of the most recognised mosques in the world, the city is considered the gateway to Uzbekistan.
Learn about Uzbekistan’s ancient paper tradition
Uzbekistan has been milling its own paper since the 8th century after the country learnt the secrets of papermaking from invading Chinese soldiers.
The story goes that the ruler of Samarkand defeated invading Chinese troops, capturing many soldiers in the process. In order to save themselves, some of the soldiers revealed the secrets of paper production and Samarkand then became a hub for this ancient craft, producing paper from silk and the bark of the mulberry tree.
While papermaking was lost in Samarkand for many centuries, its fortunes were revived in the 20th century and you can now visit the Meros Paper mill in the city.
Bukhara: Take a tour of this ancient Islamic city
One of the most ancient places in Uzbekistan, the city of Bukhara dates back over 2,500 years and sits at the heart of Islamic culture in the country. Packed full of mosques, madrassa and the epic Kalon minaret, some of the architecture here dates back over 1,000 years.
Other local attractions include Hammam Bozori Kord, one of the oldest functioning bathhouses in the world, a perfect place to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
Ugam-Chatkal National Park: See snow leopards and red foxes in the wild
While tourism and flight numbers are growing in Uzbekistan, the country is keen to shine a light on its ecotourism potential too. The rambling Ugam-Chatkal National Park in the far north east of the country is a must-visit for hikers, with rare flora and fauna and mammals including snow leopards and red foxes known to inhabit the area.
The area around Mount Chatkal is a UNESCO biosphere reserve and you can find ancient drawings here too, dating back to 1000-2000 BC.
Uzbekistan’s food culture is full of delicious treats
If you want to get to know a culture, try its food. In Uzbekistan that means meat cooked over charcoal, tandoor kebabs, pilafs and a huge selection of fresh and dried fruits and nuts.
Make sure to try some traditional Uzbek breads too, such as ‘non’, a round, dense loaf, baked in a clay oven.
Wine production in the region dates back over 6,000 years and there are a number of wineries for tourists to visit too, particularly around Samarkand and Tashkent.