Bukhara, Uzbekistan, is an inhabited museum of a city, resplendent with impressive architecture spanning many periods. It's not as compact and easy to explore as Khiva, and its monuments aren't as gigantic and colorful as those in Samarkand, but in our opinion Bukhara is the most fascinating Silk Road city in Uzbekistan.
At the heart of the city are the Kalyan Mosque and the Mir-i-Arab Madrasa, whose intricately decorated portals face one another across a broad square—it's ground zero for busloads of tourists and hawkers. With a capacity of around 10,000 worshippers, the Kalyan Mosque is one of the largest mosques in Central Asia. But even it is towered over by the Kalyan Minaret with its bands of decorative brickwork—the height of the tower is said to have impressed Genghis Khan, no less. Take time to walk around the mosque's courtyard and arcaded galleries, then head up to the roof where there's an entrance to the minaret. The climb up the narrow circular stairway is not easy, but you'll be rewarded with good views. The Mir-i-Arab Madrasa is one of the most prestigious Islamic colleges in the country, but it's generally not open to tourists.
Throughout Bukhara, you'll notice that monuments are often arranged in pairs, called a kosh. This not only creates a nice visual space; its two-for-one offering also makes sightseeing easier. Just east of the Kalyan Mosque is one of these ensembles. The Ulug Bek Madrasa is one of the oldest theological colleges in the country (one of three commissioned by Ulug Bek, Tamerlane's grandson). Opposite it, the Abdul Aziz Khan was the last of the large madrassas built in Bukhara.
The social heart of the city is the Laub-i-Hauz, a large pool lined with very old mulberry trees—it's about a 15-minute walk southeast of the Kalyan Mosque. The Laub-i-Hauz is a great spot to take a break from sightseeing and simply people-watch. The several chaikhana (teahouses) next to the pool are also a popular spot for a drink or a meal. The area is especially romantic in the evening when the pool's lights and fountains are turned on and music is pumped out of the speakers.
On opposite ends of the pool are a khanaga (a guest house for pilgrims) and a madrassa, both named for Nadir Divanbegi. Take note of the madrassa's portal with its unusual images of herons and a sun with a human face. Vendors set up shop in the courtyard and interior of both buildings. Just north of the pool is the Kukeldash Madrasa, a large theological college. South of the Laub-i-Hauz is the Jewish Quarter. Stroll through the neighborhood and past the synagogue if you have time.
The Ark, the citadel on the western edge of the old city that was the fortified residence of Bukhara's rulers, is really more impressive from the outside—especially the entrance gate—than it is on the inside, where you can see some of the fortress rooms. Across the street, through a tree-shaded square, is the Bolo Hauz Mosque. Though not completely restored, it has intricately carved wooden columns and a brightly painted ceiling. About a 10-minute walk away is the Ismael Samani Mausoleum, the oldest surviving building in Bukhara. It has beautiful, decorative brickwork—tile-covered facades had not yet come into fashion when it was built.
The list of notable buildings in Bukhara goes on and on, but the best advice we can give is this: After you've seen the highlights, stroll the streets and explore at your own pace. When you feel like you've seen all the madrassas you care to see, take a break at the Laub-i-Hauz and soak in the atmosphere. But if you still have time and energy, make your way to the Balyand Mosque, which is in a quiet residential neighborhood southwest of the old city. It's a nice example of a smaller district mosque.
Plan to spend more time in Bukhara than any other city in Uzbekistan—we suggest three days. Bukhara is 135 mi/220 km west of Samarkand.
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