Samarqand is the most impressive city in Uzbekistan. Indeed, with gargantuan mosques, ornate mausoleums, tree-lined streets, and sprawling parks, it is one of the most impressive cities anywhere. Yet, it was my least favorite city in Uzbekistan, mainly because it is spread out and quite challenging to visit in comparison to Khiva and Bukhara.
Samarqand is two towns in one. All the incredible Islamic architecture, museums, and photogenic mud-brick homes are in the old section. So are all the over-priced and mediocre restaurants.
Over in Russia town, an area of grand European buildings, sprawling parks, and wide avenues, a place more like St. Petersburg than Central Asia, is where all the good restaurants and lively bars live. Visitors are faced with a dilemma: stay near the sights and trek for food or stay near the nightlife and travel to the sights.
We stayed in the old town, a short walk from the mighty Registan. There was a dearth of places to eat in our area, but we found a local joint that seemed busy and popular. We talked to the owner, telling him my wife is a vegetarian, and he seemed to understand. Then he brought her a vegetable soup – with two giant meatballs floating in it. She looked at her bowl, scooped up the weighty meat pies in her spoon, and plopped them on my plate. Problem solved.
The next two nights we journeyed to Russia town and ate at some great restaurants more accustomed to those strange and peculiar non-carnivores, and visited some lively bars and cafes. On the way back, we had to haggle with unscrupulous taxi drivers or try and waddle home full of rich Uzbek food.
For me, staying in the old town was worth it. Every morning, I awoke before sunrise and went on a walk. I visited the market early in the morning as hard-working men and women set up for the day, and photographed the Registan and Bibi-Khanym Mosque at first light. Since most tourists were asleep in their hotels or having breakfast in Russia town, I had Uzbekistan’s most impressive city all to myself.
Up next: Is Uzbekistan the Next Great Travel Destination?