Tashkent is the gateway to Uzbekistan and the Central Asian Silk Road. Even though it is the country’s capital, Tashkent is often overlooked in favour of Uzbekistan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Those who take a day to explore the city, however, will be richly rewarded.
Much of what you see today in Tashkent – which means “Stone City” – was built after the catastrophic 1966 earthquake, but there has been a settlement at this strategically important Silk Road crossroads for at least 2,500 years. The Uzbek capital may lack the historic grandeur of Bukhara or Samarkand, but visitors to Tashkent can expect to discover traditional crafts, awe-inspiring Soviet architecture and local culinary delicacies.
Breakfast at Breadly
Uzbekistan is predominantly a tea-drinking nation, but coffee culture is catching on, and Breadly has the best brews. Most international flights to Tashkent arrive early in the morning, so come here straight from the airport to get your caffeine fix and be ready to face the day. An English-language menu and Wi-Fi are provided.
Find creative inspiration
The Applied Arts Museum showcases the very finest arts and craftsmanship of Uzbekistan. Set in an exquisitely decorated house dating from the early 1900s and built originally as the official residence of the Imperial Russian diplomat Alexander Polovtsev, the museum’s rooms are each dedicated to a different craft. Guides will explain how the carpets, tiles, plasterwork and wood carvings are made, as well as the symbolism of motifs in the suzani embroideries. Given that so many of Uzbekistan’s cultural treasures are decorative, it is well worth starting your tour at the museum as it helps to put everything you see later into context. The building itself – decorated with intricate carvings and a vibrant colour scheme – really is as much of an attraction as the applied arts on display in the galleries.
There is a shop at the Applied Arts Museum, but don’t buy your souvenirs here – you’ll have a wider selection and better prices elsewhere.
Stretch your legs at Tashkent Ecopark
Tashkent is becoming greener, with city authorities prioritising the development of public spaces. One such notable public space is Ecopark, which opened in 2012 and features a lake, skatepark, playgrounds and a couple of art studios. “Near the entrance of the Ecopark is Shashleek, a small café,” explains Dinara Dultaeva of Visit Uzbekistan magazine. “Its qiyma (kebabs made from minced beef) are the best in Tashkent, so it is a cheap and tasty place to stop for lunch.”
Before you eat, spend half an hour or so wandering around the park – there are footpaths around the lake – to build up your appetite. The park is at its most attractive in the spring and autumn; in the height of summer, it is better to come first thing in the morning while the air is still pleasantly cool.
Discover Tashkent’s subterranean art gallery
The Tashkent Metro is an engineering and artistic marvel. Each of the stations is decorated in a different style: from Alisher Navoiy, which resembles a mosque, to Kosmonavtlar, which is dedicated to the Soviet space programme. Pakhtakor station is doubly significant: its design celebrates Uzbekistan’s cotton crop, but it also commemorates the lives of the Pakhtakor football team who tragically lost their lives in a Soviet-era air crash.
A ticket for the Tashkent Metro costs less than £0.12 and you can get on and off at as many stations on the network as you like. The official ban on photography was lifted in summer 2018; so, as long as you don’t get in the way of commuters, you can now snap away to your heart’s content.
Check out Tashkent’s coolest designers
Human House is a shop-gallery-café with a splendid selection of Uzbek arts and crafts. UK travel blogger Pip and the City is a massive fan: “With brightly coloured, handmade handbags and shoes made by locals and owner Lola Saifi, Human House is a little slice of hipster heaven in the capital. Prices here are higher than on the market stalls, but you can be assured of high quality and longevity at this offbeat store,” says Pip.
There are often temporary exhibitions, talks, film screenings and workshops at Human House, so it is a good place to meet the movers and shakers of Uzbekistan’s cultural scene, as well as to browse for souvenirs and gifts. If you fancy a light post-shopping snack, climb the staircase to the upstairs terrace for pastries and a pot of tea.
Dress up for top-notch drama and dance
Tashkent’s Alisher Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre is one of the most elegant buildings in the city. It was designed by Alexey Shchusev (the same architect responsible for Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, Moscow), and was built by Japanese prisoners of war in the mid-1940s. Recently restored, the chandeliers and murals are back to their original glory, and the national ballet and opera companies put on world-class performances. The cheapest tickets cost just a few dollars.
You don’t have to dress up for the opera, but many audience members like to have the excuse. And with a glass of champagne at intermission, watching Onegin, Swan Lake or another such classic production is an unforgettable way to celebrate being in Tashkent.
Party in pan-Central Asian splendour
Tashkent restaurants are often open late, so you will have no trouble finding somewhere to eat after the theatre. One of the most exciting, experience-led restaurants in the city is the recent opening of Khanstvo Manas, which evokes the spirit of the Silk Road and Central Asia’s nomadic cultures.
“At Khanstvo Manas, we want to introduce all five of your senses to Central Asia,” says co-founder Sadam Matchanov. “Touch the handmade crafts, see the architecture and artists at work, taste and smell the food, and listen to the national instruments and music of the region.”
In the summer months, pre-book a table outside by the river; in winter, it is much cosier to be inside the yurt with a roaring fire in the centre. Traditional musicians share the stage with Tashkent’s best DJs, so the soundtrack is just as much about experimentation and intercultural fusion as the food.