The Best Things to do in Khiva: Uzbekistan’s desert city
This post is a travel guide about the best things to do in Khiva. Khiva was everything I had imagined from an ancient silk road city. Within the mudbrick walls of the old town is an impressive amount of history on display with mosques, madrassah’s, caravanserais and shrines.
Khiva reminded me a bit of the desert cities of Yazd and Kashan in Iran. They all played an equally important role on the Silk road and are also full of historical Islamic architecture. Although Khiva isn’t a big city there are a lot of things to do in Khiva for its small size.
A short history of Khiva
If you like history, you will have plenty of things to do in Khiva, because it is old. At least the 10th century, although some believe that people were already living here before. The city saw many invaders and wars destroy it. The Arabs, Genghis Khan, Timur and the Soviets all wanted their part of Khiva.
Khiva was an important trading post in the Kyzyl kum desert of Karakalpakstan. On the Silk Road it was most famous for its slave trade. Captives were brought and sold in the market of Khiva along with carpets, pottery, spices and tea. Caravans of camels came through the city every day and it also became a center of Islamic art and architecture.
What you see now in Khiva is mostly built in the 18th and 19th century and was restored by the Soviets in the seventies. This might surprise you, because Khiva still feels much older and simply breathes history.
Why visit Khiva
Khiva’s old town is extremely scenic with carefully renovated mudbrick structures. Maybe it is even so well restored that it feels unreal at times. It seems to be a trend in Uzbekistan where you wonder if it really was like that or whether you are looking at an actual new building. A building that represents an imagination of how it could have been, but then even a bit better than that.
No doubt, Khiva feels like a journey back in time, if it wasn’t for the tourgroups that invade the city every day. And that alone is a reason you should stay in Khiva, rather than visit it on a day trip.
Khiva is a completely different city once the sun sets. This is when it’s magic comes alive and you are one of the few people left to witness it. At this time of the day, it is not hard to imagine what the city was like in its glory days on the Silk road. You would almost expect the traders to turn around the corner with their camels loaded with carpets, spices and tea.
Khiva is a long way from Tashkent and some people decide to skip Khiva entirely. I absolutely loved it and would recommend you to add Khiva to your Uzbekistan itinerary. If the amount of things to do in Khiva and its fairytale scenery hasn’t convinced you yet, maybe this post will.
The best things to do in Khiva
Most, if not all the things to do in Khiva, are inside the walls of the compact old town, also called Itchan Khala.
There are 4 entrance gates to enter the old town, but the official entrance is at the western gate. This is where you can buy, and will be asked, to buy a two day entrance ticket that allows you to visit most museums and buildings of the old town. It costs 150, 000 som including the minarets and 100,000 som without the minarets (as of april 2019).
Insider tip: Almost every building in the old town has some kind of museum. Most of them are really not that special. If you only want to wander the streets of the old town without going inside anywhere, enter through a different gate. At the western gate they still ask you to pay 50,000 som just to get inside.
In my opinion only Kuhna’s arc and the Tash Hovli palace make it worth it to buy at least the museum ticket. Else you don’t miss much. There is also no need to pay the 150,000 ticket that includes the minarets, unless you really want to climb all of them. The Islam Hoja minaret is the most beautiful one and you can pay the 10,000 som entrance seperately which turns out cheaper.
Walk on top of the northwestern wall
The old town of Khiva is surrounded by thick mudbrick walls with four entrance gates. They are pretty impressive. At the northern gate you can actually climb on top of the wall and walk along the northwestern part.
The old town is just as scenic from above as it is when you wander through its streets. There are many beautiful places to see the sun set in Khiva, but this is definitely one of them and it is absolutely free.
Kuhna Ark and the watch tower
Kuhna’s arc was the residence of the Khivan rulers as early as the 12th century. However, most of the buildings date from the 17th century when the Khivan kings expanded it with a mosque, a harem and a jail.
Some ornamented tile work is left in the mosque and the throne room where the kings handed out brutal punishments.
Don’t miss the beautiful view over Khiva from the watch tower, especially if you want to save yourself the scary climbs inside the minarets.
Kalta minor minaret
In 1852 Muhammad Amin Khan, the leader of Khorezm, wanted to build the tallest and most beautiful minaret in Central Asia. Construction started, but 3 years later Muhammad Amin Khan was killed when the minaret was only 26 meters high. It was never finished and ironically it is now called the Kalta Kalta minaret or short minaret.
Muhammad Amin Khan did not succeed in building the tallest minaret, but with its blue and green tile decorations it certainly did become the most beautiful minaret in Khiva and an iconic symbol of the city.
Pahlavon Mahmud mausoleum
The Pahlavon Mahmud mausoleum might be small, but it is in my opinion the most beautiful building in the old town.
It’s still an active place of worship for local people. The imam acknowledges everyone that enters and will recite a part of the quran in the name of every visitor. You can sit here for hours listening to the imam’s recitations while the pilgrims are praying, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
Pahlavan is the man it is all about. He was a lot of things from poet, doctor, philosopher to wrestler. People believe he had mystical powers and defended the poor. He is considered a saint in this region and the pahlavon mausoleum is a pilgrimage spot for people from all over Uzbekistan.
The Pahlavan mausoleum is not included in the museum ticket, but it is definitely worth the seperate entrance fee you need to pay.
Islam Hoja minaret
The Islam Hoja minaret is 45 meters tall. The good news is that you can climb this minaret for a beautiful view over the city. The bad news is that this is not for the faint hearted.
The entrance fee you have to pay is certainly not invested in safety measures. The steps are narrow, it is dark and in the summer it is very hot. Be prepared to be creative if people are coming from the opposite direction. The views are beautiful, but be prepared for a scary and sweaty climb.
Juma mosque is one of the oldest mosques in Khiva. The main chamber has more than 200 collumns, some as old as the tenth century.
During the day it is often crowded with tour groups. To really appreciate the beauty of this mosque come early.
Tosh hovli palace
The heavily ornamented Tosh Hovli palace was the summer residence of the kings in Khiva. Tosh Hovli means stone court, because the palace was not built from the usual clay stones, but from stone hard bricks.
Inside it is all blue tiles and decorations that make it a must visit in the old town.
Allakuli Khan madrassa & bazaar
The Alla Khuli Khan madrassah was the largest madrassah in Khiva with an extensive library.
Alla Khuli Khan also started the construction of a bazaar and caravan serai in the same area that is now occupied by souvenir shops.
Walk through the former slave market
Khiva might look like a fairytale city, but there is a dark side to its history. On the silk road it was most famous for its slave trade with one of the most important slave markets.
It was at the eastern gate passageway where slaves where sold and where they were displayed in small niches in the walls. The niches are still there and some of them even have souvenir shops in them.
Walking through the residential neighbourhoods
The old town feels like a museum and it is easy to forget that there are still people living in ichan qala as well.
Outside the touristic center and away from the souvenir shops you have some quiet neighbourhoods. This is where children play outside, women are exchanging the latest gossips and men pass by on their bicycles.
Old mausoleums at the southern gate
Especially around the southern gate you come to a nice and quiet area of Ichan Qala. If you walk past the city wall you will find a lot of old mausoleums. The graves are not well maintained, but you can see that people still come to pray here.
I couldn’t find any information about the tombs, but they looked pretty ancient.
The best things to do near Khiva
Desert fortresses of Khorezm
After 3 days in Khiva we had seen more than enough of this ancient little desert town. Our hotel offered a tour to the fortresses of Khorezm. The pictures we saw were not that interesting, but there was not so much else to do.
As much as we loved the narrow streets of Khiva we were ready to get out of the city. Khorezm used to be scattered with ancient fortresses to protect its borders. They were abandoned when Genghis Khan invaded Khorezm and destroyed the towns.
Erosion took its toll and there is not much left. Still, the fortresses were much more impressive than we thought they would be. Pictures can’t do them justice. Its the large scale and the spectacular locations that make this a worthwhile trip to make.
The best things to eat in Khiva
Surprisingly, Khiva had the best restaurants and food we had in Uzbekistan. We liked plov a lot, but it is not difficult in Uzbekistan to get a plov overdose. The national dish of greasy carrot rice with meat is everywhere.
Khiva’s own regional specialities were a welcome change of cuisine and trying them out is among the top things to do in Khiva. Enough so that any Khiva city guide is not complete without a section on what to eat in Khiva.
Crispy fried dumplings filled with fresh spinach were a delight after so many days of meat based dishes. The famous fried gumma’s of Khiva actually come in a variety of fillings. Spinach was my favourite, but they come with meat, potato or pumpkin.
Barak are Khivan dumplings, very similar to vareniki or pelmeni in Russia, except that Khiva specializes in dumplings filled with pumpkin and egg. Kadi Barak are the ones with pumpkin. They are slightly sweet and best when you eat them with a bit of sour cream.
Tuxum Barak (egg dumplings)
Tuxum barak are dumplings filled with egg. Another Khorezm specialty in Khiva. Some believe that it is good for a man’s libido and therefore it was a favourite among the Khivan khans.
It almost looks like italian spaghetti, except that you probably have never seen spaghetti that green. Shivit oshi is 100% from Khiva. The Bright green noodles get their colour from fresh herbs like dill. They are topped up with a tomato based beef stew and sour cream.
Khiva travel tips
Where to eat in Khiva
Terrasa cafe: Terassa cafe has an extensive menu with all the Khivan specialities you want to try. The rooftop terrace has a nice view over the Kuhna’s Arc and Kalta minor minaret.
Recommended dish: The Gumma and Barak we tried here were of excellent quality. You can order a mixed Barak and Gumma so you can try different fillings.
Khorezm art cafe: Khorezm Art cafe has a nice setting in a stone building next to the Allakuli Khan madrassah. It is a great place to try Khiva’s specialities or one of their great salads.
Recommended dish: Shivit Oshi
Where to sleep in Khiva
Islambek Khiva: If you want to stay within the old town Islambek Khiva is a good budget option. They have nice and clean rooms with a delicious breakfast buffet. The owner is very helpful in giving information about things to do in Khiva and your onwards travel.
He can also arrange tours to the desert fortresses in Khorezm and even Moynaq to see the Aral sea in Uzbekistan.
How to travel to Khiva
To get to Khiva it is more convenient to travel first to Urgench, the capital of Khorezm. From Urgench there are frequent shared taxi’s to Khiva, that is only 30 minutes away. There is even a very old trolley bus going from Urgench to Khiva that seems to stop everywhere
Read my post about the best way to travel from Khiva to Bukhara
By train: Urgench has a train station and there is a daily nighttrain from Tashkent to Urgench. Since 2018 there is also a train between Urgench and Bukhara that runs every other day. Some even stop in the new train station in Khiva. Read more in my post about train travel in Uzbekistan.
By shared taxi: If the train times don’t work out for you, there is no need to worry. Urgench is a transport hub and you can easily find shared taxi’s to Nukus (3 hours) or Bukhara (6-7 hours).
How to get around in Khiva
The best way to experience Khiva’s historic center is on foot. The old town of Itchan Kala is enclosed within ancient city walls, and most of the major attractions are concentrated within this area. Walking allows you to immerse yourself in the charming atmosphere, discover hidden corners, and appreciate the intricate architecture at your own pace.
Taxis are readily available in Khiva, and they can be a convenient mode of transportation, especially for longer distances or if you prefer not to walk. Make sure to negotiate the fare before getting into the taxi or use a taxi hauling app. It’s always helpful to have the address or the name of your destination written down in Cyrillic or the local language to avoid confusion.
When to visit Khiva
Khiva has a desert climate with surprisingly cold winters and very hot summers. The best months are April, May and June (spring) and then again in September and October (autumn).
Springtime in Khiva brings mild temperatures and blooming landscapes, creating a picturesque atmosphere. The weather is generally sunny, and the city is less crowded compared to the peak tourist season in summer.
In spring you can also experience the Nowruz celebrations. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is celebrated in Khiva and throughout Uzbekistan with great enthusiasm and cultural festivities.
Autumn is another favorable time to visit Khiva. The temperatures start to cool down, and the weather remains pleasant for outdoor activities.
Sustainable travel in Khiva
Khiva sees more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in Khiva, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors, artisans, and restaurants. It is better to try Uzbek cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. Where possible, I can recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can also try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Use public transport: Khiva has a well-developed public transportation system with shared taxis and marshrutkas. Opt for public transport, whenever possible, instead of private cars to reduce carbon emissions.
Avoid plastics: To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Respect the culture: Uzbekistan is an Islamic country that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Uzbek or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
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