Nukus is one of the most desolate cities in Uzbekistan. A city that you will visit for its remoteness and isolation rather than its tourist attractions. Part of its charm is that there are not a lot of things to do in Nukus.
Nukus is far away from everything and surrounded by a rather monotonous landscape of desert with dry shrubs. However, it might surprise you that Nukus, is in fact, a capital. The capital of the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan.
Nukus is also changing quickly. Recent modernization projects have destroyed much of its Soviet past. Replacing older buildings with new flat apartments. It’s not necessarily making the city more attractive. Most of the new buildings are still empty, giving Nukus an even more desolate atmosphere.
Despite its isolation there are, however, a few interesting things to do in Nukus for the foreign traveller that make it a worthwhile destination in your Uzbekistan itinerary. It is the gateway to explore the shrinking Aral sea and the desert of Karakalpakstan with its ancient fortresses and mausoleums. And even in the city itself there are some tourist attractions.
Things to do in Nukus
1. Savitsky art museum
The Savitsky art museum is considered to be the best museum in Uzbekistan. In my opinion, this is saying more about the state of museums in Uzbekistan rather than the Nukus art museum itself.
People in Nukus are extremely proud on their museum, but don’t raise your expectations too high. Art lovers will definetly appreciate the historical importance of the collection. For others it might be just another museum.
It is the museums location and history that makes this among the top things to do in Nukus. Savitsky developed a special interest in the people of Karakalpakstan and he started to collect items like carpets, jewellery and clothes to display Karakalpak culture.
Savitsky opened the Nukus Art museum in 1966 after which he also started to collect Russian art. Some of it was banned by the Soviet Union, but somehow protected by its remote location in Nukus. The museum currently has over 82,000 works of art and the second largest collection of Russian avant garde paintings.
2. Bazaar in Nukus
When you wander through Nukus you keep wondering where all the people are. The bazaar was one of my favourite things to do in Nukus, because it was the most lively place in the city.
It is a typical central Asian bazaar where you can try local delicacies like samsa (filled dough from a tandoor oven), kymyz (fermented horse milk), shubat (camels milk) and kurut (dried yoghurt balls).
3. Walk along the Amu Darya river
The Amu Darya river is the lifeline in Karakalpakstan. It is the same river that feeds into the Aral sea and the one that is used for large scale irrigation for the cotton plantations in Uzbekistan. The latter resulting in the Aral sea disaster.
The Amu Darya runs right through Nukus and in the centre is a boulevard with parks that will allow you to stroll next to the river.
4. Karakalpak homestay
The Karakalpak people have their own culture and language that is more similar to Kazakhstan rather than Uzbekistan. They used to be semi-nomadic and focused on cattle breeding and fishing.
The Savitsky museum has an excellent collection on traditional Karakalpak culture. However, there is no better way to experience modern Karakalpak culture than by staying in a Karakalpak homestay. This can be arranged by Jipek Joli.
5. Soviet architecture
A recent modernization spree in Uzbekistan is quickly removing its Soviet heritage for better and for worse. The city is and feels brand new with its modern appartment buildings that still stand empty.
However, if you loke closely some Soviet gems are still there. I found some beautiful mosaics on some of the older buildings.
Things to do near Nukus
6. Mizdakhan Necropolis
Just outside of Nukus, in the middle of the desert lies the ancient necropolis of Mizdakhan. It speaks of ancient civilizations, religions and traditions . Mizdakhan is still an active place of worship where people come to pray or bury their death.
Among the newer graves are hundreds of ruins of ancient tombs. The archeologist and explorer inside you will love this place.
7. Qaur Qala fortress
Opposite Mizdakhan lies the ancient Qaur Qala fortress on top of a hill. It requires a lot of imagination, but the views are wonderful. Very little is known about this fortress, but they are related to the Khorezm fortresses near Khiva.
8. Moynaq & Aral sea (museum, ship cemetery)
Most people travel to Nukus to see the Aral sea and the ship cemetery in Moynaq. Moynaq was once a thriving harbour town with an active fishing industry. Nowhere else are the tragic stories behind the Aral sea disaster more visible.
It’s a perfect daytrip from Nukus if you have a private taxi. By public transport it is better to stay overnight in Moynaq and make it a 2 day trip.
Read more about how to get to Moynaq in my Moynaq travel guide.
Where to eat in Nukus
1. Cinnamon cafe
Cinnamon cafe is by far the best place to eat in Nukus. Centrally located near the Savitsky museum you can not miss it.
2. Cake hummer
Cake hummer is popular with locals that come to eat cake and to take selfies with the love themed decor. Its popularity seems to come from its huge portions rather than the quality.
3. The bazaar
The bazaar is a good place to try some local delicacies like samsa (filled dough from a tandoor oven), kymyz (fermented horse milk), shubat (camels milk) and kurut (dried yoghurt balls).
Where to stay in Nukus
1. Jipek Joli
Jipek Joli is not among the cheapest accomodation options, but is well worth the extra expense. It is without doubt the best place to stay in Nukus.
The staff speaks english and is very helpful in arranging whatever you would like to do in Karakalpakstan. It is also a great place to meet other travellers to share costs of taxi’s and Jipek Joli is happy to pair you with other people if possible.
2. Jipek Joli Inn
Jipek Joli’s sister hotel Jipek Joli inn is equally good and slightly cheaper.
3. Bez Qala
For budget travellers the cheapest option are the dormitories in the Bez Qala guesthouse.
Is it worth it to visit Nukus?
Nukus is quite far from everything else in Uzbekistan and the effort it takes to travel all the way to Karakalpakstan results in most people skipping this part of Uzbekistan.
Let me be honest, if you have limited time you don’t really miss much if you don’t include Nukus. However, if you do have time it is a worthwhile destination to include in your Uzbek itinerary.
Even though there are not a lot of things to do in Nukus it is an interesting place to visit in Uzbekistan. Be it the possibility to see the disaster of the Aral sea up close or learning about Karakalpak culture.
How to travel to Nukus
Tashkent to Nukus
Getting to Nukus is actually not as difficult as it sounds. Twice a week you can take the sleeper train from Tashkent. It is a great way to start your journey in Uzbekistan and travel slowly back through Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand to Tashkent.
If you want to know what traveling by train in Uzbekistan is like you can read my post about how to travel by train in Uzbekistan.
Khiva & Bukhara to Nukus
To get from Nukus to Khiva you first need to get a shared taxi or bus to Urgench (3 – 4 hours). From Urgench you can take another shared taxi to Khiva (30 minutes). There are trolley buses too, but they are really slow.
The best way to travel to Bukhara is from Khiva. Read more about this in my post on how to travel from Khiva to Bukhara.
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