Best Places to Visit in Central Asia

Tombs of the Shah-I-Zinda necropolis in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The number one place to learn about the ancient Silk Road is Samarkand in Uzbekistan. The same age as Rome in Italy, it has been at the crossroads of world cultures for over two and a half millennia. In the 14th century, it was conquered by Temurlan, who bought artisans from across his empire to enhance the city. The turquoise-tiled domes of the Shah-i Zinda are remnants of this glorious former era. Other must-see sights include the historic madrasas that flank the square known as the Registan and the Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum.

Yurts at the shore of Song Kol Lake at the dawn, Kyrgyzstan

Song Kol Lake, Kyrgyzstan

One of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest highlights, Song Kol Lake covers an area of 270 square kilometres. Set high in the Tien Shan mountains and surrounded by lush pastures, this area draws Kyrgyz herdsmen to graze their livestock during the warmer summer months. This stunning landscape is dotted with their yurts from June to September, with visitors able to spend the night and learn how these structures are built. There’s also hiking, horse-riding and more outdoor activities to enjoy, as well as stargazing with a pristine night sky.

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Geghard Monastery, Armenia

Boasting a stunning setting, Geghard Monastery is surrounded by dramatic cliffs at the entrance to the Azat Valley. It was named after the spear used to wound Jesus Christ in the crucifixion, which was allegedly bought to Armenia, and is one of the finest examples of Armenian medieval architecture. The monastery contains several churches and tombs which have been cut into the rock, with the earliest built before 1250. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it's a must-visit for anyone exploring the country.

Ak-Baital Pass in Tajikistan, Central Asia

Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

Offering the road trip of a lifetime, the Pamir Highway is one of the world’s wildest roads. Stretching for over 1,200 kilometres between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the route takes in spectacular mountain scenery, high desert and passes at an elevation of over 4,000 metres. In fact, this highway is the second highest in the world, with the Pamir mountains known locally as Bam-i-Dunya which translates to ‘Roof of the World’. The Ak-Baital Pass is the highest pass along this famous route, where you might be lucky enough to spot the elusive, spiral-horned Marco Polo sheep.

The old town of Tbilisi, Georgia

Tbilisi, Georgia

Capital of Georgia, Tbilisi was once a hub along the ancient Silk Road. Set in the valley of the swift Mtkvari River, the city boasts a striking mountain backdrop and is overlooked by the Narikala Fortress. Its Old Town offers winding lanes and pretty churches, with nearby neighborhoods retaining their village-like feel. Yet Tbilisi is still far from stuck in the past, with eye-catching new architecture, trendy bars, galleries, hostels and more to lure in travellers. The beautiful Holy Trinity Cathedral is also not to be missed, especially when it’s lit up at night.

Darvaza Gas Craters at night, Turkmenistan

Darvaza Gas Craters, Turkmenistan

One of Turkmenistan’s most mysterious attractions, the Darvaza Gas Craters are three, artificial craters that burn continuously in the remote Karakum Desert. Also known as ‘the Gates to Hell’, these craters were created in the 1970s as a result of Soviet-era gas exploitation. Geologists intentionally set one of them alight to prevent the spread of harmful methane gas. It was thought it would burn for only a few weeks, but nearly five decades later it’s still not clear when these flames will burn out. Visible from many kilometres away, they are at their most bewitching when viewed after dark.

Rock carvings in Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan

Gobustan National Park, Azerbaijan

A popular day trip from the capital Baku, Gobustan National Park is a landscape like no other. More than half of the world’s mud volcanoes are found in Azerbaijan, with many of these located in the park. There’s also more than 6,000 ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings), which led to Gobustan being granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. Offering a fascinating insight into prehistoric life, these carvings date back between 5,000 to 40,000 years, with images of women dancing and hunters chasing their prey. There’s also giant boulders, rock shards and caves adding to this surreal park.

Arerial view of Asgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s bizarre capital, Ashgabat is a showcase city built by president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Designed to impress Guinness World Records judges, it has three architectural accomplishments. Ashgabat is home to the highest density of white marble-clad buildings in the world, the highest number of fountain pools in a public space and the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel. With curious sights such as these, the city is an intriguing place to visit before heading off to explore the rest of Turkmenistan’s sites.

Vardzia Cave Monastary, Georgia

Vardzia, Georgia

Reminiscent of Cappadocia in Turkey, the Vardzia Cave Monastery is one of Georgia’s most impressive sights. Built in the late 1100s, the halls of this underground sanctuary were carved into the side of Mount Erusheli under the orders of Queen Tamar. When finished, it had 13 levels, a throne room, 6,000 apartments and a church with an external bell tower. Although it has seen much destruction since, about 300 halls and apartments can be visited today and are maintained by a small group of monks.

Hiker in the Fann mountains, Tajikistan

Fann Mountains, Tajikistan

Found in the western corner of Tajikistan, the Fann Mountains are considered not only the most beautiful mountain chain in the country, but in all Central Asia. This stunning landscape features several snow-capped peaks at heights of over 5,000 metres, with the highest being Chimtarga at 5,489 metres. Adventurous travellers can enjoy a variety of treks across the range, with several beautiful lakes to visit including the Alauddin Lakes, Chukurak Lake and Bibijanat Lake.

See Also

For more information on visiting Central Asia:

Best time to visit - overview of weather and seasons in Central Asia
About overlanding - what to expect on an Overland Adventure

Central Asia Trip Styles