The best things to do in Khiva

I wanted to discover Khiva in a different way and not through online research and wasn’t disappointed. The ‘internal citadel’, Ichan Kala is a real open-air museum. Its extensive renovation didn’t stop me from falling in love with the city and I stayed for 3 days. Admittedly, Khiva is more remote than Bukhara or Samarkand but it would be a shame not to include it in your itinerary when visiting Uzbekistan.

Ichan Kala, though renovated, has remained intact with impressive examples of medieval Islamist architecture. It was only in 1920 that Khiva became part of the USSR and Uzbekistan. The center is totally pedestrian and has souvenir shops and restaurants. Don’t hesitate to wander off the paved alleys of the historic center: you will see the everyday life, with clay houses and a complex system of gas pipes connecting the entire city. My experience with the locals was amazing and I was invited to share some tea. The family was very welcoming and curious about why I decided to travel alone. “You don’t have a husband?” “You don’t have friends?”. Even with their rudimentary English and my very poor Russian vocabulary, we’ve been able to hold a conversation. This made my experience in Khiva really special.

vue de khiva depuis les remparts

When to visit

April-May is the high season. At the end of September, there weren’t many people, especially in the late afternoon. Most tourists I met were tour groups from Germany, France and Japan. I bumped into very little solo travellers. I highly recommend visiting Khiva in the late afternoon. From 4pm, the sun isn’t as strong, the light beautiful and there are less tourists. Please note that some museums close at 6pm.

Ichan Kala

‘The inner citadel’,  also spelled Ichan Qa’la, is surrounded by a mud wall of more than 2.2 km-long and 8 meters high. It marks the borders of Khiva from the 16th-17th century. The historic center has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1990: more than 60 monuments are found here. It includs khan palaces, mosques, madrasas (theology schools), minarets and mausoleums.

Price: The ticket covering museums and monuments cost 100,000 som. It is valid for two consecutive days. There is an additional fee is charged for some attractions (such as minarets). Prices are indicative because they change often.

Recommended time: one day. The citadel can be visited in half a day. However, its beauty is revealed at the end of the afternoon, when the colours turn orange and illuminate the buildings. I advise you to start early in the morning, visit the museums, have a break and continue in the late afternoon to enjoy the sunset over the top of the watchtower.

Islam KhodjaI minaret

The 57 meters high minaret is the city’s tallest. The best is to visit it early in the morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower. Khiva has 3 minarets and this one was my favourite in Uzbekistan. I love how the colour of the sky complements it perfectly.

Kalta Minor minaret

The turquoise minaret, 14.2 in diameter, was started in 1851. It is entirely covered with mosaics of various colours and was destined to become the slender minaret of Central Asia. However, its construction was interrupted on the death of Kahn Muhammad Amin

City walls

Ichan Kala, “the inner citadel” is surrounded by 10 meters high brick walls. The current 2.2km-long mud walls date from the 18th century. They were rebuilt after being destroyed by the Persians. However, it is believed that the foundations date as early as the 10th century. The walls have four gates facing  each corner of the earth and they can be accessed via the stairs at the north entrance. After entering the city gates, take the stairs on the right; these will lead to the Ark (no direct access). The other side is less interesting and the walls finished abruptly half way through. 

Kuhna Ark

The ancient citadel (“ark”) is almost like a city in the city, separated from the rest of Ichan Kala. The fortress and residence were built in the 12th century and then expended. The summer mosque dates from the 19th century: it is airy and beautifully adorned with blue and white mosaics. Note the decoration of the doors leading to the throne room: carved plaster and ceiling decorated with paintings. Note the impressive iwan (portico).

The watchtower (6000s) is the original part of the ark. The view is beautiful, especially at sunset!

The watch tower from the outside

Tosh-Hovli Palace

‘The Stone Palace’ includes more than 150 rooms and is as impressive as the Ark. It was built between 1832 and 1841. Its southern part is occupied by five main rooms on 2 floors. The walls, ceilings and columns are covered with unique patterns. Note the beautiful columns: they are made of carved wood and laid on stone with different motifs, plant-inspired spirals as well as lines of the Koran.

Djuma mosque

It is a very archaic type of mosque: a flat roof resting on thirteen rows of carved pillars that numbered 212. The oldest date from the 10th century, the rest of them from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some pillars even come from ancient medieval buildings that were destroyed. The room, with its pillar forest, is very photogenic. Especially when the light shines through the opening.
Djuma minaret (5000s)
Don’t forget to go up to the minaret on your left. It offers beautiful views of the city and of the Khodjal Islam Minaret. The way up is very tight and there are about 80 steps. The first part is mainly in the dark but a mobile phone torch is good enough. I was alone up there and stayed a little while, enjoying the beautiful light.

Pahlavon mahmud mausoleum

Pakhlavan Mahmoud (1247-1325) was a famous poet and warrior who became the patron saint of Khiva. Because he wanted to be buried in his workshop, the place was transformed into a mausoleum. The cemetery grew larger since his disciples requested to be buried near him . The mausoleum contains a beautiful turquoise dome in Persian style. At the entrance, there is a commemoration yard with the gates of the old cemetery that were turned into an entrance gate.

Isfandiyar palace (50 000s)

The summer palace is about a 10-minute walk north of Ichon Kala. Built between 1906 and 1912, it has beautifully decorated rooms with impressive chandeliers and mirrors 4 meters high: it is a mixture of Russian style (with stoves from St. Petersburg) and traditional local style. Isfandiyar palace, also called Nouroullah Bai, is a must see, especially because it shows the styles between east and west.

Khiva streets

In Khiva, just like in other cities in Uzbekistan, one of the best things to do is to wander off the paved alleys and get a glimpse of the real life. Don’t hesitate to walk outside the citadel walls. You will discover houses, complex gas pipe networks and scenes of everyday.

Excursion: Elliq Kala in the Karakalpakstan

Elliq Kala, “50 fortresses” is a set of ancient citadels in the Karakalpakstan region (west of the country). The site, in ruins, contains palaces, forts, fortifications, some of which are more than 2000 years old. It’s close to Khiva and an opportunity to visit another part of Uzbekistan.

Practical information
Urgench airport is located 35 km from Khiva and a 30 minutes taxi ride ($10). Unfortunately, Khiva is poorly connected by train. It is, however, easy to reach by plane from Tashkent. From Samarkand, use shared cabs if you want to travel by road.