If you’re visiting Khiva in Uzbekistan then there’s a good chance you’ll pass through the city of Urgench on your way.
Not to be confused with the Urgench across the border in Turkmenistan, this Uzbek Soviet-style city is used as a transport hub by thousands of travelers each year on their way to visit the tourist destination of Khiva.
With a similar feel to Tashkent but without its modern touch, Urgench will be of limited interest to most travelers. However if you have some extra time or if, like me, you’re a fan of Soviet-style concrete block buildings and neglected parks then it has a certain charm to it.
Urgench boasts a rich history that includes Zoroastrian influences and serves as a cultural crossroads for both Turkmen and Uzbek traditions.
In this travel guide, I’ll share a brief history of the city, things to do, where to eat and where to stay in Urgench.
Disclaimer: This blog post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Your support is greatly appreciated and helps me continue to provide valuable content. Thank you!
Brief History of Urgench
The original ancient city of Urgench, located in present day Turkmenistan, is now known as Kunya-Urgench (old Urgench) and is a UNESCO world heritage site with monuments dating from 11th to 16th centuries.
The modern Urgench is located across the border in western Uzbekistan near the Amu Darya river. According to Britannica, it was founded by the inhabitants of the old Urgench seeking a new water source as the river changed course in the 17th century.
Later, Urgench was developed an industrial city under Soviet rule and is still known to be a large producer of cotton. Today it’s the capital of the region of Khorezm.
Things to Do in Urgench
Don’t expect much in the way of historical landmarks. The main attractions in Urgench are the Shavat canal, the parks, and a small number of museums.
Don’t be too discouraged by the photos; I visited on a pretty gloomy December afternoon!
Contemporary Art Museum of Uzbekistan
Established in 1983 within the historic 1910 post office, Urgench Museum has evolved from an art gallery to include three branches: the main building, the Komiljon Otaniyazov House Museum, and the Lazgi Museum.
With a diverse collection spanning 200 artists, it emphasizes Khorezm masters’ works, showcasing 1,000+ paintings, graphics, and sculptures.
It opens daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Official website.
Avesto Monument and Avesta Park
Before the introduction of Islam, Zoroastrianism was the main religion of Khorezm. The Avesto Monument was constructed in 2001 as the centerpiece of Avesta Park in order to honor the 2700th anniversary of the religion.
The monument is 16m tall and was built to resemble flames, symbolizing God’s light and wisdom for followers of Zoroastrianism.
The Avesta park is also home to the Museum of Regional and Zoroastrian History, home to over 2,000 artifacts spanning ancient to present day Khorezm. It’s located under the 2,500 seater amphitheater which hosts events and performances.
Ulli Hovli, an ancient town on the outskirts of Urgench, has a rich history dating back to the 17th century. Built collaboratively by Uzbeks and Turkmens, it served as a protective outpost for trade caravans.
Today, it’s a living heritage site that features Turkmen performances, craft workshops, and showcases Uzbek-Turkmen cuisine, traditional dress, as well as horses and camels.
The neighborhood is just a 20 minute drive out of the city center and you can arrange to visit this ethno-mahalla (neighborhood community) by contacting them via their Instagram page.
Jalal ad-Din Mangburni Monument
Jalal ad-Din Mangburni was the last Shah of Khorezmia and local hero who valiantly defended against Mongol invaders from age 21 until his tragic fall at 32.
While his previous statue across the canal park is no more, a new towering 25-meter monument now stands, portraying Jalal ad-Din Mangburni holding the reins of a horse, sword in hand.
The Shavat Canal, stretching 150 km, winds through Urgench, sourced from the Amu Darya river in Turkmenistan. Roughly half of the canal is located in Uzbekistan and half in Turkmenistan.
You can stroll down either side of the canal passing Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu park, Avesta park, and the silhouettes of old Soviet blocks and newer constructions in this melancholic, sparse city.
Urgench Youth Lake
Designed as a place for the young locals of Urgench to hang out, this 15 hectare recreational park consists of a lake, Ferris wheel, ship cafe, and models of Uzbekistan’s most iconic monuments such as the Registan.
Amir Temur Park
Amir Temur Park, adjacent to Youth Lake, offers a handful of amusement park attractions including a large pirate ship, Ferris wheel, and an old fighter jet. It’s probably not particularly interesting for tourists, however.
Al Khorezmi Memorial Complex
The Al Khorezmi Memorial Complex, erected in 1999, celebrates Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, born in 780, a pioneering mathematician and astronomer hailed as the father of algebra and algorithms.
The building to honor Al Khorezmi sits nestled inside a secluded pine tree-lined area. Located just across from the airport, it’s an easy landmark to visit if traveling to Khiva via Urgench airport.
So, Is Urgench Worth Visiting?
For most tourists, it’s better to spend time in Khiva with its centuries old fortress, palaces, giant madrassahs and towering minarets. Urgench on the other hand doesn’t have many places of interest for travelers.
However if you have some extra time and want to see a completely different side of Uzbekistan, then Urgench might be worth a short visit. Ulli Hovli and the Contemporary Art Museum will be of particular interest to those interested in the cultural heritage and modern life in Khorezm.
Where to Stay in Urgench
If you’re planning to visit Urgench it might be better to stay in Khiva and stop off in Urgench for a few hours. However if you do plan to stay in Urgench then there are a few decent hotels in the city.
The best area to stay in Urgench is on the main street which runs all the way from the airport, over the canal and to the train station. This gives easy access to restaurants, hotels and transport around the city.
Best Restaurants in Urgench
Eating out in Urgench can be a little challenging for English speakers, especially compared to Khiva, since little English is spoken in the city. Having a translation app to hand is a good idea.
On the bright side, the restaurants are just as good as elsewhere but much cheaper!
For Uzbek national food (milliy taomlar), Gavhar Milliy Taomlari is one of the highest-rated. The menu includes local Khorezm dishes like shashlik, tukhum barak, and fried fish. Also serves alcohol including wine which is rare for an Uzbek national food restaurant.
For a wider range of choice, newly renovated Belissimo has a large menu including Uzbek, Russian and Western food. Also has an English menu, some English speaking staff and lively music. It’s probably the best international style restaurant for foreigners in Urgench.
Urgench, often just a stopover en route to Khiva, has a distinctive Soviet-era charm mixed with remnants of Zoroastrian heritage and a blend of Turkmen and Uzbek cultures.
While not exactly a tourist hotspot, places like Ulli Hovli and the Contemporary Art Museum offer a glimpse into Khorezm’s diverse cultural fabric and if you happen to be passing by then it might be worth a visit.