Kazakhstan Where to Go and What to See
Where to go and what to see? Sadly, for most people, when considering and planning a visit to Kazakhstan – the ninth largest country in the world – the answer can’t be “everywhere and everything”.
Most people seem to go to Almaty – the largest city, the historic capital, and a great point to visit some of the beautiful natural attractions.
The second major destination is Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the futuristic modern capital of the country.
Click through the tabs below for more information.
Almaty Region 1
Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan. It was the nation’s capital between 1929 and 1997, at which point the futuristic new city of Nur-Sultan was created in northern Kazakhstan and became national capital.
Almaty has a population of just over 2 million people. Its size and its history, and also the happy chance of its location, make it the place in Kazakhstan where most visitors enjoy most of their time.
The city itself mixes old and new, west and east, with the result being a very diverse range of architectures and cultures. Grand Soviet era monuments (and occasionally ugly Soviet era buildings) co-exist with beautiful parks and open spaces, with older Imperial style architecture and eastern designs plus with a variety of modern buildings and international brand five star hotels.
The city remains the financial, economic and cultural heart of the country.
Its location – surrounded to the south by a semi-circular ring formed by the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains, gives visitors beautiful vistas wherever they look, and with an abundance of national parks, mountain lakes, and other areas of outstanding national beauty nearby and suitable for easy day tours or overnight stays (see the other tabs in this and the next section for details of some of these places).
Weatherwise Almaty enjoys a mild climate – warm to hot in the summer, and cool to cold in the winter, and generally warmer than most of the country to its north. While snow does happen in the winter, this also activates world class winter sports and skiing opportunities in the nearby mountains, making it a great destination year-round.
Its airport (ALA) offers domestic and international flights, and is the largest airport in the country. Its train station provides day and overnight services to other parts of the country.
Within the city itself you can find both excellent international style shopping and also more “local style” crafts and souvenirs, and several excellent open markets, most notably the Green Bazaar. A wide variety of restaurants and cuisines are available, as is evening entertainment, including the Kazakh State Circus.
There are many museums, art galleries and theaters in the city. Probably the leading museum is the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan. Others of interest include the Museum of Folk Music Instruments, the Kasteyev State Art Museum, and – if you’d like a change from major museums and instead might enjoy something more quirky, the “Museum of Broken Hearts”. Other museums include a military and a railway museum, and plenty of other specialized museums too.
The two best known parks are the First President’s Park and the Park of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen. Within the latter park is the Zenkov or Ascension Russian Orthodox Cathedral, made of wood and with interlocking construction, entirely without nails. Completed in 1907, it is believed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world.
A popular attraction is going up the top of Kok-Tobe hill on the eastern side of the city. A beautiful six minute gondola ride takes you from the city up the side of the hill to a panoramic lookout point at the top, where various amusements and attractions can be enjoyed.
Visitors could easily spend many days in Almaty itself. We recommend at least two full days and more if your total travel time allows it.
Almaty Region 2
While not as well known as some, Issyk Lake is considered by those who see it as one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the entire world.
The lake is relatively new in geological terms. It was formed 8,000 – 10,000 years ago, as a result of a rockslide damming a valley, with the Issyk river accordingly pooling and forming a lake behind the natural obstruction.
Starting from the 1930s, it became an increasingly popular tourist destination, and it is rumored that it was a favorite place for Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s. But then, in 1963, a massive mudslide (the largest and most destructive of anywhere in the Soviet Union during its entire ~75 years in existence) washed away most of the tourist development and saw the natural dam collapse, with a flood of water and debris cascading down the slopes and killing more than 1,000 people in the downriver town of Issyk (also spelled Esik). The lake was drained and ceased to exist, much to the sorrow of all who loved it.
In the early 1990s the natural dam was reconstructed and reinforced, and the lake has gradually refilled. It is currently at about 3/4 of its original volume, and its earlier beauty has returned. It measures 1.15 miles long (1.85 km) by 1/2 mile wide (780 m) and reaches depths of about 190 ft (57 m). The lake is over a mile high, at a height of 5774 ft asl (1750 m).
The lake is particularly known for its deep green and blue colors – beautiful aquamarines and turquoises. Colors change depending on the light, sun, and cloud.
Because it is fed from snow melt, the water is cold. Even in mid-summer, water temperatures only reach 48°F/9°C, and not only do people not go swimming in it, but fish are only very seldom seen in its waters either. But please don’t think the lake or nearby is barren. There are over 30 different types of wild animals living around the lake, and 150 types of birds.
Note that there is a totally different lake with a similar name, Issyk-Kul Lake, in nearby Kyrgyzstan.
How to Get to Issyk Lake?
Issyk Lake is 40 miles/65 km from Almaty. It usually takes less than 90 minutes to get to the lake from the city. The route to the lake is a scenic pleasure in itself, crossing over the Big Almaty Canal, going past teh Scythian mounds, entering the Ili-Alatau National Park, and going through the town of Esik, alongside the Issyk River, and to the lake.
What Will You See?
The beautiful lake itself, its associated river, and dense coniferous forest on the slopes of the mountains. On the former bottom of the lake that hasn’t been returned to water and which was not destroyed by the mudflow, there is a birch grove.
Best Time to Visit?
From a weather and warmth point of view, July, August and September are the best months to visit these places, although in the mountains, the weather can deteriorate at any time of year with little warning.
During the winter, the lake usually freezes over, but that doesn’t deter visitors, who appreciate the different scene and peace of the frozen lake in winter as much as the beautiful colors of the lake in summer.
How to Get There?
There is a good quality road that takes you up to the lake, and most of the year this is readily passable by car. Alternatively, we can organize a day tour from Almaty for you.
Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana between 1998 and March 2019) is the nation’s second largest city, with a population of 1.1 million. Almaty (pop 1.8 million) is slightly larger and was the former capital until the designation was transferred to Nur-Sultan on December 10, 1997.
Nur Sultan is a fairly young city by historical standards – less than 200 years old. However, during this time it has changed its name many times. It was originally known as Tselinograd, then became Akmolinsk, Akmola, Astana, and now Nur-Sultan.
At present, Nur-Sultan is the youngest capital city in the world. The city is located in the zone of dry steppes, on a plain composed of sedimentary rocks, and the Ishim River (and various tributaries) flow through the city. Around the city you can also find many fresh and salt lakes.
Astana is at the intersection of major highways and railways, and has a modern international airport. It is a major hub and a great destination for visitors.
The city was rebuilt almost from scratch a couple of decades ago after the decision was made to designate it as the capital city.
Unusual futuristic forms of the Khan Shatyr and Astana circus buildings co-exist alongside the sky-piercing minarets of the Hazrat Sultan mosque and the Baiterek Tower.
Today, tourists come here for the beautiful embankments, wide avenues, skyscrapers, high-level hotels, original architecture, attractions, sports clubs and facilities, anime festival, the World Theater and the Young Wine Festival.
Sights of Astana
There is a great deal to see and experience in this amazing city. Fortunately, it is easy to do so, due to the efficient city planning, with most attractions being in the new part of the city on the left bank of the Ishim River. We mention a few.
If time allows, you should certainly allow two days to thoroughly explore and enjoy our capital city.
This 320 ft (97m) tower is a popular symbol of both Nur-Sultan and Kazakhstan. On the lower level is a cafe and aquarium, and in the ball itself an observation deck and a gilded handprint of the first President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev (after whom the city was renamed in 2019).
This is the largest tent in the world, and was designed by the renowned architect, Norman Foster. It is used as a huge shopping and entertainment center. In addition to shops and boutiques, there are attractions for children, dinosaurs and even their own Sky Beach Club, kept at a constant temperature of 95°F/35°C, and with sand brought from the Maldives.
Akorda is the primary presidential residence and appears on the 10,000 tenge banknote. Akorda is a large building with five floors above ground and another two underground. It has a 3.5-ton chandelier, a central front hall, a winter garden, a library, and a series of enormous high-ceilinged halls for state occasions. Despite its official status, the residence organizes tours of the facility for everyone. It also hosts official receptions, press conferences.
This boulevard is best considered as a single architectural ensemble that connects Khan-Shatyr with the Akorda Residence of the President, passing along the Bayterek path. It is a great place for walking among fountains, flowers, unusual tall buildings and similarly unusual sculptures with ethnic elements of a nomadic culture.
Opera and Ballet Theatre
As you approach the opera house, you could be forgiven for feeling as if you have decreased in size, due to the massive size of the building rising above you. The building was built in a classical style with columns in just three years, and experts from 33 countries participated in its creation.
There are many museums in and around Nur-Sultan. One of the most notable is the Museum of the First President of Kazakhstan. We hasten to add that in Kazakhstan there is no such personality cult as in Turkmenistan or North Korea, but there is a museum about our founding president and the life and times of his period in office (he resigned/retired in March 2019). The museum is dedicated to the recent history of Kazakhstan associated with the first president, and you’ll see the president’s personal library, various archival documents, a collection of gifts and awards. Another notable museum is the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Everything (almost!) you want to know about the history of Kazakhstan is here. The exhibitions are based on artifacts found as a result of excavations of the many ancient mounds and cities that cover the country. While the exhibits are old, their presentation is not. The most modern technologies are used, including holograms and multimedia guides.
Duman Entertainment Center
The most notable feature of this entertainment center is a large aquarium, particularly unusual because it is located at a distance of more than 2000 miles (3000 km) from the nearest sea. Children (of all ages!) love to look at the strange inhabitants of the deep sea and take part in the show programs. Also in Duman there is an animatronics park with moving figures of dinosaurs – in general, a place for camping with children for the whole day!
Ishim River Embankment
The river forms an approximate boundary between the older parts of the city, on its right bank, and the newer parts on its left bank. Strolling along the river embankment is a beautiful and relaxing way to enjoy the amazing sights and skyline of Nur-Sultan.
This is a large park, which houses small models of the sights of Kazakhstan, in the form of a huge 3D map of the country. The park and map is constantly beingupdated with new exhibits.
Palace of Peace and Accord
An unusual building, towering on a hill on the right bank of Ishim. This is a regular pyramid with a height of 62 meters. Inside the pyramid is a concert hall, conference rooms, greenhouses, exhibition galleries and much more. The opening celebrations included a performance by opera singer, Montserrat Caballe.
There are many mosques in the Nur-Sultan area. Two in particular are notable. The Nur Astana mosque is a huge mosque with four minarets decorated with gold at the top, in the very center of the city, near the Water-Green Boulevard. Despite its size, it looks quite airy, and inside there are light walls decorated with suras from the Koran. Even more striking is the Hazrat-Sultan Mosque on the other side of the river. This is a magnificent shining building of white color and simply huge size. It has the largest dome in Kazakhstan and is the largest mosque in central Asia, and capable of accommodating more than 10,000 people.
Other Regions 1
Aktau is located in the southwestern part of Kazakhstan and every year it becomes more and more interesting for tourists, because rest on the Caspian Sea is a combination of active pastime on the water, fishing, relaxing treatments in hotels and hiking in the Mangyshlak nature reserve.
A little about Aktau Aktau is the center of the Mangistau region and is located on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea, at Cape Melovoy. The city was founded only in 1961 after the discovery of uranium deposits in the area. First, the village of Aktau appeared with a nuclear power plant that extracts uranium ore and processes and enriches it. Over time, the pace of work increased, new people were required, and the government of the USSR adopted a decree establishing the city. In 1963, it was built according to the plan of the Leningrad Design University for several years and was named Shevchenko, in honor of the poet from Ukraine Taras Shevchenko, who was serving a link here.
A distinctive feature of the settlement is the complete absence of reservoirs with drinking water: the city is supplied with recycled sea water. A feature of the natural relief is the mountainous terrain, caves, gorges, canyons. About 48 km from the city there is the deepest depression on the land of Kazakhstan Karagie, which means “Black Mouth” in Kazakh. Its depth is 132 m from sea level, and at its bottom is a small lake Batyr, in which the water periodically evaporates, and the bottom covered with salt marshes is exposed.
Climatic conditions Aktau in Kazakhstan (a holiday on the Caspian Sea popular among travelers) welcomes guests all year round, but the tourist season can be divided into 2 types: active and low. The first includes months with hotter weather – from May to October, and during the period from November to April, the flow of tourists significantly decreases.
Active season: May. The average air temperature during the day is 21 ° C, and the sea temperature is 15.6 ° C. Daylight hours are 14 hours. Total cloudy days are from 1 to 5. June. Opening time of the beach season: daytime air temperature 27 ° C, at night falls to 24 ° C. The pond warms up to 20 ° C, and daylight hours are extended to 15 hours. July. One of the 2 hottest months: during the day the air temperature rises to 32 ° C, and at night it drops to 28 ° C. The sea is warmed up to 23 ° C. Most of the month there are sunny days. August. During the day, the air temperature warms up to 31 ° C, at night it reaches 27.5 ° C. The average sea temperature is 23.3 ° C. The average rainfall is 6.3 mm, making August the driest month of the year.
How to get to Aktau
Aktau in Kazakhstan (tourists are more and more interested in the holiday on the Caspian Sea every year) – the city is quite developed and there are no problems with transport, but in order to get here, it is better to choose a train or plane, as pits and in places there is no asphalt. The airport is located about 30 km from the city.
There are several beaches for recreation in Aktau. Nurplaza beach is the largest in the city, and is located on the territory of the hotel of the same name. Admission is free, but rent is required for the use of sun loungers, gazebos and umbrellas.
Every year, before the start of the beach season, sand is imported here, which is carefully sifted. From entertainment there are rides on a banana, catamaran, yachts and boats. On the territory there is a parking lot and there are several cafes.
The beach is located near the city center. A distinctive feature of the place is the use of alcoholic beverages in the territory, and smoking is allowed only in specially designated places. Admission is free, but all services, including the rental of a deck chair and barbecue, shower, toilet and car parking are paid. On the beach there is a cafe, left-luggage offices, a bathhouse and a sauna. From entertainment – jet skis and boats that can be rented. Marrakesh Beach There is a beach near the resort complex of Chagall. Entrance to the territory is free, but you need to pay for a shower, toilet and use of sun loungers. Also, for violation of public order, the visitor will be punished with a fine.
There are several restaurants and cafes, and for entertainment, visitors are invited to jump from the tower and ride a jet ski, banana or boat.
The main attractions of the city
The port in Aktau is the only port in the republic, which makes it also a sea gate. The construction of the facility was carried out in 1963 and was strategically important for the USSR, since the whole city was formed because of land rich in minerals. The purpose of the construction is international transportation of oil products and dry cargo. The place is the most important point of the transport corridor Europe-Asia. The location of the port in the city is Munailinsky district.
The opening of the garden took place in 1972, today it is included in the international registry of unique natural sites. It was created to address the prevention of problems of the gene pool of domestic and world flora. The garden covers 39 hectares and contains 1270 species of plants. During working hours, from 9:00 to 12:00 and from 14:00 to 18:00, excursions are held. The location of the garden is the intersection of Satpayev Ave. and the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Monument Caravel Columbus Santa Maria
Columbus Monument is one of the main symbols of the city. It is a small copy of the ship on which Christopher Columbus went in search of India, but discovered America. 40 masters of the city worked on the creation of the ship. The total height of the work is 11.8 m, weight is 150 tons. Location – Astana Square, in front of the Akimat. Lighthouse A monument in the form of a lighthouse was erected in 2013 in the 14th microdistrict on the territory of the embankment. It is a symbol of the 50th anniversary of the seaport and the city, and has a height of 3.5 m. The lighthouse is made of glossy tiles and natural cameo, decorative lighting is mounted inside. The monument is given the value of a talisman that protects the city from adversity. Monument to the MiG-21 fighter A monument is located on Victory Boulevard and is a copy of the multi-role fighter. It is installed in a position that maximizes the rapid climb.
Attractions near Aktau
In the vicinity of the city you can also see many interesting places. The underground mosque and the Shakpak-ata necropolis The mosque is carved in a stone cape between 2 ravines. Shakpak-ata from the Kazakh language is translated as “elder-flint” and has a connection with the legend: once there lived an old man who, striking the stones with his sword, fired fire and terrified the enemies and enemies.
Shakpak-ata has the shape of a Latin cross and has 2 entrances: main and household. Wide depressions are located on either side of the first, where local preachers were previously buried. The main entrance is decorated with steps, an arch and numerous images of an open palm and ornaments. The mosque also has 4 rooms, and at its foot on the slope there is an ancient cemetery formed in the early Middle Ages. The point of interest is 89 km from the center of Aktau, in the Shily-Kuduk tract.
Ancient settlement of Kyzyl-Kala
Kyzyl-Kala is translated from the Kazakh language “Red City” and today is the ruins of the once important settlement, which was located on the Silk Road. Its occurrence dates back to the second half of the 10th century. During the excavation, ancient coins, jewelry, dishes, vessels for products, Indian and Egyptian glass were found.
The Red City now is only fragments of the fortress wall and the remains of the foundation of several buildings. The attraction is located 95 km from the center of Aktau, at the foot of Sherkaly Mountain. The Mangyshlak Aktau Peninsula in Kazakhstan (holidays on the Caspian Sea attract more and more tourists every year) is not only a resort area, but also a point of the unique Mangyshlak nature reserve. The place is also known by the second name “Mangistau”. On its territory live more than 190 species of animals, many of which are endangered. Among the inhabitants are: flamingos; steppe eagle; owl; snake-eater; bustard; cheetah; Caracal, Usturian mouflon.
There are also about 260 plant species on the island, and recent studies have uncovered mineral deposits such as oil, rock crystal, rare ore and manganese. The peninsula is 119 km from the center of Aktau.
The canyon has a length of 12 km, and at the beginning there is Lake Tamshaly. On its left side, where the descent to the pond is equipped, there are ancient stone fences that previously served as a cattle shelter.
Also in the canyon there are 2 sources of water, breaking through a stone platform and flowing down in thin streams. The attraction is located in the Tupkaragan district, 116 km from the center of Aktau. Ustyurt National Park The park covers an area of 223 thousand hectares and is protected by the government of the Republic of Kazakhstan. It was founded in 1984 to preserve the natural look of the Ustyurt Plateau, some species of plants and animals. More than 263 species of fauna species grow on its territory, 5 of them are endangered: the katran is toothless; solid euphorbia; Khiva solyanka; chalk madder; soft-fruited cremolist.