I went back to my home country – Kazakhstan. It’s my first time after 15 years. I spent a week, visiting Astana, Almaty and the countryside surrounding Almaty, specifically Sharyn Canyon, Kolsai Lake, and Kaindy Lake.
The country has done major signs of progress in opening up to tourism, with a visa-free program for citizens of 117 countries that can apply for free for tourism purposes.
The list of countries whose passport holders can get an electronic business or medical e-visa
While still, it’s not as reachable as one would think – flights into the country are quite limited, with main destinations being Dubai, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Russia, and Korea. The English language is not really widely spoken outside of established hotels.
That being said, Infrastructure is quite developed, cities are happening, food is very interesting and the landscape outside of the city is as mesmerizing as I remembered.
Don’t let the slightly inconvenient logistics stop you from visiting.
Obvious to say, Kazakhstan is very north so in the winter the weather is extremely cold. The best time to visit Kazakhstan is in between the months of August – September. Unless you’re into the cold weather, then, in this case, you can visit anytime during the winter.
An interesting and recent fact. Kazakhstan implemented a Latin alphabet this year, so Kazakhs are using Qs instead of K. Thus, Qazaqstan is the new spelling instead of Kazakhstan.
Below, are some highlights of the trip.
Things to do in Nursultan (Astana)
Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 when the government decided to move the capital more inland, further away from the Chinese border, and was then renamed to NuSultan in 2019, after the president himself.
The city is, on one hand, exactly the way you would expect it: pompous, grand, Soviet with large streets, massive squares, show off monuments and pretentious golden plated palaces. But on the other hand, it is very surprising, as it’s full of modern design and cutting edge architecture from top global architects such as Norman Foster. The government has done an amazing job of bringing in international designers to build the opera, the ballet, the palace of recreation, as well as many other public spaces.
Although the city has 1 million inhabitants, distances are relatively small and the sites worth visiting are mostly distributed around the main avenue, a 3 km pedestrian boulevard surrounded by symmetrical buildings.
These include the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Hazrat Sultan Mosque Presidential Palace, Bayterek Tower, Nur Astana Mosque, Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, The Palace of Peace & Reconciliation, The Sphere – Museum of the Future (Expo 2017 Astana), The Ak Orda Presidential Palace, and The Central Concert Hall.
All the places are worth visiting, not just because the entrance is free or below 1,000 KZT ($2.5), but because they are unique representations of the country’s culture and aspiration.
Independence Square (Monument Kazakh Eli)
Independence Square also referred to as Kazakh Eli Square, is the main square in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. It was made in October 2009.
National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan
The museum opened on July 2, 2014, in a 74,000 square meter building. The museum has been created in the framework of the “Cultural Heritage” State Program on behalf of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Hazrat Sultan Mosque Presidential Palace
Hazrat Sultan Mosque Presidential Palace is the largest mosque in Central Asia. The building was constructed in classical Islamic style with traditional Kazakh ornaments. Located on the right bank of the Yesil river the Mosque is adjacent to the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the monument “Kazakh Eli” and Independence Square. It can accommodate five thousand worshipers, and on holidays – up to 10 thousand people.
Hazret Sultan has the largest dome in Kazakhstan with a height of 51 meters and a diameter at the base of the dome 28.1 meters. The mosque also has eight small domes with diameters of 10.45 and 7.6 meters, and peaks – 33.46 and 25, 25 meters. 4 minarets with a height of 77 meters are located in the corners of the mosque. According to the architectural plan, the temple should crown the 80-meter spire with a crescent directed strictly towards Mecca. As the functionality of the object, it may be noted that the building provides space for bathing rituals and weddings, halls to read the Koran and sitting in educational groups.
Midway throughout the boulevard is Baiterek Tower, a celebration of the country’s independence and its strive for world peace. Looking like the football World Cup, and 97 meters in height, the tower is dominated by a golden sphere, which boasts an impressive view of the city, overlooking all main monuments. On a sunny day, you have a 360 view of Astana.
Nur Astana Mosque
The Nur-Astana Mosque is a third-largest mosque in Central Asia. The 40-meter height symbolizes the age of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations, and the height of the minarets is 63 meters, the age Muhammad was when he died.
Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center
I won’t normally write about (or even visit) malls but this one is worthwhile. Designed by Norman Fosters, the mall is shaped like a tent, spread out over four floors. While the first two floors are occupied by the usual shops and cafes, the 3rd floor is an amusement park, and the 4th floor is a beach club. That’s correct, an indoor beach club heated at 27 degrees with a swimming pool, a beach volleyball court, a beach bar and imported sand from the Maldives.
While a bit over the top, it does make a nice pit stop from the cold Astana weather.
The Palace of Peace & Reconciliation
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, also translated as the Pyramid of Peace and Accord, is a 77-meter-high pyramid. The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation serves as a non-denominational national spiritual center and an event venue. The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is designed by Norman Foster (he also designed the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center)
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is probably the most memorable. Shaped in a form of a pyramid it contains 1) the opera house, a small red velvet theatre 2) A vertical garden 3) a convention center.
The national museum is pretty much what you expect from the name. It showcases paintings and artifacts from the history of the country, from prehistorical era to the golden age, as well as a selection of modern and contemporary pieces.
The most interesting part is the lightroom, an installation showcasing a stained glass apex and art windows painted with doves by architectural artist Brian Clarke.
The Sphere – Museum of the Future (Expo 2017 Astana)
The other key area to visit is the site of the Expo 2017. The Sphere – Museum of the Future, It’s an astonishing steel and glass complex centered around an 8 floors height glass sphere. A misleading name, because it’s actually mostly about energy, but extremely interesting. While the top floor showcases the future of Astana in terms of architectural development, every other floor is dedicated to a type of energy -solar, water, kinetic, etc.
Around the museum, there are a variety of buildings, including a university, and all built in the same modern style, which surrounds the museum in the shape of a circle.
Besides a few shops and restaurants, these buildings are mostly empty, but the street art makes up for it. Anyhow, you are not there to shop and eat, you are there to admire the architecture.
The Ak Orda Presidential Palace
The Ak Orda Presidential Palace is the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan, located in the capital city of Nur-Sultan. Akorda Presidential Palace was built within three years and officially opened in 2004. Situated on the left bank of the Ishim (Esil) River, it is the president’s place of work and houses the staff of the Presidential Administration; it is not the president’s place of residence. The palace includes a blue and gold dome topped with a spire. This golden statue atop the dome includes a sun with 32 rays at its apex and also includes a steppe eagle flying beneath the sun. The building’s height (including the spire) is 80 meters. The first floor includes a Grand Central Hall, the Hall of Press Conferences, the Gala Hall, and the Winter Garden. The second floor includes offices, while the third floor is used for international events, and includes various halls (Marble Hall; Golden Hall; Oval Hall; Oriental Hall, built in the form of a yurt; the Hall of Extended Negotiations). The fourth floor includes a Dome Hall, a meeting hall for the Government of the Republic, and the Library.
The Central Concert Hall
The Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall is located in the same square as The Ak Orda Presidential Palace. The Central Concert Hall is a center for performing arts, It was designed by Italian architect Manfredi Nicoletti and was inaugurated by the President on the nation’s Independence Day.
The building features a thirty-meter-high foyer which extends over 3.000 square meters, which is intended to create an urban-scale internal public square that could welcome the citizens of Nur-Sultan throughout the entire year. The building contains three different music halls. It also encloses restaurants, shops, and bars.
The main Concert Hall seats 3,500 guest. The Concert Hall is one of the biggest of its kind and is capable of hosting a multitude of different events, from classical to pop music, ballet and conferences thanks to its acoustic flexibility. This flexibility is produced by a system of acoustic curtains and a special false ceiling design called a black-hole, which absorbs most of the acoustic reflections of the hall.
The two smaller halls, of 400 and 200 seats respectively, have been designed to be flexible enough to host chamber music as well as cinema and conferences.
Best Restaurants in Astana
When it comes to food, Kazakh people are very seduced by Azerbaijan, Turkish, and Uzbek cuisine, so it’s not uncommon to find these restaurants or even their food in any restaurant.
We focused exclusively on local food, as we wanted to experience the Kazakh cuisine. There’s not that much variety, but good enough for a few days. Typical delicacies include beef pashmak, Lagman noodles, pelmeni, chesburek, piroshki, plof with beef, horse sausage, horse meat, fried bread, borscht, fried and cooked meat dumplings.
Here are some restaurant recommendations we enjoyed during our stay.
Epocha Restaurant (Russian) $$
Epocha Restaurant (Russian, European) – – I have noticed that many people on the internet talk highly about Epocha, a soviet themed restaurant not far from the St. Regis. For curiosity, we tried it the restaurant. I can’t say that it lived up to the expectations, but it’s definitely a curious place to see.
Arnau (Kazakh, Russian) $$
Astana Nury (Kazakh, Russian) $$
Other amazing restaurants in Astana: Barley $$ Tiflis (Georgian) $$ Cafe Star (Fine Dining) $$$
Best hotels in Astana
We stayed at the St. Regis, Astana which is a beautiful property, with bright and spacious rooms, classy interiors and impeccable service. The St. Regis is not very central, however, located on the river and with a nice view, and about 10-15 min taxi ride from the majority of the sightseeing that I’ve mentioned.
For an affordable stay in Astana, these hotels are great: Hampton by Hilton Astana Triumphal Arch, Best Western Plus Astana, Wyndham Garden Astana, Park Inn by Radisson Hotel Astana, Hilton Garden Inn Astana, Radisson Hotel Astana.
Things to do in Almaty
With over 2 million people Almaty (previously the capital of Kazakhstan from 1990 – 1997) is the main city in Kazakhstan – the financial and commercial hub, as well as the main tourist destination. The reason why the capital was moved is due to its more accessible climate, the proximity with other tourist destinations, and the vicinity to Kyrgyzstan and China.
Almaty is very spread out and has many attractions such as Almaty Central Mosque, Zelenyy Bazar, Military History Museum, Panfilov Park (Monument of Panfilov), Zenkov’s Cathedral, Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, The Museum of Rare Books, Kok Tobe Park, Republic Palace, Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the A. Kasteyev Museum of Arts.
Almaty Central Mosque
Almaty Central Mosque is one of the largest mosques in Almaty and in Kazakhstan. Designed for 7000 visitors, it was built on the site of the old mosque that dated to 1890 and caught fire in 1987. The foundation of the mosque was laid in 1993. Construction was completed in 1999.
Zelenyy Bazar is a type of bazaar that sells anything from groceries such as fruits and vegetables. Fish and meats. Nuts, cheese, cured meats, fresh juices. From typical Russian salads that are preserved to pickled vegetables. These sorts of bazaars are very typical in Kazakhstan.
Military History Museum
The Military History Museum exhibits some unique military uniforms and original weapons used by the Kazakhs from different periods throughout its history. Included in its collection are Soviet military items, interesting objects from World Word II and much more.
Panfilov Park (Monument of Panfilov)
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen is located in east-central Almaty in the area surrounding the Zenkov Cathedral. It is dedicated to and named after the Panfilov heroes which were the 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died while fighting against Germans outside of Moscow during the Great Patriotic War.
The Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zenkov Cathedral, is a Russian Orthodox cathedral located in Panfilov Park in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Completed in 1907, the cathedral is made out of wood but without nails. Its height is 56 meters tall and is claimed to be the second tallest wooden building in the world.
Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments
Located in Panfilov Park, the wooden building was erected in 1908. Today, there are more than 1000 items of instruments in collection of the museum, which are divided into 60 types of Kazakh national musical instruments.
Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
Abay Opera House was built in Almaty in 1934 and named after Kazakh poet, composer, and philosopher Abay Qunanbayuli.
The Museum of Rare Books
The Museum of Rare Books of “Gylym Ordasy” State Enterprise was established in the year of 2010. The Museum Fund includes a collection exceeding 500 rare books from national and foreign ancient manuscripts to manuscripts and age-old books (i.e. published before the XVIIIth century) written using Arab, Latin and Cyrillic type and chronologically covering period from the XVIII-XIX centuries to the forties of the XXth century; and all being of historical and cultural and scientific significance.
Kok Tobe Park
The Kok Tobe is a mountain in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. There is a popular recreation area on top of the mountain, Kok Tobe Park. The mountain’s height is 1100 meters above sea level. Kok Tobe is one of the main landmarks in the city, and it is popular among visitors and tourists to Almaty.
The Kok Tobe Park is a recreational area that has a variety of amusement park type attractions and restaurants. It is connected to downtown Almaty by a cable car line (cost 2000 TG Roundtrip ($5USD))
On the Kok Tobe mountain sits a 372 meters tall TV Tower. The tower can be seen from most parts of the city. Almaty Tower (aka Kok Tobe Tower), the city’s television tower, is located on the south-eastern slope of the hill. It was built during 1975 and 1983, and if measured from sea level, this tower is one of the highest in the world – 372 meters tall. It has a couple of observation platforms, but they are not open to the public. It is unique, because unlike other TV towers, it was built entirely of steel, and has a tubular structure.
Palace of the Republic
The Palace of the Republic is a concert hall. It is intended for concerts, festivals and other cultural events. It was one of the premier sites for the Eurasia film festival.
Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan
The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan is the largest museum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and one of the largest museums in Central Asia. When first established in 1931, the museum was located in the Almaty Cathedral. It moved to a modern facility in 1985 and is a landmark in Almaty. The museum houses the most significant collection of Kazakh historical, archaeological, and modern cultural and political artifacts.
A. Kasteyev Museum of Arts
A. Kasteyev Museum of Arts houses an exhibition of decorative and applied art of Kazakhstan of the 19th to 20th centuries and is designed to acquaint the public with traditional crafts, highlighting such works as ornamental felts, embroidery, hand-woven carpets, artistic wood decorations, works of metal and leather for the horses, traditional clothing and jewelry. Reflecting on the regional and artistic-stylistic peculiarities of applied art in KZ, the exhibition demonstrates a variety of forms, techniques and remarkable richness of ornamentation.
Men’s outwear (chapans) and women’s velvet dresses and camisoles, wedding headdresses (saukele) were embroidered using golden threads.
Distinguished by the high technical level of the craftsmen and representing the republic’s different regions the Jewelry, initially performing a function of talisman’s and protectors, imparts elegance and compositional completeness to the woman’s holiday costumes.
The Kazakhs have the greatest respect and honor for kobyz because they considered this musical instrument sacred. The history of kobyz has always been connected with the religious and magic rituals of shamans (bakzy) Kobyz helped them to organize ceremonial occasions and served as a means of communication of baksy with spiritual ancestors (aruakhs)
Horse riding accessories were the typical features of nomadic life. In ancient times the martial ancestors of the Kazakhs tamed the wild steppe horse and mastered horse riding.
The Kazakh proverb says: “A good steed is a horseman’s wing”. The horse is decorated with carved silver and gold were always the symbol of masculine honor, dignity and social status. Saddles and girths were covered with stamped leather and decorated with enamel and inserts of precious and semiprecious stones.
Best Restaurants in Almaty
Kishlak (Kazakh) $$
Kishlak is a Lebanese restaurant that specializes in traditional Kazakh cuisine.
Dastarhan Restaurant (Kazakh) $$
Dastarhan serves traditional Kazakh & Russian cuisine, set in a typical Kazakh ambience.
Other amazing restaurants to try in Almaty: EAST Restaurant (Modern Asian) $$$ Gosti (Russian) $$ El Mirador (Modern, International) $$$ Cafeteria (Cafe) $ Wagon $$ Aroma (Tea House) $$ MY Cafe (Cafe) $$ Shashlyk House (Beer Hall) $ Daredzhani (Georgian) $$
Best Hotels in Almaty
Other hotels in Almaty: InterContinental Almaty Hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton Almaty, Rixos Almaty, The Dostyk Hotel, MAQAN Hotel, Novotel Almaty City Center (the Novotel is located right next to the Kok Tobe gondola that will take you to the Kok Tobe Park, also great location to wander around the city by foot)
Dining at The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty
Seven Bar & Restaurant
Against the backdrop of mountains and city, Seven Bar & Restaurant serves international flavors in an elegant setting. Spanning two stylish floors, it brings together the finest French-inspired cuisine, fresh sushi, and innovative mixology.
While I am not a huge fan of buffet for breakfast or lunch, I would, however, recommend Vista. Explore the flavors of Kazakhstan and beyond at Vista buffet restaurant. Named for the views framed by the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows, VISTA offers a menu that is equally inspired. Breakfast and lunch buffets showcase international dishes alongside traditional Kazakh flavors, while the a la carte dinner menu emphasizes Italian favorites like homemade pasta and pizzas.
At Terrace 77, outdoor dining becomes a sophisticated experience to savor. Against a backdrop of skyline views, the restaurant serves curated selections of wines, beers, spirits, and cocktails as well as light bites that range from salads and appetizers to kebabs. Perfect for romantic dinners, intimate soirees, and pre-dinner drinks, Terrace 77 stands out as one of Almaty’s chicest venues.
We began our journey to Chary Canyon by car from Almaty, and it took us about 2.5 hours.
Charyn Canyon is a canyon on the Sharyn River in Kazakhstan. The canyon is roughly 90 kilometers in length. It is part of the Charyn National Park and is located within the territory of the Uygur District, Raiymbek District, and Enbekshikazakh District.
Over time, the canyon has gained colorful formations of varying shapes and sizes. Though it is much smaller than the Grand Canyon (Nevada, USA) it has been described as being equally impressive, and indeed it was!
The Charyn Canyon stretches 154km along the Charyn River (one of the deepest rivers of the Northern Tien Shan mountains). Wind, water, and sand sculpted Charyn’s red sandstone to form its shapes and shades. Some of the cliffs resemble particular figures, which is why some parts of the canyon are also called the “Valley of Castles”, the Witch’s Gorge, and the Ghosts Gorge.
The multicolored rock layers are the product of different stages of sediment deposits, which includes volcanic lava rocks at the bottom, and red debris on top. The Charyn Canyon consists of 5 different canyons: the Valley of Castles, the Temirlik Canyon, the Yellow Canyon, the Red Canyon, and the Bestamak Canyon. The Valley of Castles is the most popular part of the Charyn Canyon.
Walking around Charyn can easily take 2-3 hours. So bring some water with you.
Again, make sure to bring some water with you, if you intend to hike the Canyon. You could also bring some food, as there’s a nice picnic area at the bottom of the canyon, near the river. Also, at the bottom of the river, there’s a restaurant that serves traditional Kazakh cuisine from beef plof, to garden salads and grilled meats.
As you end your journey at Charyn Canyon, head over to Saty Village for the night. Make sure to stop along the way, to take a look at other Charyn Canyon points and its natural beauty.
As we drove from Charyn Canyon to Saty Village for 2 hours we stumbled across the country’s most magical nature, and about thousands of horses were out in the fields and crossing the roads. Take a look for yourself in these photos.
On our way to Sharyn Canyon, we made a pit stop for the night at Saty Village. The village has a few guesthouses that will host you. We stayed at the Taushlek hotel, clean, and basic accommodation for the night that provided us with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The tour was organized with Stan’s Tours.
Lake Kaindy is a 400-meter-long (1,300 ft) The lake reaches depths near 30 meters (98 ft). It is located 285 kilometers (177 mi) east-southeast of Almaty and is 2,000 meters (6,600 ft) above sea level.
About 4 hours east of Almaty is this little unique lake. The lake is quite difficult to reach, as it requires to take a 12km unpaved road outside of the village of Saty. This road is very scenic, and it makes it for a nice ride and beautiful photographs, but it’s only accessible by a 4×4, and ideally an expert driver.
There are affordable drivers that can be hired in the village of Saty (10,000 KZT or $25 for the trip there and back), or, there are tour guides that would take you there from Almaty, which is what we did through an agency called Stan’s Tours.
Kolsay Lakes National Park is located on the north slope of the Tian Shan Mountains, southeast Kazakhstan (10 km from the border with Kyrgyzstan). Often referred to as “Pearls of Tien Shan”, the park’s main feature is the Kolsay Lakes located between the Raiymbek District and Talgar District of Almaty Region. The park boundary is 120 kilometers (75 mi) southeast of Almaty.
20 minutes from Saty Village, within the Kolsai National Park is Kolsai Lake. A picturesque little lake surrounded by mountains covered in trees. There’s nothing really unique about the lake, but it is somehow magical and beautiful.