Often overshadowed by its more popular neighbors, Kazakhstan offers a unique blend of cultures, landscapes, and experiences for the traveler looking for the road less traveled. In this comprehensive travel guide, we will delve into everything you need to know to make your trip to Kazakhstan an unforgettable one.
Why Visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan is a country that captures the imagination with its rich tapestry of history. From ancient Silk Road cities to remnants of the Soviet era, Kazakhstan offers a wide range of historical sites and museums that will leave history buffs thoroughly captivated.
Nature lovers will find Kazakhstan to be a paradise of diverse landscapes. The country features everything from arid deserts to lush forests, and from flat plains to towering mountain ranges. The Great Steppe, the Altai Mountains, and the stunning lakes like Lake Issyk are just a few of the natural wonders that await.
One of the most compelling reasons to visit Kazakhstan is the people themselves. Known for their warmth and hospitality, Kazakhs are eager to share their culture and traditions with visitors. Whether you’re in a bustling city or a remote village, you can expect friendly faces and open arms, making your journey that much more special.
Top Cities to Visit
Almaty, often referred to as the “Southern Capital,” is a bustling metropolis that serves as Kazakhstan’s cultural and commercial hub. This city offers a blend of modern architecture, Soviet-era buildings, and traditional markets that are sure to capture the attention of every traveler. When in Almaty, don’t miss out on a cable car ride up to Kok-Tobe Hill for panoramic views, or a visit to the wooden Zenkov Cathedral. For shopping and local food, head over to the Green Bazaar, where you’ll find a wide variety of goods and delicacies.
The capital city of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan, is a vision of what the future could look like. Boasting avant-garde architecture and futuristic designs, this city offers a different facet of Kazakh life. Highlights include the iconic Bayterek Tower, where you can get an eagle-eye view of the city, and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, an architectural marvel designed by Sir Norman Foster. For leisure and shopping, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center is a must-visit.
Located in the South of Kazakhstan, Shymkent is a rapidly growing city known for its rich history and vibrant culture. The city offers various historical sites like the ancient city of Sayram and the mausoleum of Domalak Ana. Shymkent is also a great base for exploring the surrounding regions, including the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve, home to some of Kazakhstan’s most beautiful flora and fauna.
Situated in the western part of Kazakhstan, Aktobe offers a mix of modernity and tradition. The city is known for its mineral resources but has seen significant development in recent years, becoming a center for culture and commerce. Attractions include the Aktobe Regional Museum of Local History, where you can learn about the region’s past, and Aliya Moldagulova Park, a green oasis in the middle of the city.
Karaganda is a city with historical significance, especially known for its coal mining history and as a major stop along the Kazakhstan part of the Silk Road. The Karaganda Regional Museum offers insights into the city’s Soviet past, and the KarLag Museum educates visitors about the harsh labor camps that were situated here during the Soviet era. The Ecological Park and the Central Park offer great opportunities for relaxation and outdoor activities.
One of the oldest cities in Kazakhstan, Taraz has a history that dates back over 2,000 years. With its rich past, you’ll find a blend of historical sites like ancient mausoleums and modern shopping centers and eateries. The Aysha-Bibi and Babaji-Khatun Mausoleums are UNESCO-listed monuments worth visiting to understand the ancient architecture and the legends associated with them.
Previously known as Semipalatinsk, Semey is located in the northeastern part of Kazakhstan. It’s a city filled with academic and literary history, most notably as the birthplace of the Kazakh writer Abai Kunanbaev. There are several museums dedicated to his life and works, as well as many other artistic endeavors. The city is also known for its scenic beauty, as it sits along the Irtysh River.
Also known as Ust-Kamenogorsk, Oskemen is the administrative center of East Kazakhstan Region. The city is located where the Irtysh and Ulba rivers meet, providing a picturesque setting. Known for its outdoor activities, you can engage in fishing, hiking, and even skiing in the surrounding areas. The city also offers several historical landmarks and churches that reflect both its Russian and Kazakh heritage.
Located in the southern part of the country, Kyzylorda is known for its historical significance in the region. As the launch site for the ancient Silk Road, the city has an eclectic mix of historical and cultural sites. The city is also a gateway to the Kyzylkum Desert and the Aral Sea, providing ample opportunity for adventurous activities like desert trekking.
Whether you’re looking to explore modern cities filled with futuristic architecture or historic towns that tell tales of the ancient Silk Road, Kazakhstan has a city that fits the bill. Each city has its own unique charm and set of attractions, ensuring that every traveler will find something that piques their interest. Make sure to tailor your itinerary to include these urban experiences, as they offer a well-rounded view of what Kazakhstan has to offer.
Traditional Music and Dance
Kazakhstan has a rich musical heritage that is an integral part of its culture. Instruments like the dombra, a two-stringed lute, and the kobyz, a bowed lyre, are often used in traditional Kazakh music. Events and festivals frequently feature performances that showcase both traditional and modern Kazakh music and dance. If you’re visiting during the Nauryz festival, you’ll get to witness a wide range of musical performances that offer a deep dive into the country’s cultural traditions.
Kazakhstan celebrates a plethora of festivals that are deeply rooted in its nomadic traditions and history. Nauryz, celebrated around March 21st, marks the Kazakh New Year and the arrival of spring. The festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm, featuring outdoor games, horse races, and plenty of traditional food. Another significant festival is the Kazakh Khanate Festival, commemorating the formation of the Kazakh state. These festivals offer travelers a firsthand look at the country’s vibrant cultural tapestry.
Kazakhstan’s traditional clothing is an essential part of the country’s cultural identity. Garments are typically made from natural materials like wool and leather. The attire often features intricate embroidery and decorative elements that are specific to each region. Don’t miss the opportunity to try on or even purchase some of these beautiful garments when visiting local markets or cultural centers.
Folk Art and Handicrafts
Kazakhstan is famous for its wide variety of folk art and handicrafts, including felt carpets, jewelry, and ornate wooden utensils. These are often made using ancient techniques that have been passed down through generations. Visiting local craft markets can offer a unique perspective on Kazakh culture and also provides a chance to purchase some of these exquisite handmade goods.
Language and Literature
Kazakhstan has a rich literary tradition, with poets and writers like Abai Kunanbaev making significant contributions to Kazakh and world literature. The country also has a rich oral tradition, including epic tales and folklore. While Kazakh is the national language, Russian is also widely spoken, making it a bilingual nation. Taking the time to learn a few basic phrases in Kazakh will not only help you navigate easier but will also be appreciated by the locals.
Islam is the dominant religion in Kazakhstan, but the country is known for its religious tolerance. You’ll find a mixture of religious practices and places of worship, including mosques, Russian Orthodox churches, and even Buddhist temples. Religious sites like the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi in Turkestan offer both spiritual and architectural interest.
Each of these cultural highlights offers a unique lens through which to experience Kazakhstan, enriching your travel experience in this diverse and captivating country.
The Great Steppe
This vast grassland covers much of the country and offers a unique ecosystem with a variety of flora and fauna. The Great Steppe is not just a landscape; it’s the soul of Kazakhstan, telling the story of the nomadic cultures that have thrived here for centuries. Don’t miss the opportunity to take a guided tour and learn about the unique plants, animals, and history of this expansive terrain.
Tian Shan Mountains
This mountain range, also known as the “Mountains of Heaven,” provides some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in Kazakhstan. Ideal for hiking, trekking, and mountaineering, the Tian Shan Mountains offer an adventurous escape for nature lovers. The region is also home to the Khan Tengri peak, one of the highest summits in the world.
Located near Almaty, Lake Issyk is a stunning mountain lake formed approximately 8,000 years ago by a landslide. Known for its emerald-colored water and scenic beauty, it’s a popular spot for picnicking, hiking, and photography. The lake is surrounded by the Zailiyskiy Alatau mountain range, providing a beautiful backdrop for your outdoor adventures.
Often compared to the Grand Canyon in the United States, Charyn Canyon offers dramatic landscapes with its red sandstone formations. It’s an excellent destination for hiking, with several trails offering different levels of difficulty. The Valley of Castles, within the canyon, is particularly renowned for its intricate formations resembling ancient fortresses.
Known as the “sunken forest,” Kaindy Lake is famous for its submerged spruce trees that rise above the water’s surface. The lake was created by an earthquake in 1911, and the alkaline water preserved the trees, making it a surreal and unique natural attraction. It’s a popular site for diving and underwater photography.
Situated in the eastern part of the country, the Altai Mountains offer another haven for hikers, trekkers, and outdoor enthusiasts. The region is rich in biodiversity, making it a hotspot for wildlife photography. It’s also home to the Katun Natural Reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve
This is the oldest nature reserve in Central Asia and offers an incredible diversity of landscapes, including meadows, cliffs, and alpine scenery. The reserve is home to several rare and endangered species and is an excellent spot for bird watching, as it’s a habitat for various types of eagles, falcons, and other birds of prey.
Exploring these natural attractions gives you the chance to immerse yourself in Kazakhstan’s rich ecological diversity. Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of untouched landscapes, Kazakhstan has a natural wonder that will captivate your heart.
Skiing and Snowboarding in Shymbulak
Located near Almaty, the Shymbulak Ski Resort is the go-to place for winter sports enthusiasts. With its world-class facilities and long ski season from November to April, it’s a paradise for both skiers and snowboarders looking for an adrenaline rush.
Horseback Riding in the Great Steppe
Experience the traditional Kazakh lifestyle by exploring the Great Steppe on horseback. The endless grasslands provide an ideal setting for a ride, offering an authentic experience that harks back to Kazakhstan’s nomadic roots.
White-Water Rafting in the Ili River
For those seeking aquatic thrills, the Ili River provides excellent opportunities for white-water rafting. Navigate through rapids and whirlpools as you get a unique perspective of Kazakhstan’s scenic beauty from the water.
Mountaineering in the Tian Shan Range
Kazakhstan is a mountaineer’s dream, with peaks like Khan Tengri offering challenging climbs. Whether you’re a beginner looking to learn or an experienced climber seeking the next thrill, the Tian Shan range has something for everyone.
Paragliding over Almaty
For an aerial perspective of Kazakhstan’s natural beauty, consider paragliding over Almaty and its surrounding areas. Enjoy panoramic views as you soar above the landscape, providing an exhilarating sense of freedom.
Desert Safari in the Kyzylkum Desert
Venture into one of the world’s largest sand deserts for a thrilling safari experience. Navigate the dunes in a 4×4, go sandboarding, or simply take in the austere beauty of this unique landscape.
Caving in the Tien Shan Mountains
Explore the subterranean world of Kazakhstan’s caves in the Tien Shan Mountains. The limestone formations offer stunning stalactites and stalagmites, making it a mesmerizing experience for both novice and seasoned cavers.
Ice Skating in Medeu
Medeu, located in the mountainous region near Almaty, boasts the highest skating rink in the world. It’s a must-visit for ice-skating enthusiasts or for those who want to try their hand at this winter sport in a unique setting.
Get an up-close look at Kazakhstan’s traditional art of falconry. Several cultural centers offer the chance to witness these magnificent birds in action and to learn about their role in Kazakh history and folklore.
Cycling in the Altai Mountains
For mountain biking or long cycling tours, the Altai Mountains offer challenging terrains and breathtaking landscapes. The region provides opportunities for both day trips and multi-day expeditions.
Whether your idea of adventure involves conquering mountain peaks, riding the river rapids, or soaring through the sky, Kazakhstan offers an array of activities that are sure to get your heart racing.
Often considered the national dish of Kazakhstan, Beshbarmak is a hearty meal that consists of boiled meat (usually lamb or beef) served over pasta sheets. The dish is traditionally eaten with the hands and is a staple at significant events and family gatherings.
This is a special type of sausage made from horse meat, a delicacy in Kazakhstan. Kazy is often served sliced and is a common feature in Kazakh feasts. It’s a must-try for those looking to explore the full range of local flavors.
These are skewers of marinated meat, usually lamb, beef, or chicken, grilled to perfection. Shashlik is commonly served with fresh vegetables and a side of naan bread. It’s a popular choice for outdoor cookouts and is widely available from street vendors.
A traditional dish made from sautéed offal (often liver, lungs, and kidneys), Kuurdak is a staple comfort food. It’s flavored with onions, garlic, and a mix of spices, offering a unique taste experience.
These are baked pastries filled with meat, often lamb or beef, and sometimes mixed with vegetables like onions and pumpkins. Samsa is a popular street food and is perfect for those on-the-go.
These deep-fried dough balls are a popular snack and are often served during celebrations and holidays. They can be enjoyed plain, sprinkled with sugar, or dipped in honey for added sweetness.
These are steamed dumplings filled with meat, often lamb or beef, and sometimes mixed with pumpkin or potatoes. Manti are usually topped with sour cream and are a comforting dish enjoyed year-round.
Fermented Dairy Products
Kazakhstan has a variety of fermented dairy products that are a common part of the daily diet. Drinks like Shubat (fermented camel’s milk) and Kumis (fermented horse’s milk) are widely consumed and are believed to have various health benefits.
This is a noodle dish of Uyghur origin but is widely popular in Kazakhstan. It consists of hand-pulled noodles served in a meaty broth, often with vegetables. It’s a filling meal perfect for cold days.
This traditional bread is baked in a tandoor oven and has a distinctive shape and flavor. It’s commonly served as a side dish and is a staple in most Kazakh meals.
Kazakhstan’s local cuisine is deeply rooted in the country’s nomadic history and cultural influences from neighboring regions. With a focus on hearty meats, fresh vegetables, and flavorful spices, the food here offers a diverse range of tastes and textures that are sure to satisfy any palate.
Travel Tips and Safety
Currency and Payments
The official currency of Kazakhstan is the Kazakhstani Tenge (KZT). While credit cards are accepted in major cities like Almaty and Nur-Sultan, it’s advisable to carry cash when traveling to rural areas. ATMs are widely available, but it’s a good idea to keep some small bills and coins for public transport and small purchases.
Kazakhstani Tenge current exchange rates
- 100 KZT = $0.22 or $1 = 459.87 Kazakhstani Tenge
- 100 KZT = €0.20 or €1 = 500.91 Kazakhstani Tenge
- 100 KZT = 0.17 British Pounds
- 100 KZT = 0.33 Australian Dollar
- 100 KZT = 0.29 Canadian Dollar
- 100 KZT = 2.27 Swedish Krona
- 100 KZT = 0.86 Polish Zloty
- 100 KZT = 4.85 Czech Koruna
- 100 KZT = 281.57 South Korean Won
- 100 KZT = 1.54 Chinese Yuan
- 100 KZT = 31.93 Japanese Yen
While Kazakh is the official language, Russian is also widely spoken and understood. English is not as commonly spoken, so it’s helpful to know basic phrases in either Kazakh or Russian. Translation apps can also be handy in a pinch.
Local Customs and Etiquette
Kazakhstan has a mix of Russian and Central Asian cultures, and understanding local customs can enhance your travel experience. For example, it’s considered polite to decline a food or drink offering at least once before accepting. Also, dress modestly when visiting religious sites.
Public transportation, including buses and metros, is generally reliable and inexpensive in the cities. However, English signage is limited, so planning ahead is advisable. Taxis are plentiful, but make sure to agree on a fare before the ride or use a ride-hailing app to avoid being overcharged.
Tap water is generally not safe to drink, so it’s best to stick to bottled water. Make sure you’re up-to-date on routine vaccines, and consider additional vaccinations like Hepatitis A and Typhoid, especially if you plan on exploring rural areas.
Kazakhstan is generally a safe country for travelers, but like any destination, it’s advisable to take basic precautions. Keep an eye on your belongings in crowded places and avoid walking alone at night in areas that aren’t well-lit. Police are generally helpful, but may not speak English, so having a translation app can be useful.
Adventure Activity Precautions
If you plan on participating in adventure activities like mountaineering or skiing, make sure to go with reputable operators who follow safety standards. Also, ensure that your travel insurance covers adventure activities.
SIM cards are readily available and offer good coverage in cities and towns. However, if you’re venturing into remote areas, consider getting a SIM with extended coverage. Wi-Fi is widely available in hotels, cafes, and public spaces in cities.
The general emergency number for police, fire, and ambulance services is 112. It’s advisable to also have the contact details of your country’s embassy or consulate.
Being aware of these tips and safety guidelines can help you navigate your way through Kazakhstan more comfortably and securely. Prepare in advance, be mindful of local customs, and enjoy all that this beautiful and diverse country has to offer.
Best Time to Visit
Spring: April to June
Spring is a fantastic time to visit Kazakhstan, especially if you’re interested in outdoor activities like hiking and bird-watching. The Great Steppe is in full bloom, and the weather is generally mild. This is also a great time to visit the Aksu-Zhabagly Nature Reserve to see rare and endangered species in their natural habitat.
Summer: June to September
Summers are warm and offer the best conditions for camping, trekking, and mountaineering, especially in the Tian Shan and Altai Mountains. This is also an excellent time to visit Lake Issyk and Charyn Canyon. Do note that temperatures can soar, particularly in the southern regions, so be prepared with sun protection.
Autumn: September to November
Fall is harvest season, making it an ideal time to explore Kazakhstan’s culinary traditions. The landscapes turn into a palette of warm colors, and temperatures are pleasant for outdoor exploration. Autumn is a particularly good time to go horseback riding in the Great Steppe or to visit the vineyards near Almaty.
Winter: December to March
If winter sports are your thing, Kazakhstan will not disappoint. The ski season usually runs from November to April, with Shymbulak Ski Resort being a top destination for both skiing and snowboarding. Ice skating at the world’s highest skating rink in Medeu is another popular winter activity. However, be prepared for cold temperatures, especially in northern regions.
Festivals and Events
Kazakhstan hosts several cultural events and festivals throughout the year. Nauryz, celebrated in March, marks the Kazakh New Year and is one of the most significant celebrations, featuring traditional music, dance, and food. The Almaty Film Festival in September is another event that draws international attention.
Budget and Pricing
Travel costs can vary depending on the season. Accommodation and flight prices tend to be higher during the peak summer months and during major festivals. On the other hand, the off-season offers fewer crowds and lower prices but may come with limitations on activities due to weather conditions.
Choosing the best time to visit Kazakhstan depends on your interests and the activities you want to engage in. Each season offers its own unique attractions and experiences, ensuring that Kazakhstan is a year-round destination with something for every type of traveler.
How to Get There
The most convenient way to enter Kazakhstan is by air, with the primary international airports being Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and Almaty International Airport in Almaty. These airports are well-connected to major cities in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Visa regulations vary depending on your nationality. Many countries are eligible for visa-free entry for short stays, while others may need to apply for an e-visa or a traditional visa in advance. Always check the latest visa requirements from official sources before planning your trip.
Kazakhstan shares land borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Border crossing procedures can be time-consuming, and it’s essential to have all the required documents, including visas if applicable. Some popular land crossings are Khorgos (China-Kazakhstan) and Korday (Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan).
Once you’re in Kazakhstan, domestic flights can be a convenient way to cover long distances quickly. Air Astana and SCAT Airlines are the major domestic carriers, providing flights to cities like Shymkent, Aktau, and Pavlodar.
The train network is another option for getting around Kazakhstan. While it’s not as fast as flying, it’s a more economical choice and offers a unique perspective of the vast landscapes. Overnight sleeper trains are available for longer journeys.
Renting a car gives you the most flexibility to explore at your own pace, especially if you’re interested in visiting remote areas. However, driving in Kazakhstan can be challenging due to varying road conditions, and a 4×4 vehicle is recommended for off-road adventures.
For those sticking to major cities, public transportation is both affordable and efficient. Almaty and Nur-Sultan have reliable bus and metro systems, and taxis are widely available.
In recent years, Kazakhstan has been promoting eco-tourism, and several cities now have bike rental stations. However, cycling as a mode of long-distance travel is recommended only for experienced cyclists due to the country’s vast distances and challenging terrains.
For those who prefer a more structured experience, various tour operators offer packages that include transportation, accommodation, and guided tours to major attractions. This option can be convenient but is generally more expensive than independent travel.
- Kazakhstan Tourism Official Website – The official tourism portal providing comprehensive information on attractions, activities, and travel tips.
- Air Astana – The national airline’s website for flight bookings and special travel packages within Kazakhstan.
- Booking.com: Hotels in Kazakhstan – A popular platform to book accommodations ranging from luxury hotels to budget hostels.
- Lonely Planet: Kazakhstan – A well-known travel guide offering detailed information on places to visit, stay, and eat in Kazakhstan.
- Caravanistan – An online travel guide focused on Central Asia, including visa requirements, border crossings, and off-the-beaten-path recommendations for Kazakhstan.
- TripAdvisor: Kazakhstan Forum – A community-driven forum where you can ask specific questions and get advice from travelers who have been to Kazakhstan.
- Rome2rio: Kazakhstan – A website that helps you figure out how to get from point A to B using various modes of transportation.
- Kazakh Railways Official Site – Official website for train schedules and bookings within Kazakhstan.
- Embassy of Kazakhstan – For the latest visa requirements and other travel-related legal information.
- CDC Travel Advice for Kazakhstan – Health-related travel advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kazakhstan is a land of endless possibilities for travelers. Whether you’re drawn by its rich cultural heritage, eager to explore its diverse natural landscapes, or looking to experience its unique local cuisine, there’s something for everyone in this vast and often underexplored country. With options ranging from cosmopolitan cities to rugged mountain terrains, from luxury resorts to eco-friendly adventures, Kazakhstan promises an unforgettable travel experience.