Kazakhstan is a place of stunning natural beauty and rich culture and history. With so many things to do in Kazakhstan, it can help to narrow down your list to attractions in the two main cities, Almaty and Nur-Sultan. Both have an array of attractions, like the Almaty Central Mosque and Baiterek Tower. A majority of natural attractions in Kazakhstan, such as Charyn Canyon, Lake Kaindy and Big Almaty Lake, are accessible from Almaty.
1. Explore the former capital city of ALMATY
Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city, with a population of over two million people (more than 10% of the country’s total population). It served as the capital from 1929 to 1997, during both the Soviet and independent eras. Despite no longer being the capital, it is still one of the major cultural and commercial hubs of Kazakhstan. Almaty is located in the south of the country, surrounded by mountains and breathtaking scenery. It is a charming city that serves as the gateway for many travelers, who come in through Almaty International Airport. You can easily spend several days exploring Almaty.
Things to do in Kazhakstan | Top attractions in Almaty
- Ascension Cathedral – Also known as Zenkov’s Cathedral, the Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral in Almaty is a colorful and eye-catching structure with beautiful gold domes on top. It was completed in 1907 and built entirely out of wood, making it one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. Even more astoundingly, it was constructed without the use of a single nail. The cathedral is open to the public.
- Central State Museum – The Central State Museum is the largest museum in Central Asia, with more exhibitions than you can see in one trip. It was constructed in 1985 and is considered to be one of the best examples of modern architecture in Almaty with its majestic white facade and giant blue dome. The museum holds a collection of more than 200,000 artifacts, with exhibits on history, ethnography, and anthropology.
- Kok Tobe Mountain – A popular recreation area, Kok Tobe Mountain is one of Almaty‘s most prominent landmarks and can be seen from just about anywhere you are. The park on top of the mountain is frequented by both locals and visitors for its panoramic views of the city. There are a number of observation platforms for different vantage points where you can take fantastic pictures. The park can be reached via bus, taxi, or cable car from the city center.
- Almaty Central Mosque – Serving Almaty‘s majority Muslim population, the Almaty Central Mosque is designed to hold as many as 7,000 visitors at once, making it the largest mosque in Kazakhstan. It is a stunning, white marble building topped with gleaming gold domes. Construction on the mosque began in 1993 and was completed in 1999. It was built on the site of an older mosque that dated back to 1890 but that caught fire in 1987.
- Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments – A unique cultural building, the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments was constructed at the same time as Ascension Cathedral. Throughout its history, it has been used as a state reception site and a House of Officials for the Soviet Union. It was transformed into a museum in 1980, and today houses a collection of more than 1,000 different musical instruments dating as far back as the 17th century.
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2. Explore the current capital city of NUR-SULTAN
Nur-Sultan, located 14 hours away by train from Almaty in the north of the country, became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997. The city was known as Astana at the time but changed its name to Nur-Sultan in 2019 after former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. It has a population of around one million people, making it the second-largest city after Almaty. Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport is also the second-busiest airport in Kazakhstan and a main entry point for tourists. Nur-Sultan is a modernized city with numerous futuristic buildings and skyscrapers that make it a wonderful place to do some sightseeing.
Things to do in Kazakhstan | Top attractions in Nur-Sultan
- Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center – The most recognizable structure on the Nur-Sultan skyline, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center has the distinction of being the world’s largest tent. It reaches a height of 490 feet and encloses an area of 35 acres (more than 10 football fields). Inside, there is a concert hall, a shopping mall, a beach resort, a boating river, and a mini-golf course. Sunlight streams in through the tent, and the temperature is kept comfortable year-round.
- Baiterek Tower – The next most prominent structure on the skyline is easily Baiterek Tower. Constructed to look like a tree cradling an egg at the very top, the tower reaches a height of 97 meters (318 feet), to represent the year (1997) that Nur-Sultan became the country’s capital. It has become an emblem of the city and a popular spot among tourists and locals. You can go up to the observation deck for magnificent panoramic views.
- National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Every capital city has to have a good museum, and few are as architecturally stunning as the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Nur-Sultan. The blue glass and white marble building was opened in 2014 and is devoted to the culture and history of Kazakhstan. It is the largest museum in Central Asia, containing both extensive artifact exhibits and informative interactive displays sectioned into different “halls.”
- Palace of Peace and Reconciliation – A white-based pyramid with a stained-glass apex, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation was constructed in 2006 for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Today, it is used as an event venue and a non-denominational spiritual center meant to represent all of the world’s religions. The visually captivating structure reaches a height of 203 feet (62 meters). The base also measures 62 meters by 62 meters.
- Nur-Astana Mosque – Opened in 2005, the Nur-Astana Mosque is an awe-inspiring building with a large golden dome and four lofty minarets. The 40-meter (131-foot) high dome represents the age at which Prophet Muhammed received the revelations, and the 63-meter (207-foot) high minarets represent the age at which he died. The interior can accommodate a total of 5,000 visitors, making it Central Asia’s third-biggest mosque.
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3. Marvel at the beautiful color of BIG ALMATY LAKE
Big Almaty Lake is an absolutely brilliant turquoise glacial lake located in the mountains near Almaty. The color of the lake is due to the glacial flour (tiny rock sediments even smaller than sand) suspended in the water. It flows into the Big Almaty River, which then meanders down to the city. Three mountain peaks sit behind the lake and provide a stunning background for photos. The turquoise color is most vivid during the months of September and October, and the water takes on a more milky hue during the spring melt.
The lake sits over 8,000 feet above sea level and serves as a natural reservoir and source of drinking water for the city and the surrounding region. Because of this, visitors are not allowed to recreate in the water. However, the amazing views alone are worth making the trip out. Big Almaty Lake is about nine miles away from the city and accessible by car, though the drive takes about an hour. The best way to get there is to take a taxi. It is also a popular hiking day trip from Almaty if you’re looking for a challenge.
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4. Hear the SINGING DUNE in ALTYN EMEL NATIONAL PARK
Altyn Emel National Park encompasses a vast stretch of desert and rocky terrain to the northeast of Almaty. It was established in 1996 and covers an area of 1,776 square miles. The most intriguing feature of the park is the giant sand dune that “sings” when the wind blows over it or when you take a slide down the dune from the top. The sound is akin to the deep rumble of a jet engine. The size of the dune is impressive as well, at 394 feet tall and almost a mile long. It also has a beautiful crescent shape.
Reaching the sand dune from Almaty is quite a trek, but the journey is worth it, and it makes a fantastic day trip. First, you must take a roughly three-hour drive to the settlement of Basshiy, which is located inside Altyn Emel National Park. From there, it is another couple of hours to the sand dune. You can choose to get there independently, or you can sign up for a tour. Make sure you bring a lot of water, as the park and especially the area around the dune is very dry and dusty.
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5. Go on an adventure in CHARYN CANYON
Charyn Canyon National Park, also sometimes written as Sharyn Canyon, contains a colorful canyon carved by the Charyn River located in the eastern part of Kazakhstan, not far from the border with China. Though not as large as the Grand Canyon, it is often referred to as the Grand Canyon’s “little brother.” It is also described as being equally impressive. Charyn Canyon is 96 miles in length and known for having steep sides with vivid gradations and beautiful rock formations. The hues of the rocks range from orange, to red, to light brown.
In addition to viewing the jaw-dropping scenery, the canyon is popular for hiking, canoeing, fishing, and white water rafting. The most striking rock formations are found in the Valley of the Castles, which is the only area accessible by car. Bus tours are available as well. From here, you can take off on foot along one of the many trails to other parts of the canyon. Charyn Canyon National Park is about a three-hour drive from Almaty, located 120 miles east of the city.
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6. See KOLSAI LAKES, the most beautiful lakes in the country
Kazakhstan is certainly not lacking in stunning natural wonders. Another of these must-visit beautiful places are the Kolsai Lakes located 178 miles southeast of Almaty, very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. It takes about four hours to reach the lakes, but the excursion pays off with some of the most amazing views in the country. The system of three lakes is nestled between the mountains and surrounded by verdant pine and spruce forests. They are known for their exceeding clarity and their mirror-like reflection of the scenery. You can take a plethora of stunning shots that will leave the viewer guessing which way is up.
Many people undertake multi-day hiking trips to see all three lakes, staying in simple lodges along the way. The first lake is located at an elevation of 3,280 feet, the second at 8,202 feet, and the third at 8,858 feet. By the third lake, the elevation causes the forests to give way to mountain pastures. Seeing all three Kolsai Lakes is one of the best outdoor adventures in Kazakhstan.
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7. Take in the unique scenery at LAKE KAINDY
Lake Kaindy is just to the west of Kolsai Lakes, and you should include it as a stop on your itinerary if you’ve come out this far east from Almaty. The lake was actually recently formed, geologically speaking, from a landslide that was triggered by a 1911 earthquake. The earthquake created a dam, which in turn blocked the river that used to pass through unimpeded. Lake Kaindy sits 6,600 feet above sea level, and while it is only 1,300 feet long, it reaches depths of nearly 100 feet. The most visually unique feature of the lake is the bare, submerged tree trunks that rise out of the surface, standing where they were when the water submerged them. It is often referred to as a “sunken forest.” The lake is bluish-green in color due to the limestone deposits in the water.
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8. Admire the ancient petroglyphs at TAMGALY
Tamgaly is a wonderful combination of both a natural and a cultural site. The setting is a dramatic gorge with walls covered in ancient petroglyphs (images created by carving into a rock face) and pictographs (images created by paintings on rock). The word “tamgaly” translates into “painted or marked place,” and there are over 5,000 petroglyphs and pictographs located throughout the gorge. Many of them date as far back as the Bronze Age and feature animal-themed designs. It seems that these early artists inspired centuries of artists and worshipers who followed and continued to create their own designs. The newer images, which date to the early 20th century, feature Buddhist motifs and often have Tibetan inscriptions.
Due to its immense historical significance, Tamgaly was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. The gorge is located 100 miles northwest of Almaty and takes about two and a half hours to reach by car. In addition to the main gorge, there are a number of smaller side canyons filled with petroglyphs and pictographs as well.
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9. Hit the slopes at a world-class ski resort
The mountainous region of southern Kazakhstan has given rise to a number of fantastic ski resorts where you can enjoy a cooler vacation tackling the slopes. The hidden hills, beautiful landscapes, and lack of crowds make for a magical and relaxing experience. You will rarely have to wait in line for a lift! Those looking for a bit of an adrenaline rush will definitely want to fly into Almaty and plan an itinerary that includes one or more of the surrounding resorts.
The most popular and accessible ski resort in Kazakhstan is Shymbulak. Located just a 40-minute drive from Almaty, it is the biggest and most modernized resort in Central Asia. The base of the resort sits at 7,200 feet above sea level, and the top elevation is an impressive 10,500 feet. It offers around 10 miles of runs and 3,000 feet of vertical drop, with an average yearly snowfall of five feet. The slopes are wide, gentle, and great for beginners. Skiing at Shymbulak is open from November to May.
Two other fantastic resorts accessible from Almaty are Tabagan and Ak-Bulak. Just an hour drive east from the city center, Tabagan is a full ski resort with alpine trails and a year-round toboggan run, making it a top spot for families. Ak-Bulak (Chernaya Trassa Glk Ak-Bulak) sits just a bit further west than Tabagan. It is known for its warm, sunny, and rarely windy weather, which makes for comfortable skiing conditions.
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10. Immerse yourself in history in TURKISTAN
Turkistan is an important historic city dating back to at least the 4th century AD, and it is one of Kazakhstan’s only remaining sites from this period. As it was located along the Silk Road, Turkistan was a significant commercial center at the time. The city continued to thrive into the 12th century when a Sufi saint named Khoja Ahmed Yasawi made it his home. Yasawi preached and was buried here, and the mausoleum built to commemorate him serves as a pilgrimage site to this day. It is a masterful work of architecture and is still widely recognized as one of the most beautiful buildings in the country. It has also been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Today, Turkistan functions as the administrative center of the Turkistan Region. In addition to Yasawi’s mausoleum, the city is home to four other historic mausoleums and a medieval bathhouse. The most common way for tourists to reach the city is via train or night bus from Almaty.
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11. Immerse yourself in nature at BAYANAUL NATIONAL PARK
While most of Kazakhstan’s popular natural sights are in the south of the country, Bayanaul National Park is located in the north, closer to Nur-Sultan. A usual jumping-off point for visits into the park is the city of Ekibastuz, which is located 87 miles away from the park and 194 miles from the capital. Bayanaul National Park was the very first national park in the country, established in 1985 to preserve the area’s flora and fauna. It is a favorite spot among residents of nearby cities for its many recreational opportunities. Swimming, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, and rock climbing are all common here. Lake Jasybay is the hub of much of the park activity, as it has crystal clear water and a nice sandbank to relax on. Guided tours to the park’s most significant natural and historical sites are also available.
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12. Learn about the history of space exploration at BAIKONUR COSMODROME
Baikonur Cosmodrome is perhaps the most unique and interesting site in all of Kazakhstan. It is a Russian spaceport located in the south of the country, 864 miles from Almaty in the desert steppe. Not only was it the first spaceport in the world, but it also is still the world’s largest operational spaceport to this day. Since 1957, it has served as the launch site for both Soviet and then-Russian space missions. The very first satellites and the very first humans to go to space were launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. It continues to be used for launches to the International Space Station.
Today, Baikonur Cosmodrome also welcomes visitors to its spaceflight museums and, sometimes, even to witness a launch. While the museums are accessible in the city outside, the only way to visit the cosmodrome facility itself is via a private tour. The two small nearby airports receive semi-regular chartered flights from Almaty, which will be the starting point of your tour if you are visiting from Kazakhstan (flights from Moscow also are available). Tours can get quite pricey, but if you have the budget for one, it can definitely send your vacation out of this world.
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