4 March 2018.
Set amidst the boundless golden steppe of Kazakhstan, the fantastically futuristic skyline of Astana appears from nowhere. A sparkling hub of innovation and bravado in the desert.
When President Nazarbayev surprised the nation by designating Astana as the new capital in 1997, it seems he had no intention of making the switch quietly, instead taking every opportunity to forge a cutting-edge ‘city of the future’.
The effect is an impressive, if slightly sterile, futuristic vision hugged by the curves of the Ishim River. Across the water, Astana’s right bank is almost untouched, maintaining it’s scruffy Soviet presence that still feels very much lived in. A nod to the city’s humble beginnings and a glimmer of its ambitions for the future.
We arrived in Astana in late July for the fascinating Expo 2017, the World’s Fair focussed on renewable energy and the city’s first major foray onto the international stage.
Though we much preferred the leafy, unpretentious streets of Almaty in Kazakhstan’s south, there’s no doubt that Astana is charging ahead to become the visionary city it was always intended to be.
Whether Astana is your first stop on an extended Central Asian adventure or you’re simply here for a weekend break, these are the best things to do in Astana, Kazakhstan’s futuristic capital.
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In the sparkling metropolis of modern Astana, there’s no shortage of impressive architecture to point your lens at.
The most unique is undoubtedly the visionary Khan Shatyr, an enormous tent-like structure which houses a shopping mall, rollercoaster and indoor ‘beach’ for the elite. Designed by Briton Norman Foster, this colour-changing construction stands as a shimmering bookend of Nurzhol Boulevard opposite the Presidential Palace. The translucent specially designed fabric ensures comfortable year-round temperatures within the enclosure, despite Astana’s bitterly cold winters.
Bayterek Tower, a golden orb cradled between white talons atop a latticed pylon, stands as the towering centrepiece of the new Astana. Perhaps a somewhat kitsch representation of a traditional Kazakh legend, the views from the top overlooking the city are spectacular, particularly around sunset.
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is another interesting feature in Astana’s glittering skyline. The blue and silver pyramid stands as a symbol of peace and friendship between religions and cultures and houses a concert hall, museum, winter garden and a beautiful interior glass display. English guided tours are included in the 600T ($2) entrance fee.
If you’ve got some extra time and are wondering what to do in Astana, you’ll find a number of other remarkable buildings in the city. Many of these key points of interest are very spaced out though so we’d recommend taking some kind of transport rather than attempting to walk absolutely everywhere.
Expo 2017, the event that thrust Astana into the international spotlight, represented a coming together of science, technology and art in a cultural exchange of ideas to celebrate the theme of future energy.
Though the World’s Fair is long gone, the landmark legacy of Nur Alem will remain.
Just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts endure as symbols of past events, this impressive centrepiece, the largest fully spherical building in the world, will remain as a seven-story museum dedicated to renewable energy, alongside various other displays to memorialise the event.
Curious what the actual Expo was like? Check out our full guide here.
This expansive Islamic site is the largest mosque in Central Asia and definitely one of the most remarkable places to visit in Astana.
The cavernous interior detailed in teal and gold is simply stunning, as are the floor to ceiling stain glass windows.
Be sure to remove your shoes in the dedicated changing area before entering. Women are provided with a full-length robe to wear inside while men are required to dress conservatively. This is a working mosque so remember to be quiet and respectful during your visit. Entry is free.
While almost all Astana’s main attractions sit on the left bank, we found the slightly rundown streets of the right side to be far more appealing.
As striking as it may be, modern Astana can feel a little cold and impersonal at times, whereas the downtrodden charm of the old town is simply bursting with life. Hole-in-the-wall snack stands, friendly cafes and busy locals clutter the sidewalks giving this often overlooked part of the city a much more lively feel.
There aren’t any particularly noteworthy sights over here but the contrast between the glitzy new and the unfussy old is stark. We also found everything to be far cheaper on the right bank where, unsurprisingly, many locals do their shopping.
A favourite of Astana locals, Borovoe (now called Burabay) is a wonderful way to escape the excesses of modern Astana.
Though we were slightly underwhelmed by the crowded village, the tranquil lakes and sprawling pine forests of Burabay National Park are quite beautiful and make a perfect day trip from Astana. There are numerous activities on offer including rock climbing, cycling and hiking, or you can simply stretch out in the shade and enjoy a peaceful day by the water.
Many hostels offer day trips from Astana to Borovoe, but if you’ve got the time, it is easy to visit independently and spend a few days in the area instead.
If you’re planning your visit, don’t miss our full guide to Borovoe here.
The wide flower-covered walkway that joins Khan Shatyr and the Presidential Palace can seem a little empty during the day, but that all changes when the lights begin to fade.
Food stalls open their windows, the fountains dance to music and light and art installations decorate the space, along with dozens of locals who spill onto the boulevard to enjoy the balmy evening temperatures while they can.
Even as the most modern city in Central Asia, Astana is a pretty mixed bag when it comes to backpacker accommodation, though new hostels are popping up all the time. We also found budget accommodation to be significantly more expensive than elsewhere in the country.
On the left bank, we stayed at Nochleg Hostel, a family-run establishment which was comfortable and well located right near Nurzhol Boulevard. The only small downside was that as the family live there, the common areas were often commandeered by their large group dinners or gatherings. It’s also not the easiest place to find as with most places in Astana. Search here for rates and availability.
On the right bank, we stayed at H8 Hostel, a brand new setup with a well-equipped kitchen and spacious dorm rooms. Search here for rates and availability.
For those seeking a little more privacy, Airbnb is an excellent option in Astana. New to Airbnb? Sign up here to receive $30 off when you make your first booking.
Though not as eclectic as Almaty’s food scene, Astana has some decent restaurants serving more than just the traditional Kazakh staples. You’ll quickly realise though that eating out in Astana is much pricier than elsewhere in the country.
Saksaul was a surprising find just off of Nurzhol Boulevard. The menu is extensive with plenty of the usual Kazakh suspects alongside some other really interesting fusion dishes and plenty of vegetarian options. Staff were incredibly attentive, the food was delicious and prices were reasonable for Astana. Check the online reviews here.
In the old town, Hot Spot Food & Coffee is a wonderful cafe to escape the bustle of the city and stifling summer heat. Its quirky design combined with an excellent selection of fresh salads and sandwiches makes it a great choice in Astana to while away a few hours. Great coffee and cocktails are also a bonus. Check the online reviews here.
If you’re on a tight budget, Izbushka is a local favourite serving up huge portions of tasty local and Russian fare. We tended to find portions in Astana a little stingy for the price and although this place is nothing fancy, we certainly didn’t leave hungry. Meals are self-serve from the counter and there are two branches in town. We visited the one on Dostyk Avenue.
Astana’s attractions a relatively widespread across the city, but luckily the bus network is relatively easy to navigate and an affordable way to get around.
First off, you’ll need to download the free 2GIS app which shows all the bus routes and timetables in the city. You can buy your ticket on the bus and standard fares cost just 80T ($0.25), though some express services are slightly higher.
From the train and bus station, buses 10 and 12 head toward the new town regularly.
Taxis are another great way to get around the city and, really, almost any car is a potential taxi. Be sure to agree on the price before getting in, though be aware that haggling is done a little differently in these parts. After confirming where you’re going, the driver will generally name their price. You’re able to counter or agree and from there he’ll either accept your offer and tell you to get in or simply drive off.
Understandably, tourists are generally charged more than the locals, but you can expect to pay around 500T for short trips around town.
With our limited Russian we found this a rather frustrating process as explaining where we wanted to go was already quite the ordeal, followed by a number of taxis that simply drove off and we’d have to start again from scratch with the next driver. To eliminate the hassle, especially if your Russian isn’t up to much, Uber is another great alternative, just be sure it sends you on the most direct route.