khan shatyr kazakhstan

Look for sights like Khan Shatyr, a mall built in a translucent futuristic tent. (Photo: Bilal Arslan/500px Prime)

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11 Must-Do Experiences in Kazakhstan, From Almaty to Astana and Beyond

As the largest landlocked country in the world, Kazakhstan has a lot more going for it than its sheer size and vast oil reserves. The country, which is larger than all of Western Europe, is blessed with abundant natural resources, stunning landscapes and a vibrant cultural melting pot.

In addition, it is the most economically developed nation in Central Asia, defying the typical expectations associated with countries not yet ventured to by masses of tourists.

Given the size of the country, we’ll focus here on the must-do experiences in and around the capital of Astana, as well as Almaty, the nation’s largest metropolis.


Located in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau Mountains, Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, as well as a historical and cultural hub. Thanks to its geographical location, the city is surrounded by several national parks and lakes.

Must-Do’s in and Around Almaty

Marvel at the Charyn Canyon

charyn canyon
Reach new heights in Charyn Canyon. (Photo: Getty Images)

Kazakhstanis describe the Charyn Canyon as their version of the Grand Canyon in the United States. While Charyn Canyon might be smaller in size, it is equally comparable in beauty and natural grandeur. It is composed of sedimentary rocks dating back nearly 12 million years.

Hikers and wildlife enthusiasts visit this magnificent natural monument to enjoy a day in the outdoors. The canyon is located three hours from Almaty, near the border with China, and stretches for 56 miles along the Charyn River.

Lake Kaindy

Just 81 miles east of Almaty is one of the most surreal lakes in the country, formed as the result of a significant limestone landslide in the early 1900s, which created a natural dam.

kaindy lake kazakhstan
Lake Kainy (Photo: Lukas Bischoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The surreal aspect of the 1,300-foot-long lake comes from submerged tree trunks that rise above the surface of the lake, giving the feeling of a sunken forest. The cold, bluish-green water helps preserve the tree trunks, which are overgrown with algae and various other water plants. You can enjoy the views of the lake year-round or go ice diving and trout fishing during the winter.

Visit the Big Almaty Lake

One of the most popular sights in Almaty lies just a 45-minute drive south of the city in the stunning Zailiysky Alteau Mountain Range. Naturally, the mountain range is full of beautiful spots, but the main attraction here is the Big Almaty Lake.

Flanked by dramatic mountains, what’s most striking about the lake is its color, which can appear green, turquoise or even gray, depending on the time of year. Hike around the lake and its surrounding forest to enjoy nature at its best.

Ski at the Shymbulak Ski Resort and Ice Skate at the Medeu Skating Rink

Given their proximity to each other, Shymbulak Ski Resort and the Soviet-era Medeu Skating Rink make for a perfect, active day trip just outside of Almaty. Winter is the best time to visit both places, particularly if you want to ski or skate on the world’s highest skating rink.

Located 40 minutes from the city center at an elevation of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters), Shymbulak is the largest and most modern ski resort in Central Asia, and extremely popular with all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Three lifts bring skiers to more than 7 miles of trails, which reach a max elevation of nearly 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). If you’re visiting during the summer, the Shymbulak is also home to many valley trails ideal for short hikes.

See the Tamgaly Tas Petroglyphs

One of Kazakhstan’s most unusual sights is the 5,000 Buddhist petroglyphs of bodhisattvas at Tamgaly Tas, found on the banks of the Ili River just 100 miles north of Almaty. These range from the Bronze age to the medieval era.


Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana is the very definition of a 21st-century metropolis created by bold futuristic architecture and modern boulevards. Astana sprawls across the windswept steppe that covers most of the country, and it’s beyond the city where you’ll have the best outdoor travel adventures.

Must-Do’s in and Around Astana

Astana Opera kazakhstan
Astana Opera (Photo: sudok1/iStock / Getty Images Plus)

Admire Modern Architecture

It’s hard to miss Astana’s futuristic and over-the-top architecture. Take a walking tour around the city, and be sure to look for sights like Khan Shatyr, a mall built in a translucent futuristic tent; the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a pyramid built to host the yearly Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions; and the Palace of Independence, a trapezoid-shaped “palace” made out of blue glass with a white lattice.

Culture lovers can visit the Astana Opera, a neoclassical building in the shape of a Greek temple and considered one of the world’s best acoustically designed operas, as well as Hazrat Sultan and Nur-Astana Mosque.

Finally, historians will enjoy a peek at Kazakh Eli Monument, a symbol of the sovereignty of the country, and Ak Orda Presidential Palace, the official workplace of Kazakhstan’s president.

Reach New Heights at Bayterek Tower

This observation tower is another architectural wonder that mixes Kazakh’s cultural identity with modern architecture. The tower symbolizes the tree of life topped with the golden egg of Samruk — the mythical bird of Kazakh happiness.

From its observation deck, more than 300 feet above the ground, you can see a panoramic view over Astana. While there, make a wish by putting your hand on the golden handprint of former President Nazarbayev while looking at his former palace.

Bayterek Tower
Bayterek Tower (Photo: Frans Sellies/Moment)

You can also get a beautiful perspective of Bayterek Tower from The Ritz-Carlton Astana, which is just at the edge of the square.

Visit the National Museum of Kazakhstan

The National Museum of Kazakhstan tells the nation’s story from prehistoric to modern times. Its Hall of Ethnography gives insight into Kazakh’s nomadic culture, which still exists in some parts of the country.

Go Bird-Watching at the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve

Korgalzhyn is Kazakhstan’s largest national park, and it lies just 60 miles off Astana. Its fertile wetlands are part of the migration routes of migratory birds, which makes it one of the best bird-watching places in the region.

Birds you might catch glimpses of include the Dalmatian pelican, pink flamingos and white-tailed eagles.

Roam in Nature at the Borovoe Nature Reserve

A two-hour drive from Astana lies a picturesque reserve of lakes, hills, pine forest and rock formations that have inspired several Kazakh legends. Fourteen crystal-clear lakes surrounded by pine tree forests make Borovoe a popular nature getaway for locals and tourists.

While visiting Borovoe, you will hear legends and folk tales related to rock formations, its lakes and other natural features. These reflect the history and identity of the Kazakh people and their connection with the earth.