If you have limited time to see Kazakhstan, but still want to get most of the highlights in, stick to the 2 cities of Almaty and Astana for your travel itinerary.
Almaty is the ‘grand dame’ of Kazakhstan, with a pearl necklace of snow-capped mountains around her neck that invites skiers in winter and hikers in summer. Around the Soviet-built cosmopolitan city lies more natural beauty in the form of lakes and national parks.
Astana, the symbol of the new, oil-rich Kazakhstan, could not be more different: it’s all glitz and glam here, with brand-new skyscrapers in an age-old landscape of merciless steppe.
Discover both, and get a quick feel of the many contradictions within the vast nation of Kazakhstan.
Outside of the big boulevards, Almaty is a wonderfully relaxed, green city. Take a walking tour of the main sights and visit some of the museums and galleries. Almaty remains one of the most lively places in Central Asia, so come evening time, dive into the bars and the nightlife. Or sit back with a coffee in one of the hip coffee shops to see and be seen.
The next day, make an excursion to the Ile-Alatau national park, easily reached by bus or taxi from the city center. In winter, go skiing in Shymbulak or ice skating on Medeu, the highest ice rink in the world. In summer, explore the endless green pastures harbouring wild flowers and rare fauna.
The following days, get out and explore the surroundings. Easily reached with a day trip are the ancient petroglyphs and Buddhist markings at Tamgaly Tas, the amazing Charyn canyon, the high-elevation Big Almaty Lake and the Esik Lake and its surrounding tombs.
Almaty and its surroundings are enough to keep you busy for a good 2 weeks, but with limited time, be selective and head on an overnight train or a plane to Astana, 1000 km north.
If you’re a fan of modern architecture, you will gasp at Astana’s audacity. Take a tour of the city and feel the difference with ‘old’ Almaty. Visiting all of the city and its many attractions will take up 2 days, but you can (for now) still see most of the sights in a single day.