Kazakhstan traditionally sits in last place on Silk Road travelers’ must-visit list. That’s not because of a lack of attractions. But it does get trumped by its neighbours on several counts.
While Kazakhstan has beautiful steppe and mountain scenery, there are no yurts like in Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia. Kazakhstan has interesting medieval Islamic architecture, but Uzbekistan has more.
Add to that the sheer size of Kazakhstan, few tourism companies and restrictive government policies (it’s getting better): more limiting factors in attracting tourists.
So why still visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan appeals to different people in different ways. Chinese travelers enjoy the fresh air (outside of the cities) and the lack of people, while Arabian visitors love how it is so green, and kind of Muslim, but not too much. Snow-white, ice-cold winters attract visitors from tropical countries.
For Westerners, the main selling point are Kazakhstan’s unique landscapes, dripping with freedom. On top of that, singular experiences include the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Semipalatinsk Atomic Test Site, the landscapes of Mangystau, the balbal of the steppe, glitzy Nur-Sultan and chaste Altai.
If history and politics are your main interests, Kazakhstan is fascinating as the country with the largest Soviet legacy, due to forced population transfers, massive industrialization and subsequent ghost towns, space launches and atomic bomb tests, gulags and banished Russian intellectuals like Dostoyevski, Solzhenitsyn, Eisenstein and Trotsky.
Where to go?
We understand that many people want easy, bite-sized advice from a travel guide. Gimme 5 highlights and a 2-week itinerary and let me get on with my life. We get that. But Kazakhstan defies any attempt at pigeonholing; on top of that, most visits are part of an overland itinerary, so it all depends on where you’re coming from and heading towards.
Have a look at our list of 40 great things to do in Kazakhstan to get your creative trip-planning juices flowing.
For the majority of visitors, Almaty region and the southern area around Shymkent are the only things they will see of Kazakhstan. There is nothing wrong with that. Kazakhstan is a very big country: in area, these 2 regions put together are bigger than the whole of Italy or Japan.
Together, they provide a great sample of what Kazakhstan is all about, both culturally, historically and in terms of natural beauty. Since they border Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, visiting the south and the Almaty region makes a lot of sense in many a overland itinerary.
If you only get to see 1 place: Almaty region has the most attractions and the best infrastructure. 5 national parks offer deserts, steppe, wildlife and high mountains, as well as history stretching back thousands of years, all surrounding Central Asia’s most buzzing city, Almaty.
Off the beaten track
Only those who like to go further off the beaten track (preferably with their own transport or a budget for tours) will want to venture into the other regions of Kazakhstan. If you have a specific interest like history, archaeology, botany or birding, you will also find much to enjoy here.
In the North, Kazakhstan’s brash new capital Nur-Sultan stands in stark contrast to the modest Altai mountains. Semey surprises with its museums and history, and serves as the gateway to the Semipalatinsk Test Site. Other northern cities like Oskemen, Petropavl, Pavlodar, Ridder and Ekibastuz are trying to acquire a life of their own after being willed into existence by the Soviet state to build up its industrial base.
In the West, the oil towns of Atyrau and Aqtau border the Caspian Sea, but tourists come instead for its hinterland of stark desert landscapes like the Ustyurt plateau, which hides underground mosques like the sanctuary of Beket-Ata. Separated by an enormous expanse of steppeland dubbed by one traveler as “the most boring place on Earth”, in the northwest, visitors to historic Uralsk and boomtown Aqtobe are few and far between.
In the Center, the steppe gets even bigger and more desolate. Remote steppe oddities of niche interest are Kazakhstan’s spiritual heartland at Ulytau, Aralsk and the zombie Aral Sea and space port Baikonur. Main cities are progressive Karaganda and keeper of Kazakh traditions Kyzylorda.
Trains, planes & buses
Kazakhstan is developing its rail network, and several high-speed trains now connect the major cities. Other trains are still slow, their speed reflected by their low prices.
Flights are more expensive, although low-cost airlines now exist in Kazakhstan: FlyArystan, SCAT and Qazaq Air.
For travelers who have the time, the train is a comfortable and budget-friendly alternative to the airplane. For those who don’t, the airplane is the quickest way to get around Kazakhstan with airfields in all corners of the country.
Buses and shared taxis are usually the only way to get to smaller destinations. Less comfortable and more dangerous, we do not recommend taking them for long distances.
Like train stations, city bus stations are a good place to store your luggage for the day if you are planning a stop-over.
Self-driving & cycling
Driving Kazakhstan is perhaps the best way to experience this huge country, since many of its attractions are difficult to reach on public transport. It’s the perfect way to experience the freedom of Kazakhstan’s great outdoors. Car rentals have become more affordable in recent years, in case you did not bring your own wheels.
Cycling Kazakhstan – there are some nice routes available, especially in the eastern corners, in combination with Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Cycling in the rest of the country is a real challenge.
Although Kazakhstan is less mountainous than some of its neighbours, winters do disturb the transport system. Snow storms can block roads and airports, or delay trains. Between May and October all parts of the country are usually easily accessible.
Getting to Mongolia on public transport is a long and arduous journey overland, either via Russia or via China.
For transport links to Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China, see the border crossings section and the city guides.
When to go
Kazakhstan’s landscapes are beautiful year-round. In winter, the steppe is covered in a light dusting of snow. Spring brings a brief flush of tulips and green grass, summer a scorching sun and the sound of crickets. In autumn, the golden foliage of mountain trees serves as a final reminder of the fading heat.
If you have the choice, the brief spring and autumn seasons are best in terms of temperature. Kazakhstan’s thermometers do get extreme, and some places cannot be visited in the dead of winter or at the height of summer.
Have a look first to see if you need a visa for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is pretty safe, all things considered, with traffic as the main danger. We discuss possible concerns in detail on the safety in Central Asia page.
Health-wise, there are a few things you could worry about: diarrhea, smog, tick-borne encephalitis and rabies.
Generally speaking, food in the region is unhealthy and of little variety, based primarily on meat, fat, pasta and dairy products. Few tourists become fans of the tastes of Central Asia. Almaty and Nur-Sultan are the exceptions, with a range of international cuisines offering escape from the tired local menu. We discuss your options as a picky eater.
Exchanging money, getting out money from an ATM or paying by card is easy in Kazakhstan. Buying a sim card and getting mobile internet is also not an issue at the moment, although you will need a VPN to access all of the internet. More details in our articles on money and banking and communications.
Budget and accommodation
The Kazakh tenge experienced a sharp devaluation in 2015 due to low oil prices and sanctions on Russia. Together with the rise in tourist services like hostels and tours and the subsequent drop in prices, it made Kazakhstan a very affordable place to travel.
Count on 3$ for a basic meal, 3-10$ for a hostel bed and a double room in a decent hotel starting at 20$. For a train ticket in an open carriage, it’s around 15$ per 1000 km. We go in depth on the budget question at the Kazakhstan travel budget page.
Hostels have popped up in every part of Kazakhstan in recent years, and now every mid-sized city has at least 1 good hotel. Almaty and Nur-Sultan have a lot of options for luxury and business travelers, and there’s also plenty of apartment rentals.
We dive deeper into yurtstays, homestays, winter issues, camping, couchsurfing, … in the accommodation chapter.
Tours and tour operators
We work with a select few tour operators in Kazakhstan, people who can deliver tours to the standards of the discerning Caravanistan audience.
Dina represents a large Almaty-based tour operator with access to the Baikonur permitting process, a fleet of vehicles and a large pool of trained guides. Asya and Alexey are well-traveled mountaineers with their own mountain base who handle our Tien Shan hiking requests. They also run jeep tours in the Almaty region.
Based in Nur-Sultan, Aigerim represents one of Kazakhstan’s oldest tour operators, in operation since the 90’s. Under the guidance of the legendary Gulgasha, no request is too big or too small. Indira comes from the world of logistics: she is our “wrangler of the impossible.” She loves food experiences and original tour requests.
Marat does motorbike tours in Kazakhstan and beyond. Valeriya, finally, is another foodie who is trying to bring the service standards she knows from her tours to France to the villagers of her beloved Altai region.
More country guides
More on Kazakhstan
- The basics