Kazakhstan Travel Guide
Updated April 2022, The Kazakhstan Travel Guide was originally written in February 2020
No matter what type of traveler you are Kazakhstan probably has something for you, from awesome city breaks (especially so with new direct flights to Almaty and Astana from Europe), treks ranging from an hour to several days deep into the Tien Shan, the world’s largest cosmodrome, wind-blown steppe, craggy canyons, beautiful glacier lakes, arid rainbow mountains, and even a few ski resorts. In this Kazakhstan travel guide, you’ll learn everything to plan your very own trip, from the best things to do in Kazakhstan, where to visit, tips, how to get around, and more.
- Quick Kazakhstan Info
- Places To Visit & Things To Do In Kazakhstan
- Almaty & Around
- Southeastern Kazakhstan
- Turkistan & Southern Kazakhstan
- Northern Kazakhstan
- Western Kazakhstan
- Festivals in Kazakhstan
- Kazakhstan Travel Budget
- Kazakhstan Packing List
- Safety In Kazakhstan
Quick Kazakhstan Info
The currency in Kazakhstan is the Kazakh Tenge. The exchange rate as of May 2022 is $1 USD = 446 KZT. You can find ATMs and money exchangers in most major towns and cities.
Kazakhstan is largely bilingual with Kazakh and Russian being the main languages spoken in the country. I’d advise learning some basic phrases in either before arriving, but know that English has been growing in popularity.
What To Wear
In cities in Kazakhstan, you’ll see people dressing similarly to many other major cities in the world. Some people would describe the outfits as Russian-style.
Outside cities in villages and small towns you’ll see that people, especially the women tend to dress more traditionally with longer dresses with trousers, long sleeves are quite common. It’s best to err more on the conservative side outside cities to avoid stares and glares. For women that mostly means just covering knees and shoulders at least. Men tend to wear T-shirts or button-downs with trousers.
When To Go
Kazakhstan has a pretty brutal winter owing to the country being comprised largely of steppe. The best times to visit largely depend on what your interests are.
For hiking and trekking, the summer months of July and August are best, though still pretty good in September and even into early October. Spring and fall April-May and September-October are best for the more arid sites like Charyn Canyon and Altyn Emel National Park that are uncomfortably hot in the summer.
Most would tell you winter should be largely avoided owing to frigid temperatures, but Kazakhstan is home to a few ski resorts.
How Long To Visit
Kazakhstan is a huge country. In fact, Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country on earth, which makes planning for it a bit intimidating. With all that said, Kazakhstan is quite sparse.
In 3-4 weeks you can visit most of the major stops in the country, but you’ll need to keep up a decent pace. In about 10 days you can tick off most of the highlights surrounding Almaty in southeastern Kazakhstan.
Many nationalities are eligible for visa-free entry to Kazakhstan for 30 days. A single entry e-visa is available for several nationalities.
Going to Kyrgyzstan too? Check out my two week Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan itinerary
Getting There & Around
The most common entry points are Almaty and Nur Sultan (formerly Astana) international airports that are well connected with a number of destinations in Asia and Europe.
Other common entry points are the Kordoi Border Crossing between Bishkek and Almaty (though it is closed at the moment due to renovation and traffic is being diverted to nearby Ak Tilek), the Navoi-Kaplanbek and Chernayevka-Jipek Joli crossings that connect Tashkent and Shymkent.
There are several border crossings with China and Russia.
Getting around in Kazakhstan is mostly done by shared taxi, marshrutka (minibus), and train. For large distances like Almaty to Astana many people may opt to fly to save time.
Kazakh Food & Cuisine
Kazakh cuisine has a lot in common with its neighboring Central Asian nations. Kazakh and Kyrgyz traditional food I find to be the most similar owing to both groups’ nomadic tendencies and meat-heavy diet.
Much like the other post-Soviet ‘stans Kazakh cuisine has quite a bit of Russian influence. Dishes to try in Kazakhstan are:
Beshbarmak: Beshbarmak is a staple traditional dish that dates back centuries among Kazakh nomads. It translates out to ‘five fingers’ because it is meant to be eaten with your hand. The dish consists of handmade noodles, boiled meat (usually mutton), and onions. This is the closest thing to a national dish in Kazakhstan. I’ll admit that it’s not my favorite dish as I’m not a connoisseur of boiled meats, but then again it’s not the worst thing I’ve eaten either.
Baursok: These fried little chunks of dough are common appetizers in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Baursok are typically served with kaymak as a dip, a thick cream.
Non: Non literally means bread, and you’ll find beautiful wheels of non at bazaars around the country. Non is served with pretty much every meal.
Chai: Much like non, chai is impossible to avoid as it’s served with nearly every meal. You’ll almost always be asked chorny (black) or zelony (green)? before it’s prepared.
Qazi: Qazi is a sausage of horse meat, in which a slice may accompany your beshbarmak, plov, or other common main meals on special occasions. I quite like Qazi, but many foreigners I have found turn up their noses at the idea of eating horse. A great place to sample Qazi is at the Green Bazaar in Almaty- there’s a smoke horse sausage that is to die for in my opinion. Qazi is typically saved for special occasions because it is expensive.
Plov: Plov is the ubiquitous Central Asian dish of fried rice, garlic, carrots, meat and sometimes raisins and garbanzo beans.
Shorbo: Shorbo is a simple soup served throughout Central Asia of boiled meat (usually mutton or beef), carrot and potato.
Chakchak: Chakchak is a sweet that originated in Tatarstan and spread throughout the Soviet Union. Chakchak is common in Kazakhstan following a meal. It reminds me of rice crispy treats and other sticky cereal treats my Mom would make when I was a kid.
Places To Visit & Things To Do In Kazakhstan
Almaty & Around
Almaty is Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city. The leafy green city is unlike other Central Asian capitals (former or present) as it has a very European feel to it. Almaty very much reminded me of Odessa, Ukraine in several ways.
Check out my 14 best things to do in Almaty blog post for more info
Things to do in Almaty
- Zenkov Cathedral
- Panfilov Park
- Green Bazaar
- Kok Tobe
- Tour the Almaty Metro Stations
- Jipek Joli Pedestrian Street
- Arasan Baths
- Academy of Sciences
Best Restaurants In Almaty
Where To Stay In Almaty
Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake is located just outside the city, perched in the Alatau Mountains, and can easily be reached by taxi, I recommend using Yandex.taxi (similar to Uber) to hire a car.
Depending on the time of year Big Almaty Lake can range from a beautiful turquoise to an opaque pastel seafoam green. Try to visit Big Almaty Lake early in the morning for reflections of the sky and surrounding mountains.
Saty is a small village that serves as a great jumping-off point for further explorations to the Sunken Forest of Lake Kaindy, trekking around Kolsai Lakes, and visiting Charyn Canyon. There are several guesthouses in Saty that rent rooms to tourists and can help arrange transport to Kaindy, Kolsai, and Charyn. Saty doesn’t boast many must-sees itself, but the mosque and the cemetery are worth a visit if you find yourself with some spare time.
Where To Stay In Saty
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| Booking.com |
The Sunken Forest Of Lake Kaindy
Lake Kaindy is among the most unique lakes in the world. Not only is absolutely stunning it all boasts an unusual feature: a sunken forest.
After a large earthquake in 1911 unleased a large landslide damming off the Kaindy River, the valley began filling with beautiful turquoise glacial water. Eventually, much of the Shrenk spruce forest in the bottom of the valley was submerged. The branches and green needles eventually fell off the upper parts of the trees that rise out of the water, but the lower halves that remained submerged managed to retain theirs thanks to preservation properties of the ice-cold water, giving the sunken forest the appearance of being upside down.
For those wanting to make an overnight trip of Kaindy Lake, it’s possible to bring your own gear and camp. For those up for a real challenge, it’s possible to trek between Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes.
Plan your visit to Lake Kaindy with my How to get to Lake Kaindy guide
Kolsai Lakes 1, 2, & 3
Kolsai Lakes are a strand of blue-green lakes, commonly referred to as the pearls of the Tien Shan. Arrange a car from Saty and walk down the steep hill for views of the first Kolsai Lake. A short walk along the shore will bring you to a dock jutting out into the lake that makes for a great photo op.
For those that wanna take on a day hike, you can continue along a trail that connects to Kolsai Lake 2, and if you’re up for it, Kolsai Lake 3. You can bring your own gear if you’d like to spend a night at Kolsai Lakes, or there is a yurt camp at the first lake.
It’s possible to travel to Kolsai 2 by horseback.
Click here to read my blog post on Kolsai Lakes
Wanna join a group? Check out this Kaindy, Kolsai & Charyn Canyon 3 day tour
Southeastern Kazakhstan is pretty diverse for its size. From city to alpine lakes to desert landscapes that rival the Grand Canyon in appearance.
Charyn Canyon is comprised of several canyons that all have their own persona, but probably the most popular is the Valley of Castles pictured above.
Planning your own Charyn Canyon visit? Read: How to get to Charyn Canyon
Join this Charyn Canyon day trip from Almaty
Altyn Emel National Park is probably most famous for its unique singing dunes, that create an organ-like sound when winds blow from the west. The Aktau Range is another not-to-miss stop in the national park for its striated, colorful appearance.
Book this 2 day Altyn Emel National Park Tour
For those that plan to combine a visit to southeastern Kazakhstan with eastern Kyrgyzstan, the Karkara border is going to be the shortest option to get between the two countries without having to backtrack back to Almaty.
Check out my Karkara Border Crossing report for info on how to cross between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Turkistan & Southern Kazakhstan
Shymkent & Around
Just a hop across the border from Tashkent, Shymkent has a long history along the Silk Road. From its early beginnings as a caravanserai to becoming a center of trade between Turkic nomads and Sogdians, later devastated by Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde before being absorbed by the Khanate of Kokand and later sacked by the Russians. Back in Shymkent’s heyday, the city was well known for its fine kumis, however, these days, alcohol speaking, Shymkent is known for producing Kazakhstan’s two finest beers.
Don’t miss out on shopping at Shymkent’s famed bazaars. Shymkent is surrounded by plenty of natural wonders. Don’t miss out on Sayram Ugam National Park or Aksuu Zhabagyly Nature Reserve.
Things To Do In & Around Shymkent
- Central Bazaar
- Samal Bazaar
- Shymkent Regional Museum
- Sayram Ugam National Park
- Aksuu Zhabagyly Nature Reserve
Where To Stay In Shymkent
I’ll admit, I haven’t yet had the chance to visit Turkistan, but it’s high on my to-visit list. Turkistan boasts Kazakhstan’s best wealth of architectural gems, the centerpiece being Mausoleum to Kozha Akhmed Yasaui, the first Turkic Muslim holy man.
Check out this 2 day Turkistan group tour from Almaty
Things To Do In Turkistan
- Yasaui Mausoleum & History Museum
- Mausoleum of Rabigha Sultan Begum
- Hilvet Underground Mosque
Where To Stay In Turkistan
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Over the course of 40 years, the once large endorheic lake whose shores once spanned both into Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has nearly dried up completely. The town of Aral (formerly Aralsk) serves as a good jumping-off point for further explorations into the Aral Sea area.
Aralsk once sat at the shores of the Aral Sea and served as an important fishing port, but now is somewhat defunct, albeit easier to visit than former Aral Sea ports on the Uzbek side of what was once the sea. Efforts are being made by Aral Tenizi, an NGO working to revitalize the Aral Sea fishing industry.
Things To Do Around Aral
- Zhalanash Ship Cemetery
- Fishermen’s Museum
- Arask History Museum
- Kok Aral Dam
- Swim in the Aral Sea
Where To Stay In Aral
Space nerds rejoice, Baikonur is the world’s largest space launch facility. The cosmodrome is leased out to the Russians from the Kazakhs until at least 2050. Sputnik, Vostok, and Yuri Gagarin have all launched from pads within the Baikonur Cosmodrome.
For those of you that don’t wanna journey far but still want in on a little space action, you can always visit the Baikonur Metro Station in Almaty that’s interior looks like a spaceship and plays videos of space launches on a mounted TV.
Wanna tour Baikonur? Check out this 3 day space ship launch tour at Baikonur
Nur Sultan (Formerly Astana)
Nur Sultan, still more commonly referred to as Astana is essentially a planned city with an identity crisis. First referred to as Akmola, it dethroned Almaty and became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1997 and changed names to Astana in 1998. In 2019 its name changed yet again after President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned.
For transparency, I have not personally been to Astana… but my friend Dan from Dan Flying Solo recently paid a visit to the Kazakh capital on a two day stopover on his way home from a trek with me in Tajikistan in 2019.
His take: it’s like Vegas meet Dubai with a twist of Central Asia. So think big grandiose buildings, unique and strange architecture set smack in the windswept Kazakh steppe. Photos of Astana provided by Dan.
Join this day tour of Astana
Things To Do In Nur Sultan
- Hazrat Sultan Mosque
- Khan Shatyr
- Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
- National Museum of Kazakhstan
Where To Stay In Astana
Astana Best Hostel
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Set on white cliffs, Aktau looks out over the Caspian Sea. If you’re looking for a Kazakh beach break Aktau is the spot with surrounding fluffy white sand beaches. Outside of Aktau don’t miss the Mangistau necropolises and underground mosques along with the epic landscapes of the Ustyurt Plateau.
Visit the best of Mangistau and the Ustyurt Plateau on a 5 day tour from Aktau
Things To Do In Aktau
- Laze on Dostar Beach
- Visit the Aktau Regional Museum
Where To Stay In Aktau
| Booking.com |
The Ustyurt Plateau is a moon-like landscape that straddles both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Luck would have it that I first saw images of the Kazakh side of the Ustyurt Plateau the morning I was flying home from my last Central Asia trip, so there I was at the airport immediately planning my next adventure back to the region (needless to say Ustyurt is on the list).
Wild canyons, colorful craggy formations, and underground mosques dot the region that was once a lesser-used route of the Silk Road. It’s possible to cross the Ustyurt Plateau by train between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but looking at how vast an area this is, I would opt to go with my own transport or jump on an organized tour.
Read more about crossing Ustyurt Plateau here.
Check out this 5 day tour of Mangistau & Ustyurt Plateau
Given Uralsk’s position right off the border with Russia, Uralsk feels more like Russia than it does Kazakhstan. Most who visit Uralsk are either coming from or going to Russia, given its location. The main attraction here is the Russian-style architecture.
Things To Do In Uralsk
- Cathedral of Archangel Mikhail
- Cathedral of Christ the Savior
- Abay Square
- Uralsk Regional History Museum
Where To Stay In Uralsk
Festivals in Kazakhstan
Kurban Ait (Eid al Adha): The feast of the sacrifice that is known as Eid al Adha in the Arab world. Tradition is to visit the mosque, sacrifice an animal (usually a sheep) and feed everyone in sight.
Nowruz: Nowruz is celebrated all across the Central Asian region and Iran, marking the start of spring, or the kick-off of the New Year according to the Persian calendar. You can expect to find feasts and festivals all around the country, as well as Kokpar matches (the dead goat polo called Kok Boru in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Buzkashi in Tajikistan and Afghanistan).
National Unity Day: Kazakhstan is comprised of different cultures, traditions, and people. National Unity Day takes place on May 1st and usually includes parades and street festivals that show just how diverse a country Kazakhstan is.
Independence Day: December 16th marks Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. You can expect to find fireworks, parades, and concerts around the country.
Almaty Alma (Apple) Festival: Almaty is famed for its apples, so much so that in mid September the city holds a festival dedicated to the fruit.
Kazakhstan Travel Budget
Kazakhstan on a budget
8,350 KZT/$22 USD per day
A midrange Kazakhstan budget
19,000 KZT/$50 USD per day
Live it up in luxury in Kazakhstan
30,000 KZT/$80 USD per day
Kazakhstan Packing List
General Packing List
- Bradt’s Kazakhstan Guidebook
- Long sleeve
- Light fleece
- Trekking pants
- Warm Jacket
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Mosquito Repellant
- Prescription & Over the counter medications
- Inreach Explorer+ GPS/SOS beacon
- Solar charger
- External battery pack
- Hydration pack or water bottle
- 3 Season tent
- Sleeping bag
- Hiking Boots
- Lightweight cooking camp set
- Water Purifier
- Trekking Poles
Safety In Kazakhstan
Overall, Kazakhstan is a pretty safe country to travel in. Petty theft and corruption do happen so it’s worth being aware while traveling in Kazakhstan, but generally, the usual standard travel precautions apply.
Solo Female Travel In Kazakhstan
My first visit to Kazakhstan was solo and I never faced any problems as a solo female traveler in Kazakhstan on that visit. I did end up meeting another solo female backpacker who I joined and traveled with a couple of days, but otherwise, I was on my own.
My most recent visit was on assignment with USAID, in which I was with a group.
It’s worth mentioning that Kazakhstan still has a rather patriarchal culture, similar to its neighbors, though personally, I’ve found the Kazakhs to be a bit more progressive than the Tajiks in comparison.
Have Any Questions About Traveling Kazakhstan?
Ask your Kazakhstan travel questions in the comments section below.