The daring combination between a modern, sprawling city made up of shiny new skyscrapers and a very particular set of celebratory monuments honouring Kazakhstan’s culture and folk traditions, it’s time to check out the best things to see in Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana)!
Capital of a nation with an already tough-to-get-around stereotypical fame (thanks a lot, Borat!), Nur-Sultan is certainly not for the faint of heart. In fact, when it comes to a tourist point of view, places can be catalogued in a very simple manner. There are those cities whose beauty and atmosphere are capable of instantly stealing your heart, the places that may not look like much at first but whose layers keep on surprising you the more you scratch the surface, and finally the cities that you simply don’t like. However, after visiting Nur-Sultan, I realized the Kazakh capital might well belong on a category of its own: the “What the F* happened here?” kind of city!
Make no mistake – if you get the chance to, visiting Nur-Sultan has to be on the bucket list of anyone planning to backpack in Kazakhstan. I downright guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Without any further ado, here’s what to do in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
THE BIZARRE HISTORY BEHIND NUR-SULTAN (ASTANA), KAZAKHSTAN
When a city has changed its name 6 times throughout a 200-year period, then you gotta know something’s off!
Officially designated the capital of post-independent Kazakhstan in 1992, its nomination as the new seat of government (replacing Almaty in the south) surprised pretty much everyone. After all, why would a small city seating right in the middle of the great Kazakh steppe, isolated from everything else, replace a much bigger and better developed city as the new capital?
According to official records, the President Nursultan Nazarbayev had great plans for the future capital, and since it would be impossible to expand Almaty any further, he went ahead and simply decided to create a city of his own. From scratch. According to his plans, ambitions and even building sketches. Even if that meant having the second coldest capital in the world, after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!
Be that as it may, and once Akmola was appointed the new capital, the city’s name was changed to Astana, which literally means “Capital” in Kazakh (would have loved to hear the pitches back then). Shortly after, Astana experienced a huge growth in construction, industry and public services, seeing a huge influx of ethnic Kazakhs from other provinces and more rural areas, as well as mass immigration from its neighbouring nations. The end result is a multi-cultural city that can be dubbed the New York of Central Asia (yeah, really).
Finally, the last chapter in the city’s rather unusual history came when the eternal President Nursultan decided to step down from official duties in 2019. As a reward and tribute for his services to the Kazakh nation, the new head of government decided to once again change the capital’s designation and name it after his predecessor. Hence Nur-Sultan, the current capital of Kazakhstan!
THINGS TO SEE IN NUR-SULTAN – DO YOU NEED A VISA TO VISIT KAZAKHSTAN?
Fortunately, Kazakhstan has come a long way when it comes to easing the bureaucratic processes for those wishing to visit the country. In fact, nowadays there are dozens of countries whose citizens don’t even need a visa to enjoy the best things to see in Nur-Sultan (Astana) or in any other Kazakh cities.
However, and even if you don’t come from one of the visa-exempt countries, it is now possible for citizens of 117 countries to get an evisa before arriving in Kazakhstan! You may apply online or find out if you come from one of the eligible countries at the Kazakhstan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official website, but keep in mind the platform is beyond horrible, with laggy features and bugs everywhere which can make the whole process a living nightmare. Plus, in order to apply for an evisa you also need a Letter of Invitation.
In case your nationality isn’t eligible for neither the visa-exemption or the evisa, then you can try to apply through a specialized visa service, such as Ivisa. They can guide you through the process and provide you that hellish Letter of Invitation.
THINGS TO SEE IN NUR-SULTAN (ASTANA) – HOW TO GET TO KAZAKHSTAN
FLYING INTO NUR-SULTAN
Gateway to most visitors wishing to arrive in Nur-Sultan, the Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport might still be the 2nd busiest in the country after Almaty International airport, but passenger numbers and available international routes are slowly but steadily increasing.
Plus, the local airport is the only in Kazakhstan where you can fly from Europe on a Low-Cost carrier, with Wizzair connecting Nur-Sultan and Budapest for air-rates as low as 75€ per person. Great deal for a 5-hour flight across 2 different continents if you ask me.
You can compare the best possible air deals through different aggregators, such as Momondo, Skyscanner and similar platforms.
ARRIVING BY TRAIN IN NUR-SULTAN
Arriving by train may also be a possible solution for those seeking to spend at least 1 day in Nur-Sultan.
Although the city is only connected to Russia for international train travel, with several weekly services from Moscow or Ekaterinburg, pretty much all major Kazakh cities, such as Almaty, Karaganda or Shymkent provide cheap (if long) daily services to the capital.
In case you want to book your tickets online, you can either rely on Tickets.kz or Railways.kz. Although the first one is available in English, keep in mind this is still a 3rd party service and therefore the tickets are a bit more expensive. On the other hand, and though the latter is actually Kazakhstan Railways’ official website, which means tickets are cheaper, the platform is difficult to navigate and you’ll have to write all the city names using the Cyrillic alphabet (we can help you with that though).
9 BEST THINGS TO SEE IN NUR-SULTAN (ASTANA), KAZAKHSTAN
Monument tower and observation deck, the unmistakable Bayterek is perhaps Kazakhstan’s greatest symbol, and therefore one of the best places to visit in Nur-Sultan.
Providing 360º views of the whole city, from atop Bayterek you’ll get clear views of the surrounding modern governmental headquarters, all the way back to the oldest part of the city located across the Ishim River. Tickets can be bought onsite for just 700 tenge.
On a curious note, and further cementing the idea that Nursultan Nazarbayev is promoted as a deity in Kazakhstan, this tower actually features a golden print of the former president’s hand, along with an inscription urging visitors to place their own hand over the print and ask for a wish.
Officially named Ak Orda (White Horde) Palace, this megalomaniac building serves as the official workplace of the President of Kazakhstan. Despite its grandeur, it was built in just 3 years, having been inaugurated back in 2004.
We recommend taking in the views of the building from at least 2 different perspectives, from both the Nurzhol Boulevard (coming from the Bayterek) and from across the river, with all the post-modern buildings and glass giants in the background. The views certainly grant it place on our list of best things to see in Nur-Sultan!
KHAN SHATYR ENTERTAINMENT CENTRE
Nothing represents Nur-Sultan’s over-the-top style quite like this one!
Though apparently just a cool-looking shopping mall built in the shape of a tent, inside Shatyr Khan’s premises there is a whole different world unravelling in front of your eyes. I’m talking mini-golf courses, a dinosaur theme park for kids equipped with a proper rollercoaster (good luck finding that in any other shopping mall) and – brace yourselves – an artificial beach with sand imported directly from the Maldives. Yeah, seriously.
If you’re into weird architecture and unusual sights, this one has to be on your list of things to see in Nur-Sultan!
Looks can be so deceiving, can’t they? Although this may seem the most classical-looking building in all of Nur-Sultan, the Astana Opera is actually one of the most recent additions to the city’s quite… eclectic landscape.
Inaugurated in 2013, it is said to have one of the best acoustics in the world, with an insanely beautiful main hall which hosts live opera and ballet shows.
If you’d like to catch a concert while in Nur-Sultan (Astana), then make sure to keep an eye on the opera’s official website.
With a maximum capacity of 5000 worshippers, the Nur-Astana is considered the third largest mosque in Central Asia. A rather generous gift from the Emir of Qatar, this beautiful building and its golden domes are wonderful to look at, and hands-down one of the best things to see in Nur-Sultan.
PALACE OF PEACE AND RECONCILIATION
They gave us a 2013 neoclassical opera and a tent-shaped mall but… what about a palace built in the shape of a pyramid? Well, why not?!
Since Nur-Sultan plays the permanent host to the Congress of World Religions, a super event which gathers hundreds of representatives from the world’s major religions, local authorities figured it would be a good idea to purposely built a palace just for this event which takes place every 3 years, promoting it as a token of tolerance and inter-religious dialogue.
All of that sounds lovely and rather commendable… but a pyramid? C’mon Nur-Sultan, now you’re just messing with us!
HAZRAT SULTAN MOSQUE
If you got impressed by the Nur-Astana mosque, wait until you lay your eyes on this beauty!
Purposely built to serve as the largest mosque in Central Asia, the Hazrat Sultan is probably the prettiest building in the entire city! From both inside and out, everything about this mosque is just drop-dead gorgeous, with its whitewashed marble façades, impeccably kept exterior gardens and insanely atmospheric interiors.
Personally, visiting the Hazrat Sultan Mosque was my favourite thing to do in Nur-Sultan (Astana).
Moving on to the city’s main hub, Independence Square may not have the finesse or impact of its European counterparts, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get to play its charms on visitors.
Surrounded by several different city landmarks, such as the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the Hazrat Sultan Mosque or the Palace of Independence, it has all the space and feeling of emptiness one would expect from a former soviet square. Nur-Sultan can feel like a ghost town at times, and this square stands as a good example of that inexplicable remoteness and desolation.
In the centre of the square stands a huge marble column known as Kazakh Eli Monument, a symbol of national sovereignty decorated with statues and reliefs depicting important moments in Kazakhstan’s independence process.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KAZAKHSTAN
Last, but certainly not least, we cap off our list of things to see in Nur-Sultan with the National Museum of Kazakhstan.
Inaugurated in 2014, this is a very interesting place where you’ll get the chance to see several exhibitions about different stages in the nation’s history. Although we did end up enjoying this museum quite a lot and were particularly keen on the Ethnographic Hall and on the exhibit portraying Kazakh territories during soviet rule, it’s important to note visitors should take the information displayed in this museum with a pinch of salt.
Wherever you go and look, it becomes impossible not to notice the cult of personality built around a certain someone (wink, wink) splattered all over the museum walls.
Still, very interesting to visit! Tickets cost 700tg.
We’ve seen our quota of weird, tacky places but Kazakhstan’s capital might take the cake! So weird that becomes impossible not to get intrigued by it! Curious about our list of things to see in Nur-Sultan? What else should visitors do in Astana? Let us know on the comments below!