Old name : Akmola / Tselinograd
Population : 1,000,000
Ethnic Makeup : Kazakhs 65%, Russians 24%, Ukrainians 3%, Tatars 2%, Germans 1,5%, Others (Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Poles etc.) 4,5%
Language : Russian widely spoken, followed by Kazakh. English, Tatar, and German are spoken by minority
Religion : 69% Islam, 26% Christianity (mostly Russian Orthodox with a small Catholic population), 5% Others or Atheists
Climate : warm summers but very cold, long, and snowy winters
Electricity Plug Type : European
Major Airport : Astana International Airport
An important fact you have to know : although the capital city of Kazakhstan, Astana is actually the second largest city in the country. The title of the largest city belongs to Almaty!
When To Go?
Let me start by saying that Astana is actually the second coldest capital city in the world. For those interested, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia is the first. Canada’s Ottawa used to be second until Astana became capital in 1997. So unless you are brave enough to endure freezing temperatures of -25°C to -35°C with very thick snow, it would be best to avoid traveling there in winter. Winter starts from October (first snowfall) and lasts until March. The Ishym river stays frozen from November until beginning of April. I don’t think it sounds fun to visit Astana in winter months, there are barely any travelers around that time anyway.
The best time to visit Astana would be from June to September. High season for tourists is usually between June to August. Astana experiences summer during these months, where the temperature can reach up to 35°C or more. Brief rainy weather can be also experienced during the summer season. I was in Astana in September, and I found the weather to be perfect at the time. It was neither too warm or too cold.
How to reach Astana?
Unless you are coming in from another city in Kazakhstan by train or bus, Astana International Airport is most likely to be your first point of entry into the city. It is not a big airport, but it will meet your needs and is connected with several European, Asian, and Middle eastern destinations. From Europe, you can fly with Lufthansa via Frankfurt, KLM via Amsterdam or Aeroflot via Moscow. Turkish Airlines has flights to Astana from Istanbul while Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi. Kazakhstan’s national carrier, Air Astana provides Asian connections to Dubai, Bangkok, Beijing, and Seoul.
Do I need a Visa? Yes and No. But more information on visas here! And remember to register yourself with the local authorities if you are staying more than 5 days!
How do I get to the city?
When it comes to public transport, Astana currently has only bus network and taxis. They have plans to introduce metro/light rail in a few years but that will still take some time. You can take Bus # 10 or # 12 to get to the city center and it’s really cheap – only 180 T (€ 0,50), but they run between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm. Keep in mind that there are several international flights which land/take-off between midnight and 4:00 am so unless you have a local friend or hotel pick-up service, taxi is your only option. And even though taxi services within Astana are cheap, the taxis going to/from airport are freaking expensive! Expect to pay around $ 20 for a ride…
What’s the best way to get around?
I honestly would recommend renting a car if you can afford it. Astana seems to be more car-friendly and most Kazakhs seem to own one. But for the average budget traveler, there are three ways to get around in Astana : Bus, Street Taxi, and Taxi
Bus : To be honest, I found the bus system in Astana to be a bit complicated, and by that I mean getting to know the routes and timetable. And I’m usually good in finding my way through public transit systems. Nevertheless, bus rides are seriously cheap there. One ride costs only 90T (€ 0,20) and you don’t have to buy a ticket beforehand. After you get on the bus, a conductor will come to you and upon ‘transaction’ you will receive your ticket. The good thing is, many of the buses are relatively new! Unfortunately they are usually full.
Street ‘Taxis’ : Similar to hitchhiking, this is the most popular way to move around in the city for those who don’t have a car. Just like hitchhiking, you stand at the side of the road and thumb down any passing car. Any car driver which has free space and are going in the same direction as you will happily stop by. The only difference between hitchhiking and this is that, you have to pay them some amount – thus called ‘Street Taxis’. Best to ask them how much they want before you get in, but you should expect to pay between 500T and 700T (€ 1,40 to € 2,00). Pretty cheap and completely safe! Only downside – chances of finding someone with good English knowledge would be difficult, so it would be better if you learn a few basic Russian words and phrases.
Taxis : I’m not sure if it was just me or there are not many regular taxis in Astana. Cuz I haven’t noticed regular taxis as much as other cities. Nonetheless, taxis in Astana are cheap and safe. It should cost you between 500T and 1000T depending on where you go.
What to visit and do in Astana?
Here are my recommendations on how you can spend two days in Astana.
Where/What to Eat in Astana?
Kazakhstan is perhaps one of the few places on earth where you can get to try horse meat. And Kazakhs really love horse meat! So if you are curious (or brave) enough to try this, then most restaurants in Astana will have this available. Look out for ‘Beshbarmak’ – national traditional dish of Kazakhstan made of horse meat, pasta, and potatoes. And if you are not strong enough to try horse meat (like me :-D), then no worries, there are plenty of dishes made of chicken, beef, or lamb available. Kazakh cuisine is strongly influenced by Turkish, Persian, and central Asian dishes, so if you are familiar with Turkish or Persian food, then you will notice that there are lot of similarities with Kazakh food.
For breakfast, I would definitely recommend you to try Kazakh breakfast – it’s cheap, delicious, and quite filling! There are lots of traditional Kazakh places scattered randomly around the city which serve such breakfasts. Best would be to ask your hostel or hotel and they will surely recommend you a nice place.
Definitely try the Manty – steamed dumplings full of meat and onions. Similar to ‘Pierogi’ in Poland! If you are familiar with the rice dish ‘Pilav’ or ‘Pilau’, then you must also try that in Kazakhstan – though the Kazakh version is called ‘Plov’ and is considered more as traditional Uzbek dish. This very delicious dish is usually served with meat and bits of vegetables. You may be also familiar with the triangular-shaped Asian pastry ‘Samosa’. The Kazakh version is called ‘Samsa’ and it is different than the typical samosa.
Unfortunately, restaurants in Astana serving Kazakh lunch or dinner tend to be slightly expensive. Expect to pay between 5000 T (€ 14) to 10000 T (€ 28). I had dinner at ‘Satti’ at 32 Kabanbai Batyra Avenue. There are several Kazakh restaurants around that ‘square’ which you can choose from!
And if you are burger lover like me looking for a good burger place in Astana, why not try the ‘Shoreditch’ at 7 Kabanbai Batyra Avenue? 😉
Btw, if you are unsure about finding a restaurant or don’t have much time, then you can always pay a visit to one of the foodcourts of numerous malls in Astana. The food court at Khan Shatyr is perhaps the best one and you will find every cuisine there!
Did I tell you that you can also try camel’s and horse’s milk in Kazakhstan? Yep, these ‘beverages’ are also part of Kazakh tradition. Btw, pork is rather uncommon in Kazakhstan, although available.
Need a place to sleep in Astana?
Astana may not receive a lot of backpackers or budget travelers, but the city has quite a good number of cheap hostels catering to the average budget traveler. And because the city itself is relatively new, a lot of these hostels are located in huge apartment blocks and look quite modern! Some of the hostels you can try around the city center near important sights such as Baiterek Monument are Nochleg Hostel, Capital Hostel, EXPO Hostel, Hostel Nomad. A night usually costs around € 10 on average.
Currency Exchange and WiFi Connectivity :
€ 1 = 350 KZT (Kazakhstani Tenge)
Perhaps your best bet to exchange money would be at the airport’s currency exchange office. You can also get quite good rates there, even after commission. And if you need cash while you’re in the city, you can always pay with your credit/debit cards and/or take out money from an ATM.
Free public WiFi is available at Khan Shatyr and several other malls. Some restaurants also offer WiFi upon password request but the internet connection is mostly crap in such places. Otherwise, free public WiFi is unfortunately rather limited in this city.
Health and Safety :
Astana is very safe! Of course the usual rules to watch out for your belongings and staying alert applies like anywhere else but other than that, you really don’t have to worry much. Kazakh people are really friendly and will do their best to help you, even if they can’t speak English. Even at night, you can feel free to walk around and enjoy Astana’s nightscape and skyline.
Tap water is not recommended to drink, so always buy a water bottle instead. And of course if you are there in winter, make sure to cover up yourself as much as possible!