If you are wondering whether two days are really enough to visit Kazakhstan’s capital, then let me assure you. Yes. Two days are quite enough to visit Astana. I am speaking from personal experience of course. Here I’m going to tell you about how you can spend two days in the city of a million people. I am also quite sure that many of you are unfamiliar with Astana and/or Kazakhstan. After all, this city doesn’t often come to the mind of an average traveler. A reason for this could be that many are unaware of what to visit in this city.
Astana is relatively a new city and one of the youngest capitals in the world. But the city has been enjoying a lot of constructions and developments, attracting investors and tourists alike. If you are looking for nature or natural landscape, Astana is not the right place for you. But if you are into city sightseeing and modern architecture, then Astana has lots to offer! Therefore let’s have a look at what you can visit in Astana in just two days and hopefully at the end of this post, you will know a lot about this city and perhaps jot it down on your list 🙂
Let’s divide Astana into two parts – western side and eastern side of the Ishym river. Ishym river, also called Esil river in Kazakh, is the main river which flows through the city. Your first day in Astana can be spent on exploring the western part of the river, where most of the central areas of the city lies. Let’s check out what there is to visit!
The older and smaller of the two major mosques in Astana, it is easily distinguishable from anywhere in the downtown due to its gold-colored dome and minarets.
Currently the third largest mosque in Central Asia, its dome is 40 meters high, symbolizing the age of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) when he received the revelations of him being a Prophet. The minarets on the other hand are 63 meters high – a reference to the age when the Prophet passed away. Finished in 2008, the structure consists of glass, granite, concrete, and alucobond. The mosque has a very beautiful interior and was my favorite feature of this house of worship!
The Mosque is open for all visitors throughout the day and everyone is expected to dress conservatively and cover up to respect the rules of mosque visit like anywhere else.
Just a km away from Nur-Astana Mosque, you will notice a futuristic giant transparent tent. This is the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, world’s highest tensile structure.
Opened in 2010, the area underneath the tent is larger than 10 football stadiums! But what’s under this huge tent? Well, definitely a shopping mall – probably the best and largest in Kazakhstan. But your ‘entertainment’ is not limited here because there is an indoor park, minigolf, and… wait for it… an indoor beach resort! But you will actually have to pay extra to get into the indoor beach resort and the park.
Here is an interesting fact about this complex. The transparent material of the ‘tent’ allows direct sunlight through and this in combination with heating + cooling systems as well as stack effect is designed to keep an internal temperature between 15°C – 30°C ! So even if outside is freezing cold during the winter or uncomfortably hot during summer, you can definitely feel comfortable inside Khan Shatyr.
Just a block away from the Khan Shatyr is the recently built Astana Opera. Those interested in architecture will certainly admire this beautiful building! For me personally, it is one of my favorite opera houses in the world.
Bayterek, named after tall poplar tree, is perhaps the symbolic icon of Astana. This 105 meter tall monument and observation tower stands right at the centerpoint of the city. The tower serves as another fine example of futuristic architecture of the city.
Astana became Kazakhstan’s capital city just in 1997 and thus the observation deck is located at 97 meters above. But I must say, I was really disappointed with the observation deck. Like most observation decks around the world, this one is not on a ‘balcony’ but rather inside the circular glass dome (also known as the ‘egg’) …. You can still have great views of the cityscape with your eyes but unfortunately it is not camera-lens-friendly. Plus a number of glasses were actually shattered so it really requires some serious maintenance.
If you take a small flight of stairs to the second floor of the observation platform, you will interestingly find the right-hand print of Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev. You can place your hand in there and make a wish as well 😛 It costs just 500 T (Tenge – € 1,50) to get up to the viewing platform so don’t be shy to see the city of Astana from top with your eyes, could be worth it!
Ak Orda Presidential Palace and Parliament of Kazakhstan
The official workplace (not residence) of the president. This magnificent building with its huge blue and golden dome with a spire is definitely worth admiring from the outside. The golden statue on top of the spire symbolizes a sun with 32 rays with a steppe eagle flying below it; just like the symbol on the Kazakh flag!
When you walk towards the Presidential Palace, the Parliament building of Kazakhstan can be seen towards the left side. And it is not what you would imagine a parliament building to be. While most of the parliament assemblies around the world are one symbolic huge structure with specific architecture, Kazakhstan’s parliament is merely a ‘twin tower’. Though I must say I sort of like this building, as it features some traditional Kazakh patterns and structure too.
On the other side of the Palace is the Kazakhstan Central Concert Hall. The building is hard to miss due to its notable architecture, which resembles the dynamism of a flower’s petals as a metaphor of the dynamism of music itself. Definitely worth having a look around this unique structure!
Atameken aka ‘Mini Kazakhstan’
This is perhaps the best way to end your first day tour of Astana.
Disappointed that you couldn’t get to visit all of this huge, diverse country? Or perhaps you have limited time to visit Astana and/or Almaty only? No to worry then, because Atameken is here to cheer you up! 😉 Being in Astana can help you visit around entire Kazakhstan on foot and see everything, at least in a miniature version.
This outdoor museum has more than 200 models of Kazakh cities and historic memorials. So it is really a great way to meet and learn Kazakhstan’s other cities, history, and cultures. An entrance fee is 400 T but if you plan on taking photographs, then you have to pay 500 T (€ 1,50) which is a pretty cheap deal!
There is of course a big section for Astana, which is covered under a greenhouse-like building. But I wouldn’t really recommend it much, because Astana in real looks much better than the models. Plus you are in Astana anyway, so there is really no point seeing Astana in miniature form 😉
That might seem a lot to you for one day and you might be wondering whether you can make it all in a day. But apart from Atameken, most of the other sights I mentioned for ‘Day 1’ are located centrally not far from each other. I’m guessing around 6 hours should be quite enough to visit them all because that’s how long it took me (could be even less!).
Here we are then, time to explore the east riverbank! Interestingly, most of what you will visit on the eastern part of Ishym river are centrally located within a large square, known as ‘Independence Square’. This beautiful square is home to six of Astana’s architectural and monumental masterpieces. Let’s have a look at them :
Kazakh Eli Monument
Right at the heart of the Independence Square is the monument of Kazakh Eli – meaning ‘Land of Kazakhs’. The 100 meter tall monument is made of white marble and features a small statue of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the top is the mythical golden bird ‘Samryk’.
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
Another interesting architectural example of the city. This 77 meter tall pyramid building can be found inside the Presidential Park – right opposite the Kazakh Eli monument. The building plays host to summit of world religions every 2 or 3 years and has art galleries, museums, and an opera hall.
Shabyt Palace of Creativity
Just behind the Kazakh Eli monument is this blue dish-like building made of glass. This arts palace is actually the building of Kazakhstan National University of Arts.
New National Museum of Kazakhstan
Only opened two years ago in 2014, the national museum building is definitely a gorgeous one, especially at night! Although huge, the building is still party empty but still a nice place to learn about Kazakh history and culture. Admission is 1000 T (€ 2,80) which includes the 500 T extra for taking photos.
Palace of Independence
This building is host to most international and political summits in Kazakhstan. Other than this fact and its strange architecture, I really don’t know much about this building.
Hazret Sultan Mosque
Perhaps the best and most interesting feature of Independence Square, Hazret Sultan Mosque is the newer and bigger of the two major mosques (other one being Nur-Astana Mosque) in Astana. In fact, it is the largest mosque in Kazakhstan and second largest in Central Asia. Is it beautiful though? well, why don’t you judge after seeing the pictures below 😉
Opened just four years ago in 2012, this modern mosque features a blend of Islamic and Kazakh architectural ornaments. Its 51 meter dome is apparently the largest one in Kazakhstan. The four minarets are each 77 meters tall and the central crescent is exactly directed towards Mecca.
So how many worshipers can this mosque hold? This magnificent prayer house has capacity for 10,000 people, from which 3,000 are reserved for women! When I was there, I noticed quite a lot of marriage ceremonies and photography going on, so the mosque is actually an attractive location for couples wanting to get married. There are of course, other facilities such as a library, educational rooms, meeting hall, canteen, as well as souvenir shops.
Fortunately there are no restrictions for visitors. As long as the mosque is open, visitors are welcome anytime to visit the mosque inside. Of course, everyone should dress conservatively and cover up arms and legs. Ladies should also cover up their hair. A special note for the ladies – don’t worry if you come unprepared or not properly dressed for the mosque visit because inside the mosque you can borrow special green dressing gowns. This you can wear prior to entering the mosque. Plus of course, general rule of no eating, drinking, and smoking applies like any other mosque visits in the world.
Are there any churches in Astana? This question might be inside your head at this point. After all, Astana is home to significant number of Christians. 26% of Astana’s population follows Christianity, an overwhelming majority of them being Orthodox Christians. There are two important churches and a Jewish synagogue in Astana and they are all on the eastern part. After your visit to Independence Square, you can visit those places of worship.
Can be found at Zhumabek Tashenov Street, this is probably the only catholic church in the city. Catholics make up only 1% – 1.5% of Astana’s population. The red brick structure from the outside looks quite nice, but the interior was pretty simple and rather disappointing. Due to a mass going on, I couldn’t take pictures inside unfortunately.
This Orthodox church was more interesting! It was my first time visiting inside a Russian Orthodox Church and I was actually very impressed by what I saw on the inside. You can find it at Kuyshi Dina Street in the old part of Astana.
It was weird for me that there were no seats but perhaps that’s how is it normally in an orthodox church? I’d have to visit other orthodox chruches to know for sure! As is the ritual with most orthodox churches, visitors are expected to dress modestly. I was wearing a cap and I had to take it off actually, while women are generally encouraged to cover their head, kind of like in a mosque.
Unfortunately both of these churches are situated a bit far from the city center, so you would have to drive a bit. But I say it should be worth visiting at least the Assumption Cathedral! Oh and there is also a Jewish Synagogue called Beit Rachel on Alexander Pushkin Street; just about 600 meters along the street from the catholic church.
Astana at Night
Before I finish off, I’d like to stress something very important! Astana at night looks stunningly beautiful, especially because of colorful changing LED lighting on many important buildings and monuments in the city. It was wonderful to see that every few seconds they change different shades of color and sometimes even a mixture of two or more color shades!
So even if you have been everywhere and seen everything during the day, make sure to go out again at night (it is completely safe!) and watch the game of lights on the Bayterek Tower, Khan Shatyr Center, and the buildings in and around the Independence Square. The buildings called Grand Atalau on the embankment of Ishym river and Northern Lights Towers in the city center (the three towers next to each other) are also great places to observe the lighting effects. Last but not least, a visit to Hazret Sultan Mosque at night is definitely a must, in fact it looks much better at night from the outside with its LED lights turned on!
Many people say that there isn’t much to see in Astana. While that may be true to some extent, I personally am really glad that I have been there. I enjoyed my visit in this city and admired its awesome architecture and lights. I hope that you would also like to visit this city someday and the rate at which this city is developing and being constructed, I’m sure there will be lot more stuff to see in a few years. I have a feeling that they really want to turn Astana into ‘Dubai of Central Asia’ or something 😉
But two days is all you need to visit Astana according to this post of mine. But if you still have doubts or are unsure, then you can always choose to take your time and perhaps stay 3 days instead. No rule against it right?