Astana - The Capital of Kazakhstan

Astana, almost like a Northern Dubai, is all about money and status with high buildings, business centers and shopping malls. Astana, known as as Nursultan between 2019 – 2022, is the urban version of Kazakhstan and the northernmost capital in Asia. Astana has been the capital of Kazakhstan from 1997 when the capital was moved from Almaty and is located in the Northern Kazakhstan, on the banks of the Ishim River, being the second coldest capital in the world after Ulaanbaatar of Mongolia. The city is a result of post-independent accomplishments and a remark of the Kazakh gas and oil wealth centered in one location. One could also say that it is the heritage of Nursultan Nazarbaev, the first president of Kazakhstan.

Astana is located north from the center of Kazakhstan, in the dry steppe zone, in the subzone of dry fescue-feather grass steppes. The territory of the city is low floodplain terrace. The Ishim River is the main waterway of the capital but the climate is sharply continental – cold and long winters with hot and moderately arid summers. 

The territory of Astana exceeds 722 square km and the population is about 800 000 people. Astana is split into two parts by the river Ishim dividing the new city to the south bank side and the north side where the original old city started its life. The river Ishim is a 2450 km long river that runs through Kazakhstan and Russia and it is the longest tributary of the Irtysh River. Presidential residences, monumental buildings and the fanciest housing districts are also located in the wide roaded, car dominated south side of Astana. 

Table of Contents

History of Astana

Astana began its life as the town of Akmolinsk which received an incorporated status in 1862. It had already long been famous for its fairs and merchants from all regions of Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Central Asian countries traveled here. While the more quick growth of the area began, the town was renamed Tselinograd and symbolized the administrative center of an agricultural region. After acquiring the status of capital the city’s face has changed dramatically. The architects and contractors working in the capital have created off the world architectural collections, that harmoniously unite modern design and oriental flair. There area several “copies” of different famous buildings from around the world in Astana.

Astana has grown to be one of the largest business centers in Kazakhstan. All administrative organizations, the diplomatic embassies of 44 countries,  as well as more than 100 joint enterprises and foreign businesses are located in the capital. The city hosts very many and different international modern exhibitions, conferences, musical contests and festivals of the Kazakhstani people. In 1999, by the declaration of UNESCO, Astana was awarded the title of World City. 

The average temperature of Astana in January is from -14°C to -18°C and sometimes even drops to below -40°C. Summers are moderately hot, with plenty of rain showers and clear sunny days. The average July temperature is from 20°C to 24°C. The best time to visit is spring, from the beginning of March until to the end of May. During this time the steppe looks amazing with the blooming of tulips and other flowers with green grass everywhere. The area around Astana is dotted with lots and lots of small ponds and lakes meaning there is nature to be explored nearby the city.

What to See in Astana

Astana has an opera and Ballet Theater, a drama theater and a variety of museums. In the city, you can find many public recreational activities such as 3D movie theaters, theaters, area for slot machines and interactive games, multifunctional sideshow venue, bowling clubs, night clubs, casinos, hotels, cozy cafes, delicious and luxury restaurants, as well as an indoor aqua park or anything that you would expect from a big city.

Astana is not very walkable, especially in the new south areas the roads are 3-5 lanes wide and the modern part of the city has been made for cars mostly. In the old part of the city walking is more pleasant. Driving around with a taxi is still the best way to move around and they are fairly inexpensive.

Nursultan night lights on a bridge
River in Nursultan with a lit bridge next to it

Astana sights

Independence Square and Kazakh Eli Monument

Independence Square is located in the center of Astana and is used for official state celebrations. Kazakh Eli Monument is a fairly new architectural landmark, it is a column, standing on a quadrangular white marble foundation. The monument is 91 meters high, which signifies gained Independence in 1991 and symbolizes the sovereignty of Kazakhstan. 

EXPO Nur-Alem

The EXPO buildings dedicated to the main event of EXPO-2017 that was held in Astana is now working as a business center except for the main ball shaped building in the middle which now acts as a museum for the energy of the future. The main topic of the EXPO was also the energy of the future, renewable sources, and the environmental safety of these sources. More than 100 countries presented their developments in the field of energy of the future. The program also included performances by the circus Du Soleil, popular singers, composers, concerts and much more. Today, it is more like an educational exhibition about energy and on each floor held different energy powers starting from the wind energy and finishing with hydro electrical energy.

Map of Kazakhstan "Atameken"

“Atameken” from the Turkic languages means “Land of the ancestors”. It is a unique ethno-memorial complex is a miniature copy of the state’s landscape and architectural landmarks.  It is the chance to explore the entire Kazakhstan destinations in the miniature exposition. Separately, you can see the 2 largest cities: Astana and Almaty, and next to them another 14 regions of the country. The park is located in an area of about 2 hectares next to Central Park and an amusement park.

Khan Shatyr shopping center

Khan Shatyr is a huge typical shopping mall and entertainment center. The mall is popular due to a monorail and a beach on the top floor with sand from the Maldives. However, the main significance of the building its design. 

The building is composed in the shape that resembles a yurt like back in the nomad times and is currently the largest tent structure in the world. Here you can find all the shops of luxury brands in the world.

Khan Satyr mall with the skyline of Astana in the background

Astana Baiterek Tower

Baiterek Tower is the symbol of the city and the main destination where almost every single visitor will visit. The height of the structure is 105 meters and at the height of 97 meters there is an observation deck presenting an amazing view of the city. The number 97 symbolizes the year of the movement of the capital from Almaty to Astana. The Baiterek Tower contains an art gallery, a large aquarium, and a restaurant. 

The famous golden hand of Nazarbaev is inside the tower and the Kazakh especially arrive to place their own hand on top of their leader. At the moment of placing your hand you are supposed to make a wish and it will come true.

Palace of Peace and Accord

The palace of Peace and Accord is an unusual building, towering on a hill at the East bank of river Ishim in a shape of a regular pyramid with a length of the lower side and a height of 62 meters. It contains a concert hall, conference rooms, greenhouses, exhibition galleries and much more. A conference of leaders of world religions was held here and Montserrat Caballe, the Spanish opera soprano herself came to the opening. 

Astana Mosques

Nursultan Mosque

A huge mosque called Nursultan is decorated with four golden minarets and is located in the very center of the city, near the Water-Green Boulevard. Despite its size, it looks quite airy, and inside there are light walls decorated with surahs from the Koran. 

Hazret-Sultan Mosque

Hazret-Sultan Mosque is even more impressive, it is located other side of the river and is a magnificent shining huge building of white color. At the moment, it is the largest mosque in central Asia, capable of accommodating more than 10 thousand people at a time.

A kazakh girl trying on the national Kazakh female costume in Nursultan
astana, kazakhstan, new year's eve

What to Do in Astana

Astana Old City

While nearly all Astana’s modern main attractions lie on the Ishim river’s southern bank, there are still remains from the old town that existed before Astana was turned to the capital. At the north bank of the Yessil river, lies the “Old Town” where were just nearly 275,000 people living there. You can have a walk and enjoy the remains of the Soviet buildings around with more lively areas compared to the new town. There are also a lot of nice local restaurants with great food.

Presidential park Nur-Sultan

The territory of the park occupies about 80 hectares. The scenic Ishim River flows through the parking area there are two bridges located in different parts of the park named Arkhar and Arys. Perhaps the most stunning decoration of the territory is the fountain made in the form of the mythical flying bird Samruk.  The bird’s head is directed towards the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. The territory of the park is marked with paths and lawns so from a height you can see an interesting drawing that displays the main points of the zone line the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, the central fountain and the residence of the President Ak Orda.

Around Astana

Ancient settlement Buzok

In 1997, when it was decided to move the capital from Almaty to Astana, a Kazakh archaeologist Kemal Akishev, who also revealed the Golden Man to the world, was set to study the history of the central regions of Kazakhstan. As a result, the ancient settlement of Bozok was discovered in 1999 by Akishev. Furthermore, scientists proved that it was a military fortress of the Steppe section of the Great Silk Road in the area, proven by a collection of iron arrows, horse harnesses and ornaments found. 

Explorers assume that Buzok was an ancestor of the Astana city, which changed the impression of the capital’s history as in the past the region was considered being only of cattle-breeding culture. The settlement is characterized as an ancient Turkic cult center with the unique three-part settlement planigraphy and architecture, the ritual burial of a man in the Northern Quarter, and the sacrificial complex, testifying to the special functional selection of the object. The medieval settlement of Bozok is located at the Southwest outskirts of the Astana city.

ALZHIR Memorial Complex

ALZHIR was the detention camp of Akmola area (Astana region) “for the wives of the betrayers of the homeland”. This was the Stalinist gulag for wives and children of political prisoners who were considered as traitors. The wives were simply recognized as guilty as their husbands by the  connection. ALZHIR is pronounced just like the capital of Algeria in the Russian language. The memorial complex is located 40 km west from Astana at Malinovka and was opened in 2007. In the outdoor area there is also a Memorial to the Victims of Political Repression as well. 

The camp was in operation from the 1930s until to the early 1950s. It was one of the most famous camps in central Kazakhstan primarily because it had some high-profile prisoners, including artists and actresses. Staying in the camp was just as harsh as in any Gulag. It has been estimated to be holding more than 18,000 prisoners through the age of the camp and not all of them returned back alive.

Visit Astana

Astana by Plane

Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport

The easiest way to get to Astana is by air. The national carrier, Air Astana, flies to a wide range of international destinations with excellent service level. Astana is one of the two main hubs within the domestic flights along with the Almaty airport. Everyday Astana Airport receives a lot of flights if you are coming from the west, the mainly transfers are through Moscow or Istanbul and from the east through Singapore and from the south through the Dubai Airport

Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport is situated 14 km outside the city center. The best way to get from Astana airport to the city center is by bus. The bus stop is located opposite to the main exit of the arrivals area, and you just need to go through the parking lot. There are two bus routes from the airport: Bus 10 and 12. Both of these buses go to Astana Main Station. 

You will reach the center in 1 hour 40 minutes and it will cost you around 200 tenge cash. There is a taxi stop near the airport as well however it often happens that there are not enough cars at the airport. It will cost approximately 1200 to 2500 tenge depending on your location inside Astana. Sometimes they count by meter, 100 tenge per kilometer but it is best to agree on the price beforehand. It is also not a bad idea to book a car before your arrival through the taxi services like uber or yandex which are working well in Astana.

Astana by Train

Nur-Sultan 1 & Nurly Zhol

The railway system is well developed in Kazakhstan due to the vast distances between the cities. Astana has two railways stations with some distance in between. The central railway station lies at the Northern end of the city and is also known as Nur-Sultan-1 station. Another, a new station is the Nurly Zhol railway station that opened in 2017 as part of the EXPO-2017 construction project. 

There are mainly a modern Talgo trains running from the new station to Almaty and other region. Nurly Zhol station is located at the outskirts of the town  towards Southeast about 40 minute drive away from city center. Bus 14 runs regularly between the old and new train stations. Check carefully which one your train departs from. There is usually one direct train a day to major cities across the country from both of the stations. Express intercity trains leave from the new Nurly Zhol, while the slower and local services depart from the central train station. Train tickets can be purchased from the official website:

Astana by Bus

The cheapest way to get around Kazakhstan or travel to neighboring countries is by bus. There are many bus services between cities in Northern Kazakhstan and different Russian cities. During the high season it is best to purchase the bus tickets in advance. Keep in mind that some services charge extra for luggage. The bus journey can be long due to the huge distances of Kazakhstan, so even the most luxurious couches may start to feel dull and not that comfortable after several hours. 

Saparzhai bus station is located at the eastern end of the square outside the central railway station. The sign “Saparzhai” marks out in the building. Daily buses are going to the nearest towns and the tickets can be purchased online through stations’ website:

Sights & Destinations near Astana

Page updated 14.9.2022

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