Bishkek the Capital of Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek center area is situated between the Ala-Archa and Alamedin rivers that intersect in the North side of city with the Great Chuisky Canal (Chui is the name of the region). Formerly Pishpek, then Frunze and since 1991 Bishkek (in Kyrgyz a stick to stir the mare’s milk), is the largest city and the capital of Kyrgyz Republic and is located just North from the high snow capped peaks of Ala-Too mountains. The mountains can be also seen from almost everywhere in the city by just looking South. Bishkek is not the most beautiful or the cleanest of capitals but it has a relaxed feeling to it with great nature around it to be explored.
Bishkek is a Soviet-built city with large boulevards and developing high-rises (no that high though due to earthquake risk) of around 1 million residents. The cozy, green and slightly cosmopolitan capital of Kyrgyzstan offers an exciting experience for the travelers with the nearby nature destinations and the laid back atmosphere. Bishkek has lately turned into be the town for the backpackers, cycle tourists and young expats due to the low cost of living and especially due to the liberal visa regime for most countries.
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History of Bishkek
The first mentions about Bishkek are from 1825 when Kokand fortress Pishpek was founded here. Pishpek was established to protect caravan roads transporting goods between Tashkent and Lake Issyk-Kul across the Chuy Valley. In 1860 Russians arrived and after a battle between the Russian tsarist army and the Khanate of Kokand the fort was destroyed and taken over by Russians. By April 1878, the administrative center of the county was transferred to Pishpek, and the village received the status of a city.
After the October Revolution of 1917, a rapid development of the city began. Pishpek was renamed to Frunze in honor of famous native Soviet military leader Mikhail Frunze. In 1936, the city became the capital of the Kyrgyz SSR. The city went through good and bad days in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1930s the Soviet Union transferred some of its heavy industries to the Kyrgyz Republic to hide them away from the Nazis and this improved the city’s economy to develop. However, a big number of intellectuals in Frunze were persecuted due to Stalin’s purges until the 1960s. During 1970-1980 a number of soviet buildings in Bishkek were built due to the first secretary of the republic Turdakun Usubaliev, who ordered the construction of the impressive marble buildings that still stand in the city center, including the National History Museum and the houses on Ala-Too Square.
Following the collapse of the USSR and gaining independence in February 1991 the city was renamed into Bishkek. Since independence, Russian influence over Bishkek has declined allowing Kyrgyz to add own decorations to their capital. The decorations involve for example Kyrgyz traditional ornaments and murals by Kyrgyz artists on many of the city’s latest housing blocks. The new buildings in the town have also a hint of East in their architecture.
How to Get to Bishkek
There are many international flights to Bishkek. If you are coming from Western countries you may take Turkish Airlines flights through Istanbul taking about 5h 30m till Bishkek. Flights from Moscow with Aeroflot take about 4 hours. Due to large amount of Kyrgyz workers in Russia the other major cities are also well connected to Bishkek
If you are arriving from Asia, you can take Astana airlines through Almaty or Nursultan taking about 55 minutes or 2,5 hours to Bishkek or finally Uzbekistan from Tashkent taking 1h 15 minutes to arrive. Fly Dubai also offers inexpensive flights from a more Southern direction.
There are direct train routes with Moscow through Kazakhstan and an indirect one in Tashkent in Uzbekistan that also runs through Kazakhstan. The journey from Moscow takes about 73 hours. Within the country only few routes operate between Bishkek – Balykchy and Bishkek Kara-Balta.
Train station in Bishkek is located South of the city center at the junction of Erkindik Boulevard and Lineinaya.
From Almaty, Kazakahstan you can get to Bishkek by marshrutka or taxi in four hours, the trip being 240 km in total. Minibuses and taxis to Bishkek depart from the Sairan bus station. Marshrutka will cost you 250 som a seat and taxi 400 som a seat. Yo can also take a taxi till the border and travel rest of the way from the Kyrgyz side with marshrutka or by another taxi. (Not all of the taxi drivers are willing to cross the border)
There is bus line between Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Bishkek. Traveling between the two cities by bus takes about 8 to 13 hours depending on the border crossings and the road conditions. The cost of a bus ticket is about 1500 som.
Manas International Airport is located about 30 km Northwest from Bishkek city center. At arrival, you might meet some enthusiastic taxi drivers that will offer you a ride to Bishkek. The most eager ones grab your bags and guide you straight to their car and will most likely charge you more than the standard price which is about 600 som. Most hotels usually offer the pickup with an extra cost but it saves you from most of the hassle while arriving. If you want to get a taxi from the airport, the most convenient one is the Manas taxi that have their own counters at the airport and usually English speaking persons present in the counters. There is a shuttle marshrutka (Aero express) service but it is not continuous and often not available at the time of arrival of international flights. It costs about 120 som per person. Marshrutka 380 also goes to the airport and operates from 7.00 unti 21.00 price being only 40 som. When leaving Bishkek it is recommended to organize the taxi ride to airport beforehand as during rainy dais or other disturbances it can take a while to catch a taxi. Booking beforehand can be done via the apps of Manas taxi and Yandex taxi.
Taxis in general inside Bishkek and for nearby destinations are half or 2/3 price if you use the apps compared to the taxis straight from the street. Apps always have standard meters so it is always a fair deal. If you take taxis from the streets it’s better to negotiate the price for the destination first to avoid haggling after the trip is already done. Taxi is generally the most convenient way of moving around in Bishkek. Marshrutkas can get very crowded and trolley buses or buses are not available everywhere. Especially during rainy days the city traffic can be quite heavy and you might end up sitting in one street for a long time.
Where to Stay in Bishkek
Bishkek offers a variety of choices depending on the preferences of travelers from low price hostels to fancy hotels in the city center. You can find great hostels for 20$ located in the center. Lately, Airbnb has gotten more popular and depending on you taste you can get cozy room and comfortable apartment for affordable price through the service. For the people who like to pay more, there are good options of five star hotels such as Hyatt and Orion which include saunas and swimming pools with other services as well. If you have adequate skills in Russian it is also not a bad option to browse the forums where people rent their apartments for longer periods.
Getting Around in Bishkek
The central part of Bishkek is relatively small and one can get around here by foot quite well. However, for longer journeys to the outskirts of city or journeying across the center at the night it is best to get a taxi or to use the city’s public transport services. Public transportation in Bishkek includes buses, trolleybuses, marshrutkas and taxis. There is a useful application for public transportation routes called “bus.kg” which has a Bishkek route finder app that you can download.
Many cars seem to have AC but almost no-one uses them and even lesser group of drivers maintain them. Driving culture in Kyrgyzstan is different and if you decide to drive then you should be ready for bad roads and to deal with aggressive way of driving. Outside Bishkek it is easier to drive also for Europeans but inside Bishkek only the bravest ones are willing to try.
The most popular form of transportation within the locals is marshrutka. They go almost everywhere and come frequently. You might see people squeezed staying next to each other in marshrutkas during the rush hours and it can get very hot inside the cars in the summer time. Sometimes you may notice how marshrutka drivers are multitasking: Apart from driving they count the money to give back the change, speak on the phone or even smoke while driving sometimes.
The main difficulty in marshrutka is to know exactly when to get off. When you think it is your time to exit you should let the driver know that you want to stop. Marshrutka fee is 10 som during the day time and 12 som after 21.00.
You need to pay in marshrutka after entering the car.
Taxis are everywhere in Bishkek and it the most convenient and quickest way to get around the town (though walking a short distance can be faster sometimes during heavy traffic). There is no uber, but plenty of comfortable, safe, and low-cost taxi services that work with high quality apps like Yandex taxi and Namba taxi.
Taxi fares start at 50 som starting fee adding 10-12 som per km so the fares within the city center tend to be around 100-150 som per journey. For trip out of the city center can be about 200-250 som per trip. Generally, taxis in Bishkek are relatively inexpensive.
Most of the drivers do not want to use air condition even if it would be working and mostly it does not even work.
Bishkek has a relatively small number of busses compared to the amount of marshrutkas. Buses are cheap though, only 8 soms per trip. Buses can be quite crowded during the rush hours and especially if there is rain.
The payment process in the busses works so that you pay at the end of your journey, so remember to give the money to the driver before exiting from the front door.
There are few trolleybuses which operate mainly in the city centers and Southern areas of Bishkek. Trolleybuses also cost 8 soms and are usually less crowded compared to buses and marshrutkas.
Enter the trolleybus at the rear door and exit at the front door and pay the driver while you are leaving
What to See in Bishkek
Bishkek is a compact town and one or two days is enough to see all that it has to offer. Having said this we want to emphasize that Bishkek is still a good base camp to explore the whole of Northern Kyrgyzstan. From the main avenue Chui and almost everywhere in the city you can see snow-capped mountains to the South (if there is not too much smog in the air that is). The locals usually refer to North as down and South as up since the landscape is constantly decreasing in level as moving North inside Bishkek. The city architecture offers a glimpse of the Soviet influence mixed with some Islamic and Eastern features.
Walking in the cozy boulevards you can see marble-faced public buildings combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks and a number of beauty salons. The most common profession for young Bishkek ladies seems to be a manicurist, make-up artist or an eyelash specialist.
The central square was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the soviet republic of Kirgizia. Formerly known as a Lenin square, today the Ala-Too the square is a place where locals enjoy walking around, celebrating concerts and festivals or organizing meetings and demonstrations. In 2011, a statue to the hero of the folk epic Manas was erected, his bronze figure reaches up to 10 m. During the same year, another two significant monuments were placed. At the Southern edge of Ala-Too Square there is a monument to Chingiz Aitmatov (the best known author in Kyrgyzstan’s literature). Little further from Ala-Too square next to the white house (president’s house) there is a monument to Those Who Died in the Events of 2002 and 2010. It was made of two massive stones, one black and one white, with a group of people pushing the black stone away from the white. This memorial is dedicated to those who gave their lives in Aksu in 2002 and in the revolution in 2010 for a better future for Kyrgyzstan.
Perhaps, every big city has streets that are loved by all citizens which reflects the soul of the town. In Bishkek it is the Erkindik Boulevard, formerly Dzerzhinsky Boulevard, but locals call it Dzerzhinka. Erkindik is a boulevard type avenue that stretches from South to North from the city railway station until Zhibek-Zholu Avenue. The total length of this green boulevard is 2.2 km and there are many restaurants along it together with ice cream trucks and other entertainment during the summer time. Local couples often sit in the many benches of Erkindik boulevard in the evenings and many seek shelter from the heavy sun during the day time under the canopies of old oak trees.
Another must-visit square in Bishkek is the Victory Square located in the Northeast part of Bishkek center. In the square there is a statue of a woman waiting for the loved ones to return home from battle. She is facing North, the direction in which the men went off to fight, under 3 granite half-arches that represent the supports of a yurt (a traditional Kyrgyz nomad tent). The crown ring where the supports come together is in the shape of a wreath with the Soviet star inside. The eternal flame sits at the woman’s feet. The flame in the middle never goes out and often you can see newlywed couples and young friends taking pictures next to the fire. (And some homeless people warming up during the cold winter nights).
There are two Botanical Gardens in Bishkek. Generally, botanical gardens in Bishkek are abandoned and not really taken care of. Only through the effort of some local enthusiasts and students they are still maintained in some level. The first and the biggest botanical garden of not only Kyrgyzstan but of Central Asia is located in Ahunbaeva street 1a. It was founded in 1938 and occupies 124 ha area in the Southwest part of Bishkek. This garden is a perfect place for jogging, cycling, and just walking around during the hot summer days. Official websites. Another smaller botanical garden is located in the city center, Gorkiy str 212 not far from the Vefa center. This one is more compact than the first one but also better taken care of.
You can see the city in the palm of your hand in the panorama. The view of the green city opens up from an easy-to-view point from a hill at the South side of Bishkek at the Chon-Aryk hill like Kok-Tobe near Almaty.
However, a comparison of the two mountains clearly explains the difference between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. While in Kok-Tobe there is an amusement park, a TV tower and a cable car but at Chon-Aryk there are only pastures, graves and empty plastic and vodka bottles with a bad road leading to it.
Bishkek is the Cultural Center of Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek is a cultural center with Kyrgyz and Russian drama theaters, operas, cinemas, and libraries in the soviet style. Next to the Manas sculpture, a monumental flag is guarded by the honorary guard that changes once every two hours. Adopted by Russia and modified by the Soviet Union you can see the sharp moves and the synchronized march of the guards. Behind the flat there is the National Historical Museum, which has been closed for the last three years due to renovation. Rumors of it opening have been already heard for more than 1,5 years but we would not bet on it yet. At the backside of the National History Museum you can notice a big Lenin Monument which was moved on it’s current place in 2003 from a more center location. North-East from Alatoo square, a beautiful Oak Park known as Dubovyi Park. The oldest park in the city filled with old oak trees, Kyrgyz style sculptures, and fountains. West from the Oak park, the amusement park Panfilov is a favorite place for kids with numerous attractions and games.
Behind the museum, there is an old square where you’ll find the parliament building. Frunze Museum, a medium-size museum is dedicated to the life of Mikhail Frunze, is located next to the parliament. Mikhail Frunze An important figure in Kyrgyz Soviet times was born in 1885 in Pishpek. He was a celebrated Bolshevik General and a close associate of Lenin. To honor his death the Soviets renamed his home town of Bishkek to Frunze – a name that it kept throughout the Russian era.
Gapar Aitiev Kyrgyz State
Museum of Fine Arts
Next to the Oak park, you will find the Kyrgyz State Museum of Fine Arts named after the Kyrgyz artist Gapar Aitiev. It exhibits some of the finest pieces of artistic grandeur of Kyrgyzstan and the region. Today it is also the venue for many contemporary exhibitions.
Gapar Aitiev Kyrgyz State
Museum of Fine Arts
Opposite of Museum of Fine Arts, next to the Hyatt-Regency Hotel are the Kyrgyz National Opera and Ballet Theatre named after first Kyrgyz Balerine Bubusaira Beishenalieva. The theatre is a beautiful building with columns and carvings. If you wish to see an opera or a ballet, check out the upcoming events through the Opera and Ballet official site.
Bishkek State Circus
One of the many attractions in Bishkek is the State Circus located on Frunze Street. It was built in 1976 by the famous architects L. Segal, B. Shardin, A. Nezhurin and D. Leontovich. The first circus performance was held in 1978, with the participation of the best acrobats, magicians and trainers of Kyrgyzstan. In 1995, in the arena of the Bishkek State Circus, they showed a performance called “Lion Tamers”, which received recognition far beyond the borders of Kyrgyzstan. The last reconstruction was in 2005, a new covering was placed on the arena and new instruments for the orchestra were installed. Today, the circus is actively showing performances with the participation of world stars.
Kyrgyz National Philharmonic
Kyrgyz National Philharmonic is located in the center of Bishkek, on Chui Avenue, surrounded by a public garden, the snow-white buildings. In front sets a swift leap on his horse, the legendary hero Manas, fighting with the dragon’s sword. Residents and guests of the capital enjoy the coolness from the fountain, the foamy streams of which glisten and sparkle in the sun. The Kyrgyz National Philharmonic is named after the composer, music virtuoso, akyn Toktogul Saltyganov.
What to Do in Bishkek
Bazaars of Bishkek are a favorite destination among the travelers: Osh bazaar, Orto-Sai bazaar, Alamedin bazaar, and Dordoi bazar, which is the largest in Central Asia. Bazars of Bishkek are diverse, large, colorful, crowded and you can find pretty much anything there. Closest to the center is the Osh bazar in the Western part of the city and it is a big open air market with some smaller closed inside areas. The crowds, the smells, and the noises inside can make you a bit overwhelmed the first time you enter. Keep on eye on your valuable items, because bazaars have a reputation of pickpocketing. Ak Emir bazar is a smaller bazar just little bit East of the city center offering mostly good quality fresh fruits, vegetables and meat products. Some could called it a high end grocery bazar of Bishkek.
Mal Bazar is a livestock market popular in autumn. During the autumn time the animals are well fed from the fresh summer grass and are just back from the pastures. Autumn is also the wedding season and giving horses, sheep, or goats is considered a respected gift. In Kyrgyzstan, like in many other Central Asian countries, families spend a lot of money on weddings and other celebrations.
Variety of Cuisines
For the food lovers Bishkek offers a variety of cuisines from around the world in addition to local kyrgyz cuisines. From Georgian to Thai, from Korean to Mexican, just name it. Chinese cuisine is very popular within the locals and there are plenty of Chinese restaurants with a variety of quality and price but generally the Chinese food is very tasty in Bishkek.
If you get hungry in the middle of the night you can walk to the nearest supermarket or pharmacy as they work 24/7. Moreover, food delivery services are very popular in Bishkek at affordable prices and can really save your hangover or lazy day.
Spa & Sauna
Spas are very popular in Bishkek and there are various types of spas with different price ranges from modest to luxurious. Locals, usually go to spas to spend the entire day with their friends and families enjoying the services and to eat and drink well. In Bishkek the spas are always separate for men and women.
Generally, most spas offer a wide number of saunas like Finnish sauna, Russian sauna, Turkish bath called Hammam and a national style sauna. Better places also offer a steam cabin, hot tub, pool, cold cascade shower, relaxing room with TVs and so on. In the women side there is usually a good choice of inexpensive beautification procedures.
Bishkek has big shopping malls such as Tsum, Dordoi Plaza, Asia Mall, Vefa Center and Ala Archa mall. with tons of stores, cinemas, supermarkets, playgrounds as well as food courts. It’s a great place for locals to go hang out with friends or family. Quite many of the shops sell Chinese origin stuff and you cannot always be sure if authentic looking shops are the real brand shops or not.
The number of stylish coffee shops in the city of Bishkek is increasing every day. Drinking coffee among the townspeople has become a fashionable habit, apart from just drinking coffee the coffee shops turned to thee freelancer offices. Due to the number of coffee shops, the choice of a coffee shop depends on the purpose of your visit: a stronger coffee to tune in to the working day, a business meeting, or chat with friends. In Bishkek, the average bill per person is from 200 to 1000 som.
Bishkek is a hub of nightclubs and bars where one can have an amazing nightlife experience. Also, there are bars popular within expats, where they gather to watch a football match and enjoy live music. There are different type places for every taste and the prices are quite affordable especially with the local beer products and snacks. Try the cold smoked fish with beer! The quality of internationally known drinks varies a lot and is better in the high end places. Lately shisha bars (tobacco for smoking in a hookah or bong, usually mixed with flavors such as mint) have been getting very popular.
By venturing 20-30 km away from Bishkek you can find yourself already in a very different surroundings like mountain valleys. You will find scenic hiking and horseback riding, interesting cultural sights, charcoal-baked trout and fresh air to breathe. There are also other types of places to visit near Bishkek like memorials and ancient city ruins.
Ancient city of Navekat (Krasnorechenskoe)
Nakvekat (“New city”) is what is remaining of an ancient city of that was one of the cities on the Great Silk Road flourishing in the 6th-12th centuries with the Northern branch of silk road passing through it. The settlement lies just 38 km East of Bishkek and is nominated by Kyrgyzstan to the UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage List. The city was founded here in the 6th century and it was a large trade and cultural center of the ancient Turkic Khaganate.
Archaeologists have revealed sections of a ceramic water supply system that supplied water from the main canal to the houses of wealthy citizens, as well as purification wells. During the excavations fragments of Buddhist paintings and sculptures were found, as well as a huge statue of Buddha, over 12 meters, made of cast clay with finely worked drapery and color painting. Krasnorechenskoe settlement is the first object on the territory of Kyrgyzstan, which has been studied by modern science. The findings have included Buddhist temples, Zoroastrian burials, Christian pectoral crosses as well as production workshops, wine presses, individual household items, weapons, horse harness, jewelry and coins.
Nowadays the place is an open area free to be roamed by anyone.
Guidance for Bishkek
Page update 10.10.2020
Check out other destinations nearby Bishkek
Page last updated 10.12.2020