I recently finished a rapid-fire tour across Central Asia, where we covered Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in only twenty-three days. Of course, with such a short time frame we weren’t able to see everything that Central Asia has to offer, and one of the cities that our tour missed was Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. Formerly known as Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan seemed like an interesting place to spend a few days solo after my tour ended, so I booked a direct flight from Tashkent to Nur-Sultan and spent five days exploring this gem of a Central Asian city.
Very surprisingly modern, Nur-Sultan turned out to be one of my favorite cities in Central Asia. It had the same wide boulevards as somewhere like Dushanbe or Bishkek, but the streets were lined with gleaming modern buildings unlike any I’d seen elsewhere in the region. Nur-Sultan was well-developed, with international shops and restaurants, English speakers and English signage at tourist attractions, and just a general feeling of cleanliness and order. And to top it off, it was super-affordable!
During my five days in Nur-Sultan I hit up all of the city’s major tourist attractions (sometimes more than once) and spent many hours wandering the city streets. Below, I’ll talk about where to stay (my top hotel recommendation is in the most perfect location in the entire city!), the best things to do in Nur-Sultan, where I ate and all the little details you need to make your travel to Nur-Sultan worry-free.
As an aside, my visit to Nur-Sultan was in early October. Although my first day was a little chilly (maybe about five degrees Celsius?) the next four days were very comfortable, with temperatures between fifteen and twenty degrees Celsius. At this time of year the leaves were just beginning to turn red, yellow and orange, and the sky was brilliantly blue all day, every day. Most of the photos below have not been edited – the colors really were that spectacular during my trip to Nur-Sultan!
My Hotel in Nur-Sultan
I picked an awesome hotel in Nur-Sultan! I was drawn to Hotel Belon-Lux because reviews said that it had a great location, close to the Baiterek Tower and the Presidential Palace. The location turned out to be even better than I’d expected, on the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare with direct access to most of the things to do in Nur-Sultan, along with easy access to restaurants, cafes, shopping and even the express bus to the Nur-Sultan airport.
Aside from the location, Hotel Belon-Lux had spacious rooms with comfortable finishings and lots of amenities. Breakfast was included in my room rate, and when I pre-ordered the night before I could choose whether to eat it in the cafe or have it delivered to my room at no cost. Free room service? Yes please!
There are only eight rooms here and it is a more typical, local-style hotel, rather than a big international chain. If you’re looking for something more westernized, the Best Western Plus Astana is just around the corner and the Ritz-Carlton is nearby too… though I still prefer the location of the Belon-Lux!
(If you’re on a very tight budget, Hostel Forum has good reviews and a few dorm rooms, but the location is nothing to write home about.)
Things to Do in Nur-Sultan
I jumped at every opportunity to play tourist in Nur-Sultan, happily buying tickets to things I wouldn’t look twice at in other cities. Partly it was because the architecture was so fantastic (I mean, even if the attraction was dire, I’d still get to spend time inside a pretty cool building!) and partly it was because everything was so cheap!
Sometimes spelled Bayterek Tower, this is one of the first sights in Nur-Sultan that you won’t be able to miss. Right outside the doors of Hotel Belon-Lux, this tower stands just shy of 100 meters high. The building is inspired by an ancient Kazakh legend about a bird who laid its egg at the top of the tree of life.
You can just see the building from outside or you can buy a ticket to the two panoramic viewing platforms inside the golden egg. A 700-tenge ticket will get you a ride up the glass elevator to the lower viewing deck, where you can sort-of see the city through the kind-of-dirty, very-yellow glass. Frankly, there were moments where I thought the designers had to have been messing with me, because every sightline was obscured by some piece of the building’s exterior or a random piece of furniture (or television screen) inside.
If you do go up the tower, head to the second floor and join the queue of Kazakhs to place your hand inside a print of the former president’s hand, in the book shown above. It might bring you good luck (but it won’t bring you unobstructed sightlines of the city).
Back when it was still called Astana, Nur-Sultan hosted Expo 2017, which was visited by more than four million people. Today, the site is open to the public and parts of the exhibits are still open to visitors. In particular, the glass dome shown above hosts an eight-floor, interactive museum about energy, with each floor representing a different source of power.
Even if you’re not particularly interested in energy (like me…), it’s still worth buying a 1500-tenge ticket to the energy museum. The eight floors are all designed very well, with nearly all of the interactive exhibits signed clearly in Kazakh, Russian and English, and the views from the top floors over the city are lovely (much better than at Baiterek Tower!). Kids will love the hands-on displays on every floor, and adults will appreciate the design (and maybe the information too!).
The Presidential Palace
One of the few noteworthy buildings in the center that isn’t open to tourists, the Presidential Palace in Nur-Sultan is topped with a blue and gold dome (matching the colors of the Kazakh flag) and marks the east end of the city’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. The president doesn’t actually live here, rather, it’s where the president works and where his administrative staff resides.
The Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center
Apparently I did not go far enough into the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex to discover all of the things it holds inside. I mean, Wikipedia says that this tented shopping center has got everything from cobblestone streets to a boating river inside, but all I saw were shops (and the outside of the indoor beach zone, which I could see from the ground floor where I entered). I’m kind of surprised that it has so much cool stuff as I felt like I explored a lot of the mall (including at least two levels) – I guess the lesson is to know before you go! I popped it into the article here because it marks the west end of the pedestrian parkway, at the far opposite end from the Presidential Palace. Walking between the two takes about thirty minutes, if you’re a quick walker and don’t make any stops along the way.
The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation
Built in 2006 to house the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, this is another Nur-Sultan attraction that’s worth a visit even if you’re not passionate about its subject matter. This Norman Foster-designed pyramid stands more than sixty meters high, and each of its floors holds a special purpose, from the concert hall in the basement to the meeting space on the top floor.
Like the Baiterek Tower, you can just explore the exterior of this Nur-Sultan sight… but it’s really worth buying a ticket for only 500 tenge and going on one of the guided tours through the facility. Offered in Russian and English on the half-hour, the tour will take you through the design of the building, into the concert hall, through the exhibits about world religions and up to the top of the pyramid, where the temperature can reach thirty degrees during meetings of the leaders of the world’s religions (and of the Kazakh president, who gets the chair with the tall back… they wouldn’t let me spin around in it!).
Monument Kazakh Eli
Across the street from the pyramid you’ll find the Monument Kazakh Eli, a tower that stands 91 meters tall (not coincidentally, Kazakhstan became independent in 1991…) and that celebrates the people, history and culture of the country. The tower is flanked by the Shabyt Palace of Creativity (on the left, a multi-purpose arts center that also houses part of the Kazakhstan Arts University) and the Palace of Independence (on the right, a government building).
National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan
The National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan is a sprawling museum straddling the line between typical Central Asian museums (old and boring) and more modern, “Westernized” museums (interactive, informative, engaging). I get the sense that admission prices fluctuate, but at the time of my visit I paid 700 tenge for the permanent exhibit, a 1000-tenge supplement for the Hall of Gold, and 500 tenge for my camera (bringing the total to 2200 tenge).
Most of the exhibits on the country’s history were as expected, with mannequins stationed to show scenes from days of yore, glass cases full of artifacts (and recreations of artifacts…) and extensive signage in Kazakh, English and Russian. The Hall of Gold houses the museum’s collection of, well, gold, but the most important exhibit in the collection was closed during my visit (this might have been nice to know before I paid the extra 1000 tenge to go inside). Still, the disco-inspired entrance to the Hall of Gold (shown above) was a pleasant surprise.
I also enjoyed the galleries of contemporary Kazakh art on the museum’s upper floor, and my visit happened to coincide with the opening of a new temporary exhibit featuring a local Kazakh artist. Unfortunately, the other temporary gallery was showing a propaganda piece celebrating the history of China through run-of-the-mill promotional photos.
Overall, I spent about two hours inside the museum, moving at a pretty quick pace, skimming over most of the reading and taking a bit more time with the contemporary art. I’d recommend you plan to spend between one and a half and two hours here – it’s an easy half-day activity when combined with a visit to the pyramid.
The Parks of Nur-Sultan
Nur-Sultan is impressively green and packed with parks. The biggest park is the Presidential Park, located behind the Presidential Palace on the opposite side of the river. In the city center, Lover’s Park is in front of the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex. There are a few different food and souvenir vendors here, along with games for kids and some benches. Grab a coffee from Starbucks (or a local chain!) and go for a wander.
Shopping in Nur-Sultan
Nur-Sultan had the “best” shopping of any city I visited in Central Asia, and I took the opportunity to visit some of its shopping malls to replenish my travel wardrobe. In the city center, the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Complex offered the best selection of stores, although I visited the Keruen shopping center near the Baiterek Tower more often (more on that later). However, for international brands, I preferred Mega Silk Way, the large shopping center adjacent to the Expo 2017 facility. They had an H&M and Zara here, where I was able to pick up some decent-quality t-shirts and pants to replace those that had become worn out during my travels.
Restaurants in Nur-Sultan
I focused my dining on restaurants that were close to my hotel and the places that I was visiting. I’m sure there are lots of other great restaurants in Nur-Sultan, but these are central and good options for solo travelers, groups or families:
- Ministry of Coffee – The closest cozy, independent coffee shop to my hotel (if you stay at Hotel Belon-Lux you don’t have to walk around the block to get here, you can cut through the apartment complex across the street and just walk in a straight line). They have coffee, interesting teas and a small menu of cafe-style foods. I had the broccoli soup and it was a solid light-lunch option.
- Burger Bar – Beside Ministry of Coffee, they have a veggie burger! They use grilled vegetables and a hashbrown patty in place of the meat. The staff were really friendly and seemed excited to have a foreign tourist at their restaurant.
- Daredzhani – A local chain of Georgian restaurants, I had previously eaten here in Almaty and enjoyed my food. Service at the city center location left a little to be desired, but the Georgian food was a welcome break from typical Central Asian dishes. Make sure to order the eggplant rolls from the appetizer menu!
- Millenium Craft Beer – Just a block away from the National Museum, they’ve got lots of craft beers and an international menu. It seems to turn into a nightclub at night, so go early if you want quiet or go late if you want to party.
- Pinta – A chain of local craft beer places, they had lots of vegetarian options on the menu but they weren’t all available when I visited. I’m sure if you’re a meat-eater or a beer-lover you’ll have a great lunch or dinner here.
- Focaccia – On the same block at Ministry of Coffee and Burger Bar, my hotel staff recommended Focaccia for the best pizza in the city (apparently). Unfortunately I never made it around to visiting, but I saw they were busy when I walked past.
- Cafe Rafe – Another local chain with a few locations around the city, Cafe Rafe was a good place for breakfast. They have English menus available, and serve both standard breakfast dishes (omelets, porridge, etc.) and healthy options (like the baked apple and cottage cheese pancakes I had). Service can be a bit slow, so leave yourself lots of time.
Nur-Sultan Travel Essentials
Arrival in Nur-Sultan was fairly painless. There is an ATM at the airport and my hotel had briefed me on a fair price (up to 4000 tenge) for a local taxi, so I had no problems getting into the city center.
If you’re on a budget, an express bus runs from the airport to the city center every thirty minutes or so. Prices were changing during the time of my visit as the city was introducing a new transit pass – I think the bus could cost as much as 300 tenge if you’re paying cash.
Once I checked in to my hotel I made a beeline for Keruen shopping mall near the Baiterek Tower (shown above). This became my go-to destination for essentials in Nur-Sultan. There is a SIM card vendor in the basement who will sell you a SIM card (I recommend Beeline) and help you activate it using the machines upstairs. The ground floor also has a high-quality supermarket where you can stock up on international brands of personal care products, as well as local and international food and drink. I stocked my hotel fridge with beer and wine (they actually had a decent selection of wines with a twist top!) and grabbed some fruit for afternoon snacking.
Overall, I had a great couple of days in Nur-Sultan and think it’s a great option for an affordable weekend or long-weekend getaway in Central Asia. You probably don’t need more than three days to see the highlights here, but if you do decide to stay for longer I’m sure you can make connections with the Kazakh capital’s large expat community, meet some interesting people and possibly venture outside the city to see more of the surrounding regions.