Rising up from the vastness of the steppes like a glimmering sculpture garden, the Kazakh capital Astana seems like a miracle city. On closer inspection, this dynamic political and commercial center is one of Central Asia's most exciting and rewarding destinations.
Astana's growth has been breathtaking; places like the domed Khan Shatyr and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation are well worth seeing.
Kazakhstan's capital is also a cultural nexus, with great attractions like the National Museum of Kazakhstan and the (slightly egocentric but fascinating) Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
With attractions like the Duman leisure center (which has an enormous aquarium) and spectacular city center light shows every night, youngsters will have plenty to do.
Kazakhs have fully embraced the global shopping scene, and you'll find a galaxy of prestige brands at Astana's malls like the Khan Shatyr and Mega Mall.
Astana is bursting with energy, and nowhere is this more evident than the city's clubs, where highlights include the Chocolate Room and Fashion.
As you'd hope from Kazakhstan's national museum, there's plenty to discover and digest in this massive attraction, so divert a day from your schedule and dive in. The core of the museum tells the Kazakh story, from prehistoric times, through nomadic eras, Russian domination, and independence, and it's a great primer. But pride of place goes to more humble exhibits, like a crumb of bread carried by a survivor of the Soviet-era Great Famine. Less powerful, perhaps, is the homage to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the father of modern Kazakhstan, but the hero worship is still fascinating.
Astana isn't short of eye-catching architecture. The Kazakh state has gone all-out to put the capital on the map (literally, as it was hardly there 30 years ago). The centerpiece of this drive for glory has to be Khan Shatyr. Designed by big-name architect Norman Foster, this slanted dome is 150 meters tall and made from an advanced form of plastic, which keeps it warm, even in the depths of the Kazakh winter. Inside there's a grand shopping mall, a beach club, and rides, but the real appeal is the totally unique building itself.
Elegantly simple in its conception, this pyramid made from steel and glass is a symbol of modern Kazakhstan's position between east and west, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. The aims may be lofty, but the architecture measures up, with gorgeous stained glass doves, a cavernous opera theater, and an artful use of light and shade to create intriguing interior atmospheres. Tours are recommended, and take just 30 minutes, while the nearby flower gardens are also a great place to unwind.
Located on Nurzhol Boulevard in the very center of Astana, Bayterek is unmissable, largely due to its massive size. The monument soars to a height of 97 meters, like an oversized vase, with a sphere at its tip. The whole thing is intended to be an allegory for Kazakhstan's founding story, where the sphere represents an egg laid by a mythical bird in a poplar tree. You'll learn the story when you visit the on-site museum, but more importantly, you'll get superb views from the observation deck.
Another of modern Astana's unforgettable buildings, Hazrat Sultan only opened in 2012, but has the look and harmony of mosques dating back centuries. Among Central Asian places of worship, Hazrat Sultan is bested only by Turkmenistan's central mosque in terms of size, but may be more elegant, both inside and out. Prayers are an awesome sight, with 5,000 worshippers present at one time, but the 51 meter high dome is inspiring as well. Intended to be a bridge between a palace and a mosque, it achieves that, and more.
Astana can be extremely chilly during the winter, but it comes alive (and how) when the seasons change. Visit between May and September for the best sightseeing weather.
Astana International Airport (TSE) has plenty of international connections. From there, take Bus 10 (₸90) or a taxi (around ₸1,000).
Trains run between Almaty and Astana on a daily basis and take around 12 hours
If you are driving from Almaty, take the M-36 all the way to Astana, while the A17 runs from Tashkent in Uzbekistan.
Astana has a wide range of superb luxury hotels. Some of the highlights include the Beijing Palace Soluxe, the Ramada Plaza, and the Diplomat Hotel.
Yesil - south of the city center, Yesil is home to the spectacular Khan Shatyr shopping mall. With its cleverly heated interior and Norman Foster-designed exterior, it's a must-see.
Saryarka - one of the key city center neighborhoods, Saryarka hosts the Museum of the First President along with great eateries like Cafe Tselinnikov.
Abay Avenue - snaking around the city center, Abay Ave is home to most of the city's best hotels, and provides a handy transport link to the museums and malls near the river.
Buses run all over Astana and are an excellent, affordable option. Basic tickets cost ₸90, and you'll need to pay when you get on.
Expect taxis to charge around ₸500-1,000 for most journeys in the city center (and try to arrange a price before you travel).
Having your own car makes shopping and sightseeing so much easier. Local rental companies include Hertz Caspian and Tipoa, and prices will be around ₸2,000 per day.
The most impressive shopping mall in Astana isn't in doubt: the Khan Shatyr is one of the most remarkable malls in the world. But other centers are almost as fun to browse, including Mega Mall, Eurasia Mall, and Keruen.
Supermarket options include Two Brothers and Ramstore. To get a feel for prices, expect a gallon of milk to cost around ₸970.
If you want great European food, the Barley or Marrone Rosso fit the bill, while Central Asian cuisine is on the menu at Ali Baba and Tiflis, which has a Georgian emphasis. Expect meals to come to around ₸2,000-2,500 per head.