Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world and it is no surprise that when you are preparing a Kazakhstan itinerary for your upcoming trip there are a lot of options and though choices to be made.
While Kazakhstan is most famous for its empty steppes where nomads on their horses roam there is also a huge variety of landscapes and nature in the country. Did you know for example that there are alpine meadows, glittering mountain lakes, impressive desert formations, rocky canyons and quirky cities combining modern architecture with their Soviet heritage.
Kazakhstan is an excellent destination if you love culture, adventure and the outdoors. The Altay and Tien Shan mountains offer plenty of hiking opportunities and the area of Almaty is perfect to make a roadtrip around some of Kazakhstan’s best national parks.
With so much things to do in Kazakhstan it’s hard to choose. This post will help you in planning your Kazakhstan itinerary and will give you some sample itineraries for inspiration.
My Kazakhstan itinerary
In my first Kazakhstan itinerary I travelled for 3 weeks throughout the country making a circle from Nursultan (Astana) to Shymkent to Almaty and back. This trip I only used public transport and therefore only visited towns and cities that I could reach by train or bus.
My second trip in 2019 was part of a larger 3 month trip in Central Asia starting in Nursultan (Astana) and Karaganda with a stop to celebrate Nauruz in Shymkent and ending with a roadtrip around Almaty. This time I also rented a car to see Almaty’s spectacular natural parks.
When planning your own Kazakhstan itinerary your mode of transport is one thing that has a big impact of what is possible. If you are a budget traveller and prefer to travel by public transport your limited to the bigger cities and some natural attractions nearby that are reachable by bus. This way there are still a lot of things to see and do in Kazakhstan.
If you rent a car or have your own transport you will have a lot of freedom and flexibility, but remember that the distances are huge.
Kazakhstan itinerary 1: the highlights of Kazakhstan (10 days)
This first Kazakhstan itinerary includes the three most interesting cities for foreign travellers. This trip is perfect for backpackers that prefer public transport. Travel in between the cities would be by train and the daytrips I mention from the cities can be done by bus.
Day 1 & 2 : Nursultan (Astana)
I started my Kazakhstan itinerary in Nursultan (Astana). Former president Nazarbayev relocated the capital in 1997 to a small town in the north where he built a completely new city to show off Kazakhstan’s oil wealth.
Whether you like the futuristic capital or not, it is an interesting start of any Kazakhstan itinerary. The capital will give you a better understanding of the country and it’s politics.
Nur-sultan is a surreal experience and the city has some interesting museums. On my second visit I saw how it is slowly developing its own unique atmosphere and I liked it much more than my first time.
Things to do: The biggest attractions in Nursultan (Astana) are the futuristic buildings along the 2 kilometer Nurzhol boulevard. Two days should be enough to get a good sense of the city including a visit to the older part of town and one or two museums.
I can also recommend a visit to Alzhir in Malinovka. A former gulag from the Soviet times for the wives of political enemies of the state. It makes for an easy half day trip from Astana.
Add an extra day to your Kazakhstan itinerary if you would like to visit the Borovoe National Park or Korghalzyn Nature Reserve. An important site for birdwatchers where you can spot pink flamengoes if you are lucky.
Read more about Nursultan (Astana) in my post on the best things to do in Nursultan (Astana)
How to get there: Budget airline Wizz Air is now flying from Budapest to Astana with incredibly cheap tickets. Other airlines also have pretty good offers. For onwards travel there are frequent trains to Karaganda and daily nighttrains to Shymkent and Almaty.
Day 3 & 4 : Karaganda
Karaganda is only 4 hours from Nursultan (Astana) and is an interesting stop if you travel from the capital to either Shymkent or Almaty.
The city in the heart of the steppes was not only the centre of the coal mining industry during the Soviet Union, but also the administrative centrer of the so called gulag system in Kazakhstan. Stalin deported most Volga Germans to Karaganda and built a labour camp just outside the city for other political prisoners that came from all over the Soviet Union.
Things to do: The main reason to visit Karaganda is the excellent Karlag museum in the former administration building of the gulag camp in Dolinka. It’s an easy daytrip from Karaganda with frequent buses from Karaganda’s bus station to Dolinka.
Karaganda itself does not have many things to do, but it is nice to walk around for an afternoon. I personally liked the city because of its Soviet murals on the buildings, quirky museums and monuments such as the Gagarin monument.
Read more in my post on the best things to do in Karaganda
How to get there: From Nursultan (Astana) there are frequent trains and marshrutka’s to Karaganda. For onward travel the high speed nighttrains from Nursultan (Astana) to Shymkent and Almaty also stop in Karaganda making it easy to to continue your journey to either city.
Day 5 & 6: Shymkent & Turkestan
Shymkent in the south was at the heart of Kazakhstan’s silk road and is an interesting city to learn more about its history. The Southern region is also where the steppes end and the mountains begin. The perfect place for those that love nature and birdwatching.
Things to do: Shymkent itself is a pleasant city for an easygoing day with a lively bazaar and plenty of parks to relax. The real beauty of the area lies outside of Shymkent though. On your second day I can recommend a daytrip to nearby Turkestan to see the beautiful mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasaui.
Shymkent is also a good place to explore Kazakhstan’s spectacular nature in the South. Add 2-3 extra days in your Kazakhstan itinerary for the Aksu Zhabagly National Park or the Sairam Ugam Nature Reserve where in spring you can see the wild tulips in bloom. Both are relatively easy to visit for backpackers with public transport connections and several homestay options.
How to get there: There are daily night trains from and to Nursultan (Astana) and Almaty. From Shymkent it is also easy to cross the border to Uzbekistan. There are direct buses between Shymkent and Tashkent (4 – 5 hours).
Day 7 – 10 : Almaty
Almaty is my favourite city in Kazakhstan. First of all, its fascinating. Almaty is a city with a young population, but also one that still breathes it Soviet past. Even though it is no longer the capital of the country it remains the cultural heart of Kazakhstan.
The second reason I love Almaty is that it is surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the Tien Shan mountains. From Almaty it is incredibly easy to explore some of Kazakhstan’s most spectacular nature. With the mountains at your doorstep Almaty is an outdoors paradise.
Things to do: There are plenty of things to do in Almaty from the Panfilov park, the Zenkov cathedral, to the Arasan baths. While the city itself deserves 2 days to explore you can add several days to your Kazakhstan itinerary to get out into the mountains.
Read more in my post about the best things to do in Almaty.
Accomodation: European Backpackers hostel (top choice for social and clean hostel near centre) or Almaty Backpackers hostel (great place to meet other people) or Sky hostel (great view and near metro)
How to get there: There are daily night trains to and from Shymkent and Nursultan (Astana)
After Almaty you can also continue your journey to Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is only 5 hours by bus from Almaty. Or you can make a roadtrip around Almaty to visit the most beautiful national parks in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan itinerary 2: a roadtrip around Almaty (one week)
This Kazakhstan itinerary can be added to the first itinerary as an extension in Almaty. This beautiful roadtrip requires your own transport but brings you to a diversity of spectacular landscapes including alpine meadows with deep blue lakes and singing sand dunes.
Almaty lies in the southwestern corner of Kazakhstan that borders China and Kyrgyzstan and is at the edge of the Tien Shan mountains. It is home to some of Kazakhstans most spectacular national parks such as the Charyn Canyon, the Kolsai Lakes and Altyn Emel.
Unfortunately public transport to these places is very limited. Although the Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai Lakes would be possible if you have a lot of time and patience on your hand, Altyn Emel is not. You can read my post about the Charyn Canyon and the Kolsai lakes on how to get there by public transport, but it is far from straigfhtforward and includes a combination of shared taxi’s and hitchhiking.
The cheapest option to visit the national parks around Almaty is to join one of the weekend tours of local travel agencies, but they tend to be rushed and in Russian only. Other tours that combine all three national parks are expensive and in my case it was actually much cheaper to rent a car.
Renting a car
After lots of investigation and from my own experience I can say that renting a car is the best way to visit the national parks around Almaty and totally worth the money. You can easily rent a car in Almaty, but be careful that your agency allows you to drive outside of the city. I rented my car through Hertz and had a good experience with them.
Road conditions: The road from Almaty to lake Issyk, Charyn Canyon, Saty and the Kolsai lakes is paved and in a good condition. In Altyn Emel National Park the roads are not paved, but not too bad either. A good car with high clearance is recommended here. The only part where you really need a 4 by 4 is the road from Saty to Lake Kaindy.
Insider tips: Try to avoid the Kolsai lakes and the Charyn Canyon during the weekends. On Saturday and Sunday there are a lot of organized weekend tours and it can get very crowded. This is much less so for Altyn Emel that is still more hard to get to without your own transport.
Day 1: Lake Issyk & Charyn Canyon
On your first day of this Kazakhstan itinerary you will visit Lake Issyk and the Charyn Canyon. You will start with the 2 hour drive from Almaty to Lake Issyk. Not to be confused with famous Issyk kul in Kyrgyzstan.
The lake has a rather tragic history. It was formed 10,000 of years ago when a mountain collapsed and created a natural dam. During Soviet times it became a favourite weekend spot for those from Almaty. Then in July 1963 one of the largest mudflows during Soviet times destroyed the lake and killed more than 100 people.
The lake was restored, but is still only half the size of what it once was. It no longer is the most popular holiday destination around Almaty. Tourists now prefer the Kolsai lakes, but in my opinion Lake Issyk is more beautiful.
Spent a few hours hiking around the lake and then have lunch in Esik town that has some good restaurants. At Anushka they have excellent shaslycks and salads. After lunch continue to the Charyn Canyon (3 hours).
Once you arrive at the Charyn Canyon, park your car at the viewpoint car park and then walk the 2 kilometers through the valley of castles. A beautiful hike with impressive rocky formations. At the end of the hike you will find the eco lodge right next to the Charyn river. A great place where you can spend the night.
Although most people visit the Charyn canyon on a daytrip there are a lot of reasons to stay longer. First of all, because the canyon is at its most beautiful during sunset and sunrise. Most likely you will have the place all for yourself at that time. Second of all, because there is more to the Charyn canyon then the valley of castles alone. In fact, there are 3 more canyons nearby. Check my Charyn Canyon travel guide for more information.
Day 2: Charyn Canyon & Lake Kaindy
On the second day of your Kazakhstan itinerary enjoy the peacefulness and silence in the Charyn Canyon while the sun rises. Have breakfast at the eco lodge and then continue your journey to Saty (3 hours).
Saty is a little rural village with a number of homestays for those that want to see the Kolsai lakes and lake Kaindy. If you have a 4 wheel drive you can drive up to lake Kaindy by yourself. It’s a beautiful lake with a sunken forest. Like lake Issyk, this one was also formed after a natural disaster that created a natural dam.
The turn off to Lake Kaindy is right after the checkpoint when you enter Saty. If you don’t have a good car consider getting a taxi in Saty. Saty has plenty of homestays that can arrange taxi’s to lake Kaindy.
Day 3: Hike to the Kolsai Lakes
On the third day of your Kazakhstan itinerary you will explore the beautiful Kolsai Lakes. A series of lakes near the border with Kyrgyzstan. Only the first lake is reachable by car, but the second lake is an 8 kilometer hike. Walking up and down the second lake takes about 6 – 7 hours. Read more about this hike in my Kolsai lakes travel guide.
Day 4: Altyn Emel Sand Dunes
On the fourth day of your Kazakhstan itinerary you will be back in your car again. It’s 5 hours from Saty to the village of Basshi. At the National Park headquarters you need to buy the permits to enter the park and you can arrange accomodation and food.
From Basshi you can follow two routes by your own car that are both recommended. If you haven’t arrived too late it is still possible to do the short route to the singing sand dunes in the afternoon.
Day 5: Altyn Emel Aktau and Katutau
On your fifth day of your Kazakhstan itinerary you will continue exploring Altyn Emel National Park. Today you can follow the second route to the Aktau and Katutau mountains.
This route can easily take you all day. The landscapes are really out of this world and I can really recommend to spend some time at both Aktau and Katutau mountains walking around and taking in the scenery.
Bring enough snacks and water with you for the day and have some picnic in some of the most spectacular nature of Kazakhstan. If you are lucky you might spot some wild horses or other wildlife.
Day 6: Altyn Emel Beshatyr burial mounds
On your sixth day of your Kazakhstan itinerary you will do the third route in Altyn Emel National Park for which you first need to drive to Shengeldy (2 hours). This route har some ancient petroglyphs and Scythian burial mounds.
I was so impressed by Altyn Emel that I did the third route instead of the Tamgaly Tas petroglyphs. It isn’t the most spectacular part of the park, but you will have beautiful views over lake Kapchagai and I did see wild horses. The Terekty petroglyphs and Beshatyr burial mounds require a lot of imagination, but they are still quite impressive considering the age.
After this you can either return straight to Almaty or if you still have time make a quick stop at the Tamgaly tas petroglyphs.
Kazakhstan itinerary: off the beaten path
If you have more than three weeks you are lucky. There are endless possibilities to extend your Kazakhstan itinerary.
Consider the northeastern part of the country with the beautiful Altay mountains and the town of Semey Palatinsk that is known for the nuclear tests during the Soviet Union. Or visit the southwestern part of the country with the stone desert of Mangistau full of underground mosques and ancient necropolises.
In central Kazakhstan you can visit the Karkaraly mountains or take the train from Aktobe to Kyzylorda. There are some interesting stops such as Baikonur cosmodrome and Aral to see what is left of the Aral sea.
Do keep in mind that most of these destinations are really off the beaten path and are difficult to get to if you dont have your own transport.
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Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.