Bustling bazaars, green parks and Soviet architecture is what characterizes the capital of Kyrgyzstan. They are among the top things to do in Bishkek. A city that is quickly changing from a Russian outpost to a dynamic capital city with a Kyrgyz identity.
Kyrgyzstan has a nomadic past and therefore its urban areas aren’t necessarily the best the country has to offer. Yet, Bishkek is a pleasant city to explore for a couple of days and culturally speaking there are a lot of things to do in Bishkek.
Bishkek is a city that evolves and as it leaves its Soviet past behind is becoming more Kyrgyz in recent years. Nevertheless, Bishkek remains a very multicultural city with large Uzbek and Russian minorities.
For tourists there are a number of cultural activities from cooking classes to felt making workshops. The restaurant scene is excellent with some of the best Kyrgyz cuisine in the country and Bishkek’s bazaars offer ample opportunities to meet the friendly locals
Like Almaty in Kazakhstan, Bishkek also serves as the gateway to a range of outdoor activities. The mountains are just around the corner. Hiking in Ala archa National park, visiting the soviet Sanatoria in Issyk Ata and walking in the Alamedin Gorge are easy day trips from the capital.
There are enough things to do in Bishkek that you won’t be bored if you find yourself in Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Furthermore it is a good introduction to the country and a great place to start your Kyrgyzstan itinerary.
Things to do in Bishkek
1. Ala too square
Ala too square is among the top things to do in Bishkek. The central square was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Soviet republic. The square has kept its unmistaken Soviet design, but Lenin has been replaced by the Kyrgyz hero Manas.
On a clear day you can see the snow capped peaks of the mountains in the backdrop and in summer families come here with their children to seek refreshment at the fountains.
2. State history museum
The state history museum on the Ala too square is one of the largest museums in Central Asia with interesting exhibitions about Kyrgyz nomadic culture. Unfortunately it has been closed for a long time due to restorations.
3. Victory monument
Like any proper Soviet city, Bishkek also has its own victory monument to remember the Kyrgyz soldiers that fought in the Great Patriotic War. The monument represents a yurt where the statue of a woman is watching over the eternal flame. She represents all the mothers and wives that were waiting for their sons and husbands that never came back home from the war.
4. Oak park
One of the things that makes Bishkek such a pleasant city is the abundance of greenery. One of the oldest and most beautiful parks is Oak park. It is located just behind the fine arts museum and the park is almost a museum in itself with more than 90 sculptures. Most of the sculptures were made in 1984 at the 60th anniversary of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, but over the years new works of art have been added as well.
5. Fine arts museum
This small fine arts museum has a nice collection of applied arts such as Kyrgyz embroideries and shuurdaks as well as Russian and Soviet arts. With the state history museum closed this is now one of the most interesting museums in Bishkek.
6. Lenin statue
In most central asian cities Lenin was quickly removed after independence. Not so in Bishkek where he kept its prominent position in Ala Too square till 2003. And even then Lenin was not completely removed or banned to some remote suburbs like in Khujand, Tajikistan. Lenin still has a central location behind the State history museum and in between Panfilov and Oak park.
7. Panfilov park
Panfilov park is the typical Soviet amusement park that is still immensely popular with families in the weekends and on holidays. It’s a fun park if you have children, but not the place where you will go for a quiet and peaceful walk.
8. Osh bazaar
One of my favourite things to do in Bishkek was exploring the bazaars. The biggest and most colourful market in Bishkek is Osh bazaar. Here you can find anything. From cheap chinese imports to traditional clothes, Kyrgyz Shuurdak, souvenirs and food items.
It might be noisy, smelly and chaotic, but no other market is so rich in local colour. It’s where the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian, Dungan and Korean communities come together in the interest of commerce. Despite the cultural differences there is a friendly and collegial atmosphere in the market and it is a joy to see the vendors laughing together and helping each other out.
With its focus on food there are many things to try. Dried apricots, walnuts, dried yoghurt balls (kurut), fermented horse milk (kymyz), korean salads, horse sausages, sweets and other local delicacies.
Insider tips: Osh bazaar is notorious for pickpocketing, so keep your valuables at home and only bring what you really need.
9. Dordoi bazaar
Dordoi bazaar is the other most important market in Bishkek. While Osh bazaar is mostly about food, Dordoi is more about wholesale and retail products. Together with Tehran Grand bazaar, it is one of the largest markets in Asia.
Dordoi is a densaely packed maze of double stacked shipping containers functioning as store and storage at the same time. There are over 30,000 containers divided in different sections. There is the chinese section, the european section, the Kyrgyz section and a fur and leather section.
It’s easy to get lost in Dordoi. Apparently maps do exist, but I doubt they will be very useful as the container alleys all look very much alike. I found Dordoi to be less colourful as Osh bazaar. Things are definetly more about business here and the atmosphere is less friendly. Regardless, Dordoi is an experience that is not to be missed.
10. Zhirgal banya
One of the top cultural things to do in Bishkek is visiting one of the local bathhouses. The most popular one is the two domed zhirgal banya.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with a Russian banya, it is in fact more than just a bathhouse. The Russian banya ritual is all about sweating it out in a hot and humid sauna while you are being slappped by a bundle of leafy branches.
The sauna can be anything from a small wooden hut in a garden to a more spa like complex like the zhirgal banya in Bishkek that has several sauna’s, pools to cool down and possibilities to book massages and beauty treatments.
It’s sex segregated and entrance is less than 5 us dollars for which you get some plastic slippers and a bed sheet like material to cover yourself. Inside the sauna it is all nudity though, with the exception of the felt hats that the local woman wear to protect their heads from the heat.
Don’t expect too much privacy either. Once people find out you are not from there, you will get some stares, but also smiles and people trying to start a conversation, because they are curious where you are from. I thought it was a bit awkward in the beginning, but soon really enjoyed the experience.
11. Russian orthodox church
Christianity has a long history in Kyrgyzstan and has a large presence in Bishkek. The Russian orthodox church at Jibek Joli is the center for the Russian orthodox minority in the city.
12. White house
The presidential office building in Bishkek is interesting for its Stalinist design. It was built in 1985 as the headquarters for the communist party and some say it is connected with the Ala too square through a network of underground tunnels.
With independence it became the presidential office building and was the site of the 2005 Kyrgyz Tulip revolution when protesters stormed inside to overthrow president Askar Akayev.
13. Soviet architecture
If you love Soviet architecture, Bishkek is a great city for you. Besides the white house and the Ala too square there are plenty of other Soviet style buildings in Bishkek.
Hidden away in corners you will find beautiful mosaics and murals. This article on Soviet era art in Bishkek from Going the whole hogg will help you find some of these gems. This great Soviet architecture walking tour from Time travel turtle will guide you along the most impressive Soviet buildings.
14. Soviet circus
A special mention among the Soviet buildings is for Bishkeks circus. The Russians loved their circus and during the Soviet Union this tradition developed into a high form of art. While in many former Soviet cities the iconic circus buildings were left abandoned like in Chisinau, Moldova, Bishkek is still up and running.
Things to do near Bishkek
Being in Bishkek means you are very close to Kyrgyzstan’s spectacular nature. The mountains are just a stone’s throw away and there are several opportunities for day trips. Most are easy to reach with a combination of public transport and private taxi’s, but if you prefer not to hike alone you can always join one of the cheap tours of the Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union.
15. Ala archa national park
Ala archa is the most popular day trip destination to escape the city. Only 40 kilometers south of Bishkek and you are surrounded by juniper forests and breathtaking mountain sceneries. There are two hikes. One easy trail runs along the river and another more difficult trail goes up to the Ak sai waterfall. Multiple day hikes to the Adygene glacier and Ak Sai glacier are also possible.
How to get there: the best way to get there and back is by arranging a taxi to bring you there and pick you up again at a certain time. Otherwise catch marshrutka 265 to Kaska Suu and ask the driver to drop you off at the park entrance. Then walk or hitchhike the last 12 kilometers to the Alplager base that is also the start of the trails.
Read more information in my Ala Archa travel guide.
16. Burana tower
A lone 25 meter high minaret is all that is left of the medieval city of Balasagun in the Chuy valley. It stands tall in one of the few flat places in Kyrgyzstan. However, as you look over the fields, the snow capped peaks of the Tien Shan mountains loom in the distance. It’s an incredibly picturesque sight.
Balasagun was once a thriving city under the Khakanids in the 9th century, but it was destroyed by the Mongols. Earthquakes also took its tolls and the minaret is now only half of its original length. For 2 us dollars you can climb it for some beautiful views. Also don’t miss the balbal grave stones from nomadic Turkic tribes and the petroglyphs.
How to get there: take a minibus to Tokmok and arrange a taxi from there. With a one hour waiting time it should cost not more than 300 som.
17. Issyk Ata
The hot springs and old Soviet Sanatoria in the Issyk Ata gorge make for a great day trip from Bishkek. The hot springs in Issyk Ata’s mountains have a long history of attracting people that believe in the healing properties of the mineral rich waters.
The Soviet concept of a sanatorium was both to prevent and treat disease among the working people. When ill or for simple rest and recuperation people were sent to the sanatoriums in for example Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Issyk Ata is one of the oldest and is still in use as a treatment center for several illnesses, although its glory days are clearly over. Not much has changed since Soviet days and the buildings are in serious disrepair. The heated sulfur pools are believed to be good for all kind of things be it your skin, bones or muscles.
Besides the sanatorium, Issyk Ata’s pristine nature is another reason to come here. Issyk Ata is in the Chuy valley and a great place for hiking.
How to get there: take marshrutka 316 from the eastern bus station that leaves 6 times per day on fixed times (08:30, 10:00, 11:30, 13:30, 17:00, 18:00). It takes about two hours to get there. The last bus back to Bishkek is at 16:00.
18. Alamedin valley
Alamedin valley is south of Bishkek and is another hikers paradise with alpine mountain sceneries. You will also find hot springs here and the famous sanatorium tople kluchie where you can take radon baths believed to heal a number of diseases. From the Sanatorium there is a scenic 2 hour walk to a waterfall
How to get there: the best way is to take a private taxi and arrange a pick up to bring you back as well. Otherwise take a marshrutka from the Alamedin bazaar in Bishkek to Koi Tash village. It should take about an hour to get there. From there you can hitchhike or take a taxi to the sanatorium.
Where to eat in Bishkek
1. Cafe faiza
Cafe Faiza is one of my favourite places to eat on a budget. They have a nice menu with both Russian and Kyrgyz food like plov, beef stroganov, borsht and laghman.
2. Chaikhana Navat
Chaikhana Navat has a beautiful decor and an extensive menu with delicious central asian food. If you want to have the best version of plov, laghman and beshbarmak out there head to Navat.
I can recommend one of their soups as a starter. I really loved the Uzbek soup Mastava. Their beshbarmak is very good too otherwise the pictures in the menu will help you choose what to eat.
3. Chebak pub
Go to Chebak pub if you want a good beer and some nice sizzling meat steak. The menu is more international and includes all kind of dishes that all go very well with your beer.
4. Adriano coffee
Adriano Coffee was one of my favourite places in Bishkek for breakfast. They also have excellent salads, pizza’s and spaghetti.
5. Stolovoya Lozhka
Stolovaya Lozhka doesn’t have the best food, but is a good option if you want to have a cheap and quick lunch or dinner. It’s like a Russian canteen where you can choose your food from a buffet for real bargain prices.
Where to sleep in Bishkek
1. Chinar appartments
Chinar Apart hotel offers nice and clean appartments with excellent facilities for reasonable prices. We absolutely loved our stay here and the owner was really friendly as well. It is not as cheap as a hostel, but definetly wirth the price
2. Apple hostel
The Apple hostel is a well established and social hostel that is very helpful in arranging day tours to nearby destinations like Ala Archa and Issyk Ata. Sometimes they organnize cultural nights as well. A great start of any journey in Kyrgyzstan. It is conveniently located near the western bus station
3. Sakura guesthouse
Sakura guesthouse is a good option for those on a budget. It’s also a great place to meet other travellers. the dorms and rooms are very clean. It’s in a nice and quiet suburban area and there is a nice garden area to sit outside.
How to get around in Bishkek
Bishkek has an excellent public transport network that can bring you anywhere in the city for less than 10 som whether it is by bus, marshrutka or trolley. Download 2Gis for offline navigation that includes how to get from A to B. Another useful site and app is bus.kg.
If figuring out the public transport network seems too daunting a task or you find it too overcrowded, don’t worry. Taxi’s are cheap in Bishkek. I can really recommend to use the taxi hailing app yandex, especially if you don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz.
How to get to and from Bishkek
Bishkek has several bus terminsals each serving different destinations in the country and even abroad.
Western bus station
The western bus station at the intersection of Jibek Joli and Kuliyeva street is the largest station in Bishkek and also seen as the main bus station. From here buses and shared taxi’s leave to almost every destination in the country as well as Almaty, Tashkent and Russia.
Read more in my post on how to travel from Bishkek to Karakol and lake Issyk kul.
Eastern bus station
The eastern bus station at the intersection of Jibek Joli and Osmonkula serves nearby destinations east of Bishkek such as the Chuy valley, Tokmok and Issyk Ata
South of Osh bazaar is where shared taxi’s to Osh gather. Try to come early morning when there are more passengers and taxi’s fill up more quickly. Check out my post on how to get from Bishkek to Osh for more information and alternative ways to travel.
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