1 - Khan Shatyr
Begin your exploration at the northwestern end of the massive two-kilometre-long quadrangle of buildings that house the Kazakhstani government and major business institutions. In a young city filled with impressive architectural edifices, the Khan Shatyr is perhaps the most striking. A tent-shaped cone 150 metres tall, this enormous shopping and recreation centre was designed by Norman Foster’s architect firm and uses a transparent plastic compound that absorbs the sunlight and protects from the steppe winds, keeping the interior at a regulated balmy temperature throughout freezing winters and boiling summers.
Three floors of designer shops, cafés and food outlets follow the standard “mall” pattern, but on the uppermost floor is the “Sky Beach”, a leisure park where you can lounge under palm trees on a real sand beach beside a lagoon pool. 37 Turan Avenue; open 10am-11pm; khanshatyr.com/en
2 - Baiterek
From Khan Shatyr walk towards and through the arch of the Kazmunaigaz building and, marking the centre of the quadrangle about a ten minute walk away, you’ll see the 97-metre-tall structure of the Baiterek tower, its slender white “trunk” topped by a huge golden ball (symbolically the golden egg of the mythical Samruk bird, laid at the top of the Tree of Life, which was impossible for humans to reach).
An elevator whisks you up into the sphere, through whose gold-tinted glass a 360-degree panorama of the city can be viewed. Look southeast and you’ll see the marbled splendour of the blue-domed Presidential Palace. On the top level of the golden orb is a handprint belonging to President Nazarbayev, in which visitors can place their own palms. Open 10am-9pm Oct-March; entrance 700 tenge (US$2.10); astana-bayterek.kz
3 - Pyramid of Peace and Reconciliation
Behind the Presidential Palace but on the far side of the Esil River is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. Just a five-minute taxi ride from Baiterek, this attractive glass pyramid is another Norman Foster creation, built on top of a small green hill to be a meeting place for the leading representatives of the world’s religions, who gather regularly for summits to promote inter-religious understanding and peace. Inside the 62-metre pyramid are an ethnocultural centre, archaeological exhibitions, art galleries and a 1,300-seat concert hall. Tours are available in English, Russian and Kazakh. 57 Tauelsizdik Avenue; open 10am-6pm; entrance costs 600 tenge (US$1.80); astana-piramida.kz/en
4 - Capital Circus
Catch a taxi (ten minutes, approx 1,000 tenge/US$3) back over the river to Kabanbay Batyr Avenue, between the new and old parts of the city. Constructed to look like a giant flying saucer, the Capital Circus boasts a 13-metre-diameter ring surrounded by seating for 2,000, and is home to a 300-strong circus troupe – circus performances are a popular draw in this ex-Soviet nation where Russian cultural influences are still strong. The Circus also plays host to touring international companies, from high-flying trapeze artists and horse riding teams to acrobats, clowns and animal acts.
5 Kabanbay Batyr Avenue; prices range from 1,000 to 5,000 tenge (US$3-15). circus-astana.kz
5 - Central Park and Esil River
Beginning immediately to the north of the park surrounding the Circus, Astana’s Central Park occupies the wedge of land created by a 90-degree bend in the Esil River. It’s a popular destination for the city’s residents, offering peace, shade and shelter from the dustiness of the city streets. Wandering through its many paths you’ll find cafés, carnival rides, ponds, an aqua park, and many nooks and crannies where people relax on benches or picnic under the trees.
Cross the pedestrian bridge close to the apex of the river bend, turn right and stroll down the right bank of the Esil, past the grand statue of historic Kazakh hero Kenesary Khan. Facing the park on this side is restaurant Astana Nury, which serves excellent traditional Kazakh and Georgian cuisine in attractive Central Asian-style booths with curtains for privacy – or, if the weather is fine, sit out on the open terrace for great river views. Be sure to sample some Kazakh shashlik (kebab) from the extensive menu, with Georgian khachapuri (cheese bread) as an accompaniment. 3/2 Respublika Avenue; open noon until last guest; a-n.kz