After a two-month summer in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, I felt it was time for a guide “How to do nothing (or very little) and enjoy Bishkek at its very best.”
The capital of Kyrgyzstan is home to about one million people, Bishkek has a feel of a town rather than a city. Bishkek is said to be the greenest capital of Central Asia, making it a pleasant town to stay for a longer period of time.
- You are tired of your travels and in need of a rest.
- You need to fix your overland vehicle.
- You have no reason but just want to be somewhere where it’s pleasant and people are nice.
Bishkek works for all of this.
Without the typical big tourist attractions, you won’t be seduced by a heavy to-do list. Bishkek is a town to wander around, stroll about the bazaars, take in the summer evening scene at Ala-Too Square with splashing fountains, and sit on benches in parks.
(But, don’t panic. If you get this sudden burst of energy and you do want to do something fun, and maybe even challenging, there are tons of activities around Bishkek to be found. Right outside Bishkek rise the mountains and Issyk Kul Lake is not far away either. Find some great ones here.)
1- How to Move around in Bishkek
In the downtown area, (around Ala-Too Square), most places of interest can be reached on foot. If you do need public transportation, there are buses, trolleys, taxis, and the Yandex (the local version of Uber).
How does Yandex work:
- You need to register with a telephone number. This you need to do only once, so if you did this in another Yandex-using country, you won’t have to do it again. (Of course they can’t call you back then if you have switched telephone numbers).
- The Yandex app is in Russian and is very slow. Fortunately, the Yandex app is connected with Maps me. So, in Mapsme you can see the prices and can order a Yandex from there.
- Whether you use the app or Mapsme, you need to be online to order a Yandex.
Map Markers Explained:
- grey with a loop = parks
- yellow with a camera = monuments & sculptures & statues
- purple with a jug = museums
- blue with a pin = architecture & places of worship
- purple with a bed = accommodation
- purple with fork & knife = restaurant & bazaars
2- Places to Relax in Bishkek – Enjoy the Parks
Bishkek is green. Many streets, all orderly built in a grid, are lined with trees, providing you with shade, which makes the 40-degree (Celsius) heat in summer so much more bearable.
Where to enjoy all that green and shade (check map: map markers are grey with a loop):
- East/northeast of Ala-Too Ala-Too Square lies the extensive Oak Park.
- Across Oak Park, south of Chuy Ave, the green surroundings continue with a long, green park along Erkindik Avenue all the way to the train station.
- Panifilov Park lies west of Oak Park. Good for a visit with kids. Here you can enjoy the Ferris Wheel and find some other simple forms of entertainment.
In summer you will see the locals coming here in large numbers during late afternoon / early evening.
Go for a walk, sit on the benches, be mesmerized by the fountains. Smile at kids running around as they hunt for a stick flowing in narrow canals that run through the park for irrigation. Admire youngsters playing ping pong, watch mothers chatting on benches while keeping an eye on their kids.
Eat ice-cream, drink kvas, read a book – learn about the Silk Road history, the Great Game, and adventurers who visited the region.
This is Bishkek’s life of leisure at its very best.
Read More: Books about Central Asia and the Silk Road
3- Places to See in Bishkek – Sculpture & Monuments
Which brings me to topic 2. Bishkek abounds in sculptures.
Bradt Guides’ Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide has a page dedicated to Bishkek’s statues with a fun story on how the local government has the tendency to place these statues around, depending on changing political climates. (It’s too much text to legally copy here, so you’ll have to check out the guidebook for yourself).
Among them is the Lenin statue. Once a prominent place on Ala-Too Square it was moved to the backside of the massive National History Museum.
Here’s a blog post with an extensive list with photos of monuments and statues and explanations.
Of note are these statues (check map: map markers are yellow with a camera):
- Part of Oak Park is filled with sculptures, south from the luxurious Frunze Restaurant on Abdumomunov Street.
- Alley of Heroes, with the Marx and Engels Memorial in memorial, in Oak Park.
- Manas Statue, on Ala-Too Square.
- Victory monument, on Victory Square.
- Monument to the victims of the 2010 Revolution, on Chuy Ave.
Apart from the fact that many of them are beautiful and/or impressive, the statues teach you a thing or two about the Bishkek’s history and culture. Here you can download an app to get access to self-guided walking tours in Bishkek.
4- Places to Visit in Bishkek – Museums
The above-mentioned Lenin statue brings me to museums. No stress on that front either. For now the National Historical Museum is under renovation. Apparently it has been closed for 3 years (a local told us that 10 of the 15 allocated million dollars has disappeared; no idea if this is true or gossip).
But, do check it out. The building on Ala-Too Square can’t be missed and is a piece of brutalist architecture that is impressive even if it’s for nothing but its sheer size.
Two other museums you may want to check out (but to be honest, we didn’t) – (check map: map markers are purple with a jug):
- Frunze Museum (Mikhail Frunze Street, 364)
- Museum of Fine arts (Yusup Abdrahmanov Street, 196)
5- The Ultimate Place to Relax at Night – Ala-Too Square
Ala-Too Square is the main public square of Bishkek (and Kyrgyzstan). This is by far the biggest attraction of Bishkek – at least in summer (and on New Year’s Eve). Go late afternoon, early evening when the place fills with locals.
This open downtown area is a place to sit down, quiet down, and people watch. Fountains splash all over the place and are enjoyed by frolicking families. Kids play in them, some even swim while their mothers pull up their skirts and wade through the cool waters.
You can rent small (annoying) electric cars for your kid. Vendors sell Chinese plastic gadgets that you can throw in the air and that come down twirling in colors. Or maybe next year they’ve invented another useless piece of junk that excites your kid.
You can watch the changing of the guards. Check out the two guys in uniform standing guard under the enormous flag. In summer this happens every two hours.
6- Places to Eat and Drink in Bishkek
Tap Water vs. Filtering your Water
In Bishkek tap water should be safe to drink, we have been told (contrary to the rest of the country). I understand if you don’t want to take a risk but please do the environment a favor and don’t buy plastic bottles. Bring a stainless-steel water bottle and a water filter system.
There is an amazing selection of small, handy, water filter systems out there, such as MSR water filters or, even smaller, a SteriPen or Lifestraw. Or carry water purification tablets if weight and space really are a big issue (we do so on our long-distance hikes).
Drink a Tea and People Watch
Pick one of the benches on Ala-Too Square, or one of the staircases on the square around the fountains. Bring your thermos, or buy a tea in a paper cup (better – bring your own!) at the Stolovaya restaurant that lines the western side of the staircase.
Enjoy your drink and take in the local scene.
Go for a Beer
On the southeastern corner of Ala-Too Square is the Craft Beer Cafe, the only outdoor cafe on this square. Good beers and food too (although we were disappointed that the inviting-sounding cheese fondue on the menu was never available).
Go for a Meal (check map: map markers are purple with fork & knife):
We are not meat eaters and therefore don’t have a reason to visit the typical local restaurants. Pretty much all local dishes include meat (exceptions are e.g. salad or dumplings filled with pumpkin). These restaurants are called Chaikanas – spelled Чайхана.
Typical local dishes include laghman (a noodle dish with meat and vegetables; served as a soup or as a fried dish ) and plov (very oily, fried rice with mutton and carrots). More on local food in this blog post.
1- Downtown area
Good for vegetarians: Sierra Cafe, near the Russian embassy. (Manas Avenue 57/1)
On the westside of Ala-Too Square is a small stolovaya (sorry, no name), a Russian-style buffet restaurant. For little money you get a quick and reasonable meal.
Good for vegetarians: A couple of blocks from here is an excellent Indian Restaurant, The Host to which we returned several times. (Yusup Abdrahmanov Street 201)
2- Away from the downtown area
Yunusalieve Street, near Tunduk Hostel, are many options.
Good for vegetarians: Dubbed the K-street (the Korean embassy is here), there are a number of Korean restaurants on Yunusalieve Street, right across the Tunduk Hostel. Each has its own evening of being closed. Our favorite is Seoul (closed on Monday, if I remember correctly) where they serve your food with lots of side dishes and they have makeolli on the menu. (Yunusalieve Street, 137)
Two blocks south on Yunusalive Street are a number of smaller restaurants selling all kinds of local and international fast-food. Among them are a KFC, a place to eat pizza & sushi (interesting combi), and a sushi takeaway on the fourth floor of the shopping mall with a big Globus Supermarket in the basement.
7- Places to Go for a Stroll – Bazaars
Since we’re talking food, let’s talk bazaars (check map: map markers are purple with a fork & knife):
Behind the above-mentioned fast-food stalls stretches a lively bazaar (on the corner of Yunusaliev Ave and Suyerkulov Street, hidden from the main road). Like on any bazaar you will find all kinds of stuff – the typical clothes, household stuff, notebooks, and pens, etc.
It is followed by an extensive food bazaar with lots of vegetables, dried fruit, and nuts (I’m sure there is a corner with meat too but I didn’t check it out).
We found this bazaar friendlier (and cleaner) than the popular Osh Bazaar, although that is a perfectly fine bazaar to check out well. (On the corner of Chuy and Kuliev streets)
Basically, these bazaars sell the same kind of stuff so if you have seen one, you have seen the other.
Tip: Take reusable mesh bags to stock up on legumes, grains, nuts and the likes. Many vendors want to sell every product in a different plastic bag and you’ll find the bags littering towns and countryside. Spread the word through good example 🙂
8- Places to Visit in Bishkek – Architecture & Places of Worship
As said, Bishkek isn’t a top destination for sightseeing. However, among the sites worth a visit are (check map: map markers are blue with a pin):
Kyrgyzstan’s White House
The stroll around Ala-Too Square will give you an idea of the typical Soviet brutalist architecture. Such as Kyrgyzstan’s White House, the humungous National Parliament Building west of Ala-Too Square. (Chue Avenue, 205)
The Resurrection Cathedral
On walking distance from Oak Park, on the Silk Road avenue (#497), the cathedral can be a lively place with many visitors.
St. Vladimir Orthodox Church
The largest orthodox church in Central Asia, this religious building with typical golden onions lies outside the city center.
The New Central Mosque
Easy to combine with your exit of the city (well, when driving your own vehicle) towards Issyk Kul Lake, the New Central Mosque lies on your right-side hand on the Silk Road Avenue.
9- Places to Stay in Bishkek
Bishkek has hostels and hotels in all price ranges. Low budget travelers as we are, we can recommend two hostels:
Arguably among the most popular low-budget places to stay, Apple Hostel is not in the downtown area but is conveniently located next to the bus station and on walking distance from the Osh Bazaar.
They have dorms, private rooms, a kitchen, a living room with sofas (but no windows), and a shaded outdoor area. Overlanders can park inside the premises and sleep in their vehicle (accessible for trucks).
- Address: Chymkentskaja Street, 1B
- Website Apple Hostel
On the southern side of town, near the above-mentioned Korean restaurants and embassy, is the Tunduk Hostel. Smaller than Apple Hostel we found it a kinder place to stay. Expect the company of lots of French visitors 🙂
It has a super green garden a with swimming pool and fruit trees, a kitchen, and dorms and private rooms. Overlanders can park inside the premises and sleep in their vehicle (accessible for trucks).
- Address: Pereulok Kubanskiy Street, 46
- Website Tunduk Hostel
Check ik out: the Landcruising Adventure Coaster Collection
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