Kyrgyzstan burst onto the scene as an emerging tourism destination when it hosted the World Nomad Games. While the country’s landscapes and nomadic culture are major draws, Bishkek is more than just a gateway to adventure; it’s also a diverse and engaging location for a stand-alone city break. Surrounded by a ring of snow-capped mountains, and with broad, tree-lined streets, plenty of parks and impressive white marble architecture, the Kyrgyz capital is home to burgeoning foodie and arts scenes.
Morning: Take a leisurely walk around Chuy Prospekt
Chuy Prospekt is Bishkek’s main artery – a broad, central avenue lined with grand marble-clad buildings. Built in the 1920s, Chuy has gone through several name changes (including in honour of Stalin and Lenin), and it’s here where you’ll find many of Bishkek’s most important sites. Start your walk in Panfilov Park, just to the north of Chuy Prospekt. The park commemorates Soviet military hero Ivan Panfilov, whose monument is still topped with the hammer and sickle emblem.
Cut through to Chuy Prospekt beside the White House, the presidential office building. It’s in the Stalinist modern style and reportedly has a secret tunnel network linking it to Ala-Too Square on the other side of the street.
Ala-Too Square is Bishkek’s centrepiece. On the plinth where Lenin once stood, there’s now an impressive equestrian statue dedicated to Manas, the namesake and protagonist of Kyrgyzstan’s national epic poem. The government ministries around the square overlook fountains and floral displays, and on Independence Day, Nowruz (Persian New Year) and other special occasions, this is where the city’s main festivities take place.
The State Historical Museum is on the north side of Ala-Too Square; it has long been closed for renovation, with no firm date for reopening. However, if you still want a historical fix, you can walk behind it to the Mikhail Frunze Museum, which is dedicated to one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Bishkek’s most famous son.
Aijan Lässer, a co-founder of Kalpak Travel, recommends finishing your morning walk in the neighbouring Dubovyi Park. “Dubovyi Park literally means Oak Park. This small park has many sculptures and works of art to peruse. The paths lined with trees make it pleasant to explore on foot even in summer when temperatures can reach 40C (104F).” There’s a café in the park for lunch, or you can picnic in the shade.
Afternoon: Immerse yourself in local culture at the State Fine Arts Museum
The work of Kyrgyzstan’s artists and artisans is almost unknown beyond the country’s borders. If you want to learn about the country’s artistic heritage, there’s only one option: spend an afternoon at the State Fine Arts Museum on Sovetskaya Street.
Founded in the 1930s, the museum lies inside a Soviet modernist building said to have been influenced by Le Corbusier. It’s a giant white marble cuboid, and though the exterior has seen better days, it’s still an imposing form.
Inside the museum, some 18,000 artefacts – mostly paintings but also decorative items and folk art – are spread across two floors. A rarity in Kyrgyzstan, an audio guide has been produced describing more than 100 of the artefacts for visitors who are visually impaired.
Local filmmaker Gulzat Matisakova is a huge fan of the State Fine Arts Museum and, in particular, how the curators are trying to make the visitor experience more engaging. “The museum has been offering its walls to many modern artists,” she explains. “It had massive success with a Night at the Museum event, live paintings and workshops for kids and adults. These kinds of innovative, new projects are giving the museum a new lease of life.”
If you only see three things at the museum, let them be the landscape paintings of Semen Chuykov (who also happens to be the museum’s founder), the textiles gallery and whatever is showing in the current temporary exhibition of modern and contemporary art.
Night: Treat yourself to a night at the opera
Dress up for drinks and an early supper at the Opera Lounge inside the Hyatt Regency Bishkek. The hotel is opposite the State Fine Arts Museum and just around the corner from Chuy Prospekt, so it’s best to get here on foot. The restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows look straight out at the Kyrgyz State Opera and Ballet Theatre, so when the time for curtains up approaches, all you have is a two-minute walk.
The theatre is an incredibly elegant Neoclassical building, and with tickets starting from just over 91 Kyrgyzstani som (£1), it offers one of the cheapest live, professional theatre performances around. The national opera and ballet companies perform diverse repertoires of traditional and contemporary works, and there are occasionally touring groups from abroad.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an opera or ballet fan, go to the theatre for the spectacle. The interior is beautiful, the costumes ornate and the sound of the full-size orchestra resonates wonderfully around the auditorium.
Morning: Breakfast at Osh Bazaar
Osh Bazaar is Bishkek’s commercial hub, a busy indoor and outdoor marketplace where you can buy everything from freshly baked bread and dried fruits and nuts to car parts and household wares. The bazaar is at its liveliest first thing in the morning, and though it’ll inevitably feel crowded, this is the best time to come and soak up the atmosphere. It’s close to Bishkek’s western bus station, so hop on a marshrutka (local minibus) from the centre of town. The fare is 10 Kyrgyzstani som (£0.11).
Whatever you do, don’t have breakfast before coming to Osh Bazaar. There’s a chaikhana (traditional teahouse) in the middle of the market where the traders and shoppers stop for tea and snacks, and you will want to leave ample space to taste the samples that are sure to be proffered to you as you browse.
Pro tip: Think ahead and buy a picnic to take with you this afternoon.
Afternoon: Picnic in Ala Archa National Park
Look out the windows of any high-rise building in Bishkek, and you will see the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Tien Shan range standing guard over the city. The mountains exert a magnetic draw, so hail a local taxi and ride out to the Ala Archa National Park, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Bishkek.
Ala Archa is one of the most popular destinations for day-tripping residents, so on sunny weekends and public holidays, the most scenic picnic spots can get crowded. You never have to hike far to find peace, however. The marked trail to the Ak-Sai waterfall takes about two hours to complete, and in winter, the water freezes into a dramatic natural ice sculpture.
If you don’t have a car, the easiest way to reach Ala Archa is by taxi. The return journey, plus a couple of hours’ waiting time, should cost you no more than 1,500 Kyrgyzstani som (£16.45).
Night: Party in the castle at Pishpek
Aim to be back in Bishkek by nightfall. Not only are the roads markedly less safe at night, you’ll also want to have time to get ready for a night on the town.
Perhaps the most fun place to have dinner is at Pishpek, a mock fortress inspired by Bishkek’s origins as a Russian garrison town. The menu is dominated by Kyrgyz specialities such as grilled meats, noodle soups and samsa (savoury meat pastries), and many of the staff are in traditional costume. The bar is well stocked with local and imported drinks, and at weekends, there’s often a DJ or live band.
If you do want to dance into the small hours, Promzona is a city institution and stays open until 6am. You’ll need to dress to impress to get past the doormen, but once inside, prepare to party until you’ve not an ounce of energy left.
A taxi ride from your hotel to Pishpek or Promzona is unlikely to cost more than 100 Kyrgyzstani som (£1.10), though some companies have a night-time surcharge.