Walking around the city of Bishkek, you’ll see an interesting blend of old Soviet-era apartment buildings and monuments, modern shopping malls, and lush green parks with wide prospects. Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and is a vibrant, yet not so well-known city in Central Asia. It’s a great destination for those interested in Soviet history, budget travelers, and home base for trekkers. This guide will highlight the 10 best things to do in Bishkek so you can make the most of this hidden Central Asian gem.
Thinking of heading to Central Asia? Be sure to check out my Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide to help you plan your trip!
Last updated: 11/15/22
Victory Park in Bishkek is a large, public square dedicated to the victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. The centerpiece of the park is a monument of a Kyrgyz woman waiting for her husband to return home from the war and an eternal flame in front of her. Around her are three stretches of red granite that unite above the woman in a “tunduk” with the Soviet hammer and sickle carved into the star into the center. These pieces together represent a traditional Kyrgyz yurt, or the type of homes used traditionally by the nomadic Kyrgyz people along the steppes of Central Asia.
Experience the local arts in Bishkek by visiting the Kyrgyz National Opera and Ballet Theater! After his death in 1978, the theater was named Abdylas Maldybaev, a famous Kyrgyz composer, opera signer, and actor of the USSR. The theater stages various local and international opera and ballet performances, concerts, and other musical performances.
To see their schedule, check out their Facebook page here.
Built in 1935, the National Museum of Fine Arts was funded by the Communist Party in order to promote traditional Kyrgyz art. Since then, the museum has expanded to include various applied art, paintings and sculptures from three eras: Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic history, Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic history presents much of its art through the instruments they used in and around the home such as carpets, embroideries, tools, jewelry and more. Because the Kyrgyz are traditionally nomadic, however, it was less common to lug around bigger art such as paintings or sculptures. With the Industrial Revolution and the incorporation of Kyrgyzstan into the Soviet Union, however, came a large interruption to the peoples’ nomadic way of life. Thus, Kyrgyz people began moving en mass to more permanent residences like to the cities to work in factories or onto collectivized farms. It’s during this time period you start to see less applied art and more pieces of artwork like paintings and sculptures. Moreover, the artwork of the Soviet era had to adhere to the artistic principles of Socialist Realism, which you can see in this section of the museum. The artwork and sculptures included in the section for post-Soviet Kyrgyz art very interesting combines the reflection of its nomadic roots and the response of the nation to its Soviet occupation.
You can find the museum’s hours of operation and contact info here.
Osh Bazaar is one of the largest bazaars in Bishkek brimming with local vendors selling nearly everything under the sun – produce, bread, spices, herbs, plants, instruments, kitchenware, clothes, souvenirs – you name it. If you’re looking for a bustling bazaar where you can get the full Central Asian bazaar experience, look no further. It is known, however, to be chalk-full of pickpockets with their eyes set on tourists. I don’t know anyone who has personally gotten pickpocketed here, but the locals themselves warn of this so be sure to use best practices here. I like to flip my backpack onto my chest so that I can see it, and I always wear a money belt with my valuables inside just in case my backpack is stolen.
If you’re looking for a less hectic bazaar, I recommend Dardoi. You can find most things you need here + my friend, Lindsay, claims it has the best ashlyam-fu in Bishkek (hey, Lindsay!).
One of my favorite aspects of Bishkek is its park culture. There are tons of parks throughout the city which provide plenty of shade in the blazing summer heat and spots for the locals to enjoy some down time. At any given time of the day, you’ll always encounter people taking in the day on one of the many benches or strolling down the sidewalk hand in hand.
Oak Park is the oldest park in Bishkek, and is noteworthy for its collection of monuments and statues placed throughout the park highlighting various historical figures and local traditions. Be sure to find the Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Statue, Kurmanjan-Datka Monument (a 19th century Kyrgyz heroine), and the Red Guards Memorial.
Although the USSR fell over thirty years ago, remnants of Kyrgyzstan’s former colonizers remain in several spots around its capital city. The most prominent of these remnants is a Vladimir Lenin statue which stands over 10 feet tall behind the city’s historical museum in the city center. The statue was erected in 1984 to commemorate sixty years under Soviet rule. Although most Lenin statues were taken down in former Soviet capitals after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bishkek’s Lenin stayed in its original place until 2003 when it was moved to its current location.
Choosing to keep Lenin’s statue up even after 1991 is likely a result of much of the public crediting Lenin with bringing about Kyrgyzstan’s statehood. And although Lenin and the Soviet Union became the cause of much suffering and oppression to come, its colonization also ended a bloody era in Kyrgyz history known as the Great Urkun. As in most post-Soviet countries, Lenin and the Soviet Union’s legacy is complicated. However, whether or not Soviet statues and other remnants of the past remain standing does give you interesting insight into how that country is grappling with that complicated past.
The Historical Museum in Bishkek finally reopened in 2022 after seven years of rennovation! There is a bit of a juicy story behind this rennovation period and corruption, but the contents inside are far more interesting. The museum explores Kyrgyzstan from its earliest history to modern-day as you move from the bottom floor up. Featuring nearly 90,000 artifacts and historical items on display, the museum does a great job of guiding you through Kyrgyzstan’s ancient history, its importance along the Silk Road, becoming a part of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union, and, finally, its journey through statehood since independence in 1991.
My favorite part of the museum is on the third floor where they chart out the 40 tribes from which the people of Kyrgyzstan can trace back their lineage. It was fascinating that our tour guide and our teachers could point to the tribes they came from – especially being American and not knowing much about my own personal family background.
Learn more about the National Historical Museum of the Kyrgyz Republic on its website here.
Bishkek is a great city for travelers who love to walk around when they visit a new city. The majority of tourist spots and attractions are located in the city center, and when strolling from place to place, you’re greeted with tons of fountains, wide prospects with brightly-colored flower beds, and tasty cafes and coffee shops.
Here are some of my favorite coffee shops and restaurants in the city center: Bellagio, Social Coffee, Traveler’s Coffee, Chicken Star, Ants.
Yes, indeed, there is a government building in Bishkek called the White House! Covered in marble, the building was constructed in the Stalinist modern architectural style and was built in 1976 to be the headquarters of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Today, the White House is the presidential office building.
Additionally, the White House bares particular historical significance as it relates to post-Soviet politics. The White House became the target of protests for the 2005 Tulip Revolution and the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010 – both of which resulted in the ousting of the Presidents at the time.
Panfilov Park is a great spot if you’re traveling with children or you yourself are still a child at heart 😉 Filled with games, mini-rides, and carnival food, Panfilov Park is a memorial park that now serves as a mini-amusement park in the city center. The best attraction here, in my opinion, is the ferris wheel that overlooks Bishkek’s city center and gives a spectacular view of its mountaneous backdrop. Oh, and yes – they have cotton candy!
One thing about Bishkek that makes it unique is its wide sidewalks and many parks that make the city center a treat to walk around. Its thick green canopy provides some much-needed shade in the summer time.
Just a heads up for the walkers – Pedestrians don’t necessarily have the right of way in Central Asia. Always make eye contact with any approaching vehicles and don’t assume the drivers are looking for you as they turn the corners.
Marshrutkas are mini buses with fixed routes, and are present in nearly every major post-Soviet city. I have a love-hate relationship with marshrutkas because on the one hand, they are the cheapest form of transport in Bishkek with fare costing 1/8 of a dollar, but on the other hand, they are often packed, hot, sweaty, and, unless you’re pregnant of a бабушка, you’re typically standing with your face millimeters from someone’s armpit.
I highly recommend you take a marshrutka at least once when you visit to get a true local experience, however, there are more comfortable, albeit more expensive, forms of transport in Bishkek. As of July 2022, marshrutka fare is 11 som per ride. Credit cards are not accepted – cash/change only!
For marshrutka routes, I recommend downloading the app 2GIS.
Next up are buses and trolleybuses. Although only slightly more expensive, buses and trolleybuses do provide you with a bit more breathing space and elbow room. There are less bus and trolleybus routes in Bishkek than marshrutka routes, but they still offer transport to the majority of places around the city you’ll find yourself frequenting as a tourist. As of July 2022, bus fare is 15 som per ride. Credit cards are not accepted – cash/change only!
For bus and trolleybus routes, I recommend downloading the app 2GIS. Note* – Buses typically have three digits and trolleybuses are usually only 2 digits.
With the cost of taxi fare as low as it is, it is hard to justify taking any other mode of transport in the city. On average, the cost of a taxi from the very north of the city to the very south is about 200 som, which in 2022 is just over $2.
Although they are cheap, just note that you will rarely come across a taxi with seatbelts. Your driver might put one on as they drive past police officers, but I’d estimate that only 1/5 taxis have working seatbelts in their backseats.
While you can flag down a taxi, or any car for that matter, the most secure way to take a taxi around the city is through Yandex Taxi. You can pay by cash or, if you put in your card details before you order a cab, you can pay with foreign cards.
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