by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, June 26, 2017
European cities are all about charm and character – shimmering skylines are not really our style. North America does them pretty well - New York, LA, Toronto - and Asia has some beauties - think Singapore and Hong Kong - but Europe? Not so much.
There is one (almost) on our doorstep, however. And it's poised - rather unexpectedly - to be the next hot destinations for travellers in search of a more adventurous city break.
Introducing Astana. First up: can you find it on map? The answer is below.
Map: Which of these capital cities is Astana? Did you get it right?
It's E. Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, the world's ninth largest country by area. Congratulations if you got it right.
Why should I go?
Kazakhstan’s glittering capital is already regarded in niche travel circles for its captivating architecture, with the skyline increasingly filling with ambitious, space-age skyscrapers and monuments, including the 150-metre Bayterek Tower and the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, designed by acclaimed British architect Norman Foster. But it is now taking a confident step towards showcasing its cityscape to the world.
The announcement that two major global hotel chains are setting up shop in the city - ahead of the imminent Expo 2017 world fair - suddenly make the central Asian city feel a little closer.
Sure, Kazakhstan is not on many British bucket lists, but the Ritz Carlton and St Regis think that might be about to change.
The former promises 157 rooms clad with exotic marble and luxurious woods in downtown’s Talan Towers, while the latter, in Astana Central Park, will be home to 120 rooms in a palatial, neoclassical design. Marriott and Radisson already have properties in the city.
What even is an Expo?
Remember the World Fair that gave London its Crystal Palace in 1851? The Expos (expositions) are the modern evolution of The Great Exhibition, but maintain the same purpose: to showcase to the world the strengths and prospects of the host city or nation.
The great and good have enjoyed expositions since London’s effort - New York, Chicago and Paris, to name a few - while the modern-day expos have taken in cities such as Brisbane, Barcelona and Hanover, not to mention Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Tsukuba in Japan, and Zaragoza in Spain.
The latter were all “specialised expos” focussing on a particular topic, such as sustainability or technology, as is Astana’s, with “future energy” at the centre of the celebrations.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is keen for Expo 2017 to be the beginning of Astana’s future. For it, he ordered the construction of the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Centre, also designed by Norman Foster and his firm, a miniature golf course, a river, a beach resort and a monorail.
A number of the world’s exposition have left indelible marks on their host cities - Brussels retains its Atomium, The Space needle still stands in Seattle, while Shanghai’s China pavilion, built for Expo 2010, is today the China Art Museum.
Dubai is next in line to host the next Expo in 2020, while Lodz in Poland is competing with Minneapolis, Rio and Buenos Aires for the following event.
Why else might you visit Astana?
Beyond the impressive architecture, Astana boasts a rich Soviet history. The city’s old centre still harbours a “Soviet atmosphere”, according to the Kazakh tourist board. There is also an ornate theatre named after Russian author Maxim Gorky.
Visiting in 2008 for Telegraph Travel, James Mackintosh found the city on the cusp of change.
“For all its grand pretensions, Astana retains something of the Russian and Soviet steppe trading post of its roots,” he wrote. “Traces of elegant, pastel-coloured, tsarist merchant mansions; the bustle of the dusty streets; the familiar Soviet grid-avenues lined with birch trees and ugly 1950s housing blocks; the cosy but elegant Russian drama theatre; the ubiquitous circus.
“Placid, gold-toothed women sit all day at street stalls selling raspberries, cucumbers and varieties of forest berries in cut-off plastic bottles. Astana girls, miniskirted and flirtatious, Russian blondes and oriental-looking Kazakhs, cling giggling together like natural-born cousins.
“At Line Brew, a Belgian pub quirkily designed as a Crusader castle, a Nordic-looking family and friends are swilling back lager. They speak Russian but this scene could be anywhere in Germany. They are Volga Germans, shunted by Stalin to this backwater many decades ago. We’re at the heart of Central Asia but, the paradox is that much of the culture is European.”
How do I get to Astana?
Air Astana, the nation’s flag carrier, flies direct to Astana International Airport from London Heathrow, with prices starting around £500 return for the seven hour service. Flying via Kiev with Ukraine International can cut £200 off the price, but will double the time. Likewise, flights via Moscow with Aeroflot.
What else does Kazakhstan have to offer?
Kazakhstan is the proud owner of some immense countryside, including the nation’s answer to the Grand Canyon, in the form of Charyn Canyon. There is also skiing at Shymbulak ski resort, 30 minutes from Almaty, while the hidden Lake Kaindy in the Tien Shan Mountains is a startling sight to behold.