Aktau is one of the most fascinating and unusual cities in Kazakhstan. Its name is translated from Kazakh as "the white mountain." The city lives up to its name because it stands on a white limestone rock. Aktau is best known for its beaches and the sea; however, it can offer much more. Not far from the city, you can marvel at awe-inspiring, Mars-like landscapes. The region also boasts many historical and religious sites.

A bit of history

Aktau is a relatively new city that was founded in the 1960s when uranium deposits were discovered in the area. From 1963 to 1991, the city bore the name of the great Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, who was exiled to Mangystau in the mid-1800s. During the Soviet period, the city built industrial facilities and an infrastructure that allowed people to live in the desert.

After the collapse of the USSR, the city was named Aktau, and the development of the oil and gas industry began here. It gave impetus to the city’s growth and formed its current appearance. Now the city focuses on attracting more tourists. It is already in the top 10 most popular tourist destinations in Kazakhstan.

Things to know

The climate in Aktau is arid. The average temperature in July is +29°C (84°F), but sometimes it can reach +45°C (113°F). Winters are relatively warm in comparison to other regions of Kazakhstan. The average temperature in January is +1.4°C (34.5°F). Most tourists visit Aktau in the summer, at the height of the beach season. However, autumn and spring are also great times to travel. There is no sweltering heat, and in the spring, flowers bloom in the desert.

In 2022, the city's population is 209,776. Aktau is multinational: Kazakhs, Russians, Koreans, Ukrainians, Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Chechens, and people of other nationalities live there. People speak Kazakh and Russian, so learning a few phrases will make traveling a lot easier.

There are no streets in Aktau, and the city is divided into numbered microdistricts. Saying their address, Aktau residents give the number of the microdistrict, house, and apartment. This makes the address look like a phone number.

There are no natural sources of drinking water in Aktau. The city is supplied with fresh water by a water desalination station of the Mangystau nuclear power plant. Sea water is evaporated into a distillate, which is then mixed with mineralized water from an underground source. The water is then disinfected and people can finally use it.

What to see?

The sea and beaches are what draw sun seekers and beachgoers to Aktau. The swimming season starts at the end of June and lasts until September. During summer, the water warms up to 23°C (73°F). Besides just splashing in the waves, you can go underwater fishing, kitesurfing, paddle boarding, yachting, or boating.

The Aktau Embankment is one of the most popular places. It stretches along the urban coast of the Caspian Sea. In the evenings, vacationers gather there to enjoy the views of fiery sunsets.

Seaside Promenade is another location loved both by city residents and tourists. It runs between the cliff and the beach and allows you to admire a lovely view of the sea. In the evenings, the cliffs are illuminated with colorful lights giving them a magical feel.

You should definitely see the unique lighthouse standing on the roof of a 10-story residential building. This lighthouse has keepers – a family living on the top floor.

We recommend that you book a city tour to see all of these attractions, as well as many others.

Some must-visit destinations nearby

Aktau is a young city; there are no historical sites or ancient buildings. However, Mangystau is a region with a thousand-year history, which is famous for its ancient necropolises, underground mosques, and Muslim shrines. To see them, you will have to overcome tens or even hundreds of kilometers through the desert. The region is sparsely populated and doesn’t have the best roads so driving there can be a challenge. We recommend that you book a tour so that your adventure goes without a hitch.

The Mangystau Region will also be interesting for outdoor enthusiasts. Several million years ago, the region was covered by the waters of an ancient ocean. The ocean has dried up, leaving breathtaking landscapes on the surface. The Bosjira Tract, Mount Sherkala, Torysh Valley – these are some of the natural wonders that stagger the imagination.

Where to stay?

Every year, more and more hotels are built in Aktau. Here you can find accommodation options for every taste and budget: from a luxury hotel to an affordable hostel. Rixos Water World Aktau, the only all-inclusive hotel in Kazakhstan, has recently opened its doors. An aqua park, a sandy beach, gyms – there is everything you need for a great holiday. Caspian Riviera Grand Palace is another world-class hotel that amazes its guests with wall and floor aquariums where more than 400 species of fish live. Not far from the city, there are Tree of Life and Stigl recreation centers, where you can enjoy a relaxing holiday.

What to eat?

Aktau is the only city in Kazakhstan where you can eat fishbarmak. It’s a variant of beshbarmak – a traditional Kazakh dish made with either horse meat or mutton mixed with dough and onion sauce. As you might have guessed from its name, fishbarmak is made of fish instead of meat.

How to get there?

There is no railway station in Aktau, the nearest station is in the village of Mangystau, which is 16 kilometers (10 mi) away from the city. However, there is an airport that accepts both domestic and international flights. You can fly to Aktau from Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Turkistan, Uralsk, Atyrau, Aktobe, and Shymkent. Also, there are flights to/from London, Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Istanbul, Baku, Yerevan, Moscow, and Mineralnye Vody.

Aktau is reachable from Baku by ferry. The journey will take almost a day, but it is cheaper than traveling by air.

updated: 30 july 2022

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