Ulaanbaatar hasn’t always get good press among foreign travellers, who prefer, and we well know why, dawdling about the natural wonders that make up the steppes. Yet, the patient traveller who has some time ahead will discover in the Mongolian capital beautiful spots where it is pleasant to wander.
Here is the ranking of my 10 favorite spots in Ulaanbaatar.
1. The monastery of Gandantegchilen
The monastery of Gandan is the most visited site in the Mongolian capital, and a not-to-be-missed for all the travellers. The monastery is stunning and benefits from a peaceful atmosphere right in the middle of the capital. The visitor will prefer to go there in the morning, between 9 and 11am, time where the monks gather for praying, but the site is still nice at any time of the day. Personally, I like to go with my children to feed the pigeons in the late afternoon. The low-angle lights at that time of the day gives to this spot an even more special charm.
The path taking you to the monastery will nicely fulfil your visit with all their religious shops (incense, Khadag, Buddhist statues…) as well as the the yurt neighbourhood.
2. The 3rd and 4th districts (Gurav Döröv dügeer khoroolol)
In the Northwest of the monastery there is a broad avenue with many shops. These are the 3rd and 4th districts. Only a few visitors visit this part of town, yet this popular area does not lack of charm and is especially worth visiting for its hustle and bustle. Many stores from the city were first to set up, and their success has contributed to the development in the rest of the city.
You will find the Urgoo cinema, the most important of the city, the Gobi Sauna, as well as plenty of cheap restaurants, karaoke and clothes stores.
3. Baga toiruu
Let’s keep exploring the city center and focus on Baga toiruu, surroundings of Sukhbaatar square. Ulaanbaatar doesn’t have any pedestrians areas and seldom are the areas where it is pleasant to walk. Baga toiruu makes exception with its wide sidewalks, lined with poplars. All along the promenade are found plentiful of restaurants offering a worldwide range of cuisine: Mongolian, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Indian or even more Mexican and Italian, which will please the gourmets, happy to find dishes after an adventure in the steppes .
Good news, whether the Dream Hotel or the Hotel Guide we work with : they are both located in the surroundings!
Zaisan is in the southern district. Technically, it is located in the protected area of Bogd Khan and constructions in there are forbidden. During my first visit in Ulaanbaatar in 2003, there were no buildings in the area, except for the Russian memorial, for which you had to climb many steps to enjoy the views it offers over the city. Today, Zaisan has become the first residential area of Ulan Bator, and the rich area of the capital. The view from the memorial has not changed, but the surroundings are now all composed by condominiums. This remains a pleasant place to visit, especially when we go away from the habitations towards the mountains that dominate the south. A small yurt camp is found on the edge of the forest of larch trees just outside, where families come to picnic. On weekends, many hikers gather there from early morning to walk up the mountain.
5. Naran Tuul market
Radical change of scenery and let’s go to the most popular place in Ulaanbaatar: the well-known Black market of Naran Tuul! Located about 5 km east from the city center, on the road to Terelj National Park, the" pickpockets " market is where the Mongols know they can find anything at the best price. Whether it's food, home furnishings or for the yurt, electronics, carpets, saddles or clothing both traditional and imported directly from neighbouring China, it is a huge bazaar in which you will enter here. Local atmosphere guaranteed, but be aware, it's a Mongolian market type, which is not thought to serve the needs of travellers. We can find antiques, but rarely more conventional souvenirs.
The market is also unfortunately known for their pickpockets. It shouldn’t restrain you to visit it, but it is recommended to leave your passport as well as credit card at your hotel, and have on you the amount of cash you expect to spend.
Attention, I am about to reveal you the secret, which has been best kept by the inhabitants of the Mongolian capital. And yet, even in the heart of summer time, while walking are the most pleasant, just a few walker are in there. In the northwest of Ulaanbaatar is the Nairamdal area (meaning friendship in Mongolian). First, you will pass through an area of houses, before finally arriving near the forest. While most forest areas in Mongolia are covered with larch, we are here in a varied undergrowth, where mushrooms and wood fruits abound.
By walk or by bike, it is a real pleasure to stroll along the paths of Nairamdal and picnic in the middle of the forest.
Let’s continue in the natural zones located in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, with the region of Khandraigt. Located at about 25km in the north of Ulaanbaatar (straight from the central square), this region is concomitant with the national park Gorkhi Terelj. On the road you will come across numerous datcha where Mongolians spend some time of their summer away from the heat, sometimes stifling, of the city center. Here, the forest is composed of larch, but it is dense and ultimately very little wandered as soon as we get away from the main road. Another great destination for the weekends in family!
8. The national park
At the southeast of the city, behind the Bayanmongol residence, was built a large park that Mongolian families invade as soon as the sunny days show up. Understandably, because here everything is done to amuse the children . Large remote control cars can be rent and be safely driven by the kids. Bicycles and other tandems are also found to explore the area.
This park is not to be confused with the children's park in south of Sukhbaatar Square, who is an amusement park with a Big wheel, roller coasters, but also a bowling alley .
If you have children, half a day in one of these two parks will keep them busy. Prefer the first park for younger children, and the second if they are aged over 7 years old.
On the way to Ulaanbaatar, there is the beautiful Nukht Valley. You will see it on your right side while driving towards the city-centre. Magnificent tree-filled valley getting into Bogd Khan, has become the prey of developers. A small village has just been build up, where the Nukht resort can be found. It is always pleasant to have lunch in this fancy hotel with swimming pool, before going for a walk in the surroundings.
If you spend a day in the surroundings, you will also find Viva city along the Tuul river. Do not get impressed by the residential buildings, which look at first unpleasant, but in the center of it you will get the feeling that you are in a small village, with fountain, shops and restaurants.
10. Place Chinggis Khan, formerly Sukhbaatar
Difficult to speak of the nicest places of Ulaanbaatar without evoking its central place, which was revamped in 2008 for the eight centuries of the creation of the Mongol empire. On summer nights, it becomes a great place of meeting points for young and old Mongolian. There, we can also rent bikes and remote control cars. Sometimes live events are held, especially during the Naadam festival, and it's generally a great gathering place of the capital.