The best things to do in Mongolia
From the desert to the mountains, with fascinating culture and rich natural treasures there are so many places to visit in Mongolia you might not know where to start!
To give you an idea of the incredible diversity in this beautiful country, here are my top tips for what to do in Mongolia.
The epic landscapes of Mongolia can sometimes feel overwhelming. The dunes of glowing deserts roll across each other towards the horizon, impenetrable snow-capped mountains rise up towards the sky, and the grassy steppe stretches out forever.
But then, inside one of the tented homes of the nomads, all feels comfortable and contained, with a wood fire heating the space and a welcome drink warming the insides. It’s a land like no other, inhabited by people who have lived the same way for centuries, where everything is an adventure.
There are so many things to do in Mongolia and at first it can seem overwhelming. The isolation of the different regions and the undeveloped landscapes add to the sense of vastness that you find here. But, with a bit of planning, you’ll discover that the best places to see in Mongolia are each quite manageable – and each incredible in their own way.
In this guide to the best things to do in Mongolia, I’ve collated my favourite places by region, so you can get an understanding of the different parts of the country. Seeing them all would be an epic journey, but experiencing the diversity shows why this is such a special part of the world.
Ulaanbaatar and surrounds
Most people who visit Mongolia begin their trip in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, a sprawling city that was once a relatively small urban centre, but has grown as more and more nomads have left their lives on the land to find employment here.
In the centre are a smattering of skyscrapers and relics of the Soviet era, while the outlying suburbs often consist of temporary shacks and tents. Power stations billowing smoke right next to homes gives you an indication of how it was never planned to be like this. But, for visitors, there’s something captivating about a city that still has the atmosphere of the Silk Road.
It’s worth spending a couple of days exploring the city and there are plenty of things to do in Ulaanbaatar. The central Sukhbaatar Square is surrounded by monuments and imposing official buildings (in a style that reminds you you’re not far from Central Asia). The nearby National Museum of Mongolia offers an interesting look at the country’s heritage, while it’s just a short walk to the glitzy business district where the elite flash their wealth.
Make the trek up to the Zaisan Monument for the Soviet-style mural and excellent views across the city, and then delve into the Black Market where the maze of stalls gives you an insight into life in Mongolia. There are plenty of places to eat to try the different styles of Mongolian food, and there’s also a vibrant nightlife.
Genghis Khan Statue
About 50 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar, it’s hard to miss one of Mongolia’s most impressive manmade icons.
The Equestrian Statue of Genghis Khan (also called the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex) is an enormous monument to the famous Mongol leader. The stainless steel statue of him riding a horse is 40 metres high and sits on top of a circular visitor centre with 36 columns representing the 36 khans that came after him.
As well as going into the visitor centre, you can also climb up inside the statue, through the horse’s chest and neck, and then look out the windows in its head for panoramic views across the steppe.
Hustai National Park
Although its landscapes are not the most spectacular you’ll find in Mongolia, there’s something very special about Hustai National Park (also know as Khustain Nuruu National Park). It’s here that conservationists released the Przewalski’s horses after a breeding program to save them from extinction. They are the world’s last species of wild horses and this is one of the few places in the world you can see them outside of captivity.
Hustai National Park is a popular day trip from Ulaanbaatar because it’s only about two hours’ drive, but there is also very comfortable ger (Mongolian yurt) accommodation available. Dirt roads lead through the park so you can self-drive to see the herds of horses and other animals, including gazelle, deer, wolves, and eagles. There are also tours available that’ll tell you all about the reintroduction of the Przewalski’s horses, which Mongolians are very proud of.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Another popular day trip is Gorkhi Terelj National Park, which is about 90 minutes’ drive from the capital. It’s known for its green alpine scenery with forested hills and interesting rock formations – the most famous of which is ‘Turtle Rock’, named because it looks like the animal (not like me).
There are lots of accessible tourist activities here, including hiking, rock climbing, rafting, and horse riding. There are also camps of traditional gers where you can spend the day or the night. It’s an easy way to see some of the Mongolian countryside even for people who just have a short stay in Ulaanbaatar.
The Orkon Valley is in the centre of the country and it has some of the best things to do in Mongolia. The large region of fertile plains and rivers is actually a World Heritage Site because of its importance to the nomadic people and the remains of the medieval capital cities that were once built here.
Khangai Nuruu National Park
When it comes to the natural landscapes of the Orkhon Valley, nothing captures them better than Khangai Nuruu National Park. This vast protected area is an excellent example of the Mongolian steppe, the vast swathe of grasslands that has been home to the nomadic people for generations. Through the seasons it changes from a white snowy carpet, to rushing rivers and green pastures, and brown burnt foliage.
One of the best ways to see the national park is by car, because of its size, but there are also lots of great hiking trails. Nomadic camps offer cultural experiences and there are a few significant heritage sites. One of the highlights is the Tovkhon Khiid monastery on a rocky mountain.
Just on the eastern edge of the national park is one of the most significant sites of the Orkhon Valley, the ruins of Karakorum (not to be confused with the name of the site’s modern town, Kharkhorin).
This was the capital of the Mongol Empire for several decades in the 13th century, not long after the death of Genghis Khan. With an enormous palace and temple, it was an important international political centre. A large tree sculpted of silver and other precious metals in the city centre gives you an indication of how wealthy and powerful it was. Religiously tolerant, it had pagan temple, mosques, and a Nestorian church.
These days, very little remains on the site, but there are a few foundations and other ruins that give you a sense of its opulent scale. The most important remaining piece of heritage is the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, built in 1585. Much of it has been destroyed but it still has large impressive outer walls and several buildings with ornate decorations.
If you’re looking for adventure, then one of the best things to do in Mongolia is head to the Gobi Desert, the incredible natural sand sea in the south of the country. It’s the fifth largest desert in the world but is much more than just endless sand. In fact, much of it is bare rock, while it also has snowy areas, and plenty of wildlife like gazelles, bears, and wolves.
Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park
The Gobi Desert is vast and you could spend weeks exploring it, if you had the time. But, for most people visiting Mongolia, the best way to discover the Gobi Desert is to head to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park. This is where you’ll find most of the tourist highlights, and a good sense of the desert’s diversity.
One of the most dramatic features are the large sand dunes at Khongoryn Els (often just called Khongor Sand Dunes). The dunes can be up to 300 metres high, with stunning vistas from the top – and you might even hear them making noises (which is why they’re also called ‘the singing dunes’).
Gobi Gurvan Saikhan is Mongolia’s largest national park, so there are plenty of things to see here. Another popular spot is Yolyn Am, a deep and narrow gorge through the mountains that has a long ice field for quite a few weeks after the end of winter. But there are also landscapes of wetlands, valleys, mountains, oases – plus a surprising amount of wildlife for somewhere with such a harsh climate.
One of the most iconic images of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is Bayanzag, the stark red rock formations commonly known as ‘The Flaming Cliffs’. These cliffs rise up from the flat plains of the desert beneath them, which just highlights them even more.
What makes the Flaming Cliffs even more interesting is that they hold thousands of dinosaur bones and eggs, including from velociraptors and a previously unknown toothless species. Scientists have also found skulls of small mammals called zalamdalestes , which were small hopping animals with long snouts that lived more than 60 million years ago.
Although the northern part of the country is generally less visited by tourists, there are a few places to see in Mongolia in this region that are worth visiting – particularly Khovsgol Lake. The landscapes here are quite different to other parts of the country.
Khovsgol Lake National Park
While the steppe is full of grasslands and the desert is mainly bare rocks, Khovsgol Lake National Park is a lush green region with slopes covered in trees and a large amount of wildlife. The environment revolves around Khovsgol Lake, which is 136 kilometres long and can be up to 262 metres deep. Around the lake are tall mountains – with the highest at 3492 metres.
There are lots of things to do within the national park, with the most popular activities being hiking and horse riding. It’s a busy spot for domestic tourism so there’s a fair amount of infrastructure, including ger camps and restaurants. But it’s easy to get away from the crowds, because most of the development is in just one area. With a car, you can go along the rough roads to some incredible viewpoints.
About 200 kilometres north of Ulaanbaatar, Amarbayasgalant Monastery offers an insight into the Buddhist life in Mongolia. It was established in 1727 and is one of the three main monastic centres in Mongolia. The complex is set in a large green field with an outer wall protecting the buildings inside, including the central temple which was inspired by Chinese architecture of the time.
When you visit Amarbayasgalant Monastery, there’ll usually be opportunities to see the main buildings and learn more about the monastic life in this isolated part of the country. Large stupas on the nearby mountain slopes can be reached on a hike. There are also a few camps in the area where you can stay overnight.
Erdenet is the third largest city in Mongolia and was only founded in 1974 to support the enormous copper mine that was opened here. As such, it’s a rather industrial city and doesn’t have a huge amount of heritage. It’s not somewhere tourists usually make a special effort to visit, but it’s a convenient stopping point on a journey to some of the other places to see in Mongolia in this direction.
It’s possible to visit the Erdenet Copper Mine (the fourth largest in the world), and the density of Soviet-style architecture in the city centre is quite interesting. The city is also known for its carpet manufacturing and its proficient archery team. Depending on the season, there are opportunities to learn more about each of these things firsthand.
In a country full of extremes, Western Mongolia seems even more isolated. It’s far from the capital and has very little development. The landscapes are rugged and remote and it sees few tourists – but these are the things that can make a journey here worth the effort.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
The highlight of Western Mongolia is Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, which is dominated by enormous mountains on the edge of China and Russia. Amongst the peaks are alpine lakes, glaciers and waterfalls that create epic vistas. The landscapes change quite dramatically through the seasons, from colourful spring wildflowers to deep snowfields in winter. Birds fill the lakes on their migrations, while there are also wolves, bears, deer, and ibex.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is also home to a World Heritage Site that protects the large amount of rock carvings and funerary monuments that are found here. The earliest rock carvings are from about 12,000 years ago and show images of hunting, while more recent petroglyphs have depictions of nomadic life and Turkic influences.
Although there is a diverse range of cultural groups living in Western Mongolia, the most populous are the Kazakhs, and their main urban centre is in Olgii. As a city, Olgii is quite small and feels more like a frontier town than the regional capital it is. But culture is strong here and many of the residents still wear traditional dress and take part in Kazakh customs.
In July, it’s an excellent place to experience the Nadaam festival, with lots of traditional cultural events. Outside of that time, there isn’t a lot to do in Olgii itself, but it makes a good base to explore the region with some tours.
When it comes to things to do in Mongolia, the eastern part of the country is often overlooked by tourists because the vast grassy steppe doesn’t have the same kind of dramatic landscapes that you’ll find in the desert or the mountains. But it’s out in this region that some of the most significant cultural heritage can be found. This was the birthplace of Genghis Khan and the spiritual heart of his Mongol Empire.
Burkhan Khaldun Mountain
While it may not be the tallest in the country, Burkhan Khaldun Mountain is the most sacred place in Mongolia, considered to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan and also possibly the site of his tomb (which has never been officially identified). There are more than 800 burial sites on the mountain and plenty of legends that go along with it – many of them involving the great Mongol leader.
Burkhan Khaldun Mountain is one of Mongolia’s World Heritage Sites but it can be quite hard to reach. It’s in a restricted area and you need a permit to reach it, although some authorised tours are able to organise that. The spirituality of the mountain is emphasised by its shape – a wide monolith with a deep impression in its centre. It has a height of just 2662 metres and there are hikes that take you to the summit.
Nearby, a site called Deluun Boldog is also considered by some to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan and there are some small monuments there that celebrate that.
Baldan Bereeven Monastery
About 300 kilometres from Ulaanbaatar, the Baldan Bereeven Monastery is another of the most important monastic centres in Mongolia. It was established in 1654 and grew in size until it was home to about 8000 monks by the mid-1800s. Much of it was destroyed during the Soviet era but three temples have been restored and there are also the remains of about 50 temples, stupas, and other religious buildings.
Surrounded by sacred mountains, it has a beautiful setting. A cliff face forms a backdrop with stone carvings of Buddhist symbols and images of deities. For decades Baldan Bereeven Monastery was off limits to visitors but it now makes for an interesting experience to see what has been restored and imagine how it once was at its peak.
Toson Khulstai National Park
Further east, Toson Khulstai National Park is an important natural preserve that was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000. It is part of the world’s largest intact temperate grassland and is located on the edge of the forest steppe. With low mountains, rolling hills, and extensive plains, it’s home to gazelles and marmots, along with a large number of birds including eagles and buzzards.
The national park doesn’t get a lot of visitors but the isolation and vast open spaces are one of the reasons it’s such an important breeding ground and sanctuary for the animals of Eastern Mongolia.