Mongolia is a country that is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination. It’s a vast country, rugged and desolate, with endless skies, a strong nomadic culture, and proud residents.
The capital of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar, home to 1.5 million people (50% of Mongolia’s total population). Ulaanbaatar is a busy city full of contrasts, there are businessmen in impeccable suits walking next to people in a traditional Mongolian deel. There are expensive modern cars, as well as old rusted Ladas from neighbor Russia.
This Ulaanbaatar itinerary includes the best things to do in Ulaanbaatar, from interesting museums to famous Sükhbaatar Square, and from beautiful Buddhist temples to a whirling cultural show.
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Things to do in Ulaanbaatar
Map of Ulaanbaatar attractions and highlights
What to do in Ulaanbaatar
- Visit the beautiful Gandan Khiid Monastery
- Learn about the history of Mongolia at the National Museum
- Admire the view from Zaisan Memorial
- Watch a Tumen Ekh Cultural Show
- Walk around Sukhbaatar Square
- Explore the quirky Puzzle Museum
- Enjoy delicious food at Luna Blanca
- Day trip to Terejl National Park
- Day trip to Khustai National Park
- Day trip to Bogd Khan Mountain
Important things to know when planning a trip to Mongolia
The weather in Ulaanbaatar is pretty extreme, as is the case in the rest of Mongolia. The best time to visit is between May and September, though personally, I’d avoid July and August as temperatures can rise to 40°C.
We visited Ulaanbaatar mid-May, the weather was sunny and the temperature during the day was 30°C. Contrary, in winter the temperature can drop to -40°C during a cold night.
The official language in Mongolia is Mongolian, which is spoken by 95% of Mongolia’s population. In UB (the abbreviation commonly used for Ulan Bator) people working in tourism generally speak English quite well.
The Mongolian tugrik (MNT) is the official currency of Mongolia. Here you can find the current exchange rates, at the time of writing €1 is approximately 3000MNT and $1 is around 2750MNT.
Note that the tugrik cannot be exchanged outside of Mongolia, so be sure to spend it all (or exchange it into a more commonly accepted currency) before leaving the country.
The best places to visit in Ulaanbaatar (and around)
Visit Gandan Khiid Monastery
Gandan Khiid is one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia and one of the few who avoided complete destruction during Soviet rule. Nowadays, there are over 150 monks living at the complex.
Its full name is Gandantegchenling which roughly translates into ‘the great place of complete joy‘, a beautiful name! Within the main temple, there is an impressive 26m tall Buddha statue.
The entrance fee to the complex is 4000 tugriks (€1.30/$1.50) plus 7000 tugriks (€2.30/$2.50) if you want to take photos inside. If you can, visit around 9 am to watch one of the fascinating ceremonies.
Visit the National Museum of Mongolia
The National Museum of Mongolia is a must-visit during any Mongolia trip. This interesting museum guides you through the history of Mongolia, from ancient to modern times, and everything in between.
There are three floors, the exhibits are ordered chronologically and most have English information signs. Learn about Ghengis Khan and his family and admire interesting artifacts, such as traditional clothing and weapons.
The museum is open from Tuesday until Saturday. The entrance fee is 8000 tugrik (€2.50/$3), plus 10.000 (€3/$3.50) if you want to take pictures inside. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours here, as there is so much to learn about Mongolia in this wonderful museum!
Admire the view from Zaisan Hill
Zaisan Memorial is located on a hill south of the city and offers a beautiful view of Ulaanbaatar. It’s a bit of a climb: from the base of the hill, it’s a 600 step ascend (300 steps from the upper parking lot) but worth the effort!
The Zaisan Memorial was built to honor all Mongolian and Soviet soldiers that were killed during World War II.
The colorful murals depict important scenes in the history of Mongolia, such as Mongolia’s independence declaration, victory over Nazi Germany and the space flight of Soyuz 39, which carried the first Mongolian into space.
You’ll need to catch a bus ( bus 8 or 52) or grab a taxi to get to Zaisan Hill, as it’s located away from the city center.
Watch the famous Tumen Ekh Cultural Show
Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan: while most visitors head out to the Mongolian countryside to experience the country’s traditional culture, Tumen Ekh is keeping those traditions alive and well right in the heart of the capital.
Tumen Ekh is a national song and dance ensemble that puts on a fantastic show highlighting Mongolia’s cultural traditions. While it’s geared towards tourists, the locals also love it. Several Mongolians I met told me I must not miss the show, which was excellent advice!
The members of the group dress up in traditional Mongolian costumes and sing, play traditional music instruments, and perform traditional dances. There’s even a contortionist!
It’s also a great opportunity to hear the unique Mongolian throat singing (khöömii). Attending the show is one of the best things to do in Mongolia if you are interested in the local culture.
Performances are held every night throughout most of the year, at the State Youth and Children’s Theatre. Tickets cost a very reasonable 30.000 tugriks (€10/$11), and if you want to take photos it’s an additional 20.000 tugriks (€6.50/$7) for a photo permit.
Keep in mind that seating is on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s a good idea to arrive at least half an hour early, especially if you’re planning to take photos and want a front-row seat.
That being said, the theater is quite small, so there’s not really a bad seat in the house. Another thing to note is that the seats don’t have backs, so you might get uncomfortable after a little while, although the show only lasts for an hour or so.
Walk around Sukhbaatar Square
Abbie from Speck On The Globe: Sukhbaatar Square is a large square in the heart of the capital. It is a perfect representation of the history and modernization of the city. There are several monuments and buildings that illustrate the cultural fusions in Ulaanbaatar.
First, you’ll notice the massive statues of Genghis Khan, the famous Mongolian leader and warrior. Genghis Khan stands in front of the Government or Parliament House and other soviet-style buildings like the Cultural Palace and Opera House.
When turning away from the Genghis Khan statue, the modern buildings like the Central and Blue Sky Towers are a sharp contrasting reminder of the country’s evolution.
The square itself is named after Damdin Sukhbaatar, a revolutionary who declared Mongolia’s independence from China in July 1921. A bronze statue of Sukhbaatar on his horse is the center point of the square.
Throughout history, Sukhbaatar Square has been the meeting place for many important events and it remains an important place even today. Nowadays, it’s the location heads of state will visit as a sign of respect.
It was the meeting point for many military parades, demonstrations, and ceremonies. But for most UB residents, it’s a place to meet up with friends and family, and festivals and performances take place on a regular basis.
Visit the International Intellectual Museum
Sinead Camplin from Map Made Memories: we spent several hours at the International Intellectual Museum (also known as the Puzzle Museum) in Ulaanbaatar.
This unusual, four-story museum showcases the eclectic and extensive puzzle collection of the museum’s owner, Tumen Ulzii, a world-famous puzzle designer.
I would recommend getting a taxi to the museum, as it is tucked away on a residential side street away from the city center. The Intellectual Museum is not easy to find nor does it stand out; the front of the museum looks like a residential apartment!
Entrance to the museum is very reasonable, costing around 8000 tugriks (€2.50/$3), and entry is by guided tour only. You must wear supplied protective wraps on your shoes and touching or photographing the exhibits is strictly forbidden.
The tour guide introduces the various styles of games, logic puzzles and intricate, interlocking wooden ‘burr’ puzzles designed by ‘The Creator’, in addition to the thousands of puzzles he picked up on his world travels.
There are hundreds of chess sets made in a myriad of materials ranging from tiny chess sets to life-size versions with Mongolian warriors. Some of these are Shatar sets, the Mongolian version of chess.
The Intellectual Museum is an intriguing, quirky and fascinating attraction. At the end of the tour, there is a room full of puzzles you are allowed to play with, which will engage and challenge even the weariest traveler!
Enjoy a delicious (vegan) dinner at Luna Blanca
Oksana from Drink Tea & Travel: two staples in the Mongolian kitchen are meat and milk and vegan or vegetarian food is hard to come by in Mongolia. Luckily, you can find a few vegetarian restaurants in Ulaanbaatar.
Our favorite meal during our 3 weeks in Mongolia was at the vegan restaurant Luna Blanca, located not too far from the city center. Aside from serving up delicious meals, Luna Blanca is also a not-for-profit with a mission of educating Mongolians on healthier diets.
All profits generated are used for a number of educational programs and initiatives. The menu offers many delicious and well priced vegan dishes. We particularly loved their khuushuur dumplings and were impressed by the great selection of teas.
An English menu is available upon request. The restaurant is open Monday to Friday for lunch (12-3 pm) and dinner (5-8 pm).
Day trips from Ulaanbaatar
Make a day trip to Terelj National Park
One of the most beautiful places to visit in Mongolia is Terelj National Park. We actually stayed here for two nights and if you have time available, I highly recommend doing so.
During our 3D2N trip, we slept in a ger camp and explored the stunning park. We made a hike around Turtle Rock and visited the colorful Aryapala Temple Meditation Centre.
Another highlight was visiting a local nomadic family, who absolutely adored our 1-year old son and kept feeding him snacks. It was very interesting to learn about their unique way of life (via our guide who translated for us) and see the inside of a traditional ger.
On our way back to Ulaanbaatar from Terelj National Park, we visited the majestic Genghis Khan statue, another highlight of our Mongolia itinerary.
If you don’t have that much time to spend in Mongolia, there are great day trips to Terelj National Park from Ulaanbaatar available as well, which will allow you to visit the most important sites in just one day.
Make a day trip to Khustain Nuruu National Park
Khustain Nuruu National Park (also known as Hustai National Park) is also one of the places in Mongolia you can’t miss. Slightly less popular than the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, this park offers views of endless green grasslands, wild Mongolian horses (called takhi), maral (red deer) and grazing sheep and yaks.
Again, if you have the time it’s recommended to spend the night, but Hustai is also a fun and easy day trip from Ulaanbaatar. Check out this organized Get Your Guide tour, including transportation and a knowledgable English speaking guide.
During the 8-hour tour, you can spot wild animals living in the park and will visit a horseman family, who will explain more about their nomadic traditions. If you like you can ride a horse yourself before traveling back to the capital city of Mongolia.
Make a day trip to Bogd Khan Mountain and the Mandshir Khiid Monastery
On the slope of the Bogd Khan Mountain, the Mandshir Khiid Monastery was built in 1733. Back in the days, it was one of the most important monasteries of Mongolia, with multiple temples and home to over 300 monks.
Sadly, a large part of the complex was destroyed during the Stalinist purges of 1937, as were many of the religious sites in Mongolia.
Known by several names, the Manjusri Monastery or Manzushir Monastery, is a popular Ulaanbaatar day trip and worth a visit. The complex was partially restored in 1990, though many buildings remain in ruins.
The surrounding area is beautiful and it’s easy to understand why a monastery was built in this spot. It’s the perfect place to contemplate life and connect to nature.
Be sure to climb up the rocks behind the main temple for excellent views and well-preserved Buddhist rock paintings.
This tour by Get Your Guide includes transport, an English-speaking guide, all entry and admission fees, and lunch with local food.
Where to stay in Ulaanbaatar
Budget hotel (less than €50 a night): the Voyage Hotel
During our trip on the Trans Mongolian Express, we stayed at the Voyage Hotel. While the hotel is basic, it’s clean, spacious and within walking distance of the train station. The staff was very friendly and they even provided room service.
Medium budget hotel (less than €100 a night): Ramada Ulaanbaatar Citycenter
During a trip to Thailand, I stayed at a Ramada Hotel and was impressed by their service. While I haven’t personally stayed at this hotel, it’s well-reviewed (average 8.5 on Booking).
The 4-star Ramada hotel in Ulaanbaatar offers spacious rooms with a modern ensuite bathroom. There are a spa and wellness center, a gym and two onsite restaurants. It’s a 30-minute walk (2km) to Sukhbataar Square and 1.5km to the train station.
Luxury hotel (€100+ a night): The Blue Sky Hotel and Tower
The Blue Sky Hotel and Tower is a very modern and luxurious hotel, housed in the tallest building in Ulaanbaatar. There is an indoor pool and a fitness and wellness center.
With four onsite restaurants, offering Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Western cuisine there is something to suit every traveler’s preference. The location is excellent, as the hotel is overlooking Sukhbaatar Square.
Transport in Ulaanbaatar: how to get from A to B
Traffic in Ulan Bator is absolutely horrible! The city was originally built to accommodate 500.000 people, instead, there are now living 1.5 million people, the majority of them owning a car. There are traffic jams pretty much every moment of every day.
There are plenty of taxi’s, both official ones as well as random strangers pulling over to give you a ride (which you will have to pay for). I recommend covering short distances within the city center on foot, as it will be faster than by car due to the neverending traffic jams.
You can get around Ulaanbaatar by bus as well, more information can be found at the Lonely Planet website. In order to travel on the bus, you need a U Money card, which can be bought at bus kiosks everywhere in town.
Ulaanbaatar itinerary and travel guide: in conclusion
I hope this guide of Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia attractions will help you plan a trip to this beautiful and interesting country. Feel free to ask any questions you may have by leaving a comment or send me an email!
Also read my other posts about the Trans Mongolian Express and the stops we made along the way:
This post was updated in December 2020.