Welcome to Mongolia’s Capital: What to Do in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar city view
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Welcome to the homeland of Ghengis Khan! Mongolia’s sweeping landscapes and nomadic lifestyle make it a unique destination. Your entry point will likely be the bustling capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Many people bypass Ulaanbaatar for the wilder country landscapes. Before you go, stop and enjoy all the historical and cultural sights Ulaanbaatar has to offer.

Top Things to Do in Ulaanbaatar

Our Impressions of Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar (translates as “Red Hero”) is the capital of Mongolia and nearly half of Mongolia’s population lives in the city.  Affectionately called “UB”, the city was larger and more Soviet-influenced than we anticipated.  For some (obviously wrong) reason, we had expected Mongolia to have more Chinese influence.  The downtown buildings were designed by Soviet architects and apartment blocks are classic Soviet concrete block construction style.  Mongolia also switched to Cyrillic script in the 1940s, which means that all the signs look like they could be written in Russian.

We also declared UB the unofficial Prius capital of the world.  Prius were everywhere!  Mongolians buy them used from Japan, which means the steering wheel is on the right hand side. Interesting when you drive on the right side of the road.  On the positive side, UB has some of the worst pollution in the world, especially in winter, so hybrid cars are a great idea.

Ulaanbaatar’s Top 6 Sights

We spent two and a half days in Ulaanbaatar and enjoyed a leisurely sightseeing pace. For those pressed for time, you could see the top sights in one busy day. 

1. Sükhbaatar Square

Sükhbaatar Square is the central square in Ulaanbaatar.  Damdin Sükhbaatar was the Mongolian revolutionary hero during the Outer Mongolian Revolution of 1921.  He declared Mongolia’s final independence from China at this spot in the center of Ulaanbaatar.  The square was later built and named after him.  From 2013-2016 the square was briefly called Chinggis Square.  Don’t be surprised if you still see that name in tourist literature. 

At one end of the square is Parliament House with three bronze Khan statues keeping a stern watch: Ghengis Khan (Chinggis Khaan) in the center, Ögedei on the west, and Kublai on the east.

Statue of Sükhbaatar on horseback in Sükhbaatar Square, a top place to visit in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia
At the center of the square is a statue of Sükhbaatar on his horse. Apparently, this is also the hot spot for wedding photos. We saw at least six bridal parties taking photographs, some waiting out breaks in the snowstorm.
Ghenghis Khan statue in Sukhbaatar Square, a top place to visit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Ghengis Khan is EVERYWHERE in Mongolia – statues, money, vodka bottles…and Parliament House.
Zero distance marker in Sukhbaatar Square
All distances in Mongolia are measured from this spot. Ready, set, GO!

2. Gandan Monastery

Gandan Monastery is a Tibetan-style Buddhist monastery.  60% of Mongolians are Buddhist and Gandan Monastery is the spiritual center.  Under Communist rule, the monastery remained open as a “show” monastery for visiting dignitaries.  Nowadays, Gandan is an active monastery with several hundred monks in residence and the Mongolian Buddhist University. 

The kids’ favorite parts were spinning the prayer wheels and searching out the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols.  We skipped feeding the pigeons.  The pigeons were fat enough and we didn’t want to add to their people-dependent lifestyle.

Migjid Janraisig Sum, the main temple at Gandan Monastery, a top place to visit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Migjid Janraisig Sum – the main temple at Gandan Monastery
Migjid Janraisig Sum and stupa at Gandan Monastery, a top place to visit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Migjid Janraisig Sum and stupa at Gandan Monastery

3. Ger Districts and Green Lake

60% of Ulaanbaatar residents live in the ger districts. Despite the name, not everyone in these neighborhoods lives in a ger.  Many have built houses with beautifully colored roofs.

We were lucky enough to visit the Green Lake (Nogoon Nuur) project.  Hands down, this was our favorite place in UB.  We had a chance to meet Ulzii, the change maker behind this community project.

Green Lake in 2010 awash in pollution
Photo from 2010 when Green Lake was an abandoned quarry and garbage dump site.

In 2012 Ulzii bought the abandoned quarry, cleaned it up, and created a public park in the middle of the ger district.  He built a community center and plans to open a library and offer English and computer classes for children and adults.  Ulzii took us up to the top of the hill for a stunning panoramic view.  At the viewpoint, he hopes to open a small coffee shop for tourists to help raise money for the project.

Green Lake community project in Ulaanbaatar, a top thing to in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Today Green Lake offers boating in summer and skating in winter.

4. Zaisan Memorial

Wear comfortable shoes because it’s 600 stairs to the top!  The top offers sweeping views across UB.  The memorial itself is a series of mosaics depicting the friendship between Mongolia and the USSR (or a reminder of how much the USSR had done for Mongolia, depending on your perspective). 

Family at Zaisan Memorial
When we visited Zaisan Memorial’s eternal flame was not flaming. Symbolic? Or mechanical problems?

5. Black Market (Naran Tuul)

We went here because we like markets and because we were freezing and needed warmers socks and scarves.  Mission accomplished.  The outside areas of the market had clothes (including cashmere), fabric, household goods, toys, etc.  The inside area had fruits and vegetables and more sweets and biscuits than anyone needs.  Meat is in a separate market on the opposite side of town.

Shopping at a candy stall

6. National Museum of Mongolia

Skip The National Museum of Mongolia on a tight itinerary.  The museum offers a thorough overview of Mongolian history from the Stone Age to modern-day.  Our favorite room was the traditional costumes from ethnic groups across the country.  The museum displays are basic and the older ones look tired, but the Khan-era floor was particularly well done.

Looking for More Things to Do in Ulaanbaatar?

If our top 6 sights weren’t enough, we also recommend a visit to the National Art Museum, browsing the State Department Store, enjoying a bird’s-eye view of UB from the bar at the top of the Best Western hotel, and relaxing with a reflexology massage (yes, we took the kids and they LOVED it).

If you have time for a day trip, head to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. You can see a mountain-top monastery, sacred rocks, and the world’s largest equestrian statue.

Getting around Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar is easy to get around.  The city center is flat and easily walkable, but if you are cold (it was snowing during our visit) or tired, taxis are easy and affordable.  Quick note on taxis, although there are some officials taxis, the majority of locals just put out their hand and wait for a car to pull over.  All taxis charge a flat rate of 1000 MNT per km (current pricing October 2018).  No meters – the driver zeros the odometer.  Bring your patience – Ulaanbaatar was designed for 500,000 residents, but 1.3 million live there.  Traffic is a mess.  Most taxi drivers did not speak English, so make sure you always have your destination name and address written out in Mongolian.

Zaisan Memorial and Black Market are outside the city center.  We recommend a taxi or public bus (a mode of transport that we did not explore).

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