Mongolia Starts Here
I became quickly overwhelmed by all the things to do in Mongolia I discovered while initially researching my trip. So overwhelmed, in fact, that I did something I almost never do when I feel I have a choice: I booked a tour, specifically of the Gobi Desert and Orkhon Valley, which compromised the majority of my Mongolia itinerary.
In the end this was a wise decision—I saw the best of Mongolia, at least in the southern and central parts of the country. I’m certain this round-up of Mongolia attractions will prove valuable to you, whether you end up traveling independently or on a tour.
NOTE: Covid-19 is having a large impact on travel to and within Mongolia, which will likely continue for the rest of 2021. Click here to learn more.
When to visit Mongolia
Unlike is the case for many of the other destinations I write about on this site, a Mongolia itinerary is not an evergreen document. The country get bitterly cold as early as September and stays that way until May or June; the only realistic time to visit, assuming you don’t come for the Eagle Festival in October, is during the short summer in the months of July and August.
Where to stay in Mongolia
While Ulanbaatar offers a relatively satisfying range of hotels, guesthouse and other accommodations, the vast majority of places to stay outside the capital are traditional ger, which are the same sorts of dwellings Mongolian people slept in during the time of Chinggis Khan. These are comfortable but basic, and in most cases lack showers or toilets. Yes, you need to “go” in a hole in the ground!
How to get around in Mongolia
You can get around UB’s city center on foot (or, for distant journeys, by taking a taxi), but elsewhere in the country you will need a private driver. Even if you have experience driving in off-road conditions, the primitive state of Mongolia’s road network—they aren’t roads at all—is more dire (I mean, by the standards that you and I are used to) than anywhere else I’ve traveled on the planet.
Money, costs and communication
I’ve listed most prices within this Mongolia itinerary in USD, and with good reason. In addition that you’re unlikely to ever have heard of the Tugrik (MNT) prior to visiting this page, most expenses on your trip (outside of UB, this is) are paid by the company you book your tour with. You simply won’t be dealing with Mongolian cash very often.
In terms of communication, literal communication depends upon you getting a SIM card at the airport in UB, a lengthy but worthwhile process, given that WiFi is all but unheard of outside the capital. Figuratively speaking, Russian will make your life easier in Mongolia, but plenty of people in the country speak English.
Mongolia visas and tours
The good news? Citizens of most Western countries (and a growing number of Asian ones) can enter Mongolia visa-free, for a period ranging from 15 to 90 days, depending upon which passport you hold. The bad news? Although you can avoid a trip to the embassy, Mongolia is not especially conducive to unassisted travel within its borders. You’ll need to book a tour in order to visit most destinations outside the capital, namely the popular Gobi desert.
Natural Things to Do in Mongolia
Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stupa)
Depending on which route you take to reach the Mongolian desert, the so-called “White Stupa” (which is actually pink at most times of the day) will be your first stop after leaving the capital. Among Mongolia points of interest I found Tsagaan Suvaraga to be the most jarring—when we stopped at the cliff top, whose expanse obscures the badlands below, I assumed it was for a toilet break.
If it’s Mongolia hiking you’re after, the Yol Valley is one of the best places you can go, at least in the Gobi. Although many tourists focus on heading deep into the valley, following its rivers and chasing its waterfalls, make sure to ask your guide about hiking to a panoramic view near the park entrance—it’s one of the best things to do in Mongolia, in my opinion.
Khongoryn Els (Singing Dunes)
There was a lot of rain in the Gobi prior to my Mongolia tour, to the extent that I saw camels traipsing through emerald fields. I also arrived at the so-called “Singing Dunes” to find them silent: The song of Khongoryn Els doesn’t play when the sand is wet. As with many Mongolia points of interest, however, the journey (a 200-meter near-vertical climb) was at least as fulfilling as the destination. When it comes to Mongolia, what to do in urban centers doesn’t have to pale when compared to nature.
Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs)
The next stop of my Mongolia adventure was the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag, which really live up to their name at sunset, when they blaze in bright orange and red hues. Of course, there’s a historical reason this destination tops lists of where to go in Mongolia as well: It was at this site, in the 1920s, that American scientists first discovered dinosaur eggs. This is definitely among the top things to see in Mongolia!
Want to take a Mongolia horse trek? The Orkhon Valley is almost certainly where you’ll head, at least in the central and southern parts of Mongolia. There’s plenty to be discovered on foot here as well, from the “Red” Falls that sits near the main complex of ger camps, to a common sight you will find exceedingly rare as you explore Mongolia south of here: Trees!
Cities and Cultural Things to Do in Mongolia
The long list of things to do in Ulaanbaatar surprised me, since I imagined most of what to do in Mongolia would be far outside its oft-maligned capital. Not only did I enjoy the hour or so I spent at the massive Sükhbaatar Square, where hundreds of Mongolians in the traditional deel costume came to see “downtown Mongolia,” I love the panorama from the Soviet-funded Zaisan Monument.
Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue
Although commonly listed among Mongolia things to do, the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue is somewhat difficult to visit—it’s not terribly close to the capital, but also isn’t included in most Mongolia tours. Thankfully, unlike other Mongolia tourist spots in the UB area, a tour bus run by the city government now leads tours here several times per week from Sükhbaatar Square.
Although history buffs will doubtlessly list Karakorum among their Mongolia points of interest, there is a caveat here. Namely, that while the present city sits on the site of Mongolia’s original imperial capital, almost no original structure remains, as I outline in a more colorful way in the Mongolia travel blog post I recently published.
Erdene Zuu Monastery
When it comes to what to see in Mongolia that’s beautiful, most are natural rather than manmade, since the country is primarily composed of nomadic herders who live in portable homes. However, one place you’ve got to visit on your Mongolia vacation is the 16th-century Erdene Zuu monastery complex, which conveniently sits near aforementioned Karakorum.
While I loved staying in a ger and meeting local families, I must admit there were some low points. These include the strange dairy items they offered me (Google “Airag” to see what I’m talking about), to the number of semi-aggressive dogs (rabies is the main reason I wondered “is Mongolia safe?”) before my trip that patrol the camps.
Places to Visit in Mongolia Besides the Gobi Desert
Among the places in Mongolia I haven’t mentioned thus far that interest you, massive Khövsgöl Lake in the north of the country is probably the one you want to visit most. It’s a real trek to get here, however, to say nothing of how to best time to visit Mongolia’s biggest lake (summer, according to most locals) is rather short. You’ll need at least 3-4 days to come here, beyond what you spent in the Gobi, and any other items you determine are among what to see in Mongolia.
Other top Mongolia tourist attractions are also somewhat season in nature, such as the Eagle Festival Mongolia hosts every year in its western, ethnic Kazhak reaches each October. July, on the other hand, sees Naadam Festival Mongolia, which is what to do in Mongolia if the country’s “Three Manly Sports” (archery, horse racing and wrestling) interest you at all.
Other FAQ About Planning a Mongolia Itinerary
How long do you need in Mongolia?
Given that much of your travel outside of UB is likely to be in conjunction with an organized tour, this will dictate the length of the your Mongolia itinerary. However, keeping in mind that travel conditions in Mongolia are difficult to bear for very long, I would say most travelers can expect to spend between 7-10 days in Mongolia, and maybe two weeks under ultra-luxurious circumstances.
Is it safe to travel in Mongolia?
Mongolia is safe from most crime, but unfortunately being such a rural—such a wild—country means that other hazards exist. In particular, rabies infection rates in Mongolia are high, which is tricky when you consider that so many homes in rural areas are guarded by dogs, who will chase you if they feel threatened. Additionally, road safety is an issue in Mongolia, given that much of the country lacks actual roads.
Is Mongolia expensive to travel?
Travel in Mongolia is more expensive than you’re expecting, but unless you insist on luxury travel, it’s unlikely to break the bank. Mid-range tours of the Gobi desert tend to cost around 100 USD per day, which includes transportation of a small group in a van, plus accommodation in a local family’s ger each night. However, if you want to have a shower and an actual toilet each night before you go to bed, the price can triple or even quadruple from this rate.
The Bottom Line
The hunt for the perfect Mongolia itinerary can feel as perilous as the task of the eagle hunters in the western part of the country: So much prey, so little time! Still, I imagine this Mongolia travel guide will make your research easier, even if you come to the same conclusion that I did about needing to take a tour. Make sure to read this engaging account of my trip to Mongolia, which is a Mongolia blog provides a subjective look at the trip this post presents in more factual terms. Enjoy your trip!