When an essentially nomadic people set out to build a capital, they aren't likely to end up with something resembling New York. Add some Stalinesque concrete housing structures and you know you're not in Paris. Still, Ulaanbaatar is much more charming and cosmopolitan than most people realize.
It is not only a great place to use as a base for trips to the countryside, it is well worth exploring in its own right. Its museums provide a structured insight into Mongolian culture and history that you won't find elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, many a visitor is bowled over at the number of high-end restaurants serving up international cuisine of all varieties found in the capital. Comfortable hotels of international standard featuring all mod cons also abound, in contrast to the gers of the countryside. Ulaanbaatar thus makes for a great place to regroup from a trip to Mongolia and its further reaches.
Visit the Museum of Natural History for a look at the impressive collection of dinosaur fossils, and exhibits on Mongolian flora and fauna. For carvings, paintings and other works of art head to the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts. Be sure to see the painting by Sharav entitled "A Day in Life," an epic mural depicting many scenes from Mongolian daily life that is as dear to Mongolians as the David is to Italians. Also housed in the museum is a gallery of contemporary Mongolian artists' works for sale The National Museum of Mongolian History is a must-see on your Mongolia tour for a deeper understanding of pastoral livelihoods and nomadic life, as well as the different ethnic groups inhabiting the land. A superb collection of traditional ethnic minority dress is well organized. The Mongolian Art Gallery supports an outstanding collection of modern Mongolian paintings and sculptures, with descriptions subtitled in English.
Buddhism was hit hard in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Thousands of lamas (Buddhist monks) were killed, and most monasteries destroyed, and any leftover mangled metal was sent to Leningrad to be melted down for bullet production. The few monasteries that survived are well worth a visit during your Mongolia trip. See the Gandan Hiid, the country's most important monastery, which houses a recently rebuilt 75-foot copper and gold Buddha statue covered in precious stones. The Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan is also worth exploring, as is the Choijin Lama Monastery Museum, spared destruction to serve as a reminder of the "degenerate" ways of the feudal past.
A day trip to Bogd Mountain National Park is a great way to enjoy the lovely nature and wildlife to be found near the capital, but it's also the site of the Manzshir Monastery, spectacularly set overlooking a gorgeous tree-covered valley studded with granite outcroppings. The monastery itself lies in partial ruins, but is currently undergoing restoration. It is sometimes possible to spot small herds of elk in this area.
In mid-July, the country celebrates its independence and its rich cultural heritage with three days of sports and revelry during this renowned Mongolia festival. The distinctly Mongolian feel and flair of the Naadam Festival make it a wonderful spectacle, a joyous time, and an intriguing cultural event.
Colorful ceremonies and parading soldiers kick off the celebrations. The ancient game of wrestling follows, with men competing in many rounds of competition. Both men and women compete in the archery games, using the traditional Mongolian compound bow that terrorized Europe when Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde moved their empire west. The quintessentially Mongolian art of horse racing follows, where up to 800 horses compete, jockeyed by children so that the skill of the horse, and not the rider, is tested.