A Russian military outpost founded on 1 July 1869, Karakol grew in the 19th century after explorers came to map the peaks and valleys separating Kyrgyzstan from China. In the 1880s Karakol's population surged with an influx of Dungans, Chinese Muslims fleeing persecution in China.
In 1888, the Russian explorer Nicholas Przhevalsky died in Karakol of typhoid, while preparing for an expedition to Tibet, the city was renamed Przhevalsk in his honor. After local protests, the town was given its original name back in 1921 -- a decision reversed in 1939. Karakol then remained Przhevalsk until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Nearby Lake Issyk-Kul was used by the Soviet military as a testing site for torpedo propulsion and guidance systems, and Karakol was thus home to a sizeable population of military personnel and their families. Karakol continues to be a major hub for visitors of Issyk-kul lake.
The town itself contains a few things of interest for a visitor, such as a very pretty wooden mosque built by Chinese artisans for the local Dungans between 1907 and 1910 entirely without metal nails and a similarly appealing wooden Russian Orthodox church, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, completed in 1895, used as a club during Soviet times, but now being restored and in use again. The Regional Museum, following some sponsorship from the nearby Canadian gold mining concern, has exhibits on the Issyk-Kul petroglyphs, Scythian bronze artifacts, and a short history of the geology and mineral exploitation in the region. There also is a small section of Russian colonial "gingerbread" style residential buildings. The town is also a good starting point for excellent hiking, trekking and skiing in the Tian Shan.
Przhevalsky's grave, a memorial park and a small museum dedicated to his and other Russian explorations in Central Asia are about 5 km from Karakol at Pristan Przhevalsky, overlooking an inlet of Lake Issyk-Kul where the former Soviet torpedo testing facilities were located.