Elista was founded in 1865 as a small settlement. In November 1920, Elista became the administrative center of Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast. By the early 1930s, Elista was transformed into a small city as the collectivization policies of Joseph Stalin forced many Kalmyks to abandon their traditional pastoral nomadic lifestyle in exchange for a modern, sedentary, and urban lifestyle. In October 1935, Elista was recognized as the capital of the Kalmyk ASSR.
On December 27, 1943, the Kalmyk ASSR was dissolved and its ethnic Kalmyk residents were forcibly exiled to Siberia. Russian people were brought in to repopulate Elista whose name was changed to Stepnoy (Степно́й). It was called Stepnoy until 1957, when the survivors of the deportations were allowed to return from exile.
Some western tourists started to visit Elista from the mid 1990s, and more after it received publicity as the host city of the 1998 Chess Olympiad. The city is safe and has little traffic. One visitor complained that there was no McDonalds restaurant in Elista, although others have seen this as part of its semi-rural charm. On the outskirts of Elista, there are vast grasslands inhabited by many wild (and domestic) camels.
The town center has a number of renovated public parks focused on the main square, boasting statues to both Lenin and the Buddha. To the east of the town lies the Olympic village of the 1998 XXXIII Chess Olympiad, known locally as "City-Chess". The site has a public swimming pool and an excellent museum of Kalmyk Buddhist art, and is also infrequently used as a conference center.
During his visit in 1998, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama chose a location west of the town center to build a new Buddhist temple for city residents. It was opened in December 2005.
Air travelers may also fly from Moscow directly to either Rostov-na-Donu or Volgograd. From either city, a taxi ride to Elista is generally 3 hours. A bus ride is more like 5 or 6 hours. Alternatively, a rail link is available from Rostov-na-Donu, and a bus is available from Volgograd. A rail link also is available to the city of Stavropol, the administrative center of Stavropol Krai.
The residents of the Republic of Kalmykia travel between Elista and Moscow generally by bus. This is the popular method of transportation between Moscow and Elista due to cost. The trip is approximately 18 hours and makes several rest stops along the route, including a stop on the outskirts of Volgograd.
Within Elista itself, a network of about a dozen marshrutka routes is run by private companies.