26 Things to do in Almaty: a travel guide to the heart of Kazakhstan

26 Things to do in Almaty: a travel guide to the heart of Kazakhstan

Backpacking Kazakhstan: A travel guide to the best things to do in Almaty for the independent budget traveller

This post is a travelguide about the best things to do in Almaty. My favourite city in Kazakhstan.

It was my first morning in Almaty when I went to the top floor balcony of my hostel. The sky was clear blue and in front of me I could see the sun rising over the snowcapped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains that reach well over 4000 meters. It was there and then that I fell in love with Almaty.

But its not just the nature at your doorsteps. Almaty is a fascinating city in its own right. Even though there are no obvious tourist attractions there are plenty of things to do in Almaty including a number of exciting daytrips.

view on the Tian shan mountains in Almaty Kazakhstan

What to do in Almaty

Unlike Nursultan (Astana), Almaty is a city of history with many traces left of its past. The Soviet period has had a huge influence on the development of Almaty with plenty of parks, large squares, broad avenues, socialist architecture and huge memorials. It makes Almaty a pleasant green city .

The large Kazakhstan hotel and the Abai Opera theatre are fine examples of the Soviet legacy, but even in the most unexpected places you will find details of Almaty’s intriguing history. Soviet art such as the Soviet mosaics are everywhere in Almaty if you know where to look for them.

Unfortunately some of the Soviet mosaics are getting lost in projects to modernise the city. Dennis Keen from Walking Almaty is involved in trying to preserve them with Monumental Almaty.

Soviet mural in underground pass in Almaty Kazakhstan

Despite the Soviet traces, Almaty is also a modern city. Luxurious appartment buildings stand next to the old Soviet flats and fancy shopping malls and hip cafes cater for the new elite.

It is in Almaty where I find this interesting mix of its old Soviet past where life was harsh and the lifestyle of a new Kazakh generation that all comes together. A modern city that breathes history. Nursultan (Astana) might be the new capital, but the heart of Kazakhstan is still in Almaty.

modern shopping center in Almaty Kazakhstan
The best things to do in Almaty

1. Arasan Wellness center

My first day in Almaty it was raining and there is no better thing to do in Almaty when the weather turns bad then going to an old Soviet spa. In that time most homes could not afford their own shower, instead people used to go to a communal bathhouse, the banja. Even tough most households now do have a shower, a visit to the banja is still a popular outing for families and friends.

Arasan is one of the largest bath houses in Asia. The womens section has 2 floors with different sauna cabins, showers, peeling rooms, massage rooms and a pool. At first I felt a bit lost in this huge complex among Kazakh and Russian woman. They were all wearing felt hats and I stood out for not having anything on my head. In the Russian sauna women also beat each other with leafy branches called veniks. Apparently this is very good for your health, although nobody could explain me why.

Once I got used to the sauna ritual it was very relaxing. In the end I loved the experience and it was certainly one of my favourite things to do in Almaty.

Arasan baths are one of the best things to do in Almaty Kazakhstan

felt hats for in the sauna at Arasan baths in Almaty Kazakhstan

2. Almaty Metro

Almaty has an excellent metro network. Even tough construction already started in 1988 it was never finished. When the Soviet Union broke down funds dried up and things were left the way they were.

But in 2005 Nazarbayev decided to finish the job. The metro is therefore a new addition that opened in 2011, but clearly built to resemble the Moscow metro. The stations are built to impress and although they are no match to the Moscow metro a small tour is among the fun things to do in Almaty.

Elevators going deep under the ground bring you to huge hallways that look more like the entrance to a palace than a metro station. Each station is different and has its own character with Kazakh patterns and symbols. On top of that it is a cheap way to travel around the city.

Metro station in Almaty Kazakhstan

3. Kok Tobe Cable car

Kok tobe is the most popular thing to do in Almaty for families with kids. The cable car brings you on top of the Kok tobe hill where there is a small amusement park and zoo for children. It’s a perfect place for people watching, but the main reason to come to Kok tobe is the wonderful view over the city. Don’t miss the quirky Beatles statue.

If you don’t fancy taking the relatively expensive cable car you can also take bus number 95 or 99 to their terminus on Omarova and take the minivan from there to the top of the hill.

The statue of the beatles at Kok tobe hill. The Kok tobe cable car is the most fun thing to do in Almaty for families with kids

4. Panfilov Park & The War memorial

The Panfilov Park is named after the Panfilov heroes. 28 soldiers from Almaty who died fighting the Nazi’s outside of Moscow. General Panfilov managed to delay the advance of the enemy towards the capital, but his infantry did die in combat eventually.

The huge memorial statue in the park shows the 28 soldiers, but is a memorial to all the Kazakh soldiers who died in the first and second world war. Nowadays the park is a popular green space in the city where couples stroll and children feed the pigeons.

Girl feeding the pigeons in Panfilov Park in Almaty

The war memorial at Panfilov park in Almaty

5. Zenkov cathedral

In the center of the Panfilov Park is the Zenkov cathedral. One of the few Russian Orthodox churches that survived the Soviet Union. In that time it was a museum. But as soon as the Soviet Union broke down the church opened its doors again. The Zenkov cathedral also survived several earthquakes, because it is entirely made of wood. Remarkably no nails were used in the construction.

Zenkov cathedral is among the top things to do in Almaty

6. Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

In panfilov park you will also find the small Kazakh museum of Folk Musical Instruments. They show traditional musical instruments such as the dombra. Worth a look if you are into music and curious to know what traditional Kazakh music sounds like

7. Central mosque

The central mosque is the largest mosque in Almaty. The mosque is relatively new, but it was built on the site of an older mosque that burned down in 1987.

central mosque in Almaty Kazakhstan

8. Green market

The green market was one of my favourite things to do in Almaty. It is an excellent place to do some shopping and to experience a central asian bazaar where you can buy souvenirs, dried fruits, spices and fresh vegetables.

Another reason to come here is the cheap Kazakh food. Several Uigur restaurants serve excellent laghman (noodle soup with tomato and peppers) and beshbarmak (Kazakhs national dish of boiled noodles with horse meat). This is also the place to try Kymyz (fermented horse milk) and Shubat (fermented camel milk) or Kazakh’s apples. Almaty means father of apples and Kazakhstan is in fact the birthplace of the first eatable apple.

Spices at the Green market in Almaty

9. Rakhat Chocolate factory

Near the Green market you can already smell Rakhat’s chocolate factory. The factory store sells a huge variety of Kazakh chocolate. I am not a very big fan of chocolate myself, but apparently Kazakhstans chocolate is pretty good. The factory sometimes gives tours.

10. Central Gorki Park

Almaty is full of green spaces and Gorki Park is another park in the city popular with families. In the spring it is full of flowers and there is an entertainment park for children. There are also several restaurants that serve excellent shaslyck.

Gorki park in Almaty is a great thing to do in Almaty with kids

11. Arbat – Zhibek Zholy

This treelined pedestrian shopping street is popular with locals and you are likely to end up at Arbat at some point during your time in Almaty. It has a nice atmosphere with cafe’s, street musicians and artists selling their paintings.

Art at Arbat street in Almaty

12. Central State Museum

The Central State museum is one of the largest museums in Central Asia and has extensive collections about Kazakhstan’s history. This is one of the best museums in Almaty.

Even tough the museum already opened in Almaty’s cathedral in 1931, the current building was built in 1985. The architecture of the building is impressive. If you are near Republic square it is worth taking a look, even just to see the museum from the outside.

Central State museum in Almaty

13. Republic Square

The main square in Almaty has been used for festivals, celebrations, military parades and mass demonstrations. There are some interesting architectural landmarks around this square and therefore it is among the top things to do in Almaty.

First of all there is the Independence monument with a statue of a golden warrior on top. Below the monument is a handprint of former President Nazarbayev in a bronze copy of the constitution. The bronze panels surrounding the monument show important events from Kazakhstans history. Across the monument is the former Presidential palace. Even tough it is closed for visitors, the architecture is impressive.

Independence Monument in Republic square at Almaty

Nazarbayevs handprint at Republic square in Almaty

Republic square in Almaty

14. Nikolski Cathedral

The small Nikolski cathedral is another Russian Orthodox church in Almaty worth a visit only if you are in the neighbourhood.

Nikolski Cathedral in Almaty

Nikolski cathedral in Almaty

15. Botanical garden

With so many well maintained parks full of flowers in spring, the botanical garden was a bit of a dissapointment. The large green space at the outskirts of the city is neglected and not what it could be. It felt more like a walk through a pine forest where squirrels were playing in the trees than a garden.

That said, it is not unpleasant to wander around here and smell the fresh mountain air, but then there are so many places in Almaty where you can do that. Better head up to do some hiking in Almaty’s mountains.

Squirrel in Botanical garden in Almaty

16. President’s Park

This large park at the outskirts of Almaty is a popular picture spot for wedding couples. With the mountains in the back and flowers everywhere you do understand why. It opened in 2011 and it all feels very new and shiny.

President park in Almaty

President park in Almaty

17. Walking Almaty

There is no person that knows Almaty better than David Keen from Walking Almaty. He knows all the hidden secrets of the city and is now on a mission to document all Soviet art in Kazakhstan with Monumental Almaty. His walking tours are excellent and a great way to explore some off the beaten path places in Almaty.

Soviet art on building in Almaty Kazakhstan

The best things to do near Almaty

Nature is so close and there are so many exciting things to do near Almaty, yet it isn’t as easy to visit these places as you would think. While Medeu and Shymbulak are easy to get to, most other things to do near Almaty require your own transport or a tour.

Of course there is always the possibility of using a combination of public transport and hitchhiking to reach the things to do near Almaty. Hitchhiking is in fact quite common in Kazakhstan, but not for free. A small payment is expected in the end.

Another option is to rent a car. This might turn out cheaper than taking private taxi’s or a tour and will give you a lot of freedom and flexibility. Do keep in mind that only a few companies allow you to drive outside of Almaty.

Then there are tours. If you want an english speaking guide or a private car with driver things can get pricey. However, if you are happy to share the costs with other people and don’t mind the lack of an english speaking person there are reasonably priced tours out there. Several hostels and local agencies run affordable community tours to the places mentioned below.

I personally had a positive experience with the charyn canyon and kolsai lakes tour from the Almaty backpackers hostel. Local agencies like Steppe spirit and Campit.kz advertise their tours on their instagram sites in Russian. You can contact them for assistance in english.

Almaty Lake covered in snow in Almaty Kazakhstan

18. Big Almaty Lake

Almaty is a heaven for those who love the outdoors. Less than an hour by taxi is the Big Almaty Lake in the middle of the mountains. One of the must things to do in Almaty.

Even tough it was already mid April the lake was still frozen and covered in snow when I was there. I wasn’t able to see its turquoise colour that it is famous for. Still, it was amazing how quickly you are in the mountains.

How to get there: The best way to get here is by finding other people and sharing a taxi. From President’s park bus number 28 drives every 30 minutes to the entrance of the park, but from there it is still a long walk on the road or along the pipeline towards the lake.

The border guards in this area take their job very serious. Big Almaty lake is close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and provides drinking water for Almaty. Bring your passport along and be careful with hiking. Under no circumstances hike towards the lake, because you can get a fine.

The pipeline up to Almaty Lake in Almaty. One of the must things to do in Almaty

19. Shymbulak & Medeu

Shymbulak and Medeu are among the most accesible places near Almaty to visit the mountains. The ice skate ring in Medeu and the ski resort of Shimbulak bring you straight into nature. In winter it is a center for winter sports and in summer a hikers paradise with several interesting day hikes.

How to get there: Bus number 12 from accross the Kazakhstan Hotel goes every 30 minutes to the entrance of the Ice skate ring in Medeu. To go further to Shymbulak you can take a cable car or a minivan (cheaper) up the mountain.

The ice skate ring at Medeu in Almaty Kazakhstan

20. Butakovka waterfall and Furmanov peak

From Medeu there are two hiking trails you can do. An easy trail of about 4 hours goes to the Butakovka waterfall and a more challenging trail of about 7 hours goes towards the Furmanov peak.

Both are easy to reach by public transport and if you want a quick way to get to Almaty’s mountains for a day these hikes are a good option. Read the detailed hiking guides on caravanistan for more details on the Butakovka waterfall and the Furmanov Peak.

If you are an experienced hiker and prepared to walk at high altitudes you can also consider the four peaks trail. After Furmanov peak you can continue your walk to peak Panorama, Bashuta and Shymbulak. All above 3000 meters. Read the excellent hiking guide from Sandy feet for more details.

21. Charyn Canyon

The Charyn Canyon was one of the highlights of my time in Almaty and even though it is not that easy to get to it is well worth the effort.

The road through the rolling grasslands can not prepare you for the beauty of the Charyn canyon and the rocky landscape hidden below. It felt like I was in a different country. While hiking through the canyon every turn had new spectacular views.
Charyn canyon is among the best things to do near Almaty, Kazakhstan

22. Aksai Gorge and monastery

In the beautiful Aksay valley you will find the still active Aksay monastery. It is another quick and easy way to get out of the city into nature if you have your own car. Several agencies also offer day tours to the Aksai monastery

23. Lake Issyk

Another beatiful lake in the vicinity of Almaty is lake Issyk, not to be confused with Issyk-kul in Kyrgyzstan. The turquise waters surrounded by alpine mountain sceneries make this a great daytrip from Almaty. Read more about the tragic history of Lake Issyk in this guide from Megan starr about how to visit Lake Issyk.

Lake Issyk is among the best things to do near Almaty, Kazakhstan

24. Kolsai Lakes & Kaindy lake

Another highlight during my time in Almaty was my 2 day trip to the glacial Kolsai Lakes and the Kaindy lake.

The road to the lakes is spectacular and an adventure in itself. Once in Saty you can experience true Kazakh hospitality at one of the homestays. From here you can hike up to the lakes through beautiful pine forests and incredible views on the mountains all around you.

Read more about how to visit the Kolsai Lakes in my post on Kolsai Lakes & Kaindy lake: a travelguide to Wild Kazakhstan

Kolsai lakes in Kazakhstan

25. Tamgaly Petroglyphs

Surrounded by the Kazakh steppes you will find the ancient Tamgaly petroglyphs. There are more than 5000 rock carvings depicting sun deities, animals, people and hunting scenes. Getting there on your own is difficult, but several agencies offer day tours.

26. Altyn Emel National Park

Unfortunately this beautiful national park with singing sand dunes, ancient burial mounts, petroglyphs and 260 different species of wildlife is impossible to visit if you don’t have your own car. tours are available, but can be quite expensive. Renting a car is in fact one of the best options and totally worth it.

Altyn Emel is among the best things to do near Almaty, Kazakhstan

The best budget places to eat in Almaty

1. Kaganat (Dostyk 108)

Kaganat is probably the cheapest option in Almaty. It is a canteen style buffet restaurant with a mix of Russian and Kazakh food. Excellent for vegetarians as they have different salads as well.

Kaganat is one of the cheapest places to eat in Almaty Kazakhstan

2. Dastarkhan (Nauryzbai Batyr street 124)

Another canteen buffet style restaurant that is cheap and good is Dastarkhan. In my opinion slightly better than Kaganat with more choice and a better quality of food

3. Rumi (Dostyk Avenue 63)

This restaurant is making excellent central asian and middle eastern food. The interior of the restaurant looks beautiful and gives you the feeling you are in the middle east. Not the cheapest in this list, but prices are still reasonable.

4. Navat (Dostyk Avenue 48)

This good restaurant has an extensive menu of central asian and Kazakh food including classics like beshbarmak and lagman.

5. Green Market

The green market is a very cheap place to try out some Kazakh and central asian specialities such as plov, laghman and Beshbarmak. Depending on where you go it will be a bit hit and miss, but I had my best laghman in the Green market. If a restaurant is busy that is a good sign.

6. Gorki Park

Gorki park is probably the best place to have shaslyck. You will already smell the scent of grilled meat and all you have to do is follow your nose.

The best budget hostels in Almaty

Staying in hostels has its advantages and disadvantages. Its cheap, social and you meet lots of interesting people at the expense of your privacy. Cleanliness and silence should also not be high on your priority list. Hostels come in different forms and varieties, but hostel culture is quite similar all around the world.

Kazakhstan is bringing the social aspect of hostel culture to a different level tough. Kazakhs hospitality lives on in Kazakhs hostels. Where in most countries hostels are solely used by foreign travellers, hostels in Kazakhstan are used by Kazakh people themselves as well. In fact, some people choose to live in hostels.

In the dormitory of sky hostel i was the only traveller with the other beds being occupied by kazakh girls who have made the dormitory their home. Another Kazakh guy lived in the hostel because it was 5 minutes from his work so that he did not need to drive an hour every day to get home.

1. Sky Hostel (Kurmangazy 107)

Sky hostel is an excellent hostel with a wonderful view. It is a 5 minutes walk from the Baikonur metro station.

2. Almaty Backpackers hostel (Elebekova 20/9)

Another excellent and very social hostel in Almaty is the Almaty Backpackers hostel. In this hostel it is very easy to meet other travellers and share the costs for tours to Big Almaty Lake, the Charyn canyon and the Kolsai Lakes. The tours the hostel offers are very good and the staff is very friendly.

The star in Almaty backpackers is the friendly Aya who cooks our breakfast, cooks us dinner, cleans the house and gives away free hugs to everyone. She will tell you whole stories in Kazakh even if you dont understand it. Aliya and Lana at the reception make sure you know how to get around Almaty and can translate Aya’s stories for you.

3. European Backpackers hostel

The European backpackers hostel is an excellent hostel in a great location. I stayed here on my last visit in Almaty and really enjoyed the garden and the social atmosphere.

Visa and registration in Almaty

Most nationalities can travel to Kazakhstan visa free for 30 days. Check Caravanistan about the latest visa rules.

The rules regarding registration are unclear. Some say it is no longer needed under the visa free regime, but others did report problems when they were not registered. If you fly into the country registration is done automatically. If you come in by land that is not necessarily the case.

You are given an immigration paper that you need to keep carefully. If it has two stamps you are registered. At the land border you can either ask for the second stamp or register yourself at the OVIR office. The latter is not an easy process so it is best to make sure you get the second stamp at the border.

In Almaty the OVIR office is far from the centre in a new building near the Almaty Arena (address: Algabas 1- 5k 20-22)

Language in Almaty

Kazakh (a Turkic language) and Russian are the main languages in Almaty. Both are written in the cyrillic script.

I would recommend to learn some basic Russian phrases before you visit Almaty. The Cyrillic script looks more difficult than it is and it is actually quite easy to learn.

English is not widely spoken, but with google translate it is possible to get by. In hostels people often speak a basic level of english.

Money matters in Almaty

Kazakhstan uses the Kazakh tenge. There are plenty of ATM’s and exchange offices to get money. Exchange offices accept dollars, euro’s and russian roubles.

How to get around in Almaty

Almaty by foot

Almaty is not the best city to travel around in by foot. Most of the things to do in Almaty are quite far from each other.

That said, simply walking around in some of the neighbourhoods to see the Soviet architecture can be quite fun and enjoyable.

Despite the long distances I walked quite a lot in Almaty because I liked to explore the backstreets and some of the more quiet neighbourhoods.

If you have enough time walking can be a great way to get to know Almaty, but if your time is limited and you need to get from one tourist attraction to the next there are plenty of other options.

Almaty by bus

Almaty has an excellent bus system and a ticket costs 80 tenge. There are so many busses taking different routes that it might be tricky to find out which bus to take. One way is to tell the driver the name of your destination. They will either say yes or no.

A better way is to check the website citybus.kz or use the app 2Gis that will tell you exactly which numbers you should take. You can buy the tickets in the bus.

Almaty by Metro

Another cheap way to explore Almaty is taking the metro. Most sights are within 10-20 minutes walking from a metro station.

Raymbek Batyr – Almaty II Train station

Zhibek Zholy – Arasan baths, Panfilov Park & Green market

Almaly – Abai opera & Ballet theatre

Abai – Koktobe, Kazakhstan hotel, Central State Museum, Republic square

Baikonur – Sky hostel, Nikolsky cathedral

Mukhtar Auezov Theatre – Kazakh Drama Theatre, Circus, Kasteev art museum, Almaty Towers

Taxi’s in Almaty

Using taxi’s in Almaty might be more expensive than the metro or the bus, but is still relatively cheap.

Basically any car can be a taxi. Just stand on the roadside and wait for a car to stop. Tell the driver your destination and negotiate the price. If it is not an official taxi and the driver is not going your way, he might drive on.

I personally preferred to use Yandex (Russian version of Uber). It is quick and easy with no need to negotiate a price or explain where you need to go. I never had to wait for more than 5 minutes. On my last visit in june 2019 Uber was no longer working in Kazakhstan.

statue in Republic square in Almaty

How to get to Almaty

Almaty has an international airport and several airline companies offer reasonably priced tickets to and from Almaty.

Almaty is also relatively close to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and it takes about 5 hours by marshrutka to travel between the cities.

From within Kazakhstan there are several nighttrains to most cities including Nursultan (13 hours highspeed) and Shymkent (13 hours highspeed). Read more about train travel in Kazakhstan in my post onn How to travel by train in Kazakhstan

Almaty train station

Safety in Almaty

Almaty is in general a safe city and if you follow normal precautions it is unlikely you will encounter any problems as a tourist. Theft and robberies do happen as in most cities and are especially common at night.

Another problem in Almaty is corruption. From fake policemen to legitimate officials that claim you have done something wrong and that you need to pay a fine. I have never had any problems during my visits to Almaty and in my experience such instances are becoming increasingly rare for foreigners.

Solo female travel in Almaty

Almaty is a great destination for solo female travellers. I travelled alone for two weeks throughout the city using public transport and never had any problems.

Almaty is a multicultural city with Muslim Kazakhs and a sizeable Russian minority. Even though it is appreciated to dress modesty I felt Almaty has a liberal attitude if it comes to fashion.

One thing to take note of in Almaty as a woman traveling alone are unlicensed taxi’s that sometimes take advantage of solo tourists. For your own safety it is best to use Yandex.

Read my other posts about Kazakhstan

Backpacking Kazakhstan: a practical guide about travel in Kazakhstan

20 top things to do in Nur-sultan (Astana): the city of the future

The best things to do in Karaganda: dark tourism in Kazakhstan

Things to do in Shymkent and Turkestan: a taste of Kazakhstan’s silk road

Last updated: June 2019

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Backpacking Kazakhstan: A travel guide to the best things to do in Almaty for the independent budget traveller

There are 7 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Kazakhstan by train: a 2 week itinerary - Backpack Adventures
  2. Kate and Kris at 8:31 am

    We have considered teaching in Almaty several times and it looks like an interesting place. Love that they kept the Moscow style theme to the metros. I love that style of the ones here in Kyiv. Great pictures!

  3. karen at 10:23 am

    What a fascinating place – one of those ‘not on the tourist trail’ destinations. Love all the spring colours. Seriously need to look beyond the norm for our future travel. Thank you. Kx

  4. Anca at 9:01 pm

    It has been a long time since I read such a comprehensive guide to a city, with so many beautiful pictures, and down to earth details! I wanna go there!

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