This post is a travelguide about the best things to do in Almaty. My favourite city in Kazakhstan.
Almaty was love on first sight for me. Probably because the spectacular nature is visible from the city and waiting to be explored. On a clear day you can see the snowcapped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains that reach well over 4000 meters.
But its not just the nature at your doorsteps. Almaty is a fascinating city in its own right. It is definetly worth one or two days although I happily stayed much longer with the amount of things to do in Almaty itself. Add all the exciting daytrips you can make and you can easily spend more than a week exploring all the things to do around Almaty.
What to do in Almaty
Unlike Astana, Almaty is a city of history with many traces left of its past. Almaty is still Soviet, but in a positive way. There are plenty of parks, large squares, old Soviet style buildings and huge memorials. It makes Almaty a pleasant green city full of trees.
The large Kazakhstan hotel and the Abai Opera theatre are fine examples of the Soviet architectural legacy, but even in the most unexpected places you will find details of Almaty’s intriguing history. Dennis Keen from Walking Almaty is involved in trying to preserve Almaty’s Soviet mosaics with Monumental Almaty.
Despite the Soviet traces, Almaty is also a modern city. Luxurious appartment buildings, fancy shopping malls, hip cafes and coffeeshops 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 new modern lifestyle that all comes together. A modern city that breathes history. Astana might be the new capital, but the heart of Kazakhstan is still in Almaty.
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 it rains then going to an old Soviet spa. In Soviet times 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.
In the end I loved the experience and it was certainly one of my favourite things to do in Almaty.
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 are now among the top 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.
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 for children and a wonderful view over the city. Don’t miss the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pleasant green space in the city. In the spring it is full of flowers. There is also an entertainment park for children and several restaurants that serve excellent shaslyck.
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.
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.
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.
14. Nikolski Cathedral
The small Nikolski cathedral is another Russian Orthodox church in Almaty worth a visit only if you are in the neighbourhood.
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.
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.
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.
The best things to do near Almaty
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. Bring your passport along and be careful with hiking. Under no circumstances hike towards the lake, because you can get a fine.
19. Shymbulak & Medeu
Another place to visit Almaty’s mountains is the ice skate ring in Medeu and the ski resort of Shimbulak. 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.
20. 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
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.
Read more about how to visit the Charyn Canyon in my post on Charyn Canyon & Kolsai Lakes: a travelguide to Wild Kazakhstan
22. 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.
23. 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 Charyn Canyon & Kolsai Lakes: a travelguide to Wild Kazakhstan
24. 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. It is still high on my bucketlist and I am hoping to find a way to go.
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.
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.
How to get around in Almaty
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.
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
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.
How to get to Almaty
Almaty has an international airport and several airline companies offer reasonably priced tickets to and from Almaty.
From within Kazakhstan there are several nighttrains to most cities including Nursultan (Astana) (13 hours highspeed) and Shymkent (13 hours highspeed). Read more about Backpacking Kazakhstan by train
The best time to visit Almaty
Almaty can be visited any time of the year. Just keep in mind that the winters are cold. Still there are plenty of things to do in Almaty for those that love wintersports with ice skating in Medeu and skiing in Chymbulak
Summers can get hot in Almaty, but this is the best time to go hiking in the mountains.
Personally I think spring and autumn to be the best times to visit Almaty. The mountains are at its most beautiful in October with the autumn colours brightening up the forests.
In spring Almaty has several celebrations including Nauruz (21 – 23 March), Labour day (1 May) and Victory day (9 May) .
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.