Things to do in Almaty: the heart of Kazakhstan

Things to do in Almaty: 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.

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.

view on the Tian shan mountains in Almaty Kazakhstan

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.

Soviet mural in underground pass in Almaty Kazakhstan

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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

statue in Republic square in Almaty

Nazarbayevs handprint at Republic square in Almaty

Independence Monument in Republic square at 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

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.

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

Almaty Lake covered in snow in Almaty Kazakhstan

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.

The ice skate ring at Medeu in Almaty Kazakhstan

Ski resort Chimbulak in Almaty Kazakhstan

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

Charyn Canyon in 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

Kolsai lakes in 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.

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.

Almaty train station

How to get around in 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 or use the app 2Gis that will tell you exactly which numbers you should take. You can buy the tickets in the bus.

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

By Taxi

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) .

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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