Things To Do In Almaty: Central Asia’s “Big Apple”

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Almaty is the coolest city most people have never heard of.  In fact, I think it’s one of the coolest cities, period.  There are so many things to do in Almaty, you could easily spend a week here and still not see everything.

Safe, friendly, cosmopolitan, and with epic mountains right on the doorstop, Almaty is a seriously underrated destination.  People are slowly starting to twig how great this place is though, so now is a perfect time to visit – before everybody else gets the memo.

Read on for my pick of the best things to do in Almaty, plus some practical tips and info to help you plan your visit.

Where Is Almaty?

Almaty is in Kazakhstan!

The city is located in the south-eastern corner of the country, just north of the border with Kyrgyzstan, at the foot of the spectacular Tian Shan mountains.

Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, and was its capital until 1997.  For centuries, it was one of the most important trading cities on the ancient Silk Road.

Today, Almaty is still Kazakhstan’s main cultural and commercial hub, as well as being the financial capital of Central Asia.

Almaty has a very European feel, with its leafy green streets, outdoor restaurants, and vibrant cafe culture.  But there’s also something unmistakably different about the place.

Travelling here feels exciting and adventurous, but at the same time easy and hassle-free.  The city (like the majority of Kazakhstan) has modern, efficient infrastructure, and a wealth of attractions to suit all interests (and budgets).

Top Things To Do In Almaty

Take a walking tour

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Leafy, green, and well laid out - Almaty is easily explored on foot

A great way to familiarise yourself with Almaty and get your bearings is to take a walking tour of the city.

Walking Almaty is a fantastic tour company owned by Dennis Keen, a Californian who has lived in the city for many years.  As well as offering tours in English, Dennis is also fluent in Russian and Kazakh, so can help with translation as you explore.

There are several tours to choose from, covering different parts of the city.  Each provide a unique insight into Almaty’s history, culture, and hidden spots.  More info here – highly recommended!

(I’m not being paid to write this – these tours are just great!)

Sculptures, fountains, and outdoor public artwork

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Sculptures and outdoor art is everywhre

There are countless sculptures, fountains, mosaics, murals, and statues dotted around Almaty.  Much of this dates to the Soviet era, and some pieces of public artwork are still being discovered today

Some of the best sculptures are found in the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen (Panfilov Park, for short).  This green, tree-lined park in the centre of the city is named after the Panfilov heroes – 28 soldiers from Almaty who died defending Moscow from the Nazis.  Today, it’s a popular meeting place for Almaty residents, old and new.  

Panfilov Park is calm and peaceful – a perfect place for a stroll.  Grab some food, a coffee, or an ice cream from one of the many vendors, sit on a bench, and watch the world go by.  Don’t be surprised if people come up and start chatting to you.  I found locals here to be incredibly friendly, and many will be keen to practice speaking English with you.

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Sculpture of a traditional Kazakh musician

Besides Panfilov, there are many great sculptures and other pieces of public artwork dotted around the city.  

Almaty also has more than 120 fountains, and the city hosts an annual “Day of Fountains” holiday, where all of the city’s fountains are switched on again after the winter.

For more information on Almaty’s fascinating public artwork, check out Monumental Almaty, a project which aims to “document, research, and preserve works of monumental art” in the city (here).

Visit Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral)

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The beautiful Ascension Cathedral

In the centre of Panfilov Park lies Ascension Cathedral (also known as Zenkov Cathedral, after the man who built it).  

This beautiful cathedral is ornate, colourful, and made entirely of wood.  In fact, it’s one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world (56 metres), and was built using no nails (apparently).

Zenkov-Ascension-Cathedral-Almaty

Originally constructed in 1907, the cathedral has survived several devastating earthquakes.  This is largely due to its unique design, and the flexibility of the locally-sourced Tian Shan spruce wood, from which it was built.

During Soviet times it was used as a museum, though today it is once again a working Russian Orthodox church.

Republic Square (Respublika Alany)

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Akimat House - a great example of Soviet brutalist architecture

Republic Square (also known as Independence Square or New Square) is Almaty’s main central square.

Prior to 1997, Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan (and the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic before that).  During this time, Republic Square was the political centre of the country.

Here you’ll find the former presidential palace, the Independence Monument (a tall statue with a golden warrior on top), the Mayor’s office (Akimat House), and several other government buildings.

The square itself is used for public events, celebrations, demonstrations, festivals, and military parades.

Medau Skating Rink & hikes

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Medeu in the summertime

Medeu is a valley on the south-eastern outskirts of Almaty, just inside the beautiful Ile-Alatau National Park.

It’s home to the Medeu ice-skating rink, which – at 1,700 metres above sea level – is the highest skating rink in the world.

This giant complex is outdoors, and only filled with ice during the winter months.  But if you’re planning to visit then, it’s one of the best things to do in Almaty.  Surrounded by towering, snow-covered mountains, it’s a really unique experience.

In the summertime, Medeu is a great place to go hiking (see below).  Best of all, it’s super accessible from the centre of Almaty.

How to get to Medeu

Take bus number 12 from Dostyk Avenue (opposite the Kazakhstan Hotel).  This bus goes all the way up to the Medeu skating rink, where it terminates.  You can buy a ticket on the bus (bring cash).

The Four Peaks Trail - an awesome day hike from Medeu

There are some excellent day hikes in the mountains around Almaty.  The Four Peaks Trail is one of the very best, and conveniently starts in Medeu.  

It’s a moderately strenuous hike, and at points you’ll be hiking at an altitude of almost 3,500 metres.  Pack decent walking shoes, plenty of water, and take it easy if you’re not used to exercising at altitude.  The trail is well-maintained though, and the views over the mountains are absolutely stunning.

There’s a fantastic write-up of this hike over at The Sandy Feet.

Visit Shymbulak

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View from the cable car up to Shymbulak

Visiting Shymbulak is definitely one of my favourite things to do in Almaty.

Shymbulak is the largest ski resort in Central Asia, and an all-round awesome place.  It lies at 2,200 metres above sea level, in the upper part of the Medeu Valley.

Shymbulak is an amazing year-round destination.  People flock here from far and wide in the winter to enjoy the excellent powder and ski facilities.  In the summertime, there are some fantastic hiking routes.

Think Switzerland, but a fraction of the cost.  It’s epic.

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Shymbulak is a great place to visit year-round

Even if you’re not into skiing or hiking, the views alone are worth coming up here for.  From Shymbulak you can enjoy incredible panoramic views over the Trans-ili-Alatau mountains, the northernmost part of the Tian Shan range.

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There's a bar at the top of the Talgar Pass (3,200 metres)

Skiing in Shymbulak

I’ve never skied at Shymbulak, but it’s something I’m super keen to do in the future.  From all accounts I’ve heard, it’s supposed to be great!  

Skiing here costs a fraction of the amount compared with Europe or North America.  You can hire any equipment you need incredibly cheaply, and ski lessons and lift passes are all very affordable.

The ski season runs from November until May, and they get tons of snow.  There are several pistes of varying difficulty, and loads of areas for off-piste/backcountry skiing.  

The Trip Goes On has a post with lots of excellent info on hiring ski gear, plus accommodation and restaurants in Shymbulak.

For information on multi-day guided backcountry skiing tripshead over here.

How to get to Shymbulak

See the section “How to get to Medeu“, above.

From Medeu, you can take a series of cable cars up to Shymbulak.  This is the quickest and most scenic way to get up into the mountains.  The highest cable car goes all the way up to the Talgar Pass, at 3,200 metres.  Check here for ticket prices and operating times.

A cheaper alternative is to take the shuttle bus which runs between Medeu and Shymbulak.

You can also hike from Medeu to Shymbulak, along a path which largely follows the road.  It’s about 4km, though I’d suggest giving this a miss in the wintertime.

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Hiking from Shymbulak - there are some epic hikes in the mountains above Almaty

Relax in the Arasan Baths

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Entrance to the Arasan Baths

The Arasan Baths is a vast complex of bathhouses in the centre of Almaty.  It’s famous for being one of the best – and most exquisitely designed – bathhouses in Central Asia. 

The complex contains a beautiful mix of Soviet modernist, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern architecture.  Large domed rooms are adorned with mosaics, colourful tiles, wood, and loads of polished marble.  It’s pretty amazing.

Here you’ll find a collection of Turkish baths, Finnish saunas, Russian steam baths, plunge pools, a swimming pool, and even a Moroccan hammam.

It’s a perfect place to relax and unwind after a long day’s sightseeing around the city.  They also offer massages and other spa treatments.

Do what the locals do and buy a bunch of dried, leafy tree branches – called a venik.  In the sauna, you slap yourself all over with this (you’ll see everyone doing it, don’t worry).  This helps to improve your circulation and increases the benefits of the sauna.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the interior (too many naked people; too much water).  But check out this post for a sense of what the place looks like on the inside.

Try Kazakh food

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So hungry you could eat a horse?

Almaty has a thriving food scene, and here you’ll find some of the best local and regional food in the country.

Traditional Kazakh cuisine is pretty meat-heavy.  Kazakhs love their meat – especially mutton, lamb, and horse.  However, vegetarians: fear not, most places do have veggie options.  

Vegan options are more limited, though an increasing number of establishments now also cater to vegans.

Be sure to try laghman – a delicious Central Asian/Uyghur dish made of pulled noodles, meat, vegetables and spices.  (Super tasty recipe here.)

Other local specialties include beshbarmak (boiled horsemeat with noodles – a lot tastier than it sounds, I promise!), kuurdak (/Quwyrdaq) (roasted meat with onions, dumplings, tomato and yoghurt), and pilaf (meat fried with carrots, onions, garlic, and rice – a bit like a biryani).

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Good places to eat in Almaty

Kaganat is a great place if you’re travelling on a budget.  It’s basically a self-serve cafeteria, and there are a few branches around the city.  The food here is tasty, cheap, and incredibly popular with the locals.  Fine dining, it is not.  But it’s fun, friendly and very good value.  (Also, lots of veggie options!)

Another good option for a cheap meal is the Green Bazaar (see below section).  There are several vendors here selling traditional Kazakh dishes, and the laghman is delicious.

If you’re looking for something more upmarket, there are many excellent restaurants throughout the city.  Some of my favourites include:

  • Alasha – Uzbeki restaurant (in an awesome building)
  • Navat – Kazakh / Central Asian restaurant (with a beautiful colourful interior)
  • Kishlak – Central Asian / Middle Eastern restaurant (atmospheric and traditional)
  • Rumi – Central Asian / Middle Eastern restaurant (modern and tasteful decor)

Unhelpfully, most restaurants in Kazakhstan don’t have websites… though you should be able to find all of the above using Google Maps.

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Making friends at Kaganat

The Green Bazaar (Zelionyj Bazar)

Sorry, no photo 🙁 – see here instead.

The Green Bazaar is a large indoor marketplace where you can buy, basically, anything.  

People come here to buy and sell local produce, including vegetables, meat, spices, dried fruits, nuts, cheese, clothes, furniture, electronics, etc, etc.  It’s loud, intense, and super atmospheric.  

This is another great place to try traditional Kazakh food and drink.  Grab a bowl of steaming laghman, or a plate of beshbarmak.  

Or, if you’re feeling even braver, try some kumis (fermented, carbonated, mildly alcoholic mare’s milk), or shubat (the same, but with camel’s milk).

Almaty is known to be the birthplace of edible apples.  The city’s former name, Alma-Ata, means “Father of Apples” in Kazakh, and it’s often described as “The [other] Big Apple“.  You’ll see images and symbols of apples all over Almaty, and the Green Bazaar is the best place to sample the best of the best.

Kok-Tobe Hill

You get a great view over the city from Kok-Tobe Hill

For a great view over the city and its surrounding mountains, head to Kok-Tobe Hill.  

You can either hike up to the top, or take the cable car which departs from Luganskiy Street, just south of the Hotel Kazakhstan. 

Kok-Tobe means “Green Hill”, and is the highest point in Almaty-proper (at 1,130 metres above sea level).  It’s also home to a small amusement park, and Almaty Tower – a 370 metre tall TV tower which is illuminated at night and visible from almost everywhere in the city.

It can get quite crowded up here, especially at the weekend, but it’s still a beautiful place to catch the sunset.  There are food and drink vendors, plus a few restaurants.

Museums

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Auezov Theater

Almaty has no shortage of museums.  Many of these lack English language translations (and decent curation), though there are a few notable exceptions.

The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan is one of the largest and most comprehensive museums in Central Asia.  It contains over 300,000 artefacts, showcasing the history, archeology, culture and politics of Kazakhstan.  

Founded in 1931, the museum was originally laid out inside Ascension Cathedral (see above), which is one of the main reasons the building survived the Soviet era.  Today, it’s housed in an enormous, imposing building just off Republic Square (see here for photos).

Many of the exhibits are in Russian and Kazakh only.  But I found the sections on the Kazakh people’s nomadic heritage, traditional dress and folklore particularly interesting (and accessible, as a non-Russian speaker!).

Other good museums in Almaty that are worth a visit include:

  • A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts – the largest art museum in Kazakhstan, which contains a diverse range of Kazakh artwork.  The museum frequently hosts exhibitions which feature the work of both Kazakh and foreign artists.
  • Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments – located in a wooden house in the middle of Panfilov Park, this excellent museum houses hundreds of traditional Kazakh instruments, and provides a unique insight into the country’s rich musical heritage.  There’s also a wide range of folk instruments from neighbouring countries.
  • Kunaev House Museum – an interesting museum dedicated to the famous Soviet Kazakh politician, and longstanding First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed Kunaev.  The museum is located inside Kunaev’s former home, and presents a fascinating snapshot of the work and personal life of this important Kazakh figure.

Drink draught beer in a British pub

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Almaty or London?

Okay, as somebody from the UK, I would never usually try to seek out British pubs when travelling abroad.  But, after a long day exploring Almaty on foot, I stumbled upon The Shakespeare Pub (on Dostyk Ave). 

I found this place by accident, and only went inside out of pure curiosity.  It just seemed so bizarre.  (“A British pub in Kazakhstan – I wonder what that’s gonna be like…?!“)

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It’s actually a really great pub!  They have an excellent selection of draught beers, regular live music, friendly staff, darts, plus all the standard UK pub food (fish and chips, bangers and mash, curry club, etc, etc).  

This place would put quite a few local pubs in London to shame.  Bizarre, but cool.

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A really solid pub!

** If you’re looking for other alternative city break destinations, check out some of my other posts, including:

Day Trips From Almaty

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Epic scenery at Big Almaty Lake

One of my favourite things about Almaty is how close it is to stunning scenery.  The city is located near several of Kazakhstan’s most scenic National Parks.  Breathtaking mountains, lakes, canyons, dunes, and ancient petroglyphs are all (relatively) easy to reach from the city.

Check out my top-4 recommended day trips from Almaty.

Alternatively, if you have a little longer to explore this beautiful corner of Central Asia, don’t miss the amazing Skazka Canyon across the border in Kyrgyzstan.

Visiting Almaty - Practical Info & Tips

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There are loads of quirky cafes in Almaty

Best time to visit Almaty

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Almaty winters are COLD

Almaty is a year-round destination, although its winters are long and can be extremely harsh.

The city is at its most pleasant during the summertime June to September – when daytime temperatures tend to be between 20-30°C.  These months are the best for exploring the city on foot, as well as hiking in the surrounding mountains.  

Spring (May and October) can also be a nice time to visit, with daytime temperatures often between 10-20°C, although you’ll need to wrap up warm in the evenings.  April receives the most rainfall.

The ski season in Shymbulak runs from November until May, though the best snow conditions usually occur between December and February.  Be prepared for very cold temperatures (often below -10°C).

Also, bear in mind that many of the best day trips from Almaty (see article here) are much more difficult – though usually not impossible – during the winter months, as the roads can become extremely treacherous. Certain places (like Big Almaty Lake) might become off-limits entirely in the depths of winter.

How to get to Almaty

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Paragliding over Shymbulak

Almaty International Airport is about 15 kilometres north-east of the city centre.

Air Astana, the national carrier of Kazakhstan, is based at Almaty airport, and often offers very competitive fares.  If coming from Europe, you can usually also pick up cheap fares with Pegasus Airlines and/or Belavia.

Several other major international airlines also fly here, including Turkish Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Emirates, Aeroflot, and Air India.  

Always check a price comparison site (like Skyscanner) for the best deals.

From the airport, it’s easy to get to the city centre, either using local busses (which depart frequently from just outside the terminal – follow the signs), or the ride-hailing app Yandex Go.

Alternatively, if you’re coming from Kyrgyzstan, buses and marshrutkas run frequently between Bishkek and Almaty (Sayran bus terminal).  The journey is usually pretty hassle-free, and typically takes about 4 hours (depending on whether there are queues at the border).

Visas

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Many nationalities (including citizens of the UK, EU, US, and Australia) can now visit Kazakhstan for up to 30 days without needing a visa.

Be sure to keep the little card you receive from the immigration authorities, as you might be asked for this when you depart.

** If you need a visa to visit Kazakhstan, I recommend using iVisa.com.  Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **

Language

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The two main languages spoken in Almaty are Kazakh (a Turkic language) and Russian.

Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet.  I’d recommend familiarising yourself with this before your visit.  (It’ll make reading signs – and generally getting around – so much easier!).  See here for a helpful cheat sheet.

English is not widely spoken as a rule, although younger people are more likely to speak some English, as are staff in hotels and hostels.  Either way, with a combination of friendly smiles, gestures, and Google Translate, you’ll be fine.

You may also find that people who are studying English ask to practise speaking with you once they realise that you’re an English speaker.  This is a great way to make new friends in the city. 🙂

Money

Kazakh-Tenge

The currency of Kazakhstan is the tenge (KZT).  There are many ATMs around town, as well as currency exchange offices/kiosks. 

Whilst Almaty is one of the more expensive cities in Central Asia, it’s far cheaper than most of Europe/North America.  

Public transport is super cheap (sub-$1 per ride), and taxis (although more) probably still won’t break the bank.

Those travelling on a tight budget, can get a large meal in a cheap restaurant for around £4 ($5), and a bed in a hostel dorm for about the same.

Meals in smarter restaurants are likely to set you back between £15-20 ($20-30) per person.  Mid-range hotels are typically around £50 ($70) per night.

How to get around Almaty

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Almaty-Bike city bicycle hire

Although quite a large city, many of the best places to visit in Almaty are within walking distance of each other.  The city centre is well laid out (Soviet planning), green, and pleasant to explore on foot.

There is a decent municipal bike hire system – called Almaty-Bike – if you’d rather explore on two wheels.  More info (including pricing and how to register) here.

City buses travel all over the city on regular routes, and can get you to wherever you want to go (including up to Medeu).  Google Maps is (usually) able to tell you which number bus to take.  Tickets cost 150 KZT ($0.35) per ride if purchased from the driver, or 80 KZT ($0.20) with an Onay card (see below).

Almaty also has a shiny new underground metro, although this only has one line and nine stations at present (it’s currently being extended).  Whilst nowhere near as grand or impressive as the Moscow metro, some of the stations are attractively decorated.  Tickets are cheap, only 80 KZT ($0.20) per ride.

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Mukhtar Auezov Theater metro station

If you’re planning to use Almaty’s public transport network more than a couple of times, it’s worth picking up an Onay card.  This costs 400 KZT ($0.95), is sold at kiosks and metro stations, includes one free ride, and can be used to pay for both the metro and city buses.  You can top up the card either at a kiosk, online, or using the Onay app.  (See here for more info.)

Taxis in Almaty are more expensive than public transport, though still very cheap.  If you don’t speak Russian/Kazakh, the easiest option is to use the Yandex Go app (i.e. Russian Uber) to request a ride.  

Alternatively, just stand on the side of the road with your arm out – somebody will quickly stop and ask where you want to go.  Be sure to negotiate the price in advance.  (Don’t pay more than 1,000 KZT for a journey of less than 3 km, or 2,500 KZT for less than 10 km).

Where to stay in Almaty

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Mountain lodges between Medeu and Shymbulak

Almaty has a decent range of accommodation for all budgets.

Budget: Hostels in Almaty

If you’re looking to meet and join forces with other travellers (e.g. to share the cost of a tour, or hire a car, etc.), hostels can be a good option.  These usually have both dorms and private rooms, and are typically cheaper than staying in a hotel.

Almaty Backpackers (on Elebekov Street) is a great budget-friendly hostel where you’ll likely meet a mix of foreign travellers and Kazakhs visiting the city.  The staff are helpful, and can arrange tours of Almaty and the surrounding area.

Other good hostels include Sky Hostel (on Kurmangazy Street, near Baikonur metro station), and European Backpackers hostel (on Luganskiy Street).

Mid-range: Hotels in Almaty

The iconic Kazakhstan Hotel is probably the most famous hotel in the country.  Built in 1977, this 26-storey building on Dostyk Avenue is a well-known landmark in Almaty.  The hotel has comfortable rooms, spa facilities, a good bar, and a restaurant on the top floor with fantastic views over the city.  It’s also well located, within easy walking distance from Republic Square, and on the number 12 bus route (which goes directly to Medeu).

Another great option is the Ambassador hotel on Zheltoksan Street.  Slightly cheaper than the Kazakhstan Hotel and with larger rooms (though fewer facilities), this comfortable hotel is excellent value for money.

Almaty Airbnb

Airbnb is starting to become more popular in Kazakhstan.

There’s an ever-increasing range of properties in Almaty, many of which are modern, well-equipped and good value.

This is a good one, though check what’s available on the dates you’ll be in town.

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