Almaty is in South East Kazakhstan close to the borders of China and Kyrgyzstan.
Almaty is a thriving Silk Road city with great restaurants, bars and attractions, but the mountains are what give the city its charm.
You can ski, snowboard, hike, camp and eat the best shashlik in Central Asia!
Almaty is a very cheap place to stay by western standards.
In this article we will explore some of the best things to do in Almaty including skiing, hiking, eating, drinking and more.
Almaty (and Kazakhstan in general) is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream! In the winter you can hit the slopes at Shymbulak for skiing and snowboarding or glide around the world’s highest ice rink at Medeu.
In summer Almaty offers some of the best hiking and camping in the world. Cosmopolitan central Almaty is a foodie’s heaven with some of the best eating in Central Asia. History buff? From the Silk Road to Soviet times, Almaty is bursting with architecture and museums detailing the city’s long history.
Where is Almaty?
Almaty is in the South-East of Kazakhstan very close to the border with Kyrgyzstan. The city is perched beneath the imposing Zailiysky Alatau Mountains, part of the Tian Shan range which stretches across China and Central Asia.
Kazakhstan itself is situated within Central Asia and shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea (with links to Azerbaijan).
History of Almaty
Almaty started life as a Silk Road outpost called Almatu and there has been a settlement on the site of present day Almaty for centuries. Almatu was destroyed by invading Mongol hordes and the city was flattened by earthquakes in 1887 and 1911.
The current incarnation of the city was founded in 1854 by the Russians (the Kazakhs were still nomads at this time) and named Verny.
In 1927 the city became the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan and was renamed Alma Ata (father of apples) as it is said that Almaty is the birthplace of this humble fruit.
After gaining independence from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the city’s name was changed again to Almaty in 1991, which closer represents the original name of Almatu. In 1998 the capital was moved north to Astana (now called Nur-Sultan after the former president) to foster better business ties with nearby Russia.
So, without further ado, let’s have a look at some of the top things to do in Almaty!
Top Things to do in Almaty
Zhibek Zholy is the Arbat-style pedestrian street filled with souvenir stands, art & craft stalls and pictures. Many local artists display their paintings with scenes of horses and yurts out on the Kazakh steppes.
There are lots of street-side cafes and restaurants here so you can refresh yourself after browsing for souvenirs and postcards.
Nearest metro is Zhibek Zholy.
Zhenkov Cathedral, also know as the Ascension Cathedral is an impressive church built in the orthodox style and completed in 1907.
The cathedral survived a 1911 earthquake, which was even more impressive given that no nails were used in the building of the structure. This led to some believing an act of divine intervention was at hand!
Nearest metro: Almaly
Soviet War Memorial
The war memorial is a selection of sculptures of soldiers in the brutalist soviet style. There is an eternal flame commenorating the fallen men and women of the Great Patriotic War (World War II as we know it).
The memorial is located in Paniflov Park near Zhenkov Cathedral and the nearest metro station is Almaly.
Kok Tobe is the closest mountain to Almaty and is reachable by a short cable car ride from Dostyk Avenue. The site includes an amusement park with Ferris wheel, roller-coaster, climbing wall and more and has a small zoo and collection of bars, cafes and restaurants.
My favourite place is the Kok Tobe Cafe which serves some of the best shashlyk in the city along with a good selection of beers at very reasonable prices. There is also a Yurt Restaurant serving traditional Kazakh and Central Asian cuisine and a more expensive restaurant serving both Kazakh and western food.
To get to Kok Tobe take the metro to Abay and walk the few hundred metres to the intersection with Dostyk Avenue. The cable car station is behind the Novotel and Abay Monument. Tickets cost 2,000 Tenge return. Read my full Guide to Kok Tobe for more information.
Things to do in the Almaty Mountains
Medeu is home to the highest Ice Rink in the world at 1,691 metres (5,548 feet) and is also the final stop for bus number 12 that leaves Hotel Kazakhstan every 20 minutes or so (journey time 30 minutes). It is also the starting point for cable cars to the nearby ski resort at Shymbulak (2,200m).
If skating or skiing aren’t your bag (or it’s summer) there are some great hikes starting right here, as well as a freshwater spring where locals come to fill up their water bottles.
Take bus 12 (80 tenge) from the stop opposite Hotel Kazakhstan on Dostyk Avenue (Prospekt Dosteek). Be aware that the last bus usually leaves Medeu at around 6.30pm and gets very busy. It’s best to leave early in the day so you don’t have to rely on the final few buses which you might not be able to get on.
Read my full guide to Medeu for more information.
If you are looking for fun things to do in Almaty, look no further than Shymbulak Ski Resort. Located in the Trans Alatu Mountains 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) above Almaty, it is Kazakhstan’s premiere ski resort. The resort includes 12km of ski run going up to 3,200 metres, restaurants, bars and equipment hire places.
In summer (and also in winter) Shymbulak is a great starting point for hikes into the mountains. Even in summer the weather can change quickly so it’s essential to pack warm clothes and basic supplies.
To get to Shymbulak take bus 12 from Hotel Kazakhstan to Medeu and then take the gondola the rest of the way. Round trip costs 3,500 Tenge for adults and 2,500 for children. For more information on ski passes etc see the official Shymbulak website.
There are two main roads from Almaty into the ever-present mountains. The first leads up to Medeu and Shymbulak beyond, and the second goes up to Alma Arasan and Big Almaty Lake.
The hike to Alma Arasan follows a tributary of the Big Almaty River (Bolshoye Almatinka) along an impressive gorge. The mountain scenery is incredible and it’s a great place to escape the city for a day of hiking (or bring a tent and wild-camp for a better adventure).
Take the bus from Presidential Park to Kokshoky where the hike begins at the right fork in the road (the left fork goes to Big Almaty Lake).
Big Almaty Lake
Arguably the finest scenic spot close to the city, Big Almaty Lake is set beneath snow-capped peaks and pine forest on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The lake is not easily reachable with public transport and requires a little planning, but is definitely worth it.
For a detailed report about the lake and how to get there, see my post Big Almaty Lake.
Food and Drink in Almaty
Central Almaty is crammed with bars and restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets. Kazakh food is representative of the country’s nomadic past and you will find horse on almost every menu. A staple classic is shashlik (chunks of meat on skewers cooked over a flame) and usually you can choose between lamb, chicken or horse. Plov is another Central Asian classic; rice with carrots, swede and small chunks of unidentified meat.
In addition to Kazakh, you will find plenty of Georgian, French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, as well as ubiquitous western/American fast food outlets. One of my favourite things about returning to Almaty is the food and I would challenge anyone not to eat some of the best food they’ve ever had for a fraction of the cost of back home.
One of the best places to have a meal or even just a drink is the restaurant up at Kok Tobe. The shashlik is some of the best in the city and the beers are decent and cold. The views however are out of this world and one of my favourite things to do in Almaty is watch the sun set while filling my face with food and beer.
There is a thin line between bars and restaurants in Almaty and you can stop for a refreshing beer anywhere that takes your fancy.
Where to stay in Almaty?
Almaty has a great range of hostels and hotels to suit all budgets. See below for some of my top choices when staying in the city.
Sky Hostel is usually my first stop on any trip to Almaty. The friendly and helpful staff are always smiling and the hostel is clean and comfortable with lots of common areas to chill out in.
There is a kitchen with balcony, large living room and best of all, a huge rooftop terrace with views across the city to the nearby mountains. There is no better view in the city, making this the best Almaty hostel in my humble opinion.
Sky Hostel is in a great location on the corner of Kurmangazy Street and Baitursynov Street and 2 minutes walk from a host of bars, restaurants, a large supermarket and the Baikonaur metro station. You can book a dorm bed or private room with our partners at Hostelworld. A dorm bed costs $10 and a private twin room from $27.
The Astana Hotel is located a few hundred meters up the road from Sky Hostel on Baitursynov Street. This is a great mid-range Almaty hotel with comfortable rooms with balcony and a good breakfast. Double rooms start from $43.
Hotel Kazzhol is a great option if you are looking for a little bit of luxury. The Kazzhol is in a great location close to Zhibek Zholy and Paniflov Park. The rooms are very comfortable and there is an onsite gym and pool. The buffet breakfast is the best in Almaty! A double room starts at $70. This Almaty hotel is where I stay if I’m feeling flush!
Getting around Almaty
Buses cover the central city and are an easy way to get around. It’s possible to take a bus up to Shymbulak and Medeu. Bus 6 leaves from the stop opposite Hotel Kazakhstan and takes 30 minutes. 80t. 06:30 to 20:00.
Almaty has 1 metro line running from Rayymbek (Almaty 2 station) and 80 Tenge
In Kazakhstan as well as the rest of Central Asia, every car is a potential taxi and all you need to do is stick your hand out to signal you are waiting for a ride. Negotiate the fare before you get in (the driver will usually ask “Skolka?” – how much in Russian). Don’t pay more than 2,000 to go anywhere in the central city.
How to get to Almaty
From within Kazakhstan you can take a train from anywhere in the country to Almaty. Check the Kazakh Railway website for exact times and fares.
It’s possible to take a boat from Baku (Azerbaijan) to Aktau (Kazakhstan) but this is only a viable option if you have plenty of time on your hands and will likely take about a week. A cabin in one of the cargo vessels that ply the Caspian Sea costs $60 and the crossing takes about 20 hours, however the ship can be kept waiting to dock for days (so ensure you have plenty of food and water if taking this route).
Aktau is a very remote city and it will take approximately 4 days to reach Almaty by train. However there are plenty of interesting places to stop along the way to break up the journey such as the lonely semi-abandoned fishing town of Aralsk and Turkistan with its incredible Silk Road architecture.
Almaty is reachable from the western city of Urumqi in China’s troubled Xinjiang region. There is a twice-weekly train which departs on Tuesdays and Saturdays and takes 30 hours.
Alternatively, you can take a train to Xining and then a bus to Khorgas where you can take the daily bus to Zharkent. . You can buy tickets for the bus on the day but it waits until full before departing so bring a book (usually it departs around 3pm to 4pm).
A fact of travelling independently in Xinjiang means you will have to go through countless police checkpoints where you will be questioned and photographed again and again. It’s just something that you must put up with (read more about my troubles here).
The only way to travel between Bishkek and Almaty is by marshrutka (shared minibus taxi). The journey time is approximately 3 to 4 hours depending on how long you spend at the border.
There are weekly trains from Moscow to Almaty with a journey time of 80 hours. There are also connections between other towns in Russia and Kazakhstan. Check RealRussia for timetables and prices.
From Tashkent take a taxi to the border at Chernyaevka (Zhibek Zholy) which takes around 30 minutes. The cost should be about 50,000 Som (ask someone to call Yandex Taxi if you can).
After crossing the border on foot (best done in the middle of the day/afternoon to avoid huge queues) you will need to take a taxi or shared taxi to Shymkent which should cost around 5,000 Tenge).
From Shymkent take the overnight train to Almaty (11 to 15 hours,8,000 to 30,000 Tenge depending on train and class).
Kazakhstan is a very safe country to visit and you can read more in my article; Is Kazakhstan Safe to Visit? That being said, it’s always important to ensure you have adequate travel insurance, especially if you are going to head off into the mountains. Our partners at World Nomads are experts at covering adventurous trips and include cover for skiing and hiking.
Considering a backpacking trip to Kazakhstan? Check out my guide to the best budget backpacks for travel!
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About the Author
Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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