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Things to do in Almaty, Kazakhstan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Almaty Quick Facts

 

Population: 2,000,000

Languages: Kakakh & Russian

Currency: Tenge ₸ (KZT)

$1 USD = 380₸

Time Zone: GMT +5

Geography:  Central Asia

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).

A Brief 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 (see below).

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

The pedestrianized street of Zhibek Zholy is the bohemian area of Almaty where you can find locally made arts and crafts as well as streetside cafes and restaurants.

Zhenkov Cathedral

One of the nicest things to do in Almaty is to stroll around Paniflov Park and see the brightly coloured Ascension Cathedral, also known as Zhenkov Cathedral.

Kok Tobe Mountain

One of the best things to do in Almaty is visit Kok Tobe which is a great place for family fun. There is an amusement park, shops and a couple of restaurants overlooking the city.

Medeu Ice Rink

Home to the world’s highest Ice skating rink and some great hiking, Medeu is the starting point for trips to the ski resort at Shymbulak. Check out my Medeu Guide for more. 

Shymbulak Resort

Almaty’s winter playground located 2,200 metres above the city. Also a great place to go hiing in summer! Check out my Shymbulak Guide for more. 

Big Almaty Lake

The Crown jewel of Almaty, Big Almaty Lake is tucked away in the mountains high above the city. Check out my Big Almaty Lake Guide for more. 

Things to do Within the City

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Zhibek Zholy

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

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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.

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Zhenkov Cathedral

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!

The cathedral is situated within Paniflov Park and the nearest metro station is Almaly.

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Kok Tobe Mountain

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.

Things to do Outside of the City

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Medeu Ice Rink

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.

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Alma Arasan

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).

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Shymbulak

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.

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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.

Eating and Drinking in Almaty

 

Kazakhstan is a fantastic destination for food-lovers and eating is definitely one of the best things to do in Almaty. The local cuisine is hearty and meat-heavy; usually horse or lamb. Central Asian staples like plov (rice with meat and carrots), shashlyk (grilled skewers of meat) and the local beshbarmak (boiled horse or mutton served with pasta and broth) can be found in restaurants and canteens across the city.

Georgian restaurants are popular in the city and there are many other cuisines from Italian to Japanese on offer. The usual fast food outlets can also be found in Almaty.

Cafe culture is alive and well in Almaty and you could be forgiven for thinking you are in Paris at times. Streetside cafes come alive as the snow melts and locals can be found chatting and working over coffee.

Green Bazaar

For fresh produce and to really feel a part of the Silk Road, head to Green Bazaar on Zhenkov Street (2 blocks behind Paniflov Park and Zhenkov Cathedral).

 

Beer and shashlyk at Kok Tobe Cafe, Almaty

Steve’s Top Picks!

1. Kok Tobe Cafe, Kok Tobe Mountain, Almaty

This large terrace sitauted at the back of Kok Tobe Mountain offers fantastic views across the city. The best place in town to sip a cold beer and watch the sunset while feasting on shashlyk. Dinner and beer for under 5,000 ($13).

2. Veranda, Masanchi St 75/100, Almaty 050000, Kazakhstan

A wonderful Georgian restaurant set in a garden. A little more upmarket and mains with a glass of wine will cost around $20.

3. Coffee Inn, Baitursynov St 80, Almaty 050000, Kazakhstan

A great little terrace bar and restaurant serving Kazakh and European dishes. Lively with locals at all times of the day. Expect to pay around $10 for a beer and shashlyk/burger

Bars & Cafes

There is not a lot of difference between the many restaurants/cafes and bars and you can just order drinks at most establishments if you don’t want to eat. Such establishments can be found on almost every street in the centre of the city. 

Getting Around Almaty

On Foot

Almaty is a great city for walking and the central area around Paniflov Park and Zhibek Zholy is easily done on foot.

Bus

Buses cover the central city and beyond and are an easy way to get around. Get on the bus at one of the many bus stops and wait for someone to collect the fare (50₸to 150₸). 

Metro

Almaty has one metro line with nine stops. The fare is 150₸

Taxi

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.

Almaty Weather

 

Almaty is a great destination year-round. In winter you can hit the slopes at Shymbulak for winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding. In summer the mountains around the city are perfect for hiking and picnics. 

Given the city’s proximity to both mountains and deserts, expect cold winters and hot summers. In winter temperatures can plunge below -10c and in summer temperatires can reach 40c. Spring can be cold and wet and autumn cool. 

Money in Almaty

 

The currency of Turkmenistan is the Tenge.

Almaty has ATMs all over the city. Look for the green and yellow bank signs. Cards are widely accepted at hotels, shops and restaurants. 

The City of Apples

The old name for Almaty; Alma Ata, means “father of apples” in the Kazakh language and it is here that the humble fruit is thought to have originated.

In 1830 Estonian biologist Carl Friedrich von Ledebour stumbled upon apples growing in the foothills of the nearby Tian Shan Mountains. Scientists were able to identify these as the probable ancestor to to today’s domestic apples. 

Almaty Accommodation

Budget: Sky Hostel

Why this hostel? Easy on the wallet and the roof terrace has some of the best views in Almaty!

Dorm beds from: $10

Mid-Range: Hotel Astana

Why this hotel? Walking distance to the centre and good option for those on a budget but not wanting to stay in a dormitory.

Twin/Double Room from: $44

Luxury: Hotel Kazzhol

Why this hostel? Pool, gym and the best buffet breakfast in town!

Twin/Double Room from: $89

I have stayed in each of the above on numerous occassions.

For more options, check out this guide to the best 6 hostels in Almaty!

Getting to Almaty

Click on the tab to see how to get to Almaty from each place. 

There are direct international flights from Europe and Asia including Germany, Turkey, Russia, China & Thailand. See Trip.com for the best deals on flights to Kazakhstan.

Air: Flights from $40 with Air Astana and Scat Airlines. Duration: 1h40m. Book with Trip.com

Train: There are multiple trains per day between the capital and Almaty. The journey is 14 hours so taking the overnight train makes more sense. Tickets start from 23,500 ($65) and you can book online on the offical Kazakh Railway website.

Note that the stations are still known by their previous names of Astana (Nur Sultan) and Alma Ata (Almaty) and will show as such on your ticket and when booking.

Bus: There are buses between Nur Sultan and Almaty but it’s a long and bumpy ride. If the trains are sold out this may be an option if you want to avoid flying. The journey time is around 15 hours and the cost slightly cheaper than the train. You can buy tickets at the bus station in Astana.

Air: 2 daily flights from $75 with Air Astana. Duration: 45m. Book with Trip.com

Train: There are no trains between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Bus: There are daily minibuses departing from the Western Bus Station on Silk Road Avenue in Bishkek. The journey time is around 5 hours and costs under $10.

Air: Daily flights from $100 with Uzbekistan Airlines and Air Astana. Duration: 1h30m. Book with Trip.com

Train: From Tashkent take a taxi to the border, cross on foot and take a taxi 2 hours to Shymkent. From there, you can take the overnight train to Almaty. 15 hours fom 8,000 ($21).

Update March 2020

Due to the Coronavirus situation Kazakhstan has temporarily closed the border with China with a possible delay until 1st July 2020. 

Air: Flights from $200 with China Southern: 1h50m. Book with Trip.com

Train: There is a weekly train between Urumqi and Almaty. Journey time is around 30 hours depending on the border crossing. Cost around $120.

Bus: There is a daily bus from Urumqi to Almaty that takes around 20 hours and costs around $80. It’s also possible to take a train to Yining and then a bus from there to Zharkent. See my full report on how to do this: Urumqi to Almaty bus.

Safety in Almaty

Almaty is generally a safe city with a low crime rate. That being said, avoid going out alone late at night, especially in the suburbs. If travelling alone, it’s also best to try and avoid places where young Kazakhs and Russians have been drinking like the nightclubs and karaoke bars in the city.

If you are heading into the mountains be prepared for the weather to deteriorate quickly, even in summer. Pack extra warm clothes and waterproofs and tell hotel staff where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Ticks carrying encephalitis and other diseases are present in the Almaty area during spring and summer. Consider getting vaccinated if you will be spending long periods of time in the countryside and check for ticks each day. For more information and how to properly remove ticks, see this information from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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.

Traveller Resources for Almaty

 

Accommodation

Booking.com
Trip.com

Tours

Get Your Guide

Transport

Cheap Flights & Trains: Trip.com
Ferries: Direct Ferries

Insurance

World Nomads

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