Of all the countries in Central Asia Kazakhstan was the one that least interested me, simply because I had no idea what to expect from it. While I had some basic knowledge about all the other -Stans, Kazakhstan was terra incognita for me, the only thing I could think of there was the endless steppe. I didn’t plan to visit it properly, I was only supposed to shortly stop there on my way to the neighbor Kyrgyzstan. But the moment I arrived to Almaty – a former capital and the largest city in Kazakhstan – I knew I’m gonna enjoy it there. Eventually I’ve spent 5 days visiting Almaty, much longer than I usually stay in one place during my travels and I was so sad when I was leaving for Bishkek. There aren’t any spectacular things to see and do in Almaty but the city just feels right, at least for me. Here are couple of reasons why you should visit Almaty, Kazakhstan and why I loved it there so much!
Almaty, Kazakhstan – the easiest introduction to Central Asia
Not only Kazakhstan is the biggest country in Central Asia but Almaty airport is the biggest one in the country. Most European major airlines fly there, Air Astana – national airline of Kazakhstan and one of the best in Asia – has a hub in Almaty too. That give you plenty of opportunities to get to the country and finding a good deal isn’t so difficult. I, for example, flew with Turkish Airlines (Prague-Almaty, Bishkek-Prague) for some 300€ but saw tickets for half of this price too! By train you can directly travel to Almaty from Russia, China, Uzbekistan and numerous destinations in Kazakhstan. Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is some 5 hours by mini bus away (and those depart every half an hour or so, once the bus is full).
Almaty, Kazakhstan was one of the most European cities outside of Europe I’ve been to. Everything there just felt kind of normal to me. If you traveled to some post-Soviet cities before (like Tbilisi, Yerevan or Chisinau) you will find Almaty much easier to deal with – it’s not so chaotic, drivers let you cross the street, bus stops are clearly marked and the city is easy to navigate. But at the same time Almaty has this exotic vibe you might expect in Central Asia, just at the very light level. I can’t think of a better starting point of any journey in the region! When you visit Almaty you will get familiar with the reality of Central Asia, limit the culture shock and prepare yourself for the rest of your trip in the area.
Welcoming people of Almaty
Everywhere I went to in Almaty people were extremely friendly and willing to help. I didn’t even have to ask, they’ve seen I’m a tourist and on numerous occasions they approached me, asking if I need help, directions or advice. On the bus stops people made sure I took the right bus, the drivers made sure I arrived when I wanted to, even when I took the wrong entrance to the metro station (because the ATM was there) I was stopped by the young guy who was concerned I was lost. In every cafe, restaurant or shop people were really friendly and welcoming and everywhere I felt really taken care of. The most epic situation was at the train station when I wanted to exchange my free train ticket from work for the actual ticket to Astana and accidentally I caused mini riots there. Lovely women working there didn’t really know how to deal with my ticket, I blocked one of the three working ticket offices for 3.5 hours yet they didn’t chase me away. Patiently they tried to figure out how to issue me the ticket, they abandoned their lunch break, called to the headquarters, at some point invited me for the tea to their office. Eventually I had to buy the ticket anyway (I was ready to do that half an hour through the whole issue but didn’t know how to tell that seeing how involved they were) and they still kept apologizing they couldn’t help me. On the contrary in Astana I didn’t encounter any nice situation with people, they all seemed cold and didn’t smile at all.
Visit Almaty and enjoy its laid-back vibe
I found Almaty to be a super laid-back city. People didn’t seem to rush, even on the main streets (with the exception of the area around the Green Market but these are always a whole different universe). There were numerous green spaces to chill out and the view of the mountains just south of Almaty gave a refreshing feeling. Even if it’s the biggest city of Kazakhstan it didn’t overwhelm me, not even once. My favorite thing to do in Almaty was to walk around, taking random streets lined with trees and just enjoy the place and its atmosphere.
Mix of architecture in Almaty
The first settlement in the area of Almaty, Kazakhstan was founded in the Bronze Age, however the city was first mentioned in the 13th century when it was one of the stops on the Silk Route. You won’t find many remnants of the great past in Almaty though. The majority of the architecture is a great example of the Soviet past and if you like Socialist realism style you’re in for a treat. In the former USSR this style is much richer than in Central Europe, e.g. there’re small patterns on the blocks that make the place so much more beautiful. In Almaty it’s not difficult to spot these details and even the most random concrete structure can look special. Among these I’ve also found some true gems of brutalism as well as some old and pretty wooden houses. But the most beautiful building you will see in Almaty is the Zenkov Cathedral – second tallest wooden building in the world. It was finished at the beginning of 20th century and looks like from a fairy tale with colorful rich ornaments.
Cafe culture in Almaty
It was the most surprising thing about Almaty and the one I enjoyed the most there. The city has an exceptional cafe culture! Every afternoon I tried to visit a different cafe, I even had a „cafes day” on Sunday where I spent most of the time writing in few places and every single one I visited in Almaty was amazing! Not to mention they were all really affordable! Usually for a coffee and cake I paid around 5-6€, much cheaper than in similar places in Poland. Every cafe had also some decent food options. As always Foursquare was a great help with finding the best spots! My favorite cafes in Almaty were Nedelka, Urban Coffee, United Coffee and Traveler’s Coffee while Coffeeroom and Marrone Rosso weren’t really my kind of places. Just like in Yerevan, I dare to say that Almaty, Kazakhstan might be a perfect destination for freelancers, with affordable prices and good wifi in the cafes!
Speaking of food – Almaty has a very diverse food scene and even being a vegetarian isn’t a problem there. While the local non-meat options might be tricky to find there’re top world’s cuisines to choose from anyway! I had Georgian, Indian and Italian food in Almaty as well as bought so many local goodies at the Green Market! And again everything was at very reasonable prices! If you’re looking for vegetarian options in Almaty this guide by Megan will be a great help for you!
Quirkiness in Almaty
I like unusual places and tracking down quirky and alternative spots is always big fun for me! In Almaty I didn’t have to look too hard for them, quirkiness was everywhere around! Weird sculptures, interesting architecture, Soviet circus, big smiling face or painted carpet with typical Kazakh patterns on the pavement, metro stations turned into small galleries, love locks, bird feeders and uncountable small, werid details here and there… Almaty was all about quirkiness for me! My top 3 weird things there were:
- Ticket machines in buses. I’ve never seen something like that before and I don’t even know how to describe them properly! It consists of two machines connected with wires. A big one is a massive case with no screen, just couple of diodes – that’s where you insert the coins (can be all at once!) and where you collect the ticket. Another part looks like candy disposer in the shops and that’s where you collect your change if you inserted more than the fare (it was 80 tenge for a ride, 0.20€!). Sometimes the machine is broken and doesn’t give you the ticket, then you still insert money there and the driver gives you a piece of paper that is your ticket!
- The Soviet Monument to World War 2 heroes! A masterpiece of Soviet propaganda! I loved every single detail of it!
- Apples! Did you know that Almaty is the supposed to be the birthplace of apples? Even the old name of the city, Alma-Ata, means the father of apples!
Almaty is a perfect base to explore the incredible nature around!
First of all – don’t make my mistake and don’t visit Almaty in November! While I loved the city I couldn’t experience all it had to offer to the fullest! One of the reason why you have to visit Almaty for more than just a day or two is the huge variety of trips around! A friend recommended me an Ecotourism Information Center that offers good and affordable tours and their offer really was impressive but most of the tours run from April/May till October. The only one that was likely to take place was Charyn Canyon but it was cancelled too due to the lack of people (the price was 13€ for the whole day!). Even if I didn’t really use this company they were really easy to deal with (and spoke good English!) so I can recommend them. And I know I will visit Almaty again in future to go to following places around:
- Charyn Canyon
- Big Almaty Lake
- Kolsai Lakes
Fortunately when visiting Almaty there’s no need to go away from the city to experience the amazing nature! Right in the center there’s Kök Töbe, a nice hill with lovely views over the city. Unfortunately in November the cable car to get there was under repair so I had to skip the trip there (next time!). But a short bus away (no.12 from in front of Hotel Kazakhstan) can take you to Medeu – the highest Olympic sized ice stadium in the world where almost 200 world records were made! Not only it’s an interesting spot, it’s also a starting point of the hike (or cable-car ride) to Chimbulak – a ski resort with breathtaking views. I was determined to hike there but the weather started to change for worse and it became too slippery so I’ve decided to return. Still views that I could see were pretty amazing!
Almaty – one of my fave cities!
I’m really picky when it comes to naming a destination „my favorite place”. In my top 10 list I have maybe 7 cities and that’s all. After I had a chance to visit Almaty and get to know it a little bit I can with no doubts include it in this very elite list I have! It’s still not close to being Prague, Yerevan or Sarajevo for me but it has a very solid position in my heart. And just like with the other cities, I can’t really say why I enjoyed it so much. It was a combination of many things, listed above, and the fact that I just felt right there. I even dare to say I can imagine living there for a while (which of course will never happen as I like my life in Poland too much). When, after 3 days in Astana, I returned to Almaty I felt like coming back home. Silly, I know, but I was just happy to be there again. Being in this city brought smile to my face, just like that. On my last day in Almaty I woke up to the most perfect winter wonderland. The sun was shining, the city was covered in snow and it was even more beautiful than before! I couldn’t say „good-bye” to Almaty, it was only a „see you”!
Is Central Asia on your bucket list? Would you like to visit Almaty? What’s your favourite city?
Visit Almaty – practical information
- I stayed in Alma Cinema Hostel, recommended to me by a friend. And it was really good. Location was perfect, just off the main street, few steps away from Kazakhstan Independence Monument and with very good public transport connections everywhere. The hostel itself was very clean and comfortable (I loved the massive duvets!), each bed had a lamp and an electrical contact, there were lockers in the room too. In the morning there was a breakfast served too. The price was 7€/night in the dorm room. You can book Alma Cinema Hostel here. If you’re looking for different accommodation options in Almaty visit Booking website.
- When arriving at the airport the taxi drivers might tell you there’re no buses running to the city. It is kind of true as there’re no connection from the terminal itself but you can walk some 5 minutes and you will find a bus stop. From there bus no.92 will take you to the center: Raiymbek Ave, Almaty 2 train station and Abay Ave. From the Almaty 2 train station the trolleybus no.5 will take you to Abay Ave., the Raiymbek batyr metro station is around 10 minutes walking from the train station. If you come by mini bus from Bishkek you will arrive to Sairan bus station from where you can take trolleybus no. to Abay Ave. I strongly suggest you downloading GIS2 application with offline map of Almaty (and some other cities in former USSR and not only). It also shows all the bus stop and public transport lines on the map – with it I had no problems with moving around the city! It was probably the most useful travel app I’ve ever had on my phone!
- There are numerous ATMs around and I had no problem with taking the money from them. I also had US dollars with me (that’s the most convenient currency when travelling in Central Asia and the exchange rate is really good) and exchanged it couple of times in various locations: at the airport, on Dostyk Ave close to Satpaev and on Gogol Str. Everywhere, including the airport, the rate was similar and pretty good
- As always the best source of information about restaurants and cafes was Foursquare
- I spent hours reading about registration procedure and I’m happy to report that if you come from the country that doesn’t need a visa or can go through a simplified visa procedure (Poland qualifies here) and if you arrived to Kazakhstan by airplane and got 2 stamps at the border control (or if you managed to get 2 stamps at the land crossing, it’s not so easy apparently) you don’t need to register. Otherwise you have 5 days after arriving to Kazakhstan to register with the Migration Police – if you fail to do so you might be in some serious trouble. I was pretty nervous if this really is true as I didn’t register after all but when I was leaving to Kyrgyzstan the only concern of the border control was if I need a visa to Kyrgyzstan as they couldn’t find it in my passport (we don’t need one).
Are you planning a trip to Central Asia? Do you like that region as much as I do? I’ve created a Facebook group where you can look for advise or inspiration and share your travel stories and pictures from Central Asia and beyond. Join now!
If you want to read more about Kazakhstan take a look what else I wrote about the country. If you’re looking for articles about any place in particular this map with posts might be useful for you. Or just take a look at the „destinations” page.
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