Almaty, the former capital and the largest city of Kazakhstan, is often the starting point of a trip to Central Asia. Many tourists treat it only as a quick stopover before heading to another, more beautiful, and exciting destination.
But actually, Almaty itself is a beautiful, exciting, and interesting place to visit that deserves more attention. There are so many great things to do in Almaty that should keep you busy for at least a few days and the city can be a great base for exploring southern Kazakhstan which is just stunning.
Almaty quickly stole my heart. Before my first trip to Kazakhstan, I had no idea what to expect from the city yet I stayed there longer than I planned and now I always return there excitedly I can be in Almaty again.
There are so many reasons why you should visit Almaty too: beautiful location with stunning nature just outside the city, laid-back vibe, great architecture, or amazing culinary scene.
And so today I share with you my favorite things to do in Almaty so you can plan your trip there too!
Table of contents
- 1 Where is Almaty
- 2 A brief history of Almaty
- 3 Best time to visit Almaty
- 4 How to get to Almaty
- 5 How to get around Almaty
- 6 Where to stay in Almaty
- 7 Best Almaty tours
- 8 Things to do in Almaty
- 8.1 Wander around the center
- 8.2 Enjoy parks
- 8.3 Go to Kok Tobe Hill
- 8.4 See Soviet architecture
- 8.5 Shop at the Green Bazaar
- 8.6 See government buildings
- 8.7 Stop at the cool cafes
- 8.8 Marvel at beautiful Zenkov Cathedral
- 8.9 Find old buildings from the Russian Empire times
- 8.10 See the Central Mosque
- 8.11 Walk down Arbat street
- 8.12 See beautiful metro stations
- 8.13 Visit Central State Museum
- 8.14 Visit Botanical Garden
- 8.15 Eat apples
- 8.16 Try Kazakh food
- 8.17 Go to Medeu
- 8.18 Take cable car to Shymbulak
- 8.19 Be amazed by Big Almaty Lake
- 8.20 Learn more about nomadic traditions
- 8.21 Go for trips around Almaty
- 9 Final thoughts on visiting Almaty
- 10 Travel Resources
Where is Almaty
Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan (with a population of almost 1,8 million people) is located in the south-east part of the country, near the border with Kyrgyzstan and China. The capital of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana) is located some 1200 km away from Almaty.
A brief history of Almaty
The area around Almaty was inhabited already in the Bronze Age but Almaty itself is a fairly new city.
In 1854, during the time of the Russian Empire, Russians established the fort here to defend the empire. It was a push to inhabit the area and fifteen years later there were already more than 10 thousand people living here. In 1921 the name of the place was changed from Verniy to Alma-Ata and six years later the city became the capital of the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Almaty developed rapidly, new industries and factories were opened, and the population of the city grew. Once Kazakhstan got its independence in 1991, Almaty (then renamed to its current name) remained the capital until 1997. Today it is still the largest city in Kazakhstan and its main economic and tourist hub.
Best time to visit Almaty
Almaty is interesting all year long, however, the best time to visit is between June and September when the weather is fine and you can easily explore the area around Almaty too. If you like snow and winter activities visit Almaty in December or January, just keep in mind some places like Big Almaty Lake might be off-limits then.
How to get to Almaty
Getting to Almaty is actually rather easy as there are numerous airlines serving the local airport, offering both domestic and international flights.
During my trips to Almaty, I flew with Turkish Airlines from Istanbul, Ukrainian Airlines from Kyiv, Uzbekistan Airlines from Tashkent, or with LOT from Warsaw to Astana (and then I changed for a domestic flight to Almaty) and my next trip was supposed to be with Belavia from Minsk. But there are only a few options on how to get to Almaty.
The airport is located fairly close to the center, you can catch the local bus or Uber / Yandex Taxi to get to the city. I tried all the options, depending on what time I arrived in Almaty. If you have problems with the internet and want to order Uber ride go to the tourist info point and they will help you for sure, the friendly girl there shared her internet connection with me so I could find a ride.
You might also prebook the transfer from the airport to your accommodation – click here for details.
You can also come to Almaty by train (there are connections from/to Astana, Turkistan and more destinations in Kazakhstan and abroad). The train station is located on the northern edge of the center, not far from Raiymbek batyr metro station.
If you arrive by marshrutka from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, you will come to Sayran bus station from where you need to take the bus or taxi to the center.
How to get around Almaty
Many of the best places to visit in Almaty are in the center and within walking distance from each other so you can easily get there on foot (and wandering around Almaty is actually very nice).
If you need to get a bit further away you can use the metro or the extensive network of buses (you can get the ticket from the driver). In Almaty, you can also use Uber or Yandex Taxi.
Where to stay in Almaty
There are plenty of places to stay in Almaty to choose from. Best Almaty accommodation is located in the center, so between Abay and Raiymbek Avenues and up south to Dostyk Plaza.
Here are recommended places to stay in Almaty:
- My Hostel Almaty (9.0/10)
- Mercure Almaty City Center (8.9/10)
- D’Rami (9.5/10)
- Renion Park Hotel (9.1/10)
- and more!
Best Almaty tours
If you like discovering the new place with the tour (which I definitely like doing), there are some good tours you can choose from in Almaty too. Here are my top choices:
- Almaty City Tour By Сomfortable car
- Almaty 3-Hour Private Tour with Green Bazaar, Panfilov Park & Almaty Museum
- Almaty 7-Hour Private Tour, Inclusive of Entry Fees & Hotel Pickup
- Almaty Original City Tour
- Walking down Vernyi’s streets. Historical tour
Things to do in Almaty
And now, let’s talk about all the best things to do in Almaty. Here is the overview of my favorite Almaty attractions.
Wander around the center
The first thing you should do in Almaty is to just wander around the center and its backstreets. The streets are lined with trees and quickly let you forget you are in the big city. You will find there numerous cafes, restaurants and small shops hidden in the charming corners.
The center isn’t very small but pleasant enough to wander around. My favorite area is between Abay Avenue and the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, that’s also where you will find most of the nice cafes and restaurants.
When you go for a walk around the central part of Almaty I recommend starting at/near Abay Avenue and going down from there – Almaty is built on a hill and this way you will avoid going up.
If you want to relax head to one of the parks you can find in the center of Almaty. There are plenty of them, some of them are small, others attract many locals who want to enjoy the green space in the city.
The most popular ones are the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, Park on Astana Square (where the statue of Lenin used to be located), or Central Park. You will find there typical activities like playgrounds, small electric cars for kids, fountains with lovelocks, pigeons and plenty of benches to relax.
A bit further up from the center, you can visit probably the most beautiful of all Almaty parks – the First President’s Park (named after Nursultan Nazarbayev). It’s a fairly new addition to the city’s scenery, which opened in July 2010. The park is known for its colonnade and beautiful flower composition but the main reason to visit the place is the beautiful views of the magnificent mountains in the background.
Go to Kok Tobe Hill
One of the best and easily reachable viewpoints of Almaty and the surrounding Tian Shan mountains is Kok Tobe Hill, located in the central part of the city. To get there you can take the cable car from near the Hotel Kazakhstan and Republic Palace – a few minutes of the scenic ride will take you to the top of Kok Tobe.
On the hill, you can enjoy the amusement park with all the typical attractions like the ferries wheel, see the Beatles monument (the first one in the world when John Lenon is sitting while the rest of the band is standing behind him) or have a dinner in the lovely restaurant.
But the main reason to visit Kok Tobe is the stunning view of Almaty and the mountains around. If you are here close to sunset time it’s even more beautiful, when everything is covered in the soft, yellow light.
See Soviet architecture
Fans of Soviet architecture will find Almaty very interesting while those who are not really familiar with this architecture style will have a great chance to appreciate what was built in the mid-20th century.
Some of the best examples of brutalism are in Almaty, you can’t miss places like Hotel Kazakhstan, Palace of the Republic, Arman Cinema (with a beautiful bas-relief), Palace of Pioneers, Memorial of Glory or Kazakh State Circus. These are only a few example of brutalist architecture in Almaty, you can read more about it in my friends Mark and Kirsty article here.
You might also join the Soviet architecture tour in Almaty – click here for details.
Shop at the Green Bazaar
Bazaars in post-Soviet countries are epic and the one in Almaty is no different. The Green Bazaar (as that’s its name) is the most popular of the city’s markets and you can find here all sorts of goodies, including the local ones.
The main hall is divided into sections with signs above saying what you can buy in each part (the signs are in Russian but symbols are included too so you can easily guess what is where). Besides the typical fruits, vegetables, cheese, spices, or meat you can also buy here products typical for Central Asia, such as kumys (fermented dairy product made from mare’s milk) or horse meat.
In other parts of the bazaar, you can find clothes, furniture, and other random things but the food hall is the place you don’t want to miss!
See government buildings
Between 1929 and 1997 Almaty was the capital of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic and later independent Kazakhstan and still today you can find all over the city many important government buildings from that period. Two buildings you can’t miss are the Old Government House on Astana Square and Akimat House (Mayor’s Office) on Republic Square but there are many more that you will most likely stumble across.
Stop at the cool cafes
For me, one of the most surprising things in Almaty was an amazing cafe scene. There were so many good cafes, with reasonable prices and a great selection of food and drinks, including specialty coffee. During each of my trips to Almaty, I managed to find new cool places and I never had enough time to check them all (even if I had days dedicated to cafes only and managed to visit five or more in a few hours).
My favorite cafes in Almaty include Cafe Nedelka, Urban Coffee, Big Apple Coffee Shop or JumpinGoat Coffee. For more great cafes to visit in Almaty check my friend Megan’s article here.
Marvel at beautiful Zenkov Cathedral
This is one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches I’ve ever seen and you can’t miss it during your trip to Almaty.
The cathedral, located in the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, is a colorful masterpiece made of wood. What’s even more fascinating is the fact that it was built with no nails and is the second tallest wooden building in the world, with a height of 56 meters.
The cathedral was finished in 1907 and recently it went through a renovation process to shine more than ever. This is probably the prettiest building you can find in Almaty!
Find old buildings from the Russian Empire times
Zenkov Cathedral is the most spectacular wooden building in Almaty but there are a few beautiful old houses strewn around the center too. There are not as many of them as for example in Chernihiv in Ukraine but they come from the same time: end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century (many of the wooden houses were destroyed in the 1887 earthquake though).
These are the typical wooden buildings from the Russian Empire, with all the beautiful details that catch an eye. The most famous one is the Kyzyl Tan building, located near the Green Bazaar – you will spot it right away for sure with its bright yellow color and fancy details.
See the Central Mosque
The majority of people in Kazakhstan are Muslim therefore you can find some beautiful and impressive mosques in the country (like those in Nur-Sultan, the capital). The Central Mosque in Almaty is located near the Green Bazaar and is a fine example of Islamic architecture. It was opened in 1999, after the old mosque burnt down, and is one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan that can fit up to 7.000 visitors.
Walk down Arbat street
The most popular pedestrian zone in Almaty is the section of Zhibek Zholy Street, known also as Arbat (the name comes from the more famous Arbat street in Moscow). It was actually the first pedestrian street in the city, made in the late 1980s, and still today is one of the favorite places for locals and tourists to shop and hang out in.
You can find there a few important stores, such as TsUM (Central Universal Department Store, opened in 1961) but what makes it really cool and stalls with paintings, almost like in the original Arbat. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes if you would like to sit down and relax.
See beautiful metro stations
Even if the construction of the Almaty metro began still in the Soviet times, the first line was opened only in 2011. Currently, there is only one metro line with 9 stops but the expansion of the system is planned soon.
Even if the metro stations are new and not as grand as in Moscow (Russia), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), or Kharkiv (Ukraine), they are still really pretty and worth seeing. Many of the stations have beautiful decorations with Kazakh folk patterns, murals, and motives while others are more modern.
The ticket for the metro costs only 80 tenges (around 0,20 USD) and allows you to see all the stations.
Visit Central State Museum
If you like visiting museums but have time only for one then Central State Museum is your choice. This is one of the largest museums in Central Asia that was established in 1931 and originally located in the cathedral. On the three floors of the modern building, you can find over 200.000 artifacts of Kazakh history and culture – this is the largest collection of this kind in Kazakhstan.
Other interesting museums in Almaty you might want to visit include Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan Museum, Kasteyev Museum of Fine Arts, or Tselliny Contemporary Arts Center. But there are around 30 museums in the city so you will find something for your taste for sure.
Visit Botanical Garden
Besides the numerous parks and nature right outside of the city there is one more place with the natural beauty you should see and that’s the Botanical Garden. It was established in 1932 and today you can find there not only local species from Kazakhstan but also plants from Russia, the Caucasus, East Asia, and North America.
The most beautiful part of the Botanical Garden is the Japanese Garden, with the amazing view of the mountains in the background. Some parts of this green area still need renovations but altogether this is such a lovely place to visit and a relaxing getaway from the busy city.
Did you know that Almaty is the birthplace of modern apples? Even the former name of the city, Alma-Ata, means “Father of Apples” in the Kazakh language. The researches and tests confirmed that the wild apples from the region of Almaty gave origins to most cultivars of the domesticated apple.
There are still wild apple forests near the city and you can visit those however they are not so easy to find so better hire a guide.
Almaty is very proud of its apple heritage and you can find numerous symbols with apples all over the city. Be sure to eat local apples when you visit Almaty, the best ones can be found at the Green Bazaar.
Try Kazakh food
Kazakh cuisine is very much meat-oriented, especially on mutton and horse meat but even vegetarians can find some tasty options. I was actually very surprised by the food in Kazakhstan, usually it tastes so much better than it looks and the majority of dishes I tried were really delicious.
Some of the things you need to try include beshbarmak, quwyrdaq, pilaf, sausages and bread.
There are many restaurants serving traditional Kazakh food in Almaty, some of them are also decorated in a traditional way, making the whole eating out experience even more special.
If food is your thing be sure to join the food tour in Almaty – you can find the details here.
Go to Medeu
A short bus ride away from the center of Almaty you can find Medeu – the highest located ice-skating ring in the world, located at an elevation of 1,691 meters above sea level. If you like ice-skating this is a place to visit, especially in the winter months.
But even outside of the winter season, Medeu is worth visiting. The surrounding mountains are really impressive, you can go for a walk or hike around and the place is very easy to reach.
I always end up following the road to the weird triangle-ish structure and up to the Medeu Dam as that’s where the views are really amazing.
To get to Medeu you need to take bus no 12 from Dostyk Avenue (the first stop is on the opposite side of Hotel Kazakhstan), go to the final stop and you will be right in front of the ice-skating rink. You can get the ticket from the bus driver.
Take cable car to Shymbulak
Once you are in Medeu take the cable car to the higher parts of the mountains, to Shymbulak ski resort. There are actually three cable cars, the last one reaching up to 3200 meters above sea level at the Talgar Pass.
To say the views from there are spectacular is an understatement – the panorama of Tian Shan mountains (the Zaiilisky Alatau mountain range to be exact) is spectacular and will take your breath away. On the other side, down below, you can spot Almaty.
While this is a popular skiing destination you can come here for the views only, additionally you can have tea in a traditional yurt so high in the mountains.
If the cable car doesn’t work you can take the minibus from Medeu to the base of Shymbulak at 2200 meters above sea level.
You can also go for the organized tour to Medeu and Shymbulak – click here for details.
Be amazed by Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake is probably the most spectacular yet easily reachable place you can visit near Almaty. It’s only around 30 km away from the center of the city and you can get there by taxi.
Big Almaty Lake is known for its incredible turquoise color and spectacular scenery around – the place is so beautiful it looks unreal. You definitely don’t want to miss it during your trip to Almaty. The lake is located around 2500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains so be prepared for that.
Unfortunately, in the winter months, it’s a bit more difficult to reach the lake as the road might be icy and slippery so this is more a summer activity (however if you manage to find a car with winter tires and car chains you can try to visit in winter too).
Big Almaty Lake can be visited as the tour from the city too – click here for details.
You can read more about visiting Big Almaty Lake at my friend Megan’s blog here.
Learn more about nomadic traditions
Another interesting place to visit near Almaty is the Ethno Hunn Village. There you can learn all about the nomadic customs and traditions as locals will demonstrate those.
You will be first showered with candies (this is often done at Kazakhs weddings as candies are supposed to bring luck) and then you can see the traditional yurt and learn about living in them, observe traditional crafts, games, or dances and even meet the falconer.
If you are interested in nomadic life in Central Asia you can’t miss this fascinating place! Click here for the details on tour to Hunn Village.
Go for trips around Almaty
The area around Almaty is hands down the most beautiful part of Kazakhstan. You can find there mindblowing scenery and some of the most spectacular places you will ever see.
You can use Almaty as a base and explore the area from there. Most of the places are available as day trips (although sometimes these are very long day trips) however sometimes it’s better to go for 2-3 days to fully appreciate the beautiful nature.
Places you absolutely can’t miss during your trip to Kazakhstan, that are reachable from Almaty include Charyn Canyon, Kolsai + Kaindy Lakes or Altyn-Emel National Park but there are more places to visit there.
Here are some of the recommended day trips from Almaty:
- Charyn Canyon: Valley of Castles, Moon Valley & Bartogay Lake
- Pearl Lakes-Kolsai-Kaindy (Flooded Forest)
- Altyn Emel. Singing dune. AkTau. 1 day tour
- Hiking to Kok Zhailyau
- Issyk Lake – shining pearl of Almaty surroundings
- Turgen Gorge waterfalls, Golden Man museum & Ostrich farm
- Day trip to Picturesque Titov Mountain Lakes
- One Day Trekking to Butakov Waterfall
Final thoughts on visiting Almaty
As you can see there are many great things to do in Almaty and the city itself can be a great destination, not only a base for exploring the stunning area around. While there might be not that many amazing Almaty attractions, there is a great laid-back and friendly vibe that will make you enjoy the place.
When planning a trip to Kazakhstan be sure to give Almaty a bit of your time, you might like it much more than you expect!
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