22 January 2018.
Arriving in Almaty, to its leafy boulevards and patchwork of architecture, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a thriving city in Eastern Europe rather than one in the heart of Asia.
As the cultural hub of Kazakhstan, Almaty is an eclectic fusion of east and west. An intriguing melting pot of cultures, where pastel cathedrals stand alongside golden minarets, where you can sample the delights of Asia and the Caucasus and end on a very British afternoon tea, and where, as a pair of blue-eyed, blonde-haired travellers, we managed to both be mistaken as locals and be those very obvious out-of-towners.
For those not keen on the city rush, the striking peaks that rear up sharply on Almaty’s fringe will satiate those looking to retreat from the bustle of the city streets.
As seems to be the case with most Central Asian capitals, Almaty is a little short on major attractions, but with the spectacular mountains calling from the city’s edge and the buzzing street scene down below, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in and around Almaty. It’s also a perfect entry point for those beginning a longer trip through Central Asia.
Whether you’re just passing through or have big plans for exploring the region, these are the very best things to do in Almaty.
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Longtime readers of The Sandy Feet will know that we just can’t get enough of the market bustle.
Almaty’s Green Bazaar, our first market encounter in Central Asia, proved to be every bit as alluring as we had hoped.
Tables piled high with locally produced cheeses, colourful mounds of exotic fruit and to our immense delight, genuinely friendly locals who offered up tasters for absolutely everything. While the freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and Iranian pistachios were quickly devoured, we only managed to nibble politely on the ‘kurt’, a hard salty ball with a distinct odour of stinky socks.
Hole-in-the-wall eateries on the upper level also served up cheap local fare we were yet to taste, where we could watch the chaos unfold without attracting any attention at all.
Kok Tobe is often touted as the sunset spot in Almaty, a hillside overlooking the city that is a popular gathering point for locals.
As luck would have it though, our sunset was somewhat overshadowed by a ferocious lightning storm that happened to roll in over the city instead.
Kok Tobe is easy to reach from the city by either bus or cable car. The cable leaves from Dosyk Avenue and costs around 2,000T ($6.20) return, while buses 95 and 99 run along Furmanov and Dostyk (80T/$0.25) and drop you at the large parking area at the base of the hill. Use the 2GIS App to find exact routes and bus times.
From here its a relatively easy 20-minute walk to the top, or a shuttle can take you last of the way (300/500T ($0.95/1.55) oneway/return).
Atop the hill are a few restaurants with prime sunset viewing position, a bench featuring figures of the Beatles and a rather sad looking zoo, but the views over the city are wonderful.
To return, buses wait in the parking lot until full, otherwise, a number of taxis will be vying for your attention.
If you’ve been kicking around Central Asia for a while, eating a plate or two too many of Plov, Almaty is the place to satisfy all your foodie cravings.
If it’s your first stop like us, you may as well take the opportunity to sample as many varieties of international cuisine while you can.
Start the day with brunch and English tea, tuck into lunch in Georgia with veggie-laden salads and khachapuri and finish the day with a tangy marsala lassi from India, or perhaps do like the locals and order in a huge platter of sushi (the Kazakhs we met in Almaty were surprisingly obsessed with their raw fish!).
Of course, Almaty is a great place to sample the local cuisine as well, but trust us, you’ll be doing plenty of that elsewhere in Central Asia.
Cradled in the foothills of the Alatau range, the rolling hills and stark peaks on Almaty’s periphery are unmissable and you’d be doing yourself a real disservice to not get better acquainted with them.
As lovely as Almaty is, the real joy of the place lies in getting lost in the countryside between the lush meadows and twirling wildflowers that blanket the surrounds of the city, or taking in the panoramic vistas from one of the many peaks on offer.
Don’t miss our favourite hiking adventure here.
For those looking for something a little more relaxing, simply cosy up in a mountain cafe and enjoy the views with a steaming hot drink or be whisked to the top in the cable car.
Medeu can be reached in around 40 minutes on bus 12 from Dostyk Avenue (opposite the Kazakhstan Hotel). If you’re planning to go hiking, get out at the very last stop, while those eager to take the cable car should get out one stop early at the cable car station. From the last bus stop, a shuttle bus also runs up to Shymbulak where you’ll find an array of cosy cafes to relax in.
Big Almaty Lake is another popular option though we found it rather difficult to reach independantly without taking an expensive taxi.
Ordinarily, public transport is not something we find particularly exciting, especially not enough to add to our list of things to do in a city, but the metro stations in Almaty are pretty cool.
Located on such a steep hill, the higher stations are reached through a network of incredibly long and steep escalators that funnel you a considerable way beneath the city. Each station is also decorated in a different style – some with mosaics depicting the silk road, others with vibrant stain glass windows. Hop out at a few stations around town and you’ll quickly get the idea.
There’s just one line running across the city which costs 80T ($0.25) between any stop and is considerably easier to navigate than Almaty’s bus system.
There is a security check at each station so always have your ID ready and be sure not to have anything on you that you shouldn’t. Metal water bottles (like our favourite Klean Kanteen) tend to be flagged and cause immense confusion with the guards.
Arashan Baths. We had read a lot about this beautifully designed bathhouse in the heart of the city before our trip, but after experiencing the intensity of Almaty’s sweltering summer heat, the thought of sitting in a steam room and being beaten with leaves quickly lost its appeal. We were sweating enough as it was.
If you’re visiting in the cooler months when a warming steam would be a little more enticing, we imagine this would be a unique experience. This post has a good overview of what to expect and bathhouse etiquette to help you sauna like a pro. For prices and opening hours, check the Arasan Spa website here.
Take some time out in one of Almaty’s many parks. As chaotic as Almaty is, the city is simply full of leafy green spaces to escape to. Panfilov Park near the green bazaar is a lovely place to shelter from the summer heat and don’t miss the pastel Zenkov Cathedral in its centre. Head scarfs are provided but conservative dress is essential.
President’s Park, a short way out of the centre, is a little more extravagant with large fountains and archways and perfectly manicured flower beds.
Strut the Arbat. Unfortunately, this supposedly lively pedestrianised street was receiving quite the makeover during our visit so the colourful street scenes we had hoped for were noticeably absent. Come 2018 though, expect the street life to be back in full swing with artists, street performers and food stands jostling for attention.
The Arbat is one of the main shopping streets in Almaty and is a continuation of Zhibek Zholy between Kunaev and Ablai Khan.
Catch an Opera. From the outside, the opera house is mildly impressive, but from what we’ve seen online, the inside is something quite special. Almaty’s Abay Opera House seems to only open during autumn and winter when ballets, operas and classical music performances run regularly. Check the schedule here.
Head east to Charyn Canyon and Kolsai Lakes. The south-east corner of Kazakhstan is home to some remarkable natural landscapes. The vibrant red rift of the Charyn Canyon, the singing dunes of Altyn Emel National Park, and the forested mountains surrounding the Kolsai Lakes. Almaty is the perfect jumping off point to explore this beautiful area of the country either on a day trip or a longer excursion.
Did we mention there are some great places to eat in Almaty.
Aroma | A lovely tea house and cafe with an outdoor patio set beneath the trees. This place is a lovely spot for brunch or afternoon tea, though they also serve lunch.
113 Abylai Khan Ave | TripAdvisor
My Cafe | If you’re craving a bagel, burger or just a fruit smoothly, this is the place. Located on Furmanov Street, My Cafe was just across the road from our hostel and we wish we had found it sooner.
Shashlyk House | The owner at our hostel dubbed this the best shashlyk in Almaty and based on how many people flock to this place every evening, we’re inclined to agree. In a casual, beer hall type setup you’ll find the usual staples of lamb, beef and chicken, though fish and veggie options are also available along with beer, bread and salad.
The large wooden building on Bogenbai Batyra Street between Dostyk and Begalin.
Daredzhani | We had our first taste of Georgian cuisine at this place and were instantly hooked. Beetroot salads, grilled eggplant and the famous khachapuri alongside fresh lemonade, what could be better to stave off the heat. The prices are a little higher than the Almaty standard but for these tasty plates, we didn’t mind one bit. Those looking for some great vegetarian options will be very happy here. There are two branches in the city.
85 Kunaeva St | TripAdvisor
Green Bazaar | If you’re yet to try the local cuisine, you won’t find it any cheaper than upstairs at the food section in the Green Bazaar. Sure, there are better places in the city, but combined with the people watching and sampling the other market delights, it makes for a good afternoon out
When we first started looking at accommodation in Almaty, we were completely overwhelmed.
Not only were there dozens of options to choose from, the sprawl of the city made it difficult to decide where would be a good place to be based. Having split our time between two areas of the city, one that required a 30-minute walk to the nearest bus stop in the stifling heat and the other that was close to public transport and in the heart of the city’s lively cafe and restaurant scene, we like to think we found the best part of the city to stay. These are a few decent budget options in Almaty.
Nice Hostel | Sitting right on Furmanova Street, this brand new hostel has one of the best locations in the city and is a good choice for budget travellers. The small space is equipped with a basic kitchen and lockers and has just two dorms and two private rooms on offer. Each dorm bed comes with a curtain, a plug socket, a light and a shelf. The bathroom may be a little claustrophobic but the beds were the comfiest we found in Kazakhstan. Admittedly, it’s not the most sociable place we stayed, but for us, the location and comfort of the beds made up for that.
Sky Hostel Almaty | This colourful hostel is a little more expensive than average in Almaty but the top floor balcony which boasts spectacular mountain views is well worth the upgrade. Though a little further from the centre, this hostel is close to the metro station for easy access to the city.
Guesthouses | Prefer something a little more private? You’ll find a number of locally run guesthouses or comfortable hotels scattered around the city centre.
Airbnb | For a more homely experience, Almaty has a wide range of Airbnbs on offer.
Sign up here and receive up to $30 off when you make your first booking.