If you’re travelling to Central Asia, you’re very likely to stop by Almaty, Kazakhstan. It’s a great place for a few days’ stopover, surrounded by a beautiful range of Tian Shian mountains in the south and steppes in the north. And without further adieu, here’s my list of what to do in Almaty from my trip there in 2017.
Must-visit places in Almaty
Almaty was the capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 until 1997 and accumulated a lot of monuments from those times. Most of the attractions can be covered in a day by walking from Central Square to the Central Mosque and a detour to Kok Tobe:
1) Central Square
Start your walking tour of Almaty at Central Square. What you should check:
- Independence Monument with the iconic golden warrior atop a winged leopard
- Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, featuring art and cultural artefacts exploring the history of Kazakhstan
2) Hotel Kazakhstan and Kok Tobe
Hotel Kazakhstan is a prime example of Soviet architecture and style – though it will not be appealing for everyone. From there take a cable car to Kok Tobe hill for a panoramic view over the city from 1100m above the sea level with a local shashlyk, meat kebab. It’s also highly picturesque during sunset so don’t miss an opportunity to take smashing photos if you’re staying in Hotel Kazakhstan.
3) Opera and Ballet theatre
They’re closed during summer but otherwise, there are up to four performances a week that you could check out. And if you come here on Saturdays, you’ll see a lot of newlyweds around – it’s a popular spot for the wedding photoshoots.
4) Zenkov Cathedral & Panfilov Park
Located at Panfilov Park, colourful Zhenkov cathedral was built in 1904 and is a functioning Russian Orthodox Church. Step inside to take a look at the frescoes. Ladies have to cover their hair and wear a scarf; you can borrow one on the spot. After this, stroll around the park, named after the Panfilov Heroes, a group of 28 soldiers who died in 1941 fighting off the Nazis, and check out Museum of Folk Music Instruments.
5) Green Market
Visit the Green Market (also known as Zelyony Bazaar) and try bites of local delicacies for free! Read on what can you try therein “Tasty bites in Green Market of Almaty” section below.
Unwind after your walk at Tau Spa with an open-air pool or Arasan sauna centre, no matter the weather. A few hours visit to bania (local sauna) is especially nice after a long walk and when it’s cooler outside; make sure to try the birch ‘broom’ (banny venik) for a massage. It’s also highly aromatic.
Almaty shopping guide
This trip would not be complete without souvenirs from Kazakhstan, and these are the things to buy in Almaty:
- Scarves and other accessories with a national Kazakh ornaments from Adili
- Designer modest dresses
- Bal-Bala toys, depicting characters of Kazakh folklore – for your nieces and nephews
- Kazakh carpets syrmak
- Wood carving and leather items
- Magnificent interior decorations
Where should you go shopping?
- Pedestrian street and TSUM
- Empire gift shops
- Baraholka market, the flea market
Food in Almaty
Be ready for horse meat, bread and dairy products. Well, they don’t put the horse meat into everything but I do encourage to try it for the sake of experience! And do prepare to taste lots of dishes as Almaty offers a myriad of diverse cuisines from the region – the fact that locals are highly proud of: Kazakh, Uzbek, Russian, Georgian, etc.
P.S. Kazakhstan is a Muslim country so you don’t need to worry about your food being halal!
1) Restaurants in Almaty
I’d recommend Rumi restaurant for Uzbek dishes and Tyubeteyka (Тюбетейка) for most popular regional dishes (except Georgian). For scrumptious Georgian dishes, head to Shavlego or Darejani. And if you’re feeling adventurous and craving for simple and cheap meals, look for a canteen (столовая) during the lunch hours. The locals will show you where’s the nearest one.
2) Tasty bites in Green Market of Almaty
A perfect place to try local snacks for free – from hard salty kurt, sweet golden-coloured cottage cheese irimshyk, fermented milk kumiz (mare milk) or shubat (camel milk), halva, to kazy, horse-meat sausage. The ladies might look grumpy but they don’t bite. Just point a finger at what you’d like to try.
And do stop by the dry fruits and nuts stalls. These come from the neighbouring Uzbekistan and the sellers are eager to share their produces even if you don’t make a purchase. And if you do, it will be a test to your bargaining skills as they will overcharge you a lot, at least double the price locals pay.
Where to stay in Almaty
Muslim friendly hotels can be found in any bigger Kazakhstan city. Most of them will remove any alcohol from the mini-bar and provide halal food, a praying mat and Qibla direction, though only bigger ones have English speaking staff. Check out Almaty Hotel and Hotel Kazakhstan, both rated ‘Silver’ by Salam Standard, and which Muslim amenities they provide.
P.S. The link leads to Tripfez own hotel platform where hotels are rated on how Muslim-friendly they are.
Hiking around Almaty
Almaty is famous for its natural wonders. And they are really accessible too! The Shymbulak cable car is also open during the summer so you can still go up the mountains for magnificent views of Talgar pass (3,200 metres above the sea level) and a walk on the snow. A simple visit doesn’t require any hiking but you can opt for a walk.
If you up to a real hike, check there 3 most popular hiking routes near Almaty as recommended by Caravanistan:
- To Kok-Zhailau, Peak Kumbel & 3 Brothers
- To Peak Furmanov
- To Manshuk Mametova lake and glacier
You can find GPS coordinates and other helpful tips there. Do take precautions if you go by yourself and take note of ticks, altitude sickness, etc. You can also get a tour, especially if you want to trek on the glacier.
Things to do in Almaty in winter
You’re just in time for skating, skiing and snowboarding season so head to Medeu skating rink and Shymbulak, the getaway in the mountains that is popular with both locals and foreigners alike. It is the largest ski resort in Central Asia that offers 12km of ski runs from November to April.
Transport to Medeu/Shymbulak: In order to get there, take a taxi, Uber or bus #12 and prepare for a 30 minutes journey. If you take one of the illegal taxis, make sure you agree on a reasonable price beforehand.
Travel in Almaty surroundings
Most visitors to Almaty take a multi-day tour of so-called ‘Golden Triangle‘ that comprises of Kolsai Lakes, Lake Kaindy, Charyn Canyon, Singing Dune and Altyn-Emel National Park, as well as includes horse riding and a stay in a yurt! As Lonely Planet puts it: “This is one of Kazakhstan’s most varied regions: landscapes vary from Utah-like rock formations and arid moonscapes to lush greenery, waterfalls, lakes fed by glacial meltwater and dense forest.”
I’d recommend to plan 5 days for this tour in order to avoid rushing, and get an agency-organised tour or hire a local driver on an indestructible SUV.
Resources to check before you go
- Our suggested itinerary for Kazakhstan and other Stan countries
- Wikitravel information on Almaty, the main sights around it and more
- How to stay safe in Almaty
- Prices in Almaty
Enjoy your holiday in Almaty, Kazakhstan!