Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan. Find out the top things to do and to see in this interesting city in Central Asia.
Almaty, might not top your list of travel destinations but perhaps it should do. This is an intriguing city, with a range of historic and cultural attractions. A place where petro-wealth is evident, yet also a place in touch with its roots, Almaty is an interesting destination as it is the whole Kazakhstan (here my travel guide).
What is more, its location in this mountainous southern part of the country means that there are plenty of natural attractions nearby. This is a wonderful place to learn more about Kazakh culture and history, and to get a taste of the country, its people, traditions and food.
Read on to discover the top things to see and do in and around the city.
Mooch Around Green Market (aka Green bazaar or Zelionyj Bazar)
Its silk road location means that Almaty is a great destination for food lovers – especially for those who want to discover the unique tastes of the region. An early morning mooch around Green market (which opens at 8am) is a wonderful way to get to grips with the local produce and cuisine. Check out the tastes and fragrances of Central Asia as you explore the stalls of fresh and dried fruit, nuts, vegetables, cheeses, meats and medicinal herbs. Enjoy a freshly squeezed glass of pomegranate juice, or some shubat (fermented camel milk) or kymyz (fermented horse milk), or sit at a cafe for a hearty bowl of noodles or rice and vegetables (known as plov). Spoiler alert: fermented milk tastes really bad. I tried it in Kyrgyzstan (here my travel guide) and I don’t think I’ll try it ever again.
Marvel at the Central Mosque
A short distance to the north you’ll fine the huge Central Mosque. Religious tolerance is a hallmark of the city and visitors are welcome here.
The Mosque was completed in 1999, built to replace a former mosque on the site which dated from 1890 and sadly burned down in 1987.
It is one of the largest mosques in the country. About 70% of the people in Kazakhstan are Muslim but after so many years under the influence of the Communism many people don’t really practice it. This is something that I didn’t expect before visiting the country.
Take a Look at Zenkov Cathedral
Another important religious site here is the city’s Cathedral. The tallest wooden building in the country, this colourful structure shares a certain resemblance to Moscow’s St Basil’s cathedral. It was designed in 1904 and, after being used as a concert hall and museum in Soviet times, became a Russian Orthodox place of worship once more in 1995. Look close – even the nails of this structure are made of wood!
Chill Out in Panfilov Park
Surrounding the cathedral, the green and lush surroundings of Panfilov Park are a great place to escape the heat and take a break from your explorations. The park is named after war heroes, who died fighting off the Nazis in a village outside Moscow in 1941. A dramatic war memorial to the east of the cathedral honors these heroes and others who fell in the First and Second World Wars, while one nearby honours Kazakh soldiers who died in Afghanistan. Check out the memorial, and spend some time enjoying a spot of people watching in this popular park, located very close to the Zenkov Cathedral.
Bathe in the Arasan Baths
Before you continue on to see more of what Almaty has to offer, consider taking some time out to enjoy the waters at the Arasan Baths Complex. Built in the 1980s, this complex is considered to be one of the finest such establishments in Central Asia. Here you can enjoy a range of different bathing and spa experiences – either in the Russian or the oriental style. Suffering from jet lag or tired muscles? This could be the perfect way to give yourself a boost.
Visit The Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments
An original museum – a must-see for musicians – this place to the east of Panfilov Park has a fantastic collection of traditional Kazakh instruments, as well as instruments from Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Even the building is interesting – a striking wooden structure built in 1908. If you are lucky, during your stay, you may even be able to catch one of the performances of traditional music that occasionally take place here.
Incidentally, Almaty is also a great place for other kinds of cultural performances. You may also be able to attend an opera or ballet, for example, during your visit.
Ascent To Kök-Töbe for Views & Attractions
One of the best known landmarks of the city, Kök-Töbe, with an elevation of 1,100m, is topped by a television tower, and a popular recreation area with a number of attractions. To reach the top you can take the cable car, or a shuttle bus from the foot of the mountain.
Here you can see the Almaty Tower, one of the tallest TV towers in the world, at 375m. Unfortunately the tower cannot be visited. The engineers forgot to include a fire escape in the original project so it’s not considered safe.
In Kök-Töbe you can also see a bronze statue of The Beatles, that was installed here in 2007. John Lennon is depicted sitting on a bench with his guitar, with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr behind him.
The mountain top park also has a number of other unique attractions, including a petting zoo and playground for children, an art gallery, a concert hall, a restaurant with traditional Kazakh carpentry and tapestries, a mountainside roller coaster and a ferris wheel. Romancing couples can enjoy throwing coins into the Fountain of Desires (which is shaped like an apple since Almaty means Grand Apple) or taking a stroll on the Alley of Lovers.
Delve Into Kazakhstan’s History at the State Museum
This State Museum is a must for anyone with even a passing interest in Kazakh history and culture. The exhibits housed in this purpose built structure encompass many important periods in the history of the country – from the Bronze Age to the present day. Check out the gleaming golden artefacts in the ‘Hall of Gold’, the interesting ethnographic displays with a fully-kitted out yurt, old costumes and horse and camel related items, and more modern displays on the 4th floor where you can see more from the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Enjoy the Best Art Collection in the Country
Another top cultural attraction here is the Kazakhstan Museum of Arts. There is a good collection of Russian and Western European Art, but particularly of note are the excellent Kazakh handicrafts that you will find here. You should also take a little time to explore outside the art museum, as an interesting collection of abstract sculptures can be seen in the grounds.
Stroll the Pedestrian Street of Zhibek Zholy
Finally, as night begins to fall, another of the top things to do in Almaty is to take a stroll down the pedestrianized street of Zhibek Zholy. This street is particularly atmospheric in the evening, as the lights in all the shops and eateries come on, and people come out to enjoy the nightlife of the area, or a meal in one of its restaurants. This is another good place to get a sense of the city and its people.
Venture Out Into the Mountains of Ile-Alatau National Park, Visit Big Almaty Lake
Once you have explored the city itself, and its main attractions, many visitors to Almaty will also choose to venture out into the mountains nearby. Just on the boundary of the city is Ile-Alatau National Park. There are plenty of opportunities for outward bound recreation and wildlife watching in this beautiful area.
One popular option is to head up Almatinka Valley to Big Almaty Lake. This natural alpine lake is 2511m above sea level and is a popular spot for photography, hiking or biking. This is not only a beautiful spot, but also an important source of drinking water for the area.
Take a Day Trip Excursion Out of the City to Tamgaly, or Charyn Canyon National Park
If you have more time, and would like to explore a little further afield, then you should definitely consider taking a day trip from Almaty. One popular excursion, for example, will take you to UNESCO World Heritage Listed Tamgaly – a canyon with amazing petroglyphs, many of which date from the Bronze Age. This is around 170km away by road.
Another popular trip from Almaty will take you to Charyn Canyon National Park. This is Kazakhstan’s answer to the grand canyon. Though much smaller, it is still very impressive, with spectacular rocky formations and sweeping views. This natural wonder is around 200km east of the city, and can be reached on a day trip.
When is the best time to visit Almaty?
Almaty can be quite cold on winter. The best months are the summer months between June and September. If you like skiing the Shymbulak Ski Resort is located 25km outside Almaty city. The highest ski lift will take you up to 3200 meters above sea level.
This article just scratches the surface. There is still far more to learn about Almaty and its surroundings. But the above list should give you an idea of just what Almaty can offer, and help you plan a trip to this enticing Kazakh city.
Here you can find more pictures I took in Kazakhstan and here some 360° images taken both in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Here my travel guide to Jordan.