Almaty - Kazakhstan's largest city and the former capital. At first, it looks completely ordinary and uninteresting, and if it weren't for the world's class natural wonders surrounding it (I'll describe them all in detail soon), probably no one would be willing to come here. But if you take a second, closer look, you'll notice the uniqueness, vibrancy and diversity. Having said that, it seems that no foreign travelers (especially from the western countries) ever make it to Almaty or other Central Asian places anyway. We didn't meet any westerners there. This is, of course, not because of the lack of attractions in the region - I suppose the mainstream media are at fault here - by always depicting the post-Soviet states as backward, grey, boring and gloomy.
How to get to Almaty
Almaty is the main gateway to Kazakhstan. Most of the country's natural, spectacular wonders are located around (see the section "Outside Almaty" below). Moreover, Almaty is very well connected by modernized railway with the ultra modern capital Astana - which is also a must-see!
The easiest way to get to Almaty is to to fly from Europe - we took a flight from Riga in Latvia via Kiev for less than 300 USD return! Usually, the flights from Kiev are also cheap - you can also get to Kiev first (do visit it - it's beautiful, one of my favorite European capitals) and then fly to Almaty. Kiev-Almaty flight duration is over 5 hours.
Keep in mind that at Almaty International Airport virtually no one speaks English, not even at the information desk! Even knowing the Russian alphabet helps - it's very phonetic and easy to read when you know which sound represents each letter.
Things to see in Almaty
Before I start talking about the things we saw in Almaty, I'd like to mention that the area is the birthplace of apples! The original, small and extremely sour apple trees can still be found on the hills surrounding the city. Even the name - Almaty - literally means, in the Kazakh language, "the city of apples"!
Almaty had been the capital of Kazakhstan until relatively recently, when Astana became the new capital in 1997. And now, to be honest it's Astana (similarly to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan), filled with futuristic buildings and monuments, that is the real attraction for the foreign visitors (I'll describe it soon). But on the other hand, Almaty is a bustling business center in the country and still has the atmosphere of an important metropolis. Astana, even though it's extremely modern, it's pretty empty and there's a peculiar, strange feeling present in the city - also typical to other such grandiose places.
And, I haven't had a chance to come across Almaty being described on any other travel blog yet, so here it goes, have a look and discover the place literally no one in the west knows! Note that it's very difficult to communicate in English in Kazakhstan! Let that not discourage you from visiting!
We spent only 2 days in Almaty but it was enough to walk around and visit the most important things. It turned out to be very clean and well maintained. Most of travelers would treat Almaty just as a stopover in the adventure on the way to the desert and mountains of the spectacular national parks nearby.
Here's what you can expect and what to see in the city of Almaty itself:
Almaty is an easy city to navigate as most of the streets have the grid layout. Nearly all the things to see are situated along the long Furmanov Street. You can find shopping malls (like TSUM in the pedestrian promenade Zhybek-Zholy which means "silk road"), markets, restaurants and all sort of accommodation here.
What surprised us here was the real-size statue of a horse in the TSUM mall made entirely out of sheep knuckle bones (over 8000 pieces!) - another reason why I love traveling - even in seemingly uninteresting place you can find something cool and unique!
The architecture in the old part of Almaty is typical for all other post-Soviet cities but with a twist. You can find beautiful buildings such as Golovizin's house which used to be a children's hospital, as well as small replicas of famous monuments (like the replicas of the Eiffel Tower or the Bhurj Khalifa - the tallest building on Earth).
It may seem that there's very little of western influence in Kazakhstan, however, it's quite easy to find many of the well known brands - especially clothing and cosmetics (although I haven't seen any McDonald's).
Public transport in Almaty is very reliable and the city is well connected. Almaty has only one metro line, but although it's easy to walk around, take a metro trip even if you don't need as it is one of the attraction! The stations are maintained perfectly and some of them are a real art exhibitions! Paintings of various artists can be admired while you're waiting for a train - you'll feel like in a beautiful art gallery.
Republic Square was an old administrative center, now turned into a park filled with fountains. You can see here illuminated monuments in the shape of apples - reminding you that it is here where the common apple comes from. You'll find some of the most interesting buildings and monuments right behind the square - around the business center (see below).
At the southern end of Furmanov Street and Dostyk Avenue, at Al-Farabi Avenue, you'll see the modern part of Almaty. Full of glass skyscrapers and some original architecture - Dostyk Plaza is a huge, modern shopping center, no different than those in western capitals.
Nurly Tau Business center is supposed to be a city within a city. Two extremely large twin skyscrapers of a very unique and quite weird shape offer restaurants, hotels, offices and banks. We went there to exchange the currency and it came as a shock to us that while there were many foreign business visitors around, inside the center not even one employee spoke a word in English. So, if you think English is a lingua franca around the world - you're wrong! Central Asia is a surreal and different world - and it's also fun to experience it!
Presidential Palace and Central State Museum of Kazakhstan
Beside the business center, you'll find an original and enormous building that doesn't mach anything in the city architecturally - the Presidential Palace . The style is typical to the countries who suddenly got rich - you can see similar construction in Astana, Ashgabat or Skopje. The presidential palace is supported by gargantuan columns and resembles a strange geometric shape - all the angles are right or acute and edges extremely sharp. In front of the main gate a large reddish cube hangs. What it represents - who knows? Unfortunately, you won't be allowed to enter the palace - but it is strangely impressive indeed, even from outside.
Opposite to the presidential palace, you can visit the State Museum of Kazakhstan - the biggest in the country. The building is much older and typical of the Soviet Era, but if you are interested in the history of the country and the nomadic culture of the are, it will be a good place to see.
Ascention Cathedral (Zenkov Cathedral) and Panfilov Park
The Ascention Cathedral is a beautifully decorated, colorful Christian Orthodox church located in the Panfilov Park - on the northern side of the Furmanov street area. It's the second tallest wooden building in the world.
Nearby, The 28 Panfilov Heores Monument can be found. An eternal flame burns below the black statues honoring the memory of those who fought against the Nazis during the second world war.
Green Market (Zelionyj Bazar)
The Green Market is located a few minute walk north from the Panfilov Park. It is an enormously large hall with local produce stands offering products such as: meat, fruit and hand craft items. Horse meat is very popular in Kazakhstan as well as lamb.
You'll get amazing things of very high quality at this market, like (of course) for example some unusual varieties of apples - literally hundreds of different types - some even resembling cherries. The only thing you have to be careful of is the prices. The sellers will notice you are a foreigner and will try to charge you ridiculous amounts, even two times higher than you'd pay back at home!
You're not allowed to take photos either, but I managed to get a few shots. I wish there were markets like this everywhere in the west instead of the boring shopping malls which are copies of one another. Such a market is a definitely interesting place with local, high quality products rather than plastic brands for blinded by marketing crowds.
Behind the Green Market, there is the beautiful Central Mosque. Although it's difficult to notice it in Almaty, Kazakhstan is a Muslim country. The Kazakh cities, however have nothing to do with the ones in the Middle East. They resemble Eastern Europe or Russia. There are a lot of churches also and only mosques remind you about the local religion. They are a piece of art, although when you see a mosque in Kazakhstan covered in Arabic scripture, it kind gives the impression that it doesn't match the surroundings. Moreover, you're likely to see more women wearing head scarfs in Western Europe than in Kazakhstan!
Kok Tobe Hill
Kok Tobe (literally means "a green hill") is a hill offering panoramic views over Almaty. However, unfortunately the view is often obscured by the horrible smog which is literally a curse in the city. The high mountain ranges seal the air that stays within the valleys and the entire area sinks in the poisonous mist.
The hill offers various entertainment options: the amusement park (you can take a photo with The Beatles!), restaurants, souvenir shops (you can get beautiful apples made of marble at really low prices) and even a zoo. Nevertheless, the zoo is not a very good attraction - it houses mainly very common animals like chickens, boars and deer and the enclosures are clearly too small.
To get to Kok Tobe hill, you can take a cable car which is quite expensive (around 7 USD). It's better to catch a local bus - number 95 (in Furmanov Street) or 99 (near Abay metro station). The cost will be minimal and the bus will take you to the car park at the bottom of the hill. Now you can take another mini van or hike to the top. It's very easy and the road is very good. There is an entry fee which is not high - around 2 EUR (2.40 USD) without or 3 EUR (3.60 USD) with the van ride up included.
Restaurants, prices and accommodation in Almaty
In Almaty, along the Furmanov street, you can find many restaurants, pubs and clubs of all sorts. However, what surprised us was the prices. In an Italian restaurant we went to, we paid 12 EUR (15 USD) for a medium pizza. Alcohol is cheaper than in the western countries (but not much) and it's widely available unlike in some other Muslim states. The culture is clearly more European than Middle Eastern.
In other places we'd been to, the prices were slightly cheaper, however if you expect low prices, like for example in the Balkans, you have to be prepared you'll pay a bit more in Kazakhstan.
You can find all kinds of accommodation in Almaty - even typical hostels for backpackers - you'll have to pay around 10/12 EUR per person for a private room (depending on the exchange rate). We stayed in an amazing hostel right in the center - brand new, with a large kitchen and beautiful rooms. It was pretty empty, I guess the backpacking is not as popular as it is in the west yet but it's a good sign that there are hostels easy to find. The member of staff even spoke some English - it was nice to talk and get some information about the area.
Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake has a unique, milky blue color - just like the geothermal pools "Blue Lagoon" in Iceland. It's absolutely breathtaking and it's located so close from Almaty that it's easy to rent taxi and go there for a day trip. Wikitravel says that the access is restricted, it is true in a sense that you can't get close to the shore. However, you still can go around following the road - the views are absolutely spectacular, don't miss it! I've written about it here.
Altyn Emel and Charyn Canyon National Parks
Located between 200 and 300 km (125-185 miles) from Almaty, those natural wonders are simply incredible (I've desvribed it here). The Charyn Canyon is a smaller copy of the Grand Canyon in the US. You'll love the desert surroundings as well as red rock columns. In Altyn Emel, you'll see the Singing Dune which resembles a piece of Sahara pasted among barren rocks. Kaktau and Aktau mountains that look as if they were painted in various colorful stripes ranging from deep red through golden orange to silver white. The National Parks are full of wildlife and you're surely spot antelopes and small rodents resembling prairie dogs. This spot should be at least as famous as the aforementioned Grand Canyon. However, most likely you won't see any other tourists except you!
Kolsai and Kaindy Lakes National Park
Kolsai Lakes National Park is also around 300 km (185 miles) away from Almaty, near the little village of Saty (try a local guesthouse with a Russian sauna - bania!) but more to the south, right beside the border with Kyrgyzstan. You'll be surprised how much the landscape differs here from the desert-like Altyn Emel National Park. Instead of the endless wastelands, now you see snowy peaks covered with thick spruce forests and beautiful, turquoise lakes. It is here were the unique Kaindy Lake is situated where silver trunks protrude from the surface as a result of the earthquakes and landslides. I've described the Kaindy lake here, I'll soon write about the other Kolsai lakes.
Astana is really far - over 1200 km (745 miles) away from Almaty. However, it is very well connected by a modern railway system or daily flights. It's completely different than Almaty - Astana boasts incredibly modern (and somehow crazy) architecture, multiple skyscrapers, dancing fountains and a shopping mall in the shape of a nomadic tent where on the last floor you can relax on an artificial beach with white sand transported from Maldives! I'll write a separate post about Astana and describe how we slept in a skyscraper on a 23rd floor for 10 USD per person!
If you liked this article, you can also download it via the GPSmyCity app - you will be able to gain access to the guide, which will direct you to all the attractions described above, even if you're offline. Download it here.
Have a look at the Related Posts section below to find more info about amazing places in Kazakhstan.
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