Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, largest city in the largest country in Central Asia, and a genuinely beautiful and charming place.
Perhaps the most livable city in Central Asia with a bearable climate, mountains and scenery in abundance, and planet of history and culture to go round too.
Almaty is a place that really deserves to be better known and more-visited than it is. Almaty has a young population, with many students, many people fluent in or comfortable with English as well as the national languages of Kazakh and Russian.
A place that is easy to navigate for tourists, mostly safe, and very welcoming.
It is hard to recommend Almaty too highly really, and as a base to start or finish a trip to the rougher and more rugged parts of Kazakhstan it is simply perfect.
Despite the capital being moved to Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in 1997 Almaty very much remains the beating cultural heart of Kazakhstan.
Along with this it is the commercial centre and a more livable place than the new capital. Many foreign embassies and organisations simply didn’t bother to move to Astana when the administration upped sticks to go there, preferring instead the good life of Almaty, it is hard to blame them!
One of many things you will notice when visiting Almaty is that applies are pictured everywhere, this is down to the fact that apples grow here in abundance and this is considered to be the ancestral home of apples in general. The very name Almaty is believed to drive from the Kazakh word for apples. So take a bite of one when visiting, they are sold everywhere!
The area around Almaty has a very long and complex history dating back thousands of years, as the fertile land was much desired by the various tribes that dominated the area in those days.
Archaeological finds keep updating experts’ knowledge of who was who and who did what at that time and there have been a number of significant discoveries made in the Almaty area. This lends us more information about the past.
During the silk road, much traffic and trade passed through the whole of Central Asia, and especially here at the foot of the Tianshan Mountains, as Europeans switched to sea transport though this faded and weakened the previously-powerful cities of Central Asia.
The Kazakh state was formed and then attacked by the Dzungar, wars between these powers and other neighbours raged through the middle of the second millennium until a new imperial power, Russia, rose to prominence and dominance, founding a settlement (which had been a fort already) in what is today’s Almaty in 1867 – only to have it annihilated by an earthquake just 20 years later.
Almaty was rebuilt. Note that most buildings are of modest height and/or earthquake-proof these days, and thrived. Come the revolution Soviet power arrived in Kazakhstan, changed the name of the city from Verniy to Alma-Ata (a name you still see around the place).
The Soviet period brought huge changes to Almaty and Kazakhstan in general. There were deportations of vast numbers of Russia’s minorities to the steppe, changing both the ethnic and cultural character of the place quite radically. Some cities became majority non-Kazakh for several decades, some remain so now.
Much infrastructure was built here during WWII (as it was far from the front) and afterwards, leading to an even greater population and infrastructure growth.
At the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan became independent and the capital city was renamed Almaty.
Many buildings remain from the pre-independence times of course and Almaty very much has a similar vibe to the better parts of many European Russian towns.
Partly down to architecture but also the cosmopolitan population must have something to do with this as well. So it is a good blend of Kazakh and Russian and much more besides. Nice scenery, lots to do, friendly people; a great place to visit indeed (it does have an air pollution problem though, being up against mountains doesn’t help with this at all!)
What is the weather like in Almaty?
In winter Almaty weather is cold. It gets down below zero, but not by too much (people in the north of the country would scoff at this being characterised as ‘cold’). In summer, temperatures in Almaty in the mid-20s are common. So it is well within the comfortable range for most people.
There is snow (mostly in the mountains of course, also in the city at times, and it rains mostly in spring, April and May/.
Almaty is in a seismic zone (one of the reasons that the capital was moved to the more stable Astana) and there have been multiple strong quakes here over the recorded centuries, sometimes leading to complete destruction of the city.
These days, though, the buildings are better and there is more preparedness in general. This is not something to be overly worried about, but it would be a good idea to stay up to date with advice on what to do during an Earthquake, such as this article https://www.earthquakecountry.org/step5/
How to get to and travel around Magadan?
Almaty airport is quite small and modest, but decent enough (has a couple of good cafes, shops for buying local sim cards etc).
Flights come in for a variety of domestic and international destinations with various major international carriers and Kazakhstan’s very own Air Astana too.
Getting from the airport to the city you can either take a cheap and easy bus or take a less cheap but faster taxi.
Be sure to book a cab via the transport desk in the airport or get a fare quote in advance from a real taxi driver though, many who hang out at the airporter notorious for padding the bill on arrival.
Two main stations serve Almaty; Almaty-1 and (you guessed it!), Almaty-2. Be sure you know which one you are going from/to! Almaty-2 is downtown, a lovely old building with just a couple of platforms, while Almaty-1 is a larger building a few km from the centre.
You will find it easier to use Almaty-2 if you have the choice.
Trains go from here both domestically and internationally (to Russia or to Urumqi in China), most trains are either Russian-made sleepers (large, comfy, retro), or Spanish-made higher speed trains (poky, tiny, but faster).
Note that ‘high speed’ here is not quite up to the level that travellers in China and Japan may understand, but it is faster than the slow trains. Still not as comfy for sure.
Due to the distances involved most trains you will take will be overnight trains; they have a restaurant/bar on board and do make regular stops but you may want to take some food with you. Drinking alcohol is not really allowed on the trains apart from in the bar, this is enforced sporadically but if you are caught then the fine (or ‘fine’) can be very high
You can reach Almaty by car from all over Kazakhstan. These are usually long-distance drives given the size of the country and distance between cities. But people do make this journey with some regularity.
A common way to get there or leave by road for tourists is to come from or go to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
This is just a 3-hour drive away and there are buses and minibuses that ply this route, it is also possible to take a taxi. It’s a scenic route, through the Tianshan mountains, and a good way to pop between two countries, even if you find yourself in Almaty with a couple of spare days a side trip to Bishkek is easy to do and very worthwhile!
What to do in and around Almaty?
There is loads to do and see in Almaty, here are just a selection of places to consider, highlights in our view!
This blue-roofed attractive building opposite the Presidential Palace is the spot to head to for a refresher on the long and complex history of Kazakhstan and the area it now occupies.
Casting a long net back into the past you are presented with the full range of peoples who have lived and travelled these lands, and it is complex and many of these tribes and groups no longer exist. Soak up as much as you can though as it is genuinely fascinating and very well presented. English Language tours are available for booking.
A good place to start when visiting Kazakhstan for the first time
A Somewhat unwieldy name for this very pleasant park in central Almaty, containing more than just war stuff (there is a the lovely and towering wooden Zenkov Cathedral as well, very much worth a visit). Panfilov and his 28 veterans (Kazakh and Kyrgyz fighters) were a Red Army unit who made a heroic stand against the German’s during WWII.
They have been lionised ever since in Soviet and now Kazakh history. Exact details of their deeds are disputed and there is likely to be a strong degree of propaganda in the propaganda, but they stand as proxies for the heroics of a great many Central Asian members of the Red Army during that time for many people.
The monumental centrepiece of the park is a huge and stunning sculpture depicting Panfilov’s unit in a brave charge, very photogenic and powerful, make the time to see this for sure. In front of this monument lies the eternal flame and more monuments to heroism in wars, just around the corner is a modest and simple monument to the less successful Soviet war in Afghanistan, a conflict that also involved many Kazakh troops.
Panfilov Park should be visited on any trip to Kazakhstan, but especially if you are in Almaty on May 9th, Victory Day. The people’s ‘Immortal Battalion’ march in remembrance of all who took part in victory over fascism usually goes from the new Square to this park. You should definitely join in this event if you are there on that day.
You will smell this iconic factory before you see it!
The wafting fragrance of chocolate is omnipresent in parts of Almaty to the point that you could almost use it as a sensory marker for navigating your way around!
The chocolate made here is sold in a thousand different forms, many of which are utterly delicious and really should be tried on the spot in the factory shops, or enjoyed sitting on a bench or in a café nearby (still withing smelling range for optimum enjoyment!). Rahat factory building itself is pleasingly retro, the only hint that it is not 1985 is the Lotte sign, pointing to the fact that the company has been taken over by the South Korean giant – the chocolate still tastes the same though, thankfully! This is probably the most iconic company in Kazakhstan, so make sure you grab a few bars for the road!
The “green bazaar’ (a name common to more or less any food market in the Russian speaking world) in Almaty is a great one for visitors, handily located next to the chocolate factory this large covered market is colourful, vibrant, and genuinely used by locals, not just a tourist trap!
Photos are technically not permitted but they are commonly taken anyway, just have some discretion! The building dates from the soviet era and has a lovely ceiling, and the inside is divided into various sections such as fruit, meat, cheese, etc.
Spend some time wandering around, samples will be offered by the pushy-but-not-too-much sellers so you can snack a bit before deciding what to buy. There are also some cafes built around the pillars holding up the roof so you can stop for a drink and survey the market from an elevated position too.
Started in 1988 and finally opened in 2011 this 9 station, 2 lines, 11km system does seem somewhat pointless, seeing as the above-ground public transport system is very efficient and cheap, the size of some of the stations and the very long walks needed from the entrance to the platform also makes you wonder if you might not have been better off just walking anyway.
Never very busy but still very ornate and very cheap indeed, this is worth it for public transport buffs and any casual visitor just to have a try, if not to use regularly unless you are staying near one station and travelling to another one at the other end of the line (otherwise walk or take a bus!) .
World of Fantasy is a simple, fun, and unsophisticated (this isn’t a criticism at all) theme park/funfair in Almaty, located next to the Kazakh State Circus and the Auzeov Theatre Subway station.
It is cheap to enter, cheap to use the rides, a lot of simple and innocent fun, and open into the evening too.
So if you want to ride a rollercoaster and not have to remortgage your house for the pleasure then this is the kind of place you should be visiting! If this isn’t fun enough there is an indoor karting centre beside the Almaty Towers building, a few minutes’ walk from the entrance to Mir Fantasiya
Pedestrianised shopping street (the name Arbat, in the Russian speaking world, is the generic name given to all pedestrianized shopping streets, the real name of this street is Zhibek Zholy Street), flanked by malls both modern and retro, cafes and restaurants, people hawking and busking, couple promenading and kids playing.
Can be idyllic on a good day and certainly worth a stroll, a walk, or even a cheeky meander along even if you’re not in the shopping mood.
Zhibek Zholy (Silk Road) Subway Station is the nearest one, but this is (like most of central Almaty) in walking range of almost anywhere you are likely to be either before or after a visit here.
One place you will certainly head to on a visit to Almaty, whether it is your first or tenth time there is Kok-Tebe, a lovely hill overlooking the city.
Reached by cable car from a station close to the Abay Statue and the Hotel Kazakhstan once the summit is reached you have a range of attractions on offer; Ferris wheel, upside-down house, one of those metal toboggan runs, funfair games, small zoo, a statue of the Beatles, food and drinks either from kiosks or the rather nice and well-situated restaurants offering amazing views over the city.
This area is nice for a walk, a meal, to show first-timers, and to mix with people simply enjoying themselves.
Towered over at the south end by the very impressive Almaty TV Tower (which frustratingly cannot be visited by tourists, although you can get close to it) the park on top of Kok-Tebe is a truly lovely place indeed. Views of the Tianshan mountains on one side and the city of Almaty on the other can barely be beaten considering it is such a simple pace to get to. On very busy and particularly lovely days and holidays, the line of the cable car going up can be long, there is also a bus option or you could do it on foot but it is something if a climb so think about this before you set out on that path!
This massive and clearly Soviet-era high altitude Skating rink was opened in the early 1950s and has been in constant use since that time.
A vast number of skating world records (Mostly speed skating) have been set here in the decades since and Medeu has played host to a wide range of events too over the years including most recently the 2011 Winter Asian Games – when more than 200 records were set (Medeu is considered ideal for breaking records, the altitude, the lack of wind, the low pressure, all combine to make ideal circumstances for skaters. Holding over 8000 people at capacity this is a serious venue even though it is mostly used by people having fun and mucking around on the ice (which is great fun, try it out!).
Superbly picturesque in terms of both the structure of the building itself and also the lovely setting, this is something all visitors to Almaty should come and see. It is also very easy to get to, just take the bus from outside the Hotel Kazakhstan, it takes about 30 mins and saves you a very long uphill walk!
For those looking to get to Shymbulak Ski area the cable car that goes up there starts from a little bit downhill of Medeu so go and see the skating venue and then take a walk down to the cable car station to get even higher up into the mountains for the ski resort
Central Asia’s largest ski resort is an easy trip from Almaty, even if you don’t want to ski it is worth coming up for the journey, the views, and a bit of après ski perhaps too!
The resort itself has developed over the decades, first being initiated in the 1950s and expanding from then, host to many national and international events as well as a huge number of amateur and keen skiers from Almaty and all over the world. This is a picturesque and lovely spot.
The highest point in the resort is at 10,500 feet.
To get to the ski resort easily simply take the bus from outside the Hotel Kazakhstan that goes to Medeu (see above), and then walk to the cable car station and take the cable car up to Shymbulak. This ride takes around half an hour but it goes over alpine cottages and a vast dried-up reservoir, as well as offering an amazing bird’s eye view of Medeu itself (sadly many of the cable car windows have been scratched and vandalized so much that photos are very difficult from here).
Despite being a large city Almaty is very good for those who like to explore on foot. The central area including the Arbat, the chocolate factory and green bazaar, main churches, mosques, and the Panfilov Park are all within a few blocks of each other. A walk up to the cable car to get to Kok-Tebe gives the calves a bit of work but it is far from being too strenuous for most people, and anyway buses here are cheap and easy to take (plus the subway goes around these areas too, even if it can be up to a 12 minutes wait between trains!).
Almaty is perhaps the only Central Asian city that has a genuine café culture; in areas frequented by students especially. There are so many cafes with nice outdoor seating, cake shops, shisha bars and so much more, you could simply hope from one to another enjoying the vibe. Many of these areas have a distinct flavour of Moscow about them but without the attendant prices and snobbery, so make the most of it!
Various guides offer walking tours of Almaty too, if you are short on time and want to do as much as possible, or if you want to seek out the hidden soviet monuments dotted around the city, or have any general or specific interests the there will be a walking tour for you out there we are sure!
Almaty has simply dozens if not hundreds of overnight options, and it would try the patience of both writer and reader to list even a small fraction of them here. There are international chains from the high to the low end, there are local places from oligarchical to flophouses, and there are air B&B, youth hostels and all manner of accommodation.
However if you have the same tendencies as us you will look to only one place; the Hotel Kazakhstan. This faded beauty has an amazing location, retro vibe with modern conveniences, quirky architecture (a crown on top!?) and just has the vibe you want when you like a comfy bed, working appliances and a good brekky, but also want to know that you are somewhere other than simply in a hotel somewhere in the world.
The top floor bar does excellent and well-priced cocktails too, with wonderful views over the city at night. Hope to see you up there!