As the smog clears and the evening traffic jams dissolve, you can distinguish the true face of Almaty: it is an oasis. Frequently referred to by shocked travelers coming from China or Kyrgyzstan as “almost European”, Almaty is Central Asia’s most liveable city.
Wandering the new high-rise suburbs on the steppe or navigating the rough, busy downtown area of this Soviet-built city, you would not necessarily agree with me. But follow the road up, and stroll through the fountainous tree-lined streets of the city center to see the Soviet elite did not live so badly.
Almaty is slanted. Work your way up, and see how millionaires live. But leave them in their Hummers, on your way to explore the mountains. Always within easy reach, these silent peaks inspire the city.
Like most other cities in Central Asia, there is not really much to skee in Almaty. It’s a city for flaneurs. To make up for it, the 250 km area around the city is the most interesting part of Kazakhstan, with many natural and historical highlights.
For those with the time to explore the province, Almaty is a great base. For others, it is a place to enjoy a bit of luxury before heading back into the fray.
- Hiking in the Ili Alatau national park
- Ice skating on Medeu
- Almaty nightlife
- Green Bazaar, Panfilov Park, Arasan baths
- Good food
Getting in, around and out of Almaty
Sights and walks
Tree-lined and spacious, Almaty got dealt a good hand of interesting architectural propositions as the former capital of Kazakhstan. Strewn across the city you will find plenty of sculptures, fountains and odd buildings that defy categorization. You can follow the trail of our walking tour of Almaty for an introduction.
Lifting out some of the major draws:
- Medeu: the world’s highest skating rink, embedded in the mountains, is a delight both for its, location and design. Plus, you can ice skate! In winter.
- Shymbulak: the city’s premier ski resort (there are a few others, see skiing in Almaty) a stone’s throw from the city. In summer, it’s a good jump-off towards the peaks of Ili-Alatau
- Kok-Tobe: Probably the most overrated place in Almaty: this is where young couples go to smooch. Lots of entertainment for kids, though.
- Republic Square: A real capital square, with national symbols and the old parliament set against the stunning backdrop of the Tien Shan (come early to get a smog-free picture).
- Panfilov Park: The city’s central park, it houses the large, colourful and completely wooden Zenkov Cathedral, the Folk Instruments museum, 2 disco’s and a spectacular war memorial. Great for people watching and eating ice cream in the sun (try Plombir if you want to lick something truly Soviet).
- Green Bazaar: Almaty’s Central Bazaar in the heart of town, with an excellent meat and dairy section.
For those willing to delve deep, inspiration comes in the form of Walking Almaty, an encyclopedia of the city’s less-appreciated sights.
Things to do
- National History Museum (Entrance: 100 tenge. Opening hours:10-18, Tuesday to Sunday, address): Located in a yurt-shaped building across from the former Presidential Residence, the national history museum is one worth visiting if you are interested in getting a decent overview of the evolution of Kazakhstan, from the time dinosaurs roamed to the current era. It is somewhat stale and Soviet in its installation, but nonetheless offers interesting insights into the character of Kazakhstan. Descriptions are intermittently in English and Russian.
- Folk Musical Instruments of Kazakhstan Museum (Entrance: 200 tenge. Opening hours:10-18, Tuesday to Sunday, address.) The musical instruments museum is located in one of the prettiest buildings in Almaty, a cute wooden house from the early 20th century resting in the lovely Panfilov Park. It got a complete overhaul in 2012, giving it a new elan for the next century. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, namely displaying the array of musical instruments of traditional Kazakhs. Museum staff will delight in giving you a little sound sample of different instruments when asked.
- Kasteev Museum of Fine Arts (Entrance: 200 tenge. Opening hours:10-18, Tuesday to Sunday – address): A sizable museum with a mixed bag of art. For the moment (while Astana has not completed its arts museum), it is still the best place to see Kazakh art. Most interesting are the 3 rooms with Kazakh oil paintings depicting 3 eras of political and artistic transition: 30’s-40’s, 50’s-60 and 70’s-80’s. The applied arts section with a good overview of carpets, feltwork, woodwork, leather designs and jewelry are captivating as well. The European rooms with classic Medieval and Renaissance art from Russia and Europe are of lesser interest.
- House Museum of Mukhtar Auezov (Entrance: 60 tenge. Opening hours:10-18, Tuesday to Saturday. Address: Tulebaev 185): Even if you do not speak Russian and have no interest in the life of this important Kazakh intellectual, the house of Mukhtar Auezov is still a worthwile place to visit for the insight it gives into the living standards and lifestyle of the Soviet intelligentsia. If nothing else, his house is beautifully arranged and with a quaint garden it offers respite from the busy neighborhood.
Some other museums exist in Almaty, but they are not of interest to the average traveler. You can find them in a dedicated travel guide like Bradt. For those with a deep interest in art, our list of Art galleries in Almaty will be useful.
- Cycling: You need a basic level of fitness and adventure spirit to cycle Almaty. It is a good way to get out of the car or bus and explore town. Plenty of shops in Almaty rent and repair bicycles. A good guide for those looking for longer routes is the VeloAlmaty cycle guide (in Russian) or these gps routes. With above average fitness level, the road to Medeu and the road to Big Almaty Lake are 2 of the nicest cycle routes.
- Skiing: Shymbulak ski resort, 25 minutes by car from the city center, is not the best place to ski in Central Asia: it is expensive and crowded. But if you’re here already, it still is a great day out. Plenty of shops rent out ski and snowboard equipment.
- Hiking & camping: The Ili-Alatau national park is a hiker’s dream. We listed 10 hikes (easy to hard) with directions. Plenty of destinations can be reached in a day, but you can make interesting treks of 2-5 days as well. Sport shops rent or sell equipment in case you need it.
- Arasan Baths: A great way to relax and live like a local, the tasteful restoration of the Orientalist-Soviet Arasan Baths offers luxury at affordable prices (1000 tenge/hour) in the center of town. Hop in the saunas and get a massage to relax those traveler’s bones, and strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Oak leaves available from babooshkas outside.
- Ice skating on Medeu, the world’s highest skating rink, is a must if you’re coming in winter. It’s usually sunny and the surroundings are magnificent. Cheesy pop songs are a bonus.
- Horse riding around Almaty is not so well-developed; better places are South Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But, if you’re here anyway, you can read our suggestions.
Almaly shopping mall underneath republic square has an attractive collection of souvenirs in about 5 shops altogether. Other good places to buy souvenirs are the top floor of the TsUM shopping mall, which has a number of souvenir shops, as well as the Kasteev museum of Fine Arts and the History Museum, which both have souvenir shops attached to them. On Kok-Tobe hill, you can find some decently-priced souvenirs as well.
InterContinental also has a souvenir shop, but it is overpriced.
- Ile-Alatau National Park: Just south of the city you can find this beautiful national park. Many of its peaks and meadows can already be reached in a 1-day trek from the 2 entrances. Both are easily accessible by public transport – see hikes around Almaty.
- Big Almaty Lake: Inside the national park, located at more than 2000m, this picturesque lake is frozen most of the year, but gets a magical azure color once the glaciers start melting in late summer and autumn. It is a great spot for picnics and for birdwatching. It is a long uninteresting day hike up to the lake – it’s a better idea to hitch (easy on weekends) or rent a ride there and use the lake as a jumping off point for hikes around the area.
- A few kilometers further up lies the Almaty Observatory, where you can spend a romantic night stargazing between the mountain slopes.
- Driving east on the main road out of Almaty for 20 km brings you to the pristine Turgen gorge. There is a trout farm here where you can catch your lunch, and you can go rafting on the river or simply hike the gorge to a waterfall.
- Continue east for another 60 km and you will stumble upon Esik Lake, another dazzling body of water favored by locals in the know as a picnic spot or relaxing weekend getaway.
- 160 km east of Almaty lies Charyn canyon, a spectacular break in the landscape compared to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. A must for many visitors to Almaty.
- North of the city, close to the resort lake of Kapchagai, lies the site of Tamgaly Tas, harbouring ancient petroglyphs from the Stone Age, and markers from a time when Buddhism was the ruling religion.
2 days or more
The following sites are more than 200 km away from the city. You need to take at least 2 days to really do them justice.
- 3 mountain lakes and 1 sunken forest, that’s the Kolsai Lakes and Lake Kaindy. Far enough from the city to give you that sense of total peace and relaxation you so crave for, the locals have a good homestay programme going and will make sure you get the best out of your stay.
- Altyn Emel National Park is the best place in Kazakhstan to see some rare hoofed animals like wild ass, bukhara deer or gazelle, living in a semi-desert of weirdly sculpted rocks and singing sand dunes.
- Balkhash Lake is one of THE fishing spots in Kazakhstan. In spring and autumn, millions of birds gather on the lake during the big migration to and from Siberia, making it an unmissable place for birdlovers as well.
- Close to the border with China lies another mountain range, the Dzungarian Alatau. The fact that you need a permit to visit this land of milk and honey keeps this paradise unknown to outsiders.
Places to stay
Almaty is not a cheap place to stay. Prices exceed those of similar accommodation in Europe or US.
About 7-8 hostels in Almaty currently available for this price. Don’t worry, they all have free wifi. Almaty Backpackers is the cheapest one, and not a bad one at that. Apple Hostel is probably the best hostel, but also the most expensive. Hostel Park is another very good option.
20 – 100$
- Turkestan Hotel: The cheapest hotel in town, and not bad price/value. Located in the heart of Almaty, it is a Soviet-style hotel: receptionists can be helpful or grumpy, rooms are small and not meticulously cleaned, with only one plug. It is also noisy due to its location. On the upside, the heating works, showers are good and beds are comfortable.
- Guest House on Sadovaya: Run by a sweet, extremely helpful family with basic English skills, delivers a wonderful home-away-from-home type stay. Located in the heart of the city, but no nightly noise. Airport transfers are free of charge. Breakfast is varied and filling, wifi is free and fast. Big rooms, big bathroom, air conditioning and an outdoor pool.
- Salem on Tulebaeva: Salem is another decent budget hotel. On the upside, rooms are newly decorated and very clean and the location is perfect. Staff don’t speak any English, but they are very friendly and helpful. Main issue is noise: Kazakhs staying here tend to be loud, and the nearby Central Mosque might wake you up with speakers blaring prayers.
- D’Rami Mini-Hotel: In the center of Almaty, D’Rami features very stylish rooms and a caring owner. Downsides: lack of breakfast and the somewhat small, noisy rooms (only 2 are ensuite). This is more than made up for by the exceptionally friendly staff and the perfect location. For this price, it is as good as it gets in Almaty.
- Kuze Hotel: A good option if you are looking for an airport hotel. Kuze offers basic rooms, basic service and basic breakfast for a decent price. It is close to Almaty-1 train station, though this is not the best neighborhood in Almaty. It is clean, though, and there is free wifi.
100 – 200$
- Worldhotel Saltanat Almaty: Best hotel in Almaty? Quiet, modern, ideally located and with an affordable price tag, the Saltanat is currently the best hotel in Almaty for business travelers. All amenities (excellent beds, modern furniture, great wifi and up-to-date tv sets) and knowledgeable staff. Also best place for business functions and conferences.
- Holiday Inn: Excellent for business travelers. Close to the main conference and exhibition halls of the city, good service, a tasty breakfast and clean, comfortable rooms make this a safe bet when traveling to Almaty on business. Adding to the appeal of the Holiday Inn: business center, an atmospheric bar and a well-equipped gym. Suites offer thrilling views of the mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows.
- Voyage Hotel: Stylish hotel with excellent staff and a pleasant mood. Centrally located near the opera, the rooftop café is clean and not overpriced, offering panoramic views over the city. Spacious, elegant rooms. Breakfast is nothing special though, and the free wifi signal occasionally drops.
- Iris Hotel: New hotel, furnished accordingly. Friendly staff, central location, good breakfast, free wifi works. Aside from breakfast, the restaurant staff also turns out great food for lunch and dinner at affordable prices.
- Best Western Plus Atakent: Located right next to the Atakent exhibition center, this is another good business-oriented hotel. Clean rooms, service-minded, friendly staff with good English and a wide choice at the breakfast table make for a great option for those heading for an exhibition.
- Kazzhol Hotel: Not up to standards in terms of recent furnishing, but everything works (except occasionally the wifi) and rooms are decent for this price. In walking distance of all sights and the business district. The staff is a great help and speaks good English. The breakfast buffet is excellent and offers a large choice. The gym and spa are quite a poor sight, but the indoor swimming pool is a nice extra.
Expect high standards at the following 4 hotels. While the Royal Tulip is perhaps the best hotel overall, it is also the most expensive; Rixos and InterContinental offer the best value for money with great relaxation (and at Intercontinental, dining options), right in the heart of town. Donatello is the first and so far only boutique option.
Room prices at these hotels start at 200$-400$ and go up to 300-500$ for higher-end rooms.
Kuze Hotel (see 20 – 70$) is the only decent airport hotel. Stay away from Aksunkar or Ekipage.
Planning a longer stay? Check out our article on Apartment rental: short and long-term. Do it! :-)
Coffee & tea
They’ve been building the Starbucks for years now in Almaty, but don’t worry, there are good coffee shops aplenty in Almaty. And yes, they all have wifi.
- NeKafe: (address) This anti-cafe is unusual. You don’t pay for the drinks you consume here, but for time spent. 10 tenge per minute. Tea and coffee is readily available, and lots of board games are at your disposal, as well as books, a playstation – basically anything that will keep you stuck to the carpet for a long time.
- Marrone Rosso: (address) Pricey, but highest standards guaranteed for your caffeinated delight. The kitchen receives a lot of praise as well for its sandwiches and salads. Popular with the business set and the expat crowd.
- Coffeedelia: (address) It’s always bustling at Coffeedelia, and you’ll hear lots of foreign tongues spoken here. Good coffee, big cups, democratic prices and lots of beau monde to see and be seen by on the large patio. The soundtrack to all this is a mix of soul, disco and Ibiza lounge. Minus: crappy wifi.
- Coffeeroom: (address) Another current hotspot that operates on the same business model as Coffeedelia: big coffees at reasonable prices in a stylish decor. Next-door Vogue sits empty while Coffeeroom attracts all the businessmen and the women they keep. Not necessarily together.
- Cafeteria: (address) Cool place marked by a funky interior. Cafeteria holds an interesting selection of teas besides the regular menu of pastries, fruit shakes and entrees. Gets very busy after working hours.
- Traveler’s Coffee: (address) Traveler’s Coffee is part of a Russian chain. Excellent coffee brewed here. They have a great selection of coffee beans from all over the world, including the most expensive coffee in the world, the infamous kopi luwak. Lovely decor as well, but no terrace, alas.
- Shokoladnitsa: (address) Another very happening place in downtown Almaty. Shokoladnitsa is always buzzing with the in-crowd of Almaty. Big outdoor terrace on the northside is great in the summer heat. In winter, move inside to the warm interior for a hot chocolate with almond syrup.
- Fakir: (address) Great, well-seasoned Chinese food in a clean, modern environment at shockingly low prices. All the classic Russian/Kazakh staples are available as well.
- Princessa: (address) Always packed, this big restaurant offers big plates and good cuisine at very affordable prices. Princessa serves up all the Chinese classics, and they do know how to use spices, unlike most others.
- For decent food under 5$, try our list of 6 best budget eats in Almaty.
Midrange (10 – 25$)
- Trieste: (address) Small, cozy, authentic Italian place. Great pizza, tiramisu to die for.
- Namaste: (address) There aren’t many Indian places in Almaty, making Namaste an easy favorite. Classy food close to what you would get in Mumbai or New Delhi. Always lots of Indians in the restaurant vouch for the quality. (address)
- Kabuto: (address) You will find lots of Japanese people at this authentic haunt with Japanese speaking staff and hostess. Great sushi, teriyaki. The menu is adapted to Kazakh tastes as they are ready to admit themselves, but if you crave for the real stuff, try asking for the сёку меню (定食メニュー), with dishes like sukiyaki nabe, shabu-shabu and otsumami.
- U Afanasicha: (address) A huge menu at U Afanasicha. Caucasian food, American, European, Japanese, Italian and Russian. I recommend Russian and Caucasian food. Great for big groups.
- Korean House: (address) has been here forever, and the food is still great. Try funchezoi or kuksi!
- Dasarang: (address) Unassuming little restaurant with nonetheless great, darn spicy Korean food. The lunch special for 1000 tenge is filling to the point of unfinishable. Always full of Koreans here from the nearby tax office (are all Koreans accountants in Almaty?).
- Rodem: (address) Another great Korean that has been around forever and which never gets bad reviews. Simply great food: try their kuksi, bulgogi or rice cakes, you will see what I mean. As a bonus, you get to sit on the floor, which is a fun respite from all those chairs.
High-end (> 25$)
- Zhety Kazyna: (address) Not your run-of-the-mill grandmother’s kitchen, this restaurant offers all of the Kazakh classics in a highly polished environment. Great for business dinners. High service level at a reasonable price.
- Belyj Slon: (address) Run by a Kazakh woman who spent years living in Bangkok, this is the best price/value option for Thai food in Almaty. Inside the interior exudes style and elegance. All dishes are prepared to exacting standards.
- Wagon Restaurant: (address) A successful concept restaurant where diners sit in wagons. All dishes are the unique creation of the now famous Uncle Geni. Highest level of service and food.
- Alasha: (address) If you didn’t make it yet to Uzbekistan, go to Alasha instead. Great Uzbek food, all the classics. The main attraction is the restaurant itself, really drags you into the Silk Road atmosphere with its interior and exterior. Belly dancers, circus artists and more make for a great evening show.
Bars & clubs
A selection of good old-fashioned watering holes. No lounge bars here!
- Guinness Pub: (address) The classic Irish pub has found its way to Almaty. Rustic decor, Guinness on tap and a live band every day of the week make Guinness pub a mainstay on the Almaty drinking scene. Fish ‘n’ chips is wrong, but oh so right. Mad Murphy’s (address) is another popular Irish pub operating on the same principles of Guinness, pub grub and live music.
- Nash Pub: (address) In the center, this simple pub offers cheap beer. No loud music here, keeping the focus on the drinking.
- Guns ‘n’ Roses: (address) Traditional expat haunt on top of the Kazakhstan hotel. For some, this is a great place to meet fellow foreigners while listening to pop-rock music. Others dismiss it for exactly the same reasons. Not the cheapest, obviously.
- Kvartira: (address) Descending down the Kvartira staircase, you are suddenly drawn into a 60’s Soviet apartment. The staff treats you like you are living there. They serve nice big meals as well. Only downside, it gets smokey.
- Shakespeare Pub: (address) THE expat bar in Almaty, with expat prices. Football on tv, Indian food + pizza and steak in the kitchen. It is still a smoker’s haunt.
- Stalker: (address) Unassuming bar set back in the garden, popular with a cool clientele of locals and foreigners that despise the Guns ‘n’ Roses. The interior is dead simple wooden paneling. Prices make you happy.
- Raketa bar & Grill: (address) Raketa bar is hip. With a funky interior, a big menu, loud music and cocktails not overpriced, Raketa is aiming for the girls night out public.
- Khmelnaya Prazhechka: (address) Czech-themed bar with great home-brewn beer and decent kitchen in a good location. Not a bad choice for vegetarians either, surprisingly!
- Shashlik on Kirova: (address) Cheapest beer in the center of town, topped with the biggest (and cheapest) shashlik.
- Chains that brew their own beer, like Arsenal, Bochonok, Staut and Line Brew are not bad either.
Remember to dress up well when you are going out. Party people look good in Almaty, and there is face control at most night clubs. Updated events listings for parties can be found on the party calendar of Afisha (in Russian).
- Tot Samyj Bar: (address) Find a raucous, raunchy atmosphere at the Tot Samyj bar. Sure, the music is cheesy, but who cares when everyone is dancing on the bar? There is a swimming pool in summer, so you can come during the day as well if you bring your swimwear.
- Dacha/Chukotka: (address) Since forever, Chukotka and it’s 2nd floor incarnation Dacha have played host to the hip crowd of Almaty. Loved by office girls, graphic designers and gays alike. Around 10pm the deejay starts playing female-friendly house music and Dacha transforms into a club, while downstairs is preserved for rock music.
- Copacabana: (address) If Latino music is your thing, Copacabana is the place to be. Expect salsa, reggaeton and the like to set the bodies in motion for a sweltering hot night. Before 12, there are performances by a Cuban live band and professional salsa dancers. Almaty’s women go mad once the boys band (also from Cuba) takes to the stage.
- RR (Rolls Royce) Club: (address) If you like pumpin’ rap music and want to check out how that might look like in Central Asia, Almaty’s RR is your best bet, attracting a cool crowd of youthful pimps and hoes.
- Da Freak: located right next to Chukotka, has been the place to be for quality techno for a long time. Perhaps too long a time, as face control has become more rigid, the number of rooms has been reduced to 1, and the same old deejays from the ’90’s are still behind the decks.
The best places for classical music are the Philharmonia (address), the Kazakh Concert Hall (address) and, my favorite, the Abay Opera (address). Pop concerts are held in a variety of locations, mostly clubs and bars.