Almaty is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, but it remains its largest, most happening and most enjoyable city.
It’s also Central Asia’s most beautifully situated city. The snow-capped mountains of the Tien Shan serve as a constant backdrop to city life.
Although the city’s air quality ranks among the worst in the world, the city center is still a pleasant place to be. For the flaneur, there are museums, parks, leafy lanes and historical architecture. For the hedonist, it’s shopping, terrace culture and dance-til-dawn nightlife. For outdoor enthusiasts, Almaty promises easy access to mountains, lakes and deserts.
After you tire of the city, Almaty’s surroundings offer up a miniature Kazakhstan, with a variety of landscapes and 6 national parks that give a taste of the natural and historical riches of the country.
The northern spurs of the Zailiysky Alatau have been inhabited for thousands of years. The golden treasures found in Scythian burial tombs are testimony to its long history of civilization.
A settlement first known as Almatu grew and developed as a station along the Silk Road from the 10th century on, but the raids of Mongols and Dzhungars meant that it was not to recover any importance until the arrival of the Russians.
The Tsarist government decided to construct a military fortress near the site of the old settlement to solidify its territorial gains in the new colonies. The Zailiysky Fort was completed in 1854, and renamed Verniy (‘Loyal’) the next year.
Verniy soon became an important trading post, and Russian farmers were encouraged to settle the area. Igor Redko, a settler from Voronezh, brought a sapling of the Aport apple with him and thereby laid the foundation of the city’s subsequent fame – the Aport grew to monster sizes on Verniy’s elevated slopes, giving rise to the idea that this was the original homeland of the apple.
In the 1920s, the new Soviet authorities renamed the place Alma-Ata (‘Grandfather of the apple’) and made it the capital of the Kazakh SSR (formerly in Kyzylorda). The city boomed. During the Second World War, refugees like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein briefly made Alma- Ata into a Hollywood on the Chinese border.
The city grew more cosmopolitan after the war as some refugees stayed, and survivors of the Stalinist deportations to Kazakhstan flocked to Alma-Ata as well. Under the leadership of Party Secretary Kunaev the capital city was adorned with monumental architecture.
In 1991, the city played host to the meeting where the USSR was finally pronounced dead. Following independence, the city’s name was altered again from Alma-Ata to Almaty.
Accompanied by heavy sighs of bureaucrats and ambassadors, the capital was moved to Astana in 1997. Despite Astana’s whirlwind development, Almaty remains Kazakhstan’s cultural, financial, academic and tourism pole. It’s also Kazakhstan’s most populous city: its population has risen to about 2 million people, with perhaps another million in the greater Almaty region.
Almaty is a big city, but the city center where you will find most of the sights is easy to do on foot. Most sights are within the rectangle formed by Green Bazaar, Dostyk street, Abay street and Ablai Khan street. Useful metro stops are Abay, Almaly and Zhibek Zholy.
Transport and accommodation
All you need to know to get in, out and around Almaty can be found at Transport in Almaty.
When it comes to finding a place to stay, our advice is to stay within walking distance of the center, except for a few luxury properties situated close to the mountains that are worth the drive into the center.
More details and recommendations at Where to stay in Almaty?
When to visit?
In the weekends, a lot of locals go out of the city to lakes, forests and mountains. So if you like a bit of peace and quiet, go outside of the city during the week, and use the weekends to visit the city, when nightlife is bustling. Everything is open Saturday and Sunday. Museums are closed on Mondays.
For info on seasons, see when to visit Kazakhstan.
Things to see and do
One of our favourite things to do in Almaty is to simply amble along the streets. There is always something new that catches your eye. Follow the trail of our self-guided walking tour of Almaty for an introduction along the city center’s main sights.
Almaty’s central Green Bazaar is a perennial tourist favourite, with an excellent meat and dairy section. Nearby lies Panfilov Park, the city’s central park, with the colourful and completely wooden Zenkov Cathedral, the Folk Instruments museum and a spectacular war memorial.
From Panfilov Park, it’s just a hop and a skip to the 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 in the center of town.
Almaty’s art museums and galleries, as well as the history museum and a few of the small house museums are discussed in our page on museums in Almaty.
20 minutes drive into the mountains south of the city lies Medeu, the world’s highest skating rink. From Medeu, take a cable car up to Shymbulak, the city’s premier ski resort. In summer, it’s both a good jumping-off point towards the peaks of Ili-Alatau for active people, and a pleasant place for an expensive coffee in the fresh mountain air for everyone else.
Technically still within the city limits, Big Almaty Lake is a 20 km drive into the mountains from the city center. Located 2500 m above sea level, it’s a joy to breathe in the fresh air and revel in the beauty of the mountains this close to a city of millions.
On the way down, make sure you stop at the Sunkar bird refuge to support Kazakhstan’s rescued eagles and owls.
You need a decent level of fitness to cycle Almaty – all the nicest routes go up. A good guide for those looking for longer routes is the VeloAlmaty cycle guide (in Russian). The road to Medeu and Shymbulak (1400m elevation over 21 km), and the road to Big Almaty Lake (1400 m elevation over 16 km) are 2 of the nicest cycle routes.
The Ili-Alatau national park is great for hiking. We put together a starter hiking guide to the mountains just above Almaty. Plenty of destinations can be reached in a day, but you can make interesting treks of 2-4 days as well.
Almaty also has a thriving endurance community. Athletex.kz has a list of events taking place throughout the year: long-distance running, cycling and swimming, sky running, etc.
Almaty is a great base to sample some of the magnificent landscapes Kazakhstan has to offer. There are mountains and glaciers, forests, lakes and rivers as well as deserts, lonely rocks, steppe views, rare animals and petroglyphs going back thousands of years.
We guide you through all of the sights at Where to go around Almaty?
Eating out, events & nightlife
Almaty has the most interesting food scene in Central Asia, with new restaurant concepts landing in the city on a monthly basis. Everything from South African biltong to new Scandinavian cuisine is on offer these days. If you are on a budget: a lot of restaurants have cheap deals for lunch.
Of course there are still plenty of simple grilled-meat-and-beer type places where a guy with a keyboard and a microphone holds sway over the dance floor.
Almaty is a happening and safe place at night. There are clubs for every taste: rock bars, cocktail lounges, face-control discos, abandoned warehouse raves, … Currently no single local website has a complete nightlife calendar. Ask locals, or check (and add to) our forum topic on Almaty nightlife.
For events, you can check out this Facebook group popular with expats where events are being shared, as well as Russian-language Sxodim. Muzkafe is a good location for interesting live music. The best places for classical music are the Philharmonia (Gmaps) and the Abay Opera (Gmaps).
Safety and emergencies
Almaty is a safe place, during the day and at night: feel free to walk alone without undue fear (take your usual precautions). Tap water is potable.
The mountains can be hazardous. Snow storms and mudslides occur every year. Tick-borne encephalitis is present, so you might want to vaccinate if you plan on spending a lot of time in the mountains.
If you are staying for a longer time, it’s worth investing in some kind of air filter or mask.
Before heading on any outdoor adventure, every outdoor enthusiast knows how important it is to be well-prepared and have some high quality gear. Our friends at Globo Surf can help you find the best gear for every outdoor adventure. They also have some great tips that will make everything much easier.