Almaty is no longer the capital of Kazakhstan, but it remains its largest, most happening and most enjoyable city. Despite increasing traffic and smog, the city center is still a pleasant place to be. Almaty has something for everyone. For the flaneur: museums, parks, leafy lanes and historical architecture. For the hedonist: shopping, terrace culture and dance-til-dawn nightlife. For outdoor enthusiasts, easy access to mountains, lakes and deserts.
The oblast of Almaty is a miniature Kazakhstan, with a variety of landscapes and 6 national parks that give a taste of the natural and historical riches of Kazakhstan. Additionally, the tenge devaluation of 2015 has made formerly expensive Almaty accessible to travellers of all budgets with prices similar to Bishkek.
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 under the Karakhanids 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 fort near the site of the old settlement, to protect the area from the ambitions of the Kokand Khanate. The Zailiysky Fort was completed in 1854, but renamed Verniy (‘Loyal’) the next year.
Russian farmers were encouraged to colonise 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. Stalinist deportations and 1940s war refugees gave the city a cosmopolitan mix of inhabitants.
In 1991 Almaty was the venue for the meeting where the USSR was finally pronounced dead. Following independence, the city’s name was altered again from Alma-Ata to Almaty, to reflect more closely the historical name of the original Silk Road settlement.
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.
Today, its architectural mess represents a checkered history of Tsarist, Stalinist, Modernist, and Post-Soviet periods. Genetic research has found evidence that the original apple came from Almaty (or thereabouts), concluding that Almaty is the Garden of Eden.
Places to stay
You generally pay a bit more in Almaty than you would want to for the service you get, an issue all over Kazakhstan. There are however plenty of options for all tastes, from backpacker hostels to 5-star luxury hotels. We have listed the best ones for each budget here.
If you are planning a longer stay, check out apartment rental: short and long-term.
Things to see and do
Tree-lined and spacious, Almaty got dealt a good hand of interesting architectural propositions as the former capital of Kazakhstan. You can follow the trail of our self-guided walking tour of Almaty for an introduction. A few good museums and some interesting outdoor sports venues within the city limits round up the offer to keep you busy for a day or 2.
For the complete list of sights and worthwhile activities, see things to see and do in Almaty.
Almaty is a great base to sample some of the magnificent landscapes Kazakhstan has to offer. Although some of the following places can be reached by public transport, like elsewhere in Kazakhstan, you will need your own transport or the help of a tour operator to reach the most interesting spots.
Eating, drinking, events & going out
Almaty has a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, with a mix of Asian and European cuisines well-represented. The long-term traveler will be happy to leave the Central Asian staples behind. We cannot keep up with reviews; please ask us on the forum for recommendations.
As for nightlife: 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 – currently no single local website with a complete nightlife calendar. Ask locals, or check (and add to) our forum topic on Almaty nightlife.
For events, you can check out this English-language event calendar, and this Facebook group popular with expats where events are being shared, as well as Russian-language Sxodim. The best places for classical music are the Philharmonia (OSM/Gmaps address), the Kazakh Concert Hall (OSM/Gmaps address) and the Abay Opera (OSM/Gmaps address). Pop concerts are held in a variety of locations, mostly clubs and bars.
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 mountain environment, even though it is very close to the city, can be hazardous. Snow storms and mudslides occur every year. Tick-borne encephalitis is present. In case you need one: a list of doctors and hospitals aimed at foreigners in Almaty.