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.
Entries under day trips outside of the city can, and perhaps should be extended into 2-day trips for a fuller appreciation and enjoyment.
You can combine most of the sights below in a loop that will take you 1 or 2 weeks, depending on your traveling style. In local tourism parlance, this is called the Golden Ring of Zhetisu.
- 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.
- Driving east on the main road out of Almaty for 70 km brings you to the pristine Turgen gorge. A terrific place for hikers, mountainbikers, walkers and rafters.
- 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. We recommend you do it in 2 or 3 days to sample some of the other canyons beyond the main Valley of Castles.
- North of the city, close to the resort lake of Kapchagay, lies the site of Tamgaly Tas, harbouring beautiful drawings of the Buddha from a time when Buddhism was the ruling religion. On the other side of the river, a film set is a curious extra to the scenery.
- 150 km west of Almaty lies another petroglyph site, confusingly called Tamgaly or Tanbaly as well. 4000 petroglyphs here in this UNESCO World Heritage site.
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 Dzhungarian Alatau. Most will be satisfied with the mountains around Almaty, but if you want it a bit wilder, this is the place for you.
Motorbikers and 4WD enthusiasts will be happy to find out all of these places can also be visited on a jeep or motorbike tour taking the road less travelled.