Below we take you on a self-guided tour of Almaty. It would take you around 3 to 4 hours to complete this tour in a leisurely pace.
In this timeframe you will get to see lots of quiet, leafy streets, parks with fountains and sculptures, Soviet and pre-Soviet architectural heritage as well as the modern-day Almaty. We move from south to north downwards, so the tour will be easy on the feet.
Follow the map below (we start at 1) and see it all.
1. Republic Square
We start at Republic Square, where the Independence Monument stands. A high pillar carries the symbol of Almaty, the Golden Man of Esik, riding atop a winged snow leopard. A book symbolising the constitution lays open with a handprint in it; it is that of the first president, Nazarbayev. Around the pillar various symbolic figures gather, and tableaus depict important moments in Kazakhstan’s history.
Behind, large apartment blocks shout patriotic slogans at you. Between them runs Baiseitova street, a tree-lined alleyway adorned with fountains.
Turn around, and you will notice the imposing former Presidential Palace, now housing the municipal authorities. It was set back between gardens to allow it to be framed between the majestic Tien Shan Mountains.
West of the square stands a monument dedicated to the Zheltoksan (December) uprising of 1986. It was brutally beaten down by the authorities, and the Dawn of Liberty evokes the events and sentiments of the day. The Zheltoksan events are now seen as the start of Kazakhstan’s struggle for independence, even if almost no one wanted that independence (in 1991, 94% of Kazakhstani voters voted to preserve the Soviet Union in a referendum).
If you’re doing this tour in the other direction, you can go underneath the square into a shopping mall called Almaly, which houses 4-5 good souvenir shops, should you care to get anything.
2-3. Dostyk avenue
If you want to visit the History Museum, go north on the large intersection on the eastern side of the square. Otherwise, head east from the Republic Square along wide Satpaev street. You can grab a coffee or simply admire the car park at Coffeeroom, or do some window shopping at the luxury shops across the street.
Next intersection presents you with Dostyk (formerly Lenin) avenue, and the weird late-Soviet Palace of School Children. Head down to the next intersection, prospekt Abai. At the head of it stands the revered Kazakh bard, with behind him the Modernist Palace of the Republic, now sporting a giant video wall. From the square you can have a good look at that other icon of Soviet Modernism in Central Asia, the Kazakhstan Hotel.
Before Abai you would have noticed the striking bas-relief on the wall of the Arman cinema. Behind the cinema lies the entrance to the cable cart that takes you up to the vantage point and entertainment complex of Kok-Tobe, punctuated by the highest tv tower in the world (in meters above sea level, not true height. But still.).
4-5. Abai avenue and Academy of Sciences
Get on Abai avenue and saunter along Central Asia’s first bicycle path until coming across the statue of composer Tulebaev, sitting in front of a pretty fountain marked with typical nomadic ornaments of stylized horns.
Tulebaev street is another leafy, quiet street that was popular with the Soviet elite. Here stands the house museum of Mukhtar Auezov, one of Kazakhstan’s foremost intellectuals.
Go down Tulebaev and take the first right onto Kurmangazy street. A block and a half onwards stands the massive Academy of Sciences. Go inside to see the museum of Kanysh Satpaev, or browse around to find the statue of Pushkin and a fountain representing the Chinese horoscope.
Behind the academy stands the statue of young explorer Shokhan Valikhanov, next to the delightful Italian trattoria Trieste. Turn right here again on Shevshenko street back to Dostyk, where you are greeted by the stern look of poet Shevshenko jumping out of a solid piece of stone.
6-7. To the opera
One block further down, Kazakh bard Zhambyl sits with his dombra amidst an idyllic waterfall. Go down one more street, to Kabanbai Batyr, and turn left. Together with the other Batyr streets, Bogenbai and Karasai, this block is known as the Golden Rectangle, with luxury shopping and coffee places galore. Coffeedelia is a perennial favorite amongst foreigners and locals alike.
2 blocks further along and the Abai opera moves into view on the right, mirroring the Soviet classic style from the interbellum. Good shows for small prices. Have a look at the ticket office to see what’s playing tonight.
8. Astana Square
From the opera, turn right at the next intersection, down Ablai Khan street. If you haven’t had your coffee yet, here are more coffee bars to still your caffeine cravings. We recommend Kofemania. Beyond Bogenbai Batyr, dive into the park on your right to find the monument to Manshuk Mametova and Aliya Moldagulova, 2 young heroines from World War 2. They look out over Astana Square, headed by the old parliament, now housing the Kazakh-British University.
On the back, a line of busts of Soviet personalities has you looking at the Kazakh stock exchange beyond.
9. Panfilov Park
Next, creatively make your way back to Tulebaev street 2 blocks east, and head down to little Aiteke Bi, before the big Gogol boulevard. Here you will find the hulking concrete body of the Arasan baths, Almaty’s most revered public baths. If you need a foot rub or a sauna before you continue, head in. If not, turn right onto Aiteke Bi to find yourself in beautiful Panfilov Park.
There is lots to see in Panfilov Park, and it’s a great place to relax, read a book or people-watch. From this direction, first you will come to the colorful wooden Zenkov Cathedral. Yes, it’s wooden. Further along in the park you will find the imposing monument to the fallen soldiers of WWII and the museum of folk instruments.
10. Green Bazaar and beyond
Once you’re done exploring Panfilov Park, head down another block and follow the crowd to find yourself at Almaty’s Green Bazaar. Shop for vegetables, or if you’re not that kind, buy chocolate at Kazakhstan’s premier chocolate maker Rakhat. You can smell the cocoa from a distance. The factory shop in front gives discounts.
Now, at the end of the tour, the time has come to confess your religion.
You can go to the mosque. Heading down straight from the Green bazaar, Pushkin street doubles, and the green space in between houses drunks, gypsies and fortune tellers waiting for your custom. The sidewalks are overflowing with people selling religious literature and street gamblers alike, flaunting the authority of the golden-domed Central Mosque.
At the end of the street stand Raiymbek Batyr, Kazakhstan’s champion warrior who fought off the Dzungars in the 18th century. Fanatics might want to search for his mausoleum in the suburbs below.
Orrrrrr, you can go shopping.
Standing in front of the Green Bazaar, turn left (west) and find yourself on the pedestrian Arbat shopping street, where painters sell their wares and teenagers eat hamburgers. Arbat culminates into the TsUM department store, a relic from Soviet times that’s good for souvenir shopping.