If you have just arrived in Almaty, this is the perfect walk to get acquainted with the city. Central Almaty, the Golden Quarter as it is known, is the city’s showpiece, with pedestrianised streets and leafy lanes, parks with fountains and sculptures, Soviet and pre-Soviet architectural heritage and cafe terraces full of relaxed rich people.
We will be walking north to south. That’s always the best way to walk Almaty, with the mountains in front of you. We start at the Green Bazaar.
Like other big bazaars across the region, the Green Bazaar (3) is not just a place to buy food. It’s better to compare a big bazaar like this to a large old tree in an old-growth forest; it is an ecosystem all by itself, where thousands of species have found their niche and feed directly off the tree, or off each other.
In the same way, the Green Bazaar is an ecosystem that runs for several blocks, blending the lawful with the clandestine, the sacred and profane. Read all about it in our Green Bazaar guide.
To sample part of that ecosystem, start your walk south of the Green Bazaar at Almaty’s largest mosque (1). If you approach the mosque from the Rayimbek Batyr metro station, you get a good feel for what this other, less sanitized part of Almaty feels like.
Alternatively, start from the pedestrianised Zhibek Zholy street (2), known as Arbat to locals in reference to the famous street in Moscow, for a tourist-friendly version of Almaty with street painters, buskers and the 1912 Kyzyl-Tan shop.
From the bazaar, start moving north along Zenkov street. If you smell cocoa, that’s the Rahat chocolate factory (4). They have a factory shop on the ground floor if you feel like tasting. Just before entering the park, on the right hand side, is a beautiful wooden building (5). Built in 1890, this was the city’s first school, back when Almaty was still called Fort Verniy.
Soon, Panfilov Park comes into view. The first thing you see is another wooden building. This was built together with the cathedral in the park, and was originally used as a meeting place for army officers. Now it houses the Folk Instruments Museum (6).
Tanks, statues of war heroes and other memorials dotted around the park glorify the Soviet victory over the Germans in World War 2. The park is named after 28 soldiers from the Kazakh SSR under the command of general Panfilov who died heroically defending Moscow from the German invasion in the Second World War. A very impressive monument of these Soviet heroes (7) dominates the eternal flame in the center of the park, a popular place for wedding pictures.
Like most of what came and still comes out of Moscow’s propaganda machine, the story of the 28 Guardsmen was a complete fabrication, but after the truth came out, the Kazakh government stated it had no intention to rename the park. Good relations with Russia, which adheres to the Soviet version of events, remain very important to Kazakhstan.
On the opposite side of the war memorial stands Zenkov’s Cathedral (8). Designed by Andrey Zenkov, the cathedral was built entirely of wood and finished in 1907. The inner structure of the cathedral was made in the artistic workshops of Moscow and Kiev.
Continue moving east out of the park, and on your left arises the massive carapace of the Arasan baths (9), a bathing complex that mixes the hamam with the banya in a version of Soviet wellness luxury. Visit if you are feeling tired.
If not, continue down the street. At the next crossroads, 2 turquoise buildings stand on opposite corners. On your left before you cross the street is a 1941 textile factory, on your right when crossing is the 1880 Shakhvorostov House, now sadly behind metal panels.
Incidentally, a lot of the older houses in this district are painted in pastel shades of blue, green, red and yellow. The idea is that, similar to St-Petersburg, the cheerful colours would brighten up the gloom of the winter months.
Abay Opera and Hotel Almaty
Turn left at the next crossroads onto Panfilov Street (also not renamed so far). Recently pedestrianised, this is now locals’ favourite street for a summertime evening passeggiata.
The street is fronted by the prominent Abay Opera (10), a good example of Stalinist architecture, mixing elements of classical Greek architecture with oriental arches, Kazakh ornaments and Soviet imagery.
Across from the opera is the Hotel Almaty (11). The mosaics here are impressive. You can find more mosaics dotted around Almaty if you are keen.
Moving on in the other direction, we come across another beautiful stalinka, the TurkSib Workers’ house (12), built to house the railway workers building the important railway connection between Novosibirsk and Almaty.
Tulebaika to Abay statue
Turning off to Tulebaev street, we hit upon the monument to Viktor Tsoy (13). Tsoy and his rock band Kino were Soviet-wide icons of the 1980s. He died in a car crash in 1990, but not before shooting the incredibly bleak, no-future movie Igla (Needle) in Alma-Ata. It truly is a time capsule for the final days of the Soviet Union, and partly filmed in Tsoi’s home region of Kyzylorda, it managed to raise the issue of the death of the Aral Sea for the first time.
The movie was a success and set off the Kazakh New Wave, a whole raft of dreary movies where the protagonists hardly say a word and instead gaze out over the windswept steppe in quiet resignation. Very popular at European film festivals.
Tulebaev street is one of those quiet, leafy alleys that make walking Almaty’s center so charming. It’s pleasant living here, witnessed by the many plaques hanging on the walls of the buildings, pointing to all the famous people living here, including the former First Secretary of the Kazakh SSR, Dinmukhamed Kunaev. You can visit his house museum (14) and find out how the most powerful man in the republic lived.
Turning left, we get onto Shevchenko street. Taras Shevchenko is the national poet of Ukraine. He was banned to a penal colony in Mangystau, West-Kazakhstan, for upsetting the Tsar. Other famous Russian writers who got a taste of prison life in Kazakhstan are Dostoyevski and Solzhenitsyn.
On the left, a statue represents Chokhan Valikhanov (15), a Kazakh ethnographer and army officer who made a number of expeditions through the territory of Kazakhstan in the service of the Tsar, documenting the land’s fauna and flora, and the vanishing lifestyles of its people.
On the right stands the Academy of Sciences, and a fountain (16) that takes its cue from the Chinese zodiac, but then ends up … somewhere we haven’t been before.
To round up the walk, we come to 2 emblems of the 1970’s wave of Modernist architecture: the Kazakhstan Hotel (17) and the Palace of the Republic (18), formerly known as the Lenin Palace, fronted by a statue of Kazakhstan’s national poet, Abay Kunanbayev.
Take a cable car up to Kok-Tobe (19) to take a picture with a giant apple in front of a panoramic view over Almaty’s smoggy streets. Alternatively, continue walking, past the Palace of School Children (20), the History Museum (21) to Republic Square (22), where you can find a monument celebrating the new nation in front of the former Parliament building, set back against the backdrop of the jagged Tien Shan mountains.
You have now seen a part of Almaty. The most visited part by tourists, featuring wooden houses, opera buildings and pastel-coloured, stucco-covered mansions. In short, this is the town of the Tsarist and Soviet elite, Russian or heavily russified.
If you are looking to walk more and discover different sides of the city and of Kazakhstan, we can do no better than to direct you to Walking Almaty. Check out their 10 best walks around Almaty and 7 maps of Almaty digging out historic buildings, Soviet factories and city kolkhozes, amongst other things.
If you’d rather do something else, see our list of things to do in Almaty.