Set in the idyllic foothills of the Ile Alatau mountains, Almaty stands as one of Kazakhstan’s most southernly cities, with the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan located around 235km away. As Kazakhstan’s former capital city, Almaty is the country’s largest city and acts as a central hub for trade and cultural exchange. The city continues to grow in popularity year on year, originally growing from 1.47 million tourists in 2000, 4.81 million in 2012, to 6.5 million reported in 2016.
Part two of our 6-part Eurasian city-break series will take you through a 48-hour journey of Almaty, exploring top tourist attractions and taking in the city’s immersive local history.
Although largely under-rated as a tourist destination, Almaty has plenty to offer tourists from beautiful national parks, museums showing Kazakhstan’s largely untouched local history, as well as world-renowned spas and ski resorts. Visiting Almaty is relatively inexpensive, food and drink is slightly less than you would expect to pay in other major cities in Europe and it is possible to take advantage of free admission to several of the city’s main museums and attractions if you time your trip well.
You will find a good selection of hotels and hostels in Almaty city centre. We recommend booking your hotel or hostel near the Zhibek Zholy or Almaly metro station area, located to the North of Almaty’s cultural quarter with Zenkov Cathedral, Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and the Zelenyy bazaar just a 10-minute walk away.
Street map of Almaty
City breaks offer a brief glimpse into a city’s cultural identity and packing everything into 48 hours can be tricky, if not impossible. Not only do you need to think about how long to spend at each attraction you need to allow enough time to travel there, and you will often find that other factors such as budget and hotel location influence the decisions you make. Below, we have created a draft 48-hour itinerary that includes some of the best things to do in Almaty.
Early morning: 7:00 – 9:00am
On arriving in Almaty, you will want to get hold of a city map if you don’t already own one, you should be able to pick these up easily from a tourist information desk from either the airport or train station. Almaty city centre is around 30 minutes away from Almaty International Airport by car or taxi and around 20 minutes from Almaty 1 International train station. Almaty’s metro system is one of the newest in the world, completed and opened to the public in December 2011. The system is currently under expansion; however, it is possible to get the Metro just South of Almaty II train station at Rayimbek Batyr and skirt all the way through Almaty city centre to Moskva station to the West of the city.
Almaty has a huge selection of coffee shops to choose from so this may be a good opportunity to grab breakfast on the go. Alternatively, many of the hotels will have breakfast included or as an optional extra.
Morning: 10:00 – 12:00pm
Take a stroll in Panfilov Park
Panfilov Park is particularly beautiful in the morning, and after a long journey, you may want to stretch your legs and decide on what you want to visit. The park is completely free and open 24 hours every day of the week, so can easily fit around your plans morning, noon or night.
Early afternoon: 12:00 – 14:00pm
See Almaty’s spectacular wooden cathedral
Located in Panfilov Park is one of Almaty’s most famous tourist attractions, the Zenkov Cathedral. This Russian Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1907 is made from wood, but without nails. It is thought to be the second tallest wooden building in the world standing at 56 meters tall.
Ascension Cathedral, Almaty
To the West of the cathedral, you will find an assortment of places ideal for lunch including a Starbucks and Yeda U Kota which offers a variety of light bites and fast food options.
Afternoon: 14:00 – 17:00pm
Experience the legacy of Kazakh folk music first-hand
To the East of Panfilov Park, you will find one of Almaty’s more unusual museums, the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. The museum exhibits the largest display of Kazakh musical instruments in the country along with a selection of sculptures which show many of these instruments in action. The museum is ideal for those looking to learn more about local Kazakh folk culture and is open 10:00am until 19:00pm Tuesday to Sunday, the museum is closed on Mondays.
Early evening: 17:00 – 19:00pm
Visit Almaty’s principle shopping destination
A trip to Almaty’s Zelyoniy Bazaar is the perfect way to finish off your day. This busy trading point has a huge selection of stalls selling everything from spices and produce to textiles, furniture and antiques. If you are in self-catering accommodation you should be able to pick up fruit and vegetables here at incredibly cheap prices. If you are looking for souvenirs from your trip or are interested in antiques, then a visit to this place is a must before you leave.
Evening: 19:00 – 00:00am
A taste of traditional Kazakh cuisine
There is a huge selection of fantastic places to eat and drink in Almaty, however for those wanting a truly authentic Kazakh experience should go to Kazakh Restaurant Gakku. This restaurant is the go-to place for traditional Kazakh cuisine including Beshbarmak which is a broth-based noodle dish with finely chopped meat and seasoned with an onion sauce. This restaurant is usually busy therefore we recommend booking in advance, however, if you go before 21:00pm it is usually quieter. The restaurant is open until midnight each day for those who like to eat later in the day.
Shivers Bar is regarded as Almaty’s premier cocktail bar and is perfect for an end of evening tipple. The bar has its own take on most classic cocktails, as well as a selection of reasonably-priced home creations. The bar is open from 6:00pm and closes around 11:00pm.
Morning: 7:00 – 12:00pm
Relax in one of Almaty’s world-renowned spas
After a busy day exploring the city, a trip to one of Almaty’s many world-class spas should provide a welcome break. Arasan Wellness Spa is located just West of Panfilov Park and has a complex of saunas, a fitness center and segregated bathing rooms for men and women. Guests can make use of the luxury swimming pool, as well as, take advantage of the spa’s massages and detox treatments. The spa is open early from 7:00am and closes at 23:30pm; the complex also includes a lobby and rest bar with light bites and a breakfast menu.
Afternoon: 12:00pm – 17:00pm
Uncover Kazakhstan’s history on canvas
A short journey away from Panfilov Park, is one of Almaty’s most visited tourist attractions, the Museum of Arts. Although it is possible to walk to the museum, we recommend catching the metro to either Auezov theatre or Baikonur Subway Station; the museum is approximately 5 minutes’ walk away from each.
Kazakhstan's Museum of Arts, Almaty
Kazakhstan’s Museum of Arts is a spectacular art gallery exhibiting a large collection of Kazakh paintings, sculptures and other Western and Asian art. Perfect for art-lovers and those looking to know more about Kazakh heritage, this museum offers a true insight into what has inspired the country through the ages. The museum is open 10:00am until 18:00pm Tuesday to Sunday, although closed on Mondays. The museum currently offers free entry on Sundays.
Early evening: 17:00pm – 19:00pm
Explore Almaty’s Japanese-inspired botanical gardens
Not far from the Museum of Arts to the South is Almaty’s botanical gardens offering a pleasant contrast from the bustling city centre. The gardens are Japanese-inspired contrasting open plains and gardens with sprawling wooded areas towards the centre. The gardens are open from 10:00am until 19:00pm every day of the week.
Evening: 19:00 – 03:00am
Enjoy Almaty’s Nightlife and party scene
After exploring the botanical gardens, you will find a few restaurants located to the South or you can head back into the centre for a wider selection. If you are looking for something a bit different and don’t mind travelling out a bit, we can recommend Alasha. This up and coming restaurant is located South-East of the city and is around 20 minutes away by taxi from the Botanical Gardens and Panfilov Park. The restaurant is highly decorative and is focused on providing an all-encompassing memorable experience for guests, with evening entertainment and Hookah room. Alasha serves an assortment of Eurasian cuisine including Shashlyk, steak, stuffed pastries and fish dishes. The restaurant is open until Midnight Sunday-Thursday or 01:00am Friday and Saturday.
If you are looking for vegetarian or vegan food, the best place to go would be Govinda’s. Located a 5-minute drive (30-minute walk) North-West of Panfilov Park, this Indian restaurant/ cafe offers a wide selection of deconstructed vegetarian and vegan dishes including aloo gobi daal and paneer baigan n poori. It is worth noting that this restaurant closes at 20:00pm, so make sure you get there early to avoid missing out!
Almaty has a couple of late-night bars for tourists hoping to make the most of their trip. Back Room is a nightclub open from 17:00pm until 01:00am Tuesday-Thursday or until 04:00am Friday-Saturday. Another option is Zhest Rock Club located West of the Botanical Garden. The bar regularly hosts bands from across the world and is the best place to go if you enjoy rock music, metal or anything in between. Zhest is open Thursdays 20:00-03:00am, and 21:00-5:00am Friday-Saturday; free entry is available before 22:00pm.
The morning after
After a brief rest, you should have time to catch a spot of breakfast before you leave. If not, never fear! You will always find a welcome selection of coffee shops, convenience stores and cafes at the train station or airport before embarking on your next adventure!
Skiing is a major tourist attraction for the city with the well-known Shymbulak ski resort just South of the city in Ile-Alatau National Park. The resort is open from 10:00am until 18:00pm every day and you can easily get to this via taxi in about 30 minutes. You will also find a selection of hotels including the Shymbulak ski resort itself conveniently located in the heart of the mountains.
Shymbulak Ski Resort, Almaty
We hope you have enjoyed the second instalment of our Eurasian city-breaks series. If you have been inspired to book your trip to Almaty, we can help you along the way! We can arrange trains, visas and tours to suit your requirements.
So this is it. The last day in Kazakhstan. It was such a shame that the tour had to end. Even after everything that we had seen it felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what Kazakhstan had to offer.
For our last day we had another early start. Charyn Canyon is around 175km from Almaty along, mostly, tarmac roads. Unfortunately, though the roads are tarmac, they are not in the best state of repair. More than once we hit a pot hole big enough to launch me from my seatbelt-less seat into the roof of our minibus. Luckily there were not a lot of brain cells to damage. And even less now! Thanks, in part, to the road quality, the drive is around four hours each way.
Oh, and as an aside, if you are looking to Google Charyn Canyon, some websites spell it Sharyn rather than Charyn. Just so you know.
On the plus side, the roads are about to get a whole lot better as alongside the current road to Charyn, they are laying a new highway that will stretch from China through to Europe to help make the transport of goods to, and from, China significantly easier; tourism too, probably. This new stretch is due to open in April 2016.
Anyway, enough about roads, what about the view. The incredible view. For most of the journey you have the northern stretches of the Tian Shan mountain range running parallel to the road, and it makes for a stunning companion. Completing the view are lush green fields, many full of poppies in bloom. If you didn’t know any better you could swear than Julie Andrews was about to bound over the nearest hill. I cannot attest to whether the hills were alive with the sound of music though.
Like most of the travelling we did, I quickly ditched the idea of reading my Kindle to pass the time. Instead I watched the incredible scenery pass by. No book I had downloaded could compare.
From the moment we reached the end of the 12km off-road canyon drive way, it was obvious that this was the most tourist-friendly location we had visited. We even saw other foreign tourists! Nuns! Who expects to find nuns at the bottom of a sun baked canyon just a hop, skip and a jump from the Chinese border?
Anyway, it is much more developed than anywhere else we had been. There was a car park, an entrance gate, and even a toll booth. Not only that, there were sign posts in English. We felt spoilt. The level of development really showed what Kazakhstan could be capable of with a little effort and money. Unfortunately, this would probably remove some of the charm of the country.
Once we had parked up, we had an incredible view. The sky was blue, the canyon was incredible and there, in the distance, were snow-capped mountains. In 25+ degree heat there they were, in the distance, snow-capped mountains. Not only that, but they seemed to be working hard to hold back all the cloud that could have ruined our day.
The canyon with the snow capped mountains off in the distance
From top to bottom the walk took around an hour. It felt like walking into a Road Runner cartoon. There were even precariously sat rocks that looked like they were ready for Wile E. Coyote utilise in his ongoing war with the Road Runner.
Under the glorious sun it was a lovely way to finish the week, no one rushing us, just a nice, peaceful stroll through amazing surroundings.
As we closed in on the bottom we could hear a rushing river, and after a minutes more walking, low and behold, there it was. And along the banks was a small ‘outpost’. I can’t think of a better word for it now. It turned out, it is possible to stay here overnight. And to facilitate this were several huts and yurts, as well as a bar and lots of outdoor seating. It is the perfect accommodation for backpackers not wanting to make two four-hour drives in one day. It is a shame we were unable to test out the facilities for ourselves. Particularly as the bar prices were not too bad! There were even signposts advertising horse trekking; though we did not have the opportunity for this either.
Accomodation for those who wish to spend a night under the stars
As I took in the surroundings at the bottom of the canyon, I think I was more relaxed and content then I had been at any other point in the tour. The canyon was a lush green either side of the river, a little oasis in this sun baked canyon. It was the perfect place to rest and have lunch after the walk down.
Let me use photos to do the job of my inadequate words.
The Charyn River flowing through Charyn Canyon
The Charyn River coming round the bend
If only we could have stayed longer. But, alas, that was not to be. And so after a brief stop for lunch we turned round, and walked back up the canyon. By this point the temperature really had risen, offering a demonstration of what this visit may be like in the middle of summer when the thermometer can read in excess of 40 degrees. Take it from me, you probably wouldn’t want to be hiking down and back up then. It was rather uncomfortable. So try and time your visits for spring or autumn when the temperatures aren’t quite so high.
Once we had reached the top we had a few minutes in which to rest, before we hopped back in our minibus and started the four hour journey back to Almaty.
We made one, brief, stop on the way back at a fascinating roadside market full of people selling, seemingly, everything you could imagine. From fresh produce to toys to tools. It was all bustle and colour. Given the proximity to the busy road, though, I would not have vouched for the taste of the fresh fruit and veg on offer. I don’t imagine car exhaust fumes add to the flavour particularly well.
The market had a line in 'unofficial' toys – if only Batman really was an Avenger!
And that was that. At 3am the following morning I was up and prepping for my transfer to Almaty Airport for my flight home. A journey that was much easier than my journey to Kazakhstan I am pleased to say.
So there you have it. Kazakhstan. Wrapped up in ten blogs. Of course, as I have mentioned, I barely scratched the surface, so hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to return and see everything that I missed, and maybe even hop on a train or two!
See you then!
This blog will be slightly out of order, as our visit to the Caspian Sea was part of the Aktau city tour but, as it was my favourite bit, it can have its own section!
It was fantastic to finally dip my toes in the sea. And given the amount of walking we had done during the week, the fact the sea was rather cool was the perfect way to make them feel better.
We didn’t spend long here, unfortunately, so I cannot really expand on the experience particularly, but I will say that sitting with my feet dangling in the sea was probably the most relaxing experience of the entire week up to this point. With the blue skies and clear water, it would have been the perfect opportunity to get the deck chairs out, and let the sound of the waves lull me to sleep.
The beautiful Caspian Sea
A seagull fishing in the Caspian Sea
As for the rest of Aktau, it is ok.
The sea front is very nice, and has clearly had recent investment; with the promenade a very pleasant location for a walk, and an ideal spot for al fresco dining.
The town as a whole is quite the mish-mash of conflicting styles, with the old Soviet buildings looking decidedly shabby compared to their modern siblings. Aktau’s age (60 years young) plays a part in this, as there is no ‘historic centre’ as you get with many cities, making their oldest buildings the stereotypical Soviet tower blocks that were designed with practicality in mind, not aesthetics.
There was one particularly interesting feature, though, and that was the lighthouse. Due to its location getting a photo was troublesome, but rather than allowing it its own building, it had been sat atop a block of flats; which seemed a rather unique way of going about it.
A statue to the exiled poet Taras Schevchenko
Our only other major stop, beside the Caspian Sea, on our tour of Aktau was at the Historical Museum. Guiding visitors through the geological, biological, social and cultural history of the area, the museum does a great job of packing a lot of information into a pretty small space.
In particular, the museum has managed to squeeze more dioramas into its limited space than any other museum I can think of. They may not have been of the highest quality, but they certainly brought a smile to my face. This certainly made it stand out among the many museums that I visited over those eight days.
One of the many dioramas in Aktau Historical Museum
Alongside the many dioramas were models and recreations of the wildlife that either lives, or has lived, in this area. Some of them were clearly fake, others looked like they may have seen the inside of a taxidermist. With some, it was difficult to tell one way of the other. Particularly when they were as terrifying as this …
Its eyes follow you …
If you are in Aktau, I would certainly suggest visiting the museum. And not just because there are few others places within the city to visit.
Before I move on, I thought I would throw this in there. There was a lot of fuss made about the facilities provided in Sochi at last year’s Winter Olympics. Particularly over the provision of two toilets in one cubicle. Well, Sochi is not alone.
Oh yeah, they share one toilet roll …
So, that was that for the Aktau and the wider Mangystau region. Next up was a four hour flight back to Almaty, ready for dinner and sleep before our last day in Kazakhstan. My favourite day in Kazakhstan. Our week up to now had just flown by, making it all the more frustrating that I missed the first day!
So come back soon to read about Charyn Canyon, located between Almaty and the Chinese border. It will be worth it just for the photos. The place was incredible.
To say that my Kazakh trip did not get off to the most successful of starts quite possibly understates it a little. I was originally scheduled to arrive at Almaty airport, as per the tour itinerary, on Sunday morning. Due to a delay in my flight from Birmingham, though, it was going to be impossible to make my connection in Istanbul. To make things worse, the only flight that Turkish Airways could book me onto was a flight with British Airways scheduled to depart from Heathrow Airport a full 24 hours later, delaying my arrival in Kazakhstan until Monday morning.
This alteration of my flights meant that I had to miss several brilliant excursions in, and around, Almaty. I shall not spend too long on what I missed. In fact, I shall list them, as I cannot really pass comment on what I was not actually present to experience!
With that out of the way, what I did manage to experience, once I had arrived, was two relative extremes. The morning was spent visiting the Shymbulak Ski Resort in the Tian Shan mountains, with five inches of snow on the ground, and the afternoon was spent half-way across the country, under a clear blue sky in a ‘semi-desert’ that left me wishing I was wearing shorts!
But first, I shall back up a bit.
Back to my descent out of the clouds over Almaty. I do not think I have ever had as stunning a view greet me while landing as I had that morning. Having expected ‘dry and arid’, as I mentioned in my introductory blog, I genuinely thought, if only for a moment, that the aircraft had taken a U-turn over Europe and flown back to the UK. To the north, the landscape was a rich green as far as the eye could see but, as lovely as this view was, it was not this that took my breath away. It was when I turned to look south that I was stunned. The northern section of the Tian Shan mountain system looms large over Almaty, covered in snow and rising to over 4000m. After the incredible flatness of the landscape leading up to them, one could be easily forgiven for seeing the Tian Shan and thinking that this is the edge of the world, that this mountain range, stretching as far as the eye can see, both east and west, is the wall that stops us from falling over the edge.
And what about Almaty itself? It seemed to me that they had decided to build a city in the middle of a forest. Every road appeared to be lined with trees on either side, making it one of the greenest, leafiest, cities I have had the pleasure of visiting. An opinion that only further cemented itself upon landing and being transferred into the city itself.
Unfortunately, though, I did not have much time in Almaty itself, as no sooner had I joined the tour group than we were whisked away to Shymbulak, our first port of call.
The thoroughly modern resort of Shymbulak is around 16 miles south of Almaty and was recently completely renovated in preparation for the 2011 Asian Winter Games. Shymbulak is perhaps the most ‘westernised’ of all the places that we visited in Kazakhstan. While I would love to tell you how good the skiing is there, we were limited to a short photo opportunity. Given the amount of snow on the ground though, particularly given this was the end of April, I can only imagine the skiing conditions are pretty good throughout the winter.
A very quiet Shymbulak Ski Resort
We were lucky to have the resort to ourselves that morning, so we were afforded a peaceful and serene view of the Medeo Valley with the whole of Almaty spread out below us. In the near distance we could even see our next destination, the Medeo Skating Rink.
The view from Shymbulk into Almaty
The Medeo Skating Rink is the highest rink in the world, sitting 1,691 metres above sea level, and is also absolutely enormous, with a surface area of 10,500 square metres. Unfortunately there is no ice coverage in April as, due to the weather, it would be too costly to keep it at the correct temperature as it is completely open air, so our view of it was less than spectacular. In fact, it more closely resembled a car park with spectator seating; though, given the quality of some of the driving I witnessed in Kazakhstan, watching people attempt to park could be quite an entertaining spectator sport!
We were then rushed down to the National Museum of Kazakhstan for a disappointingly brief visit. I won’t go into detail on everything we were told, this isn’t a lecture, but I will say that the museum itself seemed to be very good. It is relatively modern, open, spacious and well laid out, with a lot of items on display. The only negative really is the lack of world languages on any of the signage, so if you want to get the most out of your trip there I would highly recommend a guide to talk you through all of the exhibits.
Following our short time here we were back on our coach and heading to the airport for an internal flight to Kyzylorda. Upon arrival the airport is every bit the regional airport one would expect, lacking even a luggage conveyor; all the bags are left in a pile in the arrivals lounge, leading to a bit of a scrum as people try to get their bags as quickly as possible.
The slightly basic airport does not represent Kyzylorda as a whole though, as the town itself is very nice. There has obviously been a lot of investment here since Kazakhstan became independent and, alongside the many green spaces and colourful flower displays, the city has a very modern feel.
A monument in Kyzylorda for which I apparently forgot to take down a name
After a quick refresh at our hotel, we were offered a quick drive around Kyzylorda, including a visit to the local train station which, in true Soviet style, is an incredible building, with a lovely large open square in front. This station offers journeys to both Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and its largest city, Almaty, both of which are easily accessible thanks to a direct train from Moscow; though I would recommend making the journey part of a tour, covering the distance in stages, as Moscow to Almaty alone can take over three days!
Kyzylorda Railway Station
Our last port of call for the day was dinner, an official function that was being held for international businesses and tourism agencies. This was my first chance to try local Kazakh cuisine, though given the ‘silver service’ offered, it was not really offered to us in a traditional way! Of everything that was offered I had most been looking forward to trying the horse meat. I was also quite pleased to try baursak, a kind of fried bread. Our entertainment for the evening was a mixture of local folk singers, and folk music. Unfortunately my manners got the best of me in this instance, meaning I took no photos or videos, so I have nothing to show you, but rest assured, it was very good.
And so ended a 36 hour day for me; from the UK, through a frustrating inability to sleep sat upright on a plane, to a long day travelling half way across Kazakhstan. Sleep came very quickly, though I was not to get very much as it was after 11pm when we returned to the hotel, and we were expected to be up for breakfast by just after 6am the following morning for another busy day!