Discover the top things to do in Almaty, Kazakhstan, including its connection to apples, cultural treasures, snowy adventures at Shymbulak, and deeper insights into Almaty’s cultural tapestry. Plan your trip with this comprehensive Almaty travel guide.
Largely untouched by mass tourism, Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, offers a remarkable journey through the seasons. This Central Asian gem is a land of obscure corners yet to be mentioned in travel guides and villages so remote that even Google Maps will give up. But that’s what makes it so alluring for offbeat travellers like me. The ‘stans have seduced great explorers and merchants for over two millennia through Silk Route. In this travel guide, I’ll share the fantastic things to do in Almaty, discover its fascinating history, and delve into its cultural tapestry. Whether you’re wondering about the best time to visit, safety concerns, or the top attractions, this guide has you covered.
Table of Contents
Kazakhstan and Soviet Union Connection
Before diving into Almaty’s wonders, let’s explore the historical context. Until 1991, Kazakhstan, along with other Central Asian countries 9 Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), was an integral part of the Soviet Union (or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – USSR). However, since gaining independence in mid-December 1991, Kazakhstan has steadily established itself as one of Central Asia’s most economically successful republics. Today, it plays a pivotal role in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Where is Kazakhstan?
Unsurprising, Kazakhstan, the world’s largest landlocked country, often remains unexplored by travellers. However, it is a destination that deserves a spot on your bucket list. Larger than Western Europe, Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest landlocked country and the ninth largest on Earth. This Eurasian nation is so huge it could easily fit Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar on its border. It’s an awfully vast place to be so unknown to so much of the world. Whenever I said the word ‘Kazakhstan,’ most people would give me a blank look and ask questions like, “Is this country?”, “Where is it located?”, “what’s there to see in Kazakhstan?”, “Is Kazakhstan a part of Russia?”, “Is Kazakhstan in Asia Or Europe?”, “What is Kazakhstan famous for?”
Why should people visit Kazakhstan?
Its size, harsh winters, and anonymity put many travellers off. But this is a destination that should be on your bucket list. Imagine a vast Central Asian land embellished with incredible landscapes, fascinating archaeological wonders pointing to its long history of nomadic culture, curious underground mosques, stunning silk road monuments, Brutalist architecture, eco-tourism programmes, cities full of relaxed cafes and restaurants, international-level skiing and hiking, Soviet nostalgia and welcoming people. How many other places could you go skiing and camel-spotting in the same week?
Kazakhstan has a lot to see, and you could spend months exploring it. But since I was hard-pressed for time, I could only explore Almaty. In this post, I’ll mainly tell you about my experience in Kazakhstan’s most famous and cosmopolitan city.
What is Almaty known for?
Almaty, the cosmopolitan city at the foot of the Tien Shan ranges, is a gateway to the wonders of Kazakhstan. From incredible landscapes and archaeological wonders to eco-tourism programs and a vibrant food scene, Almaty offers something for everyone. But is it worth going to Almaty? Absolutely. And the best part is that Almaty is a destination that can be explored in all seasons, offering unique experiences throughout the year.
I will share a suggested itinerary for spending 1 to 3 days in Almaty in this travel guide, practical information, and a budget to help fellow travellers plan their Almaty escapades.
But before I share how to spend three days in Almaty, I want to share the unique relationship between apples and Almaty.
Almaty – The Birthplace of Modern Apples
Did you know that Almaty holds a fascinating connection to apples? Its name, “Almaty,” is derived from the Kazakh word “alma,” meaning “apple.” Legend has it that the wild ancestor of the modern apple originated in this region. My local guide Valentina told me that once Almaty had apples as big as one kilogram.
Today, the city proudly embraces its apple heritage, with apple orchards dotting the surrounding landscapes and an annual Apple Festival celebrating this connection.
So, while exploring Almaty, be sure to savour the local apples known for their exceptional flavour and variety.
How many days are enough for Almaty?
To truly experience Almaty and its surroundings, spending at least 3 to 4 days in the city is recommended. This duration allows you to explore the top attractions, indulge in outdoor activities, and immerse yourself in the local culture. However, you can still enjoy a memorable visit with a shorter 1-3 day itinerary if you have limited time.
Is Almaty Safe?
Almaty is generally a safe city for travellers. Violent crimes are rare, and tourists are unlikely to encounter significant safety issues. However, taking standard precautions like avoiding isolated areas at night, keeping an eye on your belongings, and being cautious of pickpockets in crowded places is always advisable. Additionally, it’s recommended to check the current travel advisories and follow any guidelines or recommendations your government provides.
Top Attractions in Almaty
Panfilov Park and Zenkov Cathedral
Located in the heart of Almaty, Panfilov Park is a beautiful green space with the iconic Zenkov Cathedral, a stunning wooden structure known for its unique architecture. Built without the use of any nails, it is an architectural marvel and one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Withstanding the test of time, the church has remained unscathed by both war and earthquakes. The cathedral’s intricate design and unique construction make it a must-visit attraction, offering a glimpse into Almaty’s rich history and cultural heritage.
Museum of Folk Musical Instruments in Almaty
The Kazak Museum of Instruments is named after Yevgeny Brusilovsky, a renowned Kazakh musician and composer. The museum boasts a collection of over 1,000 traditional musical instruments from Kazakhstan and Central Asia, including string, wind, and percussion instruments. It showcases the works of talented local artists and musicians, providing a platform for cultural preservation and artistic expression. The museum also highlights the strong connection between Indian and Central Asian music through exhibits and interactive displays, fostering cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.
Medeu Skating Rink
Medeu Skating Rink, situated at an altitude of 1,691 meters, is the highest skating rink in the world and a popular attraction located just outside of Almaty. Surrounded by stunning mountain peaks, it offers a unique and picturesque setting for ice skating and other winter activities. Whether you’re a skilled skater or a beginner, Medeu is a must-visit destination for those seeking outdoor winter fun in Almaty.
Shymbulak and Talgar Pass
Take a cable car ride to Shymbulak Ski Resort and continue to Talgar Pass for breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains and a memorable alpine experience. Shymbulak Ski Resort cable car offers breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains. It takes you through three stations: Intersection Station, 20th Prop Station, and Talgar Pass Station. Each station provides a unique experience and stunning vistas.
Take a cable car ride to Kok-Tobe Hill, where you can enjoy panoramic city views, visit the mini zoo, explore the souvenir shops, and dine at the revolving restaurant.
Central State Museum
Discover Kazakhstan’s rich history and culture at the Central State Museum, which houses a vast collection of artefacts, including traditional costumes, archaeological finds, and ethnographic exhibits.
Big Almaty Lake
A short drive from the city, it is a picturesque mountain lake known for its turquoise waters and stunning surrounding landscapes. It’s a popular spot for hiking and picnicking. A fun fact about Big Almaty Lake is its colour turning milky blue during spring due to the melting snow. Also, please note that it is forbidden to swim in the lake, as it is the main water source for the residents of Almaty.
Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere of the Green Bazaar, a bustling market where you can find fresh produce, spices, traditional crafts, and more.
Stroll along Arbat Street, a pedestrianised avenue lined with shops, cafes, and street performers. It’s a great place to soak up the local ambience and shop.
While exploring Almaty, make sure to delve into its cultural tapestry. Try traditional Kazakh cuisine, which includes dishes like beshbarmak (boiled meat with pasta) and kazy (horse meat sausage). Attend a performance at the Abay Opera House, showcasing ballet, opera, and classical music. Visit the Central Mosque, a significant Islamic landmark, and learn about the local customs and traditions.
Now, let’s delve into the suggested itinerary for your Almaty adventure
Suggested 1 to 3 days itineraries for Almaty
How to spend 1-Day in Almaty?
Start your day with a buffet breakfast at Kazakhstan Hotel. Enjoy a variety of dishes and fuel up for a day of exploration. After breakfast, head to Shymbulak Ski Resort. Take a cable car ride to enjoy the stunning views of the Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains. The cable car offers breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains. It takes you through three stations: Intersection Station, 20th Prop Station, and Talgar Pass Station. Each station provides a unique experience and stunning vistas.
The highest point of the cable car is Talgar Pass, reaching an elevation of 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) above sea level. From here, you can marvel at the awe-inspiring view of the Bogdanovich glacier, creating a memorable experience in the heart of nature.
If you’re visiting during winter, you can try skiing or snowboarding. Even during other seasons, the resort offers beautiful scenery and hiking trails. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, Shimbulak offers slopes suitable for all skill levels. Ski passes can be purchased at the resort, with prices varying depending on the duration and type of pass. Ticket prices are higher over the weekend. It’s advisable to check the official Shimbulak website for up-to-date information on ticket prices.
Enjoy a delicious lunch at the restaurant located at Combi 1 or Combi 2 station, offering a variety of dishes to satisfy your appetite. Indulge in local specialities or opt for international cuisine while enjoying stunning views from the restaurant’s vantage point. After an exciting day on the slopes, take the cable car back to Medeu Skating Rink and Ski Resort. For lunch, you can try traditional Kazakh cuisine at a local restaurant—sample dishes like beshbarmak (boiled meat with noodles) or manty (steamed dumplings).
Next, visit the State Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. Explore the museum’s collection of traditional instruments and learn about the rich musical heritage of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Take your time to appreciate the exhibits and their historical significance.
Afterwards, make your way to Martyr’s Park, also known as the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen. This memorial park commemorates the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during World War II. Stroll through the park, admire the monuments, and learn about the heroic stories associated with the guardsmen. From there, proceed to Panfilov Park, where you’ll find the iconic Zenkov Cathedral. This beautiful wooden Russian Orthodox church is an architectural gem and a symbol of Almaty. Take your time to explore the park and admire the cathedral’s intricate details.
In the evening, you can explore the city centre of Almaty or find a local restaurant to enjoy dinner. Alternatively, you can take a stroll along the vibrant Arbat Street. Explore the shops, cafes, and street vendors, and enjoy the lively atmosphere. You can also find a restaurant here for dinner and experience the local cuisine.
How to spend 2 days in Almaty?
Here’s a suggested two-day itinerary for exploring Almaty:
Same as above
Start your second day with a hearty breakfast. Head to the Big Almaty Lake, located in the Tian Shan Mountains. Enjoy the otherworldly beauty of the lake and the surrounding mountain view. Depending on your preferences, you can hike around the area or relax and take in the scenery. Remember, it’s forbidden to swim in the lake.
Return to the city and have lunch at a local restaurant, where you can try more Kazakh or international dishes. After lunch, visit Kok-Tobe Hill. Take a cable car ride to the top and enjoy panoramic views of the city. Explore the park and visit the famous Almaty TV Tower.
Visit the Almaty Central Mosque to admire this important religious site’s architectural beauty and peaceful atmosphere. To conclude your two-day itinerary, find a nice restaurant in the city centre to enjoy dinner and reflect on your time in Almaty.
How to spend 3 days in Almaty
Here’s a suggested three-day itinerary for exploring Almaty:
Day 1 & 2:
Same as above
After breakfast, you can return for half a day of adventure at Shymbulak Ski Resort or shop at Green Bazaar. In this bustling market, locals gather to buy and sell fresh produce, spices, textiles, and traditional handicrafts. Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere, engage with friendly vendors, and pick up some souvenirs to remember your time in Kazakhstan.
Head back to the city and have lunch at a local restaurant, where you can try more delicious Kazakh cuisine. In the afternoon, visit the Almaty Zoo. Explore various animal species and enjoy a leisurely walk in the park.
Stroll around Panfilov Park and soak in the peaceful atmosphere. You can also revisit the Zenkov Cathedral to see it illuminated at night.
Remember to plan your day according to the opening hours of the attractions and consider the travel time between each location. Additionally, it’s a good idea to check for any special events or closures that may affect your visit. Enjoy your day exploring Almaty!
Where to stay in Almaty, Kazakhstan?
When visiting Almaty for a 1-3 day holiday, there are several areas and accommodations to consider for your stay. Here are some popular options:
- City Center: Staying in the city centre puts you close to major attractions, restaurants, and shopping areas. You’ll find a range of hotels, from budget to luxury, catering to different preferences and budgets.
- Medeu District: This area is near the Medeu Skating Rink and offers beautiful mountain views. It’s a great choice if you’re interested in outdoor activities and want to be close to nature while still within the city centre’s reach.
- Al-Farabi District: Situated near Al-Farabi Avenue, this district offers a mix of residential and commercial properties. It provides a quieter atmosphere while still being well-connected to the city centre. You’ll find a variety of hotels and guesthouses in this area.
- Bostandyk District: Located in the southern part of Almaty, Bostandyk District is known for its upscale residential neighbourhoods and modern amenities. This area offers a more luxurious accommodation experience and is ideal for a high-end stay.
- Al-Farabi/Kazakh-British Technical University Area: This neighbourhood is popular among students and young professionals. Its vibrant atmosphere has numerous cafes, restaurants, and entertainment options. It’s a good choice if you want to experience the local student culture.
When selecting your accommodation, consider proximity to attractions, transportation options, and budget. Almaty offers various hotels, guesthouses, and serviced apartments to suit various preferences and budgets. It’s advisable to book your accommodation in advance, especially during peak travel seasons, to ensure availability and secure the best rates.
Cheapest and best way to explore Almaty and around
When it comes to travelling within Almaty and exploring the surrounding areas, you have several convenient and affordable options. Here are the best and cheapest ways to travel in and around Almaty:
- Public Transportation: The public transportation system in Almaty is well-developed and cost-effective. The price for a single ride on a bus or tram is around 150 KZT (Kazakhstani Tenge), roughly USD 0.35. Metro tickets cost 80 KZT (around USD 0.18) per ride. You can purchase tickets at ticket counters near bus stops or metro stations. You can also use a rechargeable transport card called “Onay” for multiple rides. These cards can be purchased and recharged at various kiosks and ticket offices throughout the city.
- Taxi: Although a bit expensive, taxis are a convenient way to travel around Almaty, especially if you prefer a more comfortable and direct mode of transportation. The starting fare for a taxi ride is typically around 500 KZT (approximately USD 1.15), and the cost increases based on the distance travelled. It’s recommended to use ride-hailing apps like Yandex. Taxi or Uber, as they provide reliable service and transparent pricing. These apps allow you to estimate the fare before booking the ride and pay electronically.
- Marshrutkas: Marshrutkas are still a popular mode of transportation in Almaty, especially for shorter distances and travelling to nearby towns. A marshrutka ride within the city usually costs around 150-200 KZT (approximately $0.35-$0.45). You can find marshrutkas at designated bus stops throughout the city. The destinations and routes are usually displayed on the vehicle’s front window.
- Walking: Walking remains an excellent option for exploring the city centre of Almaty, where many attractions, parks, and restaurants are nearby. It’s free and allows you to take in the city’s ambience. Just be aware of the traffic and follow pedestrian rules for your safety.
- Bike Rental: Almaty offers a bike-sharing program called “Almaty Bike,” which allows you to rent bicycles for short periods. The bike rental price is around 300 KZT (approximately USD 0.70) per hour—Almaty Bike stations throughout the city, including popular parks and tourist areas. Download the Almaty Bike mobile app to rent a bike, register, and pay for your desired rental time. The app also provides information about station locations and bike availability.
- Day Tours: If you’re interested in exploring the beautiful natural surroundings of Almaty, joining a day tour is a convenient option. Prices for day tours vary depending on the destination and the tour operator. It’s recommended to check with local travel agencies or online platforms that offer tour packages. Prices typically include transportation, a guide, and sometimes meals. Read reviews, compare prices, and book beforehand to secure your spot.
Remember that prices may vary slightly, and it’s always a good idea to check the latest rates and information before your visit. In Almaty, local tourism websites, travel forums, and tourism information centres can provide up-to-date details on transportation options and prices.
Is it expensive or cheap to visit Kazakhstan?
Kazakhstan is a reasonably economical destination for travel. For a 1 to 3-day itinerary in Almaty, the estimated mid to luxury budget per person ranges from $150 to $300, depending on your accommodation choices, dining preferences, and additional activities. This estimate includes accommodation, meals, transportation, attraction tickets, and incidental expenses. Remember that prices may vary based on the season and the specific establishments you choose. You can find more details about the estimated travel expenses for food, public transport, attractions entrance and accommodation here.
Tentative budget (in INR) for Indian Travellers
The cost of visiting Almaty, Kazakhstan, from India can vary depending on various factors, such as the time of year, length of stay, type of accommodation, and mode of transportation. Here are some estimated costs for a one-person trip from India to Almaty:
- Flights: The cost of a round-trip flight from a major Indian city to Almaty can range from around INR 20,000 to INR 50,000 or more, depending on the airline, time of year, and how far in advance you book.
- Accommodation: The cost of accommodation in Almaty varies depending on the type of lodging you choose. Budget hotels and hostels can cost around INR 1,500 to INR 2,500 per night, while mid-range hotels can cost between INR 3,000 to INR 6,000 per night or more.
- Transportation: The cost of transportation within Almaty can vary depending on the mode of transportation you choose. Taxis and public transportation are relatively inexpensive, with a one-way fare on the bus or metro costing around INR 50 to INR 100. Car rentals and private taxis can be more expensive, starting at around INR 2,000 daily.
- Food and drink: The cost of food and drink in Almaty can vary depending on where you eat and drink. Street food and local markets can be relatively inexpensive, with a meal costing around INR 500 to INR 800. Restaurants and cafes can be more expensive, with a meal costing between INR 1,000 to INR 2,000 or more.
Overall, a one-person trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from India can cost between INR 40,000 to INR 100,000 or more, depending on the abovementioned factors.
Visa Requirements for Indians to Visit Almaty
Indian tourists can obtain a visa on arrival at Almaty International Airport. The visa-on-arrival facility allows for a stay of up to 30 days. To obtain the visa, you must present a valid passport with a minimum of six months’ validity from the date of entry, a completed visa application form, a return ticket, proof of accommodation, and sufficient funds to cover your stay in Kazakhstan. It’s advisable to check the official website of the Embassy of Kazakhstan for any updates or changes to the visa requirements.
What to Pack for Kazakhstan Trip?
When packing for your trip to Almaty, consider the season you plan to visit. In winter, temperatures can drop significantly from December to February, so pack warm clothing, including thermal layers, a heavy coat, hats, gloves, scarves, sturdy waterproof, and snow boots. Layering is still recommended in other seasons, as temperatures vary throughout the day. Remember to pack comfortable walking shoes, a travel adapter for charging your devices, and a small backpack for your day trips. Must-have essentials are a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen for protection against the sun’s rays, even during colder months.
Which month is best to visit Almaty?
The best time to visit Almaty is from June to September. The weather remains moderate, ranging between 20-30 degrees Celsius.
How to Reach Almaty?
Almaty is well connected to major cities worldwide, including India. You can book direct flights from various Indian airports to Almaty International Airport. Airlines such as Air Astana, Air India, and IndiGo offer regular flights on this route. The flight lasts approximately 4 to 6 hours, depending on the route and layovers. Consider booking your flights in advance to secure the best deals.
Where to Go Next?
Since I was hard-pressed, I could only visit Almaty during my visit to Kazakhstan. But if you have more time to explore Kazakhstan, there are several incredible destinations to consider. One such destination is the mystical city of Turkistan, renowned for its historical significance and architectural wonders. Another option is the breathtaking landscapes of the Altyn-Emel National Park, home to unique rock formations and the singing sand-dune, a natural wonder that emits a melodic sound.
Alternatively, you can venture to the beautiful city of Shymkent, which offers rich history, vibrant markets, and delicious cuisine. Many also visit Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana), the capital city. Nur-Sultan offers a unique blend of modern architecture, cultural attractions, and vibrant city life. You can reach Nur-Sultan via domestic flights or train services from Almaty.
One place on my list is a day trip to Charyn Canyon, a natural wonder located about 200 kilometres east of Almaty. Known as the “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan,” this stunning landscape features dramatic rock formations, deep gorges, and breathtaking vistas.
I would also highly recommend visiting Kyrgyzstan. That place is still wild and largely unexplored. A week in Kyrgyzstan will make you fall for its raw appeal.
In conclusion, Almaty is an extraordinary city in the heart of Central Asia that invites you to immerse yourself in its rich culture, stunning natural landscapes, and warm hospitality. With its diverse attractions, from historical landmarks to winter sports, Almaty offers a unique and memorable experience for Indian tourists. Embrace the charm of this remarkable city, explore its hidden treasures, and create unforgettable memories that will last a lifetime.
My Almaty trip was organised by Embarq, a luxury travel company focusing on organising self-drive tours in the most incredible places, Road Trips across the globe. They organise group drives with fixed departures and fully customised drives for any group. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip with them. Sujal is a rockstar when it comes to planning adventure trips to offbeat destinations. Everything expressed above is solely based on my personal experiences in the country. Please do not copy anything without permission.