Our travels took us to Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest and richest country. Since we arrived in Almaty at 4 in the morning, we reached the hotel by the crack of dawn. We woke up, and everything looked weird. A peak from our balcony wasn’t promising: crumbling soviet style buildings everywhere. We went out for a walk, and slowly our perceptions changed. What a fantastic city! First and foremost: Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan is absolutely unique. Additionally, the city is an oasis of fountains, trees, paths, and parks. To top it all, the Kok-Tobe Mountain majestically presides over the city. Special thanks go to the people of Almaty, who made us feel safe and always welcomed. We spent our days relaxing, walking about, and discovering the 10 best things to do in Almaty!
10 Fun Things to Do in Almaty
Walk along the City’s Innumerable Alleys
Probably the word alley is not correct. Designed by the Russians, these are lush green paths lined with trees and all sorts of plants. They reminded us of the open blocks of Belgrade, albeit not as big as Novi Beograd’s gardens. We both are walkers, so we felt in heaven in Almaty. Two of our favorites are downtown. Begin your walk on Abay Avenue and Kaidar Street. Walk on Abay all the way to the Auezov Theatre. The other one begins in the corner of Tole Bi Street and Gagarin Avenue. Walk down Gagarin Av. until you reach the Pamyatnik Urazu Dzhandosovu monument. Close to the Almaty Metro station you have three pretty cool paths on Tolebaev Street, Karasai Batir Street, and Valikbanov Street.
People Watch around Pedestrian Zhibek Zholy
Zhibek Zholy is Almaty’s main drag. Shops, cafes, restaurants, bazaars, residences, and governmental buildings line the street. Begin your walk at Almaty’s Central Park, the quietest section of the street. You will pass Sançak Restaurant to your right. Continue along the street until you reach Kaldayakov Street. You’ve got two interesting buildings to check: a candy factory and a residential complex. Zelenny Bazar is a few steps away. Do not rush and explore the stalls, they sell just about everything. Stop on the corner of Valikhanov Street to check the Gabdulvaliev’s Store from 1912. It is still a shop! The section of Zhibek Zholy from Kunaev Street to Nazarbayev Street is mostly pedestrian along a shopping mall. Once you cross Nazarbayev, it’s entirely pedestrian and lined with coffee shops. Do not miss the Kazakh-Russian school to you right and the Seidalin House (19th Century) to your left.
Visit the Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral
Who would have thought that this beauty is also a technical marvel? The Russian Orthodox Ascension Cathedral (aka Zenkov Cathedral) is the second tallest wooden building in the world. Not only that, it doesn’t have a single nail! Andrei Zenkov, the father of earthquake-proof architecture, built the temple in 1907. As you can imagine, the Soviets turned the cathedral into a museum, a radio tower, and a concert hall. It went back to the Orthodox Church in 1995 and is now Almaty’s main temple. Hence, the beautiful structure is alive and visited by many, so be respectful while you enjoy it. The park surrounding the cathedral is pretty nice and quite popular amongst locals.
Take the Cable Car to Kok Tobe
Kok Tobe Mountain can be seen from all over Almaty and is beautiful. Though you can walk all the way up to the mountain, we strongly recommend taking the cable car. It takes you over the oldest parts of the city and lovely gardens. Once up, you’ve got loads of things to do, and the best views of Almaty. Hence, go in the afternoon to enjoy killer sunsets. Don’t worry about food, since there are several restaurants and food stalls to choose from. The cable car station is behind the Kazakhstan Hotel. The one thing we didn’t like were the cages with animals. We are mean everywhere, aren’t we?
Explore Russian Almaty (Tsarist-Era Buildings)
Russia incorporated Almaty into its Empire in 1850. However, the earthquakes of 1887 and 1911 destroyed most of the tsarist era buildings. The Soviets demolished several others. Do not despair! There are plenty of fantastic Russian era buildings in the city, especially to the north. Begin your walk in Tatibekov Street in Malaya Stanitsa and zig-zag all around the neighborhood. Continue along Tatibekov until you reach Bolshaya Stanitsa, dotted with fantastic Russian buildings. Of the ones in the center you shouldn’t miss the French Consulate (aka Shahvorostov house from 1880) on Nazarbayev Ave, Iskhak Gabdulvaliev’s store on the corner of Zhibek Zholy and Valikhanov Streets, the impressive St. Nicholas Cathedral of 1909 on Baitursynov Street, and the Historic House of Polya Gunde on Kabanbai Batyr Street.
Explore Soviet Almaty (around the Golden Quarter)
Though there are countless soviet-era buildings in Almaty, the grandest are around the Golden Quarter. The fanciest district in the city is roughly south of Gogol Street, west of Nauryzbai Street, east of Kaldayakov Street, and north of Abay Avenue. On Tole Bi Street you will find the House of Culture, the Kazakh Pedagogical University, the Customs Building, the Geology Division Building, and the Stakhanovite House, all from the 1930s. Another must-see building from the 30s is the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater on Kabanbai St. To see residential buildings from the 50s walk along Abylai Street. Massive soviet buildings are everywhere, especially around Almata Square, the epicenter of the Golden Quarter. The ones you shouldn’t miss there are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Kazakh Telecom Building, and the Kazakh-British Technical University.
Pamper Yourself in the Arasan Baths
After walking for hours following our list of things to do in Almaty, you deserve some love. The Arasan Wellness Spa on Tulebaeva Street is one of the grandest buildings in the city. You will recognize the building from its stone walls and the big dome. The place is traditional and state of the art at the same time. They have separate women and men sections, each with a Turkish, a Finish, and a traditional Russian Banyan sauna. They have different pools, showers, and a gym. Everything is spotless, and attendees are professional and polite. Go for a massage, done over a traditional marble slab. You can also get beauty treatments at their saloon and have healthy food at their bar-restaurant. For an authentic Kazhak massage, don’t forget to buy your birch branches at the entrance and slippers!
Visit the Central Mosque
Approximately 70% of Kazakhstan’s population is Muslim. That’s why there are over 2300 mosques in the country. The Central Mosque in Almaty is one of the nicest in Kazakhstan. Built in 1990 over the site of an old mosque that fell into oblivion, it can accommodate up to 7000 worshipers. Take note of its 36 meters high and 20 meters in diameter blue dome decorated with verses of the Quran. The mosque has 5 towers topped with blue mini domes and a single 47-meter high minaret, the highest. The inside is equally grand and simple, with splendid carvings in stone. Though we are not religious, we have to admit that the whole place is peaceful. We felt welcomed, thanks! Take note that the mosque is alive, so be sure to show respect and cover yourself appropriately.
Explore Almaty’s Parks
Green squares and small parks dot the entire city so you won’t have trouble finding them. We are talking about the 3 most popular parks in the city. The biggest one is Almaty’s Central Park, also known by locals as Gorky Park (after the Russian writer Maxim Gorky). It’s 100 hectares big and has all kinds of sports facilities, including tennis courts, a track stadium, and a couple of pools. The bamboo section and the big lake are especially nice. The dolphinarium and the zoo are not nice at all. You will find Almaty’s Botanical Gardens to the south on Timirzayev Street. Established in 1932, they hold an impressive collection of plants from Kazakhstan, Europe, Crimea, North America, and East Asia. Finally, the President’s Park is further south, on Sain Street. There is a colonnade for concerts, a fountain, and a Japanese inspired section. For impressive mountain views go up the observation gondola.
Get Some Culture at a Couple of Museums
We had no clue the city had such fantastic museums! The Central State Museum is a 17500 square building built in 1985 and one of the best examples of modern architecture in the city. It has 4 permanent exhibition halls showcasing the country’s rich history, traditions, and cultural achievements. A couple of blocks away you will find the A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts, an outstanding building from the 1960s. The inside is even better: paintings, icons, serigraphs, maps, graphics, jewels, carpets, sculptures, handicrafts, and all things art! As you can imagine, the museum has works by Abilkhan Kasteev, the greatest Kazakh painter. Finally, the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments is near the Zenkov Cathedral. It’s a fantastic wooden building from 1908 with a collection of over 1000 pieces.
Extra Tip for Things to Do in Almaty
Go on a Day Trip to Charyn Canyon
Without a doubt, a visit to Charyn Canyon is amongst the best things to do not only in Almaty but in Kazakhstan. The whole trip there is fascinating. As soon as you exit the city, you hit immense open plains. Look out for horses along the way. We saw quite a few. We were a bit apprehensive. Since it all looked flat, where could a canyon be? Then out of the blue, the terrain changes and there you are! The canyon is 150 kilometers long and part of the Charyn National Park. You can spend days discovering this 12 million year wonder. However, if you go for the day you will most likely explore the Valley of the Castles. That’s what we did. To go there, we hired a taxi with a driver. It took us 2.5 hours each way. Take note that the weather in the area goes from -30 to +40 degrees, so dress accordingly.
Where to Stay
You can explore on foot most of our things to do in Almaty if you stay downtown. We like to stay in historic buildings as much as possible, and Almaty has a couple of very good options. Hotel Almaty was completed in 1967 and is as famous as its first director, Rakhimzhan Koshkarbaev. He was the guy who raised the Russian flag in the Reichstag in 1945 and a posthumous Hero of Kazakhstan. Another option is Hotel Kazhakstan, a symbol of Almaty featured in the 5000 Tenge bill. Be sure to ask for a top floor room for the best views of the city. The first 5-star hotel in the city is The Dostyk Hotel, built in 1983. The city included it in its list of protected buildings. The hotel was fully updated to include modern-day conveniences, including a fabulous spa and an indoor pool.
Where to Eat and Have Coffee
To eat all sort of delicious things and to do some shopping head to Zelenny, the best bazaar in Almaty. According to locals, Gakku on Seyfullin Street has the best Beshbarmak, Kazakhstan’s national dish. The Float, in Central Park, offers great views of Kok Tobe. Everything is delicious in Vahtanguri Georgian Restaurant on Gogol Street, including our beloved Katchapuri. Alasha on Ospanov Street is not only about food. The place is fantastic, with traditional decorations, a lovely garden, and a traditional Kazakh show. Coffeehouses are opening at an incredible rate in Almaty. We even found our Russian chain Travellers Coffee has a couple of outlets! The young and hip favor Daily Coffee on Abylai Khan, and Bowler Coffee Roasters on Kabanbai St.