Almaty Kazakhstan: How to see the Best of the City in 48 Hours

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Almaty is the cultural capital of Kazakhstan, but you might not know much about Kazakhstan itself.

I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about it. There’s a reason that Borat was based on Kazakhstan – so few people  know much about it, other than it used to be part of the U.S.S.R.

But don’t feel too bad. Kazakhstan receives only 500,000 visitors each year, so it’s definitely off the beaten path. It’s so rich in minerals that the government hasn’t focused on building on attracting tourists. In comparison, Uzbekistan, one of the other “stans” receives 2.2 million tourists. Just in case you’re wondering, the other “stans” are: 1)Afghanistan 2)Kazakhstan 3)Kyrgyzstan 4)Pakistan 5)Tajikistan 6)Turkmenistan 7)Uzbekistan

The first thing that I wondered, was

Is it safe to visit Kazakhstan?

Like any place, you need to watch your belongings, but yes I felt very safe. Safe enough to break away from our guide for a few hours to hike with a friend!

Given that there are so few tourists, a lot of signs aren’t in English. In fact in Almaty, you’ll only find 7-10 certified English speaking guides. I was lucky enough to have Sholpan, a wonderful guide from Turan Asia Travel Company.
Almaty Kazakhstan

Zenkov Cathedral

Zenkov Cathedral is the world's 2nd tallest wood building. It's found in Almaty Kazakhstan.

One of our first stops in Almaty was to  Zenkov Cathedral. It’s a 19th-century Russian Orthodox cathedral that fortunately didn’t get destroyed when Kazakhstan was part of the U.S.S.R because politcal club meetings were held there. It’s the second tallest wooden building in the world! You’ll find it in Panfilov Park, among blue spruce trees! Christianity is the second most practiced religion in Kazakhstan.

Zenkov Cathedral is the world's 2nd tallest wood building. It's found in Almaty Kazakhstan.

The Central Mosque of Almaty

The Central Mosque of Almaty Kazakhstan. It's the largest of the 40+ found in the city.
The main religion in Kazakhstan is Islam, but it’s a liberal form of Islam that’s practised by most. I only saw a couple of women dressed in burqas. The Central Mosque of Almaty is the largest of the 40+ mosques in the city. Visitors are allowed if they are very quiet and dressed appropriately – arms and legs covered.

U.S.S.R Monuments

Another thing you can’t help but notice are the U.S.S.R monuments. Now, I’m normally not much of a monument person, but the ones in Almaty are very telling.

For example the World War II monument “Feat” in Park of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, shows the Russian soldier protecting the motherland. Kazakhstan is near the soldiers left knee. It’s meant to send a clear message to the west – Don’t mess with us! As do the other U.S.S.R monuments:

World War II monument "Feat" in Almaty Kazakhstan.

Almaty Kazakhstan

U.S.S.R momnument found in Almaty Kazakhstan.

Dine in a Yurt and Eat Traditional Kazk Food

200 years ago 90% of Kazakhs lived in yurts, which were perfect for nomadic life. Today, in Almaty, you can dine in a yurt at Kok-Tobe Restaurant in what’s known appropriately as the Yurt Restaurant. They serve traditional Kazakh food, which is heavily based on meat – horse meat in particular. It was impractical to grow vegetable gardens given the nomadic lifestyle. I didn’t try the horse meat, but enjoyed the other courses.

As a side note, if you’re vegetarian, there’s one vegetarian restaurant in Almaty – Govinda’s located at Abylai Khan Ave 39.

Yurt Restaurant found on Kok-Tobe Hill in Almaty Kazakhstan where they serve traditional Kazak food.

Visit the Food Markets in Almaty

The Green Bazaar serves up traditional foods, as well as everything else you can think of. It’s definitely worth a look, and I did buy a yurt souvenir there, but for food shopping I prefered the local food market where I particularly sought out a special type of smoked string cheese. It’s so good that I brought two packages home with me!

cheese found at a food market in Almaty Kazakhstan

The Metro Stations of Almaty

One of the things that surprised me most about the subway stations was all the artwork. They were designed to be Palaces for the People. A place where everyone, regardless of their social or financial standing could enjoy artwork. I LOVE this idea. While, you won’t find art in each of the seven metro stations, you will find that each one is different. The metro stations are worth a visit – even if you’re not planning on taking the metro!

The metro stations in Almaty Kazakhstan are called "Palaces for the People" and filled with artwork for all to enjoy.

Central State Museum of Almaty

This museum is the finest museum in Almaty. If you just visit one museum in Almaty, make it this one. It takes you back through Kazakh history starting at the Bronze Age. Below is a replica of the Golden Man,a  Scythian warrior recovered from a burial mound, ~ 70 kilometers from Almaty. In this burial mound, they found a skeleton which was believed to have been an 18 year old Scythian warrior prince that impressively dates back to the 3rd or 2nd century BC. There are no signs in English, so it’s best to go with a guide to get the most from your visit.

The Golden Man at the Central State Museum in Almaty Kazakhstan

Zhybek-Zholy (Silk Road) Pedestrian Street

You will find cozy cafes, shops and artists lining their works along the pedestrian street nick-named Arbat. On weekends, there’s a market selling handicrafts. I came back to this street several times during my visit.

Art works along Zhybek-Zholy (Silk road) street in Almaty Kazakhstan

Pedestrian shopping street in Almaty Kazakhstan

Architecture in Almaty

True to its nomadic roots, you won’t find many old buildings in Kazakhstan, but you will find a mix of beautiful wooden buildings among functional square Soviet area ones. Like most cities, Almaty is fun to explore on foot and see what you come across.

Museum of Folk Musical Instruments in Almaty Kazakhstan
Museum of Folk Musical Instruments.

architecture in Almaty Kazakhstan

Almaty Kazakhstan

Almaty Kazakhstan

First President’s Park

This was one of my favourite places in all of Almaty! With a mountain backdrop, amphitheatre, water fountains, water features, and music, it’s no wonder it’s such a popular spot for wedding photos. It’s particularly spectacular at sunset!

First Presiden'ts Park in Almaty Kazakhstan. Shown is a bride and groom getting their wedding photos done with the Tien Shan mountains as the backdrop.

Flowers at the First Presiden'ts Park in Almaty Kazakhstan.

Water fountain at the First President's Park in Almaty Kazakhstan

Water fountain and Tien Shen Mountain backdrop at First Presiden'ts Park in Almaty Kazakhstan.Almaty Kazakhstan

Water feature at First Presiden'ts Park in Almaty Kazakhstan.

Views Over Almaty Stretching to the Tien Shen Mountains

You know that I’m going to love any city where you have a mountain view and that is so close to the mountains! Shymbulak Ski Resort is located just 20 minutes away, as are the incredible Tian Shan Mountains – often referred to as the Little Brothers of the Himalayas!

Ski jump and Tian Shan Mountains seen from the Ritz-Carlton in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Ski jump and Tian Shan Mountains seen from the Ritz-Carlton in Almaty.

I enjoyed my time in Almaty. It’s not the prettiest city I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting. I didn’t realize how western my views were against communism until my visit to Almaty. While, I don’t ever see myself becoming a communist, I can appreciate some of the good things about it, like having metro stations with art as Palaces for the People.

My visit to Almaty left a HUGE impression on me and was an incredible learning experience about a place that I knew very little about!

Almaty Kazakhstan

Disclosure: My visit to Almaty was made possible by Turan Asian Travel Company and by Almaty Tourism. They can help arrange a custom tour for you through Kazakhstan, or a tour that combines several of the “stans”. I stayed at Rahat Palace. As always, all opinions are my own. 

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About Author

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Laurel
Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.

Comments

Dosbol
February 5, 2016
You should've visited the capital city Astana as well. Yes, it doesn't have such a rich cultural background as Almaty and there are no mountains, but it's a new city with interesting architecture, also it'd be cool for you to visit Chairyn Canyons in Southern Kazakhstan - it's no worse than the Grand Canyon in Nevada, trust me, I've been to the GC. And, please, don't call us Kazak, we are Kazakh with an "h" at the end and you pronounce "kh" as "h" in the word "how" or "hunter" . Kazak is a tribe in Russia that has absolutely no connection with my country. No offence, just making it clear) But as a whole it's a nice and warming (may be only for me) idea to write something about Kazakhstan, because people really don't know and don't really want to know about it and beforehand have prejudiced and stereotyped thoughts about my country just because of that "stan" part. I've lived in the US for about 3 years, more precisely in LA, California, and people over there after hearing "I'm from Kazakhstan" start asking questions like "Is it really like in "Borat"?" which is kinda...silly) Therefore, it's great that someone at least tries to enlighten and inform other people. Thank you for your work, Laurel. Come visit Astana, I'll be glad to guide you!
February 5, 2016
@Dosbol - Thank you for your recommendations. I'd love to come back to Kazakhstan and see more. Also thank you for letting me know about my error with "Kazk", I will get that changed right away. I'll admit that I didn't know about Kazakhstan either before my visit, but really enjoyed my time there.
February 16, 2016
I was in Almaty in November and loved it so much! Actually I've stayed there much longer than I planned because it was just so good. Just a little tip - November is not the best time to visit, I couldn't go to Big Almaty Lake, Charyn Canyon or couple of other places as there was no way to get there :/ At least I could really get to know the city and now I have a reason to go back!
February 18, 2016
@Kami - So glad to hear it! Thanks for the tip!
Divyanshu
July 24, 2016
Nice read & good information , planning to visit for 5 days in Oct month !!
August 14, 2016
@Divyanshu - Glad it was useful. Enjoy your visit!

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