My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan
My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan - Understand
Almaty is the commercial capital of Kazakhstan and has a history of an oasis trading hub in the region. It's located just north of the Alatau Mountains that separate Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan (see My Favorite Things to do in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).
The city is a rewarding travel destination that showcases a very high quality of life in a region that isn't known for it.
Almaty features tree-lined streets, lots of parks, fountains and coffee shops and restaurants with amazing outdoor terraces. There is decent food, the people are (somewhat) friendly and they have reasonable English skills. The unique mix of old Soviet city architecture, a Central Asian feel, modernity and the sheer affordability make it a lovely place to visit.
One thing that kept me wondering here is the state of the Kazakh national identity. Kazakhstan has a diverse population and is now a rich country that is potentially very independent from Russia, but it just seems to still be trying to find out what it stands for.
My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan - Get Around
Traffic can be intense in this city but usually flows pretty well. Uber recently started in Kazakhstan and is easily the best way to get around, although there is a multitude of competing rideshare apps for the adventurous. Uber rides rarely cost more than $2 anywhere in the city, with the exception of the Medeu resort, which charges a fixed rate of $6.
I spent a lot of time walking in Almaty; the trick here is to find the pedestrian avenues off the noisy main roads. It takes a while, but they are all over the city and you end up traversing Almaty by only walking through tree-lined roads that have no traffic.
The modern Almaty Metro has just one short line which does not get travelers to the places they usually want to go and the old city tramway has now been retired.
My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan - Safety
As with many former Soviet Union countries and cities, pubic services work well here (sometimes too well). Almaty is VERY safe during the day and still safe at night to walk around the streets alone. I did not worry about safety in Almaty at all.
My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan - Sights
Panfilov Park (Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen)
This downtown park, named after the 28 Panfilov heroes, is a fantastic way to start your city exploration. It has trees (yes, it is a park), the Panfilov monuments and eternal flame, as well as the Ascension Cathedral, a beautiful Russian Orthodox church.
Many city parks
The many small (and big) city parks are a wonderful way to discover Almaty. There are fountains everywhere. While the parks and fountains are often not in the best shape, they get the job done.
First President's Park
Kazakhstan's long-standing president had built a separate 'state park' in both Almaty and Astana. Almaty's version features pretty views, but it was closed for a multi-day cleaning when I visited.
Arbat is the major pedestrian zone in Almaty. There isn't much here besides Soviet-era buildings and a few shopping options.
Arasan Wellness & SPA
This Almaty institution will warm up your heart (and body) on a cold day. It is a huge spa with many sauna options for you to enjoy and the entrance fee is less than $10.
Almaty Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are a bit outside of the city center, with an entrance fee of just $1.50. The gardens are not in great shape, but there is a greenhouse and I found it a pleasant way to spend half an hour.
This green (read fresh things) market spans a whole city block. And fresh they are; so many yummy vegetables and fruit make it hard to leave without a big bounty.
Almaty Central Mosque
This is one beautiful mosque and you can clearly see the Central Asian influence on its architecture. I came unprepared (in shorts) so the interior was off-limits to me.
This isn't exactly a pretty hotel and far from being the city's best place to stay, but it was worth it to see Almaty's tallest building and a great way to see one of those from the Soviet-era.
A quick picture will do the trick, but this place still makes you aware that you are in a very special place where Europe and Asia intersect.
Abay Opera House
This national theater, opera and ballet house is a stunning example of 1930s architecture here, both inside and out. Performance tickets are cheap, too, so it's well worth a visit.
Central State Museum
This is a grandiose building and no doubt a leftover from Soviet times. It is just KZT 500 to enter, but the exhibitions are not very inspiring and are also somewhat randomly spread around the building. Kazakhstan's identity is still a work in progress and this museum seems to make a point of this.
Medeu and Shymbulak
Just outside the city is Medeu, a major ice skating rink in a beautiful, narrow, mountain valley setting.
But don't just stop there, as the gondola rides up to Shymbulak, also known as Chimbulak. At more than 10,000 feet it is one of the peaks of the Altai Mountains that separate Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan (and which some have traveled to the Himalayas from). In total there are 3 different lifts and a $20 ticket gets you all the way up. There is usually snow at the peak year-round and temperatures are in the 40s during the day, so take a warm sweater even if it is hot in Almaty.
At the end of the first lift there is a lovely terrace with a Marrone Rosso and a few more coffee shops and restaurant outlets. Enjoy the sunshine and take in the views.
Sharon Canyon is a popular day trip from Almaty; buses leave from the stadium or you can arrange a pick-up from your hotel. You can self-drive as well; Avis has rentals for around $50 a day.
Other popular options from Almaty include Big Almaty Lake and the sunken forest of Lake Kaindy.
My Favorite 33 Things to do Almaty, Kazakhstan - Eat & Drink
If you visit Almaty in summer it is hard to not be impressed by the many available food, drink and coffee options. Almost every place has a huge outdoor terrace that is usually in great shape and will no doubt make many designers giddy with joy.
The downside is that most options are usually bland and uninspiring. It's hard to believe how much is invested in interior design, but how little into the actual enjoyment of the food and drinks.
This coffee shop enjoys a bad reputation with many locals and I was warned not to go there. Indeed the clientele is often rowdy and they certainly want to show off their new black Mercedes, but COFFEEDELIA looks gorgeous, has excellent coffee and great food, as well as fast and incredibly friendly service. It's also REALLY cheap and comes with lightning-fast WiFi. I really liked it!
COBA Espresso Bar
This space is huge and it's comfy, but the coffee is just average and the staff were overwhelmed with just a few guests. Odd.
DOM is a large, new and beautiful space where they roast their own coffee. It was hard for me to get excited about the coffee, but the pastries were excellent. It seemed pretty empty when I was there - I hope this will change!
This is what happens when mood lighting goes crazy...
This coffee shop chain is modern but sometimes feels more like a coffee and food factory with the constant speaker announcements of orders. The coffee is strong and the food is decent, though the WiFi is usually not working.
Craft Kitchen & Bar
This place is pretty hidden (and usually empty) but it has a wonderful outdoor terrace and a great, hipster interior. Plus I liked the burger I ordered.
Confitero is a small, down-to-earth bakery and sweet shop. They only have a few items for sale, but everything I tried was delicious and cheap. Great little place.
И.В.Мичурин (I.V. Michurin)
Michurin specializes in organic and healthy food, but that does not mean they don't have drinks and coffee on offer (most menus in Almaty are extravagantly big). I really liked the grilled chicken and salad here. It's expensive for Almaty, but you will still pay under $11 for a full meal including drinks and tip/tax.
William Lawson's 13 The Bar
Where else in the world can you order a quality whiskey for $1? William Lawson's is a mix of a sports bar, a whiskey joint and a brewery (though no beers are brewed here). It has a gorgeous outdoor terrace (would you expect anything else in Almaty?) and serves various bottled IPAs from Yekaterinburg for under $3. The staff are kind, though they do not speak much English. What a fantastic place.
Кафе "Льдинка" (Icicle Restaurant)
This great little spot comes complete with a super-modern interior and its own video projector. There are ping pong tables and good coffee, too. What else could you hope for?
Daredzhani serves excellent Georgian cuisine, including typical Georgian pies, dumplings and fresh salads. While high quality and fresh, the food struck me as a bit bland, though the service is top-notch and the location is lovely.
This cafe now has two locations in Almaty. The main location is huge and has a lovely terrace for sun lovers (for the warmer months). The coffee, food and smoothies were all good, though none were very memorable. The staff are uber-friendly, the WiFi is fast and it's also really cheap - just one great option in this city.
JumpinGoat Coffee, Baikonur Metro
Hidden in the Baikonur subway station is JumpinGoat Coffee - a tiny little spot with good coffee and friendly service.
seventy coffee, Alatau Metro
Inside the Alatau Metro Station is this tiny little coffee shop that likely brews the best coffee in town. The roast is fresh and the bitterness well-managed. It's just 75 cents for a macchiato - almost like the To.Mo.Ca coffee heaven in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
This nightlife option gives most Soho and Chelsea nightlife joints a run for their money. There's fantastic design inside and out and a DJ on the sidewalk. The staff are kind, the drinks menu is very inspired and the Spanish tapas are excellent too. Plus it's still cheap.
This Korean restaurant is a formal affair - make no mistake. There must have been a dozen people who greeted me when I came in both times I dined there. The food is original Korean including all the little appetizers. I had the bibimbap which was pretty good (though not stellar), which came out to $6 incl. tip - that's just incredibly cheap for a white table cloth affair.
In neighboring Bishkek, Bar Kvartira was my favorite place to be, with their delicious food and creative bar design. There is a Kvartira with a similar theme in Almaty, but it's nothing like the Bishkek competition. Avoid.
Chukotka has a location like no other - in the middle of Panfilov Park downtown. It makes the most of its location and is a busy bar with decent music and good DJs until late at night.
Malina Mix specializes in salads and boy they do that well. It is also extraordinarily cheap, with the lunch menu (which includes a main course) for under $3 including tip and tax.
Sumo San has a fantastic location and serves huge, super-fresh portions of sushi and sashimi. The service is friendly too and the WiFi is free and fast. Plan on $18-$20 per person here (which is a lot for Almaty these days).