Kazakhstan went from requiring visas from almost every tourist to allowing many nationalities in visa-free for thirty days. WizzAir starting operating a route from Budapest to Astana and Air Baltic has just opened up a new route from Europe to Almaty. The city is starting to gain international recognition and businesses from cafes to hostels are starting to open their doors and welcome locals as well as the tourists coming to the country. Tour companies are starting to expand services and many locals intuitively have changed their career paths to something that will benefit the country’s inevitable tourism. To help you discover this newly trending destination, I have put together an Almaty guide especially for you! You’re welcome.
Where is Almaty?
My first trip out to Almaty was back in 2013 and I was clueless about what to expect. This mysterious city in Central Asia is home to nearly two million residents and yet a whole lot of people outside of Kazakhstan were unaware that the city even existed. A country plagued by a movie that was actually shot in Romania, Kazakhstan was misunderstood and was situated in a region burdened by misconceptions from four simple letters: STAN. I stayed out in Kazakhstan for nearly a month and loved almost every minute of my time in the country. I loved it so much that I ended up moving to Almaty at the end of 2016 for a few months. I fell even more in love with Almaty. Almaty is ready and should be on everyone’s travel radar. Here are some reasons that I think you will love this Central Asian city:
Things to do in Almaty
Discover Almaty’s unique architecture
In Almaty, you can find traces of nomadic-inspired architecture, Soviet structures, and some of the most modern buildings you will ever feast your eyes on. Most cities around the world are defined by one type of architecture, but Almaty is different. You can find different layers to the city and in a way, you can learn the history of the place that way. The architecture of the Kazakh city makes it such a dynamic place and one that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve returned home.
Visit the Ascension Cathedral
This colorful, wooden cathedral is located inside of Panfilov Park and is one of the most renowned symbols of the city. Completed in 1907, the Ascension Cathedral (also known as the Zenkov Cathedral) is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. The church was made without nails and it even withstood the 1911 earthquake. Panfilov Park is one of Almaty’s most popular parks and I can assure you that it looks good in sunny, warm weather or during the middle of a freak blizzard. I have experienced it in both!
Admire Almaty’s Soviet influences
Almaty has some gems when it comes to Soviet styles of architecture. The Palace of the Republic, Kazakh State Circus, Palace of Weddings, and Hotel Kazakhstan are a few of my favorites. The details on the Khrushchyovkas (Soviet residential buildings from the 1960s) are also noticeable and you can see some traditional Kazakh imprints on the fairly homogenous buildings.
Take a walking tour
Dennis Keen is a Kazakh transplant and offers city tours with Walking Almaty where you can create bespoke tours or go on an organized one with him. He pays attention to the details and knows the history and it is a must for architecture lovers.
Surround yourself in nature
The city has a plethora of things to offer travelers, but nothing is as outstanding as the nature that surrounds Almaty. Waterfalls, canyons, desert, teal mountain lakes, and forested mountains make Almaty a nature-lover’s paradise. You can easily, and affordably, get from the city center of Almaty to a piece of nature that will make you feel like you’ve entered a different world.
Travel to Charyn Canyon
Outside of Almaty a few hours is Charyn Canyon, a geological phenomenon that is often referred to as the Grand Canyon’s Little Sister. You will go from the dramatic Alatau Mountains east toward China until you enter the home of the giant gerbil, a desert rodent that you will likely see nearly thirty times out of your car or bus window. The canyon is home to the Valley of Castles, a can’t-miss for those who want to hike through it. I have seen the Grand Canyon and Charyn Canyon, and because of the remote nature of Charyn and fewer crowds, I most definitely prefer it.
You can get to Charyn Lake independently, book a tour through your hostel, or book a tour through Grande Voyage.
Gaze over Almaty Lake
Everyone knows Banff lake and its teal waters that glisten against the snow… but not many people know that a lake just as beautiful and picturesque exists in Almaty, Kazakhstan only 15km from the city center. The lake is a main source of water for the city, so no swimming is allowed, but the water and backdrop is so mesmerizing that swimming will be the last thing on your mind.
Almaty is for foodies
Almaty is a food-lover’s dreamland. There is a diverse array of food that can be found, but rest assured, it is all absolutely delicious. You can find everything from Uzbek plov (rice pilaf with explosive flavor) to beshbarmak (horse meat and noodles) to mouthwatering shashlik (meat kebabs). Foods grown in Kazakhstan are grown 100% naturally and without pesticides, hormones, etc and the flavor is just astounding. The apple originates from Almaty and you better bet that they taste better there than anywhere else in the world. There is also a surprisingly thriving Korean food scene there and many Kazakhs know the cuisine well and enjoy it regularly.
While the food scene is booming, the cafe scene is also worth mentioning. The streets are swarming with cafes, all serving coffee, drinks, and some of the best salads I have ever tasted.
The food establishments of Almaty will take you from feeling like you’re in North America to Italy to Russia to Japan all in a short distance. The diverse culinary scene of Almaty is something that will definitely not stay a secret for very long.
If you just want to learn more about the products in Central Asia – head to the Green Bazaar. You can find anything there!
Where to stay in Almaty
When I first went out to Almaty, I struggled finding a place to stay. The tourism infrastructure was poor and I ended up at an apartment in a distant part of the city that offered little culture and opportunity to meet other people. That is definitely not the case anymore.
Presently, places to stay exist for every type of traveler, from the budget conscious backpacker to the luxury tourist. I, personally, am partial to the hostels in Almaty as you meet several other travelers with a keen interest in nature and promoting the wonderful city they almost certainly fall in love with immediately upon arrival. My favorite place to crash in Almaty is Almaty Hostel Dom, a clean and comfortable place near Dostyk Avenue, a street in Almaty with an abundance of things to do (and good food!) ‘Dom’ means ‘home’ in Russian and the place feels like just that. I planned to stay at Almaty Hostel Dom for a few days while I searched for an apartment for my next couple of months in Almaty. I never ended up searching for that apartment as I found my Almaty ‘home’.
Almaty is about to boom with tourism
Kazakhstan is concentrating efforts on building tourism. New flight routes are popping up, the locals are fervently learning English, and construction is constantly taking place to build up the city. Finding flights to the country can easily be done for less than $100 round trip if you are flexible with dates. They had bids placed for the Winter Olympics. Astana just held the Expo in 2017. Their focus on tourism is definitely a priority and I can’t wait until Almaty receives the tourism that it deserves. Will you be Almaty’s next visitor?
About the Author:
Megan Starr is a travel blogger and digital marketer from Richmond, Virginia but currently based in Frankfurt, Germany. Her travels focus on post-Soviet countries and the Nordics. She has an affinity for good coffee and beer, cold climates, brutalist architecture, and all things animals. You can read more on her Blog or Facebook.