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An intriguing mix of the modern and traditional, Almaty contrasts brand-new skyscrapers with classic onion-domed Russian cathedrals. You're never far from snow-capped mountains in Kazakhstan's biggest city, so it's the perfect starting point for exploring the surrounding landscape. From Almaty, you can take day trips to the area's famous apple orchards, head into the mountains to snap photos of the vivid turquoise Big Almaty Lake or, further out, admire the impressive bright red rocks and white river of Charyn Canyon.
Some hostels in Almaty have lush green gardens and rooftop terraces for taking in the city and views of the hills. For a quirky choice, opt for a place with Pop Art-inspired furniture in its common room. There are also arty Almaty hostels with framed pictures on the walls and striking murals. When you're not making the most of the atmospheric canteen-style eateries, an Almaty hostel with a well-equipped kitchen will come in handy.
The charming city centre is one of Almaty's older neighbourhoods, with historic buildings including the colourful, not to mention chocolate-box-pretty, Zenkov Cathedral in leafy Panfilov Park. Almaly District is newer and feels more prosperous thanks to its ever-rising skyline, designer stores and fancy restaurants. To the southeast and overlooking the city is Kok Tobe Hill, which has a cable car to take you to the top, first passing over some of the oldest parts of the city.
If you're here in winter, you can skate at the Medeu outdoor ice rink, or beat the chill with a steaming dip in the marble-clad Arasan Baths. The Zelenyy Bazaar is worth visiting whatever the weather; this covered marketplace houses vendors selling everything from handmade souvenirs to local produce. Check out the ornate blue and white-fronted Central Mosque, too – the biggest in Kazakhstan – any day but Friday, or stroll along pedestrianised Arbat Street to take in the relaxed vibes and busking musicians.
Download the 2GIS app to help you get around Almaty, as it'll show you all the up-to-date bus, tram and metro routes and can be used offline. There are also taxis, both official and unofficial, around the city – book one for places like Big Almaty Lake from your hostel. Try to use the metro at least once during your stay to see the opulent stations with their intricate tiling and marble flooring. To get to the city centre from Almaty International Airport, you can hop on the bus or take a 30-minute taxi ride.