Before my visit to Almaty the only thing I knew about Kazakhstan was what I saw from the movie “Borat”. I know that the satirical film was actually filmed in the small village of Glod, Romania and that it in no way reflected the reality of Kazakstan, but it did make me wonder…is it nice?
While traveling to visit some dear friends in Dushanbe, Tajikistan I had the good fortune to spend 2 days in Almaty and I’m happy to report that Kazakhstan is much more than nice. In fact, Almaty is an incredible place to explore! In this article I will highlight my experience, some interesting places to see, some tips for visiting the city, and of course some great eats!
Seeing Almaty – Get a great guide!
My friend from Global Gaz gave me an excellent recommendation for an Almaty day visit tour guide. Friendly Tours offers several different short and long tours all of which are professionally guided and extremely affordable. If it wasn’t for our knowledgable tour guide, Gaukhar, we couldn’t have possibly experienced the sights and food of Almaty captured in this article.
We took 2 separate day tours with her. This article is based on those 2 tours. The first tour was for our overnight stay en route to Tajikistan, and the second tour was for our 9 hour layover en route back to Bangkok. Each tour was tailored to what we wanted to see, and she coordinated all of the transportation, provided insightful information to each place we visited, as well as made some great food recommendations. The cost for each “half day” tour was $30 per person and $35 for dinner for two (not inclusive of taxi service to/from the airport).
I happily give this tour company my highest recommendation for folks interested in visiting Kazakhstan. You won’t find a better deal, and the experience you have with them will certainly enrich your tour.
Let me show you.
A bit about Almaty…
Almaty is a small cosmopolitan city nestled in the foothills of the southern Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountain range. It served as Kazakhstan’s capital city when they declared their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1997 the capital status was transferred from Almaty to the northern city of Astana which made Astana the world’s youngest capital and 2nd coldest capital (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia holds the title with icy fingers).
Due to it’s proximity to the mountain range, Almaty experiences extremely hot summers, extremely cold winters, but very mild weather in the spring and fall seasons. But if you’re a ski nut you can enjoy the pristine and uncrowded slopes at the Shymbulak Ski Resort from November to May. They’re located 25 km from the Almaty city center and you can find some extremely affordable package deals on their website. But if a package deal isn’t your thing you can also book the rooms cheaply here.
7 Places to visit in Almaty!
There’s much to see and do in Almaty, but a well planned itinerary will ensure that you capture the highlights and experience most of what the city has to offer. Here I’ve compiled an itinerary for you from my experience so you can hit the places in a logical order based on their location and times they are open (assuming you start in the morning).
First stop: Green Bazaar (Zelionyj Bazar)
Whenever I have an opportunity to visit a new country I really enjoy checking out their fresh markets. Seeing where the locals shop gives me some insight into what they eat…the good and the bad. The Green Bazaar is a feast for the eyes with its fresh produce, meats, cheeses, and various other goods.
The vendors are grouped together by the types of food they sell and the sections are labeled. Pictured above is the meat section of the Green Bazaar. Each meat stall has additional signage with the animal picture on it: cows, pigs, chickens, horse (yes, horse), lambs, etc.
If you’re squeamish you may want to avoid this back area of the market.
But don’t shy away from the sausage counter. The vendors here are very happy to provide you with samples of their offerings. Here we tried some amazing sausages and made sure we didn’t come home without a few links.
I love cheese. So when I had a chance to sample these different homemade cheeses I was thrilled. The vendor offered a spread of goat cheese and honey that I really enjoyed, and these little balls of salty and slightly sour cheese balls were nice and could easily be transformed into a glass of yogurt drink (similar to ayran) by adding water.
One unique thing to try here is fermented mare’s milk and fermented camel milk. It’s actually a favored beverage for the locals as it’s supposed to be refreshing in the summer heat and give you a buzz. Now let me be clear. I am saying it’s a “unique” thing to try. In no way am I saying it’s delicious. In fact, I thought it was pretty disgusting. To me it tasted like a mix of vomit and bile. That being said, I’m glad I tried it just for the experience. Give it a try. You might like it!
What ails you?
Also of interest in the market is this stall with homeopathic remedies. The vendor here is happy to prescribe one of their elixirs for whatever ails you. They also sell nuts, berries, and herbs.
Born to sell…
When you initially enter the Green Market you’ll probably see this guy. He’ll greet you warmly and offer free samples of all the dried fruits and nuts that he sells. He’s a nice guy…and a born salesman. He quickly locked in on what it was that we liked, gave of some tasty samples, and sold us some bags. Honestly I don’t know if I really needed a kilo of almonds or figs. But they’re the best damned almonds and figs I’ve ever had and they fit in my carry-on bag.
Second stop: Did somebody say chocolate?
You’ll notice when you’re going to the Green Bazaar a strong smell of delicious chocolate hanging in the air. That smell isn’t coming from the market. Rather these delicious emanations are coming from the Paxat (Lotte) chocolate factory nearby. If you’re a chocolate lover (who doesn’t love chocolate?) then head to the factory store which is located a 200 meter walk from the bazaar for a real treat.
Here you’ll find bins of various candies and chocolate bars on the cheap. We loaded up on chocolate bars that were only $1 a piece. Our fridge was full of them. They didn’t last long in our house, though.
Third stop: Souvenir shopping!
Directly next to the Green Bazaar entrance are several small souvenir shops. You can’t miss it. If you follow the little pathway of tiny shops you’ll come to an area where there are a couple of lanes of stalls and stores. Here you’ll be able to find some great deals. I bought a traditional leather flask meant for fermenting mare’s milk. Don’t expect me to use it for that purpose– but for $9 it’s a interesting talking piece in my living room.
Fourth stop: Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments
At one time this wooden building was the city center for entertainment in Almaty. It was filled with revelers dancing and drinking the night away. Now it is the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments. For a 500 KZT ($1.45) entrance fee you can view over 1000 beautiful traditional musical instruments.
If that doesn’t sound like your thing, skip it. Directly across from the museum is the east entrance to the biggest attraction of Almaty and the epicenter for recreation and relaxation for the locals: the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen.
Fifth stop: Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen
This park honors and is named after the posthumously decorated Hero of the Soviet Union, Major General Ivan Vasilyevich Panfilov and the men he led. These brave fighters directly contributed to the successful defense of Moscow against the Nazi soldiers during WWII. They gave their lives to stall Germany’s advancement until reinforcements could get into a defensible position.
The park also honors all of Kazakhstan’s fallen warriors. It’s estimated that 25% of Kazakhstan’s male population fought and died on the fronts defending the Soviet Union. Small marble pillars labeled with city names serve as solemn places for families to lay flowers upon in remembrance of their lost loved ones. An “eternal flame” burns constant before a large statue consisting of soldiers from the 15 different Soviet States of the time.
If you walk past this impressive statue you can meander along trees planted by visiting president’s and dignitaries until you come to Almaty’s other famous landmark: the Ascension Cathedral or Zenkov Cathedral.
Sixth stop: Ascension Cathedral
From this picture you can imagine that the Ascension Cathedral is absolutely gorgeous. As it was completely covered in scaffolding and construction tarps when I visited I also had to imagine that it must be gorgeous and as a result this above picture wasn’t taken by me. The cathedral has been under renovation for some time now, and I’ve heard that this will be the case until its big reveal sometime in the summer of 2019.
But that doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t visit it. It’s an active cathedral and the inside is filled with history and ornate religious decor. Ascension Cathedral is the second largest wooden structure in the world. Though you can’t see it’s beauty from the outside (at least until the renovation is over), it truly is something to marvel from the inside.
For your final stop you’ll want to exit the park near the Panfilov statue and either walk or grab a taxi (depending on the weather and your schedule). A fun fact about taxi’s in Almaty: EVERY car is a taxi. You basically stand out by the side of the road and wave your hand to approaching cars. When one stops for you let them know where you want to go and agree on a price. However, if you’re not a fluent Russian speaker I recommend you just let your trusty guide (you listened to my guide recommendation, right?) handle the transportation piece.
Some interesting architecture…
Either by taxi or by foot you’re sure to be impressed with how modern, clean, and organized the city of Almaty is. I really enjoyed the art deco style buildings, the old Soviet block style apartments that seemed to be personalized, and the beautifully maintained wooden buildings. Enjoy the scene until you reach your 7th and final stop: the gondola to Kok Tobe Hill!
Seventh stop: Kok Tobe Hill
No trip to Almaty would be complete without a visit to Kok Tobe Hill. Riding the gondola up to the 1100 meter high hilltop is a thrilling way to see the city. Once at the top you’ll find impressive panoramic views of the entire city as well as the nearby mountain range.
This is the BEST place to witness the sun going down over the city as well as the beautiful city lights once it darkens. Kok Tube Hill is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. They’ve created a carnival like atmosphere here with a ferris wheel, kiddie rides, a petting zoo, cultural exhibitions, and strangely…a monument to The Beatles.
They’ve also got a restaurant/bar where you can grab a bite to eat or a drink to enjoy. But during your visit to Almaty you’d be remiss if you didn’t check out these AMAZING places to eat!
Where to eat in Almaty!
If you follow this 7 stop schedule I’ve written you must be starving. I mean, you’ve been touring the city all day and aside from a few complimentary samples from the Green Market I hadn’t mentioned anything about where to eat for lunch or dinner. Hopefully you read all the way through this novel to the end so you could see my foodie finds of Almaty!
Here are two restaurants in Almaty that serve up some seriously delicious and authentic Kazakhstan cuisine. Each meal we had was set at $35 for two (we had dinner at each one during our visits through Almaty).
Normally I recommend the best for last but this time I’m putting my best recommendation up front. Baursak City is open for lunch and dinner and their food and dining scene is incredible (filled with interesting antique Kazakh items). Their name comes from the fried bread that’s a common starter at Kazakh tables called “baursak”.
The interesting story behind this restaurant was that it was started by a doctor who due to low wages at the state run hospital started a sideline business making baursak and selling it to hungry customers. When his baursak became so popular he decided to hang up his doctor’s smock and open a restaurant.
Each dish that they serve at Baursak City is a feast for the eyes as well as your belly. They really go out of their way when it comes to presentation. This fact was evident when they brought out there literal “signature” salad. It comes with a raspberry gelatin sheet crowned with a pastry signature, but the mashed figs rolled in the honey sweetened cheese was my personal favorite.
One thing you’ll quickly observe when eating from a Kazakh menu is that dishes with horse meat are prevalent on it. I know some may be squeamish about eating our equine friends. I’m not. If you’re not afraid to try it, you’ll find the besbarmak (stewed slices of horse meat with sheets of thin pasta) and their dish of horse ribs on a bed of polenta to be AMAZING!
As a bonus, Baursak City offers you a chance to get all dolled up in traditional Kazakh clothes for some fun pictures.
Open daily from 10am to midnight, NAVAT (Чайхана) is an excellent introduction to delicious Kazakh cuisine. In the evening time they have live traditional music so this could be a nice dinner option. Their meat pies (samsa) and dumplings (manty) are to die for.
But if you’ve developed a taste for horse meat make sure to try the besbarmak here along with the piping hot bowls of oily salty broth they offer with it!
Where to stay in Almaty…
If you find yourself visiting Almaty via Air Astana then you’ll love this tip. Air Astana offers a “Stopover Holiday” package program for passengers finding themselves overnighting in Almaty. The program offers several popular 3,4, and 5 star 1-night hotel stays for as low as $1. This includes transportation transfers to and from the airport, and a buffet breakfast.
Included in their program is the Kazakhstan Hotel for a $2 night stay.
The Kazakhstan Hotel is an easy walking distance to the Kok Tube gondola ride point and provides a commanding view of the city and mountain range (which I used for the cover of this article). If you’re not flying with Air Astana and want a room with a view you can book directly with the hotel here.
Renion Residence Hotel
If you’re not flying into Almaty via Air Astana, or you’re like me and didn’t get a chance to take advantage of their Stopover Holiday program, I also highly recommend the Renion Residence Hotel. They provided an spacious apartment style room (living room, full kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom) conveniently located within walking distance of the Green Market for $45. This included a buffet breakfast (though they were happy to make a takeaway breakfast for us as our plane left early). They also coordinated transportation for us from the airport $10 and to the airport $5.
What do you think? Is it nice?
I really enjoyed the limited time that I had in Almaty. I’m also grateful that I was able to see it all so efficiently with our guide, Gaukhar, from Friendly Tours . I intend to return to Kazakhstan and try out their 5-day Active Tour of the mountainous areas outside of Almaty. It looks beautiful and the deal’s too good not to try it out. But that will be a story for later…
As a reminder, this itinerary was written based on 2 separate tours I experienced. So if you wanted to do this all in one day, you’d need an entire day to do it and that tour may be more expensive than the two half day tours I experienced.
I hope from this article you’re able to see just how wonderful Almaty is as a city to explore and that Kazakhstan should be on your bucket list for destinations to visit. Almaty offers tons of places to eat, drink, and be merry (including some wonderful coffee shops). It’s truly a metropolitan city that’s easy to get about via short taxi rides or on foot, and the people of Almaty are very excited to receive tourist guests.
Should you visit this wonderful city and find this article helpful I’d love to hear from you!