If you’re heading to Kazakhstan – chances are you’ll end up in Almaty.
Almaty is Kazakhstan’s largest city (and it was once the capital), and it also serves as a gateway to the other Stan countries.
So, what is there to do in Almaty? Whether you’re there as part of a bigger Kazakhstan trip, or it’s simply a stopover on your way to another country in the region, then I’ve got the guide for you.
Here’s how to spend 72 hours in Almaty.
Stroll through the Green Bazaar
Fuel up for the day’s activities (or grab some goods to prepare for dinner) with a stop at the Green Bazaar (market). Each item is grouped into its own section such as meat, cheese, bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dried fruit and nuts.
You will be spotted as a tourist immediately in the bazaar. Beware of inflated tourist prices and bring out your best bargaining skills. Some vendors may speak a little English.
Get a view from above
Head over to Almaty’s Kok Tobe Cable Car Station and take the short ride up to the top of Kok Tobe Mountain for a panoramic view over the city.
Kok Tobe Mountain is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and stands at 1,100 metres above sea level.
It’s super touristy up the top though – hosting restaurants, a fairground complete with a ferris wheel and various children’s rides, and even life-sized statues of The Beatles. Try to time your visit for a weekday.
The cost of the cable car is 1000 Tenge (about $4 AUD) each way and the station is located near Hotel Kazakhstan on Dostyk Avenue. Budget travellers can opt to ride the cable car up and then take the 45-minute walk down.
You can also take bus 99 from the bus stop opposite Hotel Kazakhstan on Dostyk Avenue up to the Ormanova Bus Terminal, and walk the remaining kilometre up to the top of Kok Tobe Mountain.
Visit Almaty’s key sights
There are several key monuments and sights to check out while you’re in Almaty.
Your first stop should be the Ascension Cathedral. The cathedral is made entirely of wood, and it’s located in the Panfilov Park.
Almaty’s Monument of Independence is also worth a look. The monument signifies the independence of Kazakhstan from the USSR in 1991. It’s located in Almaty because it was the capital at the time of independence. Astana became Kazakhstan’s capital in 1997.
If you want a place to relax, head to the Arasan Baths for a sauna or a massage.
It’s also nice to simply wander around the area near the Green Bazaar. Do as the locals do and take a stroll through the many parks.
Go to the ballet
If you’re keen on getting your arts and culture fix in Almaty, try and time your visit to Almaty with a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night.
Opera and ballet performances run on Friday nights from 7pm, and at 6pm on Saturday and Sunday nights at the Abay State Opera and Ballet Theatre.
You can buy tickets as cheap as 1500 Tenge (about $5.80 AUD).
The ballet performances sell out quickly so if you’re keen to check out the ballet, try and buy a ticket as soon as you arrive in Almaty. Opera tickets are easier to get last minute.
Head into the mountains
On your second day in Almaty, head up to the Shymbulak Ski Resort.
If you’re in Almaty between December and April, this is the place to go skiing with ski passes starting from 9500 Tenge ($36 AUD) for a day pass.
At 2,260 metres above sea level, this is also a great spot in the warmer months to get a view of the mountains surrounding Almaty. But you do have to be lucky to get a fog free day.
To get up to Shymbulak, take Bus 12 from Dostyk Avenue across from Hotel Kazakhstan. The fare is 150 Tenge ($0.60 AUD). You can get off the bus either at the cable car station or the Medeo ice skating rink. This is the world’s highest ice skating rink, sitting at 1691 metres above sea level.
You can take the cable car up to Shymbulak for 2500 Tenge return, or go all the way up to the highest point located at 3200 metres above sea level. The latter option costs 3500 Tenge for the return trip.
If you’re on a really tight budget, you can take a mini bus up to Shymbulak from the ice skating rink for 300 Tenge one way. You can take the mini bus back down to the ice skating rink once you’ve had a look around, or walk down in about an hour. There’s a small thermal springs area on the way down and you also get a nice view of the mountains.
Explore one of the world’s largest canyons
If you want to see some of the natural sights in Kazakhstan – then consider taking a day trip to Charyn Canyon from Almaty.
The canyon lies a 3.5 hour drive from Almaty along the steppe.
There’s no public transport to the canyon, so you either have to hire a driver or join a tour. Grande Voyages offers regular tours to the canyon – however the guide will only speak Russian.
But you don’t really need to understand anything – Grande Voyages really just offers the bus transport, and then you have four hours to spend in the Valley of Castles section of the canyon – the most famous part of the canyon.
You can buy a ticket for the canyon day trip at the Tourist Information Centre located across the street from the Kok Tobe cable car entrance and near an underground passage exit. The tour costs 6000 Tenge per person.
Wear sturdy shoes to the canyon as some of the trails can be slippery. I have a funny story (not funny at the time but funny after!) from my visit to the canyon where I slipped, cut my knee and had to pour vodka on it because I had nothing else to sterilise the wound with for the drive back to Almaty!
Things You Should Know
- You’ll get by ok with English in Almaty but it will be better if you happen to know a bit of Russian. You should be able to find English speakers at your accommodation. Supermarket cashiers, metro attendants and bus drivers are unlikely to speak English. Staff at the Tourist Information Centre at the airport, and in Almaty’s centre speak English.
- As with all ex-Soviet countries, Almaty offers a clean and efficient metro system. There’s only one line though so it’s very easy to navigate. I only took the metro once to get across the city to meet my Charyn Canyon tour, so you’ll find you won’t use it that often as Almaty is very walkable and the city buses are very good. The cost for a metro ride is 80 Tenge ($0.30 AUD) and you pay an attendant at the entrance and then you’ll be given a token.
- City buses cost 150 Tenge ($0.60 AUD) and you pay the driver.
- There’s money exchange counters on almost every block so it’s easy to exchange cash. US Dollars are best.