Top Sights Almaty Kazakhstan. Almaty is not elbowing out Paris any time soon on top travel lists, but this Central Asian city should be included on your to-visit-lists. Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan (yes, that one, made famous by Borat) nearing two million people. For decades, Almaty served as Kazakhstan’s capital, until the capital was recreated in futuristic Astana, a 12 hour train to the north.
Kazakhstan, today’s largest landlocked country, was formally part of the Soviet Union from 1920 to 1991 and then gained its independence when the Soviet Union withered away. Kazakhstan derives its wealth from rich resources of oil, gas, and minerals. Historically, Kazakhstan was comprised of nomadic people who roamed the steppes. The Russian Empire made their first forays into Kazakhstan in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century, Kazakhstan was nominally ruled by the Russian Empire.
Almaty is an interesting mix. It is full of Kazaks and Russians. Muslims and Christians. A smorgasbord of Russian, Soviet and modern design. Almaty sits in a valley at the foothills of the snowcapped Zailiyskiy Alatau Mountains.
I visited Almaty in March, not an advisable time. I was met with rain, snow, and a chilly sun. Yet I found the city to be charming and welcoming. Almaty is composed of green parks, wide walking promenades, fountains, and cafes. I repeatedly envisioned coming back to visit in the spring and enjoying a cappuccino (or chilly beer) at a sun drenched café.
So what is there to see in Almaty?
The Green Market’s history dates back over 100 years and is a mix of open air stalls and covered markets in a large area, surprisingly with the buildings painted in green. These traditional markets where haggling takes place competes with the shiny new malls fighting for the locals’ Tenge (dollar).
You can purchase everything here, from horse meat to honey to underwear to furry hats. The Green Market is a great place to people watch and interact with the locals. I was able to sample a bit of food, ranging from horse milk (tasty) to pickled Korean treats (not tasty). There is a Korean population in Almaty, who were forcibly moved under Stalin in 1937 to Kazakhstan. The Green Market is a good place to practice some Russian and ty and make some locals smile.
A golden-toothed babushka shopkeeper inquired where I was from. I responded “America” and requested a photo. She replied affirmatively if I promised to tell everyone back home how nice everyone was in Almaty. Easy, done deal.
Rakhat Chocolate Factory
Rakhat is a large chocolate and confectionary business that traces its roots back 70 years with over 3500 employees. Visit the store which is teeming with customers and workers scurrying around filling orders. Stop by and stock up. One benefit of the factory being located in Almaty, is at many times while strolling around, I would catch a whiff of chocolate. There are worse smells.
The golden-domed Central Mosque holds over 7000 people and was completed in 1999. The previous mosque was found here and had dated back to the 19th century. Approximately 70% of Kazaks are Muslims with Christians tipping in at 26%.
Almaty has a lot of green spaces including Panfilov Park which is a central wooded area with a number of sites to check out, including:
Ascension Cathedral (also known as Zenkov Cathedral) is a Russian Orthodox cathedral. This church as constructed in wood without nails and was completed in the early 20th century. It tops out at 56 meters and for many years was the tallest structure in Almaty. Almaty is subject to earthquakes and this church survived an earthquake in 1911 with minimum damage with credit being given to architect/designer Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov. Frustratingly during my visit, the church was covered in scaffolding and tarps since it was being renovated. While I was not able to fully admire the colorful exterior, the golden interior replete with icons was to be appreciated.
Monument to Panfilov Heroes
The Panfilov Heroes, are 28 soldiers, who were part of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting Nazi German invaders on the outskirts of Moscow in World War II. The heroes take their name from General Ivan Panfilov, the leader of the 316th division which, who were able to delay the invading Nazis on the outskirts of Moscow despite taking serious causalities. A series of monuments with names and gold stars dot the park.
If you have visited any other ex-Soviet cities you will be familiar with this monument. This Soviet Brutalist architecture styled monument honors the war dead from the Great Patriotic War (known to others as WWII) and the Russian Civil War. At the center of the monument is a large sculpture crafted in black stone representing soldiers from the 15 different Soviet Republics. An eternal flame wavers in front of the soldiers. A number of blocks represent the Hero Cities of the Great Patriotic War. Practice your Cyrillic to figure which cites they are.
Monument to the Afghanistan War
A trio of solemn soldiers represent the sacrifices made by the Soviet Military in Afghanistan.
A large Soviet-style building stands opposite of the Eternal Flame Monument. Note the large golden Soviet star perched on top of this 1970’s building.
Monument of Zhambyl
Stroll down Dostyk Avenue and check out the Monument of Zhambyl. Three imposing Soviet-esque apartment buildings make an interesting background to this statue. Zhambyl Zhabayev was a great Kazak poet who lived a long life dying one year short of his 100th birthday in 1945.
Hotel Kazakhstan is a well-known landmark in Almaty. When it was completed in 1977 it surpassed the Zenkov Cathedral to become the tallest structure in the city. You will also recognize the building due to its unique crown resting on its roof.
Another domineering Soviet 1970s structure, which was formally the Palace of Culture. This building hosts concerts and other performances. In front of the Palace is the Abay Kunanbaev Monument. He is a 19th century Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher.
Next to the Palace is a cinema constructed in 1968 bathed in white. On the side is a spectacular Soviet era bas-relief. Very cool.
Kok Tobe Park
Near the cinema is the Kok Tobe cable car. For 2000 Tenge, you can purchase a round trip ticket which will bring you to the top of Kok Tobe, which stands at 1100 meters. Kok Tobe affords spectacular views of Almaty, assuming the weather agrees. On top of Kok Tobe are a number of restaurants, amusement rides, as well as 372 meter TV tower.
One popular site to snap a picture is the Beatles monument created by sculptor Eduard Kazaryan which was placed in Kok Tobe in 2007. Beatles music is piped in so feel free to snap a selfie or two here. I recalled the Beatles monument I saw in Ulan Bator when checking out the Almaty version.
And stop in at Monteverde for a cappuccino and admire the panorama of Almaty.
Children’s Public Palace
Another nice green park anchored by the Children’s Public Palace, a golden domed structure.
Check out Republic Square a true Soviet creation, a large expanse in the city. The square is surrounded by a series of gargantuan structures, both offices and residential, festooned with Cyrillic writing. This area opened in 1980 and served as a home to future protests as the Soviet Union withered away.
On one side of the multi-lane road is the Mayor’s Office placed on a hill. This massive structure was formally the Presidential Palace prior to the capital moving to Astana. Perched on the hill, you have a view of the Monument of Independence.
Monument of Independence
The monument is anchored by a 28 meter stela which is adorned by the Goldenman. Goldenman was discovered in a burial mound in the 1960s who was adorned in intricate golden armor. Goldenman is estimated to be over 2000 years old. Surrounding the monument are a series of bas-reliefs depicting Kazakhstan’s history.
In 2006, T. Suleymenov, Kazakh architect and designer unveiled the “The Flash of Freedom Dawn”. It honors those who protested the central authorities in 1986.
Tolebaev Street is a long street for both autos and a wooded pedestrian walking path. The street is an upscale residential area with high rents and prices, which formally served as the homes for communist officials and Soviet VIPs. Multiple plaques are attached to many of the homes highlighting the former illustrious resident.
Located on Tolebaev Street are a number of mini-museums, including the Kunayev Museum. Dinmukhamed Kunayev, a Kazakh communist Soviet leader, was the de facto leader of Kazakhstan for over two decades. While he was eventually fired in 1986 for corruption, Kunayev is held in high regard for the development of the country.
My personalized tour guide shared that Kazakhstan was ranked third of the republics when he was ousted. This museum is a bit lackluster, as my non-pulsed guide rattled off facts such as this is Kunayev’s shirt that he used to wear. From what I could tell, I was the only visitor that day.
Mukhtar Omarkhanuli Auezov Museum
Further up, the sloping hill of the pedestrian mall is the Mukhtar Omarkhanuli Auezov Museum located in his former residence, a good-sized attractive home. Auezov is a loved Kazakh author and social activist. Auezov is best known for “Abai Zholy” a very popular and valuable novel. Abai was a poet who well known to Auezov’s grandfather and father. Auezov grew up hearing tales of Abai, inspiring him to write the book.
My private guide for 300 Tenge (about a $1) was much more pleasant and animated compared to my previous guide walked me through the home, noting the picayune. Auezov was an accomplished travel, with his home filled with souvenirs from his travels.
Where to stay
There are many hotel options in Almaty, but many seemed on the high end or poor value. I opted for an Airbnb and finally had a truly positive experience with the platform. For $50 a night, I had my own spacious and trendy two bedroom apartment. The location was perfect, across the street from Panfilov Park.
Where To Eat
I am not a foodie, but I found this town to be agreeable.
I ate here five times during my four night trip. For $2.50 I dined on large chicken shawarma with two yogurt drinks. By order three, the staff had memorized my order and greeted me with a smile. Nice touch.
I realize I am in Kazakhstan, but hey, I like Georgian food. And Darejani was next to my Airbnb and was a highly rated Georgian restaurant which was tastefully decorated. I had Ajarian Khachapuri, lobio, and a fresh salad. This clocked in at about $15.
Green Market Restaurant
I also ate at a local café in the bottom floor of the Green Market near some vegetable sellers. This locals’ favorite is well known for its Uighur inspired noodle dish. A giant plate with bread, tea and a coke will set you back a bit over $3.
I logged in a lot of walking time in the city. Around 15000-25000 steps a day according to my App. Despite this, Almaty has a lot of options including a Metro and frequent buses. A card is available which you can swipe for both the bus and the metro. Like many Soviet countries, you can waive down random cars, pay them, and have them take you to your location (a precursor to Uber). And speaking of Uber, they have Uber, and seemingly better, Yandex (the Russian version of Uber). Download the app it is a good solution. A Yandex is 1500 Tenge from the city center to the airport (about $5 for a 30 minute ride). And yes, they have plain old taxis.
Money Changing, and ATMs
Kazakhstan Tenge is the currency at about $1 for 320 Tenge. ATMs are plentiful as well as money change stores. Like many other countries, they like small money or exact change.
Wifi And SIM Cards
I was able to easily buy a SIM card at a kiosk in a mall. The SIM card set me back 200 Tenge and 2 GB of data was an additional 500 Tenge. Wifi was accessible at cafes and restaurants. As a side note, my Airbnb had awesome fast wifi.
The languages of Kazakhstan are Russian and Kazak. Younger people are more likely to speak English. It is helpful to know the Cyrillic language (it is still on my bucket list to learn). Most signs (street and store) are in Cyrillic as well as a lot of menus.
Kazakhstan is visa free for 30 days for many nationalities.
Whenever I arrive in a new city, my first priority is to find a walking tour. This allows me to set my bearings and learn about the highlights of the city. Friendly Tours has a great introduction to Almaty. My guide Gaukhar provided an excellent personalized tour going the extra mile to customize the tour for me.
Top Sights Almaty Kazakhstan