Almaty is known as “City of Apples” as it is thought that this region is apple’s ancestral home. Apparently, you can still find wild apples in the outskirts of Almaty! There are many things to do in Almaty. There are a good variety of restaurants, extensive public transport systems, close proximity to nature, metropolitan cityscape. Overall, it is a very pleasant city, we even joked about retiring here in the future.
According to the Mercer Human Research, Almaty is in the top 50 most expensive cities worldwide for ex-pats to live in. It is certainly not cheap compare to the rest of Central Asia. We found the expenses here are similar to Eastern European cities, which isn’t bad considering the living standard here is quite similar to some Western countries.
We spent five days in Almaty during mid-winter. Consequently, we didn’t experience everything this city has to offer, especially outdoor activities. Nevertheless, we still manage to come up with a list of 10 things to do in Almaty, even though the average temperature was around -10℃ in January!
1. Download the “2gis” APP & start exploring Almaty!
At the foothill of the northern Tian Shan mountains, this former capital of Kazakhstan has much to offer. Almaty is built on a slope with the beautiful, snow-capped mountains towards the south. Therefore, locals often refer to “uptown” or head “up” as going towards the mountains and head “down” or towards “downtown” as going away from the mountains.
The city is well-serviced by metro, trams, buses and trolleys. You can download the “2gis” APP from http://www.2gis.ru and check all the routes offline in real-time. We find 2gis is better than Google Maps in Almaty as you can’t check the latter real-time and offline. The app is in English which makes it easy to use for foreigners.
Here in Almaty, the metros typically run every 15 minutes and 5-7 minutes during peak hour. The buses are more frequent with extensive routes. It is a great way to explore the city using the 2gis App! You can purchase Onay card and top it up as you go, it also makes bus rides cheaper (from 150 KZT to 80 KZT). The top-up machines can be found almost everywhere! This blog has instructions on how to buy and top up the card.
2. Listen to Kazak operas and ballets in the Abay Opera House for only USD$6!
As Almaty has been part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the area of music since November 2017, it is no surprise that there’s a huge cultural scene in the city. The Abay Opera House was built in 1934, named after a Kazakh poet, composer and philosopher. It is the place to go if you want to see operas, ballets and orchestras.
At the time of our visit, the ballet Nutcracker and an unknown opera were on. We choose opera as my husband has never seen an opera before. It turned out to be a traditional Kazak performance about two men fighting over one girl. Although the whole show was sung in a foreign language, we still got the plot. It was certainly quite an unusual experience as we probably won’t be seeing an opera like this anywhere else in the world.
We sat at row 6 and the ticket was only 2500 KZT (around USD$6) per person. The Nutcracker ballet was a bit pricier, though still very affordable. We regret not attending that show as well. If you like performances and a good night out, then you can enjoy them for a very affordable price in Almaty!
You can check the programs and book tickets online at http://www.gatob.kz/, but we bought it at the opera house as we couldn’t navigate the website successfully.
3. Try the Russian Banya & experience the spa
One of the top things to do in Almaty is to experience the Arasan Wellness & Spa Center. Built-in the 1980s, it is one of the finest bathhouses in Central Asia. There are choices of Russian-Finnish or oriental baths, each with men’s and women’s section. Locals often come here to social and there are several cafes where you can enjoy a cold beverage after spending time in the sauna.
As for the cost, I paid 6300KZT (USD$15) for the hammam- where the lady scrubbed all over my body. Having experienced it in Turkey, I knew I was in for a treat! My husband chose the “steaming with broom and back massage option” which cost him 9900KZT (USD$24). The “broom” is also known as “banya besom”, it is made of branches and leaves of a tree that secretes aromatic oils.
These brooms are used to smack various body parts to increase blood circulations. Family and friends often do it to each other or you can do it yourself. As we’ve never tried it before, so we paid someone to do it on us. These brooms are also for purchase outside the spa centre if you want one of your own.
The Kazak bath hats were quite eye-opening too. People were wearing them inside the sauna to avoid feeling burnt on top of their heads. There’s even a souvenir shop inside the bathhouse selling various designs, one even looked like a Viking helmet!
4. Visit the highest ice rink in the world at Medeo!
The highest Olympic sized ice rink in the world is not too far away from Almaty. It is accessible by taking bus #12, a 45 minute uphill later, you will arrive at the 10,500 square meter Medeo ice rink. This place was built in 1972 and it was made for figure skating athletes. Since then, 180 world records have been made in this location!
Unfortunately, there was an ice biking competition at the ice rink on the day we visited, hence we couldn’t go inside to skate! Luckily, there was a hiking trail that leads into the surrounding valleys where we could explore. It turned out to be a nice afternoon getaway from Almaty.
During our walk, we met this old lady selling “kurt”- a traditional cheese made from dried fermented milk. It tasted really weird, like a dry, salty, fermented paste which I don’t think is entirely palatable to the majority of the foreigners. It certainly is an acquired taste as many Kazaks were purchasing them.
5. Day trip to Chimbulak Ski Resort
One of the coolest things to do in Almaty is to visit the Chimbulak Ski Resort in winter for either skiing or snowboarding! In summer this place turns into a mountain-biking playground.
To get to the Chimbulak Ski Resort, you can catch bus#12 from the city to Medeu and take the cable car from Medeu to Chimbaluk. The scenic cable car ride takes about an hour. The altitude at Chimbulak Ski Resort is 3100m, so may need to take some altitude sickness tablets such as Diamox in case you feel unwell.
You can rent your ski equipment at the ski resort but many skiers rent their gears from the city and carry with them onto the bus as it is cheaper this way. We didn’t go to Chimbulak ourselves as there are plenty of skiing opportunities in New Zealand, however, just pointing it out to people who enjoy skiing.
6. Hike up Kok Tobe to get a panoramic view of the city & find The Beatles
This “Green Hill” is situated on the south-east side of the city and can be accessible by bus no.95 or no.99 (the final station). After that, you can either walk or take a shuttle bus to go up the last 1.25KM of the hill. Alternatively, you can take the cable car at the intersection of Dostyk and Abay Street to the top of Kok Tobe.
This 1100m hill is where the 372M TV tower is located, apparently, this tower is the tallest free-standing tubular steel structure in the world!
On top of the hill, you will find several cafes and restaurant, a small zoo & amusement park and the famous Beatles statue with Beatles muscle playing on loudspeaker! There’s even an “I Heart Almaty” sign which we failed to locate. The view here is fantastic and many locals come here for workouts. Hiking our way up here is a great way to pass time in Almaty on a Sunday morning.
7. If you are sick of Central Asian food, then Almaty is a heaven for you!
The culinary scenes is quite diverse here in Almaty. Due to the sizeable diaspora of ethnic Koreans, there are many Korean restaurants in town. Being only one direct train or bus ride to China’s Urumqi, Uighur restaurants are considerably common too. We had some delicious pizzas at a chain restaurant- Papa John’s Pizza, Russian delicacies at Chef Restaurant and our favourite restaurant- Azia Mama, a contemporary restaurant that serves a variety of national food and sweets.
According to TripAdvisor reviews, Azia Mama makes one of the best beshbarmak in town. Beshbarmak is a national dish of the nomadic Turkic people in Central Asia. The term means “five fingers” because the nomads traditionally eat it with their hands. It is usually made of chopped boiled horse meat, mixed in noodles and onion sauce. When we were in Kyrgyzstan, the guide told us that this is a wedding-only dish, but it turns out to be a common dish in Almaty.
We also had”Kazy”, a sausage made out of horse’s rib meat. To make the dish, the rib fleshes are removed from the bone and the meat is hung for 5-7 hours for the blood to drain. It is then salted and seasoned with pepper & garlic, then left tied in a cloth for 2-3 hours. The meat is then chopped and stuffed inside the horses’ intestine and smoked for 12-18 hours or dried outdoors for a week in direct sunlight and wind exposure. Before serving, the Kazy is then boiled in water for two hours. With the amount of work involved, no wonder “Kazy” is so expensive.
8. Visit the Big Almaty Lake for a post-card view of the alpine lake
Only 15KM from the city centre, Big Almaty Lake is one of the top things to do in Almaty! There are several hiking trails around the area, where the lake is situated at 2500m in elevation. The lake is a stunning turquoise blue in autumn and the surrounding forest offers a rich diversity of plants and wildlife. Unfortunately, the Big Almaty Lake in winter is frozen, so there’s nothing much to see other than a patch of white covered in snow. However, if you come to Almaty in other seasons, we’ll highly recommend you to come to visit the lake!
9. Visit the Charyn Canyon for an unforgettable landscape
Even though we love nature, there weren’t many options during winter in Almaty. Around 200KM east of Almaty, Charyn Canyon is one of those places where you can visit all year round. The canyon has many colourful formations of various sizes and shapes and is roughly 90KM in length. It is hard to get here via public transport, so the best way to visit Charyn Canyon is to hire a driver or via a tour company.
Even though Charyn Canyon is smaller than the Grand Canyon, it is equally impressive. Especially when the rocks were partially covered in snow. One of the great things about Charyn Canyon is that you can hike down to the base of the canyon where many people camp here during summer.
Make sure your tour company doesn’t just take you to the “Valley of Castles” (Dolina Zamkov) viewpoint and leave. To truly experience and appreciate the magic of this place, you have to hike down the 100-meter deep canyon, walk the 3-kilometre span of the valley and see the Charyn River (originated from Tian Shan Mountains) up close. It was a great experience seeing the landscape bend and warp behind every turn.
We did the trip with Adrenalinic Silence they specialize in outdoor adventures, that’s why they were able to take up down to the bottom of the canyon! They even have a hiking route planned out for winter! If we knew hiking in winter is possible in Almaty, we would’ve stayed longer in this city. Guess there’s always next time!
10. Visit the Sunkar Falcon Center if you haven’t seen Falcon
One of the biggest regrets we had in Central Asia was not to see the falcons. I thought we could see them at Sunkar Falcon Center, unfortunately, their performances are only limited to non-winter months. This place is run by an ornithologist and falconer who breeds critically endangered birds of prey. According to Lonely Planet Central Asia book, it is worth coming here for the raptors in flight performances which are held every day at 5 pm except Mondays. Please ask the hotels to call in advance to make a booking and make sure performances will be available.
Above are our top 10 things to do in Almaty! Hopefully, you will find it useful. If you enjoy this blog, don’t forget to follow us on IG @ travelwithwinny and see more of our travel stories! Or follow our Facebook page @ Travel with Winny.