Guide to Almaty
Southern "Capital" of Kazakhstan
Almaty was the former capital of Kazakhstan from 1929 to 1998. It is the largest and most metropolitan like city in Kazakhstan (second place in Central Asia) that has maintained its position as a financial, cultural and educational hub of Kazakhstan. Almaty is one of the greenest or the greenest and most beautiful cities located in Central Asia located at the foot of the Northern Tien Shan ridge – Zaili Alatau.
According to its name, Almaty (Alma Ata) is the home of apples and it is believed that at least certain type or types of apples have originated from the Almaty region and spread throughout the world from here (some large apples were found here in the old times). The city is sunny, cozy and surrounded by greenery with wide streets, beautiful buildings, numerous parks, squares, and fountains chronicling Almaty Tsarist, Soviet, and post-independent times.
Infrastructure in Almaty is well developed and the quality of life if generally higher in the city and the surrounding regions compared to the rest of the country (except maybe Nursultan and the western oil cities). However, traffic jams and bad environmental impacts are still issues here as in the other big cities of most developing countries.
Although the city is the business center of the country, the streets are lined with trees and even in the center, there are many nice parks to spend time in. Urban landscapes are also not alien to the city – along Al-Farabi Avenue there are several high-rise business complexes with their shiny glass facades. For tourists, Almaty and the surrounding regions offer many attractions, sights and destinations. In this Almaty guide, we cover the best-known parts of Almaty but we still leave a lot to be explored by you
Table of Contents
History of Almaty
The history of Almaty goes back to the nomad communities who used to reside in the northern foothills of the Zailysky Alatau. The earliest remains of a Sak settlement begun around the 7th to 3rd century BC. Due to the expansion of trade journeys following the Karakhanids from the 10th century, Almaty grew as a stop by settlement along the Silk Road. However, during the 13th century Almaty was conquered by the Mongols followed by Timurids and Dzhungars who finally destroyed the settlement which means the place lost its significance for a while. Russians arrived to the region when the Tsarist government decided to build a fort next to the site of the old settlement in order to defend the area from the Kokand Khanate. The Russians built Zailiysky Fort in 1854 and named it “Vernyi” meaning loyal in Russian.
Cossacks from Siberia arrived to defend the fortress and were settled in two neighborhoods near the fortress, the Bolshaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa and Malaya Almatinskaya Stanitsa. Both settlements were established in grid patterns and centered by the churches. Tatars also arrived from Semipalatinsk and created a Tatar suburb and slowly took over the profession of trading. Verniy’s number of residents had grown to more than 18,000 by 1879. By the time the city’s architecture consisted of the most marvelous buildings such as the military governor’s house including its gallery of columns, the farm and home of the Bishop of Turkestan, girls gymnasium schools, the cathedral, the regional printing house and others.
Unfortunately in 1887, a major earthquake hit the city, crushing almost every brick building of the modern town. In the early 20th century due to the high risk of earthquakes, a meteorological and seismic station was opened in Verniy. A department of the Geographical Society was established, which started investigating and mapping the area. By 1913, the population of Almaty had grown to 40,000.
During the Soviet time in 1921, the city was renamed as Alma-Ata meaning “Father or grandfather of the Apple” in Kazakh and in 1929 the city become the capital of the republic. In 1939 Almaty got a railway connection to Siberia through the Turksib, Turkestan – Siberia line. During WW2 the railway brought the growth of factories as they were relocated in Kazakhstan far away from German threatened Western USSR. Together with factories many Russians moved to work here and big numbers of people were forcibly resettled from Eastern Russia to Kazakhstan. In 1991 when Kazakhstan gained Independence, Almaty was the venue for the meeting where the USSR finally declared the end of occupation and Almaty was renamed from Alma-Ata to Almaty. In 1998 the city lost its status of capital but remained as the “Southern capital” and as a commercial hub of the country.
How to get to Almaty
Almaty is well linked to the world with its popular Almaty airport together with well developed land transportation covered by trains and fully equipped old long-distance buses.
Almaty International Airport
Almaty Airport is located 15 km North from Almaty and it takes about 25 minutes without heavy traffic jams by car to reach it. The airport is relatively small but functions quite well and has been lately improved. However, the facilities of the Almaty Airport are quite basic and poor for instance regarding souvenir shops and coffee shops are fairly overpriced. The airport does not have any luggage lockers and wifi works only with local sim card. Almaty International Airport (ALA) receives a large number of international flights from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Russia. In May 2020 Turkish company “TAV Airports Holding” which operates airports in Turkey, purchased 100% of the shares of Almaty International Airport.
As soon as you show up in the arrival hall, unofficial taxi drivers might attempt to get you by taking your bag. If you choose to go with them, remember to negotiate with them since they always increase the price. If you want to take an official taxi you can use applications like Yandex taxi or Uber. A normal fare to the city center is about 2500 – 3000 tenge depending on your destination. If you arrive in the day time you can take minibus number 79, 86, 92 and 106 to get to the city center from the airport stop on Mailin Street.
Almaty Train Stations
Almaty has two train stations: Almaty-1 and Almaty-2. Currently, Almaty-2 serves as the main station of the city. The two stations divided the tasks between themselves in such a way that Almaty-1 became, first of all, a suburban station, and all “external” flights (intercity and international) are served by the Almaty-2 station. Therefore, the greatest amount (and not only in the city, but also in the country) falls on Almaty-2. It has become a key transport hub for the country.
Almaty-1 is located a 20-minute drive Northeast from Almaty-2. The station receives mainly transit trains connecting Almaty with other cities of Kazakhstan, Russia and the CIS countries. The station is linked by underground passages, which allows you to get to your train without leaving the station building. There is no metro line, but dozens of bus routes like bus No 18, 27, 71, 85, 135, 252 and trolleybus No 7 stop near the railway station on the station square.
Best way to purchase tickets is online through the official website. Both train stations have luggage storage. Train network is well developed in Kazakhstan, meaning that you can reach any bigger city by train. There are different types of trains including everything from slow Soviet ones to new fast speed trains with varying ticket prices. You can purchase tickets through the official website. From Almaty one can also easily travel to Bishkek or Tashkent.
Almaty-2. Railway station Almaty-2 serves international flights, for example, to Russia, Uzbekistan (to Nukus and Tashkent) and the city of Urumqi in China. The best way to purchase ticket online on the official website. However, other options are at the ticket office at the station, through private agencies, payment terminals or self-service ticket offices if you are in Almaty.
The railway station Almaty-2 is located on Abylai Khan Avenue in the Zhetysu district, which belongs to the central part of the city. You can get to there by trolleybus No. 5, it stops right in front of the station building. This is its final stop, which is called “Railway station Almaty-2”. The Raiymbek Batyr metro station is 900 meters away, from where it is convenient to get to the southern districts of the city. There is also a bus stop near the metro station, where you can take buses No. 8 and No. 98.
Bus - Marshrutka - Taxi
Almaty Bus Stations
Almaty holds two main bus stations: Sairaan and Sayakhat
1. Sairan bus station for long-distance destinations. It is situated in the 7 km west of Almaty in the intersection of Tole Bi and Otegen Batyr streets, just next to the Sairan Reservoir. The Siaran bus station appears like a classic piece of Soviet transport architecture a huge building with tall roofs.
Sairan serves passengers going to long distance destinations as well as neighbouring countries like Bishkek, Tashkent and of course own capital Nur-Sultan and even Urumqi. The cost for travel varies according to the season, for instance going to Shymkent can cost about 300 tenge, Ust-Kamenogorsk/Öskemin 6000 tenge, Urumqi in China 16000 tengee and etc. Besides, during the summer time destinations in Issikkul become become very popular like departure to Cholpon Ata cost about 3000 tenge.
You can check the timetable and purchase ticket thought station’s website, however there is mainly information in Russian language. On the other hand you can buy in the station, there is also a small kiosks around the bus station. Apart from the huge intercountry buses and minibuses there are a lot of private taxis and minibuses offering their services. As soon as the seats are filled they move immediately.
You can get to the Sairan bus station by taxi, will take about 20 minutes from the center of Almaty. By metro, the nearest metro stations are “Sairan” and “Moscow” but you will have to walk about 30 minutes on foot. And by buses No. 16, 37, 45, 48, 59, 63, 65, 72, 85, 103, 106, 124, 125, 126, 137, 201 and Trolleybuses: no. 19 run regularly to the station.
2. Sayakhat bus station is reserved for shorter distance trips. It is crowded with more old buses and marshrutkas compared to Sairan. It is located in the intersection of Rayimbek and Suyunbai avenue. Sometimes Saykhat bus station refers to as old bus station which mainly operated to the destinations in the east of Almaty.
Sayakhat bus station conducts all buses going East and North of the city to smaller, nearby destinations like Issik, Talgar, Kegen, Narynkol, Kapchagai and Taldykorgan among others. The prices vary from 100 to 300 tenge.
You can check the schedule and price though the official website. The Sayakhat bus station is open daily from 07:00 to 20:00. At the ticket kiosks in the bus station, you can purchase the tickets both by cash and by bank cards. Online ticket purchase is also available on the official website of the bus station however it is tested by us yet.
The building is old and appears almost as if it was abandoned. Also, there are no signs so you need to ask people around and study the map carefully. A couple of minutes from the bus station there is a public transport stop of the same name. The bus station Sayakhat can be reached by buses No. 4, 7, 8, 11, 17, 23, 29, 50, 54, 59, 69, 79, 141, 351, 355, 406, 410, 415, 420, 425 , 432, 433, 435, 436 and 443.
What to See in Almaty
The best way to see Almaty is just by walking along the streets combined with the metro. There is always something interesting just around the corner. You should definitely take a walk in the main avenues in the “golden square” in Gogol, Abai, Dostyk and Mira streets. In addition to these there is the Opera and Ballet Theater in the Zhibek-Zholy street worth of the walk. The metro of Almaty can take you easily from one part of the city to another to continue your stroll. The city used to have tram lines before but they were removed after the completion of the metro. There are several tour operators offering tours inside Almaty that can guide you further where needed.
Cultural Sights of Almaty
Kazakh State Circus
The circus is famous for its white roof designed in the shape of a tent, which is also which is resembles a huge Kazakh yurt where its dome blends in with the snowy mountain tops. The circus architecture is similar with most Soviet circuses, for instance in Bishkek circus has the exactly the same shape.
The circus still sets a regular performances with a starting price of just about $3 for a ticket. The circus was built in 1972 and had 2060 seats and 16 rows. The last major renovation of the building was in 2006 when the number of seats was reduced to 1798.
Abai Opera and Ballet House
The theatre was opened in 1941 and it is named after Abay Qunanbaiuly, the great Kazakh poet, philosopher, and composer. This marvelous building is a combination of the Stalinist Empire style in combination and Kazakh ornament elements. For the first time in its design, the motives of national color – Kazakh ornament were used. It is one of the most famous the largest theaters in the Eurasian space.
The concert hall accommodates 793 spectators. Even during wartime, the opera and ballet theater did not stop functioning: concerts were given at night, and all the proceeds were donated to the needs of the front. It is located right in the city center of Almaty. You can get here by metro, just get off in the station “Almaly” as well as you get there by trolleybus number 9 its stop is right next to the Opera and Ballet Theater.
Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan is considered being one of the largest and most significant in Central Asia. In 1985, a new building was constructed specially for the museum. The building of the museum is remarkable as it is an outstanding example of modern architecture.
The area of the museum is over 17 thousand square meters and the exhibitions are placed on three floors. The building has four main halls, as well as numerous exhibition galleries that house permanent exhibitions. The number of items collected in the museum exceeds 200 thousand. Inside you can explore the history of the region, as well as the stages of development of the peoples inhabiting Kazakhstan. The entrance fee is 450 tenge.
The museum is located in the Medeu district of Almaty East from the Presidential residence and Mayor’s office nearby the monumental center of Almaty. You can get to the Central Museum by metro and taking the exit from Abay station and walking further for about 1 km.
Museum of Musical Instruments
The Museum of Kazakh Folk Musical Instruments was organized in 1980 by the Decree of the Council of Ministers of the Kazakh SSR in August 1980 and was opened in 1981.
The museum stores over 400 items and over 40 types or varieties of Kazakh folk musical instruments. The entrance fee is about 500 tenge. Beautiful national Kazakh music is played in the museum creating a pleasant atmosphere. The museum also presents instruments from all over the world e.g. from Mongolia, Altai, Yakut and Khakass areas.
The Central Mosque is one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan, designed for 7 thousand visitors. Architects, Baimagambetov and Sharapiev replaced the new mosque with one that has functioned since 1890. The foundation of the mosque was poured in 1993, but the construction was completed only in 1999. The central mosque of Almaty is located in the crossing of Pushkin and Manshuk Mametova streets.
Ascension Cathedral (Zenkov cathedral) is located in the very center of a park just next to the park of 28 Panfilov guards park and is regularly featured in postcards and magnets. The 50 meters tall Cathedral was built in 1904-1907 according to the design by architect Zenkov. It has withstood all earthquakes including the most crushing earthquake of 1910 when the city practically turned into ruins. Church services were resumed in the Cathedral in 1997.
What to Do in Almaty
Relax in the Spas
“Tau-Dastarkhan” spa is located at the beginning of the Alma Arasan gorge South from Almatyand is an unique high-mountain entertainment complex. Here you can stay at the hotel, swim in the pools or relax in the sauna.
The complex also has everything needed for children and several restaurants. The spa is located at the foot of the Zaili Alatau, in the most picturesque place.
Arasan Baths Spa
An excellent way to relax after a long walk in Almaty is to relax in a Spa. Bathhouse of Arasan is one of the popular relaxing sites of Almaty residents. It is an impressive domed building just across the Panfilov Park demonstrating the Soviet era luxury. It offers Finnish, Russian and Turkish sauna options. Oak or birch branches are popular to be used to lash your body in the Russian and Finnish saunas while wearing the Russian style sauna hat and being naked otherwise. One can spend entire day getting beautification procedures like massages, manicures, pedicure, eyebrow correction, face masks, eyelash extension or other treatments.
Almost every resident of Almaty knows about Baraholka bazaar that sits in parallel to the main Ryskulova Prospect. It is the cheapest place to shop in Almaty, though you should expect a crowded place where local vendors sell mostly Chinese made items or clothing. Nevertheless one can get there interesting souvenirs from the bazar. As in any other bazaar, bargaining is expected. Salesmen both inside and outside offer anything and everything: Food and beverages, clothing, furs, household equipment, building materials, technical equipment, junk and branded goods at wholesale prices or even less.
Tourist’s favorite spot is definitely a Bazaar, where one can find fresh meat and vegetables. The Green Bazaar of Almaty is located in Zenkov street. The Green Bazaar charms visitors with its unique atmosphere, energy and a wide choice of almost everything.
Discover Almaty Zoo
The Almaty Zoo was founded in 1937 and it is one of the oldest zoos in Kazakhstan. It is located in the Medeu district of Almaty, at the foot of the Kok-Tobe mountain in the Western part of Almaty The Almaty zoo borders the Gorky Central Park of Culture. The territory of the Almaty zoo is 21.575 ha and since the opening of the zoo it has expanded 3 times and the number of animals has grown significantly. Today the collection of the Almaty Zoo consists of about 2,800 specimens of which 310 species are animals and of which almost three dozen are listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan.
Have Fun in Almaty
Gastronomic culture in Almaty began to develop relatively lately. A dozen new coffee shops and restaurants open in Almaty every month. One of the most popular areas for coffee shops are Abay Avenue, Kabanbai Batyr Street and Ablai Khan Avenue.
Normally the cafes are filled with people with laptops drinking hot cappuccino or groups of chatting friends. Recently the number of coffee shops has increased and due to the rising competition everyone is attempting to be unique by decorating places with different themes and generally the quality has improved.
When it comes to nightlife Almaty offers the best and most variable nightlife within Central Asian cities. After dark Almaty gets more attractive as lights come alive in the local bars and clubs. Young people appear smoking shishas and eating ubiquitous wrap kebabs. All the possible venues are usually packed in the weekends, while on a weekdays you can find mostly quiet places unless there are special events going on. Local bars and clubs often invite international big-name DJs to entertain the guests. Almaty has a wide selection of places with decent nightclubs and more 30 bars worth visiting. Drinks cost between 2$ and 5$, even in nicer venues, that come with an entrance fee always being below 10$.
Moving inside Almaty
Almaty Metro is the fastest way to get around the city. The city buses are relatively inexpensive and the taxis are another quickest and most comfortable way of moving around the city. Additionally, cycling has become a good option recently, though there might be bump or few along the way. A couple of years ago, the authorities introduced “Onai cards” as payment for travel by all means of public transportation, except for taxis. Apart from Google maps, 2GIS is very popular in Almaty and it displays all invisible corners of the city that google maps doesn’t show.
Almaty Metro was opened in December 2011 and is 11 km long with 9 stations. South Korean metro trains are modern but designed more for Asian people so if you are a tall person mind your head. Stations and trains are decorated in the Kazakh ornament style and resemble more a tourist attraction than a metro. By metro, you can quickly move around the city. The ticket per ride is about 80 tenge. If you have time you can check each station to check the unique design of them. The metro operates from morning 6.30 to 11.30 and runs every 10 minutes.
Once there were minibuses like in Bishkek. Buses are now the main mode of public transportation in Almaty, in the city, they are municipal and clean. It is not safe to ride the bus: pickpockets plus bus drivers themselves are often true fans of the Fast and the Furious movie. The contingent on the buses differs from the direction and area where you are going. In Almaty as well as other Central Asian countries it is customary to give seats to elders (grandfathers and grandmothers)
Almaty has offered city bikes from since 2016. You can easily rent a bike in the bike-sharing station that are frequently dotted around Almaty. It is relatively cheap to ride and even free if you return the bike in less than 30 minutes. However, there is a deposit that you need to pay (~37 500 tenge) before you can start. For detailed information check the Almatybike.kz.
Uber and Yandex work both in Almaty as well as other smaller local taxi service companies. A distinctive feature of the city is the ability to hail a “taxi” by walking next to the curb and hailing or in other words hitchhiking with a price. The cost of such a trip is often lower than by the official taxi rides.
It is pretty safe to ride a car with foreign number on Almaty since here are many foreigners and nonresidents in so no one pays special attention.
Trolleybus, slow and calm they operate in the same base as the buses. They drive along the main streets of the city.
Almaty offers hotels and hostels for all levels of accommodation. Most hotels accept usual credit cards and they can be booked beforehand by any of the hotel booking sites. Price level of Almaty hotels varies according to the level of hotel from less than 20€ up to hundreds of euros per night. Hotels in Almaty are commonly more expensive than in the surrounding regions but affordable by Western standards.
Destinations & sights near Almaty
Almaty region offers a lot of sights, destinations and attractions and you can easily access mountains, lakes and even deserts. Almaty is perfect basecamp city for outdoor recreation lovers for day trips or a little longer trips in the Almaty region.
Destinations in Almaty Region
& Day trips from Almaty
All the destinations listed here work perfectly as day trips from Almaty but if you want to combine several of them, we recommend to overnight and to divide the travel to two or more days. Check here for the rest of Kazakh sights and destinations.
Page updated 28.12.2020