I admired the views of the towering fir trees surrounded by snowcapped mountains from my perch in a cable car as we ascended into the Zailisky Alatau mountain range. At the top, I sipped wine on the sun-drenched deck of a ski resort – a pretty spectacular way to spend the afternoon. That was just one of the amazing things to do in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Like you, Kazakhstan wasn’t on my radar as a tourist destination, but when I had an opportunity to travel there with 11 other journalists, I couldn’t turn down the chance to venture to a country I knew so little about.
Okay, I admit to a bit of trepidation as I contemplated traveling 7,000 miles away. And the shocked reactions of some of the people I told about my journey were enough to make me second-guess my decision. Or maybe that was just their knowledge that I’m not the grab a backpack and trek to exotic locales kind of girl.
But off I went. And two long flights in economy class, several movies and TV shows, countless meals and one lengthy layover in Frankfort where I accidentally went through security again later, I touched down in Almaty after midnight two days after I left Atlanta.
I found a sophisticated city bordered by snow-capped mountains, beautifully landscaped urban parks, welcoming people and delicious dining. (I ate my weight in the local fried dough, barsak.) And, just a few hours away I hiked down a huge canyon bordered by huge rock formations and around scenic lakes.
Please see the related story: Unforgettable day trips from Almaty, Kazakhstan
First, a Bit About Almaty and Kazakhstan
I would never pick Geography as a category for Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. But I imagine most people would be challenged to pick out Kazakhstan on a map. And even more astonished to find out that it’s the ninth largest country in the world, roughly five times the size of France.
Almaty, a city of 2 million, is located in southeastern Kazakhstan, a country of 20 million in Central Asia.
The name means apple and the city used to be filled with apple gardens. Although they are scarce in the city, you can still find some in the mountains that surround Almaty. Once it had a desert-like terrain but thanks to a long-ago campaign where residents were paid to plant trees, the city is lush and green and has about 300 days of sunshine a year.
Almaty is an ancient city and first became a settlement in 1000-900 BC when cattle breeders and farmers settled here.
As part of the Great Silk Road, in the 10th through 14th centuries, it was a large craft and trade center. Development stalled when shipping became a preferred method of moving goods.
Almaty served as the capital of the country from 1929 to 1997 when it was moved to Astana reportedly, possibly? because it was farther from the Chinese border. It remains the business capital and tourism center of the country and also boasts 35 universities.
Our of the eight days I spent in Kazakhstan, most of them were spent in here. These are my favorite things to do in Almaty.
Ride a cable car to Medeu Skating Rink and Shymbulak Ski Resort
We hopped on the cable car and as we ascended up the mountain had views of the back yards and rooftops of the homes below, with the snowcapped mountains of the Zailiysky Alatau mountain range and fir trees above us. The peaceful ride takes about 20 minutes.
On the way up I could see the Medeu skating rink below, the highest skating rink in the world, where more than 200 records have been set for speed skating. Open from October to March, it has more than 110,000 square feet of ice.
We continued to the top and hopped out at Shumbulak Ski Resort, the most modern ski resort in central Asia at an elevation of 7,200 feet. Despite the warm May day, I could still see snow on the ground. Ski season in Almaty is roughly from late November to late March.
Built in 1954 as a training base for Russian skiers, the ski resort is popular with intermediate and advanced skiers and has five lifts on 99 acres.
Our group found a table to sit and enjoy the warm sunshine with glasses of beer and local Kazakhstan wine. It’s a beautiful place to indulge in après ski without the bother of the ski part. This may have been my favorite thing to do in Almaty.
In our defense we didn’t have a lot of time so couldn’t participate in more strenuous warm weather activities like hiking, horseback riding or buggy rides.
Enjoy the view and explore the activities at Kók Tóbe Park
Even if you aren’t into amusement parks, it’s worth it to visit Kók Tóbe Park as it has amazing views of the city. There’s no charge to enter once you pay for the cable car, which takes about seven minutes to reach the top, the highest point n Almaty at over 3,600 feet. Even if you don’t play games or care about amusement parks, I suggest you put this on your list of things to do in Almaty for the views from the cable car and at the top.
After taking a few photos of the view I wandered around, marveling at the randomness of a statue of The Beatles with piped-in music playing. With rides, games and a petting zoo, Kók Tóbe Park is a great place for kids.
As two of us were heading back to the cable car for the ride down, we passed a man stopped us. “You speak English!” he said. “I am so excited to hear people speaking English.” Turns out he was a YouTuber from Australia and had been traveling solo for weeks. It wasn’t our last encounter with people who were excited to hear English being spoken.
It happened to several of us many times. People would stop to talk to us, or just pass by our group and call out, “Welcome to Kazakhstan!” It was quite refreshing to feel so welcome as a tourist.
Visit Panfilov Park with Russian Cathedral, War Memorial
The tree-filled Panfilov Park is a popular place for strolling and visiting the attractions at the park.
Zenkov Cathedral was built in the early 1900s of wood without the use of nails, yet somehow survived the earthquake in 1911 that destroyed close to 800 buildings in Almaty.
I was lucky enough to visit Russia in 2019 and particularly loved the architecture of the Russian Orthodox churches. Although it seems tortuous to me that worshippers have to stand for the services.
We walked inside and I was surprised that despite the fact there was a service, we were able to walk around and take photos from the back as a small group of people stood facing the altar.
After walking down a flower-filled path, we came upon the evocative World War Memorial that depicts 15 World War II soldiers, one for each Soviet republic.
Another wooden cathedral, erected in 1908, now houses the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments and has more than 1,000 instruments in its collection.
View the monuments at Republic Square
The largest square in the city, Republic Square is used for public events. Its centerpiece is the 91-foot Golden Warrior Monument, which celebrates the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991 after being part of Russia since 1731. The golden man is standing on a snow leopard, the symbol of Kazakhstan.
Other statues include two children on colts. They symbolize youth and hopes for the future of Kazakhstan.
Take in the fountains and colonnades at First President’s Park
Opened in 2011, the 180-acre First President’s Park was named for Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was in power from 1990 until 2019 when he resigned.
The park cost $50 million to build and is a favorite place for tourists and locals. You can view the slightly curved colonnades with the snow-capped mountains behind it. Walk through the colonnade for a large, jetted fountain where we saw people cooling off on the hot day. A visit here is one of the most popular things to do in Almaty.
Stroll along and shop on Arbat pedestrian street
If you plan to do any shopping in Almaty, head to the hopping hub, the Arbat, a pedestrian-only street filled with shops, restaurants, theaters, art galleries, street performers and artists.
The TSUM Shop, a cross between a bazaar and a department store, is a popular place with locals and a good place to buy souvenirs.
Visit the Green Bazaar and the LOTTE Rakhat Company
The Green Bazaar, Kazakhstan’s largest and most famous market, has rows and rows of neatly stacked, colorful spices, fruits and vegetables. Stroll around and you’ll be offered free samples of Kazakh treats, fruits and yes, even the horse sausage.
Head toward the back to hear the whack whack whack of huge meat cleavers cutting up hunks of pork and beef.
This is the place to get your shubat (fermented horse and camel milk) and kazy (horse meat sausage). Horse meat is widely consumed in Kazakhstan and we were served it on platters at several meals. Apparently, its popularity dates back to the nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakhs. It tasted like a tough, chewy piece of roast beef and wasn’t to my liking. I also tried the fermented horse milk and found it quite sour.
Even if you aren’t going to purchase anything, add a market visit to your things to do in Almaty just for the experience of seeing the colorful produce.
Just down the street is the LOTTE Rakhat chocolate shop that sells products made in Kazakhstan since the founding of the confectionary in 1942. I was literally (except for my age) a kid in a candy store and scooped up lots of chocolate goodies, some to consume myself and some for gifts.
Visit Ile-Alatau National Park
Founded in 1996, Ile-Alatau National Park has almost half a million acres of mountain ranges, alpine forests, waterfalls and high altitude lakes. Big Almaty Lake, the most famous lake in Kazakhstan is here, but the passage to it is indefinitely closed for renovation.
The new Ayusai Visitors Center in the Ayusai river gorge is worth a stop and you can hike on trails from there.
Watch the Birds of Prey show at Falcon Farms Sunkar
After our visit to the Ayusai Visitors Center, we stopped at the bird show at the Falcon Farm Sunkar, held daily at 5:00 p.m.
Dressed in falconer garb, Paul the falconer and his horseback-riding assistant, Maria, entertained us with his witty jokes and a parade of birds of prey with names like Kuza, Tchaikovsky, Harry Potter and Kashi. Oh, and then there was the vulture who ate a whole bone. His name? Deep Throat.
It was quite entertaining and Paul’s jokes made me laugh out loud several times. If time allows, add it to your list of things to do in Almaty.
Where to Eat in Almaty
Of course, one of my favorite things to do in Almaty, like any city, was to check out the local cuisine. As a large cosmopolitan city, Almaty has no shortage of wonderful restaurants with just about every cuisine. Possibly because we were a large group, there was often no menus and several platters of food on the table when we sat. My downfall were the baskets of warm barsak, the delicious fried dough beloved by Kazakhs and now by a group of journalists from the U.S. and Canada.
At one meal, one of our group ate seven of them. He apparently has the metabolism of a racehorse, while mine is more like that of a Galapagos tortoise. One barsak probably would fuel my body for a week with the excess going to make my jeans snug. Thank goodness for the loose summer dresses I packed.
One issue is that we often thought the large platters of food with salads, horsemeat and other filling items were the entire meal. After filling our plates, we were both dismayed/excited to see yet another dinner plate be set down in front of each one of us. I quickly learned to slow down at the beginning of the meal until I knew what was coming next.
Here are a few of the restaurants that I enjoyed the most.
Qaimaq – I loved everything about this restaurant but the highlight was the presentation at the table of the salt-covered lamb that the server cracked open, then set aflame before serving the tender marinated meat over noodles. We also had a platter of beshbarmak, the national dish of Kazakhstan, made with boiled meat over noodles.
Fort Vernyi. We had lunch in the flower-filled restaurant and enjoyed kebabs, soup and samosas.
Fahar. After a long tiring day of touring, my spirits were lifted when I walked into this gorgeous restaurant and sat down to a feast that included delicious dumplings.
Villa Dei Fiori – I had my favorite meal at this exquisitely decorated restaurant. We dined inside but for a romantic meal, book a table at one of the cozy nooks that parallel a fountain outside. The multi-course meal included a tomato salad and amazing salmon over pasta.
Where to Stay in Almaty, Kazakhstan
We stayed in the Grand Mildom Hotel and because we left twice for overnight trips, I checked in three times and got three different rooms. They all were nice rooms of varying sizes with views of the Ferris wheel at Kók Tóbe Park. The air-conditioning and ventilation systems in some of the rooms could use a bit of attention.
The 112-room hotel has a fitness center, indoor pool, bar, restaurant and a terrace where we sat and enjoyed adult beverages one night.
The room comes with a buffet breakfast, which was good. In addition to the usual items like egg dishes, fruit, potatoes and yogurt, some items varied daily, most likely items from dinner the night before. Hey, I applaud the effort to not waste food and it gave me an excuse to have chicken wings for breakfast.
Dostyk Plaza Mall, an upscale shopping mall, is a short walk away. I went there the first morning to the ATM to get the colorful tenge, the local currency. There’s also a really nice grocery store called Galmart where you can buy food, home goods and alcohol.
There’s also the Ritz-Carlton Almaty if you’re more comfortable with a known brand, a luxury five-star hotel at the foot of the Alatau Mountains. You can’t miss it if you’re touring around – it’s housed in the Esentai Tower, the tallest building in Almaty. You won’t find many tall buildings here as Kazakhstan is in an earthquake zone.
There’s also the Soviet style Kazakhstan Hotel built in the 1970s where you can enjoy great views of the city from the rooms and the bar on the 25th floor.
How to Get to Almaty, Kazakhstan
You don’t need a visa to travel to Kazakhstan. As with any international trip, you should make sure you are up to date with your routine vaccinations.
Our group of journalists came from places that include Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Colombia and Florida. I flew there from Atlanta. We all traveled on Lufthansa and met in the Frankfort airport and from there we flew directly to Almaty. My flight to Frankfort from Atlanta took nine hours, then to Almaty was an additional seven hours.
The return flights were longer. Our flight from Almaty left at 2:10 a.m. (!), stopped in Astana for close to two hours, then took an additional seven-and-a-half hours to fly to Frankfort. The flight from Frankfort to Atlanta took 10 hours.
We were told a direct flight from New York is being planned, but would still involve one stop on the way. The flying time for that flight would be 16 hours.
For more information on Kazakhstan, visit Kazakhstan Travel.
This story was made possible through support provided by USAID’s Trade Central Asia activity and Kazakhstan Travel.
– Photos and text by Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief
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