“The south capital”
Almaty, the largest and most important city in Kazakhstan ever since its foundation, and a very much awaited destination to travel to for being the best spot to start a Central Asia tour across part of the original Silk Road in this side of the world. Fair enough it will not be a complete tour this time through the 5 Stans due to time limitations, but that will be a good sign for return in the near future and complete over all, the grand cities of Uzbekistan. This time, the trip will take me through the nature and incredible landscapes across steep mountain passes, canyons and lakes once upon a time filled with merchants navigating their ways connecting the Far East with Europe.
After being to that many ex-Soviet cities in the past, here is no exception to find the very same architecture, urbanism, similar food blend of Russian, East European and that touch of Chinese and Arabian. Signs difficult to even understand, hard to communicate in English to anyone and that unique feeling of a bygone Soviet era. You can feel it anywhere in the city and that is without doubt part of the excitement for reaching countries like this, a bit more unusual.
The city itself is not the prettiest, definitely no, nor is the kind of place you come for holidays or spend the time as a cultural trip. It is in the other hand one of the most common place to start a Silk Road tour. Its location could not be any better, not to mention the incredible beauty and landscapes that lie merely few kilometres south and visible from most parts of the city, the famous Tien Shan Mountain range, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in its full length. And so, not many kilometres towards the east the incredible Charyn Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon’s little sister, is the second largest in the word. Then the many lakes few minutes’ drive away, especially these with the dead trees inside the water, and plenty more. But for a day, the city alone is great and certainly has great architecture to admire and stunning food to enjoy. All very worth it.
Easy to navigate, impossible to get lost. Wide boulevards and tree-lined avenues following an orthogonal grid urbanism thus straightforward to plan a sightseeing route, being an ideal route to start at the main train station Almaty-2, head towards the south at the height of the Palace of the Republic, then west along the major thoroughfare Abay Avenue. To summarize in a map, it’s like an inverted L tour, which is the very same route that the metro line 1 does underground.
Our time in the city was more than enough with a full day upon arrival, and a further evening and night before the return home. Then on the second day after the arrival we were already on the move on a tight tour that would take us across 3 other countries but heading first towards the Charyn Canyon to the east, and a long way back west as we came and farther ahead towards Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately by April the Karkara border crossing is still close. It does open from June until November, hence an important point to consider when planning a tour at other months as we did. It would have been nice to drive few kilometres south from the canyon and already cross over to Kyrgyzstan to reach the Issyk Kul Lake from the east without having to do a very big loop as was our case.
For more information about Almaty visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Kazakhstan’s currency is the Tenge (KZT). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Almaty:
- Almaty-2 Train Station The principal in the city, and also the nearest. Be careful do not confuse it with Almaty-1 which lies farther away. This is a great starting point for sightseeing the city, right at the north, with an elegant yet austere building.
- Gogol Street Several blocks south from the train station, this street will cut perpendicularly and heads eastwards directly to the main park where the Cathedral is.
- British Technical University One of these very Soviet style constructions. Just a block south of Gogol Street, hence good to get here before heading to the Cathedral. It was the Parliament before moving the capital to Nur-Sultan.
- Panfilov Park Also known as the Park of the 28 Guardsmen. The main sight in Almaty, a large landscaped park surrounding the Ascension Cathedral which lies in the centre.
- Ascension Cathedral The largest Orthodox worshipping building and symbol in the city. Completed in 1907 entirely in wood and without any nail, at 56 meters tall it’s the world’s wooden second highest building.
- National Opera and Ballet Continuing towards the south after the park for four blocks until you reach Kabanbay-Batyr Street. You’ll find it heading west along the street. The largest and most important in the country.
- National Academy of Science Southeast after the National Opera, near the Palace of the Republic. Quite a large building, very traditional of the Soviet architecture.
- Abay-Dostyk Square The intersection of these two major thoroughfares perpendicularly creates this square where several major Soviet style buildings are, nowadays landmarks of Almaty itself.
-Hotel Kazakhstan Still ranking among one of the tallest towers in the country. The Soviet era skyscraper from 1977. it offers some of the best views from the higher floors anywhere in the city.
-Isker Business Center The next important complex of buildings along the west side of the square. Notably for its round-shaped tower.
-Palace of the Republic Built in 1970, again in clear Soviet style, to be one of the main venue for concerts, shows and events.
-Kok Tobe Hill From where you will get the best advantage point of view over the city. The nicest and easiest way to reach the top is via the cable car which station is next to the Palace of the Republic.
- Abay Avenue Or known as per the real name the Silk Road Avenue, is the major thoroughfare crossing the entire city from east to west, containing several landmarks and sights along its way and in the nearby streets.
-University of Management Economics and Strategic Research The first building, facing the Palace of the Republic was designed as the ones you can see elsewhere in the ex-Soviet cities, in Stalinist style.
-Agricultural University The next of the grand buildings, also very elegant in its architecture.
-Lermontov Russian Drama Theatre Farther ahead on the avenue, although nothing special, it is nevertheless a great example of Soviet architecture.
-Republic Square Off Abay Avenue just a block to the south, is the largest open space in the city, and a reminiscent of a bygone era with all the surrounding architecture. Communal block towers, monuments, fountains and large City Mayor’s Office at the centrepiece.
-Kazakh Drama Theater Continuing west along Abay Avenue, it is one of the last sights to reach. Once again, worth for its pure Soviet lines.
-Circus Opposite the Drama Theatre, it is another of the very important entertainment centres the Soviets would build in any major city.
- Outside of the city As already explained, Almaty is a good starting point for a wider tour across the Stan countries, and so a good base to enjoy some great landscapes and nature not too far.
-Big Almaty Lake South of the city into the Tien Shan mountains. One of the favorite spot for weekend picnics during the summer months.
-Lake Kaindy East of the city and quite off-road hence possible only during the summer months as otherwise the road is closed by snow. This is one of the most famous spots where to see the dead trees inside the lake.
-Charyn Canyon The world’s second largest after the Grand Canyon of Colorado, USA. One of the must do’s while in Kazahkstan.
As for any country in the world, it varies from one nationality to another whether you need to apply for a visa or not, and then if this is on an evisa you apply online; visa on arrival or you do not need any at all. Kazakhstan recently abolished for most European citizens the need to apply for a visa, and it grants free access. Your passport will be stamped as you enter the country, and stamped out as you depart. But it does not mean your nationality will have free agreements with Kazakhstan, hence check all the relevant information about visa requirement here.
Almaty’s international airport is 25 kilometres northeast of the city. The largest in the country and major gateway with the rest of the world. Air Astana is the largest airline in the country, with a very good track on safety and service, however there are a lot of airlines directly connecting the city with Europe and Asia, and farther beyond other continents.
From the airport you can take the bus number 92 for just 150 KZT right at the front of the arrivals terminal. It runs between 5.30am until midnight and has several stops within the city such as the main bus and train terminal, and Abay Avenue, being the most convenient and cheaper option available. A taxi will set you in some 1500 KZT and you will need to be careful in being absolutely sure this is the final price you will pay, since taxi drivers tend to not be that honest and try to trick the tourist.
Coming overland is perhaps one of the greatest fun in this part of the world. Let’s not forget Almaty lies along the historical Silk Road, and its boundaries neighbouring Kyrgyzstan across the Tien Shan mountains to the south, and if one travel east, then China is not far either. Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital is 1200 kilometres north. Fast and easy to fly in between, yet nice to get onboard the new sleeper trains or buses. Direct railway connections are with Urumqi in China at the east, or as far as Moscow to the northwest.
Within the city, Almaty is one of the most developed from any other within Central Asia, being the counterpart Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. There is a good network of public buses and a brand new metro system which will soon be adding more lines. Unfortunately the entire tram system closed down for business in 2015, although there are still some talks to restore at least a part of it. It costs 80 KZT to ride the metro and bus, no matter on distance travelled.
Almaty is the biggest and most important city in the country, even though it is not the capital. But through history it has been the capital for many years, and always the major transit hub since being a key spot along the ancient Silk Road; therefore very up to date in what relates to hotels and accommodation in general. The choice of hotels, although not as big as per European standards, is one of the best across the 5 Stan countries and therefore finding a good deal is also not difficult. Of course, note here that you will also have to search for local properties since not all the big hotel chains are in the city. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
From experience, we needed to stay twice in Almaty, once at the arrival in Central Asia before the big tour, and the second before terminating the trip and flying back home. The first hotel was the
As for the second hotel, it was the
Album of the city of Almaty
Album of Cheryn Canyon