Ask someone to picture a city in Kazakhstan and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare. Despite its many draws, the Central Asian country, which stretches from China to the Caspian Sea, is not exactly a hotbed of international tourism, and remains an enigma to most tourists outside its neighbouring countries. But when grappling with planning a trip to such a gigantic – and historically closed-off – country, it’s hard to know where to start. The solution? Almaty.
The country's former capital (a title now held by slick, though somewhat soulless, Nur-Sultan), is the perfect introduction to modern Kazakhstan. It’s a beautiful city (thanks to some stunning Soviet-modernist and Tsarist-era architecture), where the food, drink and nightlife scenes are flourishing and various spectacular areas of natural beauty are within easy reach.
Here’s our pick of the top top things to do in Almaty, a highlights reel that might see Kazakhstan's cultural capital emerge as a surprise contender for your next city break.
1. See the city’s history around Panfilov Park
This lovely park – and the area immediately around it – in the eastern-centre of the city is teeming with places of interest that offer a whistle-stop tour of the city’s history. The park contains a notable war memorial to the 28 soldiers of an Almaty infantry unit who died fighting the Germans outside Moscow during WWII, with several huge black monuments and an "eternal flame" commemorating their sacrifice. Not far behind the largest of them is the pastel-yellow, green and red Tsarist-era Ascension Cathedral – a visually striking structure that is claimed to be one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world.
On the park's eastern edge is the Kazakh Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, a traditional wooden Russian building built at the same time as the cathedral, where, for a small entry fee, you can peruse over 1000 traditional instruments dating back as far as the 17th century. A block north is the Green Market, a gigantic, quintessentially Central Asian market that is a must-visit, and one of the city's best people-watching spots even if you don't plan on buying anything.
2. Tuck into the city’s expanding food scene
Almaty’s food scene is improving year on year, and with prices remaining low in most restaurants, voracious visitors will have a great time touring the city via their taste buds.
Cafeteria is one of a clutch of excellent breakfast/brunch spots, with an impressive menu of egg-based dishes, sandwiches, pastries, smoothies and lots more. Coffee is a big deal in Almaty, and if you're in need of a further energy boost Bowler Coffee (two locations, one of them in a corner of the Green Market) is one of the best places to get it.
For lunch and/or dinner head to the self-explanatory Ramen 77, any of the rows of family-run Uzbek restaurants in the Gorniy Gigant district, the Italian Restaurant Trieste or SVET (Kabanbai Batyra St), a beautiful spot that serves international and Kazakh cuisine and has a terrace overlooking the State Opera and Ballet Theatre, another of Almaty's primary architectural gems.
3. Get to grips with the best of the nightlife
A treasured institution for many young city dwellers is the bar Le Janbyr (Kabanbai Batyr St), a wonderfully chaotic spot that will make you feel like you've teleported to a particularly happening area of Berlin. The owners originally opened to give their friends a place to hang out; they didn't even have an alcohol license initially, so visitors would bring their own and leave a small tip. The same atmosphere survives today, with mismatched furniture, impromptu music sessions and anyone allowed to write or draw whatever they like on the walls.
Almaty also boasts a fairly vibrant clubbing scene, but ZVUK, a small, fiercely political techno night and collective headed by the inspirational Nazira Kassenova (who now regularly DJs in Western Europe's clubbing hotspots), is head and shoulders above everything else. ZVUK regularly flies in guests of the calibre of Giant Swan, Via App, Don't DJ and Zoe Mc Pherson – acts that would be considered challenging and leftfield anywhere in the world, but in Almaty are mind-blowingly so.
ZVUK used to hold its parties at a 300-capacity back-alley spot named Object run by a wonderful bunch of like-minded folks. That venue shut in summer 2019, but happily the same people have popped back up with a venue named Bult, and ZVUK has gone with them.
4. Take a trip to Altyn-Emel National Park
A few hours' drive northeast of the city is this 4600 sq km Unesco World Heritage site, the eastern edge of which is just 40 miles from the Chinese border. Though it takes a while to get to and a 4x4 is needed to negotiate its bumpy tracks, Altyn-Emel is one of the most accessible and convenient options if you want a taste of the glorious scenery of Kazakhstan's vast empty spaces.
Among Altyn-Emel's wonders are the otherworldly red, orange and white-coloured hills of Aktau Mountains, and all manner of rare flora and fauna including kulan (wild donkeys), Persian gazelle, Siberian toad and the 700-year-old "sacred tree". Most incredible of all is the "Singing Dune", an ancient 150m-high geological oddity rising up from the steppe that makes a sound like an organ when its sands move. There are many guesthouses in small towns near the park, and passes to enter must be bought in advance. Tour packages are also available.
5. Zone out in one of the best spas you'll ever visit
Whatever you have done to exhaust yourself in Almaty, whether it was dancing til dawn, hiking around Altyn-Emel or pounding the pavements in search of yet another Soviet-modernist architecture hit, Arasan Baths will provide welcome rejuvenation.
Immediately to the west of Pankilov Park, Arasan is, from the outside, a hulking Soviet brutalist complex covering almost an entire block, but the atmosphere switches from imposing to comforting as soon as you step inside. A huge menu of massage treatments is available and for about 7000 KZT (£15/€18) you can spend as long as you like in the spa's many saunas and steam rooms, and cool off in its ornate grand circular pool.
6. Stay in one of the city's architectural landmarks
The Hotel Kazakhstan is one of the city's iconic buildings, a 26-floor, 102m-tall 1970s modernist gem with a crown-like top that features on Kazakhstan's 5000 tengue note. Happily it is an affordable place to stay, with its pleasant, modern rooms starting at around 20,000 KZT (£40/€48) per night. About halfway up is a lovely, often-deserted sauna with a huge picture window looking out over the city, and the top-floor restaurant offers an even better vista, most notably from the toilets, where one's nice sit-down is made even nicer by a 270-degree panorama.
7. Catch a cable car to Kók Tóbe and its bewildering theme park
A few minutes' walk from Hotel Kazakhstan is a cable car terminus that leads up to Kók Tóbe, a hill visible from anywhere in the city thanks to its 372m-tall TV tower.
Since 2006 it has also been a leisure area, with restaurants (horse sausage washed down with horse milk anyone?), a small animal park, souvenir stands, and amusements including dodgems, a rollercoaster and a 30m-tall ferris wheel with, for some reason, a full-size upside-down house teetering beside it.
The oddest touch of all is a bronze statue of the Beatles, with John Lennon sitting on a bench strumming a guitar and Paul, Ringo and George standing behind him. Together the whole scene resembles a particularly hallucinogenic fever dream; but one that will likely live long in the memory.
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