Had you told me a couple of months ago that I would be spending a week experiencing Almaty Kazakhstan, I would have thought that you were nuts. But when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a sponsored trip through SATW, I jumped. Admittedly, I did have to familiarize myself with the precise geographic location and make some judgment calls as to safety given current events in the region. Ultimately deciding that it was a bucket list trip that I couldn’t turn down.
It certainly was the bucket list trip as I determined. And, I felt very safe.
But I was surprised by much on this trip. And, that surprise was after educating myself by reading books about Kazakhstan and browsing blog posts.
Special thanks to Kazakhstan Tourism and USAID for sponsoring this trip. All opinions are always our own. This post may contain affiliate links, where we receive a small commission on sales of the products that are linked at no additional cost to you.
A Brief Kazakh History
Kazakhstan was originally a nomadic nation with a long history of invasion and occupation. The Kazakh people became a part of Russia and the Soviet Union to have protection from Chinese invasion beginning in the 1700s. In 1920, the territory that encompasses modern-day Kazakhstan gained status as a republic within Russia and later, in 1936, it became a Soviet republic. When the Soviet Union fell they finally gained their independence, in 1991.
Its stunning landscapes, natural resources and location on the Silk Road connecting China to Istanbul are significant to its culture and history. The Green Bazaar still exists today on what was the Silk Road. It is home to the vibrant colors and scents of produce, spices, tea, cheeses and meats.
Most of the population is Muslim so mosques pepper the city and towns. But the Soviets brought Orthodox Christianity to the country and ornate churches also have a home in Almaty. There’s an interesting blend of bland but strong cement Soviet structures, shiny modern architecture, and striking churches and mosques. All with beautiful green trees, colorful flowers, splashing water fountains and majestic mountains as the backdrop.
Almaty is a very green city. The name itself means City of Apples. At one point a law was passed requiring every citizen to plant one tree each year.
The city of Almaty is not the capital of Kazakhstan. But it is home to approximately 3 million of the 20 million people who call Kazakhstan home.
Astana is the capital and is a very new shiny city where much business is headquartered. But Almaty is green and near the mountains and several of Kazakhstan’s national parks.
It is also a modern city that is the cultural capital of Kazakhstan. And it is home to huge malls and beautiful restaurants, as well as historic bazaars and museums.
The Kazakh People
The Kazaks are a welcoming people. Kids on the street would hear us speaking English and strike up a conversation. Whether they were curious or wanted to practice their English, it was heartwarming.
After spending several days with a wonderful guide and bus driver, we were privy to a warm welcome of dinner and entertainment at our bus driver’s home. We’ve always made friends while traveling. But this was a first. And, a very special first at that.
We visited Almaty at the end of May to beginning of June and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was warm. But not too hot. Summers can be hot and winters can be cold. January is the coldest month with temperatures averaging 23 degrees Fahrenheit and July is the hottest with temperatures averaging around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. After we left — the second week of June — it did get up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, visitors will want to pack accordingly. Layers are ideal.
Travel to Almaty
From my home state of Colorado, Almaty is halfway across the world. 12 p.m. here is 12 a.m. there. All of our group flew from our individual hub to Frankfurt and then on to Almaty airport.
But a new direct connection is in the works from New York to Almaty on new Dreamliners being acquired by Air Astana, slated for 2025. This new flight will be around 16 hours with a stop over. Lufthansa, Qatar and Turkish are a handful of major International airlines servicing the Almaty airport.
The airport is a short drive to the city center, particularly at the late hours when many flights seem to arrive and depart.
Practical Things to Know About Almaty Before Visiting
- The Type C (Europlug) is used in Kazakhstan. So, if you are coming from the U.S. with an European plug converter, it should work here.
- Credit cards are widely accepted, at least in the city. You may want to get cash from one of the many ATMs for times when you head out to a more rural area, or for splitting bills. I was concerned about putting my card into the ATM without being able to read the instructions. But once inserted, an English option popped up. Not sure if I just got lucky. But no fees were charged.
- Large modern malls are widespread, as are large clean grocery stores with just about anything you could need.
- As a woman in the city I always felt safe, even when out on my own. As in all of my travels, I never wear flashy jewelry and keep my belongings close.
- Wine & beer are not commonly served with dinner. But a wide selection is available at grocery stores, along with an amazing collection of both Kazakh and Russian vodka.
- While American tourists may be sparse, English is the third language of Kazakhstan. Kids learn it in school and are eager to speak to you in English. It will be spoken less as you venture out to the rural areas where many of the spectacular national parks are. The Kazakh people are welcoming, even to and maybe even especially to Americans.
- Squat toilets are common in public buildings and rural areas.
- Head coverings are rarely needed. The one place we were asked to wear them, actually provided scarves at the entrance. While Kazakhstan is mostly Muslim, it is not orthodox.
- Don’t drink the water from the pipes. Instead, get bottled water, which seems to be widely provided by hotels.
- Ticks can be a problem in rural forested areas. Bring bug spray and use it!
- Horse meat is commonly served in restaurants. It is a part of Kazakh nomadic heritage, of which they absolutely should be and are proud.
Here are a few other things to know before traveling for the first time to Kazakhstan.
Things to Do in Almaty
Often we prefer to explore places independently. But in Almaty we had a guide. And, I do think this is the best way to see and experience as much as possible in a short time frame.
Here is a list of Kazakhstan tour operators. If you have specific questions, drop us a comment below.
Experience the Restaurants
In addition to the sights of Kazakhstan, there is a spectacular restaurant scene. From traditional Kazakh cuisine to Internationally influenced restaurants, dining is its own experience.
The restaurants are all beautifully decorated and the variety of Kazakhstan food encompasses an interesting blend of cultures.
Baursak was the favorite traditional Kazakh food for our group. This delicious fried dough was served at almost every meal. But you’ll also have the opportunity to try Beshmark, Kazy, Kumis and more.
First President Park
The First President Park opened in 2011 honoring, you guessed it, the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
It is a lovely park with lots of symbolism. Fountains adorn both the entrance and also the inside of the park. Apple statues are scattered around the front of the park. A Kazakh flag flies high at the top of a large columned monument.
Be sure to go past the monument and deeper into the park. A large water feature is not only beautiful, but also practical, cooling off the kids as they play. There are paths taking you further back and spectacular views of the mountains in the distance.
Ile-Alatay & Falcon Show
The Big Almaty Gorge is located in Ile-Alatau National Park, a short drive to the southwest of Almaty. Here you will find beautiful mountains and alpine trails. There’s a visitor’s center and some glamping available for the adventurous who want to spend the night. We just spent enough time here to take in the views and then headed down the hill on a very short drive to see a Falcon Show.
The Falcon Farm Sunkar was most definitely a highlight of the trip. One of the few things that I knew about Kazakhstan before visiting was the Eagle hunting traditions from their nomadic times. I had watched The Eagle Huntress and had an idea of what goes into capturing and training these majestic birds.
Not only was it special to see these majestic birds up close and watch the skill that both Paul, the trainer and his assistant had in handling them. But Paul was also hilarious. He is quite the showman and gets the audience involved in the show while speaking in multiple languages including English, Kazakh and Russian.
The Hun Village of Gunny Aul is a must-visit to experience a fun, colorful and flavorful taste of Kazakh culture.
You will be greeted at the gate by horsemen traditional garb and showered with sweets as you enter. The traditional garb, food, music, dance and yurts take you back to Kazakh nomadic culture and help you understand what is important in their lives to this day.
There’s the opportunity to watch Baursak being made and taste it along with fermented mare’s milk. Explore a traditionally decorated yurt. Watch a talented horse show including many Kazakh traditions. Enjoy lunch of a traditional Kazakh meal. And, end by trying your hand at archery.
There are even yurts available for rent, if you’d like to stay overnight. An overnight stay here including three meals will run you only about $100.
Panfilov Park, Zenkov Cathedral & Monument of Independence
Panfilov Park is a lovely park with dramatic monuments honoring Kazakh soldiers of World War II. The park itself is beautifully manicured. We missed the tulips and instead enjoyed roses.
It is also home to Zenkov Cathedral, said to be the second largest wooden structure in the world, and legend has it built without nails.
Also known as Ascension Cathedral, this building is ornately beautiful both inside and out. We were able to go in and experience a Russian Orthodox Service set amidst golden ornate decor.
This was the one place that we visited where a head covering was required for women.
The Green Bazaar is located on what was the Silk Road connecting China to Rome. The market itself is over one-hundred years old and is a landmark. It is a huge bazaar filled with the colors and scents of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, nuts, spices and more. The food vendors will be happy to offer samples of their foods. There’s also a wing with clothing, shoes, purses and other items.
Kok Tobe is a mountain amusement park set on a hill right in the middle of the city of Almaty. You take a short gondola up to the top of the hill where there’s all kinds of entertainment. For only about $6 I rode the alpine coaster.
But there are also ropes courses, a Ferris Wheel, roller coasters, bumper cars and amazing views of the city below.
Had my kids traveled to Kazakhstan, this would have been one of their favorite spots and we would have had to spend the entire day here.
Ride the Metro
I found the Almaty Metro fascinating. The building of the metro began in 1989. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, construction ground to a halt. It was finally completed in 2011 and currently has 14 stops. Each station has a different them and art representative of that theme. It is really beautiful, clean and affordable.
I am not always a big museum fan. But I found this was the perfect way to layer in a better understanding of the Kazakh history and culture.
Central State Museum gives a comprehensive overview of the history of the Kazakh people and lands.
But the National Gallery A Kasteev offers a look into the applied arts handed down through Kazakh history and the symbolism so important in their lives. The wing that includes the art of A Kasteev shows the reality of Kazakh life. Here we also enjoyed a tour by a passionate young woman who spoke the most perfect English learned on YouTube.
Whether shopping for souvenirs to bring home, unique clothing or the Apple charger you forgot at home, Almaty has it all. From huge modern shopping malls to centuries-old bazaars to Soviet-founded chocolate factories, you will discover something fun to bring home from this diverse city.
While the culture of serving wine with dinner is not as strong in Kazakhstan as in North America and Europe, there is a burgeoning wine industry here. A few in our group broke off to explore Kazakh wines and were definitely impressed.
Day Trips From Almaty
The landscapes outside of Almaty are stunning. Taking time to explore either via day trips or overnights outside of the Almaty is a must. A trip to Almaty would not be complete without a visit to one or more of the beautiful ski resorts or national parks within a couple of hours drive.
Medeu-Shymulak Ski Resort
Shymulak Ski Resort is the largest ski resort in Central Asia. It is slightly different from many North American ski resorts in that there is parking at the base of the gondola which is a 20ish minute ride to get to the ski lifts. Here is where you will find restaurants, activities and ski lifts to take you to the ski slopes above. The interesting mix of cultures is also apparent here.
The resort is located in the Ile-Alatau National Park a short drive from Almaty. The resort offers ten ski lifts and day ski tickets are around $25 for the most expensive ticket. Interestingly, during the summer guests can also rent camping gear and camp on the mountain.
Oi-Karagay Mountain Resort
This was the one place that really made me wish my family had been able to tag along. We stayed in small but adorable tree houses above the ski resort of Oi-Qaragai. We arrived on a Sunday and the resort was filled with families out enjoying nature, picnics and spending time together.
Here you can stay in a tree house, a yurt or a large five-bedroom house with a sauna and outdoor deck for grilling.
There’s so much for families to do here. Take in the spectacular views on horseback, zip line, mountain bike or ride the adrenaline inducing mountain trikes. There are hiking trails in the summer. And, of course, in winter it is all about the skiing. There’s even a kids club, if mom and dad want to drop off the kids and head to the spa.
About three hours west of Almaty is Charyn Canyon National Park. This may have been my favorite of the national parks we visited. The canyon up top boasts spectacular views and there is a great hoke down to the river below. Here we also saw mountain bikers. And, there’s a cute cafe serving refreshing juices to enjoy after a hot hike.
Kolsay Lakes National Park is actually home to four lakes: Lower Kolsay Lake, Middle Kolsay Lake, Upper Kolsay Lake and Lake Kaindy. The lower lake is easily accessible with a short walk from the parking lot down to the dock. And, there are hiking trails taking you around this scenic lake where you can also rent peddle boats. We didn’t have time to visit the middle or upper lake, unfortunately as the middle is said to be the most beautiful.
We did get to visit Kaindy Lake. It requires a ride across a river and up some elevation in a four-wheel drive vehicle and then either a hike, horseback ride or jeep taxi ride up to the lake itself. This lake is quite unique with dead spruce trees reaching up from the still waters. A earthquake in 1911 cause a limestone landslide that created a dam to this gorge filling it with water and limestone deposits. The still blue green water creates stunning reflections of the spruce trees making it a popular Instagram spot.
The Kazakhstan Black Canyon is an impressive landscape. There’s not as much to do here. But it is certainly worth a stop on your way to or from Charyn Canyon or Kolsay Lakes.
There so much to do, see and experience in Almaty Kazakhstan and the surrounding area. I feel we only touched the surface in the week we were there.
For more check out these interesting facts about Kazakhstan!