As I had received a nice “I am coming to Almaty for Xmas, what you would recommend to see/do around?” email from one Austrian friend of mine, I got a mixed feeling of joy and confusion… what to show around? A good question actually. It’s not an issue in out-of-winter seasons, beauty of Almaty surroundings is really astonishing (Charyn, Singning Dunes, Kolsai lakes, Big Almaty Lake, etc) and for sure worth seeing. But during the winter it’s a bit of a challenge, the main option in hand is Almaty itself and near-by Medeo and Shymbulak. Nonetheless, we managed to bring to life a decent 5-day plan together with my friend Lukas. So here I would like to share our experience.
1. City walking tour
Once you decided to walk around the city center, make sure you have a well-thought-through plan. The downtown itself is small, but winters might be cold and humid (-2.8 – 4.7°C average with 76-79% humidity, however temperature may go down to -20°C). It’s easy to get yourself comfortable with orientation as old city is mapped like a chess board (all streets are either vertical or horizontal). One more Almaty feature is you either go up or down in relation to the mountains (which are to the south of the city). Mobile applications with off-line maps might be helpful as well as old-fashioned city maps that you may buy in book stores (apprx. 400-500 kzt). Please also keep in mind that many streets have 2 names: old (Russian-Soviet) and new (Kazakh). This may confuse you as both are in use.
Comment from Lukas: way to sights could be better shown/described. Also more explanations about history at the sights would be useful.
Travel tip: so before you go out to explore the city, you should do some pre-homework - read a bit about all the sights you are going to visit and think through the route. Otherwise you may order a paid city tour from one of the local travel agencies.
We did the following: started from Panfilov Park, then went to Kok Bazaar area, promenaded along Arbat street, walked up Ablai Khan street to Astana Square (Old Square) and the park next to it, spotted Old Post Office, Conservatory and Academy of Arts buildings, walked a bit up Panfilov street to the Opera House. You may go on along Kabanbai Batyr street in Dostyk avenue direction. Then go up along Dostyk avenue to Abai avenue and keep on going along Abai street to the Wedding Palace, Circus, Central Stadium and Auezov Theater. It’s a lot of walking, so you may use metro if you get tired on the way. Our route is linked to the only metro line which makes it easy to use it almost at any point of the city tour.
Where: see the picture below
Working hours: 24/7, metro operates daily 6.20 – 23.30
How much: 0 to 80 KZT for every metro/public transport ride
2. Panfilov Park with Zenkov Cathedral, 28 warriors monument and Museum of Folk Music Instruments (available along the city tour route)
Panfilov park is definitely worth seeing for the 3 special kind of monuments in it.
First one is Ascension Cathedral, aka Zenkov Cathedral (after the name of the person who built it) is the highest wooden orthodox church in the world. It is a functional church open for religious ceremonies. You may go inside to see beautiful orthodox artworks of icons, stained-glass windows and ceiling paintings. There is a shop where you may buy and light a candle for somebody or something. Built more than a century ago, the cathedral is also a unique architectural object. Designed to be resistant to earthquakes it stood still during the catastrophic earthquake of 1910.
Travel tip: if you decide to go inside please make yourself familiar with how to behave in orthodox churches in order to not disturb prayers or service.
After seeing the church walk to the monuments area. Most of them are dedicated to WW2 soldiers, especially to 28 heroes of Panfilov military unit defending Moscow in 1941. Their heroism was reflected almost in all soviet history school books. Memorial “Act of Bravery” represents the glory of their deed and is the most impressive monument in the park. Next to it is Eternal Flame that collects thousands of people across on the Victory Day (May 9) year by year.
You should also check out the Museum of Folk Music Instruments next to monuments area. The building hosting the museum is a piece of wooden art, built in 1908 by Andrey Zenkov. The museum is quite modern though representing ancient musical instruments and definitely worth seeing. It is not only a collection of historical exhibits but also a scientific and cultural center.
Comment from Lukas: I liked very much the way the instruments were presented: the way the light and multimedia was used - a good contrast to the old instruments. The museum made a very modern impression. The instruments themselves were well presented - I would just be more interested in addition about the differences of sound. Maybe to have some music samples of the most special instruments? Music was played but I could not figure out to which instrument it belonged. Size of the museum is perfect.
Travel tip: check out if there are any performances in the Museum during your stay in Almaty. You may be lucky to attend live instrumental concert within its walls.
Next to the Museum is a brutal looking massive Officers House, a bright example of soviet architecture, which now hosts offices and night clubs. The park itself is nice, walking around in winter sunny day you may breathe fresh air, feed pigeons or make pictures of squirrels living in the park. Nowadays the park is also known as a night-life-concentration area.
Where: Kunaev-Gogol-Zenkov-Kazybek Bi square
Working hours: 24/7, museum operates daily 10.00 – 19.00 (except Monday)
How much: 0 to 350 KZT for the museum standard ticket +650 KZT for excursion (available in English)
3. Kok Bazaar (available along the city tour route)
Kok Bazaar or Zelenyi Bazar or Green Bazar is Almaty Central Market, live market where Almaty inhabitants buy and sell daily and at the same time is a must-see attraction. Traders will invite you to try all kinds of food (including nuts, famous Almaty Aport apples and national cuisine specialties like kurt - dried salty curd balls) and master bargaining art trying to convince you buying their stuff. The market design will also surprise you (food section). Otherwise you may buy nearly everything on Kok Bazaar, including clothes, souvenirs, school books, etc.
Travel tip: you should go there hungry if you want to try bizarre food for free. If you decide to buy anything, the prices are not the cheapest in town but you always may buy fresh products there.
Where: Pushkin-Makatayev-Zenkov- Zhibek Zholy square
Working hours: daily 9.00 – 18.00 (except Monday)
How much: 0 to whatever you buy or manage to bargain.
4. Almaty metro (available along the city tour route)
Almaty metro construction is one of the longest, most expected and arguable city construction developments. Started in 1988 it accumulated many “to build or not to build” discussions and faced many challenges due to Almaty seismic location, underground waters layers and other issues. However it was launched in 2011 with 1 line and 7 stations. Recently it became tri-lingual so English speakers will feel confident under the ground. It’s is rather empty in out-of-rush hours, very clean and new-looking and reminds Moscow metro but with Korean trains.
Comment from Lukas: Almaty metro makes a very modern and clean impression. But where are the people??? Too expensive or not good promoted? I think signs how to get from exit metro to the sights should be added.
Travel tip: you may buy yellow tokens in special machines (English-menu-friendly) which are valid only 1 day. Thus don’t buy in advance.
Where: under the ground
Working hours: daily 6.20 – 23.30
How much: 80 KZT for every metro ride
5. Opera House concert (optional and available along the city tour route)
If you are an opera and ballet lover, you should try out local Opera House (National Academical Theater of Opera and Ballet). The theater was a home for the best Soviet people of art evacuated to Almaty during the WW2. This affected Kazakh professional art of theater a lot in a positive way. The Opera House offers a unique chance to experience Kazakh cultural traditional legacy. The theater was renovated and redesigned and itself is an interesting architectural object inside and outside.
Where: 110, Kabanbai Batyr str.
Working hours: mostly evening performances few days a week (for details check current theater bills)
How much: depending on show, you may buy tickets in theater or from official representatives (contacts on official web site: http://www.gatob.kz/ru/tickets/ - in Russian/Kazakh only)
6. Artishok theater performance
If you want to touch alternative/modern or rather underground theatrical art, please feel free to try Artishock performance. Though it is purely in Russian, it is a great experience of rather “feeling” the live art than seeing or hearing it.
Comment from Lukas: For usual tourist who does not speak Russian and has no translator this show [Pushkin Stand Up] will be not attractive. I think I am in this way an exception. Maybe some English guidance on paper would be good. But I would not skip the Russian as it is a part of the culture. The play itself seemed to be made very well - both theater for beginners and advanced. Liked very much the atmosphere and the interaction. Theater was very hot, better cooling would be nice. Price was very low.
Travel tip: not an option if you are claustrophobic as the theater is small and placed in a basement of residential block. Sometimes sounds of flushing water from the apartments upstairs return you back to reality.
Where: 49/68, Kunaev str.
Working hours: around 10 performances per month (for details check current theater bills)
How much: depending on show (official web site: http://artishock.kz/ - in Russian only)
7. Medeo ice-skating rink and Shymbulak resort
100% must-see, Medeo ice-skating rink is the world biggest high-mountain (1691 m above sea level) winter sports center with the biggest artificial ice area (10.5 ths sqm) with more than 200 world records registered. Located in a “mountains bowl”, it gives very special impression to ice skate in rounds with music loud on in the night surrounded by stars and dark shadows from snow peaks or during the day under warming sun breathing pure alpine air in any case. It is very modern and offers decent infrastructure with coffee places, cafes, etc. No special preparation required. You may lease ice-skates right there. Even if you never ice-skated you may take training class or a helping penguin (for kids). 20 minutes away from the city, it is an easy access by public buses but not as often as one would like it to be.
Comment from Lukas: Better Public transport would be useful. Area looks very attractive. Would be good to have some Café /restaurant at the top as well [on Shymbulak]. Maybe also a tea/bar place directly beside the ice would be good (inside the skating rink, but still outside).
Travel tip: take on a warmer outfit as it is always few degrees lower in the mountains.
Where: Medeo and Shymbulak resort, buses 6, 6-2 and 12 from Dostyk avenue (more info here http://medey.kz/)
Working hours: weekdays: 18:00 - 23:00 (except Monday), national holidays and weekends: 10.00 - 16.00 and 18:00 - 23:00
How much: 1800 KZT standard entrance fee + 1000 KZT adult ice-skates rental fee
From Medeo you can take lifts up to Shymbulak ski resort (2260-3163 m above sea level). There are 3 levels, the first one is the longest, will lead you to the ski complex with restaurant and hotel court. The second and the third ones deliver skiers and snowboarders to the pistes. If you take them all you will finally get to Talgar pass base. Whether you are a skier or just a pedestrian you will find ways to enjoy yourself on Shymbulak with many restaurants and activities for non-skiers. During the day you may even take sunbathes, it’s rather warm when the sun shines.
Where: lifts from Medeo station (more info http://shimbulak.kz/)
Working hours: weekdays: 9:30 - 18:00 (+ night skiing on Tue, Thu and Sat: 19.00-23.00), national holidays and weekends: 8.30 - 18.00 depending on levels
How much: 1500-7000 KZT a day depending on level, day of week, type of passenger
Here I described only the places where we had the most pleasant experience. I am sure there are more. I would not recommend going to Kok Tobe mountain at this time, an extremely nice place to be in warm seasons, but not in winter. For the following reasons:
- Telecabine is closed for renewal and you will have to get yourself delivered to the shuttle station
- Smoke curtain over Almaty is much heavier during the winter due to heating season, so most probably you won’t see beauty of the city from above observation decks
- Most attractions including restaurants were found closed and empty
However there are few places that become much more attractive in cold seasons, mostly indoor exhibitions (from photography to multimedia shows) and theaters (winter season performances) as well as many cozy coffee houses and nice cafes. For foreign guests I would suggest dinning in places with national cuisine (or any other ex-soviet country cuisine). Highly recommended would be trying out famous “uzbechka” places or eating street food (e.g. samsa or lagman on Kok Bazaar). Outdoor ice-skating rinks in the city and skiing resorts near Almaty are also highly available (e.g. Ak Bulak, Tabagan, etc). Or you may take a tea thermos bottle and go watch ski jumping practice to Sunkar ski jump complex.
Should you have any other ideas, please feel free to leave a comment here.
Photos are kindly provided by ©Maxim Zolotukhin, ©Lukas Baumann, ©Karim Yergaliyev, © Mat Sloughter, ©Anna Kan
Text by ©Anna Kan