If I asked you, could you point to Kazakhstan on a map? Probably yes, if you’ve found this post… Good for you! Many people have no idea where Kazakhstan is, much less that Almaty is the largest city, former capital, and ideal entry-point into Central Asia.
Almaty is increasingly becoming a city break destination for Europeans. Even those of us from North America are starting to hear how amazing Central Asia is as a destination. I’d even wager that Central Asia will become one of the best ‘off-beat’ travel destinations in the 2020s
Whether you’re planning a longer Central Asia trip – either an adventurous itinerary into the rural parts of the region or a city-hopping itinerary through Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Bishkek, and Tashkent – you should definitely spend a few days in Almaty to enjoy the urban comforts the city has to offer. This post will help you figure out how to spend 3 days in Almaty, no matter how long, where, or what type of travel you’re planning.
Almaty, Kazakhstan Travel Tips
Before I launch into my suggested Almaty city break itinerary, I want to cover a few FAQ and travel tips so that all your questions are answered by the time this post is done. Here are my top travel tips for visiting Almaty for three days.
When to Visit Almaty
Almaty has four distinct seasons, so when you choose to visit will have a big impact on your experience.
- Winter in Almaty means cold temperatures and often snow; January has an average temperature of just above freezing.
- Spring in Almaty brings warmer temperatures and rain; April has the most precipitation.
- Summer in Almaty is sunny and hot; August is the warmest and driest month of the year.
- Autumn in Almaty has an ‘Indian Summer’ but quickly cools off; September is a good shoulder season with warm temps.
Based on these seasons, the best time to visit Almaty is between May and September. However, July and August will be hot and sunny, so if you have flexibility, I would personally choose to visit in May, June, or September.
Getting Around Almaty
To begin: you don’t need a car to get around Almaty. It’s easy enough to use public transit and taxies. Your public transit options are to use the bus or the metro; the metro has only one line, so it’s most helpful if you’re staying along that line or within a few minutes’ walk.
If you want to take a taxi in Almaty, be sure to download the app Yandex Taxi. This will allow you to arrange drivers that will already know your destination and fare when they pick you up – it’s basically the equivalent of Uber. However, the app is entirely in Russian, so the best way to use it is by asking your hotel concierge or host to set the destination for you in the app before you call a driver.
Guided vs Independent Travel in Almaty
When it comes to visiting Almaty, you can definitely do it as an independent trip – but a guide will certainly help if you’re a little nervous about traveling somewhere that almost no one will speak English. (For the most part, you won’t be able to ask locals on the street for directions or pop into a taxi and tell them where to go.)
I spent part of my time traveling on my own in Almaty (with fellow non-Kazakh travelers) and part with a guide; if you want the same amazing guide, you can reach out to Nurlan and see if he’s available.
What to Pack for Almaty
I’ve already put together a packing list for Central Asia, but if you’re not planning to do a ton of outdoorsy stuff, I would adjust it slightly. While I recommend one day-hike below (to Big Almaty Lake), you don’t need all that other hiking gear I included on the list.
I would still make sure to include a day pack, camera, good hiking/walking shoes in your suitcase; you probably don’t need a head lamp, water tabs, or toilet paper – actually, bring that toilet paper because you never know what the situation might be. Most places in Almaty will have western amenities, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
If you’re only visiting Almaty and not going hiking, I would be sure to bring sunscreen and/or a hat to protect your face and keep cool. Almaty is at 3,000 feet in elevation and, like I mentioned above, summers can be sweltering. As a woman, I would also bring a scarf so that you can cover up if you want to enter any churches or mosques.
3 Days in Almaty: What to See & Do
Okay, enough with the travel tips and other stuff – let’s get to the three-day Almaty itinerary already! Here are my suggestions on what to see and do for three days in Almaty on a city break.
(Oh, one last thing before we dive in – flights from Europe typically arrive in the middle of the night; flights from the Asia often arrive in the afternoon. If you have the option, I’d route your flight through Istanbul, Turkey, as flights from there arrive throughout the day and you’ll have the most flexibility to control your arrival time. But, if you arrive in the middle of the night, I’d start your itinerary that same day as “Day 1” below.)
Day 1: Sightseeing & Exploring the Golden Quarter
Assuming you arrived in the middle of the night, your first of 3 days in Almaty might start off a little later than usual. Most hotels offer half or full board, so you can set out to explore the city after breakfast.
I highly recommend starting your weekend in Almaty with a walking tour of the historic Golden Quarter (sometimes called the Golden Square). I had the chance to take a walking tour with Dennis of Walking Almaty (pictured below); he’s a wealth of knowledge about the history of Almaty, Kazakh history, Soviet history, and generally fascinating trivia. He offers a Golden Quarter walking tour that’s a perfect option; it will guide you from Abay Square to the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater.
Dennis offers walking tours by appointment, so you might plan to start at 10:30am or 11am and end around lunchtime. You can then stroll down Panfilov Street for lunch and admire the street artists.
In the afternoon, I recommend heading indoors to one of Almaty’s museums. Dennis offers a guided tour of the Academy of Science which is home to several museums including one on Kazakh ethnic history and another of natural history (including some fascinating fossils of species we never had in North America). While it is possible to do these museums on your own, they aren’t super non-Kazakh/Russian-speaking friendly, so a guide can help a lot.
For another museum option, consider visiting the The Museum of Arts of the Republic of Kazakhstan. The museum is full of Kazakh and Soviet artists from a number of eras and styles. The best part is that this museum is well-climate-controlled – perfect on a hot summer day!
To round out your night, head to the Hotel Kazakhstan – you’ll recognize it from your walking tour in the Golden Quarter! On the 26th floor, Barfly offers panoramic views of Almaty and the surrounding region, good drinks, and food. Enjoy dinner as the sun sets then call it a night after a long day.
Day 2: Sampling Kazakh & Soviet Culture
Rise and shine! For your second of 3 days in Almaty, prepare for a full day of exploring the city and its complex, nuanced cultural history. As you saw yesterday, the Soviets had a heavy hand in the modern Almaty you’re exploring – but there are places to experience Kazakh culture too! Here are some of my tips.
Rise early to explore Almaty’s Metro System before commuter traffic starts. The metro stations are not as elaborate as those in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but they’re still beautiful to behold. My favorite was Baikonur station, named and designed for the region in Kazakhstan where Russia launches their rockets. (Obviously.)
If you didn’t visit the Academy of Sciences yesterday, it’s a must today. Specifically be sure to visit the Museum of Archaeology which shows some of the oldest Kazakh relics discovered in the region.
The Green Bazaar is a spectacular spot to wander around, pantomiming or trying your hand with some Kazakh words to ask the vendors about their foods and other products. (Dennis also offers a walking tour here if you want a guide!) You can try traditional Kazakh food as well as imports from the rest of Central Asia; this is a great spot to seek out lunch.
Definitely visit Park 28 Panfilovtsev which has Soviet war memorials neighboring Zenkov’s Cathedral. It’s a double-whammy of fascinating cultural legacies of the Soviet Union in Kazakhstan.
In the afternoon, head to Arasan Wellness & Spa. The fancy European name belies the fact this is a modern take on the traditional Russian banya – and you can opt for the oak-birch thrashing for extra detoxing. (Pardon my blurry photo – it’s literally the only one I took before entering the banya!)
For dinner, seek out local/regional cuisine. Navat has loads of Central Asian dishes, as does MAN’s City Cafe along Panfilov Street; Markanda serves a mix of Central Asian and Soviet dishes; Tyubeteyka has more specifically Uzbek dishes; and Darejani has Georgian food if you need something a little more familiar.
Day 3: Hiking Day Trip to Big Almaty Lake
On your last of 3 days in Almaty, let’s get out of town! I always love a good day trip or half-day trip when I’m doing a weekend getaway somewhere… Big Almaty Lake is a great option if you’re visiting Almaty for three days.
To reach the lake, you’ll need to hire a taxi – this is no problem using Yandex, but you may want to try and check with the driver once they arrive to make sure their car can handle the drive up to the lake. (Our driver’s car was… questionable at best and we had to stop a few times to top up the coolant with water running in a nearby stream. Very Central Asia!)
Big Almaty Lake is located at 8,238 feet above sea level, and there are unofficial trails around various parts of the lake. You’ll see lots of other visitors there, shooting photos and hiking around. Bring plenty of water since it’s hot and dry despite being near a giant alpine lake!
Once you arrive back in Almaty and freshen up, head to Kok-Tobe hill and ride the Gondola up to the top. This hill is a fascinating mix of tourist traps, fair attractions, and stunning views – it’s a fantastic place to watch the sun set on your last night in Almaty.
Most flights back to Europe depart early in the morning; you may want to head straight to the airport and hang out there, or grab a few hours of sleep at your hotel then check out early and catch a taxi to the airport.
And there you have it – everything you need to spend 3 days in Almaty! Do you have other questions about visiting Almaty? Let me know in the comments!
This post was made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are my sole responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.