7 Things you must do and see in Almaty
Check Out Panfilov Park (and the Zenkov Cathedral)
Two images come to mind when someone thinks of Almaty - the awe-inspiring Ili Alatau Mountains guarding the city to its south and the vibrant, yellow Zenkov Cathedral that is located in the city’s popular park, Panfilov Park.
The Zenkov Cathedral is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and is a prominent Russian Orthodox Cathedral that was built and opened in 1907. Standing tall at 56 meters, it has been an iconic symbol of Almaty ever since. Zenkov Cathedral was ingeniously built without any nails, yet somehow showed its strength when it survived the 1911 earthquake of Almaty with very minimal damage. Many bishops credited divine powers for its ability to withstand the earthquake; others simply cite and credit the genius efforts, knowledge, and skill of its architect, Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov. After some restoration work in the 1970s and a transfer in ownership back to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Zenkov Cathedral remains open today for regular services.
Panfilov Park, or Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, is an important green space in Almaty despite its housing of the Zenkov Cathedral. The park was named after the Panfilov Heroes, 28 soldiers from Almaty who perished during World War 2 outside of Moscow.
Satisfy Your Stomach at the Zelyony Bazaar (Green Bazaar)
Almaty, and Central Asia in general, is known for its fresh, organic produce and ability to utilize seasonal and local ingredients for regional dishes in an impeccable fashion. The Green Bazaar is easily the best place in Almaty to get a true feel for the importance of food and fresh ingredients to Kazakhstan. Visitors will find everything from organic Uzbek strawberries (which have two seasons and may be the sweetest thing one will ever ever put in his or her mouth) to kumis to every cut of meat present in Central Asian cooking. The following ingredients and products are ubiquitous at the bazaar:
Apples: Almaty and apples go together like Florida and oranges and you will be pleased to know that all apples coming from Kazakhstan are 100% natural and the flavor will prove that to you. Apples also originate from Kazakhstan, so it is imperative you taste one of the juicy fruits while traveling there. In fact, the city’s old name, “Alma-Ata”, means “Father of Apples”.
Uzbek strawberries: A very seasonal ingredient… but travelers can rejoice because Uzbek strawberries have two seasons, not just one. They are tiny in comparison to most strawberries available for consumption around the world, but their flavor is explosive.
Walnuts: Central Asia grows walnuts and you will find several vendors, many from Uzbekistan, selling them alongside dried fruit at the Green Bazaar. They will look to haggle with you… or sometimes even just chat and find out more about where you’re from.
Kumis and Shubat: Kumis is fermented mare’s milk and shubat is fermented camel’s milk. Both play an integral part of Kazakh culture and history and should be tasted for travelers wanting to learn a bit more about the local culture and cuisine. You can taste both at the Green Bazaar - but beware! They may be an acquired taste for those not used to drinking such products.
Korean food: Almaty has an affinity for Korean food and this is extremely evident once you arrive in the Kazakh city. At the Green Bazaar, you will see so many Korean side dishes, or ‘banchan’, available for sale that you may just find yourself in kimchi heaven.
Horsemeat: Kazakhs use every part of an animal and you can experience strong evidence of this at the Green Bazaar where every part of the animal is sold for consumption. Horsemeat is a delicacy in Central Asia and is used for many of the dishes, especially ‘beshbarmak’, a dish made with horsemeat and hand-pulled noodles.
Take a Ride to Kok-Tobe
The unparalleled nature of Kazakhstan can be easily seen within city limits by heading towards the Kok-Tobe Cable Car that is located in close proximity to Hotel Kazakstan and the Palace of the Republic off of busy Dostyk Avenue. You can pay a round-trip, small fee and take the cable car all the way to the top of Kok-Tobe where you will find cafes, a ferris wheel that lights up the city at night, other amusement park rides, and some of the most stunning views over Almaty.
At the top of Kok-Tobe, you will also find a statue of the The Beatles that was erected in 2007 by sculptor Eduard Kazaryan. This statue is the first The Beatles statue that showcases all four of the Beatles together.
Hike Jaw-Dropping Scenery at Charyn Canyon
There are so many nature trips within a day or two’s reach from Almaty. One of the most remarkable is a trip out to Charyn Canyon, also known as the Little Sister of the Grand Canyon. This desert gem is a stark contrast from the pined mountains of Almaty, but can be seen and hiked merely as a day trip. The 90 kilometer long canyon stands over the Sharyn River, a blue-green river that glistens against the red rocks of this natural wonder. Interestingly enough, you will be in a corner of vast Kazakhstan that sits right along the Chinese border.
Charyn Canyon consists of five different canyons, the Valley of Castles, the Temirlik Canyon, the Yellow Canyon, the Red Canyon, and the Bestamak Canyon. Each canyon is unique in its own right, but the Valley of Castles is undoubtedly the most famous among tourists. Hiking through this dramatic landscape is an incredible experience, as you won’t witness the swarming crowds that teem other natural wonders of the world. If you are an adventurous soul, you can even go rafting down the Sharyn River.
Travelers can camp underneath the stars at Charyn or book an eco-yurt at the small resort at the bottom of the canyon there.
Explore Almaty’s Hip Café Culture
Cafes are such an important part of the local culture of Almaty. The city is saturated with places to drink coffee or enjoy an evening cocktail. And these cafes stay open from morning until late evening. Kazakhs love their coffee and they love the atmosphere of their cafes and take great pride in being seen in them at every opportunity possible.
The cafes in Almaty also offer some of the best food in the city; so don’t shy away from checking out the menu and ordering a meal alongside that coffee or tea. They also offer shisha more often than not.
Admire the Varying Architecture of Almaty
Almaty is a large city, but many parts of it can be seen by foot. The city houses such a variety of unique architecture that it will truly stop you in your tracks. You will see traces of traditional nomadic, Kazakh origins mixed with stately Soviet stylings mixed with the very modern. Once you start to look at the details of the city, you will be amazed at how dynamic its layers are.
Want a true local’s perspective? Get in touch with Dennis Keen at “Walking Almaty” and have him arrange a bespoke tour for you based on your interests. He knows every inch of the city and knows it well.
Take a Short Jaunt to Kyrgyzstan
Looking to add a new country to your list? No fear, Kyrgyzstan is only short jump away… or five-hours because nothing in Central Asia is that close. You can take a marshrutka (shared minivan) from the Sayran bus station in Almaty to Bishkek for less than $10. You will ride alongside locals and will walk across the border with them where you will have your marshrutka waiting on the other side for you. You can also choose to take a taxi at the border into Bishkek, which arrives quicker. From Bishkek- Kyrgyzstan is your oyster! You can experience the wonder of Lake Issyk-kul, one of the world’s largest saltwater lakes, take a hike through Ala-Archa National Park (which is located right outside of the city), or venture to the wild west toward Osh and Kyrgyzstan’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain.
Kyrgyzstan is the fourth highest-elevated country in the world and mountains cover 65% of its terrain. Definitely a reason to hop down to the country for a while during your trip to Almaty!
Almaty is definitely on travelers’ radars these days and rightfully so. Get there quickly! This city is evolving by the day and it is a city that wants you to be part of its growth and tourism!
Written specially for airBalticBlog by Megan Starr.