Exploring the Charms of Almaty: What to do with two days in Kazakhstan's Cultural Gem

After a solid night’s sleep, I explored the streets of Almaty, once the Soviet capital of Kazakhstan. Although Astana now holds that title, Almaty continues to thrive as the country’s trade and cultural center, bearing a name that translates to “city of apple trees.”

In the northern foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau (part of the Tien-Shan Mountains), Almaty has an interesting mix of Soviet-style architecture (also known as Brutalist architecture) and public art. With Kazakhstan formerly under Soviet rule, remnants of the USSR are scattered throughout the city— and walking is the recommended way to see it all.

However, what truly sets Almaty apart is its people. The city bustles with a melting pot of friendly faces, a diverse group from all corners of the region. While walking through the streets, you’ll catch snippets of different languages—Russian being the predominant one, but you’ll also hear Kazakh spoken.

Almaty isn’t stuck in the past; it’s a harmonious blend of history and modern vibes. If you’re eager to explore a place where tradition meets contemporary life, Almaty is the destination for you.

Suggestions on things to do in Almaty:

Explore the City and Discover its Soviet Monumental Artworks

During the Soviet era, particularly from 1965 to 1985, mosaics, relief sculptures, stained glass, murals, and sgraffito (a layered plaster technique) covered many buildings throughout Almaty. These art styles are collectively known as Monumental Art.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the many mosaics throughout the city. One of my favorite mosaics was a five-paneled piece on the front of the Hotel Almaty—done in 1965 by Moldakhmet Syzdykovich Kenbaev and Nikolai Vladimirovich Tsivchinskiy. It’s a Kazakh folk tale about two lovers—much like Romeo and Juliet.

This is a section of a much larger mosaic depicting a Kazakh folk tale.

While at the Hotel Almaty, enter and head to the hotel’s terrace. From there, you’ll enjoy a breathtaking view of the city and the majestic mountains in the distance.

A mosaic in one of Almaty's subway stations

By the way, you can even find mosaics in the many subway stations throughout the city.

While exploring the city on your own is an option, hiring a guide would be more beneficial. A guide can offer detailed explanations of each piece of art, especially since the artwork goes beyond celebrating local traditions and playing with styles and colors. Much of the art also incorporated social ideals of the time.

Visit the Green Bazaar
Opened Tuesday to Sunday, 9:00 to 19:00

Exploring a local market is a great way to understand a country and its culture. The Green Bazaar in Almaty, the city’s largest market, is a covered hub with numerous vendors offering all the authentic flavors of Central Asia.

The market is a fascinating mix of items, from Kazakhstan’s traditional Kymyz (fermented horse milk) to goat heads, to churchkhela (colorful nuts known as the “Georgian Snicker bars”), to tasty, dried fruits like apricots. And, of course, you will find Almaty’s famous apples—they’re a local specialty.

You honestly will find everything imaginable here. There is even a considerable section of the market where vendors sell horse meat. They use almost every part of the horse—the breasts and ribs being particularly popular with shoppers. As I walked by one stall, a woman was filling up a natural casing with the rib meat of a horse (mixed with a variety of seasonings). This horse sausage-like favorite is known as Kazy.

Making sausages from horsemeat
Goat heads seemed to be a popular item sold at the market

The Kazakh people enjoy their meat, as evidenced by the amount for sale here — goat, cow, horse, poultry, and pork.

Grab a cup of coffee at a shop on the market’s second floor, where you can also take in all the hustle and bustle of the market stalls below.

The Green Bazaar is a lively place to genuinely experience Central Asia’s diverse and delicious offerings.

Visit the beautiful Ascension Cathedral.

Architect Andrei Pavlovich Zenkov constructed the Zenkov Cathedral —also known as the Ascension Cathedral, in 1907. This is a Russian Orthodox cathedral located in Panfilov Park, Almaty. Crafted from locally sourced Tien-Shan spruce trees, it is one of the tallest wooden structures.

One remarkable aspect is its resilience. The Ascension Cathedral remained standing through two major earthquakes, a testament to its engineering and design. This is especially noteworthy considering the substantial damage experienced by numerous other buildings in Almaty during those seismic events.

The Ascension Cathedral in Almaty

The Cathedral is truly stunning — its exterior is adorned in a vibrant yellow hue complemented by intricate white trim. Its five-domed roof adds to its beauty with its geometric designs in red, blue, yellow, white, and green.

Take in some history in Almaty’s Republic Square

Take a walk to the Republic Square in Almaty. Here, you will find The Independence Monument at the center —symbolizing the country’s liberation in 1991. Other important buildings and landmarks are located near the square as well.

Surrounded by buildings like the Presidential Palace, the square combines classical and modern architecture, reflecting Kazakhstan’s commitment to progress while honoring its past.

Beyond its historical significance, Republic Square is a lively spot for locals and tourists. Manicured gardens and green spaces provide a peaceful escape. There are nearby cafes and shops to relax and enjoy a cup of Kazakh tea.

Whether you’re into history, architecture, or simply looking for a serene spot, Republic Square has something for everyone.

Enjoy a cultural experience at the Arasan Wellness & Spa

Visiting the expansive Arasan Complex is a definite must when visiting Almaty. With its numerous bathing and steaming options—the exceptional massages you can add elevate the experience. The cultural immersion adds to the enjoyment, but bear in mind it’s a nude experience with separate areas for men and women. Don’t worry, though—you can rent towels and slippers to maintain your preferred level of exposure.

Upon entry, you can secure a one-hour bath session by payment. Opting for additional services, such as massages or treatments totaling over 5,000 tenge (roughly $27.00), grants you access to the baths for the entire day. Bookings are managed at the reception—with details like slippers, towels, and treatments logged onto a wristband (assigned at check-in), which also serves as your locker access card.

Head upstairs to the Russian bath area to request a treatment time for massage appointments.  While you wait —enjoy the steam, sauna, hammam, or pool until your booked treatment. Post-treatment, switch into fresh towels and return the rented items, settling your bill as you leave.

Prepare to exit with a radiant glow and the sensation of practically walking on air!

For a place known as the City of Apples, plan a visit to the last Apple Forest.

The ordinary apple we know today wasn’t always global. Surprisingly, it has roots in the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan, where the wild Malus sieversii, the predecessor of our everyday apples, can be found.

Sometime in the early 20th century, the biologist Nikolai Babilov traced the apple’s genetic lineage to a grove near Almaty, a small town in Kazakhstan. Those wild apples from Almaty look remarkably like the Golden Delicious apples we pick up at the grocery store today. On his visit, Vavilov was fascinated to find these apple trees growing naturally, all tangled up and haphazardly spaced—an unusual sight that you won’t see replicated elsewhere.

Scientists think birds and bears might have spread Tian Shan apple seeds from Kazakhstan long before humans entered the apple-growing business. By the time people started planting and trading apples, the Malus sieversii had already settled in Syria. The Romans stumbled upon it there and helped spread the fruit even more globally. Thanks to modern genome sequencing confirming the link between domestic apples and Malus sieversii, Almaty and its surroundings got the official stamp as the birthplace of all apples.

At some point, almost 80 percent of the apple forest was chopped down for its wood.

Today, nature reserves in the Tian Shan Mountain range safeguard the last wild apple forests.

Because only patches of apple forests exist along the Tian Shan Mountain range and may be difficult to locate, I recommend hiring a local guide to take you.

The section of apple forest that I visited had old tombstones among the trees.

Enjoy a visit to Radon Spring “Alma-Arasan”

You can visit the sulfur thermal-radon springs near Almaty in the Prohodnoy Gorge any time of the year. From the parking area, it’s a 10–15-minute walk to the spring. You’ll cross several bridges over the Prokhodnaya River as you make your way.   Some people come here seeking the healing benefits of sulfur thermal-radon springs.

When you reach the baths, there’s a convenient dressing room, a cozy gazebo, seating steps, and the main attraction – hot and cold-water baths. Plus, there’s a shower to freshen up before dipping into one of the three baths, each comfortably fitting 4 to 5 people.

Remember that Alma-Arasan can get a bit busy, especially on weekends, but overall, it’s a fantastic spot to unwind. For a more peaceful experience, I recommend coming on a weekday. And, of course, remember a bathing suit, flip-flops, and a towel.

If you’re up for it, continue your adventure along the mountain path for an extended hike to Maiden’s Tear Waterfall. It’s just a 20-minute walk past the springs, and trust me, the landscape and views are stunning.

Try some local favorites

Despite the predominantly meat-centric cuisine in Kazakhstan, I found some delicious vegetarian options while exploring the limited choices in Almaty. One standout was the traditional Russian pancakes, blinchiki, filled with either sweet or savory options. I particularly enjoyed the cheese-filled ones during a laid-back lunch one afternoon.

One of the simple joys I experienced here was indulging in an occasional treat – the prepackaged Soviet-brand ice cream cone called Plombir. My favorite was the vanilla, which was creamy and delicious— and always left me craving one more.