At the historical heart of Almaty is the Old Town with its sculpted fountains, neatly pruned greenery, and creative neighbourhoods in Tulebaika (Tulebayev Street) and on Arbat Street. The city’s central Panfilov Park is home to the brightly pastelled Zenkov Cathedral (one of the city’s last tsarist-era buildings), as well as a colossal Soviet-style war memorial with an always burning ‘eternal flame’ which is a must see.
Almaty’s Arasan Baths, known to be the finest bathhouse in Central Asia, is located on the east of Panfilov Park. This 1980s Soviet-style complex is divided into men’s and women’s areas, and offers Russian (Russkaya), Finnish (Finskaya) and Turkish (Vostochnaya) baths, as well as a plunge pool and luxurious heated stone and massage treatments. Afterward guests can even buy ‘veniki’ leaf bunches from street sellers to thrash the circulation back into action.
It is inexcusable not to visit Kok-Tobe (also known as ‘Green Hill’), the highest, most southern point of Almaty city. The Kok-Tobe Mountain cable car departs from Arman Cinema at intersection of Dostyk and Abai and costs 2,000 tenge (Dhs47) but you can also walk upwards to the high altitudes of the lively recreation arena. This sports a choice selection of restaurants as well as a small zoo and theme park attractions. While the thrilling Fast Coaster ride dashes down the slope at a breathtaking speed of 45km/h, in the summer months the Kok-Tobe arena is transformed into a breath-taking concert venue for live music.
Kazak cuisine traditionally centres on meat dishes and milk products, with popular delicacies including kazi and chuzhuk (horse meat sausages). That said, Almaty’s multicultural history means that a great range of food from European, Russian and Uzbek cuisines is also always on offer. Everyone in the city enjoys Samsa (a type of pastry also known as Somsa and Sambusa) – especially those cooked in a tandoor – as well as traditional beef pies called Belyash, corn on the cob and kebabs.
One of the classiest Eastern- themed restaurants in Almaty is Samal. It is a little out of the city centre (near Medeo) but offers a sumptuous range of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Arabic and South East Asian menus.
Alasha is slightly closer to town, and with its interior of trestle beds, heaps of cushions and hand-made carpets, the oriental restaurant could be mistaken for the inside of a Khan’s palace. Alasha serves a mix of Kazak and Uzbek cuisine, and the plov (spiced rice), shashlik (kebab), and hassyp (traditional Uzbek sausage) are particularly good. Dinner is often accompanied by expressive musical and dance performances.
You might not expect to find fine gastronomy when walking in the woods, but Tau Mergen, also in the South of Almaty, is just that. Book an outdoor gazebo or curl up in a yurt, savour the combinations of cheeses, roasted deer and lamb, and drink dairy delicacies, ‘kumys’ or ‘shubat’ with your meal, followed by tea.
Music & nightlife
Most Almaty bars only open in the evening. Bar Fly is situated on the 26th floor of the Kazakhstan Hotel, and offers astounding views over the city. For a more relaxed laid back vibe stop by hip new hangout WBar, which offers music and karaoke, and is also a great place to head for iced coffee or ice cold fresh lemonade in the heat of summer. Or, for a true taste of Old Almaty spirit take a ride in a romantic Almaty Tram Café. This moving coffee house and bar sits snugly in a working 1967 German tram that picks up guests from the corners of Kunayev and Shevchenko streets at 8.30pm before trundling off around Almaty city centre until 4am.
The Almaty club scene is ever evolving – what is ‘in’ often has to change from one week to the next as bouncers sometimes only let in regulars. For a classy feel try out the new club on the scene, Barvikha Family. Though the portraits of Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich’s on the walls are bizarre, this exclusive club has impressively grand décor.
The city’s creative community often drink at Raketa, where each evening a different celebrity serves drinks. An eccentric bar, guests are invited to sit on wooden crates and mismatched furniture, and gaze on graffitied walls and a bright-orange deer head.
Need to know
Etihad Airways flies to Almaty direct from Abu Dhabi from Dhs2,550 return.
Abu Dhabi to Almaty
Flight time: 4 hours and 30 mins
Time difference: Two hours ahead of UAE
Dhs1 = 42 Kazakhstani tenge