If you’re a backpacker on a budget looking for natural beauty in Kazakhstan, then Almaty is a must-visit destination.
This region is home to stunning natural landscapes, rich cultural history, and a variety of outdoor activities.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to experience the best of the Almaty Region on a budget with two exciting day trips (that you can combine if you’re short on time).
Let’s go backpacking in Almaty!
Alright, so you’re in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. Here are some must-visit attractions for a free city tour:
Central State Museum of Kazakhstan
Learn about the country’s history and culture through exhibits showcasing Kazakh art, crafts, and traditional costumes. Entrance is only 500 KZT / 1 EUR and is totally worth it.
Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen
Visit this picturesque park and see the iconic WWII Memorial and the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral (also known as Ascension Cathedral), a wooden church that is over 100 years old.
Fun fact: It was built without using any nails.
Stroll down this vibrant street and enjoy the local street performers and vendors selling everything from souvenirs to street food.
Admire the brutalist architecture
Almaty is home to some striking examples of brutalist architecture. With its bold geometric shapes, raw concrete finishes, and minimalist aesthetic, this architectural style evokes a sense of strength and solidity.
Some of the most notable examples in Almaty include the
- Central State Museum;
- Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater;
- Palace of the Republic.
While some may find this style to be harsh or uninviting, others admire the uncompromising boldness of brutalism and the way it conveys a sense of power and durability. For those who appreciate this style, Almaty is a treasure trove of inspiring and thought-provoking architecture.
The official name of the bazaar is Kök Bazaar and it’s located between Zenkov and Jibek Joly streets. Visit this bustling marketplace to find everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts.
Take a scenic cable car ride to the top and enjoy panoramic views of the city and surrounding mountains. You can catch the cable car from Dostyk Avenue, close to Abay Subway Station. The one-way ticket is 1000 KZT / 2 EUR and the return ticket costs 2000 KZT / 4 EUR.
Alternatively, you can get there by public bus and save some money. The cable car is not that exciting anyway. Bus #99 brings you to the southern (lower) entrance of the park. From there, you’re a short hike away from the top for the views.
Kolsai Lakes and Charyn Canyon Tour
You must explore the stunning natural landscapes of the Almaty Region. The two of the most popular destinations close to Almaty are:
- Kolsai Lakes: a series of three crystal-clear lakes surrounded by lush forests and stunning mountain peaks.
- Charyn Canyon: a natural wonder that is often compared to the Grand Canyon. Hike through the canyon and marvel at the unique rock formations and stunning views.
Organized Tour or Alone?
If you’re anything like me – an avid backpacker, trying to cut costs here and there and thinking that organized tours are a rip-off, then you’ve come to the right blog.
Public transportation outside of Almaty and especially towards the Kolsai Lakes and Charyn Canyon is virtually non-existent.
Trust me when I tell you that you’ll have a miserable time trying to do it with public transportation.
Hitchhiking is also quite hard in this region and to add to it, the landscape is just endless steppes – you might find yourself in the middle of nowhere without accommodation, food, or any reliable transport.
That’s why I chose to do it with an organized tour and I’ll give you a handy piece of advice on how to save money!
Do not book an English tour.
Price of Tours
For example, if you’re staying in Wanderlust Hostel (a very good hostel by the way, I’m not even being paid to say that), you’ll see many tours offered, but with quite high prices.
For example, 3 Canyons + Kolsai Lake one-day tour is 18.000 KZT / 35.50 EUR. Quite pricey.
But go to Instagram and search for “Almaty Tours” and you’ll see plenty of options. Message them on IG or WhatsApp and they’ll share their tours. Yeah, they’re in Russian and will communicate with you in Russian, but it’s nothing that Google Translate cannot manage.
I used the services of Almatytour.kz and the same 3 Canyons + Kolsai tour was 10.000 KZT / 19.8 EUR.
You will have to pay with cash using a Kaspi Gold terminal. I was quite confused at first, but it’s actually very easy to do.
The tour agency will give you their code and you just deposit cash in a Kaspi Gold Terminal in any of the convenience stores around Almaty.
Then you send them the confirmation. Done and dusted.
There are three Kolsai Lakes. Most tours bring you to Kolsai Lake 1. To reach the other two, you will need to hike 1-2, maybe 3 days, depending on the weather. But Kolsai Lake 1 is pretty impressive on its own!
There you’ll have the option to go on a boat for an hour, ride a horse or walk around the lake. The scenery is stunning and you might want to just sit back on one of the benches and admire.
You might’ve noticed that the tours advertise 3 canyons. These are the Moon Canyon, the Black Canyon, and the Charyn Canyon.
Of the three, the Charyn Canyon is definitely the most impressive. You have a choice between going down inside the canyon or going on the paths above and looking down and the impressive shapes.
Usually, tours allow around 2 hours at the Charyn Canyon which I felt was totally adequate.
If you’re a fast walker, you can walk on top first, then take one of the pathways down and return back through the paths inside the canyon.
As you can see the Almaty Region in Kazakhstan offers an abundance of natural beauty, cultural history, and outdoor activities that are perfect for budget-conscious backpackers.
With two exciting day trips that can be combined for those short on time, visitors can experience the best of the region.
While logistical information such as transportation can be tricky, it’s worth the effort to explore this unique and stunning destination. So, for anyone planning a trip to Central Asia, Almaty is definitely a must-visit destination.
Important Logistical Information
Get to Almaty by Air
The cheapest way to get to Almaty in 2023 is on a WizzAir flight from Abu Dhabi. Depending on the dates, this 5-hour flight costs only 75 EUR, which I feel is a bargain given the distance.
If you come from Europe, Abu Dhabi is well located to many European cities too.
Almaty has a well-connected international airport, so you can find flights that suit you better too. From Europe as of 2023, you’ll probably have to fly through Istanbul.
Get to Almaty Overland
If you’re already in Central Asia, say Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, then you can get to Almaty by bus from both Tashkent and Bishkek.
From Tashkent, there’s a daily overnight bus departing from Tashkent Avtovagzal on the other side of Olmazor subway station. Booking online? Forget about it. Also, you can’t really rely on the timings listed online. You must go in person and ask there.
The journey takes about 14 hours (including cumbersome border formalities) and costs 200.000 UZS / 16 EUR.
There’s also a train connecting Tashkent to Almaty. As of March 2023, it runs three times per week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. It departs from Tashkent North and arrives at Almaty 2 18 hours later. It costs upwards of 400.000 UZS / 32 EUR, but you get a berth to sleep on.
From Bishkek, there are two buses daily going to Almaty. They depart from the Western Bus Station (the bigger of the two and sometimes called Central (Tsentralniy Avtovokzal). Information for timings online is non-existent, so you must enquire in person.
In the event that these buses don’t run (for some reason or another), take a marshrutka to Ak-Zhol (20 km, which should cost about 20 KGS / 0.2 EUR), cross the border on foot, and then take a bus to Almaty. You will have options there for sure.
Kazakhstan has really opened up to the world in the past decade. It’s not possible for many nationalities (including EU countries, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, some Southeast Asian countries, and some South American countries) to visit visa-free for 30 days. Check the visa map here.
Kazakhstan uses the Kazakh Tenge as its currency. There are ATMs practically everywhere in Almaty, including tucked away in supermarkets and convenience stores.
Most of them do not charge an access fee. Revolut works fine. It’s easy to find exchange bureaus in Almaty (and other big cities in Kazakhstan).
Paying by card is possible in most restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets.
To get a rough idea of the prices and how much you’ll need for your trip, check my budget report for Kazakhstan.
When I was there at the end of October Almaty was cold, but bearable. During the day I could even unzip my winter jacket and feel comfortable.
Then I went again in early December and it was quite cold: temperatures of -2/-10 Celsius and heavy snow. Still not as cold as the capital Astana (some 1000 km north) which experienced -33 Celsius during the same time.
My advice: If you want to go to Central Asia, go between April and October.
Transportation in Almaty
For everywhere in Central Asia, Kazakhstan included, download the application 2GIS. It’s the ex-Soviet countries’ equivalent of Google Maps. It works offline and unlike Google, it finds routes using public transportation even offline!
For taxis use YandexGo, the Russian equivalent of Uber.
For public transport in Almaty, you technically need Almaty Card, which you tap as you enter the buses. It costs 80 KZT / 0.16 EUR. Ostensibly you can pay cash (150 KZT / 0.3 EUR) to the driver if you don’t have it, but I got refused twice.
I didn’t pay at all for transportation inside Almaty – there are virtually no inspectors and you won’t be the only person going gratis anyway.