A Guide to Backpacking in Almaty, Kazakhstan

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!

Almaty City

Alright, so you’re in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. Here are some must-visit attractions for a do-it-yourself 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.

National Museum in Almaty
The brutalist facade of the National Museum

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.

The beautiful Ascension Church
Zenkov Cathdral is open to the public

Arbat Street

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.

Example of Brutalist architecture in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Brutalist architecture is everywhere in Almaty

Green Bazaar

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.

Kok-Tobe Hill

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.

Almaty from Kok TObe
Trust me, the views are better in person.

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 always looking for ways to organize a trip by myself, then you’ve come to the right place.


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!

Rule #1: 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, cozy and central, I recommend), you’ll see many tours offered, but with quite high prices.

There, the 3 Canyons + Kolsai Lake one-day tour costs 18.000 KZT / 35.50 EUR. Quite pricey, at least for Kazakh standards.

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. Read more about money in Kazakhstan as a tourist.

Then you send them the confirmation. Done and dusted.

If you can’t be bothered doing this and you want a good English tour with all the extras, here are some good ones from Viator:

Kolsai Lakes

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!

When backpacking in Almaty you must go to the Kolsai Lakes!
Kolsai Lake 1

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.

Charyn Canyon

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 the most magnificent. 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 adequate.

If you’re a fast walker, you can walk on top first, then take one of the pathways down and return through the paths inside the canyon.

With two exciting day trips that can be combined for those short on time, you can experience the best of the region.

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 an Almaty Card, which you tap as you enter the buses. It costs 80 KZT / 0.16 EUR. Reportedly, you can pay cash (150 KZT / 0.3 EUR) to the driver if you don’t have it. I tried but the driver just waved me off. I tried again and the same happened again.

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.

Where to next? Do you need to travel to Tashkent from Almaty? Or maybe you’re going to Kyrgyzstan and want to get to Bishkek?

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