Almaty, on the wild plains where Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China meet, is a sophisticated surprise, an outlier of skyscrapers, leafy parks, museums and coffee shops. The mighty Tien Shan mountains tower over Kazakhstan’s biggest city, which was decimated by an earthquake in 1911 and stripped of its capital city status in 1997. But the city and its people have an indomitable, adaptable spirit: this is a town where the street names change with every new regime, and where Soviet-era murals lauding space flight and scientific achievements adorn the walls of Burger King. It used to be notoriously difficult to get a visa for Kazakhstan, but the government has implemented a visa waiver for UK travellers until December 2018.
What to do
High altitude ice-skating
Medeu outdoor ice skating rink, at an altitude of almost 1,700m, claims to be the highest ice skating rink in the world. The enormous rink sits in a mountain gorge overlooking the city; it used to be naturally frozen, thanks to Almaty’s bitterly-cold winters, but nowadays is artificially refrigerated. Entry is 1800 KZT (£4) and it’s easy to reach by bus: the Number 12 leaves every 30 minutes from the city centre.
Go to the opera
Abay Opera House, a vast and ornate building in the centre of Almaty, stages world-class ballet and opera at astonishingly low prices – tickets start as low as 600 KZT (£1.30) and you can sit in a box for 1500 KZT (£3.30).
Visit a museum
The Kazakhstan Museum of the Arts, also known as the A. Kasteyev State Museum, houses one of Asia’s greatest collections of Western European and Russian art, and also plays host to major visiting exhibitions – most recently Damien Hirst’s “New Religion”. Entry costs 500 KZT (£1.10)
Take a bath
The sprawling Arasan baths complex hides a Finnish sauna, a Moroccan hammam, a Russian banya and Turkish steam bath beneath its tiled domes. They’re yours to explore for 1200 KZT (£2.70) an hour, although it’s more expensive in the evening and at weekends. Massages start from 3500 KZT (£7.80) but can be brutal.
Go for a hike
Almaty people love to hike, and while there are any number of trails leading into the mountains, the most popular leads to the alpine meadows at Kok Zhailyau. It’s a moderately difficult four to six-hour walk from the main bus stop outside the Medeu outdoor ice skating rink, but it can be very steep at points. Don’t try it in the snow unless you know what you’re doing.
Where to stay
With its vast shared living space and reputation for excellent barbecues, the European Backpackers Hostel (007 7073890921) is seriously homely. Within walking distance of all the major sights, it’s convenient location is enhanced by the Kazakh owner’s enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of all things Almaty. Dorm from £4, doubles from £11, B&B.
Perhaps Almaty’s most iconic building, the Soviet-era Hotel Kazakhstan looms over the city. Built in 1977, it’s a testament to Soviet engineering, built to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake. The bar at the top commands unparalleled views of the city and the mountains. Doubles from £50, B&B.
Almaty has its fair share of mega-rich oligarchs – as evidenced by the number of supercars you see roaring through town. See the city from their perspective with a night at the Donatello, where suites start at £125, B&B (including access to the spa).
Where to eat
Beloved of locals, Kaganat is a no-frills, canteen style cafe that dishes up fresh Kazakh cuisine around the clock to keep local university students well fed. Because it’s so cheap – around £1 for a main – it’s a great place to try a smorgasbord of traditional Kazakh food, from lagman (noodles) to manti (dumplings).
There’s an abundance of international food available in Almaty, but some of the best is to be had at Daredjani, a smart Georgian restaurant in the centre of town (there are two other branches slightly further out).
Don’t let the inexplicably Disney-esque medieval castle setting put you off: Shashlychny Dvor is the place to try traditional shashlik, Kazakh kebabs grilled to melt-in-your-mouth point and served with flatbread, salad and yoghurt.
Where to drink
Among Almaty’s other surprising features is its thriving artisan coffee scene. It’s hard to pick just one cafe to try, but Bowler Coffee Roasters is a popular pocket-sized cafe and roastery that runs its own in-house barista training school.
Kazakh winemaking is currently enjoying a post-Soviet revival, and Arba wine bar – a cool little cellar-style bar which also offers tastings – is a great place to find out all about it.
Its hipster, industrial vibe sets All Saints apart from many of the expat-heavy pubs in Almaty. It also serves a good variety of local and imported beers.
Where to shop
Tradition has it that the Green Bazaar sits on the ancient Silk Road trading route, and it’s still chaotically evocative. From knock-off electronics to exotic fruit and veg, it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs and practise your haggling skills. Recover in a cavernous food hall with Kazakh cold cuts and Russian pierogi. Closed Mondays.
The gleaming corridors of the Dostyk Plaza mall couldn’t be more of a contrast to the bazaars of Central Asia, but it’s a swish place to pick up high street bargains. The food hall on the ground floor is a kind of Kazakh Harrods – the place to be seen browsing the local caviar.
The ornate Zenkov (Ascension) Cathedral is remarkable for three reasons: it’s made entirely of wood, no nails are used to hold it together, and it was one of the few buildings in Almaty to survive the 1911 earthquake (locals think this was an act of God). The interior – Russian Orthodox icons veiled in clouds of incense – is as beautiful as the exterior, and it looks remarkable in the Kazakh winter, dusted with snow.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Russian and Kazakh.
Should I tip?
It’s not customary as service is usually included.
What’s the time difference?
Six hours ahead of London GMT.
What’s the flight time from the UK?
Eight hours and 15 minutes.
Almaty’s metro is clean, safe, cheap (80 KZT/17p a ride) and runs through the centre of the city. Buses are equally cheap but you need to pay with a city card.
From Kok-Tobe hill, which you can reach by cable car from Hotel Kazakhstan. While you’re at the top, enjoy the fairground and endearingly underwhelming zoo.
Almaty has a vibrant live music scene; it’s best represented by the Summer and Winter Nomad Vibes festivals, a blend of ethnic folk, ambient and psychedelic rock that sums up everything that’s so wonderfully surprising about Almaty.
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