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Almaty: what to do in Kazakhstan’s cultural capital

Almaty: what to do in Kazakhstan's cultural capital
Almaty in the foothills of the Tien-Shan. Image: Maya Baklanova

This year, Kraków’s Unsound festival will be coming to Kazakhstan for the first time for a special two-day event in Almaty. To celebrate, here are some highlights from Kazakhstan's second city that you won't want to miss: from mountains to horse meat to boutique shopping

18 May 2017

It’s hard to miss Kazakhstan looking at a map – it’s the ninth largest country in the world. But how much do we know about all that’s going on here? Kazakhstan is home to everything from post-Soviet housing blocks to the Ritz hotel, from Muslim calls to prayer to hipster bars and techno parties. This year, Kraków’s Unsound festival will be coming to Kazakhstan for the first time for a special two-day event in Almaty, as part of their travelling Dislocation series. Dubbed Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, Almaty is jam-packed with art, nightlife, food and nature. Here are nine suggestions for things to do in the city during the Unsound weekend.

Visit the festival

This is the first time that so many well-respected DJs and musicians are coming to Almaty. Over two days, you will be treated to the sounds of pioneers like Atom TM and Kanding Ray, and an audio-visual show from Rabih Beaini and Vincent Moon. Other acts to look out for are Düsseldorf’s Don’t DJ, who will be presenting a back catalogue of amazing experimental material, and Polish DJ Olivia who will play alongside Kazakhstan’s DJ Nazira. The Caesar cinema will be hosting a concert programme that features Gletschermusik - the joint work of visual artist Lillevan, Berlin-based musician Andi Teichmann and the Kyrgyz composer Askat Jetigen. Based around the theme of melting glaciers, the project hopes to raise awareness of global warming and promote exchange between science and art, while promising a magical musical experience. The co-organisers of the festival in Almaty are the ZVUK collective, who run parties and organise workshops in the city. All events are run in partnership with the Goethe Institut and will be free to attend.

Hike into the mountains

Kazakhstan is famous for its unique nature. Most of the country is desert or semi-desert. Almaty, however, is located in the foothills of the Tien-Shan, with many beautiful natural areas located in immediate proximity to the city. With so many trails to choose from, of varying difficulty, you have plenty of opportunity to go hiking. Rent a car or motorcycle and go on a scenic route from Lake Kaindy and Kolsay Lakes through the plateau of Asy and the Kyzyl-auz pass. On the way back, be sure to stop at Charyn Canyon. Be warned: this route is challenging at times due to poor infrastructure, but you will be amazed at the untouched natural landscapes along the way.

For an easier alternative, go to the Big Almaty Lake. It is located at an altitude of 2,511 metres above sea level. Climbing higher through the observatory, you reach a space station at an altitude of 3,200m. Today, the station doesn’t carry out any outer space observations, but is used instead by a team of seismologists. Words cannot describe the magnificence of the view. Alternatively you can travel to the sports complex Medeo, take the ski lifts and climb the Shymbulak mountain, where you can find a lot of bars and restaurants and chill all day long. But don’t forget your sunscreen!

Try the local food

Women preparing <em>beshbarmak</em>. Image: Christopher Rose” src=”” style=“width: 1000px; height: 667px;” /></p>

<p>The main product of Kazakh cuisine is meat, with horse meat a particular favourite. Their traditional dishes are different combinations of meat and dough, and the most popular is <em>beshbarmak, </em>a mix of horse meat, noodles and soup. Many dishes are borrowed from the cultures that populate Kazakhstan, such as Caucasian, Dungan, Uzbek, Uighur, Tatar, Korean and many more. You have to visit at least one authentic place with traditional cuisine in Almaty: the Uzbek Paradise or the Lagman Tien Shan on Navoi Street, for example. Alternatively, you can get a tasty kebab on Kirov Street and take in the true spirit of the city.</p>

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<p><strong><span style=Go shopping at the Green Market

Inside the Green Market

One of the main attractions of the city is the Green Market. Located in the centre of town, there’s no better place to experience Almaty. The market has a hundred-year-old history and you can buy pretty much everything there: from oriental sweets and fresh fruits, to fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton handbags.

Visit the Kasteyev State Museum of Arts

The main building of the Kasteyev State Museum of Arts. Image: Kasteyev State Museum/Facebook

This is the leading art gallery in the country. If you’re looking to experience the rich palette of Kazakh painting, graphics, sculpture and applied arts — from primitivism to socialist realism to the avant-garde — you’ll find it all here.

Explore unique Soviet architecture

The majority of buildings in Almaty were constructed in the Soviet era, between 1955 and 1991. Denounced as ugly by the city’s residents and the government, many of these Soviet structures are being modified today. Mountains provide a special backdrop against which to view these concrete structures — in fact, the special charm of the city is that you can always see mountains wherever you turn your head.

Stay in Baza hostel

Inside Baza hostel. Image: Baza hostel/Facebook

Baza is a small and cosy hostel located in the city centre near a confectionery factory. Here you’ll find a lot of Soviet furniture, and a collection of Soviet posters printed at the Moscow printing house that decorate the space. Baza hostel is also a hangout for all sorts of young, inspiring people and a creative atmosphere reigns here. You can even catch a mini-concert or a party while staying in this place.

Pop into Synesthesia Concept Store

Synesthesia Concept Store. Image: Synesthesia Concept Store/Facebook

This recently opened space is home to several ventures: flower shop Gulder, vintage store Devour, handmade wooden product studio Pepelsneg and a store for vinyls and magazines, Bukla, are all based here. Cafe Umami will open soon, where you can eat ice cream and drink prosecco. Readers of Dazed, AnOther Magazine, Kinfolk and other such magazines will be pleased to find out that this is the only place in all of Almaty which stocks these glossy mags.

Hang out at Vzletnaya summer garden terrace

Venus de Milo looks down on Vzletnaya summer terrace. Image: Vzletnaya Music/Facebook

Almaty is full of different kinds of summer terraces, which locals refer to as letniki. We’re letting you in on the best kept secret of the lot. Local collective Vzletnaya founded a creative space in a former safe factory and opened a terrace to be enjoyed in Kazakhstan’s spring and summer heat. Everything here is very DIY and shabby-chic, with a certain charm. The highlight is definitely the huge statue of Venus de Milo watching over all the visitors.

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