The de facto capital of the Ural Mountains, Yekaterinburg is where Europe meets Asia. An obelisk less than 45 kilometres from the city marks the Eurasian border. Don’t miss the Church of All Saints (also Church on Blood), which was erected on the site of the Ipatiev House, where the last Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918. Geology lovers should check out the Ural Geological Museum. Cold War buffs are in for a real treat: The Military History Museum has the American U-2 spy plane that was shot down in 1960. Gary Powers, the pilot, was captured and later released in exchange for a Soviet operative. The story inspired the Tom Hanks-starrer Bridge of Spies.
During Soviet times, Nizhny Novgorod used to be a “closed city” due to its strategic importance. Today, it is an open and welcoming place with a laid-back vibe. Be sure to check out the Nizhny Kremlin, the city’s oldest and most magnificent structure on the banks of the Volga River, Europe’s longest river. For scenic views of the Kremlin and the river, take the cable car that connects Nizhny to nearby Bor. Don’t miss the Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street, the city’s vibrant pedestrian pathway, which is home to many cafés, restaurants, and bars. Visit the Nativity Church whose multicoloured domes will make you wonder if you are hallucinating.
Tucked between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad’s odd location rests in its history. Formerly known as Königsberg, the city changed hands from Germany to the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The Fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 created an independent Lithuania, leaving Kaliningrad as a ‘floating’ Russian territory in Europe. Today, the city’s past is visible in its architecture, which is a mix of pre-war Gothic and post-war Soviet styles. History buffs will enjoy the Bunker Museum, an underground Nazi command post from the late days of the Second World War. Make sure you visit the Amber Museum for an intimate look at the geology and history of the fossilised resin that is often called “Baltic Gold.”
A must-visit for history buffs, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) was the site of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the fiercest clashes of the Second World War and the first major Nazi defeat. Head to Mamaev Kurgan, a hilly memorial complex, where you can see The Motherland Calls statue. At 85 metres, it is the world’s tallest statue of a female figure. When touring Mamaev Kurgan, don’t miss the grave of Vasily Zaytsev, the star Soviet sniper, who was played by Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates.
Located on the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers, Samara boasts a nice city beach and scenic views of the Zhiguli Mountains. Try the Zhigulevskoye beer that gets its name from the tree-covered hills and is best served chilled at the Zhiguli brewery. The Academy of Culture contains a subterranean surprise: a 37-metre deep bunker that was built for Stalin just in case Moscow fell during the Second World War. Don’t miss the Space Museum and the history of Samara’s contributions to the Soviet Union’s celebrated Space Program.
Head to Saransk to delve into Finno-Urgic Mordovian culture at the Mordovia Folk Culture Museum. Be sure to try traditional Mordovian food at Mordovskoye Podvorye or Hotel Admiral.
In Rostov, take a stroll in the city’s many parks or go people-watching at the Central Market. Rostov also provides easy access to sandy beaches; the Sea of Azov is just an hour away by car.
To explore more of Russia, see our FIFA World Cup 2018 guide to the country here.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.