The most elegant of the Russian cities, St. Petersburg has a unique character and a refined cultural tradition. It is not just the cityscape of Russia’s northern capital city, but also the somewhat endearing manner of its residents, which has become an object of mockery and pride alike. It is hard to believe that during rush hour in St. Petersburg you can still hear “I beg your pardon” and “Would you be so kind…” in the busy flurries of commuters. The city is probably the largest experiment that was ever undertaking in merging European order and Russian deep soul. Beginning a little over three centuries ago, it has turned out to be quite a success.
Originally designed to European standards, St. Petersburg borrowed its grand colonnade from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, from St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican, its grid of canals from Amsterdam, and its elegant galleries and shiny golden fountains of Peterhof from Versailles. When all combined on a stroll down St. Petersburg’s streets, it is quite easy to forget that you are in Russia. In warm weather, a boat trip along Griboyedov Canal is a good way to see the harmony behind the city’s combination of Russian and Western European architectural traditions.
Price: Three day trip to St. Petersburg – from $92 (flight not included).
Yekaterinburg has long fought with cities such as Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Nizhny Novgorod for the title of Russia’s third capital. In terms of growth rates and number of skyscrapers, it has already left them well behind. Yet Yekaterinburg is already a capital city in its own right – not of the whole Russia, but of the Ural Region, an area crucial to the country’s wealth. Here, in the city formerly known as Sverdlovsk, Pavel Bazhov wrote his fairy tales, and Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin went to university. It is also the setting for one of the most shocking murders of the previous century – Emperor Nicholas II and his family were shot dead here in the Ipatiev House.
If you try your best to ignore the local climate – the sky remains grey for nine months out of twelve – and focus on the beauty of the capital city of the Urals, you will find that Yekaterinburg, with its wide avenues, enormous shopping centres, the tallest Russian skyscraper outside of Moscow, looks like a modern European city.
Price: 5-day trip to Yekaterinburg – from $462.
Formerly known as Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, Kaliningrad is a city that looks European and feels Russian. The exclave sits between Poland and Lithuania, so most of the city’s residents have valid travel passports. This is the city where the first Lithuanian book was printed and The Nutcracker and Critique of Pure Reason were written. Kaliningrad’s European heritage has survived in the form of Gothic castles, the cathedral, a part of a military fortress – the Lithuanian Rampart, magnificent German churches, the oldest university in the Baltic region, as well as a beer brewery and a zoo founded by Herman Klaass in 1896.
Price: 3-day trip to Kaliningrad – from $142 (flight not included).
In Kazan, the culture and traditions of the East and West are closely intertwined. The cultural symbiosis is everywhere: in the architecture, streets and squares, local cuisine, and even language. The Kazan Kremlin built in the times of Ivan the Terrible is a peaceful home to the Russian Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral, the Spass-Preobrazhensky Monastery, the beautiful snow-white Qol Sharif Mosque, and the Tower of Soyembika, one of Europe’s tallest leaning towers.
The city underwent careful restoration before its 1000th anniversary in 2005: new roads were built, as well as a river port, the subway, the enormous Kazan Riviera entertainment complex with Russia’s largest water park, and the Korston Hotel and Mall with a shiny glazed roof. After the 2013 Summer Universiade, the city has became rather chic and glamorous.
Price: 3-day trip to Kazan – from $225 (flight not included).
A popular Soviet summer vacation spot, Sochi has since undergone great changes. Thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city now has a modern airport, its own pedestrian street, a modern seaport, glazed buildings and a pretty European embankment with cosy cafes and souvenir shops. Do not forget the Olympic Park, where the opening and closing ceremonies took place, as well as hockey, figure skating and other competitions, and Krasnaya Polyana with over 150 kilometres of ski trails. Also in Sochi you can see the futuristic Fisht Olympic Stadium and Shayba Arena and visit the Black Sea equivalent of Disneyland – Sochi Park, filled with characters from Russian folk tales and animated films.
Price: 8-day trip to Sochi – from $346.
Russia’s capital city has many names: the Constantinople Without the Sea, the Third Rome, and the City of White Stone. In fact, Moscow is a giant megalopolis with a rich cultural tradition. There are low mansions and space-like skyscrapers, narrow cobbled streets and wide avenues, monumental facades of the GUM Department Store and the Bolshoi Theatre, imperial mid-20th century skyscrapers, Russian churches, Catholic temples, and even mosques.
The centre of the capital city is very European; the comfy pedestrian streets are right next to the expensive restaurants and chic nightclubs, boutiques, and modern shopping centres. In Moscow, you can take a thousand tours. You can walk along Posledny Lane with a neat pavement and low multi-coloured buildings (Muscovites call it a piece of Europe in the very centre of Moscow), set out on a museum crawl, explore the Boulevard Ring, Tsaritsyno or the monasteries on the other side of the river.