Russia got a little bit of a boost on the tourism map when it hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup. According to one estimate this month, in fact, football fans may have ensured 10 percent growth in tourist inflow to Russia. That’s a significant number, and one of the first statistical measurements we have indicating that the showcase has actually made the country more appealing to international travelers.
So, with Russia making meaningful headlines as a travel destination for the first time in quite a while, here’s our look at some of the sprawling country’s must-visit cities.
St. Petersburg featured prominently during the World Cup, but has long been known as arguably Russia’s “most European” destination. It’s a huge city but one that feels old and cultured rather than aggressively metropolitan. And it’s known for a significant focus on the arts, with quite literally hundreds of museums, dozens of prominent theaters, and more dotted around town. If you travel for the combination of authentic culture and fun (restaurants, nice accommodations, interesting crowds and nightlife) that draws so many tourists, look no further than St. Petersburg.
As the Russian capital, Moscow was the true place to be for the 2018 World Cup. One resource for all things World Cup (which is already looking ahead to 2022!) described hosting the World Cup as not dissimilar to the process used for the Olympic Games, which gives you an idea of how much planning went into the event, particularly in Moscow. It goes without saying that this massive, famous capital has everything you could want in a city destination – great hotels, great restaurants, famous sites, museums, bars and clubs, etc. But the World Cup brought a special, intangible buzz to Moscow tourism that could endure for years.
Aside from the most famous cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, Sochi is fast becoming Russia’s face to the world. Or at least that’s how it seems after the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014 and World Cup matches in 2018. However, it’s also a city that is sometimes misunderstood because of its winter sports connection. While it’s true that Sochi can become something of a ski resort town in the winter, it also happens to be located on the Black Sea. Charming beach areas and welcoming hotels give it an almost Mediterranean air for part of the year, meaning this city is a legitimate highlight for completely different reasons year-round.
Vladivostok is arguably the most fascinating Russian city not to have featured as part of the World Cup. This is likely because of how far it is from the other cities. Vladivostok is located almost as far to the east as a Russian city could be, such that it actually sits on the Sea of Japan! As a remote port city in a setting unlike the rest of Russia, it’s actually been compared to San Francisco – but better. Suffice it to say it’s an almost shockingly charming coastal getaway, and an interesting chance to experience Russia in what’s effectively a whole different part of the world than most of us think of as being Russia in the first place.
Located on the Volga River and known for its blend of Asian and European influence, Kazan is a city best visited by two types of travelers: those who enjoy history, and those who like modern luxury. Marked by old churches and mosques and even the ruins of a second Kremlin, it’s a fascinating city to tour with an eye toward Russia’s past. However, as a city that’s visited more often than most, and a large one at that, Kazan is also decidedly modern in some ways, such that it also makes for a comfortable getaway.
Another city on the Volga, nearly at a midpoint between Moscow and Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod was yet another Russia World Cup host city. Sometimes referred to just as Nizhny, it’s almost like a smaller (though by no means small) St. Petersburg, at least in terms of what travelers get out of it. That is, there’s a lot of art and culture on display throughout the city, including an impressive array of monuments to various people and events from history, and some spectacular concert halls.
This isn’t actually a city, so we’re bending the rules with the selection. In fact, it’s not even particularly close to any noteworthy cities. But Kizhi Island is still frequently mentioned as one of the best places to visit in Russia, so we thought we’d mention it. Designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO, it’s basically an island historical attraction on Lake Onega, and the main attractions are two beautiful 18th century churches. When you step back and think about where you are – on a random, tiny island in a lake in Russia – the presence of these churches feels like some sort of delightful historical glitch.
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