A city of highways and dreams, merchants and big money. Moscow is the home of clubs that thrive despite a no-rave regime, creative clusters and small speakeasy bars hidden in the city’s backstreets and courtyards. With recent redevelopments designed to make Moscow more people-friendly, there are new walking routes, pedestrian zones and cycling culture is gradually taking off. One famous route connects Red October to Sparrow Hills via the re-vamped Gorky Park. Local markets have exploded in popularity and they have food stalls with delicacies from across Russia and the former Soviet Union. Make sure to check out Usachevsky and Danilovsky markets: the latter is next to the hulking “ship” building — an awe-inspiring example of Russian experimental housing. For more architectural experiences visit the Melnikov House, the Narkomfin building, the Seven Sisters, Shukhov Tower and the Stalinist utopia of VDNKh.
Volgograd is better known by its Soviet name of Stalingrad and it was one of the major cities of the USSR. Long neoclassical avenues, one of Russia’s oldest planetariums (in a Soviet palace) and the iconic Motherland Statue are the most recognisable landmarks of a city that was totally rebuilt in the 1950s. Behind the grand facades is a rich music scene. The nearby town of Volzhsky has even become a DIY music capital with local talent darkwave band Oat Oaks. Those in the know frequent the Ikra creative space and Alaska Bar, which serves locally brewed watermelon beer. Some people (with vivid imaginations) take Volgograd for San Francisco as the city’s high speed tram is identical to the one in the Californian city on the hill.
Affectionately known as Daddy Rostov, this city is Russia’s southern metropolism famous for Cossack traditions and its river port. In the mid-2000s it was the home of Russian gangsta rap pioneers Kasta and Basta, while it also produced indie-rock band Motorama, the champion of Russia’s export music scene in the early 2010s. Music aficionados point out that Rostov-on-Don was also a hub of experimental synth in the late 1980s, led by local engineer and musician Papa Strapa. Nowadays, it’s home to Makaronka, a landmark contemporary art centre, and the Mary Wong noodle bar, featured as one of the most stylish eateries in the New East. Underpasses should also be on your must-do list: many are decorated with beautiful Soviet mosaics. Architecture tours can culminate with the Donskaya State Public Library, a terracotta brutalist building.
A city of oil and quirky architecture, Kazan is re-establishing itself as a centre of innovation and contemporary art known for female rappers Tatarka and A¥WA. In Soviet times, this was the place where the Prometheus Engineering Bureau experimented with cutting edge audio and visuals. Nowadays, weekly music gigs happen at Salt, Kazan’s hipster mecca. The Smena culture centre is the place to meet local artist types drinking cold brew coffee and reading obscure art books. Head to Baumana, the main pedestrian street, to buy silver-plated Tatar hats. To soothe your eyes on art-nouveau mansions, check out the Amour Hotel, one of the finest examples of Tatar romanticism in modernist architecture, and a pale green building on Gogol Street that belonged to Adolf Por, who taught French to a young Vladimir Lenin.
The southernmost outpost of Russia in the Middle Ages, Nizhny Novgorod is also the place where the Oka and Volga rivers meet, providing one of the most breathtaking waterfront panoramas in Europe, best viewed from the grand Chkalov Staircase. It is not the views, however, that brought fame to Nizhny Novgorod. In Soviet times, Nizhny Novogorod was a city of wooden houses and churches — and a manufacturing hub for the Cold War arms race. It is also the place where writer Maxim Gorky was born and where political dissident Andrei Sakharov was exiled in the 1980s. A semi-abandoned island nearby hosts Alpha Future People, one of the biggest festivals of electronic music in Europe. Seledka and Coffee and Salyut Burgers are some of the best eating spots in town.
Barge haulers and cars are the two symbols of this Volga-town. The legendary LADA cars, mass-produced in the nearby town of Tolyatti (Russia’s Detroit), long dominated Soviet roads. In the 19th century, teams of serfs hauled barges up the river. But Samara was also a rocket-producing centre for the Soviet space program, including the one that took Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. Samara is a destination for urban explorers, boasting a number of bunkers, underwater tunnels and caves from the time of wartime evacuations. It is home to an independent music scene (like the band Oblast) showcasing “provincial acid” from the heart of Russia. A lack of clubs is not a big issue as locals attend raves in ruined buildings, like Osobnyak. But there are some things that don’t change — for example, stop in at Biblioteka bar for a drink.
The imperial city where bartenders have PhDs and ballet dancers, with their make-up still on, eat kebabs outside the world famous Marinsky Theatre. Art-nouveau decorations are hidden behind layers of cheap wallpapers in communal flats where locals enjoy a kind of “palace poverty”. Peeling back layer after layer of the city is one of the most exciting things you can do here. Intrigued by the industrial heritage? Visit to Sevkabel, a former industrial plant that is now an art residency and concert venue with breathtaking views over the Neva River. Check out New Holland, another cultural cluster. Or spend the night in MOD and Griboyedov, eternally popular clubs. Head to Nekrasova Street for bars, and have dinner on nearby Rubinstein.
The city of Constructivism and street art. The city where the last tsar died and Russia’s first president was born. Start by exploring the Yeltsin Centre - a four-storey building with studios, shops, cafes, apartments and an immersive museum about the 1990s. There is the Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going? artwork by Tima Radya on the rooftop of a former industrial plant outside the Yeltsin centre (this is where the latest Ural Industrial Biennial took place). But for something different, head to the city’s Uralmash district where the beer stalls and neon signs are the only things that tell you it’s the 2010s not the 1930s. Further out you can see the White Tower, the city’s emblematic Constructivist monument that has breathtaking views over the thick taiga forest beyond.
The capital of Russia’s western exclave, Kaliningrad is a city of amber where witches were exiled and the philosopher Immanuel Kant spent his days. One might expect a bewildering architectural mix of German medieval, gothic and Soviet but in fact it is almost exclusively Soviet and post-Soviet. There are only a few quirky replicas of German Koenigsberg: one of them — the Fishing Village — is more like a provincial Disneyland. But it’s not all about the past in Kaliningrad. Get to know the local underground crowd at DJ Bar, which showcases regional electronic music and check out local talents like oqbqbo, Yarys or the psychedelic BLEDNYJ.
Saransk is the home to speed walking, plastic and paganism and an elegy to cheap construction with crass displays of toned glass panels and brightly coloured stucco. It is a place to enjoy the contrasts, ludicrousness and hospitality of provincial Russia at its best. You may even be lucky enough to hear heartwarming songs in the obscure local Moksha language. Don’t search for trendy cafeterias — enjoy the freshly made kebabs outside the Pushkin funfair near Sovetskaya Square or taste local specialities, like thick pancakes, in the Mordovskoe Podvorye folklore restaurant nearby. The municipal beach by the stadium is only a short walk away. Art lovers may enjoy visiting the State Museum, which is named after Stepan Erzia, an architect and artist who carved elaborate wooden sculptures.
The city of dolphin T-shirts, sanatoriums, kebabs, surfing and ski resorts. Sochi is a seedy paradise with neon signs, quirky shopping and peculiar spa therapies — but it retains an air of grace. Dotted with five-star hotels and frequented by oligarchs, it trades in a nostalgic allure and brash Russian patriotism. Nearby you can visit tropical forests, the seaside, a craft brewery in the mountains, honey farms, waterfalls or the highest suspension bridge in the world. In the city, the sanatoriums are worth a one night stay for their spa treatments and canteen breakfasts. The Metallurg Sanatorium mixes the weird and the grandiose, while ruin porn lovers should drop by the Ordzhonikidze Sanatorium, an abandoned palace and the city’s quietest public space. Try the abundant sweets at Alyonka, visit the botanical gardens, taste cocktails in Khudozhestvenny or gorge on khinkhali at Belye Nochi.