This story was inspired by: Grand Tour of Russia
The world’s most popular game is heading to the world’s largest country. The 2018 FIFA World Cup takes place in Russia between 14 June and 15 July, and football fans from around the globe are getting ready to enjoy the lively atmosphere as they support their teams.
If you’re travelling to Russia for the World Cup, make sure you experience as much as you can of the massive, fascinating host country – in between matches, of course. There are lots to see and do, so read on for some of our top picks.
With eleven host cities (Moscow, Kazan, Saint Petersburg, Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Sochi, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Ekaterinburg, Saransk and Samara) spread across the European half of Russia, visitors will have a lot of ground to cover. The area is as large as western Europe itself! Fortunately, match ticket holders can sign up for a Fan ID which allows them free train travel between host cities, plus local public transportation. The Fan ID also allows holders visa-free travel into Russia for the duration of the World Cup, but you’ll still have to register as a visitor when you arrive at your accommodation.
1. Experience Saint Petersburg’s White Night event
Spectacular Saint Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city, and possibly its most beautiful. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, the ornate former imperial capital is packed with canals, art and culture. During the World Cup, it will play host to seven matches, including a quarter-final.
Due to its northern latitude, Saint Petersburg enjoys several weeks during summer in which the sun never quite sets. This is celebrated with a world-famous arts and culture festival called White Night which is not to be missed – and this year’s White Night coincides with the World Cup!
Attend the opera, symphony or ballet at the Stars of the White Nights concert series (make sure you book in advance, as they sell out quickly), take a midnight stroll or gather on the banks of the Neva River to watch its bridges opening to let ships through, a White Nights tradition! Don’t miss the pageantry of the Scarlet Sails, an annual spectacle on the river featuring fireworks, music and a tall ship with crimson sails.
2. Catch the sunshine in Sochi
If your only knowledge of Sochi comes from the 2014 Winter Olympics, prepare to have your mind blown. The resort city lies on the shore of the Black Sea, and while the nearby Caucasus Mountains certainly get their share of snow in the winter, Sochi itself is a subtropical summer destination complete with palm trees and beaches. Its former Olympic Stadium is now a football venue and will host six matches (including a quarter-final).
Feel like getting back to nature in between matches? Sochi is a great place to get outside. Take a cable car up the Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster for great views all year round, explore the Vorontsovka cave system or go boating on the Black Sea. If that all sounds a bit too energetic, try a stroll along the Central Embankment, Sochi’s main esplanade. Get some sun, visit a café or just do some people watching – and find out why the area is known as the Russian Riviera!
3. Join the party in Moscow
Russia’s iconic capital is a fascinating blend of old and new. Noted for its architecture and history, the vibrant metropolis is one of Europe’s largest cities. Moscow is set to take centre stage during the world cup, hosting 12 matches across two separate stadiums, including the opening match and the all-important final.
As thousands of football fans descend on the city, Moscow will be even busier than usual. You’ll face larger crowds than average at must-see tourist landmarks like Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Tomb. If you can tear yourself away from the football, try visiting the big attractions while everyone else is watching a big match – they won’t be quite as packed.
Of course, half the fun of the World Cup is the atmosphere created by the large, enthusiastic crowd, and the party isn’t limited to the stadiums!
Every host city will house a FIFA Fan Fest area featuring a massive screen broadcasting all matches live and free. Moscow’s Fan Fest will take place in front of the Moscow State University main building. With room for 40,000 spectators, it’s going to be absolutely huge! Enjoy live music and cultural performances from local and international performers, grab a bite to eat and raise a glass with fellow football fans.
4. See where two cultures meet in Kazan
Known as Russia’s ‘third capital’ (after Moscow and Saint Petersburg), Kazan is a fascinating blend of Slavic and Tatar culture. Appropriately enough, its name literally means ‘melting pot’! Situated where the Kazanka River meets the Volga, the largest bilingual city features an eclectic mix of architectural styles and is home to some spectacular mosques, cathedrals and theatres. Kazan will host six matches, one of which will be a quarter-final.
Soak up Kazan’s unique history by visiting its Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site erected by Ivan the Terrible after he conquered the city in the 1500s. Don’t miss the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral, Kul Sharif Mosque and Suyumbike Tower – it’s Russia’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then, get a taste of Tatar cuisine at one of the city’s many Eurasian-style eateries. Try echpochmak, a delicious savoury pastry, or go for something sweet with doughnut-like Chak Chak.
5. Contrast in Kaliningrad
Kaliningrad is Russia’s westernmost city – and it isn’t physically connected to the rest of Russia at all. The port city is the capital of Kaliningrad Oblast, a small Russian exclave positioned between Poland and Lithuania. Formerly known as Königsberg, Kaliningrad’s Prussian history means it retains a Germanic feel, and the contrast between reconstructed medieval-style buildings and severe Soviet-era architecture is striking. Kaliningrad will host four World Cup matches.
While many of the city’s significant buildings were destroyed during WWII, there’s still plenty to see in this little piece of Russia on the Baltic Coast. Königsberg Cathedral is home to the country’s largest pipe organ, as well as the tomb of philosopher Immanuel Kant, and you simply won’t be able to miss the House of Soviets, an enormous, unfinished brutalist building that towers over Kaliningrad’s central square. Locals call it the ‘buried robot’ as it resembles a boxy-looking head.
6. Keep exploring!
All of the diverse host cities have their own appeal, so when you’re not cheering on your team, make sure you take the time to enjoy what they have to offer. From Volgograd’s epic historical monuments to Ekaterinburg’s modern skyline and the charming streets of Nizhny Novgorod, there’s so much to explore. No matter where your team places, you’ll be a travel champion.