10 Underrated Destinations in Russia to Visit During the World Cup

10 Underrated Destinations in Russia to Visit During the World Cup

Heading to Russia to catch the World Cup? Check out these underrated destinations while you're at it for a memorable vacation!

Rejoice, my football-crazy friends, for the greatest sporting event of the summer shall soon be upon us! Oh yes, the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup (Germany ftw!) is being held in Russia from 14 June till 15 July.

While the goals,  the passion of the crowd, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s ridiculously gelled hair will no doubt take centre stage, the World Cup is also a great reason to explore Russia. I mean, if you went all the way to Russia to watch England crash out in the first knockout round some scintillating football, you might as well do some travelling, right?

In fact, Russia is expecting approximately 1.5 million visitors over the course of the month. Most of them will likely be staying in the 11 cities gazetted to host the matches. But if you’re not a fan of large, suffocating crowds, don’t worry because there are more amazing places to visit in Russia than you might think!

Here are ten underrated destinations you should visit in Russia during the World Cup.

1. The Altai Region

Image credit: Tatters

Located in the very heart of Asia, the Altai Region (also known as the Golden Mountains) is effectively Mother Nature’s treasure trove. It shares a natural border with Mongolia and Kazakhstan and is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The Altai National Reserve and the Katynskiy National Reserve.

Nature-lovers will easily lose track of time as they marvel at the alluring scenery punctuated by desert steppes, lush taigas, meadows and lakes, waterfalls, caves and the tallest mountains in Siberia. Enjoy scenic hikes along trails steeped in local folklore or go sailing or kayaking in the rivers. You can even sample some of the region’s famous herbal teas.

2. Stolby Nature Reserve

Image credit: Ninara

Set against the backdrop of the eastern Sayan Mountains is one of Siberia’s most beautiful travel gems: the Stolby Nature Reserve. The nature reserve got its name from the unique shapes of the rocks and cliffs in the area (stolby means “pillar” in Russian), each ranging from 55 to 600 metres in height! Without a doubt, one of the best activities to enjoy here are hiking and rock climbing.

But even if you plan to shy away from sporting activities while you’re travelling, Stolby Nature Reserve has a lot to offer. After all, it is home to many stunning views that will make you go ‘wow’. Siberian fir taiga stretch beneath the rocks for as far as the eyes can see, providing a bedrock for local flora and fauna to flourish, allowing visitors to admire the soothing scenery below.

3. Lake Onega

Being the country with the largest landmass in the world, it’s inevitable that Russia would house some BIG attractions, even if they are often unheard of by visitors. One such attraction is Lake Onega, the second largest lake in all of Europe. So large in fact, that it even has its own islands!

Located within the Republic of Karelia, Lake Onega is the annual host of wooden boat festivals and Russia’s sailing regatta. However, it’s main attraction is Kizhi Island, the largest island on the lake. Upon the island stands the Church of Transfiguration among other majestic wooden infrastructure. It is one of the region’s most iconic architectural masterpieces. Be sure not to miss it while you’re there!

4. Lake Baikal

Image credit: Sergey Gabdurakhmanov

Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. In fact, it’s so large that it has earned the nickname ‘Sea of Siberia’. It even has its own legendary monster in the lake known as the Baikal Monster. But whether or not Lake Baikal houses the long-forgotten cousin of the Loch Ness Monster, the view at the lake will surely captivate you. Several hiking paths, each offering unique views, adorn the area around the lake and you can even go for a swim if you feel up for it.

Wooden houses along the shore in the nearby villages magnify the serene ambience of the area. If you ever visit one of these villages, make sure to sample some Omul, which is a species of salmon found only in Baikal, and Posy, which is basically a fist-sized dough pocket stuffed with succulent minced meat.

5. Irkutsk

Image credit: Ryan Albrey

I’m sure most people are familiar with the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. The same can’t be said, unfortunately, about Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia along the Trans-Siberian line. Despite being a major stop, many travellers simply pass by the city on their way to Vladivostok, depriving it of any mainstream attention.

Affectionately called the ‘Paris of Siberia’, Irkutsk is an ambient city filled with a mixture of mesmerising cultural experiences, impressive Siberian Baroque architecture, and a charming Old Town district which has managed to retain its timeless mystique. You will enjoy the many beautifully-constructed churches, museums and theatres as you stroll around this lovely city.

6. Solovetsky Islands

Image credit: Linazet

The Solovetsky Islands can be found near the Arctic Circle in the western region of the White Sea. Consisting of a few large islands and many other smaller ones, the Solovetsky is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with memorable coastal views and beautiful forests. Due to its off-the-beaten-path location, you are unlikely to bump into many people while in this area.

The islands were once used as prisons during the Soviet era and its iconic Solovetsky Monastery remains one of the most well-preserved remnants from that time. A Christian citadel before it was converted into a prison camp, the fortified Solovetsky Monastery is one of the most historic buildings in the area, having survived numerous military sieges since it was first built in the 16th century.

7. Krasnodar Krai

Image credit: Alexxx Malev

The coastal Krasnodar Krai (or Krasnodar Region) is located in the south of the North Caucasus region of Russia. The Krai is famous as a popular beach paradise offering relaxing spas and exciting coastal activities. It is also THE region to experience some of the very best Russian delicacies! One of the more popular cities in the region is Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics and a host city for the World Cup.

If you’re looking to avoid the crowd at Sochi, then head to Gelendzhik or Anapa, two of the Krai’s criminally lesser-known cities. Sandwiched between the Azov and Black Seas, these coastal cities are great diving spots for marine enthusiasts. Other must-see attractions include the Agura Waterfalls, Mount Akhun and the cave systems of Vorontsov.

8. Ulan Ude

Image credit: Vasiliy Tatarinov

Weren’t expecting to find a Buddhist town in a country like Russia, were you? Bordering Mongolia, Ulan Ude is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia and is the capital of the Buryatia Republic. The Buryat Mongols are Russia’s largest native ethnic group and their cultural influence is certainly felt here.

Ulan Ude is home to quite a number of polarising sights. On one hand, there is a beautiful main Buddhist temple which houses several practising monks. And yet, you could also easily spot a huge statue of Lenin’s in the city centre. Apparently, it’s the largest one ever build! Perhaps you could argue that this is precisely what makes Ulan Ude such a unique place to visit, and I certainly encourage you to do so!

9. Kamchatka Peninsula

Image credit: Einar Fredriksen

To get to the Kamchatka Peninsula, you would have to travel all the way to the far east of Russia, where the land meets the Sea of Okhotsk. The peninsula is a hotspot for ecotourism and it’s not difficult to see why. Offering exciting activities like kayaking and volcano hiking, the peninsula is yet another haven for nature lovers in Russia.

Among all the sights of the Kamchatka Peninsula, none are as enticing as the Valley of Geysers. It was discovered a mere century ago by a bunch of doggos dog sled. As the name suggests, the valley contains a plethora of hot springs, waterfalls and mud pots. It also boasts the second largest concentration of geysers in the world! If you need any extra reason to visit, then you should know that Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the main city of the peninsula, is a haven for foodies! You simply must try some Kamchatka crabs, their staple delicacy.  

10. Ruskeala, Karelia

Image credit: Aleksander Kaasik

When a particular region claims to be one of the most beautiful places in Russia, you have to take notice. The Republic of Karelia in northwestern Russia is famed for its pristine lakes, waterfalls and picturesque forests. However, Karelia’s biggest attraction lies a little ways off the quaint village of Ruskeala.

The Ruskeala Mountain Park used to be a collection of marble quarries that were abandoned in the 20th century. Since then, the deep quarries have filled with crystal clear water, transforming them into a popular tourist destination for boating. In addition, you can also find an underground lake in one of the quarries! Needless to say, this place is a perfect summer destination, especially if you love hiking along scenic routes and diving into pristine lakes.

Take your mind off the World Cup

So, there you have it, ten underrated destinations in Russia for you to visit to take your mind off football! Of course, you don’t necessarily have to visit them only during the World Cup season, they’re good all year round. I’m just saying that if you somehow wish to escape the football madness, it’s nice to know you have some beautiful, lesser-known places to travel to.

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.

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