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The second largest city in Russia, St. Petersburg is the country’s cultural heart. View splendid architectural gems like the Winter Palace and the Kazan Cathedral, and give yourself plenty of time to browse the world-renowned art collection of the Hermitage. Sprawling across the Neva River delta, St. Petersburg offers enough art, nightlife, fine dining and cultural destinations for many repeat visits.
The political, scientific, historical, architectural and business center of Russia, Moscow displays the country's contrasts at their most extreme. The ancient and modern are juxtaposed side by side in this city of 10 million. Catch a metro from one of the ornate stations to see Red Square, the Kremlin, the nine domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's Mausoleum, the KGB Museum and other symbols of Moscow's great and terrible past, then lighten up and shop Boulevard Ring or people watch in Pushkin Square.
The biggest resort town on what's called the "Russian Riviera," Sochi is preparing to step onto the world stage as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Somewhat ironically, Sochi is really quite temperate for most of the year, with its Black Sea waters warm and swimmable well into October. The Arboretum and Riviera Park are among the city’s most popular destinations. Serving as a beautiful backdrop for Sochi are the Caucasus Mountains, home to the nearby snow skiing resort of Krasnaya Polyana.
On the banks of the Volga River, Kazan sits austerely, its cityscape a visual confection of architecture that somehow manages to be both playful and severe. No matter your spiritual inclination, you simply must visit the Temple of All Religions, a Technicolor cultural center built by artist Ildar Khanov. Though still a work in progress, the "temple" is a feast for the eyes—and the spirit.
Known as Stalingrad during much of the Soviet era, Volgograd is now an important industrial city of just over a million people. During World War II, the hill of Mamayev Kurgan was one of the bloodiest locales of the Battle of Stalingrad (the deadliest battle in history, claiming a million and a half lives), and is now the site of a memorial complex. The Panorama Museum, named for the massive Battle of Stalingrad panoramic painting it houses, is another of the city’s most popular attractions.
Krasnodar is home to one of the only surviving hyperboloid towers designed by Vladimir Shukhov, who was one of Russia’s most important structural engineers. The steel lattice structure is a cool contrast to the surrounding old world cathedrals and colorful arboretums. Krasnodar has several museums, concert halls and theaters, plus the largest splash fountain in Europe.
Bordered by the Kotorosl and Volga rivers, the historic city center of Yaroslavl is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The religious architecture is breathtaking and surreal, especially the emerald-domed Church of Elijah the Prophet and the gilded towers of the Assumption Cathedral. Numerous theaters, a philharmonic, a planetarium and a permanent circus round out the city’s art scene. Keep an eye on the time: Every hour on the hour, the proud namesake of the Monument to Bear statue gives a triumphant roar.
Historic Suzdal is one of Russia’s oldest settlements, dating back to early the 11th century. It’s a serene and charming place, offering a latticework of unpaved paths that wind by churches with candy-colored domes, rustic wooden structures and cinematic meadows. Sip some local medovukha honey cider for a true taste of the region.
There are hundreds of historical monuments and features in Nizhny Novgorod, each more beautiful and unique than the last. A red brick kremlin, stone cathedrals, a futuristic planetarium, medieval monasteries, a hyperboloid tower... Nizhny Novgorod seems to be a mashup of cultures, eras and technologies that all miraculously work in harmony to create an endearing urban landscape.