Russia’s fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg, may not be in the league of the world’s top tourist destinations, but, unknown to many outside the country, it has a hidden charm and is fast becoming a unmissable place.
Yekaterinburg, also spelled Yekaterinburg, lies east of the Ural Mountains, which form the border between Europe and Asia, and is largely on the Asian continent, although the intercontinental border is just on the outskirts of this beautiful city which is billed as the “Third Capital of Russia” for its importance as a cultural center, educational destination, sports cradle, industrial hub and even transportation hub.
Known as Sverdlovsk in Soviet times, Yekaterinburg is still haunted by a dark past for its association with the bloody Russian Revolution when the Bolshevik Party overthrew the Romanov dynasty that ruled the former Russian Empire for three centuries, a announced the regime of the proletariat and established the Soviet Union.
Decades later, in the distraught 1990s, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yekaterinburg gained notoriety as a hotbed and battleground for mafias. Fittingly, the town has a mafia graveyard with garish gangster headstones. But the city, which started as a hub for merchants and miners, is now poised to leap into the future by shedding several remnants of the past. The increase in the influx of tourists indicates a considerable improvement in law and order. Yekaterinburg was one of the venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Among the main tourist attractions are sites related to a decisive phase of the Russian Revolution. The Church of All Saints, which is informally known as the Cathedral on Blood, stands on the site where Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s last emperor, and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks that night of July 16, 1918, a year after their capture by the revolutionaries. Here stood the Ipatiev House where the Tsar, Queen and their five young children and their aides were held before their execution. The basement where the executions took place is now part of the church located in the heart of the city.
The personal belongings of the last royal family are on display in the Romanov Hall of the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore, founded in 1870.
In the Koptyaki Forest, on the outskirts of the city, is the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion Bearers, a monument to the seven slain Romanovs. It is popularly called the Ganina Yama Monastery after the mine pit, then called Ganina Yama, i.e. the Ganya pit, into which the bodies of the Romanovs were first thrown after being transported from the Ipatiev house. Today it is a premier pilgrimage center after the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the royal family in 1981. Seven wooden chapels here are memorials to each of the executed royals.
Coming out of Ganina Yama, in a desolate wooded area 7 km away, next to the railway line, is another Romanov burial place: Porosyonkov Log. The remains of the Emperor and his family members were exhumed from Ganina Yama shortly after burial by panicked Bolsheviks and laid out in a field. Several mansions of nouveau riche who seek solitude near the woods have recently appeared near this area.
Now you are not far from the Asia-Europe border. Take the highway to Moscow out of the dense pine and birch forest. An obelisk (stone pillar) marks the border between the two continents. Now straddle this line which bisects the monument and you are simultaneously in Europe and Asia. Make a wish here and toast with champagne according to local custom.
Return to town. On the way, stop at Chinatown. The bazaar stalls are stocked with all the essentials, including clothing and travel accessories.
The Iset River runs through the city. The greening of its embankment has added to the overall beauty of the city. Almost all the favorite haunts including hotels, inns and entertainment avenues are found around the river.
The majestic building of Yekaterinburg Railway Station, less than 1,800 km east of Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway, is a major attraction in itself.
The main streets of the city are flanked by Soviet-era buildings, which are distinguished by elegant architecture, and even magnificent statues of national heroes.
The traditional wooden houses that dominated the town until the 1980s are now hard to find. Soviet-era mass housing projects – primarily Khrushchevka-style budget houses – are still the abode of the common people, even with the upward shift to private builder properties.
Modern skyscrapers, including the Iset Residential Tower and the Visotsky Business Center (both 52 stories tall), alter the skyline. Skyscraper observation decks offer panoramic views of the changing city. The state-of-the-art mixed-use business park called Ekaterinburg-City will change its profile yet again.
The Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center is a model for urban planners around the world. Along with a museum of Russia’s first president, the sprawling multipurpose facility in a gleaming tower on the shores of the Islet offers opportunities for socio-cultural, educational, business and leisure activities.
Other tourist attractions include the Nevyansk Icon Museum, the bizarre QWERTY Monument, the century-old Opera and Ballet Theatre, the New Concert Hall of the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and the Monument to the Founders of the city on the Place du Travail. A walk on the sidewalks will provide a feast for the eyes. From street furniture to flowerpots Yekaterinburg lives up to its reputation as “Russian capital of street art”.
Tourists shouldn’t miss the ballet and the circus, although the shows are likely to take place on weekends or in the evening. Ballet and circus remain popular throughout Russia, with major cities hosting them regularly.
Best time to visit
June to August will be the perfect time to visit Yekaterinburg. For Russia as a whole, this period is suitable for foreign tourists, especially those who are not comfortable with the winter cold. But, Yekaterinburg – the largest city in the Ural region – experiences sharp temperature fluctuations due to its position on the Continental Divide. The city, which lies east of the Urals, is exposed to the cold Siberian winds. Sub-zero temperatures are the norm for most of the year.
How to reach
When you get a Russian tourist visa, book a flight to Yekaterinburg. Koltsovo International Airport is not far from the city. If you choose to get there by train, book a ticket on a Trans-Siberian train from Moscow. Note that Yekaterinburg is two hours ahead of Moscow time.