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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 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.
The political, scientific, historical, architectural and business centre of Russia, Moscow displays the country's contrasts at their most extreme. The ancient and modern exist 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 go shopping in Boulevard Ring, or people-watch in Pushkin Square.
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.
Yekaterinburg is the thinking tourist's city, jam-packed with libraries, theaters and museums, plus seemingly out of place monuments that pay homage to entities like Michael Jackson and a keyboard. The beautiful Yekaterinburg Circus building is an intricate lace dome that arches over seating for 2600 spectators.
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.
A stop on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, Novosibirsk is perched on the banks of the Ob River, which features fountains that seem to float on its surface. You can learn about the city’s founding at the West Siberian Railway History Museum. Novosibirsk is renowned for its thriving arts scene, and the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre is fondly known as the “Siberian Coliseum.” The Novosibirsk Zoo is beloved for its collection of animals and its preservation work with endangered species.
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.