Russia's fourth largest city Yekaterinburg may not be in the league of prime global tourist destinations, but, unknown to many outside the country, it has a hidden charm and is well on the way to emerge as a must-go place.
Yekaterinburg, also spelled Ekaterinburg, lies east of the Ural Mountains, which form the boundary between Europe and Asia, and is very much in the Asian continent though the inter-continental border line is just on the outskirts of this beautiful city which is touted as the 'Third capital of Russia' for its significance as a cultural centre, educational destination, cradle of sportspeople, industrial hub and even transportation node.
Known as Sverdlovsk during the Soviet times, Yekaterinburg is still haunted by a grim past for its association with the bloody Russian Revolution when the Bolshevik Party overthrew the Romanov Dynasty which ruled the former Russian Empire for three centuries, heralded the regime of the proletariat and established the Soviet Union.
Decades later, in the clueless 90s, soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yekaterinburg gained notoriety as the home and battlefield of mafias. Fittingly enough, the city has a mafia cemetery with garish tombstones of mobsters. But the city, which sprang up as a hub of merchants and miners, is now poised to take a leap into the future by shedding several vestiges of the past. Increasing tourist inflow points to considerable impovement in law and order. Yekaterinburg was one of the venues of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Among the top tourist attractions are sites linked to a decisive phase of the Russian Revolution. The Church of All Saints, which is informally known as the Cathedral on the Blood, stands on the site where Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, and his family were executed by Bolsheviks on the night of July 16, 1918, a year after they were captured by the revolutionaries. Here stood the Ipatiev House where the Tsar, the queen and their five young children as well as their aides were kept before their execution. The basement where the executions were carried out is now a part of the church that is located in the heart of the city.
The personal items of the last royal family are on display at the Hall of the Romanovs in the 1870-founded Sverdlovsk Regional Local Lore Museum.
At 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., Ganya’s Pit, in which the bodies of the Romanovs were initially dumped after they were transported from the Ipatiev House. Today, it is a prime pilgrimage centre after the Russian Orthodox Church canonised the royal family in 1981. Seven wooden chapels here are memorials for each of the executed royals.
As you drive out of Ganina Yama, on a desolate wooded stretch 7 km away, beside the railway track, is another burial site of the Romanovs: Porosyonkov Log. The remains of the emperor and his family members were exhumed from Ganina Yama soon after burial by panicky Bolsheviks and disposed at a field. Several mansions of the nouveau riche who seek solitude near the woods have come up of late close to this area.
Now, you are not far from the Asia-Europe border. Take the highway leading to Moscow as you come out of the dense forest of pine and birch trees. An obelisk (stone pillar) marks the border between the two continents. Now, straddle that line bisecting the monument and you are in Europe and Asia simultaneously. Make a wish here and raise a toast with champagne as per the local custom.
Drive back to the city. On way pull up at the Chinatown. The stalls at the bazar are choc-a-bloc with all essential goods, including clothes and travel accessories.
The Iset River cuts through the city. The greening of its embankment has added to the overall beauty of the city. Almost all the go-to spots, including hotels, hostels and entertainment avenues, are around the river.
The majestic building of the Yekaterinburg Railway Station, less than 1,800 km east of Moscow on the Trans-Siberian railway route, is a major attraction in itself.
The main streets of the city are flanked by Soviet-era buildings, which stand out for elegant architecture, and even magnificent statues of national heroes.
The traditional wooden houses that dominated the city until the 1980s are now hard to find. The mass housing projects of the Soviet times – mostly the Khrushchyovka-type of budget houses – are still the abode of the common folks even as the upwardly mobile shift to private builder properties.
Modern highrises, including the residential Iset Tower and the Visotsky Business Center (both of 52 storeys), are changing the skyline. The viewing decks of the skyscrapers offer a panoramic view of the city under transformation. The ultra-modern mixed-use business zone christened Ekaterinburg-City is set to change the profile further.
The Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center is a model for city planners worldwide. Apart from a museum of the first President of Russia, the sprawling multi-purpose facility in a gleaming tower on the banks of Islet offers avenues for socio-cultural, educational, commercial and leisure activities.
Other tourist attractions include the Nevyansk Icon Museum, the odd 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 Labor Square. A walk on the pavements will offer a feast for the eyes. From street furniture to flowerpots Yekaterinburg lives up to its fame as the "Russian capital of street art".
Tourists should not miss out on ballet and circus though the shows are likely on weekends or in evenings. Ballet and circus remain popular all across Russia with major towns and cities hosting them regularly.
Best time to visit
June to August will be the apt time to visit Yekaterinburg. For Russia as a whole this period is suitable for overseas tourists, especially those uncomfortable with the winter chill. But, Yekaterinburg – the largest city in the Ural region – witnesses abrupt temperature fluctuations owing to its position on continental divide. The city, which is to the east of the Urals, is exposed to the cold winds from Siberia. Sub-zero temperatures are the norm for most part of the year.
How to reach
As you secure a Russian tourist visa book a flight to Yekaterinburg. The Koltsovo International Airport is not far from the city. If you opt to reach by rail book a ticket on a Trans-Siberian train departing from Moscow. Note, Yekaterinburg is two hours ahead of the Moscow time.