Few events rile up Malaysians and the rest of the world to a fever pitch like the FIFA World Cup. This year, the 21st edition of the quadrennial international football tournament is taking place in Russia from June 14 to July 15. As many as 11 cities are set to host the football matches, with each one promising a treasure trove of travel experiences.
Well-known destinations such as the capital city Moscow and St Petersburg aside, we take a look at the more obscure host cities and what they offer visitors.
Over a thousand years’ worth of history waits to be uncovered in this ancient metropolis. Today, Kazan is a large port city on the bank of the Volga River. It’s also home to historically vibrant and culturally rich sites.
The Kazan Kremlin is a prime example of a historic citadel. Built on the ruins of the former castle of Kazan khans, it was declared a World Heritage Site in 2000. The venue includes many old buildings, the oldest of which is the Annunciation Cathedral. Just a few minutes walk from the Annunciation Cathedral is the Kul-Sharif Mosque. The shape of the “Kazan Cap” inspired the exterior of the mosque.
Inside is just as impressive with its stained glass panels, mosaic ornaments, giant Bohemian glass chandelier and Persian carpets.
Another great Muslim architecture is the Bolgar Complex with its impressive White Mosque that’s comparable to the Taj Mahal.
Food is something to look forward to here. Be sure to sample Tatar style’s beef, lamb and horse meat. Then there’s also the chak-chak, a traditional wedding dessert made of fried dough with honey.
World Cup venue: Kazan Arena
Matches: France vs Australia (June 16), Iran vs Spain (June 20), Poland vs Colombia (June 24), South Korea vs Germany (June 27), followed by a 1/8 final on June 30, and a quarter final on July 6.
Of all host cities, Nizhny Novgorod – colloquially shortened to Nizhny – is the closest to Moscow. It’s about a 3.5-hour train ride from the capital.
Don’t expect Nizhny Novgorod to be overshadowed by the more popular and populous Moscow.
There are more than 600 unique historic, architectural, and cultural monuments here. The Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, a brick fortress with 13 watchtowers, is the centre of the city. The metropolis is situated on hills overlooking the Volga River.
Landmarks surrounding the Kremlin are 6th-century Michael the Archangel Cathedral, Minin and Pozharsky Obelisk and the Nizhny Novgorod Philharmonic.
Nearby the Kremlin’s St George Tower is the 560-step Chkalov Ladder. The site is best viewed from a boat on the Volga.
The Volga bank around the Chkalov Ladder and the Kremlin is a good place to take in fresh air and do some people watching. The pedestrian Rozhdestvenskaya Ulitsa beside the river is lined with old historical mansions. Many of them have been turned to restaurants and shops today.
World Cup venue: Stadium Nizhny Novgorod
Matches: Sweden vs South Korea (June 18), Argentina vs Croatia (June 21), England vs Panama (June 24), Switzerland vs Costa Rica (June 27), a 1/8 final on July 1, and quarter-final on July 6.
After the 2014 Winter Olympics, this city on the Black Sea coast is once again pushed into the limelight. Its athletic association is well represented at the Olympic Park. The excellent transport infrastructure has also made commuting between various places in Greater Sochi easier from the Sochi Railway Station.
The sporting events it hosts aside, Sochi is a worthy holiday option. After all, it is Russia’s only subtropical resort city. Head to he Caucasus Mountain for an adventurous fix. Sochi’s elevated terrain is suitable for activities all year round.
The Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort is the perfect spot to ski on some beautiful wintry slopes. The lift-served summit climbs to 2,320m, giving a vertical drop at 1,760m. For more thrills, check out the the Vorontsov Caves, which is over 11km long.
Other notable sights in Sochi include the Riviera Park, Temple of Christ the Saviour, Akhun Mountain Observation Tower and the Fort Alexandria ruins.
When in Sochi, sample the boat-shaped khachapuri, a traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread. Kebab is also another one of this city’s culinary must-haves.
World Cup venue: Fisht Stadium
Matches: Portugal vs Spain (June 15), Belgium vs Panama (June 18), Germany vs Sweden (June 23), Australia vs Peru (June 26), a 1/8 final on June 30, and a quarter final on July 7.
The westernmost regional capital in Russia is also one of the country’s most industrialised cities. But behind that modern facade lies a philosophical past.
One of Kaliningrad’s most important landmarks is the grave of German philosopher Immanuel Kant at the 14th-century Koenigsberg Cathedral. The cathedral is located on an island named after the classical philosopher.
For the most part, Kaliningrad is peppered with well-preserved European architecture and old cobblestone-paved streets. The City Hall is a prime example of great conservation work in the city.
The World Ocean Museum is also worth adding to the itinerary. The aquaria – about 16,000 litres in total volume – contains over 300 creatures and 133 species from various oceans around the world. For some family-friendly fun, head to Yunost Park. The venue offers various rides, a labyrinth of mirrors, an Upside Down House, go-cart centre and boating station. Breathtaking views of the city can also be seen from the park.
World Cup venue: Stadium Kaliningrad
Matches: Croatia vs Nigeria (June 16), Serbia vs Switzerland (June 22), Spain vs Morocco (June 25), and England vs Belgium (June 28).
Founded in 1586 as a fort, Samara today is a major transportation hub. Whether you’re travelling by air, land or river, chances are you might be making a stop at this city.
History buffs might delight in the fact that Samara was meant to be Joseph Stalin’s hiding place should the Germans take over Moscow. Remnants of that past can be seen at Stalin’s Bunker located near Samara State University of Culture.
In keeping up with the theme of history, the Alabin Museum has exhibits on regional palaeontology and archaeology.
Other notable museums in the city include the Samara Art Museum, Modern Museum and Repin Museum.
Apart from history and culture, Samara is the heart of Russian aviation and space industry. On one of the main streets here, a 50m-high rocket launcher can be seen. The rocket is part of the Cosmic Museum that was opened in 2007. Then there’s the impressive Monument of Glory. Opened in 1971, the structure was built to honour workers in the aviation industry.
World Cup venue: Samara Arena
Matches: Costa Riva vs Serbia (June 17), Denmark vs Australia (June 21), Uruguay vs Russia (June 25), Senegal vs Colombia (June 28), a 1/8 final on July 2, and a quarter-final on July 7.