Samara, Russia: A Guide

If you are interested in travelling to Russia but wanting to go beyond the usual (and wonderful) Moscow and St Petersburg, I recommend the beautiful southern city of Samara.  Welcoming, friendly people, great food, an amazing beach, and plenty to see and do, it's a delightful city.  Here's everything you need to know about Samara - a great destination for a holiday or a language learning trip, and somewhere to get to know the real Russia, and Russians.


Geography

Situated in southwestern Russia, some 500 miles south of Moscow, at the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers, Samara (Самара) is a large, cosmopolitan city and a leading industrial centre.  It is surrounded by beautiful countryside and framed by the two rivers, with the Sokolyi hills to the north and endless steppe to the south and east.  Across the Volga are the Zhiguli Mountains which give the delicious local beer, Zhigulyovskoye, its name.  Samara has a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters.

The Zhigulyovskoye Brewery

History

The banks of the mighty Volga have been inhabited since around 5000BC, but the port of Samara doesn't appear on maps until the 14th Century.  A large bend in the river near Samara was a pirate hotbed until the building of a strategic fortress in 1586.  This frontier post was built to defend Russia's eastern borders from Cossacks and nomads, although it true purpose was probably to begin regulating trade at this great crossroads of land and river, and it soon expanded to become a customs office for the growing port.

The town grew rapidly during the 18th and 19th centuries, having a population of more than 100,000 by 1900.  A plethora of exquisite Art Nouveau mansions and incredible public buildings exist from this time, which make a walk around the town centre and its environs a delight, as well as lots of the old wooden houses typical across Russia.


Fought over by the Red and White Armies during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, later being renamed Kuybyshev (Ќуйбышев) in honour of the Bolshevik leader Valerian Kuybyshev.

During the Second World War, Kuybyshev was chosen to be Russia's second capital, in the event that Moscow should fall to the Germans.  Many government organisations, cultural establishments and associated staff were moved to the city for two years.  A military parade is held each year to celebrate Samara's role, and to remember the huge losses suffered in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.


Samara held the name Kuybyshev until 1991 and was for a long time a closed city, with no entry to foreigners and tourists.  Its industry played an important role in arming the country from 1941 on, supplying aircraft, arms and ammunition.

After the war, the city's defence industry continued to develop, playing a large role in Russia's space programme, and its aviation development.  The launch vehicle Vostok was built here, Yuri Gagarin rested here after his space flight, and much top-secret aerospace development took place.   The Soyuz rocket near the centre stands as a memorial to the Russian space programme and city's important role in it, and vast Constructionist buildings belie the city's importance in Soviet times.


Now the sixth largest city in Russia, Samara has a population of over 1 million people and a wide, multi-ethnic Russian population.  It remains an important industrial centre, but has retained much of its Russian-ness, with plenty of old wooden houses cheek by jowl with modern apartment blocks and old ladies selling a few vegetables and some hand-knitted socks just yards from a shiny modern shop.

Things to do

Walk!  Transport connections are plentiful, although busy, but when you can, walk.  There is so much to see and plenty to absorb as you wander the streets and admire the architecture, the people, and everything going on.  Dawdle and enjoy!

Zagorodnii Park runs down to the river and is a huge oak-filled park popular with families and picnickers.  You can also get a boat across to the other side of the river for a quieter afternoon.


Go to the beach.  The Volga is wider and bigger than any river you have probably ever seen, and in Samara has a long (5km+), beautiful river front embankment with plenty of entertainment and pop up bars and restaurants in summer.  A wonderful recreation spot, it is popular with people of all ages and an absolute delight.  Sit in a beachside bar, or buy a beer and wander along to people watch, or just spend the day on the sand and relax.  Days on the beach, afternoons on the beach, evening on the beach, sunsets on the beach...  You get the picture!


Near the university, Stalin's Bunker is a subterranean museum that gives some insight into the mindset of the Soviets during the War.  Rapidly constructed when it looked like Moscow would be lost, it was never actually used but is no less interesting.  You will need to take a guided tour though as it is not open to individual visitors.

The Botanical Garden of Samara State University is well worth a visit, with a beautiful lake, plenty of walks, greenhouses and lots of wildlife, including red squirrels.

Back in town, the wonderful State Art Museum is housed in an ornate Art Nouveau mansion and has a vast collection of Russian paintings from the 16th century on, as well as some exquisite Art Nouveau furniture.  The nearby Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is an incredible building.  The Puppet Theatre and Children's Gallery are great for those visiting with kids.  Performances at the opera and ballet theatre on Kuybyshev Square are usually excellent and great value for money.


For a hint of former Soviet glory, check out the Monument of Glory in Slavy Sqaure  and the Monument to Vasily Chapaev in front of the drama theatre.  The Space Museum at Lenina Kosmicheskaya is very interesting too.

Where to eat

Shashlik kebabs are the must-have along the river front embankment, but there are plenty of places to buy sandwiches and other options too.  Baltika beer is readily available everywhere, and the local Zhiguli beer is great.  Visit the Dno bar where they have it on draft direct from the brewery (pictured above).  Try the local Rodnik vodka and local Russia Chocolate Factory chocolate too.

Restaurants cater for all tastes and pockets, with plenty of cheap Israeli and Georgian food, or pricier French offerings.  The best places to find a variety of options are along the river embankment, in summer, and in the centre of town.


In town, Café Puri offers great khachapuri, dumplings, stuffed vegetables and red wine.  Zhili Byli is cheap and cheerful, and fabulously kitsch, perfect place for families as no-one cares if the kids make noise!  Staraya Kvartira is great for hand-me-down Russian recipes and an 'authentic' experience, while Caffe 47 offers great coffee if you are feeling deprived!  There is even a cat café if you are missing your feline friends.

Shops are plentiful, from tiny kiosks to huge supermarkets, and prices are generally good for westerners, unless you are trying to buy familiar brands etc.  There are plenty of fruit and vegetables to be had, but at a price, apart from watermelons which are sold in huge cages on the street in summer and are crazy cheap!


Getting around

Kurumoch airport offers access to major Russian cities and international connection to Frankfurt, Helsinki, Istanbul  and Prague.  It is less than an hour's drive from the city, or you can get the train to the glass dome that is Samara's main train station.

Samara is also a river port with extensive tours, cruises and traffic plying the Volga River.  Many companies offer river cruises which stop at Samara.


In the city, there is an extensive system of trams with around 25 different lines, and a single line metro transit system with 10 stations.  Marshrutkas, kind of shared taxis, plug any gaps and offer more comfortable travel if required.  But do, as I said above, walk and take it all in.

Visiting - and learning Russian

Should you wish to have a trip to Samara organised for you, complete with cultural experience and language learning, I highly recommend the Russian language learning company of my former boss and friend, Alex.

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Comments

  1. I had never heard of Samara before the world cup so am pleased to read your excellent review of this lovely city. I also like to walk around towns and cities when I first visit as there is always so much to see.

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