When the Winter Olympics kick off on February 7th, we’ll have a correspondent on the ground, leaving the rest of us at the GP HQ to wonder why we can’t take a week off to watch sports, while the weather in Russia — Russia! — is warmer than New York City. We’re not bitter. In fact, to keep him safe, entertained and entirely prepared we’ve put together a quick pocket guide to Sochi.
Although not known for its economic equality, tolerance or safety, many Russians flock to Sochi for the warm weather and regional cuisine. In the 1930s, Stalin and his cronies visited every summer, though the city now caters to a different audience; think of a Russian Myrtle Beach. That’s good news for anyone on a budget: while you can still see Soviet-era opulence in the bar of the Grand Hotel and Spa Rodina, the hotels, attractions and food are largely very affordable.
As a last reminder, pack your visa. Few things sound less appealing than internment in a Siberian gulag. In case you haven’t already, apply for a Spectator Pass, which you’ll present with your tickets to access an Olympic venue.
How to Get There
Flights from Moscow take about two hours, or one can fly to the airport at Krasnodar (KRR) and take a two- to three-hour drive. More adventurous travelers can take the 30-hour train ride from Moscow ($100-$200) or the ferry from Trabzon, Turkey, though in the winter seas can get rough, and there’s enough adventure to be had in the city, for our money.
Where to Stay
Because of its subtropical climate and location between the sea and the mountains, Sochi is Russia’s largest resort city. This means there are many places to stay, the most opulent of which is the Grand Hotel and Spa Rodina. A former sanatorium, the five-star hotel now offers six restaurants, forty designer rooms, a movie theater, and one of the largest spas in Europe. Also, if you’re feeling lazy, the hotel uses golf carts to shuttle guests to the beach.
For more affordable options, check out Sochi’s three Radisson Blu hotels, or the Zhemchuzhina Hotel Complex. Although few things look more Soviet-era than Zhemchuzhina’s website, the hotel is located right on the Black Sea and offers party-inclined Sochi-goers a great location at a reasonable price.
Of course, by this time most hotels are booked full, though you might have luck with one of the seven cruise ships that officials brought in to accommodate demand. A four-star double occupancy cabin aboard the Grand Holiday Cruise Liner costs around $215 per night.
What to Eat
In contrast to the stereotype of uninspiring Russian staples like meat and potatoes, western Russia offers a mélange of regional specialties from the former U.S.S.R. Republics, often categorized, generally, as “Caucasian cuisine” (no, not white people food). Among tourists, the most popular are Georgian dishes like khachapuri (cheesy bread) and khinkali (dumplings), Armenian dishes like kutab (flatbread) and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with meat), and Uzbek dishes like plov (spiced rice with lamb) and lagman (soup with egg noodles). If you’re in the mood for something regional, try Belye Nochi, which makes the best khinkali in town. For those more inclined toward Uzbek, Vostochny Kvartal offers many traditional dishes, including great lamb and rice. For inexpensive seafood and a great view of the Black Sea, many like the Brigantina Café, which flies in oysters and lobsters three times per week. And, despite the Jonathan Safran Foer-inspired reputation that Russia isn’t vegetarian friendly, Rukkola offers a decent number of cheap vegetarian options.
What to Do
Other than the Olympics, which take place at the popular Krasnaya Polyana Mountain Cluster, one of the most popular attractions is Stalin’s Summer Residence, painted a terrifyingly ugly shade of green. Apparently, there’s a wax figure of the dude sitting in his study. That’s not weird at all, right?
Another popular attraction is the Dendrary Botanical Garden. It’s divided into two parts, both of which offer rare botanical specimens, and the top part — accessible via gondola — also offers unparalleled views of the Black Sea. When the weather gets warmer, nature lovers should also take a picnic to the Orekhnovsky Waterfall or check out the Khostinsky Tisosamshitovaya Grove, which offers a glimpse at rare wildlife and geological formations.
Real talk: Take an extra few days and go to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. U.S. citizens don’t need a visa to travel there, so this can be a last-minute proposition, one that includes a remarkable Old City, Art Nouveau architecture, sulfur baths, wines made using arcane techniques and lots of skewered meats.