Go here now: Kaliningrad, Russia

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What some people might not know is that my foray into Russia didn’t start with my move to Moscow. Although I had never set foot in Moscow or Russia proper for more than two or three days, I had been to Russia before. When I was just a wee child between my sophomore and junior years of college, I managed to snag a scholarship through the US State Department to further my Russian skills in-country. Being totally free, I obviously went and that’s how my first experience with Russia – strangely – was in Kaliningrad.

Do you see it on the map? Give up?

map of russia

Kaliningrad is that weird part of Russia not actually connected to Russia, wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Yup, it was an area that the Soviet army won in World War II from the conquered Germans and just never gave up. Formerly called Konigsberg, the soviet powers-that-be simply Russified the name and imported a number of Russian citizens to populate the new territory. The resulting city is a strange mix of old German architecture, typical concrete block buildings, and one Soviet monstrosity.

I have to say, even though my living situation was pretty terrible (we were supposed to live with families to practice our language skills even at home. I lived with a surly 17-year-old girl and no one else and it was… unpleasant), I really liked Kaliningrad. The cushion of a stipend may have really sweetened my memory, but that summer was far more than just the obvious, grammar-heavy lessons all day. Our motley crew of Americans, Russians, and the odd German tourists still managed to sit for hours in the central square, drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. The hours always managed to slip away as the city’s northern location meant it was suddenly 3 AM, still sunny, and we hadn’t managed to sleep before our next lesson.

There were negatives, though, and it’s only fair to address them. Whether because of more vigorous testing procedures or just a high-level of needle-drug users, the rates of HIV/AIDS are (were?) much higher than in the rest of Russia. I don’t have much comment on that except that I did see many needles all over Kaliningrad which I’ve never seen in Moscow. Also, if you come from a neighboring EU state, expect quality to decline. Kaliningrad and its citizens can’t interact freely with its neighbors, leaving it depended on help from Moscow: it’s just a sad fact of this little, isolated Russian outlier.

That all being said, there was something about the city (or the people?) that were so charming and utterly irresistible. It helped that just a short distance away were small towns that were so typically Russian (even though they were only half a century old) and sandy beaches with some of the coldest water I’ve ever tried to enjoy.

If you ever want some traveler cool points for going to a (relatively) cushy place that tends to be off the beaten path, get yourself a visa and head over to Kaliningrad.

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45 Responses

  1. sunandsany says:

    Sounds typically russian. The 1st photo reminds me of my coutry.

  2. Sounds like quite the interesting experience. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard anyone mention Kaliningrad as a travel destination.

    • Polly says:

      I’m not sure why you would. It’s a pretty neat place, but the visa regime means so many people miss out because you can’t just pop by from Europe. It’s really a shame.

  3. Trust you to choose somewhere weird…

    • Polly says:

      Haha it wasn’t me! I just got assigned by the State Department. I think they sent us strange places so there was less of a chance of people speaking English to us as it was full immersion (even among us Americans for the most part).

  4. How difficult would it be to get a tourist visa? x

    • Polly says:

      I’m not going to lie – it’s pretty expensive and annoying, but not too difficult if you send it off with a company who processes everything for you!

  5. Anna says:

    Another one on my must list. My dad did a etching stint there for three months last winter and he was absolutely charmed by people, architecture and food. I might swing by for a weekend.

    • Polly says:

      You absolutely should, there’s lots of interesting things to do in that little speck of land. I’d love to go back and drive through it myself, although the roads were truly terrible.

  6. Sophie says:

    I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of Kaliningrad before, but I’m very intrigued now! How strange for it to be Russian yet be sandwiched between two other countries! How cool that you got to study Russian there.
    There is an area that belongs to the Netherlands but that is in fact totally enclosed by Belgium – also very mysterious.

    • Polly says:

      We’re even since I’ve never heard of that part of the Netherlands! I love the strange little geographical quirks of the world.

  7. Margo says:

    I’m looking for travel cool points, so I’ll definitely consider it. Perhaps once things simmer down with this whole Ukraine business?

    • Polly says:

      Probably a good idea – I’m definitely hesitant to go back to Russia because of all that, On the other hand, though, I figure as long as I steer clear of Kiev and eastern Ukraine, I’ll probably be good.

    • Elena says:

      It’s safe in Kiev currently as all the demonstrations and protests got down, but the city center is total mess still. As a local I’d suggest visiting Western Ukraine. Lviv is utterly beautiful with loads of quirky cafes :) There are a lot of cool castles scattered around and charming mountain villages. P.s. and people are super friendly and hospitable :)

  8. Madaline says:

    Russia has always been on my “must see” list, however, I don’t think I’ve really though about (ok, maybe heard about) Kaliningrad!

  9. Lovely pictures! Kaliningrad seems to be a really special and unique place! I should definitely consider visiting it as it’s not as far away as “real” Russia. Also I love your hair colour on these pictures! I’m thinking about dyeing mine that colour soon ;)

  10. I definitely have never heard of Kaliningrad, how interesting that apart of Russia is between two other countries that aren’t Russia!

  11. Annie says:

    great history lesson! that building in the center square photo with you is really cool..

  12. This sounds like so much fun! I took Russian my whole Sophomore year of college! I’m stopping by from the Travel Tuesday Link Up!

    Kristin
    Crumbs & Curls

  13. How interesting to learn about the history of Kaliningrad. I learned something new today! Your study abroad scholarship sounds like such a great opportunity. It must’ve been really fun to have that sort of freedom in high school. I’ve never travelled that far north where it’s still light at 3am. Trippy!

    • Polly says:

      It was actually during college so I wasn’t QUITE a baby. But I was one of the few under 21 so I was overly excited to be able to drink legally!

  14. I never knew that this little part of Russia existed! My sister and I are going to visit Russia next year and we can’t wait!

  15. Wow, I’d never heard of this place or knew that parts of Russia were wedged in between other countries. Sounds like a difficult place to live although interesting. It sounds like although you didn’t have a great living situation there that you still made the best of your time there!

  16. Natalye says:

    Great photo! I was in Warsaw earlier this year and can definitely pick up on that Eastern European/post-Soviet vibe in some of your photos. Thanks for sharing–what a unique experience to live in Kaliningrad.

    • Polly says:

      Yup, Kaliningrad is very soviet since it only became a Russian city during the mid-40s. It’s definitely a strange place to visit!

  17. Like others, I also didn’t know this little part of Russia existed! It looks lovely :)

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been wanting to head there from Russia but the visas are a bit challenging. Perhaps I will look a bit harder into it now that you say it is nice!

    • Polly says:

      The visa isn’t actually that challenging, just a pain. I’d recommend paying a company a little extra money to do everything for you – totally worth it!

  19. What an interesting first impression of Russia for you! I quite liked Kaliningrad, but it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I kind of assumed that because it was surrounded by the EU, it would be more European, but it’s soooo Russian, really interesting to see!

    • Polly says:

      Definitely true. I’d never been to Europe or Russia, so I didn’t really have any preconceived notions which I think was useful. It is unfortunate, though, that the region is so cut off from everything else.

  20. Camila says:

    That is so cool! I was so curious about that part of Russia in Europe! I’m glad to have found out more about it :) so thanks for that! Oh and also didn’t know it took a visa to visit!

  21. Darci says:

    That’s so cool that you got a scholarship from the state department! Lucky lucky! :) I never realized there was a part of Russia that’s not attached to the rest of the country. That’s kind of fascinating. It sounds like a very interesting place!

    Also, on an unrelated note, I nominated you for a Liebster Award. :) I’m not sure if you’ve done it before, or if you want to, or even if your follower count is within the limits, but I just thought I’d tip my cap! http://freedom-of-excess.blogspot.com/2014/06/liebster-award-blogger-love-information.html

  22. Cynthia says:

    I always wonder about Kalingrad and that little part of Russia that no one can explain why it’s there. No really, sometimes I just sit there, look out the window and wonder why it is the way that it is. Very interesting to hear a little about your experiences there! I would love to visit, but the high visa costs for Americans sorta put me off, to be honest. Is there a name for this odd little part of Russia?

    • Polly says:

      Haha, I’m glad you look out the window when you’re contemplating such things, just for dramatic tension! I guess it’s just called the Kaliningrad region – I mean, it really is just another part of Russia which just happens to be unattached.

      I totally get your hesitance re: visa fees. I’ve spent so much money on them it’s sickening. If you’re not going to Russia for a reason, it’s hard to pay when you could go somewhere else for free/much cheaper.

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