The Russian metropolis of Volgograd is a city on war footing – that war being WWII, of course. Seemingly everywhere you look there’s a sign, symbol or statue commemorating the Red Army’s epic victory in the Battle of Stalingrad. But it’s an uncommonly handsome city as well, with grand Soviet buildings exuding a pleasingly retro, majestic charm. With some excellent hotels and restaurants, it’s the perfect stopover on a trip along the Volga River.

Mother Russia statue dominates Mamaev Kurgan complex in Volgograd © Ev. Safronov / Shutterstock

For history buffs Volgograd is one of those must-visit, bucket-list type of places. It was here in late 1942 and early 1943 that the Soviet Red Army finally turned the tide on supposedly invincible Nazi Germany in the Battle of Stalingrad (the city’s former name). Well over a million people died in what many historians regard as the bloodiest battle in human history. The dead included countless thousands of civilians as well Romanians, Hungarians and Italians fighting alongside the Nazis. Until this point in the war, the Germans had scarcely tasted defeat. After Stalingrad, they would begin their steady, inevitable retreat.

After the war, the communist government rebuilt the city from ground zero, showering it with impressive Soviet-style architecture, ornate plinths and pedestals, and a hilltop memorial complex, Mamaev Kurgan – when it was finished in 1967, this was the world’s tallest free-standing sculpture. All of this retro grandeur has received a recent facelift as Volgograd prepares to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The eternal flame at Mamaev Kurgan © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Meeting ‘Mother Russia’

Any proper exploration of Volgograd must begin at Mamaev Kurgan, 3.5km north of the city centre and accessible by high-speed tram. The complex is dominated by a jaw-droppingly immense, 72m-high statue of sword-wielding Mother Russia (the sword extends another 11m above her head). Visitors normally alight from the tram and approach the memorial from below, climbing a long series of stairways around reflective pools and statues, though it’s also possible to take a taxi to an upper parking lot behind the sculpture and walk down to the tram station.

The Mamaev Kurgan hilltop occupied a strategic vista over the city during the Battle of Stalingrad and was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between soldiers of the attacking German 6th Army and the defending Russian 62nd Army. The statue and memorial complex took some eight years to complete. In addition to Mother Russia, there’s also a war cemetery, church and pantheon with an eternal flame and a don’t-miss ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony on the hour.

The ceiling of the Panorama Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

From WWII sights to Volga cruises

Back in the centre, the riveting Panorama Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad on the riverfront tells the story of the battle from every possible perspective in eight large display rooms. As there’s little signage in English, this is one museum where it’s advisable to opt for the audio headphones. The museum’s highlight is a vivid, 360-degree battle panorama.

The Rossoshka Memorial Cemetery, 35km northwest of Volgograd near the village of Rossoshka, is another highly recommended war sight. This is a ‘reconciliation’ cemetery, meaning that Russian, German and Romanian soldiers are buried nearly side by side, with only a narrow road separating them. The names of thousands of fallen German soldiers are carved on big marble cubes scattered around the grounds, lending a sense of the scale of the losses. There’s no public transportation out here, but local travel outfits like Volgograd Sputnik Travel Co offer tours and day trips.

In addition to the WWII attractions, Volgograd’s position on the river affords ample chances to enjoy the water. Kruiz is one of several companies that offer short out-and-back pleasure cruises on the river, as well as longer floats to ports at Astrakhan (the jumping-off point for exploring the wetlands of the Volga Delta) and Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan Republic and a melting pot of Slavic and Tatar cultures. The centre of the action is Volgograd’s dilapidated but impressively brutalist river station – forever awaiting a long-overdue fix-up.

The sign announcing the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Volgograd's central promenade © Iuliia Oleinik / Shutterstock

City life

For a city that saw so much wartime destruction, modern Volgograd is a pleasingly peaceful place. Central Prospekt Lenina street is full of greenery – it sports a long park, dotted with statues, along its centre. The pedestrianised Alleya Geroyev (Alley of Heroes) leads down to the waterfront from here. A popular evening stroll begins at the bottom of ul Komsomolskaya and runs north through a park along a ridge above the Volga River to the Panorama Museum.

The waterfront area also features some of the city’s best restaurants. For coffee and wood-fired pizzas, head for Hungry, conveniently located on the Alley of Heroes – this upscale cafe also has great soups and salads, as well as a long list of meat and fish dishes. Nearby Na Allee is an excellent Georgian restaurant with a family-friendly atmosphere and casks of homemade wine brought in from Georgia.

Volgograd’s brutalist river station is impressive but in need of repair © Mark Baker / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Volgograd has some of the region’s best hotels, making it the ideal spot to break up a long journey of night trains with an overnight in a real bed. Park Inn is a modern, moderately priced chain with a great breakfast buffet and an ideal location, just behind the train station and five minutes’ walk from the bus station. The Hotel Intourist is all polished marble pillars and shiny chandeliers, a chance to experience Soviet-era luxury at its best.

Volgograd is one of the main stops on the rail line running north–south along the Volga. There are regular trains from Saratov to the north and Astrakhan to the south, while frequent buses run to Elista and Rostov-on-Don. Volgograd International Airport, 15km north of the city, has decent daily connections to Moscow and a handful of flights weekly to destinations in Turkey.

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