Set along its storied namesake river, Rostov-on-Don is a geographic crossroads, standing at the historical border between Asian and European cultures and acting as a modern gateway between the Northern Caucasus and the Black Sea coast. It’s a city with Cossack roots and cosmopolitan inclinations – now attracting the attention of international investors, traders and football fans.

The Don River looms large in Russian history and lore, thanks to the fierce and independent-minded peoples who settled here starting in the 16th century. For hundreds of years, the area around Rostov-on-Don was a hotbed of Cossack culture and peasant uprisings. Later, Mikhail Sholokhov wrote about the Cossacks in his epic novel And Quiet Flows the Don, depicting their role in the Russian Civil War and memorialising the mighty river.

Rostov-on-Don’s monument to the Don Cossacks and the founders of the city © Gansstock / Shutterstock

Riverside ramble

Nowadays, the Don is the centerpiece of Rostov and its main tourist attraction. Along the inviting riverside promenade, a statue of author Mikhail Sholokhov depicts the writer gazing thoughtfully at the river that helped make him famous. Nearby, you can board a boat with Don Tour for a relaxing river cruise or a fun party on the water (depending on the day and time).

The Don may flow quietly, but the embankment is lively, with food stands, flowing fountains and cranking music. Across the street, the casual Ryba Taverna (meaning ‘Fish Tavern’), is a good place to sample some of the local bounty, such as ukha (fish soup) and grilled fish. Next door, the Schneider Weisse Brauhaus is a German brewhouse offering house beer and hearty local specialities, many featuring Don fish. Bars set up on boats and barges all along this stretch, so there’s no shortage of waterside drinking establishments. Scores of strolling residents add to the festive atmosphere.

A cruise ship joins smaller boats on the Don River near the port at Rostov-on-Don © Pavel Ilyukhin / Shutterstock

Parks and plazas

Wander away from the river and you’ll discover that Rostov is a city of civic plazas and ample green spaces – ideal for exploring on foot. Pushkinskaya Ulitsa is the main pedestrian thoroughfare. This idyllic promenade is blissfully free of traffic and sprinkled with fountains, sculptures, cafes and restaurants, with outdoor seating and music-playing buskers during the summer. It’s particularly enticing at its eastern end, between the university and the October Revolution Park, where crowds of young folks congregate. Pushkinskaya is Rostov’s hippest strip, with all the requisite eating and drinking venues: sip espresso at 8 Zeryon, sample local beers at Kraft Bar or feast on burgers at Shtefan Burger.

Near the western end of Pushkinskaya, leafy Gorky Park is home to blooming gardens and cheerful kiddie rides. When the weather is fine, the park is popular with chess-playing locals, families with children and plenty of lazy cats. An impressive monument to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is also nestled into the greenery. For more Soviet nostalgia, head to the city’s central square, known as Ploshchad Sovetov. The ‘Square of Soviets’ is dominated by a colossal monument commemorating the Red Army soldiers who took part in the Russian Civil War. Don’t miss the socialist-realist tile work depicting optimistic workers and farmers in the perekhod (underground passage) below the street.

A restaurant and Ferris wheel lit up at night in Rostov-on-Don’s central park © Stanislav Samoylik / Shutterstock

Local landmarks

Aside from the Don River, the most distinctive landmark in Rostov is the lavish, gold-domed Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, a neo-Byzantine church built in 1856. The nearby Central Market is worth a wander for tables piled high with fresh fruit and berries, dried fish and herbs and handmade brooms.

For more than 200 years, the city’s hub has been on the northern bank of the Don. But the new Rostov Arena was built for the 2018 FIFA World Cup on the otherwise empty ‘left bank’. City officials have indicated that the arena is only the beginning of development on the south side, which will eventually become a lively cultural and commercial centre – stay tuned.

Resurrection Cathedral, the main temple of the Don Cossacks in Starocherkasskaya © Alexander V Evstafyev / Shutterstock

Cossack capital

Just 35km downstream from Rostov-on-Don, the village of Starocherkasskaya was the Don Cossack capital from the late 16th to the early 18th century. It was once a fortified town with 20,000 residents, but nowadays it’s a quaint village with wooden houses lined up along its main street. The magnificent Resurrection Cathedral anchors the street’s eastern end, showing off a soaring golden iconostasis, a baroque chandelier and an unusual floor of metal tiles.

Apart from the old-fashioned atmosphere, the main attraction in Starocherkasskaya is the Ataman Palace, once the residence of the Cossack chiefs. The grand house now contains exhibits that showcase Don Cossack culture past and present, including household items and lots of weapons. You can also peek inside the fortress-house of Kondraty Bulavin, the Cossack rebel leader who led an unsuccessful uprising in 1707.

The most pleasant way to get to Starocherkasskaya on summer weekends is to take a cruise with Don Tour, but a marshrutka (minibus) also runs hourly from Rostov.

The high-rise building of the river station in Rostov-on-Don, formerly The Anchor hotel © Aleoks / Shutterstock

Make it happen

Rostov-on-Don has no shortage of big hotels, some of which are holdovers from the Soviet era, while others are new international business-class chain hotels. For a more intimate experience, try Hotel Attaché or Park City Rose.

Numerous trains pass through the Rostov train station, chugging north to Moscow and south to Sochi. You can also take a two-hour flight here from Moscow or St Petersburg.

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