The Volga port city of Samara is a major hub for air, rail and river traffic, meaning that any visit to the region is likely to entail a stopover here. While there are few traditional sites beyond an impressive art museum and a quirky WWII-era bunker, the vibe is lively and the restaurants are the best around.
WWII history buffs will certainly want to visit Volgograd, site of one of the best-known and important battles of the war. It was here in February 1943, when the city was known as Stalingrad, that the relentless German advance was first halted and eventually turned back for good.
The riverside city of Ulyanovsk has played an outsized role in Russian history. It's famously the birthplace of Lenin – indeed the city bears his name: Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in 1870. It's also the birthplace of one of Lenin's most formidable rivals from those early days: Alexander Kerensky.
Much of the industrial city of Tolyatti, two hours by bus from Samara, was built in the 1960s and '70s to support the Soviet Union's burgeoning auto industry – particularly cars made by the ubiquitous Lada company. In those times, it was one of the most prosperous cities in the country.