How to spend a day in Yekaterinburg, home to the site of the assassination of the last Royal family and the modern Boris Yeltsin Centre
Ekaterinburg may be Russia’s fourth largest city, giving assumptions of a noisy, polluted metropolis but we were very impressed with this pretty city. Easy to navigate and with most sights located around the frozen dam, we enjoyed our two days here very much. The city sits on two continental plates, dividing Europe and Asia.
I’m now halfway through a two week train journey across Russia on the Trans-Mongolia train route. I started in St Petersburg and will finish in Mongolia. Oh yes and did I mention my travelling companion is my 75 year old mother?! I guess I know where I get my love of adventure from! She proudly told me that Russia will be her eighteenth country.
We arrived at 7am on the overnight train from Kazan (see my blog post about tasting chak-chak in the capital of Tartarstan here) and were leaving the following day at 9pm. The next leg of the journey would be a mammoth 56 hours to Irkutsk, to visit Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.
Brunch at Engels cafe
We started our day with a treat. I often moonlight as a reviewer for The Breakfast Page, a blog dedicated to all things breakfasty and brunchy. As we’d arrived so early into Yekaterinburg for our fourth stop on the Trans-Mongolia route, I decided we’d pass the morning having a proper brunch and several coffees.
Google mentioned Engels several times in relation to top brunch spots in the city, so we headed there for waffles and eggs. Read my brunch review at The Breakfast Page here.
Beatles monument and Monument to the Keyboard on the Iset River
It was after 11am by the time we dragged ourselves away from the cosy atmosphere inside Engels. It was time for a ramble.
There’s loads of random monuments and sculptures around Yekaterinburg but I was specifically keen to see the Monument to the Keyboard. And yes, that’s the QWERTY keyboard and it’s a concrete reconstruction of individual keyboard keys along the river embankment. It was only as we were approaching the spot that I had a dawning realisation – there’s two feet of snow everywhere…
Oh yes! It was completely covered in snow apart from the Enter key which some previous keyboard enthusiast had kindly uncovered for a photo opp. Allegedly, on SysAdmin Day (you can Google this to work out what it is, just like I had to!) local computer groups meet here to celebrate with fun activities like mouse throwing and to clean the monument.
I love taking photos of my feet around the world! I even sadly wrote a blog post about my travelling feet with my favourite feet-related photos if you fancy a look.
Just along from the keyboard is the Beatles monument. The Beatles epitomised the underground music scene in the USSR and had a big cultural impact on young people.
Boris Yeltsin Centre and museum
Yekaterinburg is chock-full of museums, from the Museum of Military Vehicles to the Museum of Dolls and Childrens Books.
The Yeltsin museum is one of the most contemporary in Russia. It’s housed in the fancy Yeltsin centre, which commands fantastic views over the river and has a handful of retro and boutique shops and two coffee bars downstairs and offices upstairs.
We paid 200 Roubles each for entrance and an extra 100 Roubles for an English language audio headset. That’s about £3.60. There’s quite a lot of signage in English but the audio guide is definitely worth having too. Don’t forget to leave coats and bags in the cloakroom. This is quite normal in Russia – there are free-of-charge cloakrooms everywhere, in restaurants, shopping malls and museums.
We spent three hours at the Yeltsin museum, which is laid out in interactive exhibitions detailing seven important and historical days during Yeltsin’s rule. He was the first elected Russian leader and is believed by many to have done a lot of good for Russia. There was some interesting and moving interviews with his daughter, who was also a senior advisor in the Yeltsin government and who clearly adored her father.
The museum is a must-see and a lot of fun, as well as being informative. In one exhibition you sit in a Soviet-era apartment and in another a Moscow trolleybus. The last historical day is Yeltsin’s resignation due to health reasons in December 1999 and his Kremlin office has been entirely recreated for the speech.
Church on the Blood, Yekaterinburg
The following day after a great stay at a small family run hostel overlooking the river, we headed for the site of the execution of the last members of the Imperial family in 1918. I’ve been avidly reading about Russia history as well as watching the Netflix dramatisation The Last Czars so I feel quite clued up about what happened on the site of the Church on the Blood in Honour the of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.
The Czars, or Russian royal family, ruled for three hundred years. They believed in autocratic rule and divine authority, convinced they were chosen by God to lead. Some made concessions to democratic rule and emancipation of the serfs, but by the time of last Czar, Nicholas II, there was much discontent.
With industrialisation and the rapid growth of cities, the peasant and worker class which made up the majority of the population, began to demand their rights. There was also a surge in nationalism from non-Russian areas such as the Baltics, the Ukraine, Armenia… who were tired of their language, customs and traditions being stamped upon. This led of course to the rise of the Bolsheviks, the Revolution, the Soviet state and everything that followed.
The last czar, his wife, four daughters and son, were captured and placed under house arrest in a large house in Yekaterinburg. Eventually the order was given to assassinate them, with Lenin fearing their continued existence might help the anti-Soviet resistance. They were taken into the basement in the dead of night and shot. It was decades before their bodies were discovered in the woods surrounding Yekaterinburg and a proper burial given in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg, home to all the Imperial family tombs.
The church that stands here today is a tribute to the last czars of Russia and was built in 2003 for devotees to remember the family. There are impressive painted murals on the walls inside relating to their life and a small museum of photo boards crammed with information.
Museum of Stone Cutting and Jewel Art
After a reviving coffee in a trendy lime-green coffee shop, we went off to the Museum Stone Cutting and Jewel Art. This wouldn’t really be my first choice (!) but we had the day to fill in before our night train and from the extensive list of Yekaterinburg museums, this one looked like a good way to pass a couple of hours. The Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Art also looked interesting and was a close second choice.
Yekaterinburg is in the heart of the Ural Mountains, known for their precious stones and mining industry. Malechite is a dramatic green stone found in abundance in the Urals, although mining it in Russia is now restricted for preservation reasons.
In the 19th century Russian malechite was the most expensive gemstone in the world and it was fashionable for the upper classes to have it fashioned into furniture and decorative items, such as lamps and vases. In St Petersburg at the Hermitage, we saw the Malechite Room in the Winter Palace, where even the walls were panelled with slabs of the stone!
A late Russian ‘business lunch’
By now it was 4.30pm and definitely time for some food seeing as we’d missed lunch. I was looking for a recommended canteen that specialises in Pelmemi, traditional filled dumplings and being unable to find it we actually ended up in a classy Russian-Italian restaurant.
We prefer the Russian canteens or Stolovaya, where the dishes are on display and you just point and what you’d like. It’s a great way to try different food and eat as much or as little as you like. I’m a big fan too of Pelmemi, so I was very disappointed to not find the canteen.
But luckily we were just in time to catch the end of the Business Lunch menu, which finished at 5pm. This is a bit like menu del dia in continental countries, where you have a limited lunch menu for a reduced price. It’s still uncommon for Russians to eat out regularly (although it seems to me that this is changing fast) and having lunch out is more usual than dinner.
Lunch consists of ‘first course’, i.e. soup, a main of meat or fish and a side dish. Then there’s tea, often specially blended fruit teas or coffee and desserts. On our menu everything was individually priced and using my trusty camera translating app I managed to work out what it said. We successfully ordered a fish and meat dish each with a side of mashed potatoes, a ‘homemade’ beer for me and a raspberry and basil lemonade for my mum.
When we were leaving both our waiter and the restaurant manager cornered us to ask why we were in Yekaterinburg, whether we liked it and where we were going to next!
Next stop – Irkutsk for a day at Lake Baikal. Apparently it’s completely frozen at this time of year, with even cars allowed to drive on it!