Many foreign travelers to Yekaterinburg expect to learn more about the last days of Russia's last monarch, Nicholas II, his German-born wife Alexandra and their children, executed here by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
What they often don't expect — after reading some Western books on the subject — is to see a bustling modern city with a skyline punctured by high-rise towers of hotels, business centers and apartment buildings.
Lyuba Suslyakova, a self-employed tour guide, specifically mentions Helen Rappoport's book, titled "Ekaterinburg," as a source of information for the travelers who choose to interrupt their Trans-Siberian Railroad journey for a few days in the city.
Indeed, the book about the last days of the Romanov dynasty, first published in 2008, introduces the country's fourth-largest urban settlement in a way that makes it sound like it's lost in the middle of an Asian wilderness.
"The city has an oddly Western-sounding name, but Asia is all around," Rappoport writes. "Nestling on the eastern slopes of the Urals, the low horizon lies open to expanses of swampy taiga, the forests of pine, birch and larch extending far to the north and east, where wild bears, elk, wolves and mountain cats roam."
The city does have a lot of greenery — covering about one-fourth of its area — but it's far from being a backwater, Suslyakova said. Just one piece of evidence of civilization's embrace is the 21-floor, five-star Hyatt, constructed by France's Bouygues and designed to evoke an ice cube with its glistening glass walls and curved shape.
Yekaterinburg bills itself as home to the world's northernmost skyscraper, the 188.3-meter-tall business center Vysotsky, which will open its doors in late November. It's about one degree higher in latitude than the 190-meter-tall HSB Turning Torso in Malmo, Sweden.
Vysotsky is also Russia's tallest building outside Moscow. In fact, it's one of just two buildings outside Moscow that are more than 40 stories high, according to SkyscraperPage.com, a Canadian web site dedicated to high-rises. Yekaterinburg is also home to the other out-of-Moscow skyscraper.
Moscow has 15 taller than 40 stories.
Andrei Gavrilovsky, whose company constructed the Vysotsky tower, said Yekaterinburg's high profile in the construction world stemmed from the convergence of ambitions of two powerful groups: businesspeople and the local government. Both want Yekaterinburg to stand out among other cities, he said.
"Mayors of other cities with more than 1 million people — whenever they come to visit — walk around open-mouthed," Gavrilovsky said, proudly.
Yekaterinburg's incumbent and previous mayors have encouraged high-rise construction by streamlining paperwork, he said.
Local businesspeople have helped fund construction by pre-purchasing space in his high-rises, as opposed to many similar projects in Moscow that relied on banks for financing, said Gavrilovsky, whose company Antei is named after Antaeus, a mythical Greek half-giant who depended on contact with Mother Earth for his indefatigable strength.
Alexander Ziminsky, upmarket sales director at Penny Lane Realty, said "very" expensive land in downtown Yekaterinburg was another reason for developers to seek a larger number of floors for their projects. Crafting an attractive business image for the city, he said, is another key goal.
A number of international events have also helped raise the city's profile. The name Yekaterinburg rings a bell for heads of state and finance officials in China, Brazil and India. It is the city that in 2009 hosted the first summit of BRIC, which comprises these three countries and Russia, and designates the world's fastest-expanding emerging economies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the city as well for a meeting of the Petersburg Dialogue, a German-Russian annual discussion forum, in 2010. There, she met with President Dmitry Medvedev.
The government often picks far-off cities for high-profile international conferences — northern Khanty-Mansiisk and far eastern Khabarovsk have hosted Russia-European Union summits — to let the world discover the country beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. But Suslyakova said her German customers had not heard of the Merkel footprint on Yekaterinburg.
The city may again bathe in the international spotlight if the government stands by its initial bid to use it as one of the host cities — the easternmost of them — for the football World Cup in 2018.
The government has also chosen Yekaterinburg for a bid to hold the World Expo in 2020, Kremlin aide Arkady Dvorkovich said this month. Rival candidates Izmir, Turkey, and Ayutthaya, Thailand, forecast that 39 million and 30 million visitors, respectively, will show up for the exhibition. The application deadline is Nov. 2.
With an influx of international football fans and exhibition attendees still up in the air, Suslyakova said the city draws enough tourists to keep her busy five days a week in the summer. She describes Yekaterinburg as convenient because it is the most compact of the 10 Russian cities with a population more than 1 million.
Moscow and St. Petersburg probably aren't comparable because they are larger by a wide margin. But the others are in about the same league as Yekaterinburg with its 1.35 million people.
"It's 15 minutes by foot from the railway station to the city center," Suslyakova said. "A walking tour around downtown takes just two hours."
For those willing to stray off the beaten tourist track, Suslyakova mentioned Uralmash, the city's northern neighborhood of the eponymous heavy-industry giant. It gave its name to a notorious but long-gone underworld gang that thrived in the 1990s, and offers a peek at the legacy of German prisoners from World War II, who constructed roads and five-story apartment buildings in the neighborhood as the plant grew.
A more artistic outcome of German forced labor can be found in the city center. The government used the prisoners of war to spruce up the City Hall building, turning it from a bare constructivist structure into an edifice that glorified communism — with columns and statues of workers, collective farmers and officers of the NKVD secret police. As if foretelling the city's latest architectural ambitions, this building also incorporates a tower — and a spire to make it look more imposing.
What to see if you have two hours
Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Britain's Prince Michael of Kent by entering the Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, or the Church on Blood for short (34a Ulitsa Tolmacheva. Metro Dinamo). This place of public worship rests on the foundations of engineer Nikolai Ipatiev's house where a Bolshevik firing squad executed Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, their five children and all their servants, bringing the more than 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to a gruesome end in July 1918 as an army of White Guards was about to retake the city. Workers tore down the house in 1977 on orders from future President Boris Yeltsin, who was the city's Communist boss at the time, leaving the basement intact. Built in commemoration of the execution, the church opened in 2003 and doubles as a museum, featuring exhibits that tell about the 78 days the royal family spent in captivity in the Ipatiev house. During Easter week, the church allows visitors to ring its bells, providing earplugs and a professional bell-ringer for advice.
If you care for some souvenirs, take a walk down the pedestrian-only Ulitsa Vainera, dubbed the local Arbat after the better-known tourist street in Moscow. It's within walking distance of the Church on Blood.
What to do if you have two days
Treat yourself to a little time travel by going for a stroll in Literaturny Kvartal (Literary Quarter), the city's old district with wooden mansions decked out with cast-iron railings and lanterns. Afterward, walk onto the nearby dam embankment, known by its diminutive Russian name of Plotinka, the most beloved leisure spot in the city on the banks of the Iset River. One of the old buildings there is the residence of the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, whose capital is Yekaterinburg. Spend 45 minutes on a boat tour along the river, and a guide will tell you all about the historical landmarks as you cruise by (call to book a trip with the city's tourist service or fill out a form at
For a bird's eye view of the city, climb atop the 76-meter-tall, 22-story shopping mall-cum-business center Antei (10 Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa). The entrance fee is 50 rubles, and working hours are noon to 11:30 p.m.
The fairly compact Yekaterinburg Zoo (189 Ulitsa Mamina-Sibiryaka; ;
If you feel curious about what former President Boris Yeltsin was up to before he outlawed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and authorized sweeping capitalist reforms, come see his alma mater, the Ural State Technical University (28 Ulitsa Mira), which is also a remarkable piece of architecture.
Take a short trip of 17 kilometers away from the city to the seven chapels and monastery at Ganina Yama, an abandoned copper mine where the Bolsheviks secretly buried the last tsar and his family in 1918. It wasn't until 1979 that geologists rediscovered the burial site. Drive four kilometers on Serovsky Trakt to a sign bearing the monastery's name in Russian (Monastyr vo Imya Svyatykh Tsarstvennykh Strastoterptsev, or Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion-Bearers), and then follow the signs.
Havana Club (36 Ulitsa Mamina Sibiryaka; ;
Hills 18/36 Club (193 Ulitsa Bazhova; ;
Where to eat
Troyekurov (137 Ulitsa Malysheva; ;
The Italian restaurant Paparazzi (25 Prospekt Lenina, 3rd floor of the Yevropa shopping mall; ;
The bar Churchill (48 Ulitsa Khokhryakova; ;
Where to Stay
The Hyatt Regency (8 Ulitsa Borisa Yeltsina;
Park Inn Yekaterinburg (98 Ulitsa Mamina-Sibiryaka; reservations at
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