The former capital of East Prussia, Kaliningrad is a unique Russian enclave that is closer to Prague or Vilnius than to Moscow. Its Gothic cathedral, cobbled streets and remains of Jugendstil architecture lurking behind the Soviet era concrete slabs tell a different story.
Such an unusual mixture of European and Russian culture and architecture, visible through numerous attractions, exists due to the city's history which includes the heritage of Prussia, Poland, the German Empire, the Soviet Union and modern Russia.
Before that, even, for many centuries it was the German province of East Prussia, colonized in the 12th century by Teutonic Knights; they built the city they named Konigsberg (King's Mountain), after Bohemian King Ottokar II who sponsored the conquest.
By 1283, the conquest of the Prussian lands had reached its final stage. It was during this time that the German colonists settled in the region.
Over the centuries, the indigenous Baltic inhabitants－the Old Prussians－became more Germanic, leaving few traces other than the region's now obsolete name.
The Teutonic Order built castles to establish power and control over the surrounding lands, and Konigsberg became home to one of these defensive fortifications, surviving three sieges by the Prussian army in 1260, 1263 and 1273 and never being captured.
During the Seven Years War, in January 1758, the Russian army occupied Konigsberg. East Prussia remained part of the Russian Empire until 1762. The end of the 19th century is considered to be the peak of Konigsberg's prosperity.
The city sustained heavy damage during World War II after being bombed by Britain's Royal Air Force in August 1944. When World War II ended, Konigsberg and the northern part of East Prussia were transferred to the Soviet Union in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement.
The whole region was renamed after one of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, Mikhail Kalinin, the first Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, in 1946. While, in the 1990s, many Soviet-era city names commemorating Communist leaders were changed (e.g. Leningrad reverting to Saint Petersburg), Kaliningrad retains its pre-glasnost nomenclature.
If it's a fascination with political history that brings you here, visit Kaliningrad on May 9, when－together with the rest of Russia－it celebrates World War II victory with a massive parade along Leninsky Avenue.
The region is Russia's main military base in the Baltics and the home of the Baltic Fleet, and many locals hail from military families.
The captivating scene, best watched from the podium of the Mother Russia statue, which commemorates the inclusion of East Prussia into the Russian Federation in 1946, would have been hard to imagine in 1933 when Hitler was welcomed by the city authorities with a pompous celebration held in the very same place.
During Soviet times, Kaliningrad remained a closed territory for tourists due to the large number of military garrisons nearby. But still, a centuries-old German legacy shines through the outward Soviet facade.
As you enter the old residential suburbs of Amalienau and Maraunenhof, asphalt gives way to cobblestones, houses become quainter, and even the trees look better groomed than in the city center.
Spared by the war, these areas remain largely the same as they were at the beginning of the 20th century, albeit with different residents. If you've spent some time in Germany, you can easily imagine trams, shops and beer gardens populating the area.
Elsewhere in the city, the partially restored old forts are reminiscent of a time when it was run by knights who formed the monastic state of the Teutonic Order and imposed Christianity and the German language on local Baltic tribes with sword and fire.
The city's 12th-century cathedral, which lay in ruins for 50 years, underwent a careful German-funded reconstruction. The original tomb of the city's most famous resident, philosopher Immanuel Kant, can be found at the outer northeastern corner of the cathedral.
Kant is a cult figure in Kaliningrad－the local university bears the philosopher's name, and, here is a fascinating tidbit: "Kantgrad" was actually a serious suggestion when, back in the 1990s, the authorities pondered a change of the city's name.
Another feature that gives the city a Berlin-like feel is the network of canals and footbridge locks near the cathedral. Facing the imposing gothic structure is a recent addition－a collection of vaguely Hanseatic-looking buildings collectively known as the Fishing Village. This is where some of the city's best restaurants and hotels are located.
In the city center, the German restaurant called, Tyotka Fischer, churns out all the German classics－a variety of sausages and the old local delicacy, Konigsberg Klopse (meatballs in creamy sauce with anchovies). Portions are unashamedly German, too－that is, sufficient to feed a family of three－and there is reasonably priced trademark Fischer beer on tap.
The famous Amber Museum is a must-visit for all tourists. This art depository was inaugurated in 1979, becoming Russia's first and only Amber Museum. Located in the center of Kaliningrad on the Verkhneye Lake shore, it is housed in a fortress tower dating from the mid-nineteenth century.
Amber is fossilized resin of ancient conifers that grew more than 40 million years ago on the territory south of the Scandinavian Peninsula and the adjoining part of the Baltic Sea bed.
The museum presents amber samples of different weight, color and clarity. There is the biggest "sunstone" in Russia, weighing in at 4.28 kilograms. A considerable part of the collection includes amber specimens with the inclusion of animals and plant remains that got stuck in the viscous liquid millions of years ago.
They are essential for our knowledge about the flora and fauna that lived in the region 40 to 45 million years ago. Today the collection of the Kaliningrad Amber Museum houses the main Russian national fund of Baltic amber.
Meanwhile, the museum also has a large collection of amber adornments and household items, dating from the Neolithic age (4000－2000 BC) to today. In the museum there are artifacts found in the region of Kaliningrad dating back to between the 2nd and 5th centuries, a time of intensive trade contact with the Roman Empire.
Alexander Yuritsin, a local amber jeweler, is always happy to share with people the advantages of amber.
"Amber is good for your health. If you cut granite, you have to wear a protective mask and goggles. But when you work with amber, you don't have to take these precautions－it makes you sturdy, young and handsome. Like me, you see?"
A short trip away from Kaliningrad is Russia's Baltic sea resorts. Pieces of amber lifted from the sea floor are sometimes cast by the waves onto the white sand beaches, where they can be collected by hand. Most of the raw amber, however, comes from the vast quarry just outside the town of Yantarny.
Kaliningrad is one of Russia's main transport hubs: it has sea and river ports, an international airport and a well-developed network of public transport. Most bus routes are duplicated by trams, trolleybuses or minibuses. It also boasts the only port in the Baltic Sea that never freezes.
In 2020, according to a report in The Moscow Times, TripAdvisor ranked Russia's Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad as the No 1 emerging tourism destination in the world.
Five Interesting Facts about Kaliningrad
1. Lithuanian bookworms love it
In the 16th century, Konigsberg became an important center of Lithuanian culture, as the first book ever printed in Lithuanian, the Catechism, was printed here. Of the 200 copies printed, only two have survived; one is stored in the Vilnius University Library in Lithuania, and the other is in the Nicolaus Copernicus University Library in Torun, Poland.
2. Two towns, one name
In 1946 the city was renamed Kaliningrad. However, there was already a town of that name in the Soviet Union in the Moscow Oblast, and the duplication caused plenty of correspondence problems. Letters meant for the former Konigsberg were constantly delivered to the town close to Moscow. The problem was only resolved in 1996, when the Kaliningrad near Moscow was renamed Korolyov.
3. The "sun" always shines
Kaliningrad Oblast possesses over 90 percent of the world's amber. A flawless piece of fossilized resin, otherwise known as the "sunstone", amber can fetch its weight in gold. If the gemstone has an insect or lizard trapped inside, the price can reach up to six-digits.
4. An old city with shallow roots
The city became a part of the Soviet Union after World War II, and the Germans who survived the war were relocated. The city was then repopulated with Russians from other parts of the country.
5."Little Russia" is a big draw
Inhabitants of Kaliningrad often call the main part of the country "big Russia" and their exclave "little Russia". Big Russia has a lot to be envious of; Kaliningrad is regularly voted the most business-friendly city in Russia, as well as the most comfortable place for living.
What to see
1. The Museum of the World Ocean is a large museum and research center featuring boats, seaplanes, a submarine and the former expedition vessel Vityaz. Here, you'll find a myriad maritime machinery, a wonderful world of underwater creatures and the equipment to observe them.
2. If you want to see a unique local natural phenomenon, don't miss the Dancing Forest with its unusually twisted trees.
3. The island of Kant, previously called the island of Kneiphof, is located in the middle of the Pregolya River. Here, there's a park with numerous stone sculptures and the island's only building, a huge Cathedral. The gothic-style Cathedral, built in 1333, seems more German or Polish than Russian. The Cathedral's museum complex is one of the main sights of Kaliningrad. This is where most tourists head for. Here, you can listen to the organ concerts which are held daily.
4. The Brandenburg Gate in Kaliningrad is the only gate in the city which continues to fulfil its main transport function. It's sometimes called the Berlin Gate. The first Brandenburg Gate in Kaliningrad appeared in 1657.
5. If you want to experience the city's Soviet past, visit the Central Market located not far from the Upper Pond and Victory Square.
6. The Amber Museum was opened in 1979 in the fortress tower located on the shore of the Upper Lake. The building itself is a historical and architectural treasure; its tower in Neo-Gothic style was built in 1853. It contains the impressive pieces of amber that are found in the Baltic Sea area. Don't forget to purchase amber jewelry for your loved ones. Part of the exhibition consists of artworks by artists from France, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Russia and other countries.
7. The Fishing Village is an ethnographic and craft center, and the most popular and interesting place in Kaliningrad. Its construction began in 2006. The center includes restaurants and cafes, souvenir shops and jewelry shops, the river station, and sports and entertainment centers. From the Mayak Tower, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the city.
8. To see the German heritage of the city, visit the Amalienau district with its picturesque mansions and narrow streets.
9. The Neo-Gothic church of the Holy Family in Kaliningrad was built in 1907. It's one of the main Catholic churches in Kaliningrad. In 1980, the church was rebuilt from a very poor condition, and in the same year, the regional philharmonic society helped to open it. In 2007, the church of the Holy Family was recognized as an object of cultural heritage of regional importance.