Capital of Tatarstan, its skyline studded with onion domes and minarets, Kazan is a curiously un-Russian city. In Soviet times it was something of a backwater, despite the fact that Lenin briefly studied here before his expulsion from the city’s university. In the 21st century, its fortunes have revived thanks to the oil wealth of Tatneft.
The gush of petrodollars has also bubbled its way into the city’s sporting scene. In football, ice hockey, basketball and volleyball, Kazan has battled to prominence at national and international level. Rubin Kazan are now an established force in Russian soccer and the impressive Kazan Arena co-hosted the 2017 Confederations Cup and stages six matches, including a quarter-final, for the 2018 World Cup.
Kazan has reinvented itself as Russia’s sporting capital in recent years, hosting the 2013 Universiade that prompted a spate of stadium building. The centrepiece Kazan Arena is Rubin’s new permanent home – but not quite yet. The first World Cup venue to be finished also hosted the World Aquatics Championship in 2015. Preparations involved installing two Olympic-sized swimming pools on the playing surface – having taken possession of their new home in September 2014, Rubin were rudely evicted in March 2015. They returned during the 2015-16 season.
While the swimmers took centre stage, Rubin initially played most domestic home games at the Rubin Stadium, part of the club’s training facilities in the north of the city.
Meanwhile, European fixtures took place at the Soviet-era Tsentralny Stadion, upgraded to host the World Junior Athletics Championships in 2016.
Championship Manager players of a certain vintage may well recall their European games in ‘Turkey’ taking place against a backdrop of a bowl of colourful seats overlooked by a mosque. Few of them would have guessed that this was actually Kazan’s Tsentralnyand the mosque was the newly built Qul Sharif mosque in Kazan’s Kremlin. As the capital of the mostly Muslim Tatarstan Republic, Kazan has long prided itself on religious tolerance: in Tsarist times it was said that nobody was allowed to build a church in the city unless he also provided a mosque, and vice versa. That legacy is somewhat diluted in today’s secular society, and the Turkic language of the Tatars is rarely heard outside of the announcements on the metro.
The area around Tsentralny is dotted with odd-looking buildings, from the Pyramid of Kazan’s oldest nightclub to the flying saucer that houses the city circus.
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Kazan International Airport is 25km (15.5 miles) south-east of the city.
A train (40r/£0.48) runs to Kazan main station (30min) roughly every hour during the World Cup, otherwise every 3-4hrs. The service is free on local match days to those carrying Fan ID. Taxi Kazan City (+7 843 233 2 332/+7 987 297 8097) charges around 600r/£7.25 into town, credit cards accepted.
The overnight train from Moscow takes around 12 hours and costs from 4,000r/£48 in a four-berth compartment.
A single ticket on the local transport network of a one-line metro, buses, trams and trolleybuses costs 25r/£0.30. Use the ticket office (kасса) at the metro station or pay the conductor on trams and buses.
Unlike many Russian provincial towns, Kazan is fairly well stocked with accommodation.
Close to the Kazan Arena, the Salma (+7 843 527 78 31) on Adoratskogo is a pretty basic option but offers rooms from 1,800r/£21.70, limited availability during the World Cup.
Near the station, the local ibis on Pravo-Bulachnaya ulitsa has some rooms free during the World Cup, starting at 4,000r/£48. Right by the cathedral at ulitsa Profsoyuznaya 16B, well-equipped three-star Hotel Nogai has rooms from 9,000r/£108 during the World Cup.
The Amaks Safar hotel is well placed for buses heading out to the Arena but not for the city centre. A series of themed restaurants attempt to evoke Russian hunting, Ukrainian village life and the mysteries of the East, while the on-site nightclub promises Kazan’s best foam parties. Some doubles available during the World Cup, from around 10,000r/£120.
The grandiose Shalyapin Palace, named after a famous opera singer, is perhaps the swankiest hotel in town. This restored pre-revolutionary mansion is set at the junction of Baumana and Universitetskaya. Limited availability during the World Cup starts at 25,000r/£300 a night.
The TatarInn has a nice lakeside location and rooms from around 9,000r/£108 during the World Cup. You’re at the opposite end of town from the stadium, though the metro is ten minutes’ walk away, the station 15.
Pedestrianised ulitsa Baumana is where Kazan goes out to play. By day it’s a pleasant promenade – perfect for the progulka, Russia’s take on the passeggiata. By night it doesn’t exactly transform into a wild strip of debauchery but most of the main bars are found here or in the side streets.
Stand-out spot for sports fans is the Trinity Irish Pub on the corner of Baumana and ulitsa Musa Djalila, which attracts visiting football or ice hockey fans in town to see their team take on Rubin or Ak Bars. Over the road, the Zhiguli basement bar (Baumana 42/9) has a rough-and-ready feel and cheap local brews on tap.
Baumana also contains branches of the SPB chain (No.44) and Coyote Ugly (No.13) franchise, offering sport or dancing as required. The floor above Coyote Ugly is home to Twin Peaks, a name inspired less by the cult TV series but more by the principle charms of the scantily (but decently) dressed waitresses. With beer brewed on site, an all-American bar menu and a screen at every table, this Hooters-style venue has much to recommend it even before your waitress leans across the table to take your order.
At the corner of ulitsa Profsoyuznaya, ale aficionados will be pleased to find the Belgian Beers Bar and the friendly craft-beer specialist Fomin – though neither show any sport. Nearby at No.16, the Gute Elefante bar is also going for the sporty crowd. Rubin memorabilia and retro sporting photos line the walls and they promise to show every game in the Russian Premier League as long as punters turn up to sup on their German-influenced brews. It’s a successful strategy when Rubin are away from home, but Ural vs Amkar hasn’t really packed them in so far.
Other German-style hostelries include Beerhouse (ulitsa Astronomicheskaya 10) – quiet within, amusing from outside – and, with TV football, Maximilian’s Brauerei. At Spartakovskaya ulitsa 6 in the Suvar Plaza mall, near the home of local basketball team UNIKS, this provides a slice of Bavaria in Tatarstan, with tasty beer brewed in-house and live music most nights.