Everything you wanted to know about Kaliningrad

Kant Island in Kaliningrad

The Kaliningrad region is the westernmost part of the endless Russia. It could have been an ordinary city, like many others, only it is not. This region finds itself on the Baltic sea coast, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. Its history tells us that it has never been ordinary for Kaliningrad, as the region changed hands multiple times, most recently after WWII when the German Königsberg was eventually transformed into the Russian Kaliningrad.

So, what else than a quirky history can Kaliningrad offer you? That's exactly what you'll find in this article, as we will guide you past the seven coolest things to do in Kaliningrad. For the ones of you still wondering how it all went in the past, we will start with a short history of the region.

From Königsberg to Kaliningrad

Beautiful evening view over the Pregolya River in Kaliningrad centre.
Beautiful evening view over the Pregolya River in Kaliningrad centre.

The early days of Königsberg

The Prussians, a Baltic tribe, are considered the native population of the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. In the early days, their small but fortified settlement on the banks of the Pregolya River was called Twangste. In 1255, this place was conquered by the knights of the Teutonic Order. They founded a castle here and gave it the name Königsberg. It was known as a prosperous place, where trade flourished.

Despite the construction of a defensive ring of gates and fortifications around Königsberg, the city has been captured numerous times, like during the Seven Years' War in the 18th century, when Königsberg fell into the hands of the Russian Empire for the first time. The Russians had ruled for only four years over Königsberg, before Emperor Peter III returned it to Prussia under the terms of the peace treaty concluded in 1762.

A flourishing city

Suffering again under the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, peace has never been a long-time visitor of Königsberg. But as of the 19th century things gradually started to improve in the city, with a growing population, industrialisation, and expansion beyond the defensive ring. New stations, churches and suburban areas were constructed. Present-day remains from this period are for example the neo-Gothic Philharmonic Hall and the Puppet Theatre – both of which highlighted as landmarks on the Streetwise map of Kaliningrad.

The brutal transformation into Kaliningrad

The relatively peaceful and prosperous period of Königsberg ended abruptly with the start of the Second World War in 1939. Times suddenly became uncertain and unpredictable, with fear gradually building up among the citizens of Königsberg and Soviet air raids starting as early as 1941. The summer of 1944 was devastating for the city, with most of its historic quarters wiped out by the British Royal Air Force. Heavy fighting continued well into 1945, with the final assaults of the Battle of Königsberg taking place just before the Nazis surrendered. It meant that the nightmare of the citizens of Königsberg had finally ended.

Following the 1945 Potsdam Conference of the three largest powers of the anti-Hitler coalition, the northern part of East Prussia was transferred to the Soviet Union. Why was the fate of Königsberg decided this way?

Well, it followed from a negotiation between Stalin and Churchill in an attempt to divide the spheres of influence after the war. The results of what turned out to be a life-changing event for many people, had simply been written down on a small piece of scratch paper, known as the Percentages agreement. Stalin had his focus on East Prussia, as he considered it primordially Slavic land and saw the need for Soviets to seize ice-free ports on the Baltic Sea. With the consent of the allies, the USSR signed a border agreement with the Polish government-in-exile. And although this was a serious loss for Poland, London stood up on this issue and supported the USSR.

It so happened that Königsberg became part of the USSR, and shortly after the city was renamed to Kaliningrad – honouring the Soviet politician Mikhail Kalinin who passed away in 1946.

The Soviet touch of Kaliningrad

Typical Soviet architecture on Victory Square in Kaliningrad.
Victory Square in Kaliningrad is a good place to see typical Soviet architecture.

The first Soviet settlers already arrived in Kaliningrad a few months after the war. They started to dismantle some of the destroyed buildings in Kaliningrad, sending the extracted materials back to restore Soviet cities that had been destroyed by the war. The possibility of reconstructing German architecture was not even considered. In a country that had barely survived the war, there was no time for caring for German cultural heritage. After having disassembled the old German buildings to the ground, any remains such as basements or foundations were simply covered with soil.

By the end of the 40s, eventually, the restoration of buildings began in the city. However, it was decided to disguise almost all German traces. The facades were changed to more familiar Soviet ones, and new buildings in the Stalinist Empire style appeared on Mira Prospekt, one of the main streets in Kaliningrad. The apotheosis of the Soviet-era expansion was the destruction of the Königsberg Castle in the late 1960s, with the former Teutonic stronghold being viewed as the main symbol of the German past. Soon after this tragic episode in the life of the city, the construction of the House of Soviets began right on the location of the former castle. A building that would proudly demonstrate the superiority of Soviet architecture – only, it was never finished.

The House of Soviets

The House of Soviets in Kaliningrad
The brutal building of the House of Soviets rises on the site of the old castle as a symbol of the victory of communism over the German past.

Known as the ‘Kaliningrad Monster’ or the ‘Kaliningrad Robot’, this building has many nicknames. But everyone agrees on one thing, it is almost impossible to imagine Kaliningrad without this edifice. Under construction since the 1970s, the House of Soviets was meant to become a government office. After a check in the mid-80s, it turned out that the structure was not quite stable. As a result, from that time on, it has remained empty and guarded.

The building is not open to visitors – from time to time it is illegally entered though – and doesn't serve any purpose other than just being there, for which many have suggested to demolish it. But with the ruins of the former castle nearby, this is easier said than done. In whatever deplorable state the ruins are, it is still an object of cultural heritage, and demolition of the House of Soviets could entirely mess them up.

Nevertheless, recently one interesting project has been proposed. Its initiators suggested to have both eras existing side by side, through rebuilding part of the castle and renovating the House of Soviets. Only time can tell whether they succeed.

Kant Island through time

The green island in the centre of Kaliningrad has recently been named after the great thinker Immanuel Kant. In the German days the island was known as Kneiphof. By 1939, there were 304 houses, 28 streets and thousands of people living there. All that was completely wiped out after a British bombing in WW2. The only surviving resident of the island was the Königsberg Cathedral, although in a deplorable state. The old University of Albertina, located next to the church, was also destroyed. It was the leading university in Prussia and one of the best in Europe. The prominent philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was born in Königsberg, was a graduate and later a teacher here. After his death, he became the last Albertina professor to be buried in the cathedral's tomb.

After clearing away the ruins left by the bombing, the nice and bushy park appeared on the island. Looking at Kant Island today, it is difficult to imagine that once there were houses on the position of each of its trees, along with cars and trams driving along the alleys.

Kant Island with the Königsberg Cathedral.
Kant Island with the Königsberg Cathedral.

Visit the Königsberg Cathedral

The Königsberg Cathedral is the real heart of the city, treasuring a long history. Having stood in ruins until the 1990s, the cathedral had managed to avoid the fate of final demolition. It took until 2002 for the restoration works to complete, constantly hampered by a lack of funds. An interesting detail, a helicopter of the Baltic fleet was used for hoisting the spire.

The cathedral has been restored in the so-called Baltic Gothic style, whereas its interior has gotten a new look. Nowadays church service is not offered here anymore, but you can enjoy an organ concert with incredible acoustics. The cathedral also houses the Kant Museum, which is devoted not only to the life of the philosopher but also to the fascinating history of the city. Be sure to check out the layout of Kneiphof Island as it were before the bombing. You will see a completely different picture of the city! To visit the cathedral or museum, you will need to buy a ticket. The Königsberg Cathedral is open daily.

German heritage in Kaliningrad

German architecture in the Amalienau district.
On the winding streets of the Amalienau district, you can find real architectural treasures from the times of the old Königsberg.

With Soviet architecture being the one and only style for rebuilding post-war Kaliningrad, echoes of the German past are to be discovered primarily in the outskirts of Kaliningrad – parts that hadn’t suffered such a mass bombing. The special German charm and appearance of the old city can still be found in most notably the areas of Maraunenhof and Amalienau. Once these were luxurious suburbs with private villas, but two world wars have left a sad mark on their appearance. Still some magnificent examples of the Jugendstil style – the German name for Art Nouveau – have been preserved.

According to the original project, these suburbs were to be built like a garden-city. Each house had its own green area, and the whole district was full of trees. Unlike typical urban development, the streets here did not intersect at right angles but meandered – a pattern that still can be seen today.

For some of the better-preserved examples of German architecture, stroll along Kutuzov and Ogarev Street in the Amalienau district. A visit to Maraunenhof could be nice to combine with the Amber Museum, which we will introduce further below.

To make your visit of the Amalienau and Maraunenhof districts more convenient, check out our map of Kaliningrad where you can see the exact areas as well as some more interesting visitor info.

Visit the Altes House

Interior of the Altes Haus in Kaliningrad
In the Altes Haus you have a great opportunity to plunge into the ordinary life of Königsberg in the beginning of the 20th century.

If you love history and would like to see how ordinary people used to live in Königsberg at the beginning of the 20th century, then you should definitely visit the Altes House. It is a museum-apartment, located in a German house from 1912. All sorts of authentic exhibits will make you feel like travelling back in time.

The museum also offers guided tours, daily from Monday to Saturday – be sure to contact them in advance through their IG account if you require a tour in English.

The Fortifications of Kaliningrad

The Brandenburg Gate in Kaliningrad.
The Brandenburg Gate is one of the seven preserved gates of the old Königsberg.

A unique system of defensive fortifications has been preserved in Kaliningrad. The former city of Königsberg historically had two defensive rings: an outer ring that consisted of 15 forts and an inner ring consisting of ramparts, ditches, defensive towers, walls and city gates. As such, the city was basically one of the largest fortresses in Europe.

The forts of Kaliningrad

A total of 15 forts previously formed a defensive ring, blocking all roads into the city. They all survived until today, but time has not been treating them particularly well. Some were given away for the needs of the armed forces, which kept them from further decline and others are overgrown with greenery. A handful of forts is still in a rather good shape, and even open to visitors. The most popular ones are Fort 5 and Fort 11, both highlighted on our Streetwise map of Kaliningrad. These forts nowadays host exhibitions and events dedicated to the Second World War. Should you decide to visit Fort 11, your ticket will include a guided tour through the stronghold.

The city gates of Kaliningrad

The Königsberg gates were the only entrances into the inner city until the 20th century. Seven out of the ten gates have survived to this day. Inside some of them you will find museums nowadays, in others exhibition halls, art spaces or cafés. The most popular gates are the King's Gate and the Friedrichsburg Gate.

Visit King’s Gate

The Kings Gate in Kaliningrad.
Three Prussian kings from three different eras are looking at us from the facade of the King’s Gate.

The King’s Gate, or Königstor in German, is one of the most beautiful gates, having the shape of a small castle. It was built in 1834 and King Frederick IV himself participated in its foundation. Its first level is decorated with three portals. On the second one, you can see three niches with statues of the first king of Prussia, Frederick I, Duke Albrecht and the founder of the city, King Ottokar II.

Today the gate houses the Historical and Cultural Center ‘Grand Embassy’, hosting an exposition that tells about the history of the city, as it developed from a small settlement to the modern-day Kaliningrad. Special attention goes to Peter the Great visiting the city, and the relations he managed to establish between East Prussia and Russia. Note that the exhibition is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and the entrance is paid.

Visit Friedrichsburg Gate

The imposing Friedrichsburg Gate in Kaliningrad.
The imposing Friedrichsburg Gate once served as the entrance to a detached fortress.

The massive Friedrichsburg Gate was constructed in the 17th century and resembles a fortress itself. It is the only historical gate in Kaliningrad that did not lead to the city, but instead to the fortress of Friedrichsburg.

Today you can find a branch of the World Ocean Museum inside this gate, with an exhibition devoted to traditional vessels from different parts of Russia. Another highlight of the museum is the adjacent Lodejny Shipyard, a place where historical light vessels are being restored or completely recreated. Please note that the exhibition is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and the entrance is paid.

Be sure to check out our free map of Kaliningrad if you want to learn more about the fortifications, as we have devoted a single layer to the greatest forts and gates of the city. The greatest fortifications of Kaliningrad show up on the map when selecting this layer.

The amber treasures of the Kaliningrad region

The Baltic region has long been associated with amber. This natural stone has inspired the craftsmen of Königsberg to create precious jewellery and interior items since the time of the Teutonic Knights! What is this amber?

Amber is the hardened resin of prehistoric conifers. Deposits of ancient resin exist in different parts of the world, but around 90% of it is concentrated on the Baltic coast. For centuries these stones have been collected on the seashore after heavy storms. Starting from the 20th century, it has been extracted from the ground with the help of machines. Despite the active mining, the Kaliningrad amber, according to experts, will last for at least another 100 years.

Visitors of Kaliningrad have the unique opportunity to learn everything about this precious stone. In the Amber Museum, you will find not only fascinating information about this stone, but you will also be able to see amber in all its glory, as the museum presents samples in about every color you can imagine.

The Dohna Tower housing the Amber Museum in Kaliningrad.
The Dohna Tower nowadays houses the Amber Museum.

Visit the Amber Museum

The Amber Museum was opened in 1979 in the Dohna tower, which is located on the shores of Upper Pond. The tower was built in the neo-Gothic style in 1853, as one of the defensive structures of Königsberg. It is named after the Prussian military engineer Friedrich Emil Graf zu Dohna-Schlobitten, who took part in the liberation war against Napoleon in the early 19th century.

The exposition of the museum is divided into two parts and occupies three floors. The first part is represented by amber samples of different weights, colour scales and transparency. It is here where you will find the largest piece of Russian amber, weighing nothing less than 4.3 kilograms! The most interesting part of the museum is made up of amber samples with pieces of animals and plants trapped tens of millions of years ago in the once liquid and viscous resin. The cultural and historical part of the collection contains amber jewellery and household items found in the Kaliningrad region during excavations.

In the Amber Museum, you can also see the original amber samples that served as the basis for the reconstruction of the famous Amber Room of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. These fragments are considered some of the most magnificent pieces of art made of this stone. By the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in 2003, the Amber Room was entirely recreated in its original shape. It took eventually 6 tons of Kaliningrad amber and 23 years of painstaking work to recreate this masterpiece.

Amber products for sale in Kaliningrad.
It is very easy to find unusual products made of amber in Kaliningrad.

Where to buy amber in Kaliningrad?

You will find a large number of shops in the city selling amber. We can recommend two small stores near the Fish Village, on the banks of the Pregolya River. These are specialized stores from the manufacturer Russian Amber. Here you can buy not only jewellery but also decor items, paintings and much more. Russian Amber is one of the oldest companies manufacturing products from Baltic Amber. Every year it takes part in jewellery exhibitions in Russia and abroad. Thanks to the use of the latest technologies in processing and the work of experienced craftsmen, their products are distinguished by variety and sophistication in detail.

Explore the mysteries of the sea in the World Ocean Museum

The sea and trade have always played a huge role in the life of the city. From 1339 it was a member of a legendary trade union of Baltic cities, the Hanseatic League. The port of Königsberg was of great importance because, unlike many other waterways in northern Europe, the Baltic Sea does not freeze in winter.

Centuries later, after the Second World War, this factor again played an important role. The ‘not freezing’ advantage was viewed as strategically important by the USSR, making the port of Kaliningrad one of the best locations to harbor its western fleet.

Today you will find the popular World Ocean Museum on the territory of the old port. The embankment where it is located is designed in the style of the old Baltic port, with nice little brick houses and antique-styled lamps that make it pleasant to walk here.

Visit the Museum of the World Ocean

The World Ocean Museum catches the attention with some beautiful ships moored on its quay. Among them is the vessel Vityaz, on which the Mariana Trench was studied. Located in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench is about 11 thousand meters deep and is considered the deepest place in the oceans of the world. Another eyecatcher is the research vessel Cosmonaut Viktor Patsaev, which was used to control and manage satellites and interplanetary station flights by communicating with cosmonauts and processing data. Another remarkable sight is the submarine B-413, dating from the pre-nuclear period. All these ships are part of the World Ocean Museum and can be visited.

The Water Cube pavilion of the World Ocean Museum.
The Water Cube pavilion is one of the many branches of the World Ocean Museum. It showcases amongst others missiles and weapons used during sea battles.

The exposition of the World Ocean Museum tells its visitors about marine culture, challenging discoveries, the incredible nature of the ocean, its fascinating inhabitants and complex environment. It is a very interactive museum with exhibits that are interesting for both children and adults. You will discover for example how sonar works or listen to the sounds made by deep-sea animals.

Find the opening hours of the Museum of the World Ocean and its branches on the official website. Note that a separate ticket is required for visiting different branches of the museum.

Exploring the Fish Village of Kaliningrad

The Fish Village in Kaliningrad.
The amazing restored Fish Village helps you understand what the city looked like before the war.

Another pleasant place in the centre of Kaliningrad that you should definitely visit is the Fish Village. This little area on the banks of the Pregolya River was created in 2006, in the style of the old Königsberg. Walking along the embankment today, you can imagine how everything looked here before. This very place once used to be a fish market with the fishermen of Königsberg trying to sell their fresh catch. Today you will primarily find cafés, restaurants and hotels here, as well as souvenir and jewellery shops.

What to eat in Kaliningrad?

Not surprisingly, you will find a good number of restaurants offering seafood in the Fish Village. The proximity to the sea makes it possible to eat a wide variety of fish, as well as delicious eels. For meat, we advise you to try the nearby Kaiser Wurst restaurant – get directions – as its menu is replete with Königsberg treats. But actually, what is Königsberg cuisine?

Such an unusual history as in this city could not but positively affect the culinary traditions. Among the most popular old recipes are the Königsberg Klopse and the Königsberg Fleck. The Königsberg Klopse is a German meat dish similar to meatballs in a creamy caper sauce. It is not fried, stewed or baked, but boiled in broth, and then brought to readiness in the already mentioned sauce. The Königsberg Fleck first gained fame in the 16th century. It is an East Prussian stew of beef tripe, richly flavoured with spices.

What else to see near Kaliningrad?

Beach of Svetlogorsk.
The beaches on the Baltic Sea coast are not only pleasant for vacation, but also excellent for amber hunting.

Visit Svetlogorsk

Kaliningrad is surrounded by many little towns, some with a profound German touch. One of the towns deserving special attention is Svetlogorsk, located on the shores of the Baltic sea. This small town with neat houses and green streets offers its guests peace and magically clean air.

Like Kaliningrad itself, Svetlogorsk was once German, and known as Rauschen. About 200 years ago, it became a popular and demanded resort – which actually is still the case. For this, it was nicknamed the "Pearl of the Baltic". Apart from a pleasant and relaxing stay, you can be a bit of a treasure hunter here. The fact is that you might be able to find amber on the beach, with the best odds after a strong storm.

The most convenient way to get to Svetlogorsk is by train, which departs from the Kaliningrad-Yuzhny railway station. The journey takes only about an hour.

How to find amber?

There are some simple rules to follow, that might allow you to take a small souvenir from the Baltic Sea coast. First of all, it is best to search for amber after a storm, or when the sea is rough – but be careful of strong current! You could extract amber from the bottom of the sea, but most often the precious stone travels on the edges of waves to fall down on the beach close to the sea – just like where you would expect to find traces of algae carried out by the sea. Lastly, be sure to look very carefully, as amber on the shore is usually not larger than the size of a bean.

How to visit Kaliningrad?

The Upper Pond in Kaliningrad.
The Upper Pond is one of the many beautiful green spaces that you will see in Kaliningrad centre.

Given the isolation from the main territory of Russia, visiting Kaliningrad may not seem an easy task. In reality, it is not that hard, as you just need to make sure that you have a valid visa for entering Russia. Kaliningrad is actually one of the few regions in Russia that you can visit with an electronic visa. An e-visa is easy to get, but implies that you can only stay in the Kaliningrad region during your stay in the Russian Federation.

The electronic visa to Russia was introduced just in 2017. At the moment it operates in Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg and Vladivostok. It is free of charge and can be obtained by filling out the form on the official website. The processing time is no more than 4 days. It is worth noting though, that such visas are valid only in the specified region of Russia and involve only one entry for a period of 8 days.

In case you would like to see other places in Russia as well, it is better to apply for the standard Russian tourist visa. One important thing to note is that tourist visas are often single-entry. This means that you would have to make sure that you're staying inside the Russian Federation while travelling from Kaliningrad to other parts of Russia – so a short visit to another European city in between, is not a good idea.

Kaliningrad has only one airport, Khrabrovo. After arrival, you can get to the city either by bus 244e, which takes about 45 minutes for a price of around 100 Rubles, or by taxi, which usually takes about 30 minutes for a price around 800 Rubles.

Be totally prepared for Kaliningrad

With this article and our free map of Kaliningrad in your pocket, you are sure to be very well prepared for visiting this unique place in Russia. Kaliningrad is probably your most efficient option to meet the Russian culture together with German history. And it is not only the city of Kaliningrad that deserves exploring, as you shouldn’t forget about the wonderful region it is located in, with a fine coastline, old German villages, and perhaps even treasures of amber simply brought to you by the sea.

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