Written and photographed by Isaiah Winters
Believe it or not, there’s a wormhole at Incheon Airport. Step through it, and in about two hours, you’ll find yourself in Eastern Europe. Despite this anomaly, Vladivostok, Russia gets surprisingly short shrift when vacation time rolls around.
There are a few likely reasons for this. For starters, most vacationers departing from Korea’s better half are keen to go anywhere but north, for obvious reasons. Others might be put off by the high-cost hassle of getting a Russian visa, which can suck the spontaneity out of things. What’s more, English – the world’s dominant linguistic reserve currency – is known to afford visitors surprisingly little in Russia.
Then there are the risk-averse travelers who see Russia through dashcam-tinted glasses and promptly write the country off. Sprinkle in a few politically-minded peripatetics who avoid the world’s largest country because of its current regime, and what you get is the Russian doppelganger of San Francisco largely to yourself.
The parallels between the two cities are quite striking. Both are hilly Pacific Coast cities located on peninsulas roughly 12 kilometers wide. Each peninsula overlooks a bay spanned by an iconic bridge with the word “golden” in its name. Also, the two cities represent extreme endpoints for unfathomably long cross-country railroads. Furthermore, both cities have had longstanding influences from Asian populations, most notably the Chinese.
However, what sets Vladivostok apart, not just from San Francisco but also from cities in Northeast Asia, is its militarism, its Europeanness, and – dare I say it – its romanticism.
Regarding its militarism, the vast and varied nature of Russia has always required strong, centralized rule. “Ruler of the East,” or Vladivostok, embodies this fact, as distance and demography disadvantage Russia the further east one goes. To compensate, the city has been well fortified on land and is also home to Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
Anyone interested in Russian military (and especially naval) history will find the city scattered with interesting museums, monuments, and mounted guns. Vladivostok Fortress, submarine S-56, the naval dockyard, and Voroshilov Battery on Russky Island are among the best sites. The latter is admittedly hard to reach via public transport, but it’s well worth the effort.
While Russia is often considered to be neither Western nor Eastern, Vladivostok’s contrast to other major cities in the region amplifies its relative Europeanness. Architecture is one case in point. Sitting cheek and jowl with elegant Tsarist-era edifices and onion-domed orthodox cathedrals are the more formidable structures of the Stalinist era. Beyond these are the rather leprous-looking apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era, along with the austere brutalist structures from the era of stagnation.
Since the fall of the USSR, the cityscape has been updated with a few massive projects commissioned during the Putin era, most of which date back to the 2012 APEC Summit. Individually, each architectural style is emblematic of a regime that came to power in European Russia over the last century. Together, they help give the city a very eclectic look that, outside of Harbin and Khabarovsk, hardly anywhere in Northeast Asia can match.
The thing that may surprise visitors most about Vladivostok is how romantic many of its sites are. One example is Eagle’s Nest, an observation point that overlooks the city, Golden Bridge, and Golden Horn Bay. Eagle’s Nest showcases the softer side of Russians, as it’s a popular destination for couples, families, and wedding parties. It’s served by a funicular – one of only two in the whole of Russia, supposedly – though it’s sometimes out of service, so you may have to make the worthwhile hike yourself.
Another good place for couples to visit is Admirala Fokina Street, which is Vladivostok’s humble equivalent to Moscow’s Arbat Street. This quaint pedestrian street is full of shops, cafes, eateries, and bars that all lead down to a picturesque esplanade. Known as the Sports Quay, the esplanade is perfect for a walk along the water or as a place to sit and take in the sunset. It’s also a good place to have an affordable steak dinner with some drinks while overlooking the bay.
For those who live to eat, there’s plenty to live for in Vladivostok. Good seafood, especially salmon and salted herring, is abundant here, as are soups and dumplings of all kinds. To anyone who’s homesick for proper grain- and dairy-based foods, this will be your sanctuary in the region. Also, Russians are just as keen on food preservation as Koreans, so you will find just about everything pickled that can be pickled. Naturally, these go well with vodka, if drinking is your thing.
Something that should not be missed in Vladivostok is the chance to try North Korean food. One restaurant in particular, Pyongyang Café, is a must-see for its cheesy decorations and statuesque waitresses. They’ll likely speak to you in Russian at first, but you should consider ordering your food in Korean for the added challenge of deciphering their accents.
There are a few important things to keep in mind when dining and shopping in Vladivostok. As noted earlier, English is still pretty useless in Russia. But unlike in Japan, where politeness often makes up for stark language divides, Russia is still developing a customer-friendly service industry. This means your Russian waiter or clerk will sometimes give off the impression that he is doing you an undue favor rather than simply doing his job.
The silver lining to this is that Russians do not force smiles or politeness the way people in other countries often do. In fact, if you walk down the street smiling in Russia, people will think you are mental (or a tourist). To some visitors, this forthrightness can be refreshing, while to others, it can come off as a little rude.
By the way, tipping is expected in Russia, so consider giving an extra 10–15 percent in cash directly to your server when the service is good. If the service is terrible, consider returning the undue favor with a lousy tip. Perhaps the server will find your honesty refreshing as well.
Ultimately, the big takeaway I got from Vladivostok was how much promise the city has. Open to foreigners only since 1992, the city that once hid the secrets to the Soviet Union’s Pacific Fleet has come a long way in a short time. Given its rather matchless position in the region, it has a lot of potential to capitalize on all that sets it apart.
Now accessible from the airports in Incheon and (occasionally) Muan, as well as from the ferry port in Donghae, Russia’s underrated “City by the Bay” is a secret hidden in plain sight.
Originally from Southern California, Isaiah Winters first came to Gwangju in 2010. He recently returned to Korea after completing his M.A. in Eastern Europe. He enjoys writing, political science, and urban exploring.