Vladivostok is a wonderfully underrated Russian city that few Westerners in East Asia ever think to visit. Indeed, it is counterintuitive to head anywhere north of, say, The Forbidden City, especially when the fleeting summer months are in full swing. Most travelers and sojourners in the Orient head south whenever the weather warms up, usually in search of friendly people, lower prices, copious sunshine, and romantic beaches. Little do they know, however, that just up north in Russia’s Far East sits a little slice of Eastern Europe that is less than three hours away by plane from Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. Maybe it is better if travelers remain ignorant of what Vladivostok has to offer, especially at a time when the Ruble is at its lowest point in years due to the biting tripartite of sanctions, an oil glut, and a sluggish Russian economy. Though hard on the average Russian, these downturns can bring opportunities for outsiders.
Situated on steep hills that crash into the Golden Horn Bay, few cities are more comparable to Vladivostok than San Francisco, California. The Russian port city bears some similarity to Istanbul as well, from which its bay gets its name, but due to its topography, its proximity to the Pacific, its famous bridges, and its station as the main Pacific base for the Russian Navy, San Francisco takes the comparative cake. (San Francisco used to have a large naval base until the mid-70s; now San Diego is home to contiguous America’s largest Pacific home port.) On the other hand, the biggest difference between Vladivostok and San Francisco, of course, is cultural. San Francisco is probably America’s most gay-friendly city, while Vladivostok is one of the last place gays would end up. Sure, it is a major naval port, which, if the Village People have any sway on modern perceptions, could be seen as a bit on the campy side, but voicing that association to a Russian would probably result in some immediate dental reshuffling. It is a heavily weaponized city with fortified batteries overlooking its deep blue waters. In fact, at the Voroshilov Battery on Russky Island, the Russians built some of the largest cannons you will ever see (and then aimed them at Japan, incidentally). Within the city, there are numerous naval museums that give visitors the sense that Vladivostok is hardly a defenseless Russian city in the jaws of great East Asian powers.
But Vladivostok does have a soft side that the average visitor quickly discovers, too. For starters, few cities in East Asia are even half as romantic as Vladivostok. Its promenade just off of Admirala Fokina Street is an absolutely stunning place to bring a date when the weather is warm. The layout of the promenade, which follows a sand beach right in the middle of the city, does not feel forced or cookie-cutter at all, which are common ailments to other cities in the region that attempt to create romantic, walkable spaces. And despite its hilly parts, Vladivostok is indeed very walkable. This is a plus as the city’s public transportation is a pain in the ass to master until you get your Russian up to snuff. The only place far up steep hills that you will want to see is serviced by a funicular, one of only two in the whole of Russia. It leads to Eagle’s Nest Hill, a hilltop overlooking the entire city with a particularly arresting view of Golden Bridge, which looks like a modern, aerodynamic alternative to the Golden Gate Bridge that was built in 2012 for the APEC Summit. Couples frequently go up to Eagle’s Nest Hill for wedding photos and champagne popping. Younger couples are constantly making out there, too. Architecturally, Vladivostok has a near total monopoly on European charm in the region. Again, it is only a quick flight from the extreme architectural disparities of East Asia—i.e. either super-old or super-modern—to the quaint varieties of Russian Revival architecture that are elegant alternatives to virtually everything in East Asia. In short, the city’s romantic side is impressive but virtually unknown to those who never take the time to visit.
The Russian people are another story, however. There is little romanticism oozing from the average denizen of Vladivostok. Russians are, on the exterior, frigid and often unsmiling. In Russia, smiling is for tourists and the mentally retarded. Even the hotties scaling the city hills in high heels and derriere-defining jeans are reluctant to beam with that radiant glow of youth that seems to come naturally to bubbly California girls. They walk down the streets stone-faced with only their long, straight hair showing any signs of expression. If you are a friendly American in Russia, it is wise to first unlearn how to smile. It only makes you a soft target and confirms everyone’s innate suspicion that you are indeed a foreigner in need of a hard dose of Russian reality. To be fair, Russians are helpful when you approach them on their terms. Firstly, it is important to speak Russian, as they will probably not speak any English—yes, even people under the age of 30. Next, speak polite Russian to whomever you approach, no matter how many polysyllabic wags of the tongue it takes to get through it all. Lastly, do not waste their time, which is hard to do when trying to master such a difficult language. Russians will help you when you need it, but they will often tell you what you need to know extremely curtly and then go on their way. They do not give two shits about finessing the situation or coddling your feelings. They are a pragmatic people who do not tolerate bullshit from anyone, God bless them. Also, Russians have relatively little experience communicating with non-native speakers, so they are not used to slowing down and simplifying their speech for your benefit. How Russians are on the inside is another, more interesting story for another article. It is their firm outer beauty that you need to know for now.
Just as America’s Transcontinental Railroad ends at San Francisco Bay, Vladivostok’s Golden Horn Bay is the final stop for Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. The two cities are end points for their respective great nations. They are in fact both Janus-faced extremes looking out at each other over the Pacific. The parallels between the two cities go on and on. Even the food found in Vladivostok—pickled cabbage (similar to Korean kimchi), dumplings (like Chinese mandu), and various types of seafood—is analogous to the array of foods found in San Francisco, with its burgeoning Asian populations. Another similarity is in the amount of potential both cities have. But whereas San Francisco is butting up against the ceiling in terms of how far it can go, Vladivostok has a long way to go before it becomes overrated. To put it mildly, San Francisco is extremely overpriced and in fact overheated in terms of the cost of housing. Intense gentrification and the influx of money from Asia have made San Francisco beyond reach for most. Conversely, Vladivostok has its greatest days far ahead of it. Walking through the area known colloquially as Arbat Street, which is a tiny tribute to the much larger version in Moscow, it is easy to see all the untapped potential of the city. So many prime locations remain vacant or underdeveloped just a few dozen meters away from where all the development is. On the one hand, it is a shame to see this, and yet, on the other, it screams “Potential!”