My Experience at the World Cup Russia 2018

My two biggest passions in life are sports and travel. So the World Cup is basically the greatest thing ever. I have been to World Cups before but I never really made a whole thing about it. However, after a Euro 2016 road trip in France that took me all over France, I decided to make sure to attend several games at the World Cup in Russia. So that’s exactly what I did. Here’s a day-by-day account of my experience at the World Cup Russia 2018.

My experience at the World Cup Russia 2018, World Cup Russia 2018, World Cup Russia, World Cup, Russia, The beautiful city of Moscow was a part of my experience at the World Cup Russia 2018

The beautiful city of Moscow was a part of my experience at the World Cup Russia 2018

First and foremost, I am constantly asked how I got tickets for the games. I literally followed the FIFA directions when they were to go on sale, set an alarm for 3am ET and went online and got the games I wanted in the cities I wanted. It was that simple. I didn’t use any connections and they weren’t sponsored. Anyone can do it!

Tickets for 4 of my 5 World Cup Russia 2018 games

Tickets for 4 of my 5 World Cup Russia 2018 games

Before I begin, here are a few observations about FIFA and the World Cup Russia 2018:

  • The Russians did a very good job overall
  • FIFA had plenty of English speaking helpers on the ground
  • The stadiums were spectacular
  • The fans were wonderful
  • Russia is very cheap, especially outside of Moscow
  • Security was very tight and borderline annoying but we always felt safe
  • There were police everywhere
  • I saw zero fights between fans-highly unusual at a soccer event
  • Beers in the games were very cheap as far as sporting events go
  • Everywhere took credit cards but the sponsor Visa only
  • Uber didn’t work for me at all in any city in Russia
  • Learning to read Cyrillic is very helpful to read signs
  • T-Mobile generously granted free 4G coverage to those in Russia
  • The lack of decent hotels with availability in all cities was a big issue
  • Transportation between smaller cities was very limited i.e. Samara & Kazan
  • World Cup swag was awful, poorly placed and almost always sold out
  • FIFA needs more merchandise in more sizes in more places
  • FIFA Fan Fests are lame and useless
  • Ticket resale was very difficult and confusing
  • The FIFA website for tickets was awful
  • Fan ID’s worked like a charm-kudos to the Russians for making it easy
  • Russian food is not good in general but in most places you have options
  • Overall a good host country for an event like this but not perfect
  • I had an amazing experience and was pleasantly surprised in general

Gdansk, Poland

My experience at the World Cup Russia 2018 actually started in Gdansk, Poland. I had always wanted to visit this northern Polish city. Since my first game of the World Cup was in nearby Kaliningrad, it was a no brainer to fly to Gdansk first.

The lovely main street of the old town in Gdansk, Poland

The lovely main street of the old town in Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk is a picturesque Eastern European city. It almost looks fake in the old town it’s so cute. There’s not a ton to the city. It’s very small, manageable and you’ve pretty much got the idea after an hour or so. I stayed at the Radisson Blu just at the bottom of the main drag. It was high quality, reasonably priced, the perfect location and a great base for exploring Gdansk.

Gdansk is a great place to walk around

Gdansk is a great place to walk around

Kaliningrad

We had arranged a car through the hotel to drive us to Kaliningrad and left at 7am. The Spain vs. Morocco game wasn’t until 8pm that night so there was no rush. But because it’s Russia and the borders are notoriously slow, we didn’t want to risk being late. We made it through both the Poland and Russia borders in about 15 minutes total. It was shockingly a breeze.

Cool church in the main square of Kaliningrad

Cool church in the main square of Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad is a small exclave of Russia just north of Poland. It’s the only part of Russia completely separated from the mainland and in Europe. Most people don’t even know it exists. Much of it was destroyed during World War II and there isn’t much to it these days. But the World Cup was truly its moment to shine.

The dank but still nice waterways of Kaliningrad

The dank but still nice waterways of Kaliningrad

We stayed at a place called Hotel Kaliningrad, which happened to be the media headquarters for the World Cup games in Kaliningrad. It was a basic 2-3 star kind of place. The hotel selection in Kaliningrad is crap so we felt very lucky to even get that. The rooms were hotter than hell but it was in a good location next to the Fan Fest and a 15-minute walk to the Main Square and 30 minutes from the stadium.

Some German architecture on the island in the middle of Kaliningrad

Some German architecture on the island in the middle of Kaliningrad

There is literally nothing to do in Kaliningrad. The sites are very whatever if you’ve been to Russia before. There is some German charm to some of the buildings to counter the Soviet style architecture and dank, gray color.

Manolo el del Bombo and other Spanish fans

Manolo el del Bombo and other Spanish fans

The Spanish fans and to their credit, a ton of Moroccan fans as well, took over Kaliningrad. The bars were absolutely packed before the game and singing filled the air. It was raining pretty much all day until about 6pm so the atmosphere helped cheer things up.

Why not have a fox on your arm?

Why not have a fox on your arm?

The stadium is brand new and very isolated from the city. It’s a solid 45-minute walk from the main square and the security lines were preposterous. We waited at least an hour and actually missed the opening kickoff, finally getting to our seats 6 minutes into the game. Luckily, we didn’t miss anything, as the score was 0-0.

Kaliningrad Stadium was built for the World Cup and is gorgeous

Kaliningrad Stadium was built for the World Cup and is gorgeous

The game ended in a 1-1 tie; which meant that Spain clinched the top spot as Iran tied Portugal. Spain won the group on goal differential and advanced the play Russia in the knockout round.

Inside Kaliningrad Stadium for Spain vs Morocco

Inside Kaliningrad Stadium for Spain vs Morocco

After the game I met up with some friends at the hotel bar; which was mobbed for a drink then passed out. It was an early flight to the next game in St. Petersburg!

St. Petersburg

After arriving in St. Petersburg following a 1.5-hour flight from Kaliningrad, we checked into the Nevsky Art Hotel. It was very centrally located equidistant to the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood and the Hermitage Museum-St. Petersburg’s 2 most famous sights. The hotel was average at best and was a walk-up hotel. My room was on the 5th floor; which was annoying. That said, it served its purpose.

The Hermitage Museum is always beautiful

The Hermitage Museum is always beautiful

St. Petersburg is a dream city. It’s a Russian city with a ton of history that looks like it could be located anywhere in Europe. It has beautiful canals, charming architecture, massive squares, beautiful boulevards and the city just has a buzz about it. I loved being there.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

The best thing about the World Cup Russia 2018 or any big soccer event is that you can tour the cities during the day. I made sure to see all the famous sights again and check out a restaurant that had been recommended by the late great Anthony Bourdain called Cococo. Trust me, it was delicious and very reasonably priced for fine-ish dining.

The food at Cococo didn't suck!

The food at Cococo didn’t suck!

The Argentina fans completely took over the city. It was awesome. I am a massive Argentina fan. The first World Cup I watched was 1986 when they famously won with the great Maradona. Since then, they’ve played in 2 more World Cup finals and currently have my all-time favorite player Lionel Messi. So I was pumped for the game!

Vamos Argentina!

Vamos Argentina!

I have been to 3 Argentinian National Team games and approximately 7 FC Barcelona games and Messi has scored at every game I’ve been to. It was an omen that he wouldn’t let Argentina down and they would advance.

Argentine fans ruled the metro

Argentine fans ruled the metro

Part of the World Cup experience is simply following the crowds of fans. Taking the metro to the amazing St. Petersburg Stadium was a true delight. Singing and observing the Argentinian fans going insane en route to the game made you realize why you love sports and the International language of soccer. It was awesome.

St. Petersburg Stadium is one of the best stadiums I've ever been to

St. Petersburg Stadium is one of the best stadiums I’ve ever been to

We learned our lesson and got to the game 2 hours early. This was great so we could walk around and see everything. Fans at the World Cup make it all worth it. Although Nigerian fans were outnumbered about 98% to 2%, they let their presence be known.

Argentina vs Nigeria in St. Petersburg

Argentina vs Nigeria in St. Petersburg

The winner of Nigeria vs. Argentina would advance to the knockout round and Argentina needed a big game from Messi. He didn’t disappoint scoring a goal early in the first half on an awesome right-footed strike. I was sitting very close to the great Maradona and it was fun watching him react to the goal!

Argentine fan with a Messi hat was amazing

Argentine fan with a Messi hat was amazing

Early in the second half a penalty was called on Javier Mascherano and Nigeria converted the penalty kick to tie the game at 2. A few minutes from time, Argentina took the lead on a brilliant goal from Marcos Rojo sending the stadium into the stratosphere. It was like being at a game at River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires. What an experience!

Argentina fans erupt when they score a late winner

Argentina fans erupt when they score a late winner

I was so drained mentally and physically from the game that I couldn’t even go out and celebrate-electing to go to bed instead before a morning train to Moscow. What a great time in St. Petersburg.

Moscow

Moscow is a great city that I have been to several times before. So when I arrived and checked into the hotel, I didn’t feel compelled to do a ton of touristy stuff. Rather I just wanted to stroll around and see what all the fanfare in and around Red Square was all about. The Russians did a great job with their showpiece attraction and city.

St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square is always amazing to see

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is always amazing to see

After visiting Red Square and of course St. Basil’s and the Kremlin, we just had a meal and some beers before heading out to Spartak Stadium for the Brazil vs. Serbia game. The stadium was brand new, it was an easy metro ride from Red Square and the place was packed.

The Kremlin is always imposing in Red Square

The Kremlin is always imposing in Red Square

I was surprised to see so many Serbia fans but I guess we are in Eastern Europe and if they won the game they’d advance. Sadly they didn’t win although they put up a brave fight. Brazil was opportunistic and just a better team.

Spartak Stadium in Moscow

Spartak Stadium in Moscow

For me it was a pleasure to finally see the Brazilian National Team play in person. Their iconic yellow jersey and blue shorts is like the New York Yankees pinstripes or the Dallas Cowboys Star. You can’t help but stare.

Brazil vs Serbia at Spartak Stadium in Moscow

Brazil vs Serbia at Spartak Stadium in Moscow

Moscow was the shortest stop of my whirlwind World Cup Russia 2018 5-city tour as we left on a 5am flight for Samara. So there was no late night reveling with the Brazilians. But Moscow, as always, didn’t disappoint.

Samara

I fully admit I knew nothing about Samara coming into the World Cup Russia 2018. I hadn’t even heard of it until they announced it as a venue. As it worked out, I ended up there for a day and a half for the Colombia vs. Senegal game. And in hindsight it was a pretty nice place albeit a little boring.

Interesting statue in Samara

Interesting statue in Samara

First, it was strange they’d pick Samara for a World Cup venue. There were hardly any hotels and the only decent ones were booked up for the teams. So we ended up staying in a total shitbox called Hotel Tonika, but in the center of the old town so we could walk everywhere. The old town was colorful and pretty but eerily empty during the day. Literally there was nobody in the streets.

The main street in the old town of Samara at sunset

The main street in the old town of Samara at sunset

It got better after the game as people came to the streets as the sun went down and it cooled off. In fact, post game at the main bar in town was packed and the wait staff were totally overwhelmed having never seen this many people-especially Colombians partying!

Colombia vs Senegal in Samara

Colombia vs Senegal in Samara

The new Samara Stadium was about 15 kilometers from the city and was a bit of a hassle to get to via FIFA free shuttle. However, you just went along with it and after 45-minutes or so we were there.

The brand new Samara Stadium

The brand new Samara Stadium

The game would see the winner through and Colombia ended up winning over Senegal 1-0 in a stadium that was 90% Colombian fans. Although the Senegalese fans made themselves known for sure with loud drum music and dancing. It was a fun atmosphere and a good game.

The Volga River Embankment in Samara

The Volga River Embankment in Samara

After waking up early as always, I went and strolled the embankment of the Volga River; which was the best thing about Samara in my opinion. While Samara was a nice town aesthetically, I can’t imagine I’ll return there unless I had a good reason. So after my stroll and breakfast it was a 5-hour taxi ride to Kazan.

Kazan

Kazan is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen in Russia. They really nailed it with Kazan. I didn’t know much about the city before going other than a soccer team that often qualifies for the Champions League out of Russia. That said I was very pleasantly surprised.

Welcome to Kazan

Welcome to Kazan

The hotel situation is the only thing that really needed improvement as we ended up staying in another crappy place called the Berinson because the teams and FIFA booked the only two decent hotels. To put it into perspective, the Argentine National Team stayed at the Ramada. I feel like these are things that FIFA and host countries need to take into account. However, it was very central where we stayed and we could walk everywhere.

The mosque dominates the skyline of Kazan inside the Kazan Kremlin

The mosque dominates the skyline of Kazan inside the Kazan Kremlin

The Kazan Kremlin is the top attraction and really dominates the city of Kazan visually. It’s a world heritage site and a great place to stroll around, see the magnificent mosque, churches, city walls and views of the modern city below and afar.

Beneath the Kremlin was Bauman Street, a long pedestrian thoroughfare that was the clear center of life in Kazan-at least during the World Cup. It was beautiful and lined with restaurants, bars and shops. It was the place to be.

Bauman Street in Kazan

Bauman Street in Kazan

The game was my only knockout round game of the 5 city World Cup Russia 2018 tour and I got lucky because it featured an amazing game between France and Argentina-my favorite team. Unfortunately for Argentina, and me they have no defense and lost pretty convincingly 4-3 even though they had about 90% of the fans in Kazan Arena-another gorgeous brand new stadium.

Kazan Stadium was gorgeous

Kazan Stadium was gorgeous

So after the game we headed back to Bauman Street and watched the second game on TV and thankfully Portugal got eliminated as well! Then I had an early flight to Astana, Kazakhstan and just went to bed nursing my Argentina wounds!

In Conclusion

I absolutely loved attending the World Cup Russia 2018 and was happy because I got to revisit some places I hadn’t been in years and add some new places I normally wouldn’t have gone. That’s pretty much the essence of the World Cup. You see different games in different cities and meet different people all with shared interests. It’s a lot of fun.

Moscow streets were decked out for the World Cup

Moscow streets were decked out for the World Cup

I am not thrilled with Qatar hosting the next World Cup in 2022. It’s an obvious corrupt choice but even worse to me is it’s a bad destination for the World Cup. There’s really only one city, Doha, and the country is the size of Rhode Island with almost no hotels outside of Doha. So I haven’t decided if I’m going to go yet. Give me a few years then I’ll decide!

Comments

  1. What a shitshow Maradona was following that Argentina vs. Nigeria Match. Glad you were able to catch a few great matches on this trip. As for Qatar, that can always be a great excuse for you to re-visit the Middle East and explore new places like you did here with Russia (eg. Samara). Otherwise, I fully expect you to go all out on a cross-Country tour of the United States for World Cup 2026. ?

  2. I was so jealous but loved following your Russia trip. I will definitely go to Qatar to experience the World Cup before I get too old to enjoy it properly. Great post.

    • Thanks! I will say I don’t think age has too. Ugh to do with the World Cup itself. We met a lot of people in their 50s-60s and older. Younger means more energy for moving around but it doesn’t mean you can go to the games! I have no idea how old you are but you know what I mean!

    • Rafael, I met a lady on my flight down to World Cup 2014 in Brazil who was attending her first tournament, but her Husband was attending his seventh!!! They were in their mid-50s, so as Lee mentioned above, age shouldn’t prevent you from attending. It’s perfectly okay to base yourself in one city and attend several games in one Stadium or attend the Fan Fests if roadtripping from city to city isn’t your style or you just don’t have the energy or means to do that. The World Cup is more about the experience of meeting people from all walks of life and celebrating life together than it is about the sport itself. We don’t get very many opportunities to do that, so that dynamic adds to the legendary status of World Cup.

  3. This is essentially my dream trip!

  4. I’m so envious that you got to go. I really wanted to but couldn’t get the time off of work as my vacation is tied up in other commitments. This has been the best World Cup I’ve ever seen and I can’t imagine the experience being here live.

  5. Who do you have winning it all? I think France.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I was following along on your IG Stories and want to go to Qatar now!

  7. Incredible experience this must have been. It was a pleasure to follow your adventures in Russia and elsewhere.

  8. I went to three matches in three cities, and Uber worked in all three: Sochi, Saint Petersburg and Moscow. The service now runs through Yandex Taxi, and once you land in Russia, you\’ll have the option to connect the apps and order a ride through the Uber app as usual. No problems at all! 🙂

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