Sochi's Winter Olympics gets underway in five days

The Winter Olympics has put Sochi firmly on the international travel map, but what'll be there for visitors after the Olympic circus leaves town?

So what’s the skiing like?
Traditionally Sochi was a summer resort, with the dramatic Caucasus Mountains attracting less attention than their ski runs deserved. Russians prefer cross-country over downhill skiing, so the thrills of the piste were largely neglected until 2007 when Sochi was chosen as the Winter Olympic host city. That kick-started a frenzy of redevelopment, making it more accessible and transforming ramshackle slopes into sleek contemporary ski destinations capable of rivalling the Alps.


gondolasochiA gondola whisks skiers from the Olympic village of Roza Khutor
Creative Commons / tomkellyphoto


The Olympic setting around the village of Roza Khutor is stunning. It’s a long way south – far enough for palm trees to thrive – so the ski runs are at high altitude. That means a 15-20 minutes, bewitching cable-car ride from the Rosa Khutor base, steadily climbing as the landscape changes from damp deciduous woodland to sparkling, snowy coniferous forest, before emerging at the pistes themselves.

The skiing here has earned approval from the sport’s bigwigs (US Olympic champion Bode Miller described it as “world class”), whether it’s downhill or cross-country that takes your fancy. With the Roza Khutor resort-village bringing much-needed affordable hotels (check out the Tulip Inn Roza Khutor for a rare example of Euro-quality accommodation without the premium price-tag often seen in Russia) and a small but busy après-ski scene, there are hopes that skiing in Sochi will thrive long after the Olympics is over.


AdlercoastSochi and neighbouring resorts are still popular in summer
Creative Commons / killerbase


Back on the seafront, future plans have already been laid to transform the Olympic Coastal Cluster of ice rinks: the ‘Fisht’ stadium will host football during the 2018 World Cup; one of the hockey arenas will become home to the city’s new team in the ambitious multi-national KHL league and the whole site is due to host Russia’s first Formula 1 Grand Prix on 12 October. A city which once traded on spa treatments at seaside sanatoriums is now geared for speed.

What else is there to do?
Mt Fisht, one of the tallest and most picturesque peaks in the Sochi area, is fabulous hiking territory, reached easily enough on a #108 bus from the seaside town of Dagomys to the mountain village of Solokh-Aul. From here, various walks head out into the hills, offering something for the casual stroller or the serious hiker.

Local place names like Solokh-Aul, with a sound closer to the Turkic languages of Central Asia than the Slavic polysyllables of Russian, point to the area’s complex ethnographic mix. That history is also reflected in local legends, where the mountains are said to be the hideaways of fugitive lovers. These tales, which typically end with lovelorn youths plunging into lakes rather than be parted from their forbidden passions, are typically shared with relish.

Tea with Putin, anyone?
We can’t actually promise that Russia’s rugged action man president will swing by following a day of topless trekking in the hills. But the Uch-Dere teahouse in Dagomys has long been renowned as an informal entertainment spot for dignitaries, including Putin who has visited regularly since 2001. His security team might make it difficult to share a samovar (metal contained used to heat water for tea) with him, even if you happen to be there at the right time, but the café on Zaporozhskaya Street still attracts hopeful celebrity spotters.


samovarsochiEnjoy local tea-drinking traditions
Creative Commons / Eleljena


Elsewhere, Sochi is at the heart of Russia’s wine-producing region. The Abrau-Dyursau vineyards further along the coast near Novorossiysk produce a range of champagne-style tipples, while the Grand Cru du Vostok range includes some of the best white wines from this part of the world. Nearby Abkhazia, meanwhile, offers distinctive fruity reds. Some are a little sweet for western tastes; ask for ‘sukhoye’ meaning dry, rather than ‘sladkaya’ meaning sweet.

Abkhazia and Georgia also influence much of the best local food. Away from the sleek international cuisine that has sprung up to feed Olympians, the hearty delights of khachupuri (dubbed ‘the pizza of the Caucasus’ for its happy marriage of piping hot bread and rich salty cheese, often topped with a fried egg) and shashlyk (marinated meat grilled on an open, a summer staple throughout Russia) are recommended.

Other dishes worth checking out include satsivi, a cold starter of chicken in a creamy, tangy walnut-scented sauce, or the cheesy, soup-like gebzhaliya. Restaurants tend to vie for custom by putting on singers – the quality varies, but the repertoire is invariably drawn from the sentimental ‘shanson’ tradition, a kind of Country & Eastern genre dominated by hard luck stories. For a good take on Abkhazian food, try the Pahkhta restaurant in Khosta; for a blast of more fashionable music, take a trip to Treugolnik in Adler.


abkhazianwinesNearby Abkhazia is renowned for its wines
Creative Commons / Argenberg


Lights … camera … action!
Every June, Sochi turns itself into a miniature Cannes for the Kinotavr Film Festival. In barely 20 years, it has become Russia’s most important cinema event and offers a perfect opportunity to see the nation through the lens of its filmmakers. Directors worth looking out for include Kirill Serebryanikov, renowned for his challenging take on classic themes, or Boris Khlebnikov, a purveyor of gritty rural dramas. Both are more than capable of provoking a renewed instalment of the on-going debate about what Russian cinema – and indeed Russia itself – should be all about.


Getting there: Sochi is about 60km (37 miles) from Sochi International Airport, which has benefitted from an Olympic facelift, but still lacks direct flights from the UK. The cheapest option is to fly with easyJet to Moscow (from £100pp return), then brave the 36-hour rail journey south on the new double-decker trains, with fares starting from around £75. An easier route would be to book with Aeroflot or Transaero, usually with a change in Moscow. Tickets start at around £350pp return.

Getting around: Greater Sochi stretches for almost 120km (75 miles) along the shoreline. Apart from Sochi itself, Adler, Khosta, Dargomys, Matsesta and Loo are among the most popular resorts and are all linked by a coastal rail line and an extensive bus network.

Safety: Sochi is on the fringes of Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region and recent bomb attacks in Volgograd serve as a warning that Russia is a target for terrorists. However, current Foreign Office advice says that it is safe to travel with normal precautions. Concerns over gay rights in Russia have also made headlines in the West, but members of Russia’s LGBT scene have highlighted gay-friendly clubs in Sochi ahead of the Olympics.


Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.