Five amazing reasons why you should visit Elista in Russia

It may not be well-known, even in Russia, but the little city of Elista in the country’s southwest has a lot to offer.

Capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, Elista was only formed in the 19th century, but is one of Russia’s most interesting cities with a fascinating, although sometimes sad, history.

Being the capital of the region, it’s possible to get flights to Elista direct from Moscow, as well as flights to Elista from Rostov, Simferopol, and Sochi.

Now you know it’s possible to get there – check out our five amazing reasons why you should visit Elista, and some of the best things there are to do there!

The Golden Temple in Elista
One of the amazing buildings you can see in Elista

1: It’s the biggest Buddhist city in Europe

Buddhism and Russia may not seem like two words that should belong together, but Elista is in fact a Buddhist city, and the largest of its kind in Europe.

The ethnic Kalmyk people that live in this city, and throughout the Republic of Kalmykia, can trace their roots to Mongolia, and like most Mongols, they are Tibetan Buddhists.

There are several Buddhist temples throughout the city – which numbers a population of around 100,000 people – many of which can be visited. They are built in a traditional very beautiful style, and a visit to Elista’s religious sites makes you feel like you’re in the far east, rather than Southern Russia.

The Dalai Lama even visited Elista in 1998, showing that the city is certainly on the radar of Buddhism’s spiritual leaders.

Elista is home to the biggest community of Buddhists in Europe
Elista is the biggest Buddhist city in Europe

2: To visit the Chess City, built because of aliens (apparently)

There’s no shortage of weird and wonderful characters in Russia – after all the country is vast and the population huge. And because of that, some wacky things can occur.

Elista’s Chess City is one of them.

Chess fanatic, millionaire, and former president of the Republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, claimed in the 1990s that he was abducted by aliens and they had one (rather bizarre) mission for him – bring chess to the city of Elista.

And that’s what he did.

Chess City was completed in 1998, and features an arena for hosting world class chess matches (and it has done), has a chess museum, has an open-air chess board, and is pretty much a chess-mad “playground”.

Elista chess city
Elista’s ‘Chess City’ is a little bizarre, but a must-visit nonetheless.

3: To pay your respects at the Exodus and Return Monument

Like many cities in Russia, Elista also has a sad part of history.

That’s what the Exodus and Return Monument commemorates – the forced deportation, and in some cases murder, of the Kalmyk people who lived here following the end of WW2.

The people living here were tragically forcibly removed from their homes and city, and then deported to Siberia as punishment for allegedly collaborating with the occupying Germans during WW2. The city was then renamed Stepnoy.

Thankfully, survivors of that forced exile were allowed to return to their hometown in 1957, and the city was named Elista again.

Atmospherically set, the Exodus and Return Monument is a poignant reminder of what those people went through, many of whom didn’t survive.

Elista's Exodus and Return Monument
The Exodus and Return Monument is a reminder of Elista’s sad past.

4: To catch a glimpse of the critically endangered Saiga Antelope

The Republic of Kalmykia is one of the few places on earth where this strange-looking, but beautiful animal can still be seen – and Elista is a great base for doing so.

WIth flights to Elista from Moscow, Rostov, Simferopol, and Sochi. it really is possible to see the critically endangered Saiga Antelope in the wild, with a little bit of luck of course.

These creatures, with their bizarre long floppy snouts, are a protected species at the Chyornye Zemli Nature Reserve – an area created in 1990 specifically to protect the endangered Saiga.

One of Elista's most special sights, is the endangered Elista antelope.
Saiga are unique animals, but are at risk of going extinct (Photo credit: Anatoly Ustinenko/AFP/Getty Images )

5: For the food!

One of the best things to do, if not the best thing to do, in any new city or region is to enjoy the local food!

Elista is no different, with a variety of quirks to its cuisine. In fact Kalmyk tea served in Elista is made up of tea, milk, butter and salt! 

Some delicacies worth trying while visiting restaurants in Elista include Boortsog, a fried dough that can be dipped in honey and jam, or the Mongolian version of a steamed dumpling – Buuz. Tasty!