What to see in Russia
Russia is immense, and extraordinarily long on attractions for visitors, although many lie in the hard-to-reach stretches of the planet’s most remote lands. The best known sights are in and around the nation’s principal cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Russia’s history is the number one reason why tourists come to this country, following the draw of its fascinating, sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutal, and always consequential national saga.
Derbent, in the Caucasian Republic of Dagestan, is Russia’s most ancient city, dating back 5,000 years. Home to the legendary Gates of Alexander, the walled fortress-city, alternately controlled by Caucasian Albania, Persian empires, and the Mongols (until its eighteenth century conquest by the Russian Empire) was for 1500 years the key to controlling trade between Western Russia and the Middle East. Other ancient peoples of Russia left less evidence of their civilization, but you can find traces of the Kurgan people of the Urals, in particular the ruined pagan shrines and burial mounds around the old capital of Tobolsk and throughout the Republic of Khakassia.
Early Medieval Russia saw two major civilizations, that of the independent Novgorod Republic and the Mongol Empire, which dominated the Russian principalities of former Vladimir-Suzdal (whose initial capital of Vladimir retains an excellent collection of twelfth century monuments and kremlin) and Kievan Rus.
A really neat off-the-beaten-path destination also rose to prominence in the extreme north of the country—the Solovetsky Monastery- fortress on the islands of the White Sea, which served as a bulwark against Swedish naval incursions.
Peter the Great, after having consolidated power, began the construction of his entirely new city of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the Window to the West. Saint Petersburg from its foundation through the neoclassical period became one of the world’s most magically beautiful cities, and the list of must-see attractions is far too long.
The surrounding summer palaces at Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and Pushkin are also unbelievably opulent attractions.
For those interested in the grisly end of the Romanov family of Nicholas II, perhaps inspired by the story of Anastasia, look no further than the Church on the Blood in Yekaterinburg, built on the spot of his family’s execution. Moscow, on the other hand, has the most famous monument from the revolutionary period—Lenin’s himself, with his embalmed body on display in Red Square.
The Soviet Era saw a drastic change in Russian history, and the development of a virtually brand new civilization. Both World War II and Stalin’s reign of terror made their presence felt greatly upon Russia’s cultural heritage. The bombings virtually wiped out anything of historical interest in Russia’s extreme west (the Chernozemye region) and damaged much more throughout European Russia.
Maybe the saddest of the Soviet legacies is the network of prison camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. The term Archipelago really does not capture the scope of suffering across 10,000 kilometers of cold steppe. Perhaps the most interesting sites for those interested in this legacy are on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, and the devastatingly bleak Kolyma gulag system of Magadan Oblast. If you were hoping to see where Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, you’ll have to travel beyond the Russian borders to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.
Russia has several of the world’s greatest museums, particularly in the field of the visual arts. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is the true star, with an enormous collection amassed first by the wealthy tsars. Equally impressive is the edifice housing the collection on display, the magnificent Winter Palace of the Romanov Dynasty.
Other museum exhibitions certainly worth seeking out are the collections of antiquities in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, particularly at the Hermitage Museum, and the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin. For military buffs, Russian military museums are often fantastic, truly best-in-the-world, regardless of whether you are at one of the main ones in the Moscow—the Central Armed Forces Museum, Kubinka Tank Museum, Central Air Force Museum, Museum of the Great Patriotic
War (WWII). The other category in which Russian museums outshine the rest of the world would be within the literary and musical spheres.
Nary a town visited, if only for a day, by Alexander Pushkin is without some small museum dedicated to his life and works.
The best of the big city museums include the
- Bulgakov Museum in Moscow and the
- Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin, and Dostoevsky museums in Saint Petersburg.
- Dostoevsky’s summer house in Staraya Russa,
- Tolstoy’s “inaccessible literary stronghold” at Yasnaya Polyana,
- Chekhov’s country estate at Melikhovo,
- Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin or remote hometown of Votkinsk in Udmurtia,
- Rakhmaninov’s summer home in Ivanovka,
- Pushkin’s estate at Pushkinskie Gory,
- Turgenev’s country estate at Spasskoe-Lutovinovo near Mtsensk.
Some of the best museums are in the countryside. For classical music lovers, the apartment museums of various nineteenth and century composers in Saint Petersburg are worth more than just nostalgic wanderings—they often have small performances by incredible musicians.
All tourists in Russia find themselves looking at a lot of churches. Ecclesiastical architecture is a significant source of pride among Russians, and the onion dome is without question a preeminent national symbol. The best known, as usual, are in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, in particular the old baroque Church on the Spilled Blood, Alexander Nevsky Lavra, and the monumental Kazan and Saint Isaac’s Cathedrals in the former, and Saint Basil’s Cathedral and the massive Church of the Annunciation in the latter. The spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church is to be found at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posadon the Golden Ring circuit (lavra is the designation given to the most important monasteries, of which there are only two in the country), although the physical headquarters of the Church is at Danilov Monastery in Moscow. Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Vologda Oblast is often considered Russia’s second most important (and is a neat way to get off the beaten track). Other particularly famous churches and monasteries are to be found at Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir, the fascinating Old Cathedral of Königsberg (home to Immanuel Kant’s tomb) in Kaliningrad, Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, Optina Putsin (the basis for Father Zossima’s monastery in The Brothers Karamazov), and Volokolamsk Monastery in West Moscow Oblast. Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega and Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga are also popular sites, especially with those cruising between Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Ecclesiastical architecture does not, however, end with the Russian Orthodox Church—Russia also has a wealth of Islamic and Buddhist architecture. The nation’s most important mosques are the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan (the largest mosque in Europe) and the Blue Mosque in Saint Petersburg. Russia’s most prominent Buddhist temples are in both Kalmykia—Europe’s lone Buddhist republic, and the areas closer to Mongolia, especially around. Ulan Ude in Buryatia and Kyzyl, Tuva.
While the distances are great between them, Russia’s natural wonders are impressive and worth seeking out for nature lovers. The best known destinations are far to the east in Siberia, with Lake Baikal known as its “jewel.” At the extreme eastern end of Russia, nearly all the way to Japan and Alaska, is wild Kamchatka, where you will find the Valley of the Geisers, lakes of acid, volcanoes, and bears galore.
Other highlights of the Far East include the idyllic (if kind of cold) Kuril Islands to the south of Kamchatka, whale watching off the coast of arctic Wrangel Island, the remote Sikhote-Alin mountain range, home to the Amur Tiger, and beautiful Sakhalin. The nature reserves throughout these parts are spectacular as well, but all will require permits in advance and specialized tours.
The northern half of Russia stretching thousands of miles from the Komi Republic
through Kamchatka is basically empty wilderness, mostly mountainous, and always beautiful. Getting to these areas is problematic, as most are not served by any roads, infrastructure, or really anything else. Russia’s great north-south rivers are the main arteries for anyone moving through the area: the Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena, and Kolyma. Beyond that, expect to be in canoes, helicopters, and military grade jeeps, because these will be the only way of getting around, and you’ll likely want to go with a guide.
Russia’s other mountainous territory is in its extreme south, in the Northern Caucasus. There you will find Europe’s tallest mountains, which tower in height over the Alps, including mighty Elbrus. Favorite Russian resorts in the area include those at Sochi (which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic games) and Dombai. As you go further east in the North Caucasus, the landscapes become ever more dramatic, from the lush forested gorges and snowcapped peaks of Chechnya to the stark desert mountains of Dagestan, sloping downwards to the Caspian Sea.
Throughout the entire country, there are over a hundred National Parks and Nature Reserves. The former are open to the public, and considerably more wild and undeveloped. The latter are preserved principally for scientific research and are often not possible to visit. Permits are issued for certain reserves, but only through licensed tour operators. If you have the opportunity, though, take it! Some of the most spectacular parks are in the aforementioned Kamchatka, but also in the Urals, particularly in the Altai Mountains (Altai Republic and Altai Krai).
- Circum-Baikal Railway is the road on the shore of Baikal Lake.
- Golden Ring — the classic route around ancient cities and towns in Central Russia crowned with golden cupolas of its churches and convents.
- Green Ring of Moscow — Natural Parks and Reserves in Moscow vicinities.
- Silver Ring — the chain of Northern towns surrounding Saint Petersburg.
- Trans-Siberian Railway — the endless train ride that needs no introduction
- Music— Russia has a long musical tradition and is well-known for its composers and performers. There is no doubt you will find more orchestra performances the bigger the city. Classic music is played in various theaters, where domestic and guest concerts are scheduled for weeks ahead. Besides that, the state supports folk ensembles in smaller towns or even villages and singing babushkas gatherings are still a well-established tradition in many areas. In areas traditionally inhabited by non-Russian ethnic groups, you may encounter ethnic music of every possible sound, like throat singing in Tuva or rare instruments of Chukotka. Sometimes only specialists can differ the Cossack songs of the Urals from the Cossack songs of Krasnodar. Professional jazz players meet at Jazz over Volga festival in Yaroslavl. Walking along the main street on a Sunday will definitely enable you to hear guitar, saxophone, harmonium or flute in any city.
- Military Paradeon the Victory Day, which is celebrated on the 9th of May, is commonly all-Russia holiday with city squares getting full of uniformed men and military vehicles both dated to Great Patriotic War/WWII and new ones. The Defender of Fatherland Day is a holiday when women in families or at work congratulate their men and co-workers. It happens on 23, February, just a couple of weeks before men return the favor to ladies on International Women’s Day, 8 March.
- Dancing. Russian classic ballet is renowned in the world and some national troupes exist even in such remote areas like Dagestan or Yakutia. Lezginka is a vibrant folk dance, always performed at big Caucasian events. If you are interested in folk style then watching a concert of Igor Moiseyev Ensemblealive is simply a must. Out of big cities you may easily find Irish dance, belly and Ball clubs, not to mention hip-hop and all.
- Cinema Festivals. The major movie venue in Russia is Moscow International Film Festivalheld in the end of June during 10 days and boasts of first-class stars from all over the world. Kinotavr of Sochi, and International film festival “Zerkalo” named after Andrei Tarkovsky in Ivanovo.
- Archstoyanie Festival. Established in 2006, the annual Archstoyanie Festivatakes place in summer in Nikola-Lenivets in the Kaluga region, 220km west of Moscow. Under the leadership of renowned Russian sculptor Nikolay Polissky, this ‘Festival of Landscape Objects’ brings artists and architects from around the world to the region to create monumental sculptures. These sculptures become the site of performances, music events and other festivities.
The association between Russia and its two biggest metropolises, Moscow and St Petersburg, is strong in the minds of tourists, but given its vast expanses and low population density, Russia is a nature lover’s paradise as well. Russia has a network of exceptional natural areas, comprising 35 National Parks and 100 Nature Reserves covering a total land mass larger than Germany.
Some Russian Nature Reserves on the internet:
- The Great Arctic State Nature Reserve
- Central Forest State Nature Biosphere Reserve
- Ilmen State Reserve
Provided your paperwork is in order, you may visit these areas independently. For those wishing to seek guidance, there are travel agencies specializing in ecotourism in Russia.