Top 10 destinations in Russia
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Look at Russia on any map or globe and you will immediately appreciate why it is virtually impossible to see all the sights the world's biggest country has to offer. The country is so massive that even a lifetime is not enough to explore it all. It is not helped by the fact that many of the country’s most beautiful natural areas are extremely remote with poor transport links.
To help you plan your trip to Russia, below is a list of 10 of the most popular and established tourist cities or routes in Russia. However even some of these are far from easy to get to or involve a long time travelling, in Russia this very often cannot be helped. The distances between the cities and routes also mean that it is impossible to visit them all on one trip!
The capital of the Russian Federation naturally attracts many tourists who come to see its famous Red Square and Kremlin. Other destinations on the main Moscow tourist route include the Novodevichy Convent, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, the VDNKh exhibition centre, Kolomenskoe Estate, Arbat street and Victory Park. The capital can also tempt tourists with its nightlife and Moscow is famed as being the city which never sleeps. The city is also home to the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre, for those who prefer more classical entertainment. The Moscow Metro, as well as being extremely efficient, is also a sight in itself and often described as underground palaces. Being the capital, Moscow is a transport hub and has excellent links with most Russian cities; St Petersburg, Kazan and many other cities in central European Russia are just a night on a train away. From Moscow it is also possible to go on a day trip to some of the cities on the Golden Ring. Find here more detailed information about main sights of Moscow.
The ring of cities to the north-east of Moscow known as the Golden Ring is probably Russia’s most popular tourist route. There are eight official principal cities of the Golden Ring (Ivanovo, Kostroma, Moscow, Pereslavl-Zalessky, Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir and Yaroslavl) and a dozen or so other non-official secondary cities located in five subjects of the Russian Federation: the Ivanovo, Kostroma, Moscow, Vladimir and Yaroslavl Regions. The main attractions the Golden Ring cities have to offer tourists are their provincial tranquillity and the many examples of ancient church architecture. They are also rich in history having once been important cities in the Vladimir Grand Principality – the central mediaeval Russian state. It is easy to visit the cities from Moscow: the closest being just over an hour away while the furthest is just a night train away. Transport routes between the cities are also good meaning that instead of just a day trip from Moscow to a single city you can visit several over several days.
ST PETERBURG AND ITS SUBURBS
The most popular tourist destination in Russia is the city of St Petersburg which is often referred to as Russia's Northern Capital and the Venice of the North due to its canals. The city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 to serve as the official capital of the Russian Empire and today tourists are mostly drawn to the city because of its imperial past. During the Soviet era the city was known as Leningrad after Vladimir Lenin. The city's most famous sight is the Winter Palace with is situated in the historic centre of St Petersburg and now used to house the Hermitage Gallery. There are also several more palaces located in St Petersburg's suburbs of Peterhof, Pushkin and Pavlovsk. Getting to St Petersburg is easy with many flights and trains to the city. In addition many cruises also stop in St Petersburg for which a special visa-free regime may even apply. The city is also the most tourist-friendly city in Russia, with lots of English signage and various hotels, restaurants and cafes for all budgets.
The Republic of Karelia is located in Russia’s north-west and shares a border with Finland. The republic has a unique culture developed by the native Finno-Ugric people of Karelians, Finns and Vepsians who have all been living here alongside Russians for centuries. It is a popular tourist destination all year round for foreigners and Russians alike who are mainly drawn by its traditional wooden architecture and its nature. In summer it attracts tourists who come for camping, hiking, whitewater rafting, hunting and fishing; whereas in winter people come for dog-sledding and snowmobile trips. Over 80% of the territory is covered with forests and there are over 60,000 lakes here taking up around a quarter of the republic's territory. Just outside the capital of Petrozavodsk – named after its founder Peter the Great - is the island of Kizhi where the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Kizhi Pogost is located which includes the spectacular wooden Transfiguration of the Lord Church. Petrozavodsk is reachable from Moscow by an overnight train.
Although they are not particularly easy to get to, the Solovetsky Islands are definitely worth a visit. The islands which are commonly just called Solovki in Russian are located in the White Sea and form part of Russia's Arkhangelsk Region. The main island in the group is the Bolshoy Solobvetsky Island. Despite their remote location the islands have played a significant role in Russian history. The main sight here is the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Solovetsky Monastery, which was founded in the first half of the 15th century. Since that period the monastery grew into a great citadel of Christianity. The monastery thick walls made out of boulders were able to hold back the Livonian Order and the Swedes in the 16th and 17th centuries and even the British who bombarded the monastery in 1854 during the Crimean War. A darker period in its history came in the Soviet period when the monastery and the islands were used as one of the first Gulag camps. Today the monastery is protected by UNESCO and restoration work is still continuing. In addition to the monastery the nature of the island is truly stunning and the whole sensation of being on the islands is something special and magical. There are two options to get to the islands, the easiest is to get a short flight from Arkhangelsk or to get a ferry from the city of Kem which can be reached by train from Petrozavodsk. However the White Sea is notorious for its bad weather and occasional rough crossings.
The city of Volgograd is located on the Volga in the south of European Russia. Previously the city was known as Stalingrad and during the Second World War it saw one of the bloodiest battles of all human history. For its heroism the city was awarded the title of Hero City. It is due to this connection that most tourists are drawn to the city, including many tourists from Germany whose fathers or grandfathers fought in the battle. Many sights in the city are connected with the battle including the Ruined Mill which was never restored so as to serve as an example of the destruction the city suffered. However the main sight is the Mumaev Kurgan Memorial Complex with is dominated by the gigantic Mother Russia Calls Monument - a breathtakingly striking statue of a furious Mother Russia wielding a sword. It is just slightly shorter than the Statue of Liberty, although that is when including the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. The fact that the city was practically destroyed in the Second World War means that most of the city's main buildings were rebuilt in the grand Stalinist architectural style. The start of the Volga-Don Canal in the south of the city features the world's largest statue of Vladimir Lenin. It is possible to get to Volgograd by plane or train from several Russian cities, however a train from Moscow takes around a day to get there.
Sochi is unique among Russian cities as it enjoys a sub-tropical climate and has palm tree lined embankments and beaches on the Black Sea - rather far from the traditional stereotype of snowy Russia. Although it has been a popular destination for decades among Russians, including the political elite (Stalin even had a dacha here), the city has only really become known on the international stage upon holding the XXII Winter Olympics in 2014. The games were split between two venues: in specially-built stadiums on the Black Sea coast and up in the mountains of nearby Krasnaya Polyana. This demonstrated the uniqueness of the place in being able to enjoy the snow of the mountains and then the sunshine of the coast in a single day. Even before the Winter Olympics there were good transport links with Sochi with many Russian cities as it was a popular destination for sending workers of various state-run companies during the Soviet years. There are many flights to the city's brand new international airports as well as train links. A flight to Sochi from Moscow will take just over two hours whereas a train will take over a day.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is perhaps the most famous railway journey in the world and is certainly the longest. The main route of the railway stretches 9,289 kilometres from Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Station to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. There are several options available for tourists: from a practically luxurious compartment for tourists to a standard compartment used by ordinary Russians travelling across the country. If you plan to go on this journey it is worth getting off at certain stops instead of travelling non-stop for around a week. Interesting cities on the way include Perm, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, Birobidzhan and Khabarovsk. It also passes by Lake Baikal and it is also possible to take a small detour to the city of Tomsk, famed for its traditional wooden buildings. As an alternative to travelling to Vladivostok, you can instead go on one of the branches off the railway to Ulaanbaator in Mongolia or Beijing in China.
Kazan is the capital of Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan, but is also known as Russia’s Third Capital after Moscow and St Petersburg. The city has been influenced by a blend of European and Asian cultures. Its main sight is its white-stone Kremlin which stands on a hill and is dominated by the impressive Qol-Şärif Mosque. Older mosques can also be found in the city’s Staraya Tatarskaya Sloboda (Old Tatar Quarter). The government of Tatarstan has invested a great deal in promoting tourism in the region, especially the cities of Bulgar, Chistopol, Sviyazhsk and Yelabuga, which can all be easily visited from Kazan.
Located on the border of the Irkutsk Region and the Republic of Buryatia is the real gem of Siberia - the majestically beautiful Lake Baikal which is the world’s deepest lake, believed to contain one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water. It is also the clearest lake in the world, so much so that if swimming in it in summer you can experience vertigo and in winter when it is frozen you can see many metres down through the ice. The lake and the surrounding area are home to hundreds of unique species of plants and animals, the most famous of which is the wide-eyed Baikal seal known as a nerpa. If you are travelling on the Trans-Siberia you will pass by Baikal but it is definitely recommended to make a stop in Irkutsk to get a closer look. The easiest place to do this is at Listvyanka which is just about an hour from Irkutsk, however an even better option is to travel to the island of Olkhon in the centre of the lake, but this takes around six hours from Irkutsk. From Moscow, it takes almost six hours to get to Irkutsk by plane and over three and a half days by train.