Russia is huge, and the attractions for visitors are exceptionally long, although many of them are in hard-to-reach areas of the most remote countries on earth. The most famous sights are in and around the country’s capitals, Moscow and St Petersburg.
Russia’s history is the first reason tourists come to this country, followed by the attraction of its fascinating, sometimes surreal, often brutal and always consistent national saga.
Derbent, in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan, is the oldest city in Russia, dating back 5,000 years. The walled city, home to the legendary Alexander’s Gate, was key to controlling trade between western Russia and the Middle East for 1500 years. It was in turn controlled by Caucasian Albanians, the Persian empires and the Mongols (until conquest by the Russian Empire in the 18th century). Other ancient peoples of Russia have left fewer traces of their civilisation, but traces of the Kurgan people of the Urals can be found, especially the ruined pagan sanctuaries and burial mounds around the ancient capital Tobolsk and throughout the Republic of Khakassia.
Among Russia’s first city-states, one of the best preserved and most interesting is that of Staraya Ladoga, considered the country’s first capital and founded by the Viking Rurik, from whom the first line of Tsars emerged. Novgorod, founded in 859, was the most important city of Kievan Rus in present-day Russia (along with Kiev itself in present-day Ukraine) and is home to Russia’s first Kremlin.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Russia experienced two great civilisations, that of the independent Republic of Novgorod and that of the Mongol Empire, which included the Russian principalities of the former Vladimir-Suzdal (whose original capital, Vladimir, had an outstanding ensemble of monuments and a 12th-century Kremlin). While the Mongols left most of the devastated historical sites, the rich trading nation of the north developed large cities in the capital Novgorod, as well as in Staraya Ladoga, Pskov and Oreshek (now Shlisselburg), all of which have existing medieval kremlins and a variety of beautiful turn-of-the-century Russian Orthodox churches with ecclesiastical frescoes.
As Mongol power weakened, the Grand Duchy of Moscow rose to power, especially during the subsequent reign of Ivan the Terrible. It consolidated its power throughout western Russia, including the conquest of the Kazan Khanate (and built another great citadel there), and concentrated its power in Moscow, where it built the Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and some of Russia’s other most famous historical sites. Much building also took place in the cities of the Golden Ring surrounding Moscow during this period. A destination off the beaten track also emerged in the far north of the country: the Solovetsky Fortress Monastery on the islands in the White Sea, which served as a bulwark against Swedish naval incursions.
The reign of Ivan the Terrible ended in tragedy, the time of turmoil that saw only destruction and ruin, and you will find few traces of civilisational development before the foundation of the Romanov dynasty in the early 17th century. Peter the Great, having consolidated his power, began building his brand new city of St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, the window to the West. From its foundation to neoclassicism, St Petersburg developed into one of the most enchanting cities in the world, and the list of attractions worth seeing is far too long to discuss here. The surrounding summer palaces of Peterhof, Pavlovsk and Pushkin are also incredibly opulent attractions.
The Russian Revolution was one of the defining moments of the 20th century, and history buffs will find plenty to see in St Petersburg. The two most famous sights are the Winter Palace, which the Communists stormed to depose Tsar Nicholas II, and the beautiful Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva, which housed many revolutionary figures in its cold and hopeless prison. Those interested in the macabre end of Nicholas II’s Romanov family, perhaps inspired by the story of Anastasia, should visit the Church of the Blood in Ekaterinburg, built on the site of his family’s execution. Moscow, on the other hand, is home to the most famous monument of the revolutionary era – that of Lenin himself, whose embalmed body is on display in Red Square.
The Soviet period brought a radical change in Russian history and the development of an almost entirely new civilisation. The programmes of mass industrialisation were accompanied by a new aesthetic ethic that emphasised functionality (combined with grandiosity). Twentieth-century buildings are often derided as ugly monstrosities, but they are hardly dull (whereas the industrial complexes that litter cities from the Belarusian border to the Pacific are veritable scarecrows).
The Second World War and Stalin’s reign of terror both had a strong impact on Russia’s cultural heritage. The bombing wiped out virtually everything of historical interest in the far west of Russia (the Chernozemye region) and caused much more damage throughout European Russia. It did, however, lead to the erection of war memorials throughout the country. For army enthusiasts, a visit to Mamaev Kurgan, the museum complex in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), is an excellent destination. Kursk, for its great tank battle, and St Petersburg, site of the siege of Leningrad, are interesting destinations.
Perhaps the saddest Soviet legacy is the network of prison camps known as the Gulag Archipelago. The term “archipelago” does not capture the extent of the suffering on 10,000 kilometres of cold steppe. Perhaps the most interesting places for those interested in this legacy are the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea and the devastatingly grim Kolyma Gulag system in the Magadan oblast. If you hope to see where Alexander Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned, you must travel beyond Russian borders to Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan.
Russia has some of the greatest museums in the world, especially in the visual arts. The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is the real star, with a huge collection amassed first by the wealthy Tsars (especially their founder, Catherine the Great) and then by the Soviets and the Red Army (who seized huge treasures from the Nazis, who in turn seized the riches of their wars around the world). Equally impressive is the building that houses the collection on display, the magnificent Winter Palace of the Romanov dynasty. The often neglected Russian Museum in St Petersburg should also be a priority, as it has the second best collection of pure Russian art in the country, from 10th-century icons to modern movements in which revolutionary Russia led the way before the rest of the world. Moscow’s little-known art museums include the Tretyakov Gallery (the first collection of Russian art) and the Pushkin Museum of Western Art.
Other museum exhibitions are certainly worth a look, such as the collections of antiquities from St Petersburg and Moscow, especially in the Hermitage, and the Moscow Kremlin Armoury. For army enthusiasts, Russian military museums are often fantastic, truly the best in the world, whether you are in one of Moscow’s main museums – the Central Army Museum, the Kubinka Tank Museum, the Central Air Force Museum, the Great Patriotic War (World War II) Museum – or in the provinces. The other category in which Russian museums surpass the rest of the world would be the literary and musical spheres. Nary, a city that Aleksandr Pushkin visited, even if only for a day, does not have a small museum dedicated to his life and work. The best museums in the big cities are the Bulgakov Museum in Moscow and the Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin and Dostoevsky museums in St Petersburg. Great adventures await you in the quieter regions of the country, at Dostoevsky’s summer house in Staraya Russa, Tolstoy’s “inaccessible literary bastion” in Yasnaya Polyana, Chekhov’s estate in Melikhovo, Tchaikovsky’s house in Klin or the remote town of Votkinsk in Udmurtia, Rachmaninov’s summer house in Ivanovka, Pushkin’s estate in Pushkinskie Gory or Turgenev’s country estate in Spasskoe-Lutovinovo near Mtsensk. The best museums are in the countryside. For classical music lovers, the museum homes of various 19th and 20th century composers in St Petersburg are worth more than just a nostalgic stroll – they often feature small performances by incredible musicians.
All tourists in Russia look at a lot of churches. Ecclesiastical architecture is an important source of pride for Russians, and the onion dome is undoubtedly an outstanding national symbol. Unfortunately, the 20th century was marked by cultural vandalism on an unprecedented scale in the destruction of this architecture. But the immense number of beautiful monasteries and old churches has made it possible to preserve an enormous collection. The most famous, as usual, are to be found in St Petersburg and Moscow, notably the ancient Baroque Church of the Shedding of Blood, the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and the monumental cathedrals of Kazan and St Isaac in the former, and St Basil’s Cathedral and the massive Church of the Annunciation in the latter. The spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church is the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius in Sergiev Posad on the Golden Ring (Lavra is the name given to the main monasteries, of which there are only two in the country), although the physical seat of the Church is in the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. The Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Vologda Oblast is often considered the second most important in Russia (and it is a good way to get off the beaten track). Other particularly famous churches and monasteries include St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir and the fascinating old Königsberg Cathedral (which houses the tomb of Immanuel Kant) in Kaliningrad, Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow, Optina Putsin (which served as the base for Father Zossima’s monastery in The Brothers Karamazov) and Volokolamsk Monastery in western Moscow Oblast. Kizhi Pogost on Lake Onega and the Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga are also popular destinations, especially for those travelling between St Petersburg and Moscow.
But church architecture does not stop with the Russian Orthodox Church – Russia also has a rich Islamic and Buddhist architecture. The most important mosques in the country are the Qolşärif Mosque in Kazan (originally the largest mosque in Europe) and the Blue Mosque in St. Petersburg (originally the largest mosque in Europe!). The mosque in Moscow Cathedral, once considered the country’s main mosque but controversially demolished in 2011, is conspicuously absent from this list. Russia’s main Buddhist temples are located both in Europe’s only Buddhist republic, Kalmykia, and in regions closer to Mongolia, notably around Ulan-Ude in Buryatia and Kyzyl, Tuva.
Although the distances between them are great, the natural wonders of Russia are impressive and deserve to be visited by nature lovers. The most famous destinations are far to the east, in Siberia, whose “jewel” is Lake Baikal. At the eastern end of Russia, almost as far as Japan and Alaska, lies wild Kamchatka, where you will find the Geyser Valley, acid lakes, volcanoes and grizzly bears in abundance.
Other highlights in the Far East include the idyllic (if somewhat cold) Kuril Islands south of Kamchatka, whale watching off the coast of the Arctic island of Wrangel, the remote Sikhote-Alin Mountains, home to the Amur tiger, and beautiful Sakhalin. The nature reserves in these regions are also spectacular, but all require prior permission and special visits.
The northern half of Russia, stretching for thousands of kilometres between the Komi Republic and Kamchatka, is mostly wild and untouched, mostly mountainous and always beautiful. Accessibility to these regions is problematic, as most of them are not served by any road, infrastructure or other means. The major Russian rivers from north to south are the main arteries for anyone travelling in the region: the Pechora, Ob, Yenisey, Lena and Kolyma. In addition, expect to travel in canoes, helicopters and army jeeps, and you will probably want to go with a guide.
The other mountainous area of Russia is at its southernmost point, in the North Caucasus. Here you will find the highest mountains in Europe rising above the Alps, including the mighty Elbrus. The most popular Russian resorts in the region are Sochi (where the next Winter Olympics will be held) and Dombai. The further east you go in the North Caucasus, the more spectacular the scenery becomes, from the lush, forested gorges to the snow-capped peaks of Chechnya and the desert mountains of Dagestan sloping down to the Caspian Sea.
There are more than 100 national parks and nature reserves (zapovedniki) throughout the country. The former are open to the public and are much wilder and undeveloped than in the US, for example. The latter are mainly kept for scientific research and often cannot be visited. Permits are issued for some reserves, but only through licensed tour operators. But if you have the opportunity, take it! Some of the most spectacular parks are in the already mentioned Kamchatka, but also in the Urals, especially in the Altai Mountains (Republic of Altai and Altai Region).
- The Circum-Baikal Railway is the road along the shore of Lake Baikal.
- Golden Ring – the classic route around the ancient cities and towns of Central Russia, crowned with golden domes of their churches and monasteries.
- Moscow Green Ring – parks and nature reserves around Moscow.
- Silver ring – the chain of the northern cities around St. Petersburg.
- The Trans-Siberian Railway – the endless train journey that needs no introduction.