Majestic lakes, mountains, history and even ecotourism resorts, opt for Russia’s lesser-known cities and nature parks and there’s enough to keep you exploring for weeks. The world’s largest country offers it all, from historic cities and idyllic countryside to artistic riches, epic train rides and vodka-fuelled nightlife. Whether you’re a culture vulture in search of inspiration from great artists and writers or an adventure addict looking for new horizons to conquer, Russia amply delivers. Tread in the footsteps of literary greats, including Tolstoy and Pushkin, on their country estates.
Ski or climb lofty mountains in the Caucasus, go trekking or white-water rafting in the Altai Republic, hike around Lake Baikal, or scale an active volcano in Kamchatka – the variety of possibilities will make your head spin. Russia’s vast geographical distances and cultural differences mean you don’t tick off its highlights in the way you might those of a smaller nation. Instead, view Russia as a collection of distinct territories, each one deserving separate attention. Rather than transiting via Moscow, consider flying directly to a regional centre such as Rostov-on-Don, Irkutsk or Yekaterinburg and striking out from there. With a welcome spread of Western-style hostels and hotels around the country and the ease of booking trains and flights online, it’s simple to organise this kind of trip yourself.
Top 10 Places to Visit in Russia
1. Moscow – Moscow is the magnificent capital city of Russia and one of the most eclectic, curious, and quirky cosmopolitan cities in the world you can experience. Moscow is the most important city in the country not only because of political reasons, but also because it is the pulsating and sizzling cultural heart of the country, known for its deep-rooted and well-respected traditions in ballet, symphonies, and art. Whenever you look around in Moscow you will admire the onion-shaped domes of a number of historic churches that look like right out of a fairytale, the most popular and probably most beautiful out of them being St Basil’s Cathedral. Do not miss to take a walk across the largest square in the world – the Red Square, and further explore Kremlin. Parts of the turbulent and dramatic history of Russia can be explored through the Gulag and the Cold War museums.
2. Saint Petersburg – Saint Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia and the main rival of Moscow, the main contender for the crown of the most beautiful and magnificent one, and even prettier and more magical than the capital as many visitors believe. While the original name of the city is Saint Petersburg, many know it as Leningrad that was a name given during the Communist rule. The city is founded by Tsar Peter the Great and is one of the imperial cities in Russia, which means that you can expect it to be packed with history and culture. Saint Petersburg is a popular northern cruise destination because of its location on the Neva River that flows into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea.
3. Golden Ring – The Golden Ring is the “collection” of several cities outside of Moscow that takes your breath with their beauty and magnificent atmosphere. This region is a very special place to visit where you will enjoy the picturesque countryside, lush gardens of cherry orchards, extraordinary cottages, fairytale, onion-shaped domes that contain the country’s oldest art. The Golden Ring is one of the oldest regions in the country and very popular among Russians and foreigners who want to experience a bygone era. The traditional way to explore the region is following the clockwise order by staring in Moscow and continuing with Vladimir, Suzdal, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Rostov Velikiy, Pereslavi-Zalesskiy, and Sergiev Posad.
4. Kazan – Kazan is often referred to as the Istanbul of Russia or Istanbul of Volga because it is a city where Asian and European culture meets. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan and a favourite city to visit where minarets and church towers fill the sky, people live with one of the highest standards in Russia right after Moscow and St Petersburg, the pedestrian shopping street Bauman buzzes with life and entertainment, while the major attractions in Kazan are the remains of the Kazan Kremlin and the Kul-Sharif Mosque.
5. Irkutsk – Irkutsk is the de facto capital of Eastern Siberia and also the most popular stop of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and the east. The infamous Lake Baikal is just 45 km away from Irkutsk. However, the city itself has a lot to impress you. From the traditional and curious decorated wooden houses blending with the standard grime Soviet blocks, the wide boulevards with less traffic than other Russian big cities, a few geology and history museums, and more. Irkutsk has a very dramatic past as it was the site of a number of bloody clashes between Russian fractions back in the past, as well as a place of exile for intellectuals, artists, and others and maybe this is why nowadays the city is a home to five major universities.
6. Nizhny Novgorod – Russia’s fifth largest city Nizhny Novgorod is nestled beautifully on the rivers Volga and Oka. It is the birthplace of Maxim Gorky and this is why the place has the name Gorky back in the past, but its history is even older than that because Nizhny Novgorod was initially built as a fortress in the 13th century. Nowadays, the old town is walled in, despite the fact that the Archangel Cathedral was the only thing left in the city after it was devastated by the Bolsheviks. Nizhny Novgorod houses more than 600 monuments and statues and at least 200 art museums and concert halls, which make it a perfect place for diving deeply into Russian culture.
7. Vladivostok – Vladivostok is located in Russia’s east and it is one of the most beautiful places you can visit in the country, surrounded by the stunning nature of majestic mountains and bays. Vladivostok is also the last stop of the Trans-Siberian Railway and Russia’s largest port on the Pacific Ocean. To once again remind you for the greatness of the Russian land, Vladivostok is just a jump away from North Korea and China as surprising as this is. Travellers may want to enjoy the interesting attractions of Vladivostok, including many theatres, museums, concert halls, the city’s lovely parks such as Minny Gorodok, the city’s main square Admiralsky Skver, and more.
8. Veliki Novgorod – One of the oldest Russian cities far north, Veliki Novgorod was founded in the 10th century and most probably the city is the birthplace of Russia since its early residents have invited the Scandinavian prince to rule Russia and created a dynasty that lasted 750 years. Some of the major sights you should visit there are the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Bell Tower, which is the oldest one in the country, the Hanseatic Fountain that promises to return you 1000 rubles for every one you throw into it, a number of interesting museums including the ones dedicated to iron, porcelain, and, of course, history.
9. Sochi – Sochi gained a lot of popularity thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympics but is a long-known seaside city among Russians who enjoy it equally in all seasons – in summertime they visit its beautiful beaches on the Black Sea coast, while in wintertime Sochi is a great destination for winter sports. Sochi was also one of the host cities for the 2018 Fifa World Cup and you can guess that the place enjoys a lot of popularity among tourists and travellers in recent years, so why not make it your next destination? In Sochi, you can experience the pleasure of strolling along the pedestrian-only sea embankment, visit the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve, enjoy the delicious regional cuisine, visit some tea plantations since Sochi is a home to the biggest concentration of plantations in the country.
10. Yekaterinburg – Located in the Ural Mountains, Yekaterinburg is the classic industrial city in Russia, but it also has a lot to offer to the visitor. One of the stops of the Trans-Siberian Railway, Yekaterinburg is a city with a bright and curious cultural scene and houses a lot of libraries, theatres, playwrights, dance companies, the oldest wood sculpture in the world at the Shigir Collection, more than 300 Nevyansk icons, and some very popular Russian rock bands. Yekaterinburg is packed with history too, remembered as the city where the last tsar of Russia Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed in 1918.