The Top Places to Visit in Russia for City, History, and Nature Lovers

Alexander Popov

02 April 2019

No Comments

Russia, the name itself evokes an unparalleled culture and history. From medieval icon painting to the opulent palaces of the Tsars, its beauty will entice. From the museums and houses of literary legends to the Soviet legacy, its unique intricacies will make you ponder. There are vast uninhabited regions rich in flora and fauna, riddled with volcanoes and labyrinthine virgin forests. Being the biggest country in the world, it is nearly impossible to see everything. That’s why it’s important to know the top places to visit in Russia before you go.

Famous Russian Cities with Incredible Sights

Moscow

It’s no surprise most trips to Russia start here—all roads in Russia lead to its center. Also, being the capital, there is literally something for everyone.

If you want to know the best place to visit in Moscow, Russia look no further than Red Square. This plaza has it all: The Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum, and Stalin’s grave. The Kremlin’s walls date back to 1485 and house numerous sites of interest. The Cathedral of the Annunciation has an interior painted by famous icon painter Andrei Rublev, on whom Andrei Tarkovsky based his eponymous classic film. Home of Russia’s president, the Kremlin has symbolized Russian government throughout the ages. Just across the square sits St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was inspired by traditional wooden structures, yet made of stone. This accounts for its singular style, along with its design that was modeled after the flames of a fire. For those interested in Soviet history, the two biggest names of this period were laid to rest right in Red Square, their tombs are still open to visitors.

Beyond Red Square lies an amazing array of world-class museums, including The State Tretyakov Museum and The Pushkin State Museum. At the Tretyakov, browse through masterpieces such as Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoi and Girl with Peaches by Valentin Serov. Lucky winter tourists can see the December Nights of Sviatoslav Richter at the Pushkin museum, a festival originally created by the virtuoso pianist that takes place throughout the month of December. Of all the cities to visit in Russia, Moscow definitely has the grandest scale and the most vivacious urban energy.

Saint Petersburg

Walking along Saint Petersburg’s canals is enough to impress, but there is obviously much more to the city than its picturesque cover. In fact, many of the most famous things in Russia are found right in this very city! Let’s start with The Hermitage Museum, one of the most famous places in Russia. Known as one of the greatest art museums in the world, it houses everything from ancient sculpture to the paintings of Van Gogh and Kandinsky. On the outskirts of the city, Catherine Park will dazzle. It was the summer palace of the Tsars and doesn’t disappoint those looking for an example of Russia’s grandiose aristocracy.

Summoning a cosmopolitan crowd of writers and artists to follow after them, Pushkin, Gogol, and especially Dostoevsky wrote extensively about St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky’s house is a tourist attraction and museum that provides insight not only into his life, but to life in general during the mid-late 1800s in a rapidly-changing Russia. There is a bit of history on nearly every corner, making St. Petersburg a shoo-in for the top places to visit in Russia. One small tip: because of all the remarkable events this city witnessed, it really pays to hire a knowledgeable local guide to explain it all. You may be looking at a building that played a key role in the October Revolution and not even know it! This density of art and history is why Russians have dubbed St. Petersburg the “cultural capital of Russia”.

Vladivostok

All the popular cities in Russia have famous sights and an exciting pulse. But, being the capital of the Far East, Vladivostok has its own distinctive flair. There is a bit more of an Asian influence on the city as it is quite close to Japan, China, and Korea. There are also many maritime landmarks and memorials along with two larger-than-life bridges. One of these bridges goes to Russky Island, a large green space with rocky cliffs and ocean views.

Sandy beaches are just a short distance away for relaxing and swimming during the summer. After the beach, there is no shortage of cultural sites. These include a satellite of the Mariinsky Theater, The Primorsky Stage, which puts on world-class theater pieces in a wonderfully contemporary building. Most people come to Vladivostok along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and end up loving it, wishing they had stayed longer. Vladivostok is up-and-coming and one of the top places to visit in Russia.

Nizhny Novgorod

An incredible and tumultuous past draw history lovers to this popular Russian city. Its powerful Kremlin (citadel) dates back to the early 1500s and still stands proud in the historic city center. After this beautiful Russian landmark, see interesting architecture built for the Great Russian Fair and the many reasons this city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Another main attraction is the varied offering of river cruises. The Oka River and Volga River meet in this city, either of which can be traveled on to reach numerous destinations. Although people usually cruise from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod (or vice-versa), tours are also available to Kazan, another hotspot for Russian sightseeing. And, in case you need one more reason why it’s on the list of top places to visit in Russia, Nizhny Novgorod is the birthplace of writer Maxim Gorky. His house is now a museum in the center, delighting bibliophiles from around the globe.

Historic Towns and Small Cities with a Visible Past

Veliky Novgorod

The ancient architecture of this large town, or small city, puts it on the list of the most beautiful places to visit in Russia. Sometimes called the first capital of Russia, no one can deny that its unique past is still palpable. The miraculously preserved St. Sophia Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Russia and features traditional “onion domes”. Surrounding this precious landmark are the ancient walls of the Veliky Novgorod Kremlin. Since there are numerous parks along its length, walking around town is both peaceful and fascinating.

Just strolling around you can stumble across so many remarkable sights, like the Monument to the Millennium of Russia, a large 1862 public bronze that commemorates 1000 years of Russian statehood. A quick ride outside of the city brings you to the Vitoslavlitsy Museum, an open-air display of wooden Russian architecture. Enter numerous residences and churches and literally step into the past, the tall spires of the buildings are awe-inspiring and surely a top place to visit in Russia.

The Golden Ring

This is not just one, but many picture-perfect towns that are usually seen together on a multiple day tour. It’s one of the best vacation spots in Russia because the towns provide a peaceful and quiet escape near Moscow. Because there are so many different itineraries and places to see, booking a private tour can really allow you experience all the beauty. Let’s talk about some of the Russian tourist attractions located on this route.

In Vladimir there are three UNESCO World Heritage sites within walking distance! Perhaps the grandest is the Golden Gate, an ancient entrance to the city that after a Mongol raid was the only structure left standing. A bit to the north from Vladimir is Suzdal. A powerful 10th century Kremlin is the focal point of the city, where river views add to the scenic pleasure of the experience. Suzdal is the smallest and most intimate stop along the Golden Ring.

The largest town in the route is Yaroslavl, where the larger Volga River serves as backdrop. Inside the Church of Elijah the Prophet and other holy sites around the city, learn about the mysterious history of icon painting or quietly appreciate the glistening beauty of the altars. On the way back to Moscow, a short distance from the capital, stop in Sergiev Posad. Here, the absolute center of Russian Orthodox Church, the Trinity Lavra of St. Segius, can be explored. The monastery is comprised of numerous buildings and because of its importance is definitely a top place to visit in Russia. The 289-foot tall 18th century blue and white bell tower on the monastery grounds beckons to visitors, a statement of the town’s grandeur.

Valday

Valday may seem like a small blip on the radar of top places to visit in Russia, but there are a couple reasons it makes for an unforgettable experience. The town is nestled between expansive forest parks and a pure water lake. If you tell other Russians that you are going to Valday, they will joke with you, “Say hello to Putin!” This is because the Russian President (Yeltsin did too) enjoys the same nature activities you will here, in the woods and on the water.

Besides experiencing authentic Russian small-town life, one can easily plan a visit to the Iver Svyatoozersky Monastery, a special monastery on an island in the lake. The Museum of Bells will impress even those new to the subject and is quite interactive. Because Valday is located right between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is not only one of the best places to visit in Russia, but also quite convenient.

Ulan-Ude

This small city is not just a gateway to Lake Baikal. First of all, the center is full of beautiful wooden houses with interesting colors and carvings. Also, people who don’t associate Russia sightseeing with gorgeous Buddhist temples will be proven wrong. The nearby Ivolginsky Datsan is the center of Russian Buddhism, while the Rinpoche Bagsha Temple in the center provides unbeatable views of the town. Accounting for the number of temples is the large population of Buryat people, a historically nomadic Buddhist subgroup of the Mongols.

Famous landmarks in Russia often include monuments to Soviet heroes or Soviet architecture and Ulan-Ude is no exception. A mammoth sculpture of Lenin’s head (the largest in existence) dominates the main plaza, aptly named the Square of the Soviets. And lastly, it is a relatively short distance to Lake Baikal, and better yet, the much less visited and wild east side of the lake.

The Best Places to Travel in Russia for Nature Lovers

Lake Baikal

Perhaps the best place to vacation in Russia is Lake Baikal. It is the deepest lake in the world, along with the oldest and the clearest. The water is truly indescribable. Match that with islands and the surrounding mountains to create an absolutely unique landscape. So, are you wondering, “What are the best places to visit on Lake Baikal?” If so, here’s the top few most beautiful.

Most trips start from Irkustk, sometimes referred to as “The Paris of Siberia” because of the disproportional amount of artists, writers, and revolutionaries who were exiled there. It is a major hub with numerous attractions. The Irkustsk Decembrist Museum pays tribute to the essential role that exiled revolutionaries from St. Petersburg played in molding the history of the city. Composed of two wonderful examples of wooden Siberian architecture, the museum houses a collection of artifacts from the early-mid 1800s.

The shores of Lake Baikal are just a short drive from Irkutsk. Although it’s the biggest tourist center on the lake, Listvyanka’s small wooden cabins and slow pace give it exceeding charm. A boat tour from here will take you to places nearly unreachable by land to the north, or to a closer gem of Baikal, Olkhon Island. With its exaggerated rock formations and sandy beaches set in bright green forest, this largest island on the lake may also be the most picturesque place in all of Russia.

In general Lake Baikal is fairly isolated and unspoiled by tourism, but if you are seeking to truly disconnect and delve into its natural wonder, the east side of the lake can make for an unforgettable experience. The area surrounding Barguzin is full of campsites and the gorgeous Zabaikalsky National Park. Nights in Lake Baikal twinkle with bright skies full of shooting stars. It is an undeniably extraordinary place.

Karelia

One of the coolest places in Russia for nature experiences is Karelia. The region is located north of St. Petersburg near the Finnish border and reaches as far north as the White Sea. Hiking, boat trips, dog-sledding, and snowmobiling are all popular activities in Karelia. Hikes in Ruskeala boast geological wonders. In fact, most of the marble used to build the palaces of St. Petersburg came from the quarries here. Snowmobiling around the second largest lake in Russia, Lake Ladoga, is safe and fun because much of the terrain is actually sand dunes blanketed by snowfall. When not participating in outdoor activities, enjoy the time-honored traditions and ancient aesthetic of neighboring villages, preserved by their own remoteness. It is easy to find a traditional banya (sauna) and a hot bowl of borscht to warm the soul.

On Lake Onega, a quick boat ride to Kizhi Island takes you to a phenomenal church of singular splendor with a location of unmatched natural beauty. The Kizhi Pogost has numerous wooden domes with elaborate details and a seemingly impossible structure. Lastly, if all of this wasn’t enough to motivate an immediate ticket purchase to Karelia, in the northern reaches of the region the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are frequently seen.

Kamchatka

This peninsular region is even further east than Japan and is largely unexplored. There are bear, walrus, whales, volcanoes, and indigenous villages—this is real adventure travel. You can even climb many of the volcanoes that dot the landscape. Most tourists arrive to Petropavlovsk, a small city from which various tours begin. The most popular hike is probably to Ikar Lake, while volcano treks in Klyuchevskoy Nature Park are rapidly gaining popularity.

If it all sounds too dangerous, remember that things are not always as scary as they seem. For example, there may be many brown bear in Kamchatka, but because they eat mostly fish and berries they are more harmless than their North American counterpart, especially when you hide your food away. Hiking a volcano might sound impossibly steep and unpredictable, but many climbs are less than strenuous and the volcanoes themselves constantly monitored by scientists. To test your wits and physical endurance, very few places will both challenge and reward quite like Kamchatka, home of the most stunning scenery in all of Russia.

Russia is at Your Fingertips!

Sometimes a country like Russia can intimidate. Its expansive distances can seem insurmountable and with so much to see, it may seem difficult to know exactly where to go in Russia. Even if you don’t have time to spend a month traveling the Trans-Siberian Railroad, there are many regions jam-packed with history and activities for those in a bit of a rush. Russia is also a much more friendly country than you may think. Like many places, people are a little tough to approach at first, but after meeting a new friend, they will treat you like family!

The best places in Russia to visit depend on which time of year you go, so plan carefully. Consulting with a tour company about what you want to see and when always helps. Even snow-covered mountainous landscapes can be traversed on an adventurous snowmobile tour. Despite its serious winters, getting around Russia is comfortable and easy any time of year. Its cities have state-of-the-art metro systems, while bus, train, and river boat services are available to nearly everywhere. There are so many famous places in Russia just waiting for you explore, all you have to do is choose which of these top places to visit in Russia is the best for you!