Despite the massive number of great places to visit in Russia, I didn’t get to visit nearly as many as I would have liked. My time in Russia was cut drastically short, as Russia’s opinion regarding what sort of visa they should give me differed from what I thought was appropriate.
Here’s a dramatization of what happened:
“Hey guys, can I stay in Russia for 3 months?”
“No, we’ll give you 1.”
So while I wanted to visit plenty of cities in Russia besides just the greatest hits of Moscow and St. Petersburg, I ended up having to rush through just a few places, like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Lame. Have you guys seen how big Russia is? Sigh.
So this list is intended as sort of a combined retrospective of cool cities in Russia I visited, and cities to visit when they finally let me back in someday. There’s a whole lot more to the country than just the Big Two, and I hope this list will offer some travel inspiration for those who aren’t familiar with what else this country has to offer.
Part 1: Places to visit in Russia (that I saw)
That’s right, I actually managed to visit a few places besides the only two Russian cities anyone ever visits:
1) Nizhny Novgorod
Despite being one of Russia’s biggest cities (#5), this place feels like a small town. This probably has to do with the fact that its compact center is rather friendly to pedestrians, featuring some quiet streets, fluffy trees, parks, and pleasant neighborhoods.
Nizhny Novgorod has some interesting history, actually competing for power with Muscovy before being absorbed by their competitor. It remained an important trade and industrial hub and even hosted a major fair, but was closed off to visitors during the Soviet period to protect military research. Allegedly.
Nowadays it’s a thoroughly under-visited city, with a much more relaxed atmosphere (at least in the center, where you’re likely to visit) than the hustle and bustle of the larger Russian cities, even though this is a big one.
History lesson time!
Russia looks like one big gigantic country when you look at it on a map, and since it’s been that way for centuries, that’s as much as people realize about it. In reality, it’s a massive multicultural mix of different ethnic groups, religions, autonomous republics, languages, and customs. Borders are weird sometimes.
Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, home of the Tatars, an ethnic group comprising millions who live throughout Russia and neighboring countries. It’s easy to miss people when you can’t find them on a globe, but the Tatars were quite a big deal throughout the region for hundreds of years, and here in their autonomous republic you can find a culture rather different from the Slavic customs most visitors associate with Russia. In Kazan, Tatar Muslims and Russian Christians live side by side, in a pleasant city with minarets alongside onion domes.
I can’t recommend a visit to Volgograd highly enough. It’s hard to pick which cities in Russia to visit over others, but there are some monuments here that are unlike anything else.
Volgograd is home to the bloodiest battle in human history, the Battle of Stalingrad, which is the moment most historians agree was the turning point in World War II. The Soviet forces defeated an entire German army, and German forces achieved no significant victories thereafter. It thus holds a certain place as the most painful, but most important, moment of the war, particularly in the minds of the Russian people.
The city itself is thoroughly modern; it was built from scratch after being totally destroyed in the war. But the monuments there, particularly the Mother Motherland statue pictured above, are simply incredible.
Part 2: Places to visit in Russia (that I’ll see someday!)
Though I was quite happy getting out of the capital and semi-capital of Russia, visiting a total of just 5 cities in Russia was just a silly nuisance that only left me wanting to go back for a much, much longer period of time. I can’t say this is the perfect list of places to visit, but they’re the ones that got my attention:
Right on the border between Europe and Asia along the Ural mountains, Yekaterinburg has something of a reputation for being kind of a quirky city, as you can see by the giant statue of a computer keyboard. Not like that’s a reason to visit, but it’s probably going to be the biggest conversation piece of a trip there, despite its other pleasant riverside attractions.
Yekaterinburg is also a major stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which, as I have stated about a billion times, isn’t at all cool on its own. There are a million places to stop along the way, yet I continually meet people who literally want to ride the train. Not see stuff en route, but literally ride the train. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Russian train travel, but if you’ve ever taken a 24 hour train, just multiply the boredom and lack of showers by 7 and that’s exactly what a Trans-Siberian Railway adventure would be.
The it’s-also-a-girl’s-name city of Samara is easier to remember than most other Russian cities, especially when they’re spelled Krzia!ty40&vnzlsd.
Samara has some interesting claims to fame; it’s the manufacturing center of a large number of Russian spacecraft, and has close connections to the space industry as a result. It has been the home to a large number of famous Russian artists and political leaders, including Tolstoy, Gorky, Surikov, and Lenin. During World War II, the capital was temporarily moved here, when it was called Kuybyshev. It’s pleasantly built right along the river, and along with the history, also looks pretty great.
Russian cities are rarely described as “pretty,” due to their endless supply of boring concrete buildings and dilapidated infrastructure. I found this to be something of a harsh critique, but either way, Krasnoyarsk has a reputation for being a beautiful city, as well as being a great jumping off point for visiting the Siberian wilderness at the nearby Stolby Nature Reserve, which is a popular hiking and climbing spot.
Plus, they’ve got weird events like lawnmower races.
Though mostly used as a stopover along the Trans-Siberian or as a base from which to explore Lake Baikal, Irkutsk became populated with intellectuals, artists, and other “dangerous” types when they were exiled here after the Decembrist Revolt in 1825.
Nowadays Irkutsk is famous for its wooden architecture that arose as a result, with many attractive wooden buildings featuring hand-carved decorations, in varying states of repair. The city has earned the nickname “Paris of Siberia,” though I usually get suspicious when anyone tries to steal thunder from anywhere in this manner.
Another city reputed to be attractive and pleasant (you apparently have to go all the way to Siberia to find these), Omsk is known for its neoclassical architecture, as well as a few remaining carved wooden houses, and its busy cosmopolitan life. It’s also famous for being the exile site of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which you may have heard of if you’ve ever heard of a book.
There’s also the rhyming Tomsk further down the Trans-Siberian, and I always get them mixed up because their names sound like the rhyming names of the dwarves in The Hobbit.
This one might be a bit of a controversial inclusion on this list, since Novosibirsk doesn’t have a huge number of things to keep your attention, despite being the third-largest city in Russia, just behind St. Petersburg, and Moscow.
But there’s one particularly interesting site, which is Akademgorodok. Built in the 1950s as an incubator of scientific research, the site is full of universities and other academic institutions, and has been called Silicon Forest for its density of technologically educated inhabitants. It’s essentially a city of its own, just outside of Novosibirsk, and was supposed to be ground zero for scientific and technological advancement for the Soviet Union. Since the collapse, it has languished to some degree, though recent foreign investment is driving a renewal of the site and its potential.
It might not have spectacular sites, but I still want to visit.
10) Ulan Ude
Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia, which is similar to Tatarstan in that it could pretty much be its own country, but just happens to be inside Russia. The Buryats are closely related to the Mongols, and actually comprise the largest native ethnic group of Siberia. Traditions include the nomadic lifestyle, yurts, and Buddhism that you’d expect from their Mongol neighbors.
It’s weird looking at international borders and realizing it’s all a big mess, and if things had worked out a bit differently, Buryatia might have been part of Mongolia, and Mongolia may well have been part of modern-day China. But somehow the Buryats found themselves in Russia. Things seem to be fine, but it’s an odd fate when borders are drawn by political powers rather than geography or other factors.
Perhaps as a result of its multicultural situation, Ulan Ude was closed to foreigners until 1991. It’s even more isolated than Tibet.
Ulan Ude’s other claim to fame is that it’s home to the largest Lenin head ever built. Huzzah!
Other places in Russia I desperately want to visit
So even this list was a challenge to put together, since so many places exist all over Russia that are worth a visit. And of course limiting the list to just the cities is to say nothing of all the small towns and isolated outposts in the northern edge of Siberia, or far to the east around Kamchatka, or the Golden Ring of adorable little towns surrounding Moscow. Darn those 1-month visa restrictions. They shall be the death of me.
Minor update: Now that Russia has pretty much annexed Crimea, it’s a good idea to visit there, too.