10 great places to visit in Russia besides the two big cities

10 great places to visit in Russia

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

Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia
Exploring the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, which has been turned into an attractive park.

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.

2) Kazan

Kul-Sharif Mosque, Kazan, Russia
Completed in 2005, and located within the Kazan Kremlin, this mosque has become something of a symbol for Russia’s ethnic diversity.

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.

3) Volgograd

Rodina Mat, Mother Motherland, Volgograd, Russia
The Motherland Calls!

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:

4) Yekaterinburg

QWERTY Keyboard Monument, Yekaterinburg, Russia
The quirky QWERTY keyboard monument. Photo by Tara Amingu.

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.

5) Samara

Samara waterfront, Samara, Russia
Waterfront in Samara. Yes, Russians actually go sunbathing.

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.

6) Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk at night, Krasnoyarsk, Russia
Krasnoyarsk at night, fountains and all. Photo by Feelek.

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.

7) Irkutsk

Prince Vladimir Church, Irkutsk, Russia
Prince Vladimir Church, peaking out from amongst the trees.

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.

8) Omsk

Omsk, Russia
Looks a little prettier than those big concrete block apartments. Photo by Dmitri Lebedev.

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.

9) Novosibirsk

Akademgorodok, near Novosibirsk, Russia
Akademgorodok, intended to be an entire city of nothing but smart people. Photo by Elya.

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

Ivolga Datsan, Ulan Ude, Russia
Yup, this is in Russia. It’s the Ivolga Datsan, a Buddhist monastery just outside of Ulan Ude. Photo by Vasiliy Tatarinov.

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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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21 Comments on “10 great places to visit in Russia besides the two big cities”

  1. Russia does seem to have some cool cities. I passed through Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and Yekateringberg when I took the train from Beijing to Moscow four years ago. Shame that I won’t be returning to, or advising anyone to go to Russia any time soon given their recent barbaric anti-gay ‘propaganda’ laws.

    1. I was pretty disappointed by that as well, though I can’t say I’m surprised. I think it’ll get more attention during the upcoming Sochi Olympics, but probably not enough to be fixed. Sigh.

    2. Randomly found this post as I want to visit more than Moscow and St Petersburg on my next trip to Russia.

      I’m from Sydney, Australia which is known for having a decent gay scene and while I’m a straight female generally love to check out a gay club in bigger cities when overseas as the atmosphere is awesome.

      Best gay club I’ve been to hands down was a multi-floor gay, day club in St Petersburg (fond memory of me on a podium with a dude in chaps and a drag queen either side of me, while a bemused young policeman looked on).

      Don’t believe everything you read in Western media or even the crap the politicians say. Plenty of Aussie conservative politicians saying ugly anti-gay things even today and that’s within a different political climate where they really shouldn’t be able to get away with it.

      :)

  2. great post! Almost wants me to visit. Being from Germany Russia was never high on my list but your post kind’a changed my mind. If the opportunity arises and I can add it I might add a visit and go from there. Thanks!

    1. There is a German village in Omsk. Germans were invited by Ekaterina the Great to build a settlement in Siberia. There are a lot of Germans in Siberia.

    1. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think I can handle 30 sets of eyeballs staring at me all day long. I’d like to visit again, but having taught English in Taiwan made me look into other things. I definitely had a great time teaching, but it was an odd feeling being stared at for 8-12 hours a day.

    2. i spent 3 month at once in russia and visited 3 time moscow ,kremlin ,nizhninovgorod , i passed nice time at circus in nizhni novgorod ,theater ,cinema ,i spent more than a month beside my kind friend at pavlovo beside her family, she was very kind and her family also , i will say at the whole russia has kind peoples ,they are hospitable and dear ,
      but about towns i will say , didnt see clean place , everywhere you can see rubbish , and doesnt have nice place for walk , at town everywhere covered by asphalt without any stony footpath or beautiful just asphalt , dont know why mayers doesn’t working good , at the whole im not satisfy of town at night ,because if you want to have travel at night ,you must have strong light because everywhere is dark and distance between towns is a lot ,
      so you must drive so much carefully and fearfully :)
      i have enough experience about russia , u must ask me

  3. Of those you listed, I made it to Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Ulan Ude. All definitely worth it. The Stolby Nature Reserve outside of Krasnoyarsk was incredible and Ulan Ude was amazing, it didn’t really even feel like Russia.

    1. Actually I was going to recruit you for your seal of approval since you visited a lot more of these places than I did. I was sort of in the weird position of writing about places I hadn’t visited, so I tried to write from the perspective of someone wanting to go. Someday I’ll make it there and issue an update.

  4. Irkutsk is a top want of mine, as I would love to see Lake Baikal. I will also admit that even though I will not be in Russia anytime soon, I often spend days on end looking at hotels on Booking.com, and fantasizing that I can book them now. Sigh.

  5. I would love to visit Ulan Ude! My favourite place in Russia was without a doubt the Solovetsky islands! Awesome! You should definitely add them to your list! :D

    1. Someday. It certainly looks like an interesting place. It’s like Mongolia, but inside Russia, which makes it incredibly under-visited.

  6. U should visit Yaroslavl. It is the magnificent city which isn’t similar to other cities of Russia. There isn’t enough Soviet shit and the architecture is excellent. Many people from Moscow come there to take a walk for the weekend. Photos

    1. I’ll try to visit next time. I tried to see a few smaller cities and towns, but the visa was pretty short.

  7. Great review, thanks! Did you have problems conversing in English, while you went to the different cities/towns? I’m itching to go but the language barrier is something that is holding me back at the moment. :)

    1. I studied Russian for a year before I went, so I was in much better shape than most people. I’d highly recommend some classes or a phrasebook, because it was not a country of good foreign language skills. I don’t want that to hold you back, but expect that it’ll complicate matters.

  8. There are so many great places in Russia, that most of the people don’t know about… They are hidden and so hard to get to because Russia is so big… For example, places like Putorana Plateau or Kinzelyuk waterfall. I would love to visit this places, but it’s pretty much impossible because of their location in the middle of Siberia…

  9. I agree with you that a lot of people tend to only visit Moscow and St.Petersburg which is a real shame as there are a lot of places worth visiting in Russia outside of these cities. I have been to two places on your dream list. I can’t recommend Krasnoyarsk enough, not really for the city though but more for the countryside that surrounds the city. It’s definitely worth taking a day trip out of Krasnoyarsk and visiting the nearby town of Divnogorsk which is surrounded by an absolutely stunning panaroma. You have to watch out for tics though! I hope you get a chance to cross off all the places on your list.

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