Best things to do in Russia
Find out more about those top places in Russia
Located in the heartlands of medieval Muscovy, Suzdal is the diamond of Russia’s famous Golden Ring of iconic ancient towns. Rising from the steppe landscape, the golden onion domes of Suzdal’s numerous Orthodox monasteries make for a beguiling sight while in the walled town itself little has changed since the 18th century. Modernity bypassed sleepy Suzdal and today rolling green fields intersperse ornately decorated wooden houses, cows and chickens roam the cobbled streets and church bells provide a magical soundtrack. The town’s most iconic attractions are undoubtedly the 14th century frescoes Monastery of St. Euthymius and the whitewashed walls of the 12th century Kremlin. While most tours of Russia focus on the country’s tumultuous modern history, Suzdal is a hidden gem where pre-revolutionary life comes to life.
Although little known outside Russia, the whitewashed Suzdal Kremlin is arguably the birthplace of the Russian nation. Founded in the 10th century, the fortress was the power base of Prince Dolgoruky, who eventually founded a small fur-trapping outpost that developed into Moscow. The Kremlin’s highlight is undoubtedly the turquoise domed 13th century Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral, which was listed by UNESCO World Heritage in 1992.
Bedecked in remarkable frescoes and capped with gleaming gold onion domes, the Monastery of Saint Euthymius is one of Russia’s holiest locations. With links to Ivan the Terrible, Grand Prince Vasily III and the noble Pozharsky family, the monastery also has a historical pedigree to match its ecclesiastical might and architectural beauty.
For those looking for an insight into life in pre-revolutionary Russia look no further than Suzdal’s Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life. Besides fairytale-esque 18th century wooden churches and peasant cottages, the museum also houses a traditional craft market and organizes guided tours.
Known historically as St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad and St. Petersburg once again, the former Russian imperial capital is a window onto Russia’s fascinating and turbulent history. Founded by Peter the Great in the early 18th century, the city developed into the Venice of northern Europe. Built on the marshy shoreline where the Neva River spills into the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg’s elegant canals today exude an intoxicating sense of faded grandeur. While St. Petersburg is Russia’s most ‘western’ city, it was also the cradle of the Russian Revolution with many star attractions, such as the Winter Palace and Peter and Paul Fortress, central in the epochal event. Whether you want to experience the regal history of the Romanov dynasty, the revolutionary heroics of the Bolsheviks or the city’s cutting-edge 21st century art and gastronomy, St. Petersburg has it all.
Housed in the former imperial Winter Palace, which was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s October, the Hermitage Museum is the world’s second largest museum. Founded by Catherine the Great in the 18th century, the museum’s collection of fine art ballooned in size during the Russian Revolution as the Bolshevik’s seized the art of the country’s aristocracy and placed it on public display. As a result, the Hermitage today has a near unrivaled selection of European art. Due to its vast size forward planning or guided tours are highly recommended.
Clearly modeled after Moscow’s iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Church of the Savior of the Spilled Blood is one of Russia’s most lavish churches. Bedecked in a psychedelic array colored tiles and gold leaf it is one of St. Petersburg’s most recognizable landmarks. Contrasting its dazzling exterior, the church holds a dark history as the place where Tsar Alexander II was nearly assassinated in 1881.
While much of the palace today houses the Hermitage Museum, the vast pastel hued building remains an iconic relic of the Tsarist era. Although art fills most of the palace’s rooms, guided tours offer visitors a unique insight into the lives of the Russian emperors and empresses who lived in the baroque masterpiece between from 1732 and the 1917 revolution.
Hugging the icy coast of the Gulf of Finland just west of St. Petersburg, Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, is every bit as extravagant as its French counterpart. Peter the Great initially built a wooden cabin in the area to oversee construction of the Kronstadt naval base but liked the setting so much he and his successors ordered the building of a vast series of gilded palaces, ornate gravity powered fountains and landscaped gardens.
The Peter and Paul Fortress, located on an island in the Gulf of Finland, is the historic core of St. Petersburg. Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and remodeled extensively throughout that century, the fortress today houses a cathedral that is the final resting place for members of the Romanov dynasty, multiple museums and a former prison that was used until the 1920s. Beyond these attractions, the island setting offers breathtaking views of the mainland city and has a number of unspoiled beaches for sunbathing.
Towering above the St. Petersburg skyline is the shimmering dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which is coated in upwards of 100 kilograms of gold leaf. While many visitors bypass the cathedral itself for the jaw-dropping rooftop views, the cathedral interior is one of the city’s richest with a wealth of neoclassical marble work and notable Russian art.
Modeled after the Vatican, the neoclassical Kazan Cathedral was commissioned by Tsar Paul shortly before his assassination. The cathedral’s most notable feature is the 100 meters long colonnaded arms that encircle a garden peppered with marble sculptures. For the best experience, a guided tour will unlock the little known agenda of Tsar Paul who hoped to re-unite Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
Housed in the grand Mikhailovsky Palace, the Russian Museum showcases the best of Russian art from medieval icon painting to the realism 19th century itinerant painters and the revolutionary works of social realist and constructivist artists.
Opening its doors in 1860, the Mariinsky Theater is St. Petersburg’s premier theater for ballet, opera and classical music. Known for staging works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the theater has been reinvigorated by Valery Gergiev, the new general director. What is more, across the Kryukov Canal from the neoclassical theater is the newly opened and cutting-edge Mariinsky II.
No trip to St. Petersburg would be complete without a trip to the ballet, especially one to see an iconic performance of Swan Lake. Written by Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake is one of the most dramatic and moving performances in ballet and it can be seen at various historic venues across St. Petersburg: the Mariinsky Theater; the Hermitage Theater; the Alexander Theater; the Aurora Ballet Hall; and the Mikhailovsky Theater.
The best place to learn about Russia’s national drink and most famous export is the Vodka Museum where exhibits take visitors through the firewater’s long history. Tour guides are recommended as most of the exhibitions and displays are in Russian only.
The meticulously restored Shuvalovsky Palace is home to the world’s largest collection of pieces crafted by the world-renowned jeweler Peter Carl Faberge. Most notably, the museum’s collection includes nine original Faberge eggs that belonged to the Romanov family.
In the boreal woodlands south of St. Petersburg lies the grandiose royal estate of Tsarskoe Selo. While the estate contains a treasure trove of gilded palaces, the two most impressive are undoubtedly the pastel blue 18th century Catherine Palace and the Italianesque Pavlovsk Palace built by the short-lived and thoroughly disliked Tsar Paul I.
Besides vodka, Russia’s most well-known export is likely the Kalashnikov. At this shooting experience you can get to grips with firing this well-known weapon alongside a variety of other military grade guns.
Learn about Rasputin, one of Russian history’s best known but most mysterious characters, on this guided tour. Visitors will uncover his enigmatic origins in the depths of Siberia, his rise to infamy amongst the elite of St. Petersburg and his close relationship with the last Romanov monarchs and will see a thrilling recreation of his eventual demise subservient to assassins.
Moscow is Russia’s gritty and gargantuan capital where medieval and modern history collides. While the city today is capitalism on steroids, the legacy of the Soviet Union remains on full display. Undoubtedly Moscow’s main draws are focused on the iconic Red Square with the imposing red-walled medieval Kremlin, the dazzling onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s mausoleum all located nearby. What is more, the city’s metro system is the world’s most spectacular, with frescoes and mosaics detailing the triumph of the proletariat. Despite these world-class attractions, Moscow is in many ways a hidden gem, as Russia’s challenging visa process makes straying beyond St. Petersburg that bit more challenging. However, Russia’s captivating capital is undoubtedly worth the extra trouble.
For around 1000 years a procession of autocratic tsars, communist dictators, modern day presidents and Orthodox patriarchs have held sway over Russia from the Kremlin. As the political and spiritual heart of the country, it is no surprise that this fortified hilltop is packed with world-class attractions. For the best experience, guides take visitors on fascinating tours encompassing the iconic red walls, the Senate Palace, residence of the Russian president, and the complex’s plethora of cathedrals and historic monuments.
Bounded by the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the monumental walls of the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the twin spires of the Historical Museum, Red Square is the focal point of any trip to Moscow. The square has been the epicenter of Russian history for centuries and any visit will conjure evocative images of Tsarists coronations and Soviet May Day parades.
Standing beneath Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral is a blindingly gaudy profusion of onion domes, spires and crucifixes. Built by Ivan the Terrible to celebrate the 16th century capture of the Tatar stronghold of Kazan, the cathedral actually contains nine individual chapels. Today, the cathedral also houses a museum and has become the de facto symbol of the Russian nation.
The Bolshoi Theater has been Russia’s premier venue for ballet and opera since it opened over 240 years ago. With a dazzling auditorium comprised of six tiers and capped by a monumental glistening chandelier, it is also one of the world’s most jaw dropping impressive theaters. Fortunately the performances match the exquisite interiors with a host of Russian and foreign works put on throughout the year.
Sitting beneath the Kremlin walls is the monumental mausoleum of the instigator of the Bolshevik Revolution and the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. After trooping past his embalmed body alongside the daily stream of ordinary Russians paying their respects, make sure to explore the neighboring Kremlin Wall graveyard where other notable communists are buried, including Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev.
Few cities can boast a metro system as impressive as Moscow’s. With glistening chandeliers, mosaics and reliefs detailing the triumph of the proletariat and marble clad stations, the metro is an attraction on its own and is well worth a guided tour.
The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is the largest art museum in Moscow with a collection that ranges from Ancient Egypt to the Italian Renaissance and the masters of modern art, including Picasso. With over 700000 items the museum can seem overwhelming but private guided tours are on offer to help visitors navigate the sprawling collection.
Located deep beneath the streets of Moscow lies Bunker 42 – a former Cold War communications center that has been transformed into a fascinating museum where visitors can relive the nuclear paranoia of the age. To explore the vast bunker beyond the modest museum, visitors are recommended to book a guided tour of the subterranean facilities.
Thrust into the worldwide spotlight with the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi is the gateway to Russia’s Black Sea Riveria and the awe-inspiring peaks of the Caucasus. Sochi confounds stereotypes of Russia with its palm tree lined promenade, sun-soaked climate and Mediterranean-infused nightlife. The center of the city, especially in the tropical summer months, is the promenade, which effortlessly blends the best of Soviet kitsch with the glamour of St. Tropez. Beyond the seafront, the vast Riveria Park is home to a number of retro attractions, including the Dolphinarium and the Alley of the Cosmonauts, while the Arboretum is Russia’s premier botanical garden. Just beyond Sochi’s sprawling city limits is the mountainous Caucasus region, where the Sochi National Park provides spectacular hiking in a sub-tropical rainforest setting.
East of Sochi city center is the Sochi National Park, which covers an immense tract of the Agura Valley in the Caucasus foothills. The park is perfect for leisurely hiking, breathtaking Black Sea viewpoints and nature watching.
The faded grandeur of Sochi was given a much-needed boost thanks to the 2014 Winter Olympics. While the athletes may be long gone, the legacy of the games lives on and tours are available to explore the Olympic complex, including the iconic Fish Stadium, and learn behind the scenes secrets of the opening ceremony.
Is Abkhazia part of Russia or Georgia or an independent republic? Since the 1992-3 Abkhazian War this is a point that is up for much debate. Despite this geopolitically confused status, Abkhazia remains one of the Black Sea coast’s most charming destinations: Soviet era dachas line the coast, including Stalin’s favorite getaway; mosaicked communist bus stops pepper the roadsides; and ancient Orthodox ruins are tucked away in idyllic olive groves. With all this and more Abkhazia makes a perfect full day tour from Sochi.
Nestled on the banks of the mighty Volga River, Russia’s main riverine artery, Kazan is where east meets west. As the capital of the autonomous Tartarstan Republic, Kazan is Russia’s only major city where Islam is as prominent as Orthodoxy. Indeed, the city’s main attraction, the 16th century Kremlin, is capped not with the traditional Orthodox cathedral but with the dazzling minarets of the Kul Sharif Mosque, which is named after a local imam who died defending the city against Ivan the Terrible. What is more, the city center, which straddles Kaban Lake, is peppered with traditional wooden tartar houses, some of which date from the era of the Kazan Khanate. With such a unique balance between Islamic and Slavic traditions, Kazan is Russia’s unforgettable hidden gem.
The 16th century Kazan Kremlin is one of Southern Russia’s most historic attractions. Built by Ivan the Terrible on top of the ruins of the former fortress of the Muslim khan of Kazan, the Kremlin has monumental whitewashed walls, jaw-dropping views towards the Volga River and a beguiling blend of Central Asian and Russian architectural styles. Today, the Kremlin also contains the Hermitage Kazan art museum and the futuristic Kul Sharif Mosque.
Completed in 2005 after nearly a decade of construction, the Kul Sharif Mosque is one of Russia’s largest Muslim places of worship and is a proud symbol of Tartarstan’s distinct identity. The mosque is named after a Kazan imam who was killed by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 and inside there is a museum dedicated to the long and often traumatic history of Islam on the Volga. Tours of the futuristic mosque also include a visit to 16th century Annunciation Cathedral.
The Temple of All Religions is one of Russia’s unique buildings. Combining architectural motifs from mosques, Orthodox churches and synagogues, the temple was established in 1992 as an educational center to foster religious unity. For years the temple remained closed to the public but as of 2018 it began welcoming visitors to drop in and admire the architectural medley.
Situated in the heart of Kazan, the pedestrianized Bauman Street throngs with shoppers, business people and university students day in and day out. Beyond its energetic atmosphere, Bauman Street also has numerous historic attractions that are best explored as part of a guided tour. These include the towering Epiphany Church, the dazzling Oriental clock tower and a carriage that was once used by Catherine the Great.
Located at the confluence of the Volga, Sviyaga and Schuka rivers, Sviyazhsk Island is one of Kazan’s most enchanting attractions. The island is dominated by a monumental whitewashed fortress and is peppered with numerous gilded Orthodox churches, including the ancient Assumption Monastery. Guided tours of the island are recommended as they give visitors a unique insight into Sviyazhsk’s complex religious history.