Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Russia
One of the most iconic sights in all of Russia, Moscow’s Kremlin is a massive fortress sitting along the banks of the Moskva River. First the seat of the Russian Grand Dukes, then the residence of the Romanov tsars and later home to Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin, the Kremlin today serves as the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation. Despite that, much of the complex is open to the public on a daily basis, including the bell tower, several cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace and the famous Armoury.
Once the tallest building in Russia, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower offers great views around the city and the Assumption Cathedral, the Archangel’s Cathedral and the Annunciation Cathedral surrounding the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square offer visitors a glimpse into Russian religious life. The Armoury, though, is what will take your breath away, with its impressive collection of jewels, armor, weapons and ancient Russian relics.
Red Square is the central square in Moscow, sitting just northeast of the famous Kremlin. Once a marketplace, over the years it has been the sight of public ceremonies and proclamations, the occasional coronation and during Soviet times, military parades. Together with the Kremlin, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, one of the first sites in the Soviet Union to receive such designation. Today Red Square also serves as a major concert venue, with Paul McCartney, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shakira, among stars who have performed in recent years.
The main entrance to Red Square is through the Resurrection Gate, which was rebuilt in 1995 to copy the gate that was originally finished in 1680. At the center of the gateway stands a small chapel housing an icon known as the Iverian Virgin. It’s not uncommon to see crowds of people gathered around the chapel throughout the day.
The State Hermitage (Государственный Эрмитаж) is one of the largest and oldest art and cultural museums in the world. The museum was originally built privately under the orders of Catherine the Great, housing her ever-growing collection; however, in 1852, the doors were opened to the public, since acquiring enough art to fill its six magnificent buildings residing along the Neva embankment and near the Winter Palace.
The museum displays an array of work, with pieces that exhibit the development of world art from the beginning of recorded history through modern day. The museum shows perhaps the most impressive displays of primitive art, archaeology and cultural pieces, as well as work from the Soviet era.
There are also large Western European art exhibits that feature sculptures, applied arts and paintings from the 13th century onward, as well as Egyptian antiquities that bring the life and culture of ancient Mesopotamia to life.
With its gigantic golden dome coated with over 220 pounds of gold and an impressive red granite portico, St Isaac’s Cathedral looks more like a palace than a cathedral, and it’s no surprise that the eye-catching masterpiece is among St. Petersburg’s most visited attractions. Commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1818 to mark the defeat of Napoleon, the magnificent cathedral took over 40 years to build and still ranks among the largest domed cathedrals in the world, with a capacity for up to 14,000 worshippers.
Set on the banks of the Neva River, the cathedral’s extravagant design was the work of French architect Auguste de Montferrand, blending Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical elements, and sparing no expenses. The cathedral interiors are equally lavish, featuring painstakingly sculpted reliefs, grand bronze doors and a colonnaded iconostasis adorned with semiprecious gems.
Possibly the most iconic site in St. Petersburg after the Hermitage Museum, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood stands out with its multicolored façade and onion-shaped domes. Sometimes called the Church of the Resurrection of Christ or the Resurrection Church, it was built on the site near the Griboedov Canal where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Completed in 1907, the church’s design was inspired by traditional Russian styles, as well as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. The interior, designed by some of the most popular Russian artists at the time, features more than 7500 square feet of mosaic tiles covering the walls and ceilings.
The church endured significant damage over the years, first in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and later during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, when it was used as a morgue.
Completed in 1811 and standing at an impressive 203 feet tall (62 meters), St Petersburg's Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan exhibits Russian classical architecture, having replaced a wooden church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral took 10 years to construct and today encircles a small square with a double row of beautiful columns, while the interior is adorned with the works of some of the country's greatest artists and sculptors, such as I.P. Prokofyev and F.G. Gordeev, with reliefs on the facade by I.P. Martos, S.S. Pimenov and I.P. Martos.
Among some of the cathedral's other beauties are the Tsar's silver-casted gates and a golden frame decorated with precious stones, made specifically for the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan. The site has served as the setting for many of Russia’s historical events, including Tsesarevish Pavel Petrovich’s marriage and the celebration of many Russian military victories.
Nevsky Prospekt (Не́вский проспе́кт) is the most famous street in Russia and main street of St. Petersberg, spanning from the Admiralty (Адмиралтейства) to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery (Александро-Невской лавры).
As a major central street in the city, Nevsky Prospekt is oft the stomping grounds for many holiday, national, and other celebrations, such as Victory Day, and Day of the City, hosting events from festivals to parades. The street is also home to many sculptures that captures both Russian heroes and historical figures including Nevsky himself, Catherine the Great, city hero of Leningrad Obelisk, Kutuzov, and one of Mikhail Barclay do Tolly, located in the Kazan area.
The Christ the Savior Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I after Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, but work did not begin on it until 1839. Designed by a famed St Petersburg architect, it was modeled on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The cathedral was eventually consecrated in 1883, but its tenure was short-lived as the Soviets destroyed it in 1931 to make way for what would have been a Grand Palace of Soviets. However, the palace was never built and instead a swimming pool stood in its place for several decades. In the mid-1990s, Moscow’s mayor joined with the Russian Orthodox Church to rebuild the cathedral and construction began in 1994.
With donations from more than a million Moscow residents, the new church followed the original design, but with modern day improvements. At 103 meters tall, it is the tallest Orthodox church in the world and can accommodate nearly 10,000 church-goers.
Peter Carl Fabergé was born in St Petersburg in 1846 and went into the family jewelry business. Appointed to serve the Russian court in 1885, he became the darling of the ill-fated Russian Imperial family for his intricate golden eggs, jewelry and ornate carved clocks. Following the assassination of the Romanovs in 1918, the Bolsheviks stole the Imperial jewelry collection and Fabergé fled to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died two years later.
In over 35 years of Tsarist patronage, Faberge, his diamond cutters and goldsmiths created 54 gold eggs for them to mark significant occasions from coronations to royal weddings; of these, only 47 are accounted for. Post Communism, Russia has been quietly buying back its cultural heritage, and as the most famous name in Tsarist decorative arts, the fabulously bling Fabergé eggs were deservedly awarded their own museum in 2013.
In Moscow, grand boulevards and massive buildings that seem to stretch for miles are the norm, but some of the city’s most impressive sites are actually found below the streets, in the underground metro system used that transports millions of residents each day.
Moscow’s metro system is one of the busiest in the world and, at 190 miles (305kms) long with 185 stations, it’s also one of the largest. The stations aren’t just transit hubs – they’re a sort of free public art exhibit, and one that tells the history of the city in their design and decoration. The stations were designed so lavishly in the hopes that their beauty would inspire workers on their way to dreary jobs under Soviet rule. These ornate stations eventually became known as “the palaces of the people” for their extravagant architecture. Later, new stations were designed in a slightly more understated way, their appearance reflecting a more austere time in the city’s history.
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Petrhof (Петерго́ф) or “Peter’s yard” is considered the fountain capital of the world and is in the eyes of any visitor, an absolute gem of environs in St. Petersburg. Consisting of 64 fountains, 255 sculptures not to mention the Grand Palace (Большой дворец), and other historic palaces Monplaisir (Монплезир) and Marly (Дворец Марли), as well as the pavilion known as Hermitage (Дворец Марли).
In the upper garden resides the Fountain of Neptune (Фонтан Нептун), cast in lead with a majestic portrait of Neptune on a pedestal as well as horses and dolphins.).
The lower park spans over 102 ha contains the famous monplaisir Palace located in the eastern part of the park, and was considered the favorite of Peter I. The lower park also houses Catherine’s body (Екатерининский корпус), built by Rastrelli and containing 2 buildings connected by a gallery.).
No visit to St Petersburg is really complete without spending a few hours at the site where it all began – the Peter & Paul Fortress. This is the original citadel of the city, built on Hare Island near the north bank of the Neva River between 1706 and 1740. And this is where you can get a feel for St Petersburg’s more than 300 year old history, from royal tombs to prison blocks to historical museum exhibitions.
The Peter & Paul Fortress was originally built to protect Russia’s new capital from a possible Swedish attack, but it never really served that purpose. Instead, it soon became a prison for high-ranking and political prisoners, beginning with Alexey, the son of Peter the Great. In 1872, a new prison within the walls of the Trubetskoy Bastion was built and over the next forty years, it held thousands of prisoners who were considered to be enemies of the state.
Long upheld as the lifeline of the city, the Neva River runs straight through the heart of St Petersburg, with its many tributaries and canal ways crisscrossing the city center. For visitors to St. Petersburg, following the path of the Neva River makes a popular route for walking tours and sightseeing cruises, with many of the city’s top attractions lining its banks. The grand façades of the Anichkov Palace, the Winter Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre, the Classicist buildings of New Holland Island, the historic Peter and Paul Fortress and the lush Summer Gardens all face onto the waterfront, punctuated by iconic drawbridges like the Peter the Great Bridge and the Palace Bridge.
The most romantic time to stroll along the Neva River is in late June or early July during the city’s famous ‘White Nights’, a phenomenon caused by the city’s high latitude where the sun never sets.
GUM is an abbreviation meaning “Main Universal Store”, from the Russian “Глáвный универсáльный магазѝн”. It is the name of a private shopping mall located in central Moscow, just opposite Red Square. The building is a trapezoidal shape, with a steel framework and a glass roof. This made it quite unique at the time of construction, in the 1890s. From 1890 to the 1920s, the Red Square GUM was known as the Upper Trading Rows and served as a State Department Store. It was built to replace the previous trading rows, which were destroyed during the 1812 Fire of Moscow. However, GUM hasn’t always served as a shopping destination. In 1928, Joseph Stalin converted it into office spaces, and it only reopened as a department store in 1953. It then became one of the only stores in the former Soviet Union not to suffer from consumer goods shortage, often resulting in long shopper queues spilling into Red Square.
Catherine Palace (Екатеринский дворец) is one of Russia’s former imperial palaces and summer residence to its tsar’s built on the orders of Catherine I. Now a museum, the baroque style palace has a neoclassical interior that exemplifies Russian wealth and extravagance.
The palace is best known for the grand suit Golden Enfilade (анфилад), which was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, containing the ballroom known as the Grand Hall or Hall of Lights, and Art Galleries (Большому залу и Картинной галерее); with an immaculate ceiling painting, and sprawls out with distinctively decorated smaller rooms.
Outside the palace is the divine Catherine Park (Екатеринский парк), comprised of 2 parts including the old garden and English Park (Английского парка).
Designed by master Dutch gardeners Jan Roosen and Johan Vocht during the 18th century, the garden contains various elements including the Vangaza stream, which flows down to the Upper and Mill ponds.
Kolomenskoye is an ancient royal estate located a few kilometers southeast of Moscow. Perched on a bluff above the Moscow River, the estate served as a summer residence for the Grand Dukes of Moscow and Russian Tsars. In the 1920s, it became home to the first open-air museum of wooden architecture in Russia and today stretches over 900 acres.
One of the highlights of the estate is the Church of the Ascension, built in 1532 and considered to be a masterpiece of both Russian and world architecture, built in white stone with an octagonal “tent” topped by a small dome at the top. Another highlight is the reconstructed Palace of the Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich. Originally built in the mid-17th century, the wooden palace consisted of 250 rooms and a complex maze of corridors – all constructed without using nails, saws or hooks! Empress Catherine the Great demolished the palace in 1768, but a model survived, forming the basis for the full-scale reconstruction in 2010.
Just west of the Kremlin, the Alexander Garden was laid out between 1819 and 1823 in an effort by Tsar Alexander I to rebuild Moscow after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the first urban public parks in Moscow, it was built on the site of the riverbed of the Neglinnaya River, which was channeled underground.
The garden actually includes three separate gardens, which stretch all along the western wall of the Kremlin, but the Upper Garden is of most interest to visitors. It includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which contains the remains of a soldier killed in World War II. A faux ruined grotto was built underneath the Middle Arsenal Tower in 1841, and a large granite obelisk was erected in 1914 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty. While it was originally engraved with the names of the Romanov tsars, the Bolsheviks re-carved it with names of socialist and communist philosophers and political leaders.
One of the best known theaters in the world, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, traces its history back to 1776. This was when Empress Catherine the Great granted Prince Pyotr Urusov the privilege of maintaining theater performances of all kinds for a period of 10 years. The current Bolshoi building opened on the coronation day of Tsar Alexander II in 1856, and featured a six-tier auditorium decorated in crimson and gold that could seat up to 2,300 people.
The Bolshoi recently re-opened in October 2011 after being closed for a six-year renovation project. The reconstruction and refurbishment of the theater’s main stage employed over 3,000 specialists at the theater each day, as well as an additional 1,000 in restoration workshops outside of the theater. The project not only restored the historical appearance of the theater, inside and out, but it also restored its legendary acoustics while adding state-of-the-art machinery and stage equipment.
Named after Russian author Maxim Gorky, Gorky Park is Moscow’s most famous park, covering 300 acres along the Moskva River near the center of the city. Opened in 1928, it was the first park of its kind in Russia and served as a model for other parks throughout the country. During Soviet times, it was a center of activity for Moscow residents, featuring roller-coasters, a Ferris wheel and other western-style carnival rides, as well as more formal gardens and woodlands.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the park fell into disrepair, but has been completely reconstructed in recent years. Old amusement park rides have been cleared away to make room for a more eco-friendly recreational area. Today, the park features contemporary art displays, new cafes and an open air cinema. Lounge chairs and pillow-shaped bean bags welcome those looking for a little relaxation and free wi-fi is available throughout.
Lenin’s Mausoleum is the current resting place of Vladimir Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Lenin’s embalmed body has been on display since he passed away in 1924 and his tomb has been visited by millions. Located near Red Square in the center of Moscow, the tomb is a small granite building that features elements derived from ancient mausoleums such as the Step Pyramid in Egypt and the Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Iran. Although a bit morbid, a visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum is considered a must for visitors to Moscow.
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