Things to Do in Russia
An imposing red-brick fortress stretching along the banks of the Moskva River, the Moscow Kremlin is the grand centerpiece of Moscow and one of Russia’s most recognizable landmarks. Originally the seat of the Russian grand dukes and later home to Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Stalin, the Kremlin is now the Russian president’s official residence.
Red Square has been Moscow’s historic and cultural epicenter for centuries, holding everything from a medieval marketplace to Soviet military parades to rock concerts. No visit to the Russian capital is complete without a stroll through the square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's encircled by some of Moscow’s most iconic landmarks.
The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is the largest art and cultural museum in the world, with more than 3 million items in its collection—only a fraction of which are on display in its 360 rooms. The main museum complex comprises six historic buildings on the Palace Embankment and includes exhibitions of works of art from the 13th to 20th centuries, as well as Egyptian and classical antiquities and prehistoric art.
With its gigantic golden dome coated with over 220 pounds of gold and an impressive red granite portico, St. Isaac’s Cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor) 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 worshipers.
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.
Today, the cathedral is only occasionally used for worship, instead serving as a museum and housing an impressive collection of 19th-century fine art and mosaics. For many visitors, the highlight is climbing the 300 steps to the cathedral's colonnade, from where the views expand over the city.
With its underground network of trains and tunnels stretching for more than 190 miles (305 kilometers) across 200-plus stations, Moscow’s metro system covers a lot of territory. It’s more than just a transport hub though. Many metro stations are architectural landmarks, built in Soviet times and dubbed "the palaces of the people."
Completed in 1561 after it was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible, St. Basil’s Cathedral is one of the most recognizable and iconic landmarks in Moscow, and perhaps in all of Russia. Officially named Intercession Church, St. Basil and its nine, colorful onion domes reside on the southern end of Red Square, marking the geometric center of Moscow.
Suzdal’s Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life is an open air museum dedicated to showing how Russian peasants lived in centuries past. Just a short walk across the Kamenka River from Suzdal’s Kremlin, the museum consists of about 20 wooden buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, including log houses, windmills, churches and a barn. Set up like a small village, the museum sits on the site of St. Dmitry’s Monastery, one of the oldest in Suzdal. Visitors can go inside three houses, as well as the 18th century Transfiguration Church, notable for its dome covered with silvery aspen shakes.
The museum is also home to a variety of cultural activities, including weaving demonstrations, pottery making and folk singing. Museum staff wear traditional costumes and English speaking guides can explain how the various buildings were used and provide insight as to how Russian peasants lived.
St. Petersburg’s most iconic site after the Hermitage Museum, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is known for its elaborate façade and brightly colored onion domes. Officially the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, the magnificent church was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.
Moscow’s Kazan Cathedral (Kazansky Kafedralny Sobor) was built between 1633 and 1636 to celebrate Russia’s liberation from Polish invaders in 1612, the end of the Time of Troubles. Prince Dmitry Pozharsky often prayed to a holy icon of Our Lady of Kazan, to which he attributed his success in removing Polish occupiers. Kazan Cathedral housed the icon for two centuries.
In 1936, the church was intentionally demolished as part of a greater plan to remodel Red Square to host military parades for the Soviet Union. Using measurements and photographs of the original church, the All-Russian Society for Historic Preservation and Cultural Organization built a replica of the cathedral in 1993.
Services are held within the cathedral twice each Sunday, as well as for vespers on Monday evening.
Russia’s most famous street—the Champs-Élysées of St. Petersburg—runs for 3 miles (5 kilometers) through the city’s historic center from the Admiralty Building to Alexander Nevsky Lavra. Some of the city’s most impressive buildings line the street, including the Kazan Cathedral, Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, and the Grand Europe Hotel.
More Things to Do in Russia
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.
Hidden beneath the unassuming façade of a residential building, Bunker-42 was once one of the USSR’s best-kept secrets—a nuclear bunker buried 197 feet (60 meters) underground. Now preserved as a museum, the site offers insight into Soviet-era Russia and the Cold War.
The Cathedral of Christ the Savior (Khram Khrista Spasitelya) 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. A highlight for visitors is undoubtedly the panoramic view from a 40-meter-high observation platform inside the bell tower.
The looming yellow cathedral tower and star-shaped fortifications of the Peter and Paul Fortress dominate St. Petersburg’s riverfront, rising up from the shores of Zayachy Island. Built by Peter the Great in 1703, the fortress boasts a long history, having served as a military base, royal burial site, and political prison.
It’s easy to see why Peterhof Palace, a magnificent complex of palaces and gardens stretching along the St. Petersburg seafront, is called the Russian Versailles. Fronted by the opulent Grand Palace and displaying a rich variety of architectural styles, this UNESCO World Heritage Site—known officially as the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve (Muzeya-Zapovednika Peterhof)—is one of the city’s most visited attractions.
Long considered to be the lifeline of St. Petersburg, the Neva River (Reka Neva) flows through the capital city from Lake Ladoga in northwestern Russia, eventually making its way to the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. Visit this historically important waterway to learn about the region’s history and see the city sites.
Housed in the suitably opulent Shuvalov Palace, the Fabergé Museum is a tribute to legendary Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé. The St. Petersburg highlight showcases Russia’s treasured series of Fabergé eggs alongside a dazzling collection of Russian art, jewelry, and artifacts.
An architectural landmark and one of Russia’s most prestigious venues, the Bolshoi Theatre is home to the world-famous Bolshoi ballet and opera companies. With a legacy dating back to the late 18th century, the theater hosts regular performances of classics such asLa Traviata,*Carmen,Swan Lake, andThe Nutcracker*.
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.
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. Kazan Cathedral was originally intended to be the main church of the country and the Russian answer to the Basilica of St Peter's in Rome.
Once the summer residence of the Russian tsars and now a museum, Catherine Palace was named after Catherine I, who had it built in 1717. The structure was later rebuilt into an elaborately decorated Rococo-style palace in 1756 by Bartolomeo Rastrelli under the direction of Empress Elizabeth, meant to rival the Palace of Versailles in France. Today, the palace is famous for its baroque style and neoclassical interior that exemplifies Russian wealth and extravagance. Its main attractions are the Grand Hall, the opulent Amber Room, which is lined with gilded amber wall panels and ornate furniture, and the 1,400-acre (566-hectare) Catherine Park with its masterful landscaping.
While the magnificent Winter Palace is now home to the immense State Hermitage Museum, part of the original royal residence—known as the Winter Palace of Peter the Great (Peter I)—has been preserved, allowing visitors a glimpse of the emperor’s grand living quarters and personal items.
Tverskaya Street (Ulitsa Tverskaya) is Moscow’s version of Main Street, running uphill from near the north end of Red Square out toward St Petersburg. The street existed as early as the 12th century and connected Moscow with the cities of Tver and Novgorod. It was the center of Moscow’s social life in the 17th and 18th centuries and was often used by the Russian tsars as a promenade through the city to their residence in the Kremlin. By the end of the 19th century, grand residences had been largely replaced by commercial buildings in a mix of styles, and during the Stalin era, many churches and historical buildings were torn down to widen the street and to make room for large apartment blocks and government buildings.
Today, Tverskaya Street is the most expensive shopping street in all of Russia, and in 2008, it was the third most expensive street in the world for real estate. In addition to being a high-end shopping mecca, it is a center of nightlife, culture and entertainment. On or near the street, you can find the Yermolova Theater, the Museum of Traditional Russian Art, the Moscow Contemporary Art Museum, the Moscow Town Hall and monuments to Pushkin and the founder of Moscow, Prince Yuri Dolgoruky.
Just west of the Kremlin, the Alexander Garden (Alexandrovsky Sad) 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.
In the Middle Garden stands the Kutafiya Tower, the most prominent feature of the garden. This is also where you will find ticket booths for the Kremlin. The Lower Garden was the last to be laid out and stretches to the road to the Borovitskaya Tower, one of two entrances to the Kremlin.
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