When it comes to the tourist attractions of Russia you could well be forgiven for finding a land of contradictions. Visitors are presented with opulent displays of wealth alongside austere Communist monuments, while mixing bitterly cold Siberian winters with warm Black Sea summers. As a destination it’s simply overwhelming, both in terms of size and its varied landscape and history.
And yet Russia is absolutely packed full of fascinating places to discover. Indeed, with so much on offer it wasn’t easy to choose just the top ten tourist sights in Russia. So we thought long and hard - helped by the odd dose of potato-based Russian liquor - and eventually came up with our ultimate list of the top 10 tourist attractions in Russia. From Historvius with love.
Don’t forget to download your free printable Top Ten Tourist Attractions of Russia map.
Ivan the Terrible might have been a tyrant, but he did order the construction of one hell of a building. St Basil’s Cathedral is the most recognisable face of Russian architecture, a breathtaking sight to behold, with primary colours that almost pop and onion domes which look ethereal. According to one gruesome rumour, the architect who designed St Basil’s had his eyes removed so that he could not create anything as beautiful afterwards. What’s more, the cathedral is situated at the side of Red Square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of huge political and historical significance for Russia. Two of Russia’s top tourist attractions in one easy stroll...
2. The Kremlin
The complex known as the Kremlin is the apex of Russian political power and one of Russia’s top tourist destinations. Occupying a whopping 28 acres, it’s from within these walls that autocratic tsars, communist dictators and contemporary presidents have charted the fate of the nation. The Kremlin’s life dates back to 1156 AD and today contains stunning palaces, a medieval fortress and, as the once centre of the Russian Orthodoxy, numerous churches. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale and detail of some of the buildings in what is now one of the largest and most famous visitor attractions in Russia.
This church in St Petersburg has a similar grandeur and style to St Basil’s Cathedral and is just as impressive. With its canal-side location and 7,000 square metres of vivid mosaics within its walls, it’s among the most impressive of Russia’s tourist attractions. The intriguing name comes from the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which took place here in 1881. The church was built in order to commemorate his death by his son Alexander III.
One of the more unusual tourist sights of Russia - or indeed anywhere - Lenin’s Mausoleum contains the embalmed body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, one of the twentieth century’s most important leaders. Looking like a wax model from Madame Tussauds, there are rumours that it’s not actually him. Since they have yet to be substantiated, we’re going to assume it is and explore the weirdness of looking at his mummified body. An iconic location, it’s a place that consistently draws in the crowds.
Built under the orders of Peter the Great, the churches that make up Alexander Nevsky Lavra are immense. They’re less grandiose and opulent than some of the churches on our Russian tourist attractions list, but they’re equally beautiful. Alexander Nevsky Lavra also contains St Peterburg’s oldest monastery and remains of paramount importance to the Russian Orthodox Church. Then there’s the icing on the cake: many prominent artists have been buried here, including Fyodor Dostoevsky. Definitely no punishment for the author of that iconic tome.
Initially built in the early eighteenth century to defend Russia from Swedish attack, the Peter and Paul Fortress has served as a prison and military base throughout the centuries. Though you wouldn’t guess it from the outside... With white spires and a church on its grounds, this awesome attraction is fit for a tsar. No surprise then that many Russian royal rulers have been buried within its grounds. It’s got UNESCO’s seal of approval and ours as well.
A war of words still rages between those who believe the path to the eventual defeat of the Nazis was laid at Stalingrad and those who think other events represent the turning point. Either way, Stalingrad - a city in Russia’s West which witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of WWII in 1942 - has huge significance both for Russia and for the world. Today there are still remnants of the battle in the form of destroyed buildings and dedicated museums examining the battle. A sobering and though-provoking place to explore.
Trying to make sense of Russian history and society but struggling with the sheer size and scope of it all? Then head to the Hermitage. This huge museum contains a whopping three million historic artefacts and is housed on the site of the original Winter Palace of Peter the Great. And it’s not just Russia’s story that the Hermitage tells. The museum has a vast array of material from all the great ancient civilisations as well as Russian imperial history. You can easily spend a day walking through all the six buildings, and that’s before you admire their exteriors. To be honest, you could spend a week here if it wasn’t for the fact that they’d turf you out at night. Without a doubt one of the most impressive Russian visitor attractions.
Whether covered in snow or surrounded by greenery, the Church of the Ascension is another one of Russia’s major tourist attractions and certainly one of the more tucked-away and picturesque places to discover. Situated in Kolomenskoye, a former royal estate located just southeast of Moscow, the church overlooks the stunning banks of the Moskva River. It dates back to the sixteenth century and was built to mark the birth of Ivan the Terrible. Despite its association with the tyrannical ruler, UNESCO awarded it World Heritage status and we can certainly see why.
10. Gulag 36
There is nothing pleasant about the Perm 36 Gulag - and that’s precisely the point. Gulag is the Russian term for forced labour camp and these terrible sites flourished under the Soviet regime. They were often in remote locations and were notorious for their hostile, murderous conditions. Perm 36, situated on the Russian-Siberian border, is no exception. In its heyday it housed around 1,000 prisoners. The camp closed in 1988 and today tours are available giving an insight into the history of the camp and the tragic stories of its inmates.
11. Izborsk Fortress
Ok yes, we know we’ve already listed our top 10 tourist attractions in Russia, but the list felt incomplete without mention of the Izborsk Fortress - one of Russia’s more unique and less well-known sites. Lying ruined in a desolate area of the country’s west, Izborsk looks like it could be in the set of Game of Thrones. It dates back to the seventh century and is in pretty good nick considering all the years and the harsh Russian winters. That said, it’s had a little help of late in the form of restoration from the Global Heritage Fund. Harder to get to, but definitely one for the bucket list.
If that’s whetted your appetite for all things Russian, remember you can download your free printable Top Ten Russian tourist attractions guidebook now as well as exploring our full list and map of Russian sites.