Russia is a huge country. Spanning 11 time zones all the way from Europe and the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, to the furthest eastern part of Asia, this vast continent of a country encompasses republics, autonomous states, federal subjects, and regions each with different cultures, languages and ethnic groups.
This country has come a long way from the small principality that was Moscow – first by defeating local rivals, driving out Caucaus-based khanates and then by conquering Siberia, there’s a lot of history packed into Russia. Its small towns and villages are characterised by kremlins and forts, churches and monasteries, some still amazingly made of wood and all of them distinctly Russian.
And though there are gallons of candidates for the most scenic small towns in Russia – tucked in hills, sitting in unending plains of grass, sleeping next to rivers – here are a few that certainly fit the bill.
The charmingly compact and picturesque island-town of Sviyazhsk lies at the historical crossing point of the Volga and Silk Routes, meaning it was a strategic area for Ivan the Terrible to secure when he founded the town in 1551. The fortress was shipped piece-by-piece downriver from Uglich and built in just four weeks. The Assumption Cathedral here boasts some of the finest examples of Eastern Orthodox murals in all of Russia.
Uglich supposedly dates back to 937, though it was first mentioned in 1148. As is typical with some of the more historically prominent Russian settlements, the kremlin (loosely meaning “castle” or “citadel”) is a big draw of Uglich. It was here that in 1591 recently deceased Ivan the Terrible’s 10-year-old son was found with his throat cut, having been exiled to the town; the death was ruled accidental, however, and the bells that reported the news were ‘exiled’ to Tobolsk, Siberia. Non-exiled buildings include many, many churches, one of which is the stunning white Church of the Assumption, dating from 1628.
A tourist attraction since Soviet times, the town of Kirillov is very famous for one thing in particular: the massive Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, founded in 1397. The town grew up around the monastery itself, which eventually came to encompass 12 churches and the supremely exquisite Assumption Cathedral, surrounded by three-storey fortress walls. The lakeside town is an attractive one, with the natural surroundings to explore in warmer months, let alone the monastery – formerly northern Russia’s largest and most important.
The town’s Oreshek Fortress, was originally built from wood in 1323, destroyed by Swedish king Magnus IV and rebuilt as the mightily impressive stone fortress that Shlisselburg is known for today in 1352. The town itself, whose name in German means “key fortress”, located on the River Neva’s bank opposite Oreshek, was founded in 1702 by Peter the Great. The town centre itself is a stunning old town with a handful of 18th century churches to explore.
Popularly known as Rostov Veliky (Rostov the Great) to distinguish it from the city of Rostov in the south, this town boasts what is probably – and often cited as – the finest kremlin outside of Moscow. Part of the highly regarded Golden Ring – a trail of heritage and history that runs roughly northeast of Moscow – towns like this one often described as open-air museums because of the masses of history on offer. Fittingly, Rostov was first mentioned in 862 AD. The Spaso-Yakovlevsky Monastery inside the kremlin looks particularly incredible when viewed from Lake Nero, on whose shores the town stands.
Almost on the border with Finland, Sortavala was founded by Swedes in 1632 and was part of Finland until World War II. It’s the closest town to the stunning Valaam – an island archipelago strewn with historical monasteries and sketes at the northern end of Lake Ladoga. Aside from the obvious attraction of these 50-something islands, which can be reached easily from the town by ferry, the town is a great place to sample Karelian culture – including the delicious food (try the kalitki pastries), which, let’s be honest, is always an important part of travel.
This is regarded as one of Russia’s finest provincial towns, with its streets laid out in accordance with the 18th century Neoclassical planning of architect Ivan Starov. Local landmarks include a whole slew of churches that range from the mid-18th century Zhitny Cloister to the beautiful Ascension Church, built in the 1689, overlooking Lake Seliger. Its buildings and setting on the shores of the lake make Ostashkov an attractive place to be. On nearby Stolby Island is the famous 16th century Nilov Monastery, one of the biggest and formerly most important in Russia.
This village near the Estonian border is definitely ancient – in fact, the name Stary Izborsk means “old Izborsk”, which is fitting since it was founded in 862 AD. The ruined stone fortress in town is the main attraction of this sleepy settlement, and includes the 14th century Church of St Nicolas; combined with a few museums, Izborsk makes for an interesting historical stop. A path from the fortress leads to Gorodishchenskoye Lake, a tranquil spot to reflect on the rural life of this charming village.
Founded by the Sambians, one of the original Prussian tribes, in 1258, this coastal town was previously in German territory, and known by its German name of Rauschen. This town and the whole Kaliningrad region, however, fell into Soviet hands following World War II, but Svetlogorsk was relatively untouched by the war, and so features a lot of old-world Prussian charm. When King Frederick William IV of Prussia visited in 1840 he ordered that the town’s sea embankment should be made more beautiful, and that’s just what happened: filled with old, pretty German houses and set in a forested area, Svetlogorsk remains a peaceful, attractive resort town.
The serenity of Plyos was celebrated by ‘mood landscape’ painter Isaac Levitan, who often used the town as a subject. Founded in the 12th century, it was destroyed by marauding Mongols in 1238, then fortified as a border post of Moscow in 1410. The oldest part of town is down by the Volga River at Torgovaya Ploschad (“Torgovaya Square”), where you’ll see the ramparts of the old fort, the beautifully shining, recently renovated Church of the Resurrection and old market stalls. There’s also a stunning wooden church in town, which was built in 1699 – and, of course, you will find a museum dedicated to all things Isaac Levitan.
Dating from 1502, this village 300 kilometres from Moscow is officially one of the most beautiful villages in Russia. That’s probably down to the very kind intervention in 2007 of businessman Oleg Zharov, whose investment helped renovate much of the town’s buildings. Now colourful and pristine, tiny Vyatskoye boasts many museums and attractions in its historical streets. In fact, its nickname is “a village that wanted to be a city” because of the amount of things to admire in town.
With a whole wilderness of nature on its doorstep, lovely little Esso was founded by Evenki people migrating from Sakha in the 19th century. Today it’s one of the best destinations for independent travellers on the far-flung and wild Kamchatka peninsula: hiking trails extend into the surrounding Bystrinsky National Park, with horse-riding and dog-sledding routes nearby. Hot-springs abound, too – these are even used to heat homes. There’s a Museum of Bears in town. This quiet town of wooden cottages, known as “Kamchatka Switzerland”, is as clean and looked-after as it is warm and welcoming.
This was once one of Russia’s richest cities, growing especially in the mid-16th century; it’s situated on an ancient Onega River trade route between Moscow and oblast capital Arkhangelsk (the only port for Moscow at the time). First recorded in 1146, Kargopol is now a charmingly sleepy riverside town with seemingly more churches than people – there are dozens to pick from, most centuries-old and sporting unique stone carvings. It adjoins the Kenozersky National Park, a Biosphere Reserve, which can be visited from town, and encompasses a historical-cultural complex of wooden churches as well as stunning lakes and channels, with several established trails to walk.
1. Suzdal Where to Stay
This is one of Russia’s oldest – and once upon a time, most important – towns, dating back to the 11th century. In the 12th century it became the capital of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, with Moscow merely a minor satellite town. As such there are many historical monuments in this now small town – there’s the medieval Suzdal Kremlin, and its Cathedral of the Nativity, to name just a couple. With its rolling green fields and lazy river, Suzdal is quite possibly the sparkling gem on Russia’s famous Golden Ring, like something from a Russian fairytale.