Only 30km from the Estonia border, church-studded Pskov is dominated by its mighty riverside kremlin, an enormous bulwark that has faced up to its fair share of invading armies down the centuries. Leafy lanes and parks wriggle their way round the attractive old quarter on the east bank, past weathered churches, city-wall ruins and handsome 19th-century brick residences.
With its attractive mix of grand old buildings, riverside parks, footbridges and red-and-yellow trams, Oryol (arr-yol) harks back to prerevolutionary Russia. Ivan Turgenev is one of 12 local writers whose work is remembered at the several small house-museums, and the town is the ideal base for visiting Turgenev’s beautiful estate, Spasskoe-Lutovinovo.
On the tranquil Sosna River, sleepy Yelets stands out as one of the early Rus settlements to have retained some of its traditional character. The town centre is a visual delight, littered with large and small churches in various stages of disrepair and lined with pastel-coloured buildings and wooden cottages.
This appealing Gulf of Finland provincial town is dominated by a medieval castle and peppered with beautiful Finnish art-nouveau buildings and romantic cobblestone streets. An important port and rail junction, Vyborg (pronounced VIH-bork) is 174km northwest of St Petersburg and just 30km from the Finnish border.
On the Volga, 150km northwest of Moscow, the charming town of Tver dates back to the 12th century. After a fire levelled most of the town in 1763, the architect Pyotr Nikitin replanned Tver’s centre on a three-ray system and built his patron, Catherine the Great, a ‘road palace’ to rest in on journeys between the then-Russian capital of St Petersburg and Moscow.
The biggest tank battle of WWII took place near Kursk in July and August of 1943. The deadly clash proved a major turning point in the conflict, with the defeat of the Nazis – still reeling from the horrors of Stalingrad – signalling the beginning of the end for Hitler, who never launched another major attack on the Eastern Front.
A stop in this industry-focused metropolis can be useful to break up the long journey between Moscow and destinations in Ukraine or the Caucasus. There are some grand buildings worth a gander around pl Lenina and along pr Revolyutsii towards the impressive Annunciation Cathedral.
Set along the tranquil Polist River, Staraya Russa retains the idyllic charm of the 19th century, when Dostoevsky wrote much of The Brothers Karamazov here. The town is the setting for the novel – visit the streets and churches the characters frequented. The town, 100km southeast of Novgorod, can easily be visited for the day.
Although you’d hardly guess it now, this tranquil village, 125km east of St Petersburg on the winding banks of the Volkhov River, lays claim to being Russia’s first capital. The idea of this place being a 'capital' of anywhere is quite extraordinary, though, and today you’ll find an ancient fortress, several churches and some prettily painted wooden cottages.
The highlight of this small, quiet town on the banks of the Tikhvinka River is a beautiful monastery established in 1560 by decree of Ivan the Terrible. There’s been a community here since the 14th century and for thousands of years before that the area formed part of the hereditary lands of the Finnic Veps (also known as Vepsians).
Hugging the Tvertsa River, the church spire and domed skyline of Torzhok (Торжок) seems straight out of a Russian fairy tale. An easy day trip from Tver, or a pitstop en route to Ostashkov, Torzhok was once on the main road from St Petersburg to Moscow. Pushkin passed through several times on his travels