Northern European Russia
Russia's far north, with its stunning and often harsh natural beauty, is a place of startling extremes, best typified by the perpetual darkness of polar night and the midnight sun of polar day.
The inspiration for the epic poetry of the Kalevala, this vast region contains some of Russia's most celebrated sights, including the iconic wooden architecture of Kizhi Island, the remote Solovetsky Islands whose monastery once housed a notorious Gulag camp, and the frigid shores of the Barents Sea. This is also one of the best places to witness the northern lights as well as to explore Soviet-era ruins.
Travelling in Northern European Russia takes a lot of patience at times, and the weather can be unpredictable, with blistering sunshine turning quickly into icy rainstorms. But the reward for perseverance is an insight into one of Russia's most mesmerising regions.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern European Russia.
This imposing, stone-walled monastery is the heart and soul of the Solovetsky Islands. Founded in 1429, it has played various roles throughout its existence: a hermit's retreat, a vibrant religious community, a rebel enclave that held out against the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, a fortress victorious against British warships, a gulag for the Soviet Union's damned and a museum. Revived post- perestroika, it flourishes once more as a spiritual institution.
Home to Murmansk's ‘ walruses ’ – hardy souls who swear by the health benefits of regularly bathing in icy waters – this wooden hut on the edge of Lake Semyonovskoe dates from the Soviet era. Wooden steps lead down into a hole cut into the ice for a genuinely chilled experience. Get off at the Semyonovskoe Ozero bus stop, cross the road, and track back some 250m to a path that leads to the lake. Bring a towel!
One of Russia's unmissable attractions, the reserve is home to dozens of 18th- and 19th-century log buildings, some furnished in period style, which were moved here from Karelian villages during Soviet times. Topped with 30 miniature domes, the magnificent Transfiguration Church is its star. Be aware that renovation works expected to be completed by 2020–21 currently spoil the view somewhat. Hydrofoils (R2900 return) from Petrozavodsk dock at a landing flanked by souvenir kiosks. From the ticket office, head south into the main reserve.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, this monastery in the lakeside town of Kirillov, 130km northwest of Vologda, was northern Russia's largest, and one of the country's most powerful. Founded in 1397 by a monk from Moscow, the monastery grew from a cave into magnificent grounds comprising 12 churches, three-storey fortress walls and the glorious Assumption Cathedral. Entry to the grounds is free, with individual and combined ticketing for the site's exhibition rooms. Buses connect Kirillov and Vologda (R330, 2¾ hours, up to seven daily).
One of Murmansk’s most memorable sights is a gigantic concrete soldier nicknamed Alyosha, erected to commemorate the Arctic fighters who perished in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). From his hilltop perch, Alyosha's stony visage stares across the Kola Inlet at the snow-speckled Arctic moors beyond. To the south, the port spreads out in all its magnificent industrial dreariness. The statue is a 20-minute ramble past Semyononvskoye Lake through the hilly park from one of the Ozero bus stops.
Literally translated as Hatchet Mountain, this infamous 71m-high hill was the site of tortures and summary executions described in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The unassuming hilltop Ascension Church (1857–62) that doubles as a lighthouse was used for solitary confinement. A faint path leads to the clearing where prisoners were dumped in unmarked graves. Сrosses now mark some of these burial sites – the numbers on each indicate how many bodies were found at that spot.
Powerful five-domed St Sofia’s Cathedral has a soaring interior smothered with beautiful 1680s frescoes. The astonishingly tall iconostasis is filled with darkly brooding saintly portraiture. The massive stone cathedral was erected in just two years (1568–70) on the direct orders of Ivan the Terrible.
This small, wind-whipped island is famous for its 13 labyrinths, including the largest one in northern Russia. A boardwalk loops around the island from the dockside wooden church. Bolshoy Zayatsky Island was used for female solitary confinement during gulag years, but not a trace remains. Independent travel to the island is prohibited, but there is no obligation to stick with the tour guide once you arrive. Buy tickets for daily tours at the tourist office. Boats make the trip in around 40 minutes.
Murmansk is a centre for nuclear icebreakers that carve their way to the North Pole, but even in port you can give in to your wildest seafaring–Arctic explorer–Cold War spy fantasies aboard the 1957 NS Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker. You aren't allowed to wander freely, but there are three tours a day that take in the nuclear reactor (powered by uranium 235), the map room, the captain's bridge and the reception hall. Only open for tours.