In Russia, you don’t find adventure. Adventure finds you. And the real adventure begins at the end of the tourist trail. Russia is huge and of course, it has a lot of hidden gems off the beaten track that will take your breath away. Treasures known only to the locals and waiting to be discovered by travelers. Here’s a list of the top 15 underrated destinations in Russia you probably didn’t know existed. Warning: this article will make you add a few places to your bucket list.
1. Dargavs, the City of the Dead
The forgotten city of Dargavs is located in North Ossetia surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains. The mountains protect the region from wind and clouds, creating a unique dry microclimate. This was one of the oldest populated regions in Russia, dating back to the Bronze Age. However, the city of Dargavs was founded around the 15th century when it became the center of the Tagaurian Society. During the uprising in Ossetia in the 1830s, many people died, and even more, fled to the neighboring city of Mozdok.
At the moment, Dargavs still doesn’t have any population and it has the nickname “the City of the Dead”. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to see in Dargavs, on contrary. Don’t forget that the city was the center of the Tagaurian society for years. Therefore, you will find some impressive architecture that you can’t find anywhere else on the planet. Dargavs also has 98 graveyards. There are several local myths about these cemeteries. One of them is actually a tale that anyone who dared to go there would never come out alive. Strangely enough, this is a reason enough for locals not to visit. If you’re a fan of mysterious places and an adventurist, Dargavs is a must visit for you.
2. The Altai Region
The Altai Region is located in the heart of Asia, accounting for nearly 25% of Russia’s total area. A fun fact about this region is that there is a spot in Altai which is on equal distance between the 4 oceans. This makes this place the furthest landmass away from salt water. The temperature differences vary in the extremes from super-hot to freezing-cold, making Altai almost feel like another planet.
The Altai Mountains are also the highest mountains in Siberia and are home to the Altai National Reserve and Katunskiy National reserve, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Altai’s breathtaking landscapes are so different from anything you’ve ever seen before and literally anyone can be a photographer here. Mother Nature was generous enough to reward Altai with semi-desert steppes, high mountains, taigas, lakes countless waterfalls, heaven-like meadows, and over 400 caves. The region is also vastly unexplored and home to a few ancient sites with traces of ancient people.
3. Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Commonly known as the Paris of Siberia, Irkutsk is a beautiful but often forgotten city when it comes to traveling to Russia. Irkutsk is a major stop on the Trans-Siberian line and many tourists pass by it with the train to Vladivostok without knowing what this city has to offer. It’s a city with a rich culture, stunning churches, museums, theaters, and absolutely charming Siberian-style wooden houses. And the Irkutsk Old Town is absolutely magical. It’s also the closest city to the Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. This makes Irkutsk a great starting point for exploring this wonder of nature.
A scenic one-hour drive will take you to Baikal: the biggest and most diverse lake on our planet. You can stay at one of the wooden houses along the shore. If you’re a fan of fishing, this will also be an unforgettable experience for you. If you visit you can’t skip trying the Omul fish and Posy, which can only be found in this lake. There are only a few places on Earth that can challenge the grandiose Lake Baikal. Some of the most popular tourist attractions include Olkhon Island, Sandy Bay and the Small Sea, which is a great diving spot. However, have in mind that during the winter, Lake Baikal will be completely frozen.
4. Valley of Geysers, Kamchatka
The most interesting part about these spouting water sources is that they were discovered only 100 years ago by a dogsled. Why is this so interesting? Only because Kamchatka is home to the two oldest wildlife reserves in Russia. The Valley of Geysers is actually a deep canyon of the Geyser river, with a myriad of hot springs, waterfalls, and mud pots. This valley has the second largest concentration of geysers in the world, falling only behind Yellowstone Park. And somehow, Yellowstone is a world-famous tourist attraction but people barely know about the Valley of Geysers. Kamchatka is a perfect example of the beautiful secrets the far east of Russia hides.
5. Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Nature Reserve
Most of the time Russian cities aren’t described as pretty because of the endless amount of concrete left from the communism. However, Krasnoyarsk is a different story. One of the greatest Russian writers of the 19 century, Anton Chekhov said that Krasnoyarsk is the most beautiful city in Russia. And after seeing the city, it’s hard to disagree with that statement. Krasnoyarsk is a city full of history with a lot of activities for you to indulge in. Additionally, Krasnoyarsk is only one hour away from Stolby Nature Reserve.
This stunning nature reserve is located in north-western parts of the Eastern Sayan Mountains, right next to the Central Siberian Plateau. This is one of the best places in Russia for rock climbing and hiking. There are a lot of long treks and well-maintained trails in Stolby. But don’t be discouraged: hiking along them will reward you with some of the most stunning views in all of Russia.
6. Lake Onega and Kishi Island
Lake Onega is the second largest freshwater lake in Europe and it has its unique ecosystem. The lake is so huge it has its own islands and one of them, in particular, is the main attraction in the region. That’s Kizhi island, which is a home to some of the most stunning wooden architecture in the world. The most famous building on the island is the Church of Transfiguration, which looks like something that came out of a fairytale. It used to one of the most underrated places in Europe but nowadays there are more tourists coming from around the globe to see the mesmerizing masterpieces of wooden architecture. Lake Onega also hosts the most famous Russian sailing regatta every year and they also have an awesome Wooden Boat Festival.
7. Lena Pillars
On the banks of Lena River in the Yakutia Khangalaasky Region, you will find Lena Pillars, one of the most beautiful nature parks in Russia. Lena Pillars is a complex of 250 meters tall vertical rocks that stretches for 260 kilometers. The rocky poles reach their highest point around the village of Tit-Ary. Scientists believe that the pillars are more than 500 million years old ago. This is just another reason to visit this breathtaking place.
8. Krasnodar Krai
If you’re a fan of beaches, spas and gastronomic tourism, the Krasnodar Region is a must visit place for you. The most famous place in the region is Sochi that started attracting more tourists after the 2014 Winter Olympics. The other two most famous places around are Gelendzhik and Anapa. The Krasnodar Region borders the Azov Sea in the north and the Black Sea to the south. Maybe you weren’t aware but Russia does have some amazing diving spots and the best ones are located in the Krasnodar Region. Krasnodar also has countless of mineral water sources. Overall, this is probably the best summer vacation place in Russia. Some other notable natural attractions also include Mount Akhun, The Vorontsov Caves, and the Agura Waterfalls.
9. The Solovetsky Islands
Located in the western part of the White Sea, near the Arctic Circle, the Solovetsky Islands consist of six large islands and several hundred smaller ones. The islands have the perfect combination of some of the most picturesque coasts in the White Sea and beautiful forests scattered across the islands. The islands are very scarcely inhabited mainly because of their location and the fact that they were used as a prison during the Soviet era. Needless to say, the archipelago is a UNESCO Heritage Site and it looks like its own little world, especially because of their location.
It’s hard to pick just a few cities to visit because, well, Russia is huge and there are so many cities. However, I must put Volgograd on this list because of the simple fact that there are some things about Volgograd that you won’t find anywhere else. Volgograd is the place where the bloodiest battle in human history took place and arguably the turning point in World War II. Just being here gives you a glimpse at Volgograd’s rich history.
The city, however, looks pretty modern as it was built from scratch after the war. But the good part is that most of the old monuments are preserved. And just looking at the Motherland Calls statue (devoted to the heroes of the battle of Stalingrad) will give you the chills. In a way, it looks like the Russian Statue of Liberty and it is one of the most important monuments in the country.
Located at the border between Europe and Asia, under the Ural Mountains lies Yekaterinburg. It is the fourth largest city in Russia and it has its unique vibrant culture different than any other city. This was the place where the last Russian tzar family was killed during the Bolshevik Revolution. Back in 2012, Yekaterinburg made it to UNESCO’s “12 most ideal cities to live in” list. For more information, check out my comprehensive travel guide about Yekaterinburg and get more information about this amazing city.
Another mesmerizing city in Siberia known for its neoclassical architecture and cosmopolitan life is Omsk. This was the city where Dostoyevsky was exiled back in the days. However, nowadays, Omsk doesn’t look like the kind of city you exile someone to. At least not to punish them anyway. The beautiful cosmopolitan city is surrounded by beautiful lush forests where you can go if you want to get away from the busy city life. Another city not too far away on the Trans-Siberian life is Tomsk and it’s really easy to mix up these two because their names are quite similar.
13. Ulan Ude
Yes, there are Buddhist cities in Russia as well. Ulan Ude, located close to the Mongolian border is famous for its beautiful Buddhist temples. It’s also the capital of the Buryatia Republic, which is really different from the rest of Russia and could easily be an independent country. The Buryats are the largest ethnic native group in Siberia and they are closely related to the Mongols. Ulan Ude was completely closed for foreigners in the Soviet era but the city started welcoming tourists in 1991. One could say that Ulan Ude is even more isolated than Tibet. So, if you’re like me this is just another reason to visit this amazing place. Finally, it’s in the heart of the Buryatia republic that you’ll find the largest Lenin head ever built just floating around in the city center.
Vladivostok’s scenic location next to the Pacific Ocean close to the Korean Peninsula makes it one of the most impressive cities in Russia. Vladivostok, which was closed for tourists until 1991, today is blossoming with modern architecture. The city looks like a western metropolitan city and is used as a replica of western cities in a lot of Chinese movies. It’s obviously much cheaper to take the shoot at neighboring Vladivostok than to do that in Europe. Additionally, Vladivostok’s cuisine is the ultimate mix of continental food, seafood dishes, and oriental flavors.