A guide to 13 stops on the Trans-Siberian
The Tran-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vladivostok covers seven time zones and 9289 kilometers. Without breaking the journey it takes six days. In the autumn of 2018 I travelled alone from Moscow to Vladivostok by train over three weeks, stopping in Yekaterinburg, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude and Khabarovsk. My girlfriend and I also did short trips to other cities and towns along this route throughout the year.
I have visited the following places along the Trans-Siberian. The places are described from West to East. Behind the names is the estimated hours of travel by train from Moscow.
Moscow (0 hours)
This metropolis of over 11 million people is an obvious highlight and place to start the Trans-Siberian. I recommend taking the metro, which is both convenient, cheap and a tourist destination of its own. Metro stations are like underground palaces, with Komsomolskaya and Ploshchad Revolutsii being my favourites. The iconic Red Square can’t be missed. The kremlin at the Red Square is famous, though not the only kremlin in Russia. A kremlin is a fortified complex within historic cities, and some beautiful kremlins can be found in cities along the Trans-Siberian route. Since I live in Moscow, and there is so much to see, I wrote a separate article about this city under “A guide to Moscow”.
Vladimir (2 hours) and Suzdal
Vladimir and Suzdal are part of the ‘Golden Ring’’, a number of historical towns near Moscow. The Trans-Siberian stops in Vladimir, after which it’s a 40 minute bus- or taxi-ride to Suzdal. Vladimir is a pretty town with a kremlin and several old churches on a hill - enough to keep you busy for at least five hours. But Suzdal is the real beauty, having several monasteries, a kremlin and a more countryside-feel compared to Vladimir. Contrary to Vladimir, there are no towerblocks and factories here. My girlfriend and I visited Suzdal in Winter, and we found it to be a Russian Winter fairytale. The town was quiet and looked beautiful covered in snow. It might be less pleasant in other seasons, when you will have to share it with flocks of tourists.
Nizhny Novgorod (4 hours)
You need at least two days to see Russia’s fifth city. The pedestrian-street Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is lively and has beautiful buildings, like the one housing the State Bank. Overlooking the Volga river is an impressive kremlin. The former market halls, ‘’Yarmarka’’, are worth a visit too. I wouldn’t recommend taking the cablecar east of the centre. The view isn’t that great, and it’s probably mostly used for commuting across the river instead of tourism.
Kazan (12 hours)
The capital of the Republic of Tatarstan differs from other Russian cities. A majority of the Republic is Tatar, a predominantly Muslim group. While Moscow metro stations are built in a Soviet style, Kazan’s metro stations Kremlevskaya and Tukay square have decorations depicting Tatar history. Kazan has an impressive kremlin overlooking the Volga, housing the Kul Sharif Mosque. But travel is more than looking at buildings. My girlfriend and I especially liked the Tatarstan pop-videos shown in some restaurants.
Perm (21 hours) and Yekaterinburg (26 hours)
The Ural cities are less interesting compared to their Western neighbours. I liked Perm for its nearby Kungur Ice Cave. Having said that, there is not much to see in Perm itself.
Yekaterinburg is a pleasant city to break the journey. The major sights can be seen in a day. Being the birthplace of Yeltsin, it has an interesting and modern museum about his life and presidency. The Sevastyanov House is a beautiful 19th century building and can't be missed, just like the church in commemoration of the Romanovs (who were killed in the city). Southwest of the city is the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery. It is internationally-known for the graves of gang members killed in the notorious ‘90s. Some of these graves are grotesque, the most famous one (close to the entrance on the left) having a mural of the deceased wearing an expensive suit, holding the keys to his Mercedes. Other graves are of local people and visited by relatives, so act respectful.
Tyumen (33 hours) and Tobolsk
Tyumen has few touristic sights, despite some old wooden houses in the centre. About four hours east lies prettier Tobolsk. It is the only Siberian city with a kremlin, which for me was the main reason to visit. Another sight is the Governor's Mansion, where the Romanovs stayed under house arrest in 1917 and 1918. It is now an interesting museum about the Romanovs, though all signs there are written in Russian.
Novosibirsk (46 hours)
For such a big city, with 1.5 million Russia’s third largest, I found Novosibirsk not very interesting. Soviet concrete architecture dominates the centre. The most well known landmarks are the railway station, the largest theatre in Russia, and the Chapel of St Nicholas. The Chapel of St Nicholas was built in 1915 on what was at that time considered the centre of Russia. Unfortunately this small chapel is in the middle of four busy driving lanes. While visiting in february 2019, I found beautiful ice sculptures along the river near the metro Rechnoy Vokzal (Речной Вокзал). It is a short ride by metro from Lenin Square (Площадь Ленина) in the centre, though you can never be sure whether the sculptures will be built at the same spot in the future.
Krasnoyarsk (57 hours) and Stolby National Park
The riverside city of Krasnoyarsk is famous for its nearby national park, called “Stolby National Park”. Stolby is the Russian word for pillars, and refers to the big rocks scattered across the hilly forests. The rocks can be as tall as flats. I visited in winter, with plenty of snow but still clearly visible walking trails. I recommend taking the cable car up (at Sibirskaya street / Сибирская Улица) and walk the eight kilometers down to the main entrance, and about six kilometers further down to the bus stop.
Irkutsk (75 hours) and Lake Baikal
The main stop on the Trans-Siberian is Irkutsk, so there are plenty of foreign backpackers and tourists around. Most people head out to Lake Baikal from here, either to the lakeside town Listvyanka or the island Olkhon. Irkutsk itself is worth a visit as well, with its many traditional wooden houses and nice waterfront.
Baikal is the world's largest and deepest freshwater lake. It looks more like a sea than a lake, since it has a tide and you cannot always see the other end of it. The lake is surrounded by hills and mountains. There are a lot of buses going from Irkutsk to the lakeside town of Listvyanka. On a sunny autumn day I did a nice hike from Listvyanka to the village of Bolshiye Koty, and took a boat back. Bolshiye Koty is small, pretty and only reachable on foot or by boat. Boats don’t depart every day, and I heard tickets sell out. Therefore I booked my boat-ticket in advance at the agency at the big “Irkutsk hotel” at Bulvar Gagarina in Irkutsk.
Olkhon island is stunning in winter. My girlfriend and I travelled from Irkutsk to the island by bus in February. A ferry was not needed, since buses can drive across the lake when the ice is thick enough. We stayed at the major town called Khuzhir, near the Shamanka rock. This rock at the shore is a sacred Shaman place, with prayer flag poles nearby. We then joined a tour by minivan on the lake to the northern tip of the island. The shoreline looks beautiful in winter, as there is ice everywhere in colours ranging from white to blue. Further it is quite thrilling to travel by minivan over ice with speeds up to 90 kilometers an hour.
Ulan-Ude (82 hours)
A place with Buddhist temples and where the Mongolic Buryat language is spoken, Ulan-Ude is a unique city in Russia. Tourists seem to like the unusual big Lenin’s head in the city centre. My favourite spot in Ulan-Ude is quite a walk or a short bus ride north, at the Rinpoche Bagsha temple. The temple has a great view over the city, including the many wooden houses built between the temple and the centre. Another major sight is the Ivolginsky temple, about 30 kilometers south in a barren landscape. It has a remarkable history, since it was built during the rule of Stalin. To get there you take a bus to Ivolginsky village, from where a van goes back and forth to the temple.
Khabarovsk (132 hours)
On the wide river Amur lies a hilly city with parks and plenty of beautiful 19th century buildings: Khabarovsk. I enjoyed taking a break from the long journey here. Since weather (autumn) was great when I visited, I went on a short boat tour. It’s nice to see the city skyline on one side, nature on the other side and the long bridge further ahead. You can find tourboats at the pedestrian promenade along the river, near the stairs towards the main street “Muravyov-Amurksky”. You pay onboard. Do not mistake it with the boat at the pier next to the parking lot - that’s the boat to China.
Vladivostok (145 hours)
Built around bays and connected by modern bridges, Vladivostok is geographically different from any other Russian city. But Russian is still spoken everywhere, and it’s hard to imagine that North Korea is nearby. Finishing the Trans-Siberian gave me a rush like I reached a mountain summit, so I might be positively biased. But I loved my stay in Vladivostok. The peninsula with Tokarevskiy lighthouse and the viewing point of the Golden Horn Bay at Sukhankva street are amazing, though often crowded. The hill Krestovaya has a nice view and no crowds. In the south is rural Russky Island, where you can escape the city and explore fortifications from the early 20th century. People find it hard to get around Vladivostok, because there are no information signs about bus routes. Especially here I recommend to use the app “Yandex Transport” (see “How to arrange transport in Russia”).