A Guide to Exploring Veliky Novgorod, One of Russia’s Oldest Cities
On the east side of the Kremlevskiy pedestrian bridge in Veliky Novgorod, you’ll find a bronze sculpture of a young lady. She’s laying back with her legs stretched out, ankles crossed, shoes off and a smile on her face. There’s something about her expression that really catches your attention. Her moment of gratitude as she relaxes on the river bank is almost contagious. Titled “Tourist” by Russian artist Vadim Borovykh, she is presumably enjoying a break after a long day of sightseeing in this historical city. The sculpture perfectly sums up a visit to Veliky Novgorod: calm, relaxing and carefree.
We spent two nights in the city this summer which is enough time to see the main highlights and recharge before continuing your travels through Russia. In this travel guide you’ll find practical information on how to get there as well as suggestions on where to stay and a list of fun things to do in Veliky Novgorod. For some added good luck on your visit to one of Russia’s oldest cities, be sure to toss a coin in the tourist’s shoe as you pass by her sculpture.
About Veliky Novgorod, Russia
When visiting Veliky Novgorod, or Novgorod as it’s often called, you’ll likely hear word of this being the birthplace of Russia. It seems many Novgorodians are proud of the fact but, when I sat down to write this guide, my research led me down a rabbit hole of speculations.
I learned that Novgorod’s favourable location is what led it to become a thriving trade centre in the 9th century. It was used as a base by Varangian viking settlers known as the Rus and this Land of the Rus came to be ruled by Prince Rurik. The legend of Rurik is very symbolic for the people of Novgorod but the Soviet Union rejected the notion that he was the legitimate founder of Russia. After more digging, I discovered the people of Derbent insist they are residents of Russia’s oldest city but Moscow refuses to accept the claims that Derbent is 5,000 years old. At this point, I stopped Googling.
Whether this was Russia’s first capital or not, there’s no denying history lovers will be excited about visiting Veliky Novgorod because of its historical significance. The many important monuments, churches and monasteries are what made UNESCO recognize Novgorod as a World Heritage Site in 1992. While it isn’t as extravagant as others in Russia, the red brick Kremlin is undoubtedly the main attraction of any visit to the city.
Veliky Novgorod translates to “Great New City” and is currently home to over 200,000 inhabitants. Even during a summer weekend visit, the city felt a whole lot quieter and more peaceful than most of the other stops during our month of independent travel. If you’re looking to venture beyond the big cities of Russia, Veliky Novgorod is a good choice especially if you’re travelling between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
How to get to Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Located 200 kms south of St. Petersburg, Novgorod is well-connected to Russia’s two biggest cities. We took a bus from St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod and then continued on to Moscow on an overnight train. Mini-buses (marshrutkas) are always an option in Russia though I’m not sure it’s necessary to go that route.
ARRIVING BY COACH BUS: There is regular coach bus service between St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod on bus No. 948. Budget-friendly buses depart several times a day from Avtobusnyy Vokzal Cherepovets, a couple of blocks from the Obvodnyy Kanal metro station in St. Petersburg. The bus ride takes between 3-4 hours depending on traffic and is pretty comfortable with usually one 10-15 minute pit-stop along the way. If you’re looking to use a washroom or store some luggage in Novgorod, you may prefer the facilities at the train station instead (conveniently right next door).
St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod: Departure times are available on their website. We paid 450 RUB ($9 CAD) each for our tickets. An additional fee of 50 RUB applies for any suitcases/large baggage and you usually pay the driver directly with cash. Our bus was late to arrive so we departed about 40 minutes later than scheduled.
Veliky Novgorod to St. Petersburg: There are several daily departures from the central bus station. Bus times and fare info is available here. Cash payment only, advance booking is recommended.
ARRIVING BY TRAIN: Train service between St. Petersburg, Veliky Novgorod and Moscow is convenient and reliable. Advance booking is highly recommended, especially during summer months. The Lastochka electric train takes you between St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod in just under 3 hours. Trains depart from the Moscow Station in St. Petersburg and can be booked on the Russian Railways website. If you’re continuing on to Moscow, there is an overnight train that leaves Veliky Novgorod every night at 21:20 and arrives in Moscow at 5:15.
GETTING AROUND: Your accommodations may be within walking distance from the bus or train station, otherwise the Yandex Taxi app makes it easy to get around. The majority of things to do in Veliky Novgorod can be reached on foot. The Vitoslavlitsy Museum is about a 20 minute drive south of the city and can be reached by Yandex Taxi or a local bus.
Things to do in Veliky Novgorod
Embrace the City’s History in the Kremlin | Veliky Novgorod is a city known for its medieval monuments, many of which can be found within the fortified walls of the Kremlin. This is the oldest and northernmost Kremlin in Russia with a key highlight being St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Russia. The Kremlin is also where you’ll find the Millennium of Russia, a bronze monument constructed to celebrate 1,000 years of Russia as a nation. It displays the country’s most important figures from rulers to artists and Prince Rurik himself (the supposed founder of Russia).
There is no fee to enter the Kremlin but there is a charge for those who want to climb the bell tower or walk along the fortified walls. The gates are open daily from 6:00 am to 12 midnight and interior buildings have varying opening hours. Some are closed to the public on certain days of the week like the State Museum (closed Tuesdays) and St. Sophia’s bell tower (closed Wednesdays).
Explore Yaroslav’s Court | Crossing the city’s pedestrian bridge, you’ll spot the white arches of Yaroslav’s Court which used to be the central area for trade in Novgorod. This bank of the river is a nice area to explore in the late afternoon allowing you to watch the sun set over the Kremlin as the lights turn on to illuminate the arches.
Ride a Bike Along the River Bank | It didn’t take long for us to notice some locals cycling along the river so we searched high and low for the only bike rental in town. The rental shop we finally found isn’t located on Google Maps. Of course, that would be too easy for this off-the-beaten-path adventure. The best way to find it is to walk or take a cab to this KFC and then walk around the right-hand corner to the back parking lot and you’ll see a glass building with white trim and bikes out front. It’s worth mentioning that cyclists in Veliky Novgorod share the sidewalk with pedestrians which is good for those who are intimidated to ride alongside drivers but bad for those who may be annoyed by this. We each paid 400 RUB ($8 CAD) for the day and really enjoyed riding along the river bank and around the Kremlin walls. The bike shop attendants only speak Russian and there are no helmets or maps available. Good luck :)
Visit the Vitoslavlitsy Museum | Experience what life would have been like in rural Russia many generations ago at this open-air museum. It is open daily from 10 to 18:00 and admission is 200 RUB. You can reach the cultural village by Yandex taxi or local bus #7 that stops in front of the train station. At the time of writing, several of the buildings in the museum are undergoing restoration.
Enjoy a Scenic Boat Ride | Tour boats are docked on the west side of the river right by the pedestrian bridge and take you out for a scenic ride along the Volkhov River. Boats depart at 11:00 and 13:00 during the summer and are 500 RUB ($10 CAD) for adults.
Unwind at Kremlevskiy Beach | Relax, take some sun or pack a picnic and enjoy the laid back vibes of Veliky Novgorod on the main beach with locals.
Where to Stay in Veliky Novgorod
As it is with many cities in Europe, a river divides Novgorod in two. The Volkhov River runs through the city, flowing north toward Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. Most things to do in Veliky Novgorod can be found on the west bank of the river including the Kremlin and the train station. You can easily cross over to the east side by way of a central pedestrian bridge or, if driving, take the bridge at Ulitsa Fodorovskiy Ruchey.
When it comes to finding a central base to explore the city, I would suggest booking your accommodations between the train station and the Kremlin, on the west side of the river. A place around Yaroslav’s Court on the east side of the river would be equally central and a little quieter. To give you a rough idea of the city’s compact size, it takes all of 30 minutes to get from the Veliky Novgorod train station to Saint Nicholas Cathedral. You’ll likely spend most of your stay within those landmarks and I’d say 2 nights is more than enough time to dedicate to this city.
Despite its popularity with locals and tourists, there are currently no major international hotel chains operating in Veliky Novgorod (with the exception of one Park Inn by Radisson). Instead, it’s more common to find an apartment-style listing on sites like Airbnb or Booking.com. In our experience, these homestays in Russia are clean, comfortable and hosted by friendly locals. If you prefer to stay at a hotel or hostel, here are some top-rated options to consider depending on your style of travel:
$ Budget | Sleep & Go Hostel: A brand new hostel with private rooms starting at $30 CAD. Mixed dorm rooms are a fraction of the price though the beds are strangely close together, even for a hostel.
$$ Mid-Range | Boutique-Hotel Truvor: Located on the third floor of a historic building in a quiet part of the city with well-designed themed rooms from $60 CAD and up. Unfortunately there is no elevator.
$$ Splurge | Yuryevskoye Podvorye Boutique Hotel: Experience Russian cabin life in this countryside setting. Dated but charming rooms starting at $80 CAD including breakfast with a Russian spa onsite. Across from the Vitoslavlitsy Museum.
I wish I could say we had time to try every restaurant in the city and report back with the best places to eat in Veliky Novgorod. Regrettably, after our fair share of Russian meals during our week in St. Petersburg, we arrived looking for comfort foods. Brooklyn Burger Bar is centrally located and is a small, casual spot to fill up after some sightseeing. We enjoyed a burger and veggie shawarma plus they have 10% off their menu every day between 12-3pm. Cafe Telegraf is another central restaurant with a varied menu and good reviews and we’ve also heard good things about My Kitchen on the east side of the river.
More Tips for Your Visit to Veliky Novgorod
◈ Given that the touristic centre of Veliky Novgorod is so compact, you may consider visiting as a day trip from St. Petersburg. If you’re not able to spend the night, it’s possible tick off nearly all of these things to do in Veliky Novgorod in one (very long) day. The downside is you’ll be spending at least 6 hours total sitting on a bus or train.
◈ Veliky Novgorod is best enjoyed in the summer when you can join locals as they lay in the sun on the beach and take a scenic boat ride on the river. September and May are also good times to visit while benefiting from off-season prices.
◈ This is a popular getaway for St. Petersburg residents who are known to retreat to Novgorod on summer weekends so book accommodations and transport well in advance if visiting during peak season. A midweek visit would be less busy during the summer.
◈ We didn’t spot many foreigners at all and the centre of town feels a lot smaller than that of a city with over 200,000 residents. Needless to say, there isn’t much nightlife here.
◈ You may be resorting to Google Translate more often in small cities like Veliky Novgorod as we found it harder to communicate in English.
◈ This is a great addition to your Russia itinerary if you’re travelling between St. Petersburg and Moscow. Otherwise I’m not sure I would go out of my way unless you’re especially interested in the history of the city.