Novgorod: The cradle of the Russian State

It’s 9 o’clock in the morning. You get off the luxury fast “Lastochka” train at the main railway station. On the one side you see a forest and blocks of flats in the distance, on the other – the monument of prince Alexander Nevsky and a babushka selling pirozhki. You are in Novgorod – one of the oldest cities in Russia, where now only about 200 000 people live. It is 25 times smaller than St. Petersburg and you will definitely feel its calm greenery and slow pace of its inhabitants.

There is great historical and cultural value  hidden in this small city. With only a 15 min walk from the train station you will reach Novgorod’s Kremlin, one of the oldest in Russia; you will see an endless variety of white stone churches and monasteries of the Trade side of the city; and experience marvelous wooden architecture in an open-air museum. With all those sights Novgorod can be without any doubt named a classical example of a traditional Russian city.

Historically Novgorod is famous for two things; first of all, it is believed to be the “birthplace of Russia”. It was there where the Varangian chieftain Rurik founded the first settlement in 862 AD. Secondly, Novgorod is a cradle of democracy in Russia. The first Russian parliament ever –Veche, was a governing body of Novgorodian Republic in the 12th century.

Novgorod was an important commercial city and the most western kontor (foreign trading post) of the Hanseatic League. That let to flourishing of literacy, architecture and icon-painting during the medieval times. Golden domes and frescoes on its churches, icons and ancient manuscripts still remind of its past glory. Novgorod became UNESCO’s World Heritage Site in 1992.

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St Sophia Catherdal is one of the oldest in Russia

How to get there

The fast train “Lastochka” departs from St. Petersburg to Novgorod twice daily at 6:25 am and then again at 8:57 pm.  The return journey can be taken at 6 am and 6:45 pm every day. The comfortable train that was initially made for the Sochi Olympic Games will get you to the city on the Volkhov in less than three hours. A one-way ticket will cost you approx. 500 rubles.

What to do there

First of all – check out the heart of Novgorod city – the Kremlin that is situated on the left, or Sofia side of the river. The impressive walls and moat separate the fortress from the rest of the city. A beautiful park with fountains and small cafes that surrounds the Kremlin is a nice place for a walk on a sunny day.

Several sights are situated inside the Kremlin, but St Sophia Cathedral is definitely not to be missed. This Cathedral is one of the best preserved churches of the 11th century and the oldest structure still in use in Russia. Helmet-like domes, white stone walls, frescoes of  the 12th century – this church is probably one of the best examples of original Russian architecture. The bell tower of the Cathedral is worth climbing as it offers a great view over the river and Trade or right side of the city.

A thousand years of Russian history is immortalized in a monument that stands in the very centre of the Kremlin. The Millenium of Russia monument was erected in 1862 and shows all the great contributors to Russian history: tsars, commanders, scientists, poets and architects.

Just behind the monument Novgorod’s Historical Museum is situated. This is a  huge collection of archaeological findings including famous birch paper letters by “Onfim the Boy”, spelling exercises by a 6-7 year old Novgorodian child from the 13th century can be seen there. Russian Icons from the 11th  till 19th century form a separate part of exhibition (Admission fee: 100 rub for adults and 50 rub for students).

Trade side of the city
Trade side of the city

Crossing the river from the Sofia side to the Trade side you can imagine a row of merchant ships from abroad. That is how this place looked back in medieval times. Merchants all over Europe went to Novgorod to buy furs, honey, wax and leather. Gothic and German courts used to be situated there. The famous Veche meetings where all the city issues were resolved were also held here – in the Yaroslav’s Court. One of the most crowded and noisy part of the medieval city is now turned into a pleasant park, where you can observe more churches from the 12th-16th centuries.

To find out how Novgorodian people lived you should definitely go to the Wooden Architecture Museum “Vitoslavlitsy”. To get there take bus #7 or #7A from the Railway station or Sennaya Square. In this open-air museum you will feel yourself like in a typical Novgorodian village in the 16th century. Wooden izbas (Russian rural houses), churches and other buildings have been brought from different parts of the Novgorod region and restored.  The exhibitions inside represent the life of country people in winter and summer time, depicting their costumes, crafts and customs. Even the keepers there are dressed in national costume. (Admission fee: 100 rub for adults and 50 rub for students).

Vitoslavlitsy open-air museum of wooden architecture
Vitoslavlitsy open-air museum of wooden architecture

Every city has to have a strange museum that stands out from the series of churches, art and history collections. For Novgorod it is the Museum of Iron. Situated just across the road from “Vitoslavlitsy” it holds a collection of 250 irons from 11 countries around the world weighing in from 10g to 10 kg. Where else could you find that? (Admission fee: 50 rub for adults and 20 rub for students).

Where to eat

One of the cutest restaurants Nice People (Хорошие Люди) is just a few steps away from the Kremlin and is recommended by the locals. If you are searching for wine by the glass and European food – this is a right place to go. (Address: 1/1, Meretskova-Volosova Str.)

Those of you who are looking for something special – welcome to the gastronomic complex Ilmen. The first floor is occupied by a Russian-cuisine café while on the second you can find a restaurant “Holmgard” decorated in the Hanseatic League style serving up Scandinavian cuisine. Ilmen has also its own separate bakery. (Address 2a, Gazon Str.)

Useful information

You can get a  free map and more  information from the  tourist info centre “Red Izba” (Sennaya square, 5).

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