Nizhny Novgorod : historical yarmarka and sunset on the Volga

Nizhny Novgorod : historical yarmarka and sunset on the Volga

Nizhny Novgorod

Welcome to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth largest city only 400 kilometers away from Moscow, a great stop on the Trans-siberian or just a side trip from the capital.

Located at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers, it gained a major commercial status in the early 19th century when the famous Makariev fair was moved to the city and merchants came from as far as Western Europe, Persia and China to trade goods. Today it’s a lovely city to discover with lots of history, a 13 towers Kremlin and some of Russia’s best sunset over Europe’s longest river, matushka Volga – “mother Volga”.

In this Nizhny Novgorod travel guide I share with you the 13 best places to visit to make the most of your time in the city + tips on how to travel there and where to sleep.

Note : while doing research for this post, I was surprised to find out some people skip Nizhny on their Trans-siberian journey simply because it is “too close to Moscow” … I’ve been to this city 3 times, loved it each and every time and I highly recommend it to you if, like me, you prefer smaller cities with a walkable historical center.

Nizhny Novgorod Travel guide, Russia
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Is Nizhny Novgorod and Veliky Novgorod, same as Novgorod ?

No, Nizhny Novogorod and Veliky Novgorod who’s also simply called Novgorod, are two different cities. The later one and most ancient is located 600 kilometers North of Moscow (while Nizhny Novgorod is 400 kilometers South of the capital) and was established by a Varangian prince named Rurik in the 9th century. Later, Veliky Novgord/Novgorod became the second most important city after Kiev in the Kievan Rus’ state.

Veliky Novgorod 1
Veliky Novgorod’s Kremlin
« Saint Petersburg is the head of Russia, Moscow is its heart and Nizhny Novgorod its pocket »
19th century russian proverb «Петербург – голова России, Москва – её сердце, а Нижний Новгород – карман»

Nizhny’s history : from an international trading center to a closed Soviet city

Nizhny Novgorod was founded in 1221 by Prince Yuri II of Vladimir to protect the southern borders of the Kievan Rus’ from the Bulgar Tatars. Ivan the Terrible later launched attacks to Kazan from there. The city was also strategically located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka rivers, serving as a vital trading hub between the east and west of medieval Russia.

By the 16th century, Nizhny Novgorod had become one of Russia’s most important cities. The famous Makariev Yarmarka (Makariev fair) located next to the Makariev Monastery about 40 kilometers up river from the city, was destroyed by a fire. The authorities decided to move it into Nizhny. Merchants from all over Western Europe, Persia, Central Asia and even all the way from China came to trade goods such as fur, tea, iron etc. It was the biggest fair of the Russian Empire.

The fair is nicely described in the Michel Strogoff courrier of the Tzar’s book by Jules Vernes (who’s never been by the way) and Alexandre Dumas travels through Russia (real travels).

Nizhny Novgorod took a very different turn during the Soviet Union. In 1932, the city was renamed Gorky in honor of the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who was born there and became a major center for military equipment and heavy industry. It remained a closed soviet city from 1932 until 1990.

In 1990, with the collapse of the USSR, the city reverted to its original name. Today Nizhny Novgorod is the capital of the oblast of the same name and Russia’s fifth largest city by its population of 1 200 00 millions inhabitants. It’s populated mostly by ethnic russian but also by a small community of Mishari Tatars who speaks a dialect of the main tatar language.

How to travel to and around Nizhny Novgorod

It’s very easy to reach the city, there’s even an international airport. To me, the best way to travel Nizhny Novgorod is by train :

  • From Moscow by an overnight train, it takes between 5 to 8 hours.
  • From Moscow by the quick lastochka train, it takes 4 hours.
  • From Saint Petersburg by an overnight train, it takes 14 hours and one leaves around 6pm and arrives at 8:30am the next day.
  • From Kazan, it takes about 8 hours

You can book your tickets directly online with a Visa/Mastercard on RussianTrain

Note : don’t select the bedsheets while booking your ticket if you travel during the day, even if you choose an 7 hours platskart tickets, you will most likely not sleep. I recommend you to choose a proper train seat (meaning not a bed) between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod if you travel during the day.

Going around Nizhny is also very easy : there’s a metro (2 lines, 14 stations), tram and plenty of buses. Check directly on Yandex maps for the right itinerary and rnumber.

Nizhny Novgorod transport

Where to sleep

Nizhny was a host city during the 2018 World Cup, so plenty of accomodation is available for all budgets. Here are some hotels and hostels suggestions that can be booked with a foreign Visa/Mastercard :

• Budget hostel : Sota House Hostel, great location and a bed in a dorm for 7€.

 Mid range hotel : Baget hotel, located right in the historical center only a few minutes walk from the Kremlin – about 50€ for a double room; Butik-Otel Gallery located less than 5 minutes walk from the Minin and Pojarsky square – standard double room from 49€ for 2.

5* hotel : Sheraton Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, everything you expect from a Sheraton hotel, with a great location on Theater Square. Double room from 140€ for 2.

RUssia travel insurance

It’s mandatory to have an insurance to travel in Russia and apply for a russian visa (including the e-visa)

I recommend Attollo Assistance (24/7 assistance, medical expenses up to 35 000 €, repatriation)

The 13 best places to visit in Nizhny Novgorod

The Kremlin

Located high on the hill overlooking the Volga, Nizhny Novgorod’s Kremlin was first a wooden fortress built in the 14th century, it burnt in 1513 and was rebuilt in stones 3 years later. During Ivan the Terrible’s rule, towers were added to the defenses to fight sieges and tatar attacks. Fun fact : no enemies never broke through the Kremlin’s walls.

Today it’s a beautiful and well preserved fortress with 13 fully restaured towers. Inside the Kremlin’s walls you can visit the the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael dating back to the 17th century, Nizhny’s oldest church, museums etc.

Note : it’s home to the local government of Nizhny’s oblast.

The Kremlin’s official website

Ulitsa Bolchaya Pokrovskaya

An old pedestrian street, the main touristy street of the city, linking Gorky Square all the way Minin and Pojarsky Square at the foothill of the Kremlin.

Plenty of restaurants, cafés, bars and souvenir shops are located along it and a street market takes place in the summer. One of the buildings that stand out along Pokrovskaya is the Bank of Russia’s. The palace was built in 1913 for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov’s family.

The other popular street in Nizhny is Rojdestvenskaya, plenty of bars there, that’s where the nightlife happens.

The Verkhne – Volzhskaya embankment

The Verkhne-Volzhskaya embankment runs along the Volga river from Mimin and Pojarsky square to Sennaya square and is a popular place to watch the sunset on the Volga and the Alexander Nevsky cathedral.

There are plenty of great 19th century mansions along Vernkhne – Volzhskaya, here are a few of them :
• the Rukavishnikov mansion with 50+ rooms was built in 1877 by the merchant Rukavishnikov.
the Grigoriev mansion was built in 1851. The french writter Alexandre Dumas stayed there. Today it’s a architecture and design school.
the Sirotkin’s house, now hosting the foreign part of the State Art Museum.

The Fedorovsky embankment is another great place to watch the sunset on the Volga, the Kanavinsky bridge and there are also a monument of Gorki and Jules Verne (he wrote Michel Strogoff, the Tzar’s courrier, the main character passed by the Nizhny Novgorod’s fair).

Chkalov stairs

Named after the famous soviet test pilot Valery Chkalov (pronounced Tchkalov) and built in 1944 in honnor of the Stalingrad’s battle, the staircase connects the Verkhne-volzhskaya and Nizhne-volzhskaya embankments with 560 steps in a shape of the number 8. There are view points halway on the stairs with great views on the rivers.

Why is Chkalov famous ? In 1937 he and two other Soviet pilots flew over the North Pole with no stops from Moscow to Vancouver. 63 hours in total, a record never done before.

Chkalov stairs

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Located right at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers on the historical side of the city, the cathedral was built in honor of the Emperor Alexander II in 1868 after he came to visit the fair. It was closed in the 1920’s but fortunetely not destroyed and restauration started in the 1980’s. You can also find a statue of Alexander Nevsky on a horse in front of it and the cathedral’s bell.

Made in 2012 in Saint Petersburg and transported to Nizhny on the Volga, the 64 tons bell is made of bronze and is the 3rd biggest church bell in Russia to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Mimin and Pojarsky’s victory. I wonder if they ever plan to hang it somewhere …

Akexander Nevsky cathedral

Nizhny Novgorod’s yarmarka (= the fair)

After the Makariev yarmarka’s fire, the fair was moved in the city of Nizhny Novgorod in 1817, in this huge building and around it. It said that over 2 500 shops were open in there back in the days.

Since 1991, the fair is turned into an exhibition center with all sorts of events, there is also an interactive museum on Russian history and a café serving russian cuisine inspired by the Makariev’s Fair called “Samovarnaya” (€€).

If you’re interested in the fair’s history, check out this russian blog post (translate it in your browser). It explained how it worked, what people traded, where they stay and even prayed depending on their religion. Super interesting !

Nizhny Novgorod Fair

The Mimin and Pojarsky square

You already know the merchant Kouzma Minin and the prince Dmitri Pojarsky from the Red Square in Moscow, the two men’s statue right in front of Saint Basil’s cathedral. There’s a copy of it in this square named after them. They represent unity between the people and the state but who were they exactly ?

Long short story, they were the leaders of the militia that liberated Moscow from Polish occupation during the”Time of Troubles” (aka Russia’s first civil war) in 1612.

Mimin was a merchant from Nizhny Novgorod and the one who he incited the people’s uprising. He’s now burried in Nizhny’s Kremlin. From this very square he asked the people for donations to create the militia that will later free Moscow.

Next to it is the the Church of St. John the Baptist, originally built of wood, it was rebuilt in stones in 1621.

mimin and Pojarsky Square

Cable car across the Volga

If the weather is clear, take the cable car from Nizhny Novgorod to Bor, a small town on the other side of the Volga. You get great views over Europe’s longest river, the Kremlin and Podnovsky island.

The lengh of the cable car is 3,6 kilometers, it takes about 12 minutes to go from one side to another, and the ticket costs only 100₽.

Cable car across the Volga

The State Art Museum

lThe State Art Luseum is home to Russia’s biggest historical painting, a 42m² giant representation of “The call of Mimin” (yes, him again !) by Makovsky.

The giant painting alone is well worth a visit to the museum. But be careful, the museum in divided into two buildings : One with the russian artists (Repin, Aivazovsky etc) is located in the Military governor’s house inside the Kremlin and the foreign artists + Makovsky’s painting (they had to build a special room) are located in the House of Sirotkin (a local merchant) on the Verkhne-Volzhskaya embankment.

Art museum

The GAZ history museum

If you’re a fan of soviet cars, this is for you ! The GAZ (Gorkovsky Avtomobilny Zavod ) museum is showcasing the history of the Gorky Automobile Factory with exhibits of retro cars, modern cars, and prototypes.

Note : At the time of writing the the museum was closed for reconstruction, make sure to check on the website if it’s open.

The Voznesensky Pechersky monastery

The white and green Pechersky monastery is surrounded by walls and covers more than 5 hectares. It includes the the cathedral of the ascension of the Lord with a bell tower, the church of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin, the gate church of Euthymius of Suzdal, the church of St. Sergius of Radonezh and the church of Peter and Paul.

The original monastery was founded in 1328 by the monk St Dionysius from the Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kiev, Ukraine. In the 16th century it was destroyed by a landslide and the monastery we see today was rebuild a bit further from its original site.

It is said that’s where the monk Lavrentiy wrote the
 Laurentian chronicle, one of Russia’s most ancient chronicle nowadays kept in Saint Petersburg’s library.

The Stroganov church

The Stroganov Church officially known as the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a pretty example of a colourful russian church. Built on Rozhdestvenskaya Street in the late 17th century with a local merchant’s money Grigory Stroganov, it burned before being totally finished so Stroganov’s widow rebuilt it after her husband’s passing.

Today it’s one of Nizhny’s most famous religious sight, which you can find painted on the local souvenirs (I bought a christmas ball with Stroganov church handpainted on it years ago).

The Cathedral mosque

Because Tatars are the second main minority in Nizhny Novgorod I thought it was important to mention not only pretty orthodox churches but also the cathedral mosque of the city located on the Kazanskaya embankment near the cable car.

Made of red bricks, this pretty mosque was built in 1915 with the local tatar community’s funds (the madrassa next to it is much more recent). It was closed from 1938 until 1988 and served as a soviet military hospital.

The cathedral mosque of Nizhny Novgorod is listed on the Russian cultural heritage register.

Avoid prayer times if you’re not muslim and cover up when entering the mosque.

Nizhny Novgorod mosque
Nizhny Novgorod Travel guide, Russia
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