Ironically enough, the city that excited me the most during my trip to Russia was neither St. Petersburg nor Moscow. Sure, I was really looking forward to seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square with my own eyes and to wander around the exhibits in the Hermitage but there was something about the Tatars, a Turkic people that call parts of Russia home, that really piqued my interest.
Compared to the Orthodox Christian majority that define most of Russia, Tatarstan (a republic within the Russian Federation) has a Muslim majority. The result is a hodgepodge of cultures. You have Russian with a distinct Turkic blend and this is manifested in the bilingual signs and varied cuisine in Kazan, its capital.
As it is a bit out of the way relative to the typical Russian itinerary, most people don’t visit Tatarstan at all. But if you have a couple of extra days to spare, I wholeheartedly recommend taking the 1.5 hour or so flight to Kazan for a slice of Russia that you definitely don’t see in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Without further ado, here are the top things you can do in Kazan.
One of the more interesting kremlins that you’ll find in Russia is the one in Kazan. The diversity of religions is nowhere more apparent here where you can find an Orthodox church sitting within the same complex as a mosque. Don’t miss a visit to the striking Kul-Sharif Mosque which I would personally count as one of the most beautiful mosques I’ve ever seen both inside and out. If you come to the Kremlin in the day, you can also walk through the walls for a fee and obtain a higher view of the complex through the observation towers.
On the opposite side of the Kremlin, you will also find the Annunciation Cathedral and the leaning Suyumbike Tower which together form a fine ensemble of richly decorated buildings. If you walk out towards the bridge (Ulitsa Dekabristov), you can appreciate the fine views of the Kremlin. Better yet, hop on the ferris wheel from the Kyrlay Theme Park on the northern side of town to snap photos of the Kremlin from a high point.
Don’t be misled by the name, the Agricultural Palace is a government building so it’s not really open to the public. It is listed here due to its highly instagrammable nature. You’ll find the curved angles of the building highly picturesque. A popular spot to take photos is from the small hill beside the palace itself.
National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan
Situated just outside the Kazan Kremlin, the National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan is housed in a grand 18th century European style building. Inside, you’ll find Tatar arts and craft including fine jewellry and weapons used by the Tatar people.
St. Peter and Paul Cathedral
Despite the many churches you’ll find scattered throughout Russia, a visit to the beautiful St. Peter and Paul Cathedral is highly recommended for its Naryshkin-style Baroque decor. Look closely at the windows of this 17th century church and you’ll find these decorated in unique floral patterns.
Bauman Street is Kazan’s main shopping street and is busy in the day and floodlit at night. There is a good mix of shops and restaurants here. Despite being the tourist center of the city, the pedestrian-only street is refreshingly devoid of the tour groups that you encounter in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Towards the end, you will encounter the Epiphany Cathedral’s Bell Tower, a 74 meter high structure that you can climb for views.
Old Tatar Village
One of the more charming areas in the city marks the spot where ethnic Tatars were forced to stay following the siege of Kazan in 1552. There are not a lot of old buildings left here but the ones that remain date from the 17th or 18th centuries and highly instagrammable with distinctive colorful patterns. The most prominent structures in the area are the Mardzhani Mosque and the Apanaev Mosque one block away. If you walk towards the side of the lake, you’ll encounter this kitschy restaurant serving Tatar cuisine – Tatarskaya Usadba. My favorites are the nourishing soups and stews that go well especially during cold days. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also try the horse meat which is cooked in a variety of ways.
Getting Here: Ulitsa Kayuma Nasyri is where the bulk of the older buildings are situated.
Temple of All Religions
I visited the Temple of All Religions a month after it was razed by fire. Although the exterior is mostly intact, the inside was heavily damaged. There is no admission to enter although a gatekeeper asks for donations. The highlight of the place is its numerous and colorful towers, each dedicated to a different religion. Do note that the temple is a bit out of the way. I took an UBER here and I had some difficulty getting a ride back to town. Alternatively, you can take Bus #2 from the city center.
Where to Eat in Kazan
Priyut Kholostyaka – Come here for variety. This restaurant has a wide range of Russian as well as European dishes and you can order from the iPads – they have an English menu as well.
Restaurant Hemingway – upscale restaurant located in the Bauman Street area. Excellent service and authentic Mediterranean cuisine.
Tatarskaya Usadba -It may look kitschy from the outside but the food is quite delicious. Come here for the warm Tatar atmosphere.
Where to Stay in Kazan
Frequently cited as the best hotel in Kazan, the Ramada Kazan City Center is located near some trendy restaurants and just two blocks away from TSUM Department Store. Rooms are spacious and the breakfast has relatively good variety for its price.