Russia’s far north, with its stunning and often harsh natural beauty, is a place of startling extremes, best typified by the perpetual darkness of polar night and the midnight sun of polar day.
Travelling in Northern European Russia takes a lot of patience at times, and the weather can be unpredictable, with blistering sunshine turning quickly into icy rainstorms. But the reward for perseverance is an insight into one of Russia’s most mesmerising regions.
Places to Visit:
The Kola Peninsula is a 100,000-sq-km knob of tundra, bogs and low mountains between the White and Barents Seas. Lying almost entirely north of the Arctic Circle, its mesmerising expanses of wilderness are fabulous places to be dazzled by the aurora borealis or midnight sun.
Mineral strata beneath the Khibiny and Lovozero mountains contain a treasure trove of exotic minerals that get the world’s geologists and rock collectors salivating. Apatity has secret museums, Lovozero is the heart of Russia’s Sami community and Kirovsk is the gateway to pristine wilderness and has the region’s best skiing.
Alternatively called Solovki, these distant, lake-dappled White Sea islands are home to one of Russia’s best-known monasteries. Transformed by Stalin into one of the USSR’s most notorious prison camps, Solovki was described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as being so remote that a ‘scream from here would never be heard.
Visiting the islands is an adventure. The brief summer is pretty much your only window of opportunity as the autumn brings storms and soup-thick fog, and during the long winter Solovki are swept clean by howling blizzards. Solovki warrant several days’ exploration to properly absorb the history and the silence of the forests, bays and outer islands. Bring mosquito repellent, warm clothes and plenty of patience.
With its skeletons of old boats on the shore, wooden cabins, empty shells of Soviet-era housing and a colourful seafront graveyard, this spot is easily accessed from Murmansk by car or by daily bus through spectacular Arctic scenery.
Explore the hills and the coastline, dip your toes in the frigid waters, marvel at the midnight sun during the brief summer or simply enjoy the solitude and your proximity to the world’s northernmost ocean. There are two main beaches – a sandy one right next to the village, and one covered in rocks and boulders that is a 5km trek or drive away.
This enchanting green sliver is by far the most visited of Lake Onega’s 1600-plus islands.
Visitors typically get four hours on the island, which is more than enough time to visit the main reserve and stroll up to the lived-in Yamka village. Guided excursions are on offer but much of what you’ll see is self-explanatory and placards are in English. Stay on the marked paths – a decline in the island’s poisonous-snake population has led to proliferation of ticks that potentially carry encephalitis.
The world’s biggest Arctic city is a mere baby by Russian standards: Murmansk celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. Murmansk’s raison d’être is its port, kept ice-free by comparatively warm Gulf Stream waters.
The first glimpse of stolid Soviet-era architecture and the gritty port may not be the stuff of dreams, but beyond that, impressions get better and better. This lively city is surrounded by incomparable, often harsh Arctic scenery and is a playground for outdoor adventurers during the months of the midnight sun (late May to late July). During the winter darkness (late November to mid-January) the northern lights over the snow-covered landscape are an eerie, magical sight.
Which place do you want to visit in Northern Russia?