When we informed our hostel in Saint Petersburg about our intentions to visit Veliky Novgorod on a day trip, we got some surprised reactions. No one had ever asked them about Veliky Novgorod before and they would have to search the internet themselves for information on how to get there. Hmmm, apparently not many people do this. That sounded good to us with all the tour groups around in Saint Petersburg.
Maybe it’s because of the distance between the two cities that Veliky Novgorod is not really considered a day trip destination from Saint Petersburg. However, with a little less than three hours one way travel time by train and a compact city center we found it a very rewarding side trip, although much less spectacular of course than Saint Petersburg. And granted, it was a very long day.
Buying a train ticket
A day that almost didn’t happen, by the way, as we made the big mistake of showing up at Moskovsky vokzal (Moscow train station) 25 minutes before departure time without a train ticket. We’d come with the misguided western European conception of buying a train ticket, board the train and go. But this isn’t how things work in Russia. Buying a ticket involves a lot of administrative work, including manually entering data from you identity card or passport at the ticket office.
With no clue about which ticket window to go to we joined the line of waiting people, which was not long, but didn’t seem to move forward for the first ten minutes. In desperation we just walked up to a window where we saw someone sitting, showing her a paper with our destination and that we wanted a return ticket in Cyrillic script that our hostel had drawn up for us. That did the trick and very much relieved we got on the 7.20 AM train to Veliky Novgorod. Lesson learned: Buy your train ticket online before you go to the train station.
Why Veliky Novgorod?
Veliky Novgorod is supposed to be the oldest recorded city in Russia. In the year 859 the city was mentioned for the first time. Like Moscow it has a Kremlin, but less imposing, and it is home to some of the oldest churches and monasteries in Russia. What appealed to us most at the end of the day was that Veliky Novgorod was pleasantly off the tourist trail, with hardly any non-Russian independent travelers and just a few tour groups around.
After arriving in Veliky Novgorod we walked the 20 minutes from the train station to the Kremlin. Here we visited the gold and silver domed 11th-century St Sophia Cathedral. The white exterior of this Russian orthodox cathedral hides a dark but beautifully frescoed interior. During our visit a church service was held in one of the church chapels. The service was accompanied by the singing of a choir giving it all a hallowed atmosphere. This was enhanced by the fact that just some worshippers and a few casual tourists were in the church. What a difference with Saint Petersburg!
Many sites closed on Tuesday
We also climbed the Kremlin Bell Tower and Kremlin strongholds for some views from above and towards the medieval city center on the other side of the Volkhov River. Here we headed next for a quick lunch at a place with a surprisingly international menu and some exploring of some other historical sights in Veliky Novgorod. Unfortunately most of them were closed on the day we visited, which was a Tuesday. With each site having another closing day, the weekend is probably the best time to go.
At the end of the day we walked back the same way we’d come with a short stop at the city beach on the banks of the Volkhov River (no beach weather though, so mostly deserted) and the huge Victory Monument nearby, the Rachmaninoff statue in the park in front of the Kremlin and some Soviet architecture, including a Lenin statue, at Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square). After eating a burger at the McDonalds near the train station we hopped on the 6.10 PM train back to Saint Petersburg.
With more time it would have been possible to visit some more churches and monasteries a little further afield or go to the Vitoslavlitsy wooden architecture museum. Since we’d be going to a similar site on Kizhi Island two days later we made no effort to get to this on.
We visited Veliky Novgorod in June 2016