If you grew up in the nineties singing ‘Once Upon a December’ from the Fox Animation movie Anastasia, you’ll already know that Russia does palaces very well. From remote fortresses to sumptuous palaces, here are the best castles in Russia.
The Best Castles in Russia
1. The Kremlin
Founded in the 12th century, the Kremlin both represents the historical heart of Russia and modern-day politics. It’s one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, visited by as many as 2.5 million people every year. Set in the heart of Moscow’s Red Square, the Kremlin complex is separated by a 30-metre moat and comprises five palaces, four cathedrals, the enclosing Kremlin walls and 20 towers. It’s home to some of the country’s most important relics too, including most of the Tsar’s coronation robes, jewellery and armour in the Armoury Palace.
It also boasts the world’s largest bell. The Tsar Bell, or Tsarsky Kolokol, measures a whopping 6.14 metres (20.1 feet) high and 6.6 metres (22 feet) in diameter. Don’t expect it to ring though, it broke during construction.
The Winter Palace served as the royal residence of Russia for over 150 years. There has been a palace here in some form since Peter the Great moved the capital city to Saint Petersburg in the early 18th century. While the Royal Family moved from palace to palace, the Winter Palace served as its official residence until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
It’s now home to one of the world’s largest and most prestigious museums – the Hermitage Museum. Home to over three million pieces, from Leonardo da Vinci to impressionist masterpieces, it would take you 11 years (visiting 8 hours every single day) to see the entire thing. That’s a lot of ground to cover.
Known as the Russian Palace of Versaille, The Grand Palace of Peterhof is located 30 km from St Petersburg. It’s one of the most popular –and easiest – day trips to make from the former imperial capital, an easy 45-minute train journey away. Peter the Great built the sprawling palace between 1714 and 1723 after seeing the Palace of Versaille. He decided that his decisive victory against Sweden in Ukraine was the perfect excuse to build his new ‘gaff.
It’s smaller than you might expect, with just 30 rooms, but it’s hardly modest. Empress Elizabeth and Catherine the Great got gun-ho with the decor, with glittering halls, art-filled galleries and dozens of fountains. After World War II, Peterhof was left in ruins. Hitler had actually intended to throw a party here and even issued invites, so Stalin decided to pre-empt the festivities by bombing the estate himself. The palace you can see today is mostly a reconstruction.
The Kazan Kremlin dates back to the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Ivan the Terrible conquered the city in 1552 and turned it into the Christian See of the Volga Land. Kazan Kremlin is the only surviving fortress in Russia and remains an important place of pilgrimage. The focal point of the complex is the mosque, with its blue-tipped minarets.
According to popular legend, the incredible Suyumbike Tower has a sad tale behind it. When Ivan the Terrible seized Kazan, he celebrated by taking the deposed Khans niece, Suyumbike, as his bride. She initially refused then agreed to marry him if he could build the tallest tower in the world. He did, in six days. When it was completed, she climbed to the top of the tower and jumped to her death.
Also known as Alupka Palace, this magnificent Crimean estate has enchanted visitors for centuries. The exotic palace sits in the town of Alupka in the Crimean Mountains, built at a time when the newly-annexed Crimean seaside was the place to be if you were looking for a good time. Vorontsov built the palace for a staggering nine million silver rubles, based on English architecture he’d become accustomed to during his education in London. Edward Blore, one of the minds behind Buckingham Palace, even produced some of the initial designs. Built between 1828 and 1848, it’s one of the oldest structures in the region.
During World War II, Nazis gained control and tried to blow it up but the Crimean army forced them to retreat before they could touch it. Winston Churchill stayed here during the famous Yalta Conference. He allegedly jokes that one of the marble lions flanking the staircase looked like him, without the cigar of course. Visitors can take a tour of the palace’s sumptuous interiors and manicured gardens.
This Swedish-built medieval castle is one of the oldest in the country. Totkel Knutsson, the Lord High Constable of Sweden, commissioned the building of the castle to protect the Kingdom of Sweden against the Russians. It served its purpose well – for a while at least – becoming one of Finland’s three most important castles. It sits on a tiny islet in the innermost corner of the Gulf of Finland, around 174 km northwest of St Petersburg and just 30 km from Finland. The town originally sat outside the outer fortifications of the castle but it had to move due to lack of space.
It’s easy enough to make the day trip from St Petersburg but the port and rail junction is probably most popular with those looking to travel across the border.
It doesn’t exactly say ‘fairytale palace’, but then the best fortresses tend not to. Invangorod Fortress dates back to 1492, commissioned by Ivan III as a stronghold and defence against the Livonian Knights. It’s located in the town of Ivoangorod in Leningrad Oblast, along the Narva River bordering Estonia. The fiercely quadrilateral castle sprawls across 1,600 m2 (17,000 sq ft), with 14-metre tall walls.
There’s a fascinating onsite museum and gallery dedicated to local history, art and all things Ivan. There’s also a permanent exhibition on the Northern War and Livonian War, and archaeological discoveries made in more recent years.