Kazan is not one of Russia's most famous tourist cities, which makes sense when you consider that it's not in Russia—at least not completely. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, which sits within Russia's official borders, but whose government operates autonomously in many capacities, due to the large populations of ethnic Tatars who live within its borders.
A trip to Kazan, to be sure, is like no other experience in Russia, thanks to the city's millennium of history, the diverse population (and the fact that it manages to live mostly in peace) and a standard of modernity you might not expect outside Moscow or St. Petersburg.
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Tour Russia's Most Unique Kremlin
One thing many travelers don't realize, if they've never visited Russia, is that there is no such thing as "The" Kremlin, though Moscow's usually gets the most attention. Every Russian city of a certain size has a Kremlin (which means "citadel" in Russian); they all feature a combination of government, religious and military buildings inside a wall, often over a body of water (the Volga River, in Kazan's case). The Kazan Kremlin has a decidedly Islamic character, owing to the city's large Muslim population and the mosque that exists within the citadel.
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Experience All The World's Religions in One Building
Kazan has long gained accolades not only from within Russia, but from all around the world, for the fact the Christians and Muslims have lived together here in peace for nearly a millennium. Although it's easy to see this harmony lived out among locals, one site that pays homage to co-existence is the aptly-named Temple of All Religions. This sacred site, which features multiple architectural styles in order to achieve its aim, sits just outside Kazan's city center.
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Of course, you're welcome to appreciate Kazan's religious eclecticism in a more piecemeal fashion, if that suits you. Within the aforementioned Kazan Kremlin, for example, you'll find the blue-domed Kul Sharif Mosque, as well as the Anunciation Cathedral, which represents Russian Orthodox Christianity. Religious sites are abundant outside the Kremlin as well, from Marcani Mosque to St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral.
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Relax in a Variety of Green Spaces
Kazan is well-known within Russia for the quality of life its citizens enjoy, and a big part of this is the wide variety of green spaces in the city. The most popular of these is Millennium Park, built to commemorate the city's 1,000th birthday in 2005. Other Kazan Parks include the Central Park of Culture and Park Imeni.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Cool Off at an Exciting Water Park
Kazan is also home to a park of another sort, in the form of Riviera Aquapark. This park comes in handy too, since Kazan is much hotter than other cities in Russia, with summer temperatures that regularly rise into the '80s and '90s. A trip to Riviera Aquapark is a particularly good choice if you won't have the time to explore the lakes you find in Tatarstan outside Kazan.
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Go Back in Time to the Soviet Union
Though Kazan was never a purely Russian city, it was nonetheless under the control of the Soviet Union during the country's entire existence. A stop at the quirky Soviet Lifestyle Museum is not so much a lesson in Soviet history (though there is plenty of artwork and other propaganda in case that's your thing), but a compelling comparison of how things were under the USSR government vs today's largely autonomous regime.
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Then, Participate Shamelessly in Capitalism
Like Moscow, Kazan is home to its own GUM department store, as well as a number of other "big box" retailers that would have Stalin rolling over in his grave. Heading to the more traditional Koltso shopping area, meanwhile, allows you to browse local Tatar handicrafts, including Tubeteika hats that are a common sight throughout Central Asia.
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Get in the Festival Spirit
Kazan, like many other Russian cities, features a variety of festivals and other cultural events throughout the year, many of which are international and cosmopolitan in their scope. Music festivals devoted to opera and jazz roll through the city in February and August, respectively, while a high-profile festival dedicated to Muslim cinema from around the world returns every September.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Discover Local Tatar Culture
Of course, a trip to Kazan presents plenty of opportunities to experience and celebrate local Tatar Culture, whether that entails shopping for clothing items as above, sampling Tatar cuisine as below, or participating in the Karavon Festival in May, which takes places not only in Kazan but throughout the Republic. If you're interested in Tatar Culture, this might be the best time of year to visit Tatarstan!
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...and Tasty Tatar Cuisine
Tatar food is a bit more evergreen than conspicuous displays of traditional culture, though some items seem more appropriate in warm or cold weather than others. Ukha fish soup, for example, is a more welcome choice to slurp down during the frigid winter months, while chak-chak doughnuts are more palatable when the temperature rises into the 80s and 90s.
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Ride a Riverboat (During the Summer)
Speaking of the warmer months, it is during this period exclusively (May to October, give or take) when boats travel on the Volga River that runs through Kazan. While some companies do exist for the purpose of taking tourists on pleasure rides along the river, you should keep in mind that many of these boats are essentially water buses. While this means they're affordable, they can also be quite crowded, making for an authentic experience, but a less than idyllic one.
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Get Out of Town
Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, but it's not all there is to the Republic. You could take a day trip to Raifa Monastery, which sits on the shores of a lake whose chilly waters are perfect for a dip during the summer. The town of Bolgar is a little farther (if you do visit on a day trip, it'll be a very long day), but has been important throughout Russian history, and is currently a pilgrimage site for Muslims. Finally, Christopol feels more like the rest of Russia, with a 1700s aesthetic that may have you feel like you're in the time of Catherine the Great—or closer to Helsinki than to Istanbul, as it were.