Despite how vast Russia is, both in terms of land area and the country's influence on world history, it's tempting to think of only Moscow and St. Petersburg when the topic of Russia travel comes up. There are countless counter-examples to this tendency, though the city of Astrakhan remains obscure, even among extremely adventurous travelers. Here are 12 things to do in Russia's closest city to the Caspian Sea.
Tick Another Kremlin Off Your Bucket List
If you've ever visited Russia outside of its two major tourist cities, you know that most have their own Kremlin citadels, although none are as famous or well-known as Moscow's. Astrakhan is no different, and the Astrakhan Kremlin is definitely the first place you should go after checking into your hotel here. The most popular attraction within the walls of the Astrakhan Kremlin is Ascension Cathedral. You'll probably spend at least a good hour poking around its nooks and crannies, taking in Volga River views all the while.
Pay Your Respects to Peter
Astrakhan is home to many statues, but the most famous and centrally located one is built in honor of Peter I, and is located close to the Astrakhan Kremlin. Among the reasons local here love paying respect to Peter? He became known as "Peter the Great" after his reign and death in the 18th century because of his efforts to modernize Russia, including once primitive cities like the Astrakhan of yesteryear.
Marvel at the Heavens
As far as planetariums in Russia go, Astrakhan's is neither a head turner nor a particularly interactive one — you can watch videos of discoveries made here, but you can't actually use the equipment. Still, Astrakhan Planetarium is worth a visit, especially if you're here during winter and need a break from temperatures that are likely well below zero.
Bask in Military Glory
Hearing "Russia" and "military" in the same sentence has never comforted most people who live west of Leningrad, but the artifacts on display in the Museum of Military Glory are (mostly) non-working. The bad news here is that English placards and tours are almost non-existent, but the silver lining is that the story told within the exhibition hall is largely a visual one that doesn't need to be translated anyway.
Explore Southern Russia's Muslim Heritage
Like many other cities throughout southern Russia (and the various autonomous and semi-autonomous states that exist in the region), Astrakhan has a large and visible Muslim minority. While the city's White Mosque (which is also known as "Ak Mosque") is not as ornate as those you find in other regional cities, namely Kazan, is nonetheless offers a glimpse into the worship and daily life of the local Muslim community.
When you see magnificent ballet theaters and opera houses in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, it's easy to assume these are pleasures reserved for big city dwellers. As Astrakhan's State Opera Ballet theater proves, however, classic European arts and culture are just as appealing to those in the parts of Russian that are ostensibly non-European as it is to those who reside farther west.
Live in Harmony at Armenia Square Plaza
From Muslim Tatars to ethnic Russians to people from the Central Asian states, Astrakhan is a melting pot. It's also home to some Armenians, though that's not the only group of people the public Armenia Square plaza is about. Indeed, the square is a monument to the racial and ethnic harmony that has largely defined life in Astrakhan, in contrast to some other more volatile areas in southern Russia.
Be Amazed by Astrakhan's Gastronomy
Given that Astrakhan is located along a river and near the Caspian Sea, it probably won't surprise you that much of its culinary landscape relates to seafood. From smoked sterlet fish to caviar from the pike, sazan and sturgeon that live in the Caspian Sea, much of Astrakhan's local food comes from the briny deep. This is Russia, of course, which means that many of the restaurants in the city also serve hearty meat stews, as well as favorites from former Soviet Republics.
Astrakhan's local food is largely savory, but that doesn't mean you can't find some sweetness here. A great spot to do this is the Chocolate Museum of Astrakhan, which is first and foremost a place to learn about chocolate making in Astrakhan, both during the Soviet times and today. You'll also have a chance to taste some of the locally-made goods, which is at least as delicious as any of the fish or stews you can eat in Astrakhan.
Go Fishing (or Hunting)
There's plenty of fishing to be had in the Caspian Sea, while in town you can catch sturgeon for the purpose of harvesting their caviar or sterlet and then, later, smoke it. Another popular wildlife-related activity in Astrakhan (and in particular Astrakhan State Nature Reserve in the Volga River delta) is duck and goose hunting, which is a particularly nice choice during the cool (but not yet frigid) early autumn months of September and October.
Take a Cruise to Moscow
If you happen to be in Astrakhan between May to September (and let's face it — you will be, unless you're a hunter, or otherwise very into winter), you can get out of town via a cruise along the Volga River. While you can theoretically travel all the way to Moscow using this method, most visitors opt for more human journeys, such as those to nearby (by Russian standards, anyway) cities such as Kazan and Volograd.
Take a Boat Trip on the Caspian Sea
As mentioned earlier, Astrakhan sits on the boundary of the marshy Volga delta, where the Volga River meets the Caspian Sea. It's location on the delta makes it easy to take a boat trip to one of the neighboring countries. Indeed, if you're headed to a destination on the Caspian from Astrakhan, it's probably not to anywhere within the borders of Russia, but rather to Baku, Azerbaijan or something along the long Caspian coastline of Iran.