Russia as we think of it today has existed since the 16th century (excluding that pesky Soviet period) but the city of Novgorod has existed since the 9th century and was once one of Europe's largest cities!
Not surprisingly, a majority of activities in today's Novgorod relate to its long history of being more important, within and outside Russia, than it currently is. Here are the top 12 things to do in Veliky Novgorod, which translates to "Novgorod the Great" (and is not to be confused with Nizhny Novgorod, which sits over 600 miles away!).
Crash the Kremlin—No, Not That One!
One thing you might not realize if you've never traveled to Russia is that (basically) every city has a Kremlin—the word roughly translates to "citadel." Novgorod's Kremlin, to be sure, is less ornate than the one you find in Moscow, but it also happens to be free. If you're visiting during a warm time of the year, you'll enjoy the Kremlin's proximity to the Volkhov River, which flows just outside its walls.
Rent a Bike—or Rollerblades
Though Novgorod's city center is relatively small and quite walkable, having a pair of wheels makes exploring the attractions yet to come on this list much faster (and, depending on the weather, more enjoyable as well). For a method of getting around that's as much of a throwback as some of Novgorod's ancient attractions, consider renting a pair of rollerblades.
Return to Where it All Began
Novgorod is older than Russia-proper, having been founded in 859, nearly 700 years before the first Tsarist State. Physical evidence of this remains, and even if it's almost certainly re-constructed, you can see it with your own eyes. Rurikovo Gorodische sits just over a mile south of Novgorod's city center, and is generally regarded as the place where Novgorod began.
Celebrate a Different Sort of Millennium
When you hear the words "Russia" and "Millennium" in the same sentence, you probably hearken back to the hopeful energy that existed in the year 2000; when memories of Boris Yeltsin's hopeful presidency were more representative of modern Russia than Putin's shirtless horseback rides. Novgorod's Monument of the Millennium of Russia actually commemorates the 1,000 years of history that took place between the city's founding and the year 1862, when it was build.
(TIP: This is located within the Kremlin's walls, but you should think of it as a separate attraction.)
Go to Church(es)
Like most historical Russian cities, Novgorod is positively brimming with churches. Though you will probably succumb to "cathedral fatigue" long before seeing all of them, a few of Novgorod's houses of worship are among the top things to do in the city. Most notably, Yuriev Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site, while the gold-and-silver domed St. Sophia's Cathedral is conveniently located inside the Kremlin.
Walk Through a City of Wood
The Vitoslavitsy Museum of Folk Wooden Architecture is located less than a half hour from Novgorod's city center, but it feels centuries away in terms of time. A collection of wooden houses from around Russia that were shipped to this site during the 1960s, the Vitoslavitsy Museum pays homage to a building style that was once the norm throughout Russia, but might well have been forgotten entirely if it wasn't for places like this.
Admire Novgorod from the Water
What is it about Russian cities all being so close to beautiful bodies of water? Whether you take a boat tour on the Volkhov and watch the Kremlin reflect in it (TIP: This is a particularly good idea when the citadel is illuminated at night), or simply board a utilitarian boat taxi and enjoy views to whatever quotidian destination you're bound for, Novgorod is at least as enjoyable from the water as it is on land.
Feel Good During Festival Season
Novgorod might lack the fanfare of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it has its own special flair several times throughout the year. During summer, admire the traditional Russian costumes that locals wear as part of the Sadko festival. Or, if you're visiting earlier in the year (April, specifically) you can attend the King Festival, which spotlights local plays, dance performances and puppetry at several venues throughout the city.
Buy a Birch Bark Painting
Russia's innumerable birch trees are beautiful in their own right, but artists in Novgorod take them to the next level by painting beautiful landscapes right onto their bark. You can find many examples of this at the handicraft market at the city's Sennaya Square, which is a great spot for Novgorod souvenir shopping in general.
Nosh on Novgorod's Famous Foods
Russian food isn't nearly as famous as it deserves to be, and while few outside the federation are likely to recognize food from Novgorod, it should be a focal point of your trip. Winter travelers will appreciate the warmth of shchi, a hearty soup of cabbage leaves and pig fat (it's tastier than it sounds, don't worry), while the renowned eatery Zavodbar is as good for Novgorod's culinary specialties as it is for sampling a variety of local vodkas.
Close Your Eyes, Give Me Your Hand
Nobody in Novgorod will judge you if the phrase "eternal flame" evokes the melody of the Bangles' iconic 1980s hit, but the city's Eternal Flame of Glory commemorates a much more solemn time in history than the era of big hair and power ballads. Specifically, locals come here to remember the substantial losses Russia (then, the Soviet Union) suffered during World War II. Even if you didn't know anyone who fought in the war, you might want to go and pay your respects.
Get Out of Town
There's plenty to do in Novgorod to keep you busy for a few days, but you can also choose from several day trips to spice up your itinerary. Head to Tver, a small city on the Volga River that actually once rivaled Moscow in terms of power and influence within the young Russian state. Or choose Pskov, whose own Kremlin is slightly more impressive than the one you find in Novgorod (though you'll have to go yourself to verify this subjective opinion!).