Sitting at the confluence of the Oka and Volga rivers, Nizhny Novgorod is hands down one of Russia’s prettiest cities. Once Russia’s largest trading post, once a closed city, and once named Gorky after the legendary Soviet writer Maxim Gorky who was born here, Nizhny Novgorod’s identity was in flux for years. Today it’s an intriguing blend of provincial charm and big-town modernity with a historic upper half atop a hill and an industrial lower half rich with the architectural legacy of an early-Soviet attempt at a workers’ utopia.

 

Where to go

Although there’s a tourist tram that runs through the old part of the city, passing the characterful 19th-century wooden houses en route, the best way to explore Nizhny Novgorod is on foot. A stroll by the banks of the two rivers is a must especially when the weather warms. From the upper bank of the Volga you’ll see the grandiose merchants’ mansions, a nod to the city’s mercantile past. But you’d better hurry; despite their relatively recent restoration, many are being knocked down to make way for more modern constructions.

The best views can be found by the monument of Soviet pilot Valery Chkalov, although be warned, you’ll have to climb 560 steps to get there. Once you’re done, follow the riverbank towards the cable car, the longest in Europe — and a source of pride for local residents — for a stunning panoramic view across the city.

Whichever way you walk in Nizhny Novgorod, you’ll almost always end up on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, also known as Pokrovka, the main pedestrian street in the upper half of the city. Here you’ll find street artists, souvenir stalls and a market on the weekend, backed by the city’s most attractive buildings in varying shades of pastel hue. Follow Pokrovka to the kremlin, the old fortress from where the city began 700 years ago.

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    Skaters on the embankment of the Volga River

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    Local beauties

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    Lenin Square on the Oka embankment

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    Lapsha Sovok cafe

What to see

The Russian Museum of Photography houses an incredible selection of antique cameras as well as an exhibition of contemporary photography by local shutterbugs. Another must is the local branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) inside the kremlin, which organises exhibitions, lectures, a public art programme and more. There’s also an excellent collection of Russian avant-garde paintings from the early 20th century at the Nizhny Novgorod State Art Museum, also in the kremlin.  

In the 19th century Nizhny Novgorod was home to Russia’s biggest fair, attracting traders from all over Europe and Asia. This culminated in the 1898 industrial expo showcasing the best in Russian design, including the world’s first hyperboloid lattice structure. All that remains now of that massive complex is the riverside main hall which offers beautiful views of the city as well as a steady procession of trade events.

Nizhny Novgorod is also still home to numerous churches even though many were destroyed during Soviet times. Of those that remain, the best are Stroganovsky Church and the Saviour Cathedral at the confluence of the rivers Oka and Neva.

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    A view across the city

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    Gorkovskya Metro station

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    The Chkalov Stairway

Where to stay

Until a few years ago budget accommodation was hard to come by in Nizhny Novgorod but now a number of hostels offer visitors a range of options. House on Illynka located on the second floor of an old mansion in the historical centre, is a cosy option. Others are Smile Hostel, where each room’s decoration reflects a different city, and Coffee Hostel, housed in an old red brick building with a live music bar upstairs. For more upmarket options look to the fashionable Nikola House, which is just a stone’s throw away from the kremlin.

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    City administration building inside the kremlin

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    The hilly upper part of Nizhny Novgorod

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Where to eat

For food, head straight to Pokrovka and Rozhdestvenskaya Street where almost every building is a cafe, bar, pub or restaurant. Solodov, a brasserie-style restaurant serving everything from baked aubergine with feta cheese to salmon tartare, is a good choice, as is Like on Pokrovka, a tiny, friendly place serving fresh sandwiches, coffee to go and alcohol-free cocktails. For coffee and dessert, try Michelle while those in search of something a littler stronger should head straight to Bootlegger, which serves craft beer. Another fun option is Cafe Fricadelli, which started life as a pop-up but which won so many loyal fans with its Soviet-recipe meatball dishes that locals demanded it stay.

Book lovers should try out Biblioteka, a cafe on the fourth floor of Dirigable, one of the city’s oldest bookshops. Tuck into some delicious Italian grub while reading a book or looking at the views across Nizhny Novgorod’s most bustling street. If you’re searching for other cultural treats to accompany your meal, check out the Eda i Kultura (Food and Culture) network of venues. Buffet is one of Nizhny Novgorod’s oldest art-cafes, while over at Bezuhov restaurant you’ll be able to enjoy a poetry reading along with your food.

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    River station

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    Wooden houses on Ilyinskaya Street

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    The Volga embankment

Where to unwind

One thing that makes Nizhny Novgorod unique, are the number of pay-per-minute cafes and “free spaces” that have sprung up across the city. The ethos at these places is to encourage collaboration and creativity by allowing customers to use the space to host lectures, film screenings, poetry slams and more. The first to open was Ziferblat — there’s also a branch in London — where customers pay for their time in exchange for complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits. Others include AltLib and Korpus11.

When night falls, head to Sklad, an underground club in a former factory, or VASYA+1, a new loft project in a stunning 19th-century building, which throws great parties and gigs. Following in the footsteps of Moscow and St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod too has its very own speakeasy, Franky Bar, that serves up classic cocktails from Margaritas to Manhattans. Another great place to kick back with a drink is Bar Mesto, a lounge bar that plays an eclectic range of music. If rock music is more your thing, there’s also Rock Bar where different cover bands take to the stage on an almost nightly basis.

 

What to buy

If you’re looking for something a little more original than the fridge magnets and wooden spoons sold on the many souvenir stalls on Pokvrovka, try the gift shop of the NCCA where you can find locally designed goods, hand-made earrings or even items of clothing by top Russian designers. 

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