Often called the Islamic capital of Russia, Kazan embodies the flawless harmony between the East and the West. Dualism is apparent everywhere – the languages (Russian and Tatar), religion (Christianity and Islam), cuisine, architecture and atmosphere. With over a thousand years to its history, Kazan brings together rich historical heritage and bustling cosmopolitan lifestyle and is known for its modern sports events facilities, Islamic architectural gems, and flavourful national cuisine.
A World Heritage listed gem, this is the only remaining Tatar fortress in Russia and it includes sections dating back all the way to the 10th century. Built at the request of the Ivan the Terrible, today the bright white sandstone walls encircle the city’s historical center. Kazan’s Kremlin is home to government offices, lovely parks, museums, the enormous Kul Sharif Mosque, and other religious buildings. Among the highlights are the Hermitage Kazan gallery and the Tatarstan Museum of Natural History.
Kul Sharif Mosque
The original mosque of the 16th century built in the Muslim-dominated Khanate of Kazan was a key place of worship and was famed to be the largest mosque in Europe at the time. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible stormed the city and destroyed the mosque. It was only rebuilt in 2005 and named Qolşärif (Kul Sharif) after the imam who died defending the city against the troops of the Russian Tsar. With soaring teal-topped minarets and whitewashed arches, the new grand and impressive mosque is a fusion of old Kazan Khanate with modern Russian and Islamic architecture serving as a tribute to the 16th-century mosque. The museum inside focuses on the history of Islam in the Volga region and includes manuscripts, some pieces of furniture, and female national costumes.
Consisting of six widening tiers built on a gated arch, the 58-meter baked brick tower stands as Kazan’s most iconic building. It’s associated with a legend surrounding Princess Syuyumbike, one of the last great rulers of Kazan, who is told to have thrown herself off the top of the tower to avoid having to marry Ivan the Terrible. In fact, Syuyumbike was taken by the Tsar’s guards during the siege and forced into exile, where she eventually died alone. While this fable has managed to linger throughout the years, the true origins of the tower are still shrouded in mystery since all related historical documents were destroyed in a fire. It is likely that the tower was built in an effort to strengthen the Kremlin’s defenses in the 17th or 18th century (long after Ivan the Terrible) when tiered, wedding-cake like buildings were popular. In recent years, the tower’s weak foundation has begun to sink, giving the tower a noticeable lean that will likely become more dramatic in the coming years.
Opened with the help of the Hermitage museum, this cultural center regularly plays host to historical and art exhibitions brought especially to Kazan from Saint Petersburg’s great Hermitage museum. Housed in a former cadet training center, the building’s architecture dates back to the early 19th century and the elegant interiors are eye-catching works of art in themselves. Many world-class exhibitions comprehensively showcase both Russian and international artworks across sculpture, painting, jewellery, and design.
Soviet Lifestyle Museum
Delight in the kitsch cultural relics of the Soviet Union. Held in a former communal apartment that would have been home to about 20 people, Kazan’s most unusual museum celebrates the cultural happenings of life behind the Iron Curtain. The collection includes items from time periods ranging from the 1930s to the 1990s. One portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the high school experience, and claims to be one of the most comprehensive collections on the subject in existence. There is also a gallery that displays a collection of Soviet-era artwork, and a selection of propaganda books. There is also a rack of clothes that guests are welcome to try on and take pictures in. Altogether, packed with Soviet knick-knacks, trinkets and relics of a time now long gone, the museum is proof that Russia’s socialist epoch fostered a lively contemporary cultural scene.
Erected between 1556 and 1562, this is Kazan’s most important cathedral. It was designed by Postnik Yakovlev (who was also behind St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) and built on the foundations of a razed eight-minaret mosque. Over the centuries, it was destroyed several times, but was restored to its current state in 2005. The interior iconostasis, while new, holds figures and statues that date back centuries. The cathedral is the home to the holiest copy of the Our Lady of Kazan icon, which was presented to the city by Pope John Paul II in 2005.
National Museum of the Republic of Tatarstan
Opposite the Kremlin’s main entrance is the National Museum mostly dedicated to Tatar arts and crafts and culture over the last few centuries. The collection includes archaeology items, as well as jewellery, weapons, and exhibits on the history of the Tatar people and its literary figures. Very few descriptions of the exhibits are translated into English, but that shouldn’t stop you from admiring them. The building housing this museum is an impressive example of the grand 18th-century architectural style brought to Kazan during Peter the Great’s reign.
Old Tatar Village
The unique ensemble of Tatar brightly coloured and traditionally decorated residential houses and religious architecture formed in the 17 — 18th centuries marks the quarter where ethnic Tatars were forced to live following the siege of Kazan in 1552. The most significant buildings here are the Märcani Mosque — one of the oldest mosque in Kazan dating from 1767, the museum of the great Tatar poet Gabdulla Tukay and the Galiaskar Kamal State Academic Theatre.
Peter & Paul Cathedral
This Russian Orthodox church is an ornate gem of Naryshkin baroque architecture. It was built to commemorate Peter the Great’s visit to the city between 1723 and 1726. Featuring a vibrant and distinctive exterior decoration — the roofs are covered in bright blue and white tiling while the peachy walls are decorated with bright baroque floral patterns — it’s a rare example of the Russian baroque movement.
Temple of All Religions
Initiated by local artist, architect and philanthropist Ildar Khanov in 1992, the colorful Temple of All Religions, otherwise known as the Universal Temple is a mish-mash of architectural flourishes culled from most of the major world religions to create an uber-complex where all religions can come together in harmony. The exterior of the Temple looks almost like something out of a Disneyland Small World display, with a Greek Orthodox dome here and a Russian minaret there. There are references to Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques and a number of spires and bells. All said, the Temple incorporates architectural influences from 16 separate religions in a bright cacophony of devotion.
House of Zinaida Ushkova/Tatarstan National Library
A splendid mansion in the center of Kazan built in 1904 — 1908 in the eclectic style by the architect Karl Müfke. Since 1919, it is the main building of the National Library of the Republic of Tatarstan. The interiors of the complex are definitely worth of visiting: comprised of several mid-19th-century houses united and restyled to give each room its own art nouveau theme — Gothic, Napoleon-empire, Baroque, Rococo, Moresque, Arabic etc. One of the main attractions is the reading room transformed into an exotic garden with evergreen plants and streamy fountains. English tours are available on reservation.
A must for foodies! This interactive museum literally offers its guests a taste of traditional Tatar food and drink. Here, visitors can sample sweets, cakes, and teas and then learn how to make the local national signature dish — chak-chak, honey-baked dough balls traditionally served on holidays and at family festivities. Bookings are essential.
Kazan’s main pedestrian artery, the Bauman Street keeps locals going day and night. Filled with bars, shops, souvenirs and historic buildings, it is well worth a stroll down the strip any time of day. At night, its the go to spot for people who are out looking for a good time — locals and tourists alike fill up the restaurants, clubs, sports and shisha bars that the strip has to offer. One of the oldest streets in Kazan, even a casual stroll will take you past delights such as the iconic Bell Tower for the Epiphany Church and the unique Monument named Cat Kazan.
Situated about 27 km north-west from Kazan, the Raifa Monastery of the Kazan eparchy was founded in the early 17th century and became a very important pilgrimage direction for the Orthodox Christians. This cloister was built on the territory, which since olden times had been pagan and later Islamic, and became one of the earliest Orthodox monasteries to have appeared there after the Siege of Kazan in 1552. Closed during Soviet times, it re-opened in 1991 with many of the monks returning to restore it to its former beauty.
Reminiscent of Tartar bazars of yesteryear, the colourful, sprawling central market is the place to go for an on-the-ground cultural experience. Here, vendors push their wares and rub shoulders with babushkas selling produce straight from their garden, or berries and mushrooms foraged from nearby forests. An onslaught of smells, tastes, and sights, the central market is the place to be to soak up the local atmosphere, buy souvenirs, or try local treats.