Did you know that Moscow is not the only Russian city with a kremlin? In fact, there are dozens of kremlins in Russia in varying states of preservation, and the Kazan Kremlin is among the best of them.
In some ways, the Kazan Kremlin makes an even more enjoyable visit than the Moscow Kremlin, and it’s certainly much less crowded.
Many of Kazan’s top attractions are inside the Kremlin, so a visit here is definitely not to be missed. But first of all, what is a kremlin?
A Kremlin is a citadel. It’s a fortified complex that was at the heart of many historic Russian towns. Today, about 20 kremlins in Russia remain fully intact, and five of those, including the Kazan Kremlin, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Kazan Kremlin was built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in 1552. He had just conquered and destroyed the fortress of the Kazan Khanate, and he built the kremlin on top of the ruined fortress to demonstrate his power.
Strategically located at the confluence of the Volga River and the Kazanka River, the kremlin offers fantastic views of the city from its hilltop position.
Today, the city of Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, a semi-autonomous region in Russia. Or, in official government terms, a “federal subject of the Russian Federation”.
A mix of Tatar and Russian culture, religion and architecture is found throughout Kazan, and the kremlin reflects this better than any other spot in the city. But before we move on, let’s answer another question you might be asking. Who are the Tatars?
Over the centuries, the word “Tatar” has been used to refer to many different Turkic and Mongolian peoples. In modern times, it generally refers to the Volga Tatars, an ethnic group native to the Volga region of Russia.
There are about 5 million Tatars living in Russia, and they make up the majority of the population in Tatarstan.
How to Visit the Kazan Kremlin
In 2000, the kremlin became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the buildings currently standing within the kremlin date from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but some of them incorporate vestiges of previous structures dating from the 10th to the 16th centuries.
Unlike the Moscow Kremlin, visitors are free to enter the Kazan Kremlin complex at any time. A number of sites within the kremlin do charge an admission fee, but visiting these is optional. Even though the Tatarstan Presidential Palace is located inside the kremlin, security here is pretty relaxed. Again, this is very different from the situation at the Moscow Kremlin.
If you approach from Bauman Street, the pedestrianized main street of Kazan, you will enter through the Spasskaya entrance, a whitewashed gate with a tower and clock.
You can wander freely around the grounds, and you can also enter the Kul Sharif Mosque and the Annunciation Cathedral for free. Tickets are necessary only if you plan to visit some of the museums inside the kremlin.
Kazan Kremlin Tickets
There is a combined ticket for all the museums, which costs 700 rubles for one day or 1200 for two days. It includes entry to the following seven museums, listed in the order in which you will come across them if entering at the Spasskaya Tower:
The Manezh Exhibition Hall (temporary exhibits)
The Museum of Natural History of Tatarstan
The Hermitage-Kazan Center
The Museum of Islamic Culture (in the basement of the mosque)
The Museum of the History of the Annunciation Cathedral (inside the Cathedral)
The Museum of the Cannon Courtyard
The Museum of the History of Tatarstan Statehood
When I visited the Kazan Kremlin, I decided not to enter any of the museums. I had already been to the main Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, so I didn’t see much point in visiting the Hermitage-Kazan Center.
And what little information I found online about the other museums in the Kazan Kremlin did not make them sound very compelling. Given the lack of English signage throughout the grounds, I was pretty sure that the situation would be no different inside the museums.
While I know enough Russian to buy train tickets or order a meal in a restaurant, reading explanations of museum exhibits in Russian is a bit beyond my capabilities.
Once I arrived inside the grounds, it became pretty obvious that the most impressive sights in the Kazan Kremlin were the ones that could only be seen from the outside anyway, like the Söyembikä Tower or the Presidential Palace, and the ones that had no entry fee, like the Kul Sharif Mosque and the Annunciation Cathedral.
If you do decide to visit the museums, keep in mind that they don’t open until 10am, while the mosque and cathedral open at 9am. For anyone not planning to enter the museums, I recommend getting there before 10am, as you will beat the tour groups and it will be more peaceful.
It’s possible to arrange a tour of the Kazan Kremlin if you contact the administration in advance by phone or email, but again these tours are available only in Russian.
But don’t worry, in this article I’ve put together a self-guided tour that you can follow to get the most out of your visit to the Kazan Kremlin. Just follow the numbers on this map to find the five main highlights.
Self-Guided Tour of the Kazan Kremlin
1. Spasskaya Tower
If you’ve traveled in other Russian cities, you might have come across the word “Spasskaya” before. It’s a common name for churches, and it’s also the name of a metro line terminus in St. Petersburg.
The word itself means “Saviour”. Spasskaya tower was named after the Spassky Monastery, which used to be located nearby until it was destroyed during Stalin’s reign.
It’s the most famous and the most striking of the nine remaining towers that still punctuate the outer walls of the Kazan Kremlin. The whitewashed arch underneath it serves as the Kremlin’s main entrance.
Spasskaya Tower was built in 1556, although the conical roof was added more than 300 years later in 1857, extending the tower’s height to 46 meters. The clock and the star on top are even later additions, from 1963.
2. Kul Sharif Mosque
Sometimes also transliterated as the Qol Şärif Mosque, this is the most impressive building in the Kremlin, and also the newest.
Kazan marks the northwestern limit of the spread of Islam, and the Kul Sharif Mosque was built on the site of the original mosque that Ivan the Terrible and his troops destroyed in 1552.
It’s named after Imam Kul Sharif, who died defending the city against Ivan the Terrible’s army. This new mosque was inaugurated in 2005 to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Kazan in 1005.
The opening was an important event attended by delegations from 40 countries. It’s one of the largest mosques in Europe and can hold up to 8,000 worshippers.
While you probably won’t hear the call to prayer on most days of the week, Kul Sharif does operate as a functioning mosque on Fridays, when the noon Friday prayers are held here.
It’s closed to visitors at this time, from 11:30am to 1:15pm, but on all other days it’s open from 9am to 7pm. Visitors to the mosque must dress appropriately, but robes and headscarves are available to borrow free of charge if you need them.
First, you will enter a foyer with a rotating filigree 1:80 scale model of the mosque. You’ll probably hear chanting coming from a booth in the corner, where you’ll see a man reading from the Koran.
Go upstairs to the interior balcony where you can look down on the main prayer hall, which is beautifully decorated with stained glass and blue carpets. Photography is allowed. The building is also spectacular from the outside when lit up at night, so consider returning for an evening viewing.
Entry to the Museum of Islamic Culture on the basement level costs 200 rubles, but entry to the rest of the building is free. The main kremlin ticket office is opposite the mosque. Here you can purchase the combined ticket if you plan to visit other museums inside the kremlin.
3. Annunciation Cathedral
While vestiges of older buildings can be spotted here and there, the oldest fully intact construction in the Kazan Kremlin is the Annunciation Cathedral. Construction began shortly after the siege by Ivan the Terrible and was completed in 1562.
Its whitewashed façade is topped with blue onion domes covered in gold stars. If you’ve already visited Suzdal, the most beautiful of the Golden Ring towns near Moscow, this will look very familiar to you.
The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin inside the Suzdal Kremlin follows the same color scheme. Suzdal is another place in Russia you should definitely visit. I'll be publishing an article about it in the coming weeks, so watch this space!
Walk around to the back garden of the Cathedral for some great views out over the city. From here you can see the Kazanka river, some beautiful domed churches, and the Ministry of Agriculture next door. The latter is sometimes called the “Palace of the Farmers” because of its stately appearance.
When the cathedral was bombed by the Red Army in 1918, all five domes were destroyed. From then on, it became a museum and an archive rather than a place of worship. Restoration did not begin until 1995, and in 2005 the Cathedral was finally reconsecrated and handed over to the Orthodox Church.
Inside, the walls are covered in frescoes, and there is a large iconostasis, both of which are quite new. There is a separate museum, but entry to the church itself is free.
4. Söyembikä Tower
It’s hard to miss the Söyembikä Tower, which is also sometimes written as Syuyumbeki’s Tower. This stepped, brick tower has quite an obvious lean.
It’s taller than the Spasskaya tower, at 58 meters in height. Söyembikä was probably built during the time of Peter the Great in the 18th century, although some experts have hypothesized that it was built in the 17th or even the 16th century.
A popular legend dates the tower to the mid-16th century and claims that Ivan the Terrible built it for Söyembikä, the last queen of the Kazan Khanate.
There are a few different versions of the legend, but the gist of it is that Ivan the Terrible was trying to force Söyembikä to marry him against her will. She told him that she would marry him if he built her a tower in seven days, so he did.
Rather than keep her promise of marriage, Söyembikä climbed up the tower and flung herself off the top to her death. Historical records show that Söyembikä died years later in Kasimov, not in Kazan, but the story has captured the imagination of many.
Some Tatars see it as an example of their defiance against Russian control. Next to the tower are the tombs of the Khans of the Kazan Khanate.
5. Presidential Palace
Also known as the Governor’s House, this beautiful pastel-colored building is the palace of the President of the Republic of Tatarstan. Notice the Russian Federation and the Tatarstan flags flying side by side on top of the palace. The flag on the very top is the Tatarstan flag with the Tatarstan coat of arms superimposed on it.
This palace was first built in the 1840s during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I as the Governor’s Palace, then renovated at the turn of the 21st century. It’s thought that the khan’s palace would have stood in this same spot before Ivan the Terrible’s siege.
The president does indeed live here, and the building also houses government offices. Visitors are allowed to view it only from a distance.
More Things to Do in Kazan Russia
While the city’s top sights are located inside the kremlin, there are several other places around town that are worth visiting.
Ekiyat Puppet Theater
Puppet shows are a very popular form of children’s entertainment in Russia, and pretty much every Russian city has a puppet theater. The one in Kazan looks like a child's fairytale castle and is even more impressive than Moscow’s Obraztsov Theater.
Like opera and ballet, puppet shows in Russia are seasonal, and from the end of June to mid-September the troop will be away touring internationally. But even if you can’t catch a show here, it’s worth coming just to see the building from the outside.
Climb the outside staircase to the rooftop and take a selfie with the statue of a boy who has an uncanny resemblance to the Little Prince.
When I visited, there was a colorful children's play area outside the theater. This was part of a flower festival, though, so I don't know how much of it was permanent.
This is not a touristy market, so don’t expect any souvenir stalls. What you’ll see instead is local people going about their daily shopping.
Most of the stalls sell fruits and vegetables, with lots of berries on offer in the summer season. You’ll also see several vendors selling dried fruit and nuts, and theirs are the most photogenic stalls. In addition to the photo opportunities, they also make a useful snack for those long train rides on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
A stall outside the market sells kvas, which is a traditional Russian fermented non-alcoholic drink that tastes a bit like kombucha.
While it’s certainly not as famous or as extensive as the Moscow metro, the underground train network in Kazan also has some surprisingly beautiful stations.
Kremlinskaya Station, which is right next to the Kremlin, is one of the best. On the platform you’ll find mosaics depicting Tatar life and culture during the days of the Kazan Khanate. Look out for the dragon on the ceiling!
Trains are not as frequent as in Moscow, but you can admire the details of the mosaics while you wait for the next one. And at just 27 rubles for a token, it’s cheaper than any museum. Plus, you get transportation around the city thrown into the bargain!
Kazan Family Center
Sometimes called “the Wedding Center”, this is in fact a wedding venue. If you’re not getting married or attending a wedding, the main attraction is the building itself.
It’s in the shape of a cauldron, in homage to the city of Kazan, whose name means “cooking pot”. For 100 rubles, you can climb up to the observation platform on the roof. From here, you’ll have great views back towards the Kremlin and the city center on the other side of the river.
Also of interest are the two pairs of statues standing guard outside the building. The first pair is a male and female winged lion, and the other one is a male and female dragon. Both the females are watching over their cubs, in keeping with the family theme.
Soviet Lifestyle Museum
This is not really a museum in the traditional sense. It’s more like a junk shop, where you’ll find all kinds of items that were totally mundane a few decades ago and are now valued for nostalgic reasons.
Think arcade games, Moscow 1980 Olympics memorabilia and guitars signed by long-forgotten teen idols. For people who lived in the USSR, it’s a trip down memory lane. And for everyone else, it’s a glimpse behind that Iron Curtain that seemed so impenetrable back then.
Unlike in other museums, here you can touch and handle any of the exhibits, and photography is also allowed. The entrance fee is 250 rubles. The stuff that lines the walls as you walk up the stairs to the entrance will give you a good idea of what to expect inside.
Where to Stay in Kazan
When I visited Kazan, I stayed at the Moskovskaya branch of the Berison Hotel. It's well-located and within walking distance of the train station and the kremlin. This hotel offers three different kinds of rooms, with different levels of comfort and prices to match.
I took the middle one, which was spacious and had a balcony of sorts, but did not have many amenities beyond that. If you're a budget traveler like me, it will suit your purposes. The staff are friendly, and the prices are quite reasonable.
For something more luxurious, the Kazan Palace by Tasigo comes very highly rated. Its many features include an on-site sauna, fitness center, garden, bar and spa.
Where to Eat in Kazan
There’s a pretty good selection of vegan food in Kazan. In addition to my favorites listed below, we also tried Vegan Day, Green Life Café, Pesky, and Culinaria. The first two are fully vegan establishments, while the other two are vegetarian.
Read more here about how to eat vegan in Russia (updates coming soon!).
This adorable all-vegan café is one of my favorite eateries in all of Russia. While the food is not Balinese, the beautiful décor reminds me of vegan cafés in Bali.
It has a pretty extensive menu, although some dishes may not be available. Some of my favorite dishes are the blini, the garam masala (which is actually channa masala) and the pumpkin soup.
Like many restaurants and hotels in Russia, it’s difficult to find. The address is Pushkin 19, but there’s no sign out front to indicate that you’re in the right place. Enter the building, and it’s the first door on your right.
One of the best things about traveling in Russia is the wide availability of Georgian food. If you’ve never tasted Georgian cuisine before, you’re in for a real treat!
This Georgian restaurant has an English-language menu with a separate vegetarian section. Our server spoke limited Englisih but was very helpful and used Google translate to explain things when we didn’t understand. Try the mushroom chashushuli and the atsetsili eggplant.
We stopped in at this place just because we needed a quick dinner before catching our train, and it turned out to be a real hidden gem. The multicultural staff from Syria, Palestine and Russia were all very friendly and welcoming.
They also understood what vegan meant and prepared us a lovely meze platter of hummus, mutabal and baba ghanoush, along with falafel wraps. And they even gave us free apple tea and dessert!