About 30 km (19 miles) out of Kazan is the Raifa Monastery, situated in the Volga-Kama Reserve – a dreamy UNESCO protected nature sanctuary found at the conflux of the Volga, Kama and Myosha Rivers. A compound made of three different cathedrals, each decorated with ornate linings and embellished with iconography, it provides a lovely escape into the countryside and an opportunity to soak up Tatarstan’s beauty and enjoy the tranquility of the place. The largest monastery in Tatarstan and founded in the 1600s, it was closed during the Soviet era, reopening in 1991. Stop off for a quick look at the eccentric and colourful Temple of All Faiths on the way.
Head to Sviyazhsk Island for a feel of Tatarstan’s beautiful remoteness. The island, despite being connected to the mainland, lies in the juncture of the Volga and Sviyage Rivers and feels further than the 60 km (38 miles) it actually is from Kazan. Founded in 1551 as a fortress and built within four weeks, it was key in Ivan the Terrible’s victory over the Kazan Khanate. Today, Sviyazhsk is a small picturesque village that includes the World Heritage listed Assumption Cathedral and Monastery. After checking out the sights, you can also find a spot with a view and have a picnic while looking across the surrounding expanse of water. Though you can get here by bus, for a different perspective try taking a boat right from Kazan’s riverboat station.
This spot is a quaint old merchant town 210 km (130 miles) away from Kazan on the banks of the Kama River. Its lack of a train station has meant the city has retained a lot of its yesteryear charm, so look out for the resplendent, 19th-century mansions and architecture, as well as the quirky new additions such as the monuments to the janitor, policeman, the samovar (a traditional vessel used to brew tea) and the postman. There are also museums dedicated to local artists as well as to the only female solider who served in the war of 1812, Nadezhda Durova. Though it’s only 2-3 hours away in a car, the bus journey can drag, so you might want to make this an overnight trip if on public transport.
The region’s ancient capital and of great significant Tatar cultural importance, Bolghar, about 130 km (81 miles) out of Kazan along the Volga, is now home to several World Heritage sights. As the intermittent capital of of Volga-Bulgaria between the 8th and 15th centuries, it was also once capital to an autonomous state within the Golden Horde. It survived as an Islamic mainstay during the Golden Horde, Kazan Khanate and the region’s absorption into the Russian state. Muslims from across Tatarstan and Russia, who weren’t able to make the pilgrimage across to Mecca, would travel down to Bolghar instead. Soak up the medieval grandeur in beguiling nature, and take in the ancient mosques and architecture for a real feel of traditional Tatar culture.