Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Novgorod was a testament to how a great group of people brings any place alive. Tell any Russian that you’re going to Novgorod (the ‘Veliky’ an afterthought added to differentiate it from the further-East Nizhny Novgorod) and they will talk your ear off about its historical and cultural importance as the cradle of Russian democracy and its position as one of the greatest cities in the world during the Middle Ages.
In reality, though, Novgorod today is really just a mid-sized, quiet, suburban Russian city. If you’re coming from Moscow or Petersburg, you will feel the difference.
It’s a city with enough onion domes to saturate even the most ardent Russophile – and though I probably saw enough monasteries and churches to fill the next twenty years, I had fun – chiefly because the Neva River is filthy, Petersburg doesn’t have proper beaches, and no experience compares to swimming in the river beaches by the clean, calm Volkhov River.
If you’ve got a spare day or two and have a strange craving for the Russian suburbs, or absolutely need a proper beach during your time here, you’ll find all that in Novgorod – but if you’re ever in town, grab a bottle of vodka and (illegally) drink by the water at sunset with your travel partners. That I highly recommend.