The Best Things to do in Murmansk: the Russian Arctic
Due to the current situation I advice against travel to Russia at the moment. All affiliated links related to Russia have been removed. But I have decided to keep my posts about Russia as it remains a beautiful country. I hope that circumstances change and that travel is possible again in the near future.
Russia has quite a history of building cities in some of the most remote and harsh environments. Murmansk is one of them. Despite the long, cold, dark and snowy winters, Murmansk developed into the largest city in the world above the Arctic circle.
Visiting Murmansk in winter sounds crazy, but it was a highlight of my trip in Russia. There are plenty of things to do in Murmansk. From visiting nucleair icebreakers to watching the northern lights and playing with huskies on a husky farm.
Murmansk is the gateway to the Russian part of Lapland and makes a great budget alternative for your arctic winter adventures that will cost you much more in neighbouring Scandinavia. Just make sure you bring enough warm clothes.
A short history of Murmansk
Murmansk was only established in 1915, but became of huge strategic importance as a major port on the Arctic ocean during the Soviet Union. During the Second World war the Germans did everything to gain control over Murmansk.
Murmansk was heavily bombed and largely destroyed, but the Germans did not succeed. There was fierce resistance and along with the harsh weather conditions the German Army had to retreat. Murmansk later received the honorable title of Hero city.
During the Cold War, Murmansk was vital as a port for nuclear icebreakers and submarines. After the fall of the Soviet Union the population declined, but the port is still driving the economy of the Kola peninsula.
The best things to do in Murmansk
The city of Murmansk is a typical Soviet city where not much has changed since the end of communism. The concrete flat blocks still dominate the city and on a cloudy rainy day it can feel dreary.
In the cold winter sun, Murmansk has its charms though. The thick blanket of white snow covering the city contrasts with the degraded pastel coloured flats. As the sun sets, the clear blue skies become a beautiful pink and purple.
There are enough things to do in Murmansk to keep you busy for a day or two, especially if you include some outdoor activities into the beautiful forested Kola peninsula.
1. Lenin nuclear icebreaker
A visit to the Lenin icebreaker was among the top things to do in Murmansk. The Lenin icebreaker was the first nuclear powered ships and mostly cleared the ice for Russian cargo ships, but was also involved in Arctic rescue missions and other Arctic expeditions.
The ship stopped working in 1989 and is now a museum ship that is interestting to visit even if you have no particular interest in ships. Most tours are in Russian, but there are some information boards with english explanations about the Arctic expeditions and the ship’s involvement.
2. World War 2 Memorial
Murmansk is one of the Soviet Union’s Hero cities. A honorary title that was given to 12 cities that played a big role in defeating Nazi Germany. For Murmansk it came at a high price.
Murmansk was heavily bombarded and the amount of destruction equaled that of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and Stalingrad (Moscow). Nevertheless, the fierce resistance in Murmansk kept the city firmly within Soviet control.
A small memorial that few people know about is near the Lenin Ice breaker. The more famous monument is Alyosha overlooking the Kola bay
3. Alyosha Monument
Up on a hill overlooking the Murmansk port and Kola bay stands soldier Alyosha. With more than 35 meters it is the second tallest statue in Russia. It’s also known as the monument to the defenders of the Soviet arctic during the Great Patriotic War.
Alyosha looks west towards the Valley of Glory that saw some of the heaviest fighting between the Soviet and Nazi armies. In true Soviet tradition there is also a tomb of the unknown soldier and an eternal flame.
A visit to Murmansk is not complete without a visit to Alyosha. The statue is impressive as well as the beautiful views over the Kola Bay.
4. Murmansk port
The Murmansk port still dominates the economy of Murmansk and it is in fact one of the largest ice free ports in Russia. There are three sections for fishing, commerce and passengers.
I am not sure you can visit the actual port as a foreign traveller, but from Alyosha you get a pretty good view over the port below.
5. Walk from Alyosha to Lake Semyonovskoe
Alyosha lies up a hill and the best way to get there is by taxi. However, to get back there is a scenic walk down towards lake Semyonovskoe. At least, in winter it is beautiful when you walk down the hill in a thick blanket of snow.
6. Lake Semyonovskoe
Lake Semyonovskoe in the middle of Murmansk was built for recreational purposes. It’s solid frozen during the winter and a great place to see the people in Murmansk having fun. Ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing and ice fishing are popular activities at the lake.
7. Church saviours on the water
At Lake Semyonovskoe you can also find the small saviours on the water church in memorial to all the seamen that perished on the sea. Below the church is also a lighthouse monument to remember the 118 men that died in the Kursk submarine accident.
8. Morzhi Ice bathers hut
Come to the Morzhi ice bathers hut at Lake Semyonovskoe to see a few brave Russians bathing in freezing waters. It’s actually for members only, but we soon had an invitation to join which I had to decline. I didn’t really think of bringing my bathing suit to Arctic Murmansk, but maybe I should have.
9. Murmansk square
The main square in Murmansk is at the heart of the city. Shopping centers, the famous Soviet hotel Arktika and in winter some ice slides make it among the top places to visit in Murmansk.
10. Soviet murals
When in Murmansk don’t forget to look at the side of the communist flat appartment buildings. Some have beautiful mural decorations with Soviet themes.
I am personally a big fan of the Soviet mosaics and Soviet architecture. Murmansk did not dissapoint me in that regard either.
Things to do near Murmansk
There are just as many things to do outside Murmansk as inside the city. Murmansk is the gateway to the forested Kola peninsula that is home to the indigenous Sami community and several husky farms.
Exploring the Kola peninsula on your own is a bit of a challenge. I booked my northern lights tour and my visit to the Saami village and Husky farm through Visit Murmansk.
11. Watch the Northern lights in Murmansk
Murmansk is an excellent place to see the Northern lights, especially during the polar nights when the sun doesn’t come up at all. It is also one of the cheapest places to see the northern lights in this region.
If money is no issue you can always stay at the Aurora village outside of Murmansk. However, this is not necessary and a more budget friendly alternative is to join a tour with Visit Murmansk.
I had a taxi with a driver that was in contact with the office to keep himself up to date with where the highest chances for Aurora were. In the beginning we had a very short but lucky sight of the Aurora Borealis.
After that we spent two hours driving around without seeing much. Clouds were moving in and obscuring our view. As it was so cold I was almost giving up, but our driver assured me to be patient. And yes, there it was in full glory. Streaks of green and white light dacing in the sky.
12. Visit a Saami village
One of the most popular things to do near Murmansk is a visit to a Saami village. You will hardly see any other tourists in Murmansk, but you will be surprised how touristic the Saami experience actually is and I left with mixed feelings.
The Saami are the indigenous population of the Kola peninsula. They were once nomadic reindeer hunters in the tundra, but the Soviet Union changed their lifestyle forever. Forced collectivization and the closure of pastures for military purposes erased a large part of Saami culture.
They were forced to settle in the village of Lovozero where there are few employment opportunities. Tourism is one of them and the result is the Saami village. Here you can visit an Arctic zoo, pet reindeers and go on a snowmobile banana.
Although fun, I can still remember the two sad little arctic foxes in a small cage. They did not look happy and I am pretty sure this has nothing to do with indigenous Sami culture.
The Saami village also has a guesthouse and Sauna in case you like to stay longer.
How to get there: The easiest is to go on an organized tour through Visit Murmansk or another agency. It is also possible to take a train or bus from Murmsansk to Olenogorsk and then take a taxi from there. Note that the Sami village is not in Lovozero itself.
13. Visit a husky farm
Another popular thing to do near Murmansk is a visit to a husky farm. Here I left with a much more positive feeling than after my visit to the Saami village.
I am actually a bit scared of big dogs, but I absolutely fell in love with the friendly huskies that were overly excited to play with us. An informative video shows the actual strength of the dogs and in our tour we had a short dog sledge experience. They can also organize longer dog sledging experiences if you like.
How to get there: The easiest is to go on an organized tour through Visit Murmansk or another agency or a taxi from Murmansk.
Teriberka at the Barents sea lies at the edge of Russia where the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t been easy. Most people have left Teriberka and it almost feels like a ghost town.
If you have seen the film Leviathan that was filmed in this region you might wonder if there is any reason at all to come here. But the nature is spectacular and if abandoned places tickle your fancy it is certainly worth a visit.
How to get there: The easiest is to go on an organized tour through Visit Murmansk or another agency. There is a direct bus every other day from Murmansk to Teriberka leaving between 17:40 and 18:00. It returns from Teriberka the next day at 07:00 AM.
Murmansk Travel Tips
Where to eat in Murmansk
The white rabbit: The white rabbit is one of the few options where you can get a varied menu with quality food on a budget. They have a large selection of pastries and cakes and some nice salads too.
Shtolle: Shtolle is a chain restaurant throughout Russia that specializes in Russian pies. They have a huge menu with all kind of different fillings from apple, jams to muhrooms, salmon and meat.
It became one of my favourite places to eat for breakfast or lunch and I was therefore very happy to find out they had one in Murmansk as well.
Where to sleep in Murmansk
Tri Zaytsa : Mini Hotel tri zaytsa or in english the three rabbits is a friendly and small budget hostel where I had a good time.
Hotel Arktika: For a long time the Hotel Arktika held the record for being the tallest building north of the arctic circle. A classic Soviet era hotel that is prominent in Murmansks history It is still one of the best hotels in the city, but if staying here is out of your budget you can also pay a visit to its restaurant bar on the top floor.
How to get to Murmansk
by plane: The easiest way to reach Murmansk is to fly from either Moscow or Saint Petersburg.
by train: Besides flying, it is also possible to get to Murmansk by train. The Saint Petersburg to Murmansk train takes 24 hours. It’s a long, but very beautiful journey through the north of Russia.
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