Is it mental to head to the very northernmost parts of European Russia in winter? Yes, it is, but it was definitely worth it and here is our guide to winter adventures in and around Murmansk!
Some countries were meant for tourism in flip-flops on the beach, but Russia was made for adventure and to get out of your comfort zone. If you wanted an all inclusive vacation to a foreign country where you'd never had to interact with any locals or leave the hotel, then Russia is not the place for you!
In that spirit, I decided it was time to go see the Northern Lights which has become a bit of a travel trend in Russia. Why go see them? Well, because I never have and that is a good enough reason for me, but I also expected to get some great winter adventure footage of Murmansk Region. I knew the footage would be exotic and exciting for any people who live in places where snow falling would make the local news.
And so, here is the story of our quest to see the Northern Lights and prove that taking an arctic adventure holiday is not as mental as it would sound on paper.
Map: This is the route we took to get around on normal roads in a normal vehicle.
The big icy adventure begins!
Any travel in this region starts in Murmansk itself. After all, that is where the region's main train station and airport are. Murmansk is a city way up inside the Arctic Circle and is much closer to the Finnish and Norwegian border than any other major Russian town. It is famous as a port city, sending all sorts of lovely seafood products down south, especially to Moscow. During the Cold War, lots of sneaky submarines used to "sleep" here when off duty, but the main guardian of the city today is the huge Alyosha monument that looks down over it.
Although we hear much more about Kursk, Stalingrand and Berlin, there was plenty of intense fighting in the far north during WWII. The Germans tried to take the Soviets by surprise by actually attacking from the north, but ultimately, it turned into a long stalemate, as Murmansk held out. This monument is not only big, but also provides probably the best view of town allowing you to see the entire city and especially the port it is famous for - and don't worry, thankfully, no one accused us of spying as we flew our drone about!
From Alyosha's platform we were able to see our next destination - the Lenin Icebreaker, which was the first nuclear path smashing vessel of its kind. The ship is now a living museum, forever docked in place with no radioactive material to speak of, but it really was like jumping into a time portal to the Soviet Union with all the original buttons, dials, furniture and design quirks. But it is hard to imagine spending months on end with a small crew on this huge boat bouncing around in the Arctic waters. That must have been a tough job to say the least!
I am a huge advocate of certain positions: 1) Russia is a great place to go for adventure even in winter and 2) guns are a great hobby and any excuse to destroy some targets is worth it. I am American, after all. Now the way the gun laws are written in Russia are a bit vague with the end result being that most shooting ranges won't let foreigners use their weapons inside of Moscow, but up in Murmansk, accents and foreign passports are welcome! Plus it is really cold outside and I wanted some hot iron to keep me warm.
Note from Tim: Despite what internet memes tell you, you can own guns in Russia and there are many shooting ranges across the nation that will welcome you with open arms (pun intended). Due to the laws, one of the most common types of guns purchased are assault shotguns. Fun times!
Our next stop was to the former set of the Oscar nominated movie 'Leviathan', also known as Teriberka village. The movie did not put Russia in the best light and has, thus, become a curiosity that attracts tourists from all over to see if things are as awful as the movie depicted. Thankfully, Teriberka in reality is a lovely fishing village with a lot of heart and seafood.
The spooky abandoned school in Teriberka called to me and the lock on the door was broken anyway, so I decided to engage in some Soviet archeology. Walking through those dark moldy halls made me feel like I was in some sort of Silent Hill style alternate reality. Any minute the floor could collapse or monsters could pop out! It was surprising just how much stuff was left behind, despite this place becoming a popular tourist trap (sometimes literally if you fall down the broken stairs). Normally, the term "otherworldly" does not apply to your vacation, but in Murmansk Region, it sure does!
We somehow accidentally ran into a ship graveyard on our way to go see an ice waterfall that they write about in travel blogs. The rotting ships were certainly depressing. If you think about all the resources and effort that goes into making a fairly large wooden boat, it was so sad to see them discarded, rather than repaired.
The much hyped waterfall thankfully did not disappoint. Seeing a rushing river moving completely under a thick sheet of ice was a once in a lifetime experience for me, but wow, did we have to hike to get there! It was quite the uphill battle and, thankfully, we were there in the middle of the day; at night, things could have gone badly.
Note from Tim: If you noticed, we filmed some great glamor shots of our car driving along the beaches; this of course violated the rules of our car rental. Thankfully, they didn't notice all the sand in the gears. If you want to see the results of this risky shoot, then check out our 4k drone footage video of Murmansk and its surrounding areas.
Our big mission was still to see the Northern Lights, so the best strategy seemed to be to stay at the Aurora Village Dome Hotel, which, in theory, allows you to watch the night skies from the comfort of your private dome. Each of them sort of looked like a twenty-sided die that you'd use for Dungeons & Dragons with the bottom cut off. There was some privacy, but the roof was completely clear, except where the triangular glass panes touched. There was a mini fireplace and room for four to sleep, in theory. But we had four big dudes, one of whom snores horribly, so it was a little cramped. I could see maybe some younger couples going on a vacation and renting one of these domes for a party, but to be honest, it wasn't for us. Then again, maybe we were just not the ideal tourists.
Note from Tim: In fact, this type of tourism has become very popular among Chinese visitors, who desperately want to stay at these sorts of places in the north of Russia. Why? Well you have to watch our video to find out. I can't reveal the secrets here now can I!?
Sadly, at the Dome Hotel, we didn't get to see any aurora at all. Downer. Doing things the "easy way" rarely coincides with doing them the "Russian way". But, the solution was not too complex. The city of Kirovsk is far away from the dark waters of the coast and gets vastly less cloud cover. So, if there was any hope of seeing an aurora, it would be there.
Kirovsk not only gave us some insight into the simple life in a Soviet town - lots of families moving about the show, women pushing baby carriages with great difficulty and kids playing in the snow surrounded by five-storey grey buildings of Communism's past. Outside of Moscow, most of the major grocery chains are non-existent and Kirovsk was instead filled with odd little stores still using the Soviet format of yesteryear, where each section of the store has its own dedicated cashier and if she's taking a smoke break, you just have to wait. It was very Norman Rockwellovsky.
I have to say thank you to the city of Kirovsk, because when we went outside at night to lay down in the snow, pointing the cameras to the sky... we finally saw the Northern Lights! Mission accomplished! It is hard to describe what it looks like in real life, but I would say "magical and wispy". But, most importantly, the auroras are a huge part of culture here. In fact, they are even drawn proudly (and abstractly) on the state seal of Murmansk Region. Coming up here and not seeing the lights would almost be like an insult to the locals, like going to Tokyo and specifically avoiding Mount Fuji.
The Khibiny Mountains are another popular outdoor activity destination. This is where they say Olympic athletes would train for the winter games in the isolated cold environment. Well, I didn't see anything particularly "Olympic", but we did, however, see gorgeous views that would make an amazing desktop background on your computer.
Note from Tim: While we were taking in the scenery of the Khibiny Mountains, we got stuck - and I mean really stuck in the snow.
So, after a half hour fight with the car, we started driving the opposite direction back to Kirovsk to film some of the nicer downtown architecture that we had skipped. Hey why not!? This is a once in a lifetime trip, gotta get that footage, baby!
Not so far from Kirovsk there is the Sami Village cultural center that allows you to get to know the native culture that was here before the Russians arrived. And it seemed to be the biggest hit among non-Russian tourists. The place was very cute and run by the Sami people themselves, but, most importantly, there were plenty of huskies and elk that we were free to pet and interact with.
It was a cuteness overload and definitely worth it. Besides that, I got the chance to play their national sport with many Chinese tourists. Basically, you play ice soccer with a ball made from rabbit skins. Very interesting and very insane. I liked it.
So if you want to see just what I am talking about watch our video.
The big challenge for our winter "vacation" - going to the edge of the Earth!
That may have sounded like quite a lot of driving and adventure and it was, but there was one key location left! Our biggest most insane idea for our trip to Murmansk Region was to go up to the very edge of the world at the northernmost point of Eastern European Russia and film it all. Sort of like those "challenge" things those YouTubers are all doing nowadays. The ride from the airport to the Titovka check point was easy going... three hours of comfortable driving, but past the checkpoint would be the end of that. We hired local drivers from a tour agency that specializes in this mental form of outdoor adventure. Thankfully, they were driving on their customized vehicles; sadly a standard Lada would just never make it this far. Why two vehicles you ask? Because if one breaks, there is no one to come to save you! Who doesn't like to add a little risk to their holiday action!?
Things quickly began to get much bumpier and much colder. The first unique thing we saw was a bridge built by the Germans during WWII that is still somehow in use. But after that, we had a few hours of just brutal roads, white show and eventually jet black sea waters. But, with time, alien terrain opened up and it really felt like we had reached another world.
Note from Tim: If you go on such a tour, be very careful even walking, as there are big deep pools of water hidden under the snow. The path ahead looks perfectly even and white then all of a sudden you or the vehicle can plunge into a foot of rusty brown water.
One thing I really didn't expect was that we would get the chance to explore an abandoned military village that housed thousands of soldiers during the Cold War. It was eerie to go through these rotting buildings that were once full of life and families. A little apocalyptic flavor does wonders for your vacation!
Note from Tim: Don't look down your nose at the roadside lunch the tour guides provide. Eating buckwheat and beef from a can is the true Russian army experience that you can get on vacation without all the yelling from some sergeant.
But, after a few more hours of driving, we did it! We made it to the very northern edge of Russia. At the end of the land surrounded by black waters stands one sad old lighthouse. We took some time to have some tea that cooled over very quickly, filmed as much as we could in the fading daylight and then drove to a hotel. Yes, there is a small hotel here specifically catering to those nutcases like us who want to drive up here. Warm food and a warm bed sure helped ease our exhausted souls.
Going all the way to that extreme northern end of Russia was very annoying while we were heading there, but once we got there, it was totally worth it. In your normal daily life, it seems you could always go in some direction, or even if there is a sea near your hometown, you know what's on the other side. But here, we were completely engulfed by black water. Looking north, east and west, we knew there was simply nothing to be found. This literally was the end of the line. Definitely a very spiritual experience.
If you're curious to see what it's like to travel to the edge of the world then watch our video!
Finally, it was time to eat hot food. Murmansk is cold, if you hadn't noticed!
When you think of cold northern regions by the ocean, what sort of food comes to mind? "Surf and turf" seems like the most logical option, well that and potatoes. And, in this way, Murmansk Region does not disappoint, with its amazing seafood treats that make fish in Moscow Region's rivers look like straight garbage. But, its land meat treats from elk, moose and other critters we Americans associate with Canada are also a refreshing change of pace from the beef, chicken, pork triad we get in the nation's capital.
Misha (our bold director and adventurous producer) did a good job producing the episode, so we got the chance to film some really unique dining locations! First, in the fishing village of Teriberka, there were obviously big crabs and fish on the plate. It was like a buffet for a king! And not only that, friends! We were treated to sea urchins so fresh they cut them open right in front of us. Same thing with scallops and oysters, right from the ocean to the plate. This tiny village is the last place you would expect fine dining, but, apparently, tourism is growing and these tourists want local seafood. It is on the Arctic Ocean, afterall! Whoever took the financial risk to do fine dining in Teriberka, I salute you!
Note from Tim: By random chance still in Teriberka, we drove past the "northernmost brewery" in Russia and guess what? It was darn good and darn cheap! They were also nice enough to show us how they make their beer using only equipment made in Russia. That is very patriotic of them! And, well, any excuse to drink beer while on holiday is a good one, right?
Creatures of the north are much bigger and far more delicious than the pigeons of Moscow. Elk, moose, reindeer and other meats are "on the table". In Murmansk, we stopped at a famous stand that sells good ol' deer and elk meat. I was very excited. I love these sort of locally produced things sold out the back of a truck. There is a great spirit to them that you don't get at a Wal-Mart. But, to put it bluntly, there were some things that we bought that smelled like a men's locker room! Some were good, but lacked a unique flavor. Can't say I'd recommend it to tourists with a soft stomach, as most food that reminds you of a heavily used gym doesn't sit well. Thankfully, our director Misha did not mind the smell of old underwear and ate it all very quickly off camera. Misha is a true Russian hero.
From there we went to the Tsarskaya Okhota (The Tsar's Hunt) restaurant which was founded by a woman who cut her chef's teeth in Moscow, became extremely successful and used her earnings to start a restaurant chain back home in Murmansk. Her goal was to create a modern twist on local cuisine and I think she hit the nail right on the head. The menu was filled with exotic things like tender deer heart, smooth crab soup and the most elite mashed potatoes I have had in my life! The place really does put Murmansk on a plate!
To find out all the juicy details check out our video and see for yourselves.
Good-bye Murmansk, it was nice to get to know you!
Murmansk was a bit cold on the outside, but definitely warm on the inside. From the village that never gives up in Teriberka, to the fine dining of today's big Murmansk, all of us had an eye opening experience. And now, I can honestly tell you that "I've been to the end of the world baby!" And that brings me joy. But you, too, can get in on the fun. Why not come to Russia and take a trip up to Murmansk? I had a blast and I am sure you will too - just don't buy weird elk bits off the back of a truck! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed all of our videos. Please like and especially share, it really helps us out! "Sharing" is caring on YouTube.