Russia's earliest history was characterised by principalities, who competed and traded with each other, jostling for power and resources. Veliky Novgorod (p224) was one of the earliest and most influential cultural and religious centres. These days it still retains a magical, mystical air of history, which is reflected in the domes of its myriad churches and the arcs of its ancient trading arcades. You can see Novgorod in a day, although there are enough sights and activities to keep a traveller busy for two or more.
Dating back even further, Staraya Ladoga (p229) is generally considered to be Russia's oldest town. Its quaint streets contain a fascinating fortress, ruined churches and precious architectural relics from Russia's birth as a nation. Again, it's close enough for a day trip if you get an early start.
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