Russia is a massive behemoth with a mammoth history and an even bigger heart. Its beautiful cities are busy shedding their Soviet era legacy, while the vast and remote countryside makes you think time has stood still. “Nyet! We are not capitalists” Muscovites might tell you, but they’re hell bent on making money!
Why You Should Go
What’s Cool: Vodka, caviar, red sparkling wine, onion domes, Fabergé eggs, friendly people, Moscow|Moscow’s historic landmarks, Black Sea beaches, Siberia’s unending wilderness, the world’s deepest lake, ice skating, Russian saunas, the Trans-Siberian Railway, beetroot soup, buildings and all the ‘ovas’ of tennis (Sharapova, Petrova, Kuznetsova).
What’s Not: City crime, boorish officials, accommodation issues, unreliable domestic flights, Chechen rebels, hygiene concerns, corrupt cops, Soviet-style bureaucracy, industrial pollution, reckless drivers, dual pricing at tourist sites, inflated bills, taxi rip-offs, the mafia and Russia has all the gas!
When to Go
Russia’s climatic extremes range from the icy cold of the Siberian north to the high temperatures of the European south.
Northern and Central European Russia have the most varied weather; the Baltic coast is mild and summer sunshine can extend to 9 hours a day, but winters are often very cold.
Southern European Russia’s winters are shorter than in the north. The plains have hot, dry summers and freezing winters. The north and northeastern Black Sea sees mild winters but lots of rainfall throughout the year.
Siberia has extremely cold winters, while summers, although usually short and wet, can be quite pleasant. Temperatures here vary considerable by season.
Getting There & Away
The main air hubs are Moscow and St Petersburg. Domestic air travel has recently improved and is the best option for getting to far-flung destinations. Only some long-distance rail routes are open for travel by tourists and reservations are required on all journeys. Russian buses are a great way to travel between small towns but require patience and are generally less comfortable than trains. Cruises and boat excursions are available on many of the Russian Federation’s rivers. Public transport services in the cities are comprehensive and cheap. Many operate on electric traction (metro, tramway, trolleybus).
Health & Safety
Safety concerns in Russia have often been exaggerated and using common sense will usually keep you out of trouble. All water can be considered a potential health risk. Water used for drinking, brushing teeth or making ice should first be boiled or otherwise sterilized. Beware of fake vodka which can lead to blindness. Many Russians hold firm beliefs ranging from nationalist and xenophobic to racist and militant fascist. Police often check you documents and may fish for bribes. Don’t flash your cash!
Food & Hospitality
Not all caviar and beetroot soup, Russian cuisine is often on the heavy side. That’s what vodka is for. Lighter dishes such as fabulous soups and salads are around in the summer. A wide range of international dining options can easily be found in the larger cities. Some hotels are up to international standards, while others are very basic. Many Russians are happy to rent out rooms in private residences, usually with breakfast prepared by your host. Anyone traveling on a tourist visa to the Russian Federation is required to (at least officially) have accommodation arranged before arrival.
Two weeks is the least you can get away with to enjoy some of the highlights.
Two or three days to see the capital’s historical highlights and landmarks.
Three or four days to tour the Golden Ring, extending northeast from Moscow, where ancient towns offer historical, architectural and spiritual attractions.
Two or three days in St Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful cities with lots of grand buildings and museums.
Two or three days on the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake with crystal water and teeming wildlife.
Three days by the Black Sea with fine beaches and famous health spas.
Six days on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, passing through the vast emptiness of Siberia and Lake Baikal.
Two or three days in Kizhi in Lake Onega for its Transfiguration Church in old Russian architecture.
A week in the UNESCO-protected Lapland Biosphere Reserve’s pristine wilderness, accessible by hiking, skis, snowshoes or skidoos.
Four or five days in Irkutsk, the ‘Paris of Siberia’, located on the Trans-Siberian train route with significant Chinese influence and some splendid architecture.
Red Square: and the Kremlin in Moscow are steeped in Soviet era history.
Golden Ring: outside Moscow boasts a rich collection of citadels, monasteries, cathedrals and fortresses.
: was built by Peter the Great and spreads over 42 islands with an Eastern character.
The Black Sea: with its fine beaches and Caucasus Mountains backdrop has several health spas where you’ll be pummeled into oblivion by a sturdy Olga.
Volgograd: formerly Stalingrad, is a monument to the year-long battle that was fought here and home to the Victory Museum, commemorating the defeat of the Nazis.
Siberia: covers an area of over 4,000,000 square miles and contains unbelievably immense stretches of boggy forest (taiga).
Lake Baikal: is the world’s deepest lake, 25 million years old and a playground for crayfish, wildfowl, bears and enthusiastic sturgeon poachers.
Lapland Biosphere Reserve: is home to 1,000 reindeer, 33 species of mammals, 201 bird species, 15 species of fish and over 900 species of plants. Bring your own supplies.
Kursche Spit: is a beautiful sand peninsula on the west coast and a rich habitat for plants and animals.
Cultural sightseeing: is a must, with all the lovely churches and landmarks, stunning scenery and intriguing 1,200-year-old history.
Ice skating: is a popular pastime on the many frozen lakes and outdoor rinks all over the country.
Banya bathing: is the Russian-style sauna and a good way to experience genuine Russian social life.
Entertainment: of world repute can be found at the Bolshoi Opera and the Moscow Circus.
Train riding: on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway through vast tundra and forests. Bring a book and plenty of vodka.
Trekking: among mountainous landscapes ranging from alpine fields of red poppies to snow-capped peaks and scenic plateaus.
Flying: in a MIG-29 fighter will turn your innards outside at more than twice at the speed of sound.
Cruising: on the Volga River past some splendid old towns like the ancient Tatar city of Kazan and Lenin’s birthplace.
Festivals & Events
Holidays from pre-Christian times combine ancient pagan traditions and religious aspects with liberal servings of vodka.
January: Orthodox Christmas is celebrated with midnight services, candlelight processions and lively folk art.
January: Russian Winter features traditional activities such as music, dance, folk shows and sleigh rides.
April: Music Spring in St Petersburg is a celebration of international classical music.
June: White Nights in St Petersburg, when the sun doesn’t set, are a time for general revelry and staying up late.
July: Ivan Kupala festivals are held when nature is considered to be at the height of its power, with ring-dances, games, fun and feasting.
December: Russian Winter Festival is held in St Petersburg, Moscow and Novgorod and features folklore performances.