RUSSIA TRAVEL GUIDE
Russia is the largest country in the world, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth's inhabited land area, spanning Eastern Europe and northern Asia.
Notwithstanding the negative aspects of modern Russia, the country has lifted its iron curtain and visitors come to discover the hitherto hidden treasures of ancient Rossiya, the land of many hues. The historical Smolensk area, the changing expanse of Siberia, the breathtaking Baikal reserve, the snowy world of the Transurals, the precipices of the Caucasus, and the fire breathing volcanoes of Kamchatka cover the diverse natural landscape of Russia.
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RUSSIA QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Moscow
- Currency: Russian Ruble (RUB, ₽)
- Area: 17,098,242 km²
- Population: 144,5 million (2018)
- Language: Russian
- Religion: Russian Orthodox 46.5%, Muslim 6.5%, Spiritual 25.1%, Atheist 12.9, Others 9%.
- Electricity: 220V, 50Hz (Europlug & Schuko plug)
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RUSSIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 2 January, New Year (second day)
- 7 January, Christmas Day (Russian Orthodox)
- 23 February, Defenders of the Motherland Day
- 8 March, International Women’s Day
- 1-2 May, Labour Day
- 9 May, Victory Day
- 12 June, Russia Day
- 4 November, National Unity Day
Holidays occurring on Saturday or Sunday are observed on the Monday following.
BEST TIME TO VISIT RUSSIA
As most foreigners have a greatly exaggerated fear of the cold in Russia, the best time to visit is summer, which lasts from the beginning of June up to mid-September. During summer in Russia, the days and nights are warm and muggy, with heat waves a possibility during August - Muscovites leave in droves for their dachas in the countryside at this time.
May - Big military parades and a public holiday marks the end of WWII.
June & July - Party during St Petersburg’s White Nights, and bask on the beaches of Kaliningrad.
December & January - Snow makes Moscow and St Petersburg look magical, while hotel rates drop.
Spring sees several major music festivals starting from around April into May, accompanied by national holidays such as Victory Day and May Day. Autumn is equally an excellent time for festivals, despite cloudy skies and falling temperatures.
Sub-zero temperatures and snow can set in up to two months before winter officially begins in December. Blanketed in a fresh dusting of snow, Moscow seems magically subdued and cleansed, with Muscovites reveling in the crispness of the air. Days are often splendidly sunny, and the temperature only a few degrees below zero, so skiing and sledding are constant and popular pursuits. At some point, though an intense cold snap will send the temperatures down to -20°C or lower, which can linger on until March.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN RUSSIA
The snow sports season in Russia can stretch all the way from September and last until April, depending where in the country you are.
HIKING & CYCLING IN RUSSIA
The best time for outdoor activities in Russia is from May to September, with July and August being the most pleasant.
BEACH OPTIONS IN RUSSIA
Russia may not be a very hot beach destination, but it does have a few lovely beaches to soak up the 'not so hot' sun rays! Check out Sochi, Vladivostok, Kurshskaya Kosa National Park and Baltiysk.
SURFING IN RUSSIA
The best time for surfing in Russia is from May to October, with some great swell, particularly along the Kamkatcha Peninsula.
KITESURF IN RUSSIA
Russia has some great conditions for both kitesurfing and windsurfing from May to September.
RUSSIA TRAVEL COSTS
Russia, especially its capital cities, can be quite expensive for travellers. But don’t despair–even if you are traveling to Russia on a budget, you can still find places to stay and things to do that won’t cripple your bank account. Even better, by traveling in this way you will get to see more of the “real” Russia than by staying at a lavish hotel and going to the most expensive restaurants
RUSSIA TRAVEL TIPS
Moscow Free Tour - Every day, enthusiastic guides from moscowfreetour.com offer an informative, inspired two-hour guided walk around Red Square and Kitay Gorod – and it's completely free. It's so good, that (they hope) you'll sign up for one of their excellent paid tours, covering the Kremlin, the Arbat, and the Metro, or more thematic tours like communist Moscow or mystical Moscow.
The Moscow Metro is by far the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way of getting around the city. Stations are marked outside by 'M' signs. Magnetic cards (₽50 RUB) are sold at ticket booths with single rides at ₽40 RUB.
The fastest trains between Moscow and St Petersburg are the Sapsan services (from $60 USD for three to four hours). Tickets often sell out in the high months but keep your plans flexible and you should be able to find something, even at the last minute. Cheapest, and most atmospheric, are overnight trains, a quintessential Russian experience, which takes around eight hours.
Many flights connect the two cities and they rarely sell out. Flying will get you there in 1h30m at half the price of a train ticket but you have to factor in airport time and luggage costs. Russian trains allow transportation of up to 36 (the 3rd and the 2nd class sleepers, and all seating classes) or up to 50 kg of luggage (the 1st and deluxe class sleepers), L + W + H of which does not exceed 180 cm, per one passenger for free, which is a notable advantage of train travel.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF RUSSIA
Be awe-inspired by the massive scale and riches of Moscow, Russia's brash, energetic capital.
Take a walking, bike, or boat tour of St Petersburg, a glorious Italianate slice of Old Europe incongruously placed in Russia.
Contemplate the seemingly endless collection of masterpieces in St Petersburg's unrivaled State Hermitage Museum.
Take a day trip out of St Petersburg to see the imperial country estates at Petrodvorets and Tsarskoe Selo.
Trace Russia's roots back to Veliky Novgorod with its well-preserved Kremlin and many picturesque churches.
Explore Kaliningrad, once part of the Prussian empire, and home to the pristine beaches of the Kurshskaya Kosa National Park.
Could there be a more iconic image of eastern Europe than the awe-inspiring architectural ensemble of Moscow’s Red Square? The brash, exciting, and oil-rich capital of Russia (Россия) is a must on any trip to the region.
St Petersburg, on the Baltic coast, is another stunner. The former imperial capital is still Russia’s most beautiful and alluring city, with its grand Italianate mansions, winding canals, and enormous Neva River. Also make time for Veliky Novgorod, home to an ancient stone fortress and many fresco-decorated churches. Emulating the tourist-friendly nature of its Baltic neighbors is little Kaliningrad, wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. It’s a fascinating destination, combining all the best elements of its enormous mother.
In Moscow, touring the Kremlin and Red Square will take up one day, viewing the spectacular collections at the Tretyakov, New Tretyakov, and Pushkin art museums. On day three size up the magnificent Novodevichy Convent, and the revamped Gorky Park. Take the night train to Veliky Novgorod and spend a day exploring its ancient Kremlin and churches. The rest of the week is reserved for splendid St Petersburg. Wander up Nevsky pr, see Dvortsovaya pl, and spend a half-day at the Hermitage. Tour the canals and the mighty Neva River by boat. Visit Peter & Paul Fortress, the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and the wonderful Russian Museum.
With two extra days in Moscow, sweat it out in the luxurious Sanduny Baths or do a metro tour. In St Petersburg, spend more time in the Hermitage and other museums, and tack on an excursion to Petrodvorets or Tsarskoe Selo. Then fly to Kaliningrad. Admire the capital's reconstructed Gothic Cathedral and wander along the river to the excellent World Ocean Museum. Enjoy either the old Prussian charm of the spa town of Svetlogorsk or the sand dunes and forests of the Kurshskaya Kosa National Park.
Intimidating in its scale, but also exciting and unforgettable, Moscow is a place that inspires either extreme passion or loathing. History, power and wild capitalism hang in the air alongside an explosion of creative energy throwing up edgy art galleries and a dynamic restaurant, bar and nightlife scene. The sturdy stone walls of the Kremlin, the apex of Russian political power and once the centre of the Orthodox Church, occupy the city's founding site on the northern bank of the Moscow River. Remains of the Soviet state, such as Lenin's Tomb, are nearby in Red Square and elsewhere in the city which radiates from the Kremlin in a series of ring roads.
Covering Borovitsky Hill on the north bank of the Moscow River, the Kremlin is enclosed by high walls 2.25km long, with Red Square outside the east wall. The best views of the complex are from Sofiyskaya Embankment across the river. Times and tickets are available at kreml.ru.
Immediately outside the Kremlin’s northeastern wall is the celebrated Red Square, the 400m by 150m area of cobblestones that is at the very heart of Moscow. Commanding the square from the southern end is The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, commonly known as Saint Basil's Cathedral. The view of which will sure to send you clamouring for a camera! The Cathedral is Moscow’s most famous artistic work of architecture and by far the most recognizable Russian building. This Cathedral means to Russians the same as what the Eiffel Tower means to the French - an honourable symbol of their past, present, and future.
Although Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, requested that he be buried beside his mother in St Petersburg, he still lies in state at the foot of the Kremlin wall, receiving visitors who come to pay their respects. To see the embalmed leader, who has been here since 1924, line up at the western corner of the square.
Moscow's main escape from the city within the city is not your conventional expanse of nature preserved deep inside an urban jungle. It is not exactly a funfair either, though it used to be one. Its official name says it all – Maxim Gorky's Central Park of Culture & Leisure. Designed by avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov as a piece of communist utopia in the 1920s, these days it showcases the enlightened transformation Moscow has undergone in the recent past.
Veliky Novgorod (usually shortened to Novgorod) is a proud and beautiful city, billed as the 'Birthplace of Russia'. It was here, in 862, that Prince Rurik proclaimed the modern Russian state – the Rurik dynasty went on to rule Russia for more than 750 years. Its glorious Cathedral of St Sophia is the oldest church in Russia. Straddling the Volkhov River, this attractive, tourist-friendly destination is a popular weekend getaway for St Petersburg residents – to avoid the crowds, come during the week.
Affectionately known as Piter to locals, St Petersburg is a visual delight. The Neva River and surrounding canals reflect unbroken facades of handsome 18th- and 19th-century buildings that house a spellbinding collection of cultural storehouses, culminating in the incomparable Hermitage. Home to many of Russia's greatest creative talents (Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky), Piter still inspires a contemporary generation of Russians making it a liberal, hedonistic and exciting place to visit as well as a giant warehouse of culture.
The city covers many islands, some real, some created through the construction of canals. The central street is Nevsky Prospekt, which extends some 4km from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery to the Hermitage. Walking Nevsky Prospekt is an essential St Petersburg experience. Highlights along it include:
Kazan Cathedral, with its curved arms reaching out towards the avenue.
Singer Building, a Style Moderne (art deco) beauty restored to all its splendour when it was the headquarters of the sewing-machine company.
Bolshoy Gostiny Dvor, Rastrelli's historic department store.
Kupetz Eliseevs is the Style Moderne classic reincarnated as a luxury grocery and café.
Statue of Catherine the Great stands at the centre of Ploshchad Ostrovskogo, commonly referred to as the Catherine Gardens.
Alexandrinsky Theatre is at the southern end of the gardens where Chekhov's The Seagull premiered in 1896.
Several palace estates around St Petersburg, once country retreats for the tsars are now among the most spectacular sights in Russia:
Peterhof (Петергоф), 29km west of the city and built for Peter the Great, is best visited for its Grand Cascade and Water Avenue, a symphony of over 140 fountains and canals located in the Lower Park. There are several additional palaces, villas and parks here, each of which charges its own hefty admission price.
Tsarskoye Selo (Цaрское Селo), 25km south of the city in the town of Pushkin, is home to the baroque Catherine Palace, expertly restored following its near destruction in WWII.
Sandwiched by Poland and Lithuania, the Kaliningrad Region is a Russian exclave that’s intimately attached to the Motherland yet also a world apart. In this ‘Little Russia’ – only 15,100 sq km with a population of 941,873 – you’ll also find beautiful countryside, charming old Prussian seaside resorts and splendid beaches. The capital, Kaliningrad (Калининград), was once a Middle European architectural gem equal to Prague or Kraków. Precious little of this built heritage remains but there are attractive residential suburbs and remnants of the city’s old fortifications that evoke the Prussian past.
There may be no overland experience more legendary than the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Running across two continents, from Moscow in the West, to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, this incredible journey is without equal. For the daring, the adventurous, or anybody with an interest in Russia, this is undoubtedly a must-do bucket list item. Fortunately, making the journey never been cheaper. The entire 6,152 miles, 7-day journey can be made for around $300. However, ensure to buy tickets that allow you to get off the train and spend a night or two in different cities along the route. As you get further from Moscow, food and accommodation only get cheaper!
WHAT TO PACK FOR RUSSIA
To make the most of your time in Russia, make sure you bring the right gear. Lots of layers, a hat, and waterproof footwear with nonslip soles are absolute essentials for winter. A compact rainproof jacket will protect you from showers in the spring or autumn. Shorts and t-shirts are fine for summer, but pack long trousers or a skirt for visiting monasteries, the ballet, or dining out – and a mosquito net to drape over your bed if you’re unsure that your lodgings have screens on the windows. What we travel with is a USB anti-mosquito device - compact and portable and you will find the pads everywhere.
WHAT TO EAT IN RUSSIA
Russia’s rich black soil provides an abundance of grains and vegetables used in a wonderful range of bread, salads, appetizers, and soups. Its waterways yield a unique range of fish and, as with any cold-climate country, there’s a great love of fat-loaded dishes.
Look out for:
Soups - For example, the lemony, meat solyanka, or the hearty fish ukha.
Bliny (pancakes) - Served with ikra (caviar) or tvorog (cottage cheese).
Salads - A wide variety usually slathered in mayonnaise, including the chopped potato Olivier.
Pelmeni (dumplings) - Stuffed with meat and eaten with sour cream and vinegar.
Central Asian dishes - plov (Uzbek pilaf), shashlyk (kebab), or lagman (noodles).
Kvas - A refreshing, beerlike drink, or the red berry juice mix mors.
It is quite possible to eat well and cheaply in Russia without resorting to the many western fast-food chains that have opened up. Russians have their own versions of fast-food restaurants which range from cafeteria-style serving comfort foods to street side kiosks cooking up blinis or stuffed potatoes. Although the menus may not be in English, it is fairly easy to point to what is wanted — or at a picture of it, not unlike at western fast-food restaurants.
Around lunchtime, you can walk into almost any pub, bar or restaurant and get a “business lunch” (бизнес-ланч, this will usually be advertised outside), a trendy concept in Russia. You can get a two or three-course meal for a very low price.
It is better not to drink the tap water in Russia and to avoid using ice in drinks, however, bottled water and also Kvass are available everywhere food is served. Our favourite combination is the Sistema reusable bottle for hot & cold liquids with the Survival Water Filter Pro. This has got to be one of our best travel buys, not only for our budget (by eliminating the need to purchase bottled water) but also for doing our part for the environment by reducing the use of single-use plastic bottles. Not to mention that it is also very handy in the case of an emergency when potable water may not be readily available.
WHERE TO STAY IN RUSSIA
Russia has lots of hotels, and some of them are not luxurious, but nearly all of them will run you at least $100 per night. Consider renting an apartment instead. It’s cheaper, and you will also most likely have a kitchen. Russian locals do not eat out a lot, so restaurants are generally quite pricey. Stock up on some Russian goodies at the local supermarket and have at least breakfast and dinner at home to make a big saving.